Restoring Apologetics to Evangelism, Part 2
Problem: Evangelism based on personal testimony ties the validity of our conversion to our subjective experience.
This quote from an article I wrote on Tony Campolo sums it up:
Campolo admits that his own conversion resulted in a temporary zeal that lasted but a month, and that others have told him the same. [GOI 26-7] He also notes – but seems unconcerned – that converts who used to be addicts compare their conversion experience to “a psychedelic high, but without the drugs” [GOI 24].
Such comparisons should warn Campolo that what he is seeing in such experiences is likely to simply be manufactured, merely emotional reactions to a momentous life decision – but it does not.
I think most of us have met Christian friends who are “down” for one reason or another – whether it be personal tragedy, or sin, or just ho-hum daily depression of the non-clinical sort. We have also found that it is as such low points that people frequently question their salvation. “I don’t feel saved” is a line we may have heard. Or, “I just don’t feel close to God right now.”
Personal testimony, as a means of evangelism, is at the root of this disconnect. It tells us that when we become Christians, we will “feel” cleansed of our sins, and have a “personal relationship” with Jesus as though he were a friend. Certain Skeptics, like Robert Price in particular, have framed this in terms of Christians having Jesus as an “imaginary friend.” They are not often right – but in this case, the truth hits close to home.
In contrast, our faith should be rooted not in subjective experience, but objective history. If Jesus rose from the dead, and that is historically sure, then personal tragedy and the like must be interpreted in light of that history.
To use an example I’ve used before, let us suppose that the freedom of America, and our freedom as Americans, was dependent on the historic fact of Washington crossing the Delaware River. How absurd would it be for an American citizen to say they “don’t feel like an American” because of some personal tragedy they have experienced, or because they may have broken a law or committed some misdemeanor? Although the latter may result in a restriction on freedoms within our rights and identities as Americans (just as sin causes us to lose rewards in heaven, or perhaps here on earth), it does not make us non-Americans, or does not mean America is obliged to be returned to England. Such a view would be nonsensical.
Of course, a person who is committed to irrationality could easily deny a historical event or its significance anyway, but the key here is “committed to irrationality.” The point is that subjective experience as a basis for salvation enables a far easier road to denial and doubt.
Note as well: I am not saying that the “historical model” is a 100% ironclad guarantee that faith will not be jettisoned or weakened in the face of tragedy, sin, etc. There is no such thing as a 100% ironclad guarantee in this framework, because free will never leaves the equation. But I do say it will provide far better grounding that the subjective experience model which personal testimony engenders.
It is for that reason, as well, that personal testimony ought to be abandoned as our primary model for evangelism. But we still have three reasons more to go, and the next one will be posted next week.
I'll add here in light of comments by my good buddy Joe...none of this is meant to say you can't have some role for personal experience. It is meant to say that such personal experiences shouldn't be the sole or leading basis for your faith-decision. If anything, it should be an invitation to research and support that experience with objective grounding.
I don't have any real use for an experience-based model. But if it works for you, use it -- and use it responsibly. (An example of someone who does not use it responsibly: John Bevere, who has turned his personal experiences into a 24/7 Holy Spirit Hotline.)