The Job of the Apologist
The Stone in the Path
I have been engaged in debating Christianity with atheists, agnostics and skeptics on the Internet since 1997. I have participated in hundreds of discussions, and have incurred the slings and arrows of those who disagree with me. One might suppose that I would be able to regale everyone with stories of how I have managed to "save" many people in all that time, or to talk at length about the people who I know who, through the results of my arguments, have gotten on their knees and "come to Christ" in my presence. Alas, I cannot say I have had any such experience. Does that mean that I am a failure as an apologist or that apologetics are useless. Not at all.
In the course of discussing Christianity with the many Internet skeptics, I have never, ever expected that someone would suddenly say "wow, you're right!" My expectations are shaped, in part, by my belief that people don't reject God because they have true intellectual objections to the faith. I think that Apologetics and the various arguments that can be found for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible are sufficiently clear and convincing that anyone with an open mind will ultimately agree that there is good evidence for believing that God is there and He is not silent (to borrow from the late, great Francis Schaeffer). There is actually something else that keeps that person from becoming Christian--something deeper that even they may not recognize.
William Lane Craig, Ph.D., one of my favorite Christian philosophers, puts it this way in his book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics:
"According to Paul, natural man left to himself does not even seek God: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God' (Rom. 3:10-11). Man in himself cannot understand spiritual things: 'The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned' (1 Cor. 2:14). And he is hostile to God: 'For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot' (Rom. 8:7). As Jesus said, men love darkness rather than light, left to himself, natural man would never come to God.
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"Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God." Craig, Reasonable Faith, p. 35.
Dr. Craig is correct. Even though the person who is an atheist claims that there is no ulterior motive and though they continue to contend that their lack of belief is solely intellectual, it really is not. The intellectual objections are a facade set up to justify their love of the dark.
Try this as a test: Ask a skeptic for their biggest problem with Christianity. They will come up with some objection like the Problem of Evil, the Problem of Non-belief, the lack of historical support for the person of Jesus, errors in the Bible, whatever. Now, I have yet to come across an objection that cannot be countered, and in most cases, countered quite effectively. (I am not saying that all of these objections can all be countered beyond a reasonable doubt, but there are good, solid answers to every single objection that I have ever seen.) But if you find a skeptic who is reasonable enough to agree that you have a legitimate argument, they will always have a fall back position that now becomes their reason for disbelieving. I don't think it their arguments are contrived. They honestly believe that their objections are real, but they are like the store front on a Hollywood set. What is really behind them is not shown.
In these cases, I remember three things that I always take into these encounters with me. I want to share those three things with you.
First, I have not, and cannot, convert anyone to Christianity. That is the job of the Spirit, and only the Spirit can change the heart. That does not mean that apologetics does not have a role, but I must remember at all times that if a person does not "come to Jesus" following any discussion I may have, it is not because I have not been effective or done my best to do the will of God. I can only do what I can do, and it is for the Spirit to do the rest.
Second, the job of the apologist is to try to knock down the walls that the non-believer has erected which he or she uses as an excuse to not believe. As stated by J.P. Moreland, Ph.D. (another of my favorite Christian philosophers) in his book Scaling the Secular City:
"[A]pologetics can help remove obstacles to faith and thus aid unbelievers in embracing the gospel. Certainly the Holy Spirit must be involved in drawing men to Christ. But a preacher is not absolved of the responsibility of preparing his sermon just because the Spirit must apply the Word of God to the lives of his listeners. In the same way, ambassadors for Christ are not excused from the responsibility of defending the gospel. The Spirit can use evidence to convict men of the truth of the proclamation." Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, p. 12.
Gregory Koukl, President of Stand to Reason and one of the greatest popular apologist on the Internet, puts it this way in his on-line resource "Through the Doors of Opportunity", February 2002:
"Usually, though, the fruit is not ripe; the nonbeliever is simply not ready. He may not even have begun to think about Christianity. Dropping a message on him that, from his point of view, is meaningless or simply unbelievable doesn’t accomplish anything. In fact, it may be the worst thing you can do. He rejects a message he doesn’t understand and then he’s harder to reach next time.
Now here is my own more modest goal. I want to put a stone in his shoe. All I want to do is give him something worth thinking about. I want him to hobble away on a nugget of truth he can’t simply ignore because it continues to poke at him."
My goal, is always modest. I want to try to knock down an intellectual barrier that the nonbeliever has constructed to coming to a true knowledge of Christ. If I cannot knock it down, I at least want to make a chip in his intellectual dam because a chip can become a crack, and once the dam is cracked, the living water is freer to flow through and fill the valley of his life. (Poetic, no?)
By the same token, Jesus himself said, "For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it." Matthew 7:14. Have you ever seen one of those old stone paths made up of a series of large interconnecting stones? I try to think of myself as a stone in the path leading to life. I may not be the final stone, but I am want to be one of the stones (not one of the Rolling Stones, of course). I want to be one of the stones in the path that God is stretching before him on that narrow way. That would be the greatest thing I can do.
Finally, I always recall that God says that those who stand up for Him will be hated by the world. Whenever I get abused by an skeptic who (wrongly) makes fun of my arguments or of me personally, I gain great comfort in knowing that I am doing what I am convicted to do. I truly believe that I will bear those insults and hurts when I eventually join Jesus in heaven, and God will look at what I have done and say: "Well done, good and faithful servant."
God, may it be so.
P.S. Thanks once again to The Dawn Treader for maintaining a truly great blog which inspired this post.