Apologetics Is Not For Convincing Atheists

A rodeo mentality hinders apologetics. But that is exactly what I had during my battle with skepticism.

When confronting skeptics, I thought there must be an answer so faultless that it would give all opposing arguments whiplash on the takedown. If my brain was sufficiently developed, brute intellectual muscle could hogtie and drag screaming atheists to salvation. The Holy Spirit does need a sidekick, right?

No. He doesn’t. I was missing the whole point of apologetics

The Purpose of Apologetics

Faith is not a product of intellectual strength on the inside or coercive persuasion from the outside. It is a gift from God from start to finish.

Thus the purpose of making a reasoned defense of our beliefs –  apologetics – is not to create faith in someone by arguing them to God. Apologetics is not a trump card, a cowboy’s lasso, or a checkmate move.  No man comes to the Son unless he is drawn by the Father (John 6:44).

The purpose of apologetics is to present a map that ultimately points the doubter toward Jesus Christ. There are two parts to this purpose…

1. Strengthen Believers in Their Faith

Acts 18:24-28 tells a short story of Apollos. He was eloquent, competent in the Scriptures, and instructed in the way of the Lord. He was an accurate and fervent teacher. When he showed up on the scene in Achaia, “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” That is Christ-centered apologetics in action, a means God uses to channel His grace to believers in need of strength.

2. Present the Gospel to the Unbeliever

In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul reasoning with the Stoic philosophers. But Paul wasn’t there just to argue endlessly in the name of apologetics. His mission was to present the gospel, and once that was done, he left.

How to Respond to Those Who Reject the Truth

Why did Paul walk away from the stoics who mocked the gospel? Why didn’t he stay to convince them? Because that is not the goal of apologetics. Apologetics can’t convert people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

“The heart must be kept tender and pliable; otherwise agnosticism converts to skepticism. In such a case the value of apologetics is voided, for apologetics is aimed at persuading doubters, not at refuting the defiant. He who demands a kind of proof that the nature of the case renders impossible, is determined that no possible evidence shall convince him.”

The Case for Orthodox Theology, Edward John Carnell

That is not to say that we should just blurt out the gospel and then walk away if no one responds. We are to be gentle and merciful to those who doubt or are blinded to the truth (Jude 22, 2 Timothy 2:23-26), and that might take the form of a long-term discussion with an unbeliever.

Know When to Walk Away

However, when someone is openly hostile to even hearing the truth – which is often evidenced by mockery – apologetics is not the answer. Only the Holy Spirit’s work can enlightened their minds and open their hearts to the truth. It is ok to walk away and seek another opportunity to speak to the truth to a ready heart.

As C.H. Spurgeon put it,

“How many hours in a day ought a man to give to [becoming acquainted with all the phases of modern doubt]? Twenty-five out of the twenty-four would hardly be sufficient…Am I to spend my time in going about to knock his cardhouses over?

“Not I! I have something else to do; and so has every Christian minister. He has real doubts to deal with, which vex true hearts; he has anxieties to relieve in converted souls, and in minds that are pining after the truth and the right; he has these to meet, without everlastingly tilting at windmills, and running all over the country to put down every scarecrow which learned simpletons may set up.”

The Weaned Child, sermon by CH Spurgeon

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My Battle with Skepticism

I left a lot of skid marks across Spring 2009. I denied it as long as I could, but eventually had to face it…

My faith was crumbling under a barrage of rapid-fire attacks hurled by quick-witted skeptics.

A Philosophy Course…for Fun

My struggle started with a college introduction to philosophy course. I was a front-row student, and my hand logged more hours of air time than the average Blue Angel pilot. As I faced swarms of questions without answers, doubts bred and populated my mind like rats.

All of my neatly packaged Sunday school answers were deflected and shredded like Nerf darts by skeptics. With an exhausted quiver and splintered bow, I turned to a familiar face: research.

Attempting to Research My Way Out

As a nationally ranked high school debater, I believed all answers could be found through research. I was raised to think critically and study rigorously. Why shouldn’t I prevail over the skeptics? (20/20 Hindsight Note: Because if prevailing was so easy, brute rational force and cunning logic would have banished skepticism into extinction long ago) So I kept a list of questions and slowly researched them at night after school.

Fuel for the Fire

By mid-semester, I ran into a Christian blogger named Demian Farnworth who was running a series of interviews with atheists at his blog. My close interaction with online skeptics in the blog’s comment section was fuel for the fire. As the atheists out gunned me in every exchange, I started losing sleep over a surging riptide of questions. I had amassed a file of nearly 400 articles – all written by skeptics – that I intended to refute.


