We have all our beliefs, but we don’t want our beliefs
God of peace, we want you. – mewithoutYou
I remember well the first time that Josh McDowell spoke in chapel at my undergrad because I left with such a bad taste in my mouth. As one of the biggest names my small school had ever been able to bring on campus, his coming attracted no small amount of excitement. His repute demanded a special night-time chapel service, followed by our normal chapel session the next morning.
If you don’t know who he is, McDowell is one of the most famous Christian apologists of the past several decades. His book Evidence that Demands a Verdict (and its many follow-up volumes) has been a cornerstone of Christian apologetics. His whole career has focused on presenting evidence that the message of the Bible is factual and believable, that belief in the truth of the Bible is more rational than unbelief given the weight of the evidence that he puts forward. I am sure that my school brought him in with the intention of strengthening the faith of the student body.
In the Friday morning chapel, McDowell launched into a presentation about the reliability of the New Testament text. His evidence was centered around the sheer mass of ancient NT texts and fragments in our possession today, as compared to the much more minimal numbers of other ancient texts (5,000+ Greek NT manuscripts dating as close as one century to the original author; second place goes to Homer’s Odyssey, with 643 ancient manuscripts dating back to within 500 years of original authorship; third place isn’t even worth mentioning.)
The conclusion was clear: no other ancient text comes close to having as many extant copies or as small of a time span between the original and the copies as the New Testament. Therefore, the New Testament is the most reliable ancient text. Therefore, we have no reason not to believe every word of it.
Now, I’m not going to lie, the evidence is sound and accurate. The NT text in your Bible today is incredibly reliable. Almost nothing could have been added to or lost from the text without scholars knowing about it, simply because so many copies of the NT survived in monastery storerooms and Egyptian trash dumps until critical scholars got their hands on them in the 19th century.
However, I left that chapel troubled, not by the evidence, but by the way it was presented. McDowell laid out all his data with the expectation that we would see his logic and believe. When added to all the rest of his apologetic evidence, a leap of faith into Christianity would become a completely rational step rather than, well, a leap of faith.
Along the way he came off as arrogant, as though he was impervious to doubt and doubters’ insecurities since he held all the right answers. We were foolish if we couldn’t believe based on the evidence. We were equally foolish if we couldn’t rattle off proofs to convince our unbelieving friends. Forget any uncertainties; this was the truth!
I don’t want to unfairly criticize Josh McDowell or his ministry. I know many have strengthened their faith in Christ through his books. Nor do I want to criticize the field of apologetics as a whole. Apologetics has a proud history dating back to the Church Fathers. Early apologists used their system of argumentation and logic to debate opposing pagan philosophers and anti-Christian sentiments in the Roman government. Apologetics as a bridge between church and world is the original and appropriate purpose of apologetics.
I don’t want to deny the importance of apologetics when it comes to defending and promoting Christian truths. But I do want to question its use as a primary means to create faith in young people, because it does not appear to have a great success rate on its own.
I do want to be critical of what I will call the evangelical apologetic movement, which is epitomized for me in that one chapel session with McDowell. Everything I have distrusted and disliked about apologetics is summarized in my own mind in that one hour session, so I draw largely from that time as an illustration. Keep in mind, however, that this system is prevalent across the spectrum of Evangelical Christendom. Whereas traditional apologetics defends the faith against outside attacks with the intention of bringing those outside to saving faith, evangelical apologetics seems aimed more at programming those within the faith so they never go outside its secure walls.
The prevailing premise of evangelical apologetics seems to be that evidence will eliminate doubt. Many children’s church curriculums, youth group curriculums, and home school curriculums are designed to hammer home Christian “truths” as “facts,” while denying any conversation about alternate modes of thought. “Question nothing your Christian authority figure says, and question everything an atheist or Muslim or Jew says,” seems to be the rationale behind this kind of education.
As a result, Evangelical apologetics do not allow a young person opportunity to dig deep concerning God’s existence or the existence of evil or the origins of the universe. Those questions must be suppressed, since the right answer has already been provided, and it is inerrant.
Yet this is ultimately harmful, because young Christians will inevitably one day meet people who believe differently. How can they process opposing understandings of reality when they encounter an alternate logic that seems more rationale, more scientific perhaps, than their evangelical logic? Invariably, such young Christians will do one of two things: stick their head in the sand and ignore the world, or watch in wide-eyed terror as their carefully constructed system of right answers crashes around them. Those who can engage the world while holding tight to their faith seem to be a minority.
This all came back to me today as I read an article (click here to read it), written by the daughter of another influential apologist named Matt Slick. (I actually used his apologetics website to pull those statistics on the reliability of the NT above). The article is Rachael’s first person account of what it was like to grow up in a house ruled by apologetic thought and of how she eventually lost her faith and became an atheist.
