Tactics: the worst mistake a Christian can make when doing apologetics

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

So, this is just an advice post for doing apologetics.

Here are three situations I’ve run into while doing apologetics in the last month.

First situation. I was talking with a lady who is an atheist. I had a copy of “God’s Crime Scene” in my hand, and she asked me about it. I told her that it was a book written by the guy who solved the homicide case that I asked her to watch on Dateline. She remembered – it was the two-hour special on the woman who was killed with a garrotte. She pointed at the book and said “what’s in it?” I said, it has 8 pieces of evidence that fit better with a theistic worldview than with an atheistic one, and some of them scientific. Her reply to me was – literally – “which denomination do you want me to join?”

Second situation. I was talking with a friend of mine who teaches in a Catholic school. She was telling that she got the opportunity to talk to her students about God, and found out that some of them were not even theists, and many of them had questions. So she asked them for questions and got a list. The list included many hard cases, like “what about the Bible and slavery” and “why do Christians oppose gay marriage?” and so on.

Third situation. Talking to a grad student about God’s existence. I’m laying out my scientific arguments for her, holding up the peer-reviewed papers for each discovery. I get to the Doug Axe paper on protein folding probabilities, and she holds up her hand. One question: “Am I going to Hell?”

So think about those three situations. In each case, the opponent is trying to reject Christianity by jumping way, way ahead to the very end of the process. When you do Christian apologetics, you do not take the bait and jump to the end of the process dealing with nitty gritty details until you have made your case for the core of the Christian worldview using your strongest evidence. Let me explain.

So, your strongest evidence as a Christian are the scientific arguments, along with the moral argument. Those would include (for starters) the following:

  1. kalam cosmological argument
  2. cosmic fine-tuning
  3. galactic and stellar habitability
  4. origin of life / DNA
  5. molecular machines / irreducible complexity
  6. the moral argument

The problem I am seeing today is that atheists are rejecting discussions about evidence because they think that all we are interested in is getting them to become Christians. Well, yes. I want you to become a Christian. But I know perfectly well what that entails – it entails a change of life priorities. Both of the women I spoke to are living with their boyfriends, and the kids in the Catholic school just want to have fun. None of them wants to believe in a God who will require self-denial, self-control, and self-sacrifice. Nobody wants God to be in that leader position in their lives. Christianity is 100% reversed from today’s me-first, fun-seeking, thrill-seeking, fear-of-missing-out travel spirit of the age.

So, how to answer all these late-game questions? The answer is simple. You don’t answer any late-game questions until the person you are talking with accounts for the widely-accepted data in your list. These are things that have got to be accepted before any discussion about minor issues like one angel vs two angels at the empty tomb can occur. When we discuss all the basic issues where the evidence is the strongest, then we can go on to discuss issues where the evidence is debatable, then finally, in the last bits before the end, we can discuss these other kinds of questions.

How to explain why this process must be followed to the person who asks specific questions about minor issues? Simple. You explain that your goal is not to get them to become a Christian right now. That you want to let them believe anything thing they want. That’s right. They can believe anything they want to believe. As long as what they believe is consistent with the evidence. And what I am going to do is give them the evidence, and then they can believe whatever they want – so long as it’s consistent with the evidence.

So, for example, I’m going to tell them 3 pieces of evidence for a cosmic beginning of the universe: the expanding universe (redshift), the cosmic microwave background radiation, and the light element abundances. That’s mainstream science that shows that the universe came into being out of nothing, a finite time in the past. And I will charge them not to believe in any religion that assumes that the universe has always been here. For example, Mormonism is ruled out, they believe in eternally existing matter. See how that works? Hey, Ms. Atheist. You can believe anything you want. As long as what you believe is consistent with the evidence. 

I think this approach of not letting them rush you to the end at the beginning is important for two reasons. First, we can get our foot in the door to talk about things that are interesting to everyone, in a non-stressed environment. Everyone can talk about evidence comfortably. Second, we show that we hold our beliefs because we are simply letting evidence set boundaries for us on what we are allowed to believe. We can’t believe not-Christianity, because not-Christianity is not consistent with the evidence. And you start with the most well-supported evidence, and eliminate worldviews that are falsified by the most well-supported evidence. Atheism actually gets falsified pretty quickly, because of the scientific evidence.

So, that’s my advice. Had a friend of mine named William try this out about a week ago. It went down like this:

William to me:

This guy I know messaged me and bragged for a while about how easy he can dismantle Christianity. He said: “present the gospel to me as you understand it. I’ll simply ask questions to demonstrate it is not worth your belief.”

WK to William:

First of all, he isn’t allowed to just sit there and poke holes in your case, he has to present a positive case for atheism. Second, don’t discuss Christianity with him at all until you first discuss the evidence for theism – start with the good scientific evidence.

And William wrote this to his friend:

The way I’m wired is that I process all competing theories and go with the best one. By doing a comparative analysis of worldviews I find that Christian theology easily explains the most about the world I find myself living in.

I’m pretty sure that a God of some sort exists because of the scientific evidence for the origin of the universe and the fine tuning in physics. From there I find it quite intuitive that if a God went through the trouble of creating and tuning a universe for life that this God likely has some sort of interest in it and has revealed Himself to humanity in some way.