But I couldn’t do it. 25 out of 24 hours a day would not have been sufficient to craft refutations to the skeptics. They spun me around in their technical lingo and smeared my face into questions I couldn’t swallow.

I wasn’t willing to say there was not a God, but…how do you figure out how to stand up when everything you used to stand on was pulled out from under you?

Broken But Not Without Hope

I was finally broken. I had no hope that I could hold my faith together by my own strength. Nor could I create the faith in my heart that I needed. I wasn’t hopeless, I just gave up hope in me.

God, in His great faithfulness, graciously crossed my path with Al Hartman. Al made noteworthy appearances in the comment section at Demian’s blog and always spoke truth with God-given clarity. That was what I needed.

Jude 22: “Have mercy on those who doubt…”

Al was patient, and brought the Truth to bear on many of my questions. One key statement by Al marked the turning point in my crisis of faith.

I wrote,

“Assuming a God exists, how do we figure out which one does without contradicting ourselves?” [Because the logic I was using to “prove” God exists was the same logic every other religion uses to argue for their gods. And if I reject their gods and logic but accept my God by the same logic, isn’t that a contradiction?]

Al responded:

“’Assuming, Brother?  Figure out, Daniel?  Contradicting ourselves? Have you come to such a crossroads, where you must decide today who you will follow? …But I ask you, whose reputation is at stake– yours or God’s?  For we walk by faith, not by sight [i.e. not by assumption, calculation, contradiction, etc.].  Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

I prayed long and hard that night after reading that email from Al. I’ve never prayed so hard in my life. It was a desperate prayer if ever there was one. I cried out to the Living God to preserve my feeble faith. That’s all I wanted. Preservation. Just get me out of the wasteland alive and don’t let me lose my God. Mark 9:24 summed up my plea: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Things began to turn quickly after I stopping pretending reason and logic were sufficient supports for faith. I knew my faith wasn’t a result of academic knowledge or natural aptitude. Faith is a God-given gift from start to finish. It was a gift God poured out on me generously from that day forward, causing all of the arguments from skeptics to disintegrate.

“The mind is never so enlightened that there are no misgivings. With these evils of our nature, faith maintains a perpetual conflict, in which conflict it is often sorely shaken and put to great stress; but still it conquers, so that believers may be said to be [in spite of their own weakness, most secure].” – John Calvin

The Aftermath

My resolution was simple. Since I can’t know everything in order to refute everything, I will know the one thing that matters: Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). That’s it. I want to know Jesus Christ, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.


Plowing into Romans

In the following months, I plowed into Romans. The gospel of Jesus Christ shone brightly. Prayer also became an even greater delight, a blessing that resulted from God granting me clearer eyes of faith to see how real He is. Prayer and being struck by God’s reality go hand in hand.

My writing has reflected these recent events. My passion is to see God’s people walk by faith and not by sight, with confident hope and conviction to live life in light of His unseen reality.

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Ways to avoid ruining the opportunity to defend the faith (Part 2)

#2. Understand the basis for the defense.

1 Peter 3:15
15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

Gentleness and respect. How can we have gentleness and respect? First, it is key that we understand the basis for our arguments. Is our faith based on reason? Is our faith reasonable to begin with?

Is it illogical to demand religion to be reasonable?

1.    We do not want a god that can be fully explained by human reason.
To demand that God be explained and proven by human reason would be an appetite for a God contained by our small mental faculties. If you used reason to fully explain and prove God, He would be so small as to be useless. He would be no God at all, for He would be smaller than His own creation. I want the real and infinite God.

The real God is supra-logical and supra-rational
Notice, I did not say illogical or irrational. The Scriptures are written to be reasoned through, because God is a reasonable God. Yet God is also beyond our reason (Isaiah 55:8-9). This itself is a reasonable claim, because by very definition, God must be infinite and thus above creation. Any time a finite mind tries to mentally grasp the infinite God, there will be a point of intersection where the finite is unable to comprehend the vastness of the nature of God. Some call it a mystery. Some say it is illogical. But I believe it is the expected chasm between God’s infinite nature and man’s finite understanding.

Therefore, God must speak.
For those wanting to reason their way into believing God exists, I think they will either become convinced by incomplete arguments (not taking into account the totality of the reasoning), or they will become discouraged. God will not be proved or fully explained by reason (though God can and does sovereignly use reasoning to bring men to Himself). This is not to say that there is no place for reason, but rather that