You should read her article, because her words communicate much more strongly than mine why apologetics alone does not produce a strong and lasting faith. In short, Rachael memorized all the verses and knew all the theological answers. Her dad drilled her with objections to Christianity, and she could counter every one. And yet, when she began to experience uncertainties about God and evil (natural for any teenager), her uncertainties were “neatly packaged away.” Instead of pulling out the thorn, her father covered the thorn with an apologetic bandage.
It took embracing atheism for her to finally get the chance to express her questions and uncertainties. Not surprisingly, she now calls atheism the most freeing experience of her life. In her words, she now experiences “freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.”
Of course, Rachael’s story is unique. Based on her dad’s position on women in ministry and her own question about the change from the OT law to the NT law, it sounds like neither she nor her father have ever learned to understand how ancient historical context influenced what is recorded in Scripture. It sounds like this has been a major stumbling block for her.
Further, obviously not every young person schooled in apologetics will make the leap to atheism. But for some the big questions in life will destroy their confidence in their ability to know anything. Perhaps they will become agnostic, or maybe they will limp along with a nominal faith that lacks any vitality.
But the Church needs to focus on Rachael’s last sentence. “Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.” Her upbringing would be considered strongly Christian, yet sadly it never produced a love for the Creator God that went any deeper than pat answers and fear of hell.
Love is essential to any relationship, because trust and understanding and patience proceed from love. In a violent world where religion is often indicted as the culprit, vibrant faith will not survive if we do not love God. Young people must learn to trust God, or their faith will crumble when a professor says he cannot exist. Young people must learn to be understanding and patient with God, because, like it or not, the Christian life is full of uncertainties and faith based assumptions that cannot be proven. Answers are not dropped into our laps. It is a faith, after all. We cannot prove it to be true in this life.
Yet it seems that evangelical apologetics focuses too much on a knowledge of God anchored in proofs and too little on a knowledge of God anchored in love. This is why Rachael’s faith could not endure. This is what bothered me at the end of Josh McDowell’s presentation. I knew that this would be all many young Christians would ever get, and it would be far too shallow.
Don’t get me wrong. I would not be a Christian if I did not believe I have rational reasons to support my faith. McDowell’s evidence is good evidence. Such evidence has allowed me to become sure about what I believe, but the only reason I am a Christian today is that I have learned to love God with a deep love that doesn’t require answers, that trusts God even when he does not let me see the big picture.
There is something at the heart of Christian faith that remains mysterious, that cannot be explained by human rationality. When we try to eliminate the mystery, when we try to pass on a faith without uncertainties, we render the next generation impotent against the doubts that Satan presents to every one of us.
In a day when Christians are altogether too ignorant about what the Bible says and what we believe, some sort of catechesis is needed; in fact, the Church should be desperate for it at this point. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that one thing that has been embraced as an answer is failing for many in my generation. Apologetic Band-Aids were handed out to us, and many of us have never healed.
For now, I can make one suggestion: let your kids or your students or your youth group ask questions. Encourage it, and engage them. Perhaps they will ask the questions that you are still afraid to ask, and you will learn to trust God together.
Bonus Round (If you are still reading, I love you):
- In the Wikipedia list of famous Christian apologists, C.S. Lewis is mentioned in the same sentence as Ray Comfort, Kirk Cameron, and Ken Ham. This pains me. Let’s put it this way: C.S. Lewis did apologetics the right way; he presented truth to change the whole person. Those other guys are just out to prove a point.
- It is ironic that evangelical apologetics has often been produced by people who struggled with the big questions about God and human existence (Lewis, Strobel, McDowell). Many of them were atheists at one point, until research and the illumination of the Spirit provided them with enough evidence to make a leap of faith. Their products come from a pure desire to share the illumination they have found, and I don’t want to slight their work. These apologists should be admired for their intelligence and research capabilities and determination to find the truth.
- However, it appears that young people who never have to go through the search process, but are handed all the correct answers on a silver platter, are at a disadvantage if they did not gain the knowledge through adversity. Perhaps it is crucial that each of us wrestle with our faith the way Jacob wrestled with God
- One final thought about why apologetics may be less useful for the younger generations: Apologetic argument works really well when people readily acknowledge absolute truth and see the world in black and white. Modernism was such a worldview, and evangelical apologetics was birthed among Christian modernists who longed to embrace facts and certainty.
- Apologetic argument loses its advantage when people begin to see in shades of grey, however. Among a postmodern generation who sees truth as relative, apologetic proofs really prove nothing. The proofs are just as much statements of faith as the Nicene Creed. Uncertainty and unknowing can actually be valued among postmodernists, so that the entire apologetic enterprise seems obnoxious. This has sometimes been my attitude. Today I am learning to see the value of apologetics, but I still have doubts that it will ever be a useful way to reach my generation.