From there I can look at the major world religions and compare them to see which one explains the past and the present the best. Christianity easily comes out on top.

And then a few days later, I got this from William:

I finally got the agnostic to tell me what he thinks about origin and fine tuning. When I started pointing out that his views were unscientific, he blew a basket, called me dishonest and told me he didn’t want to discuss anything further.

And that’s where you want to be. Cut off all discussions where the challenger tries to jump to the end and get you to debate the very last steps of your case. Present the strongest evidence for your core claims, and get him to account for this evidence within his own worldview. Lead the discussion with public, testable evidence. All warfare depends on picking the terrain, weapons and tactics that allow you to match your strength against your opponent’s weakness.

18 thoughts on “Tactics: the worst mistake a Christian can make when doing apologetics”

  1. An EXCELLENT point. I gave a talk and said basically the exact same thing to my class: tell them you’ll deal with that objection or question later, for now, let’s focus on the existence of God or the resurrection. Great minds think alike I suppose. ;-)

  2. Great! I have found following your blog and William Lane Craig, my apologetics has strengthened considerably.

    Actually, I find it quite disappointing how most times with the average person these days, they aren’t even interested in engaging in apologetics and discussing theism in general, let alone Christianity. It seems people are afraid to reveal the tremendous lack of knowledge they have regarding religious beliefs and arguments for or against a creator.

    1. Which makes Atheists bolder, as most of the time they will never be challenged or only weakly challenged. Every time they assert, and not properly countered it reinforces the idea that there is no substantive challenge to make.

      1. So true. Which is why I now strongly believe and advocate that apologetics should be a core part of modern Christian ministry. I have met many intellectually arrogant atheists whom you can tell have never ever debated a decent apologist.

  3. Great info! However, making the transition from theism to Christianity (after making the transition from atheism to theism) can be tricky, time consuming, if not impossible, unless your in a class or discussion group (or both individuals or groups have agreed to spend the time for this discussion). It could be information overload in one setting.

    I rather start the discussion with a scare tactic (Are you ready for Jesus’ return?), presuppositional approach (tell them that God loves you, and give him/her a church invitation card), and/or a gift (I paid the remaining balance of a man’s groceries, he was $5 short. Then, I told him that he had to do one thing for me, and gave him a church invitation card. He, his wife, and son showed up the following Sunday).

    This method is mostly for complete strangers, but I have used this method on a few coworkers (my success rate is better with complete strangers).

    I guess it all depends upon how much time one has?

    1. I agree. For those one shot conversations, focus on the gospel and the ressurection. But with someone whom you see regularly, a more gradual approach may work better.

  4. We use this logical chart on atheists to apply these tactics. There are 6 levels here and we ask atheists to tell us which level they disagree with and we will start the discussion at the earliest one. They try to bring up the Bible, but as you have said we don’t fall for it; we drag them back (kicking and screaming) to the most basic level of disagreement (which is usually level 1) and no atheist has been able to refute this (or get past level 1 since most are relativists). It’s a useful tool and I invite every apologist here to use it:

  5. I agree with this when we’re trying to win an argument, but I think we need to keep in mind Colossians 4:6 when trying to win people. In which we are exhorted to answer each “person”. We need to answer people and not simply questions. Because most people I’ve talked just don’t care about some evidences. They really care about something, but often it isn’t what I find significant.

  6. I have also challenged atheists about what do they use to base their lifestyle on. I call them atheist newbies because they really have no idea who they are. Many just troll the internet.

  7. WK,

    As a side note, I think you could write an excellent blog post on what it really means to be “intellectually dishonest.”

    In my discussions with atheists (and others), I’ve found it’s a common dismissal tactic to simply call your opponent “intellectually dishonest” and then ignore them because they are clearly “not worth my time.”

    I think there is such a thing as intellectual dishonesty, but I’m afraid many use this as an ad hominem to avoid discussion.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. I think atheists who want to skip past the discussions of scientific evidence because they are worried about how Christianity affects their pleasure-seeking are not being fair with the evidence.

  8. Well thought out! An athiest’s/agnostic’s own claims don’t hold up in light of their own worldview and they should be pressed on that. In the conversation with William and his agnostic friend though, is there a way to keep the door open to further conversation that hopefully leads to the gospel? It seems a net loss if the dialog ends if an agnostic/atheist calls you dishonest and doesn’t want to discuss anything further, even if he knows he’s wrong.

    1. William has lots of people to talk to. The point of this approach is not to waste time on people who only want to nitpick details rather than letting evidence bound their views on questions with clear cut answers. An atheist should have his atheism engaged with science first, then later when that’s resolved, we can talk about one angel vs two angels at the tomb.

  9. This is fabulous, WK—you’ve no idea how much I appreciate it! Great plan of action. The six-piece list of evidence is also helpful; I tend to think I need to know Everything, Right Now, and find myself overwhelmed. This is an excellent foundation.

    Though red shift is my favourite…if only because I’ve been to Hubble’s home town in Missouri and got to check out a (very) miniature version of the Hubble Telescope in the town square. Seeing something like that definitely has a tendency to cement things in one’s mind!

    1. See, presenting the evidence in the context of your own investigations and story is powerful stuff. Shows you have a passion for science and history – getting to the truth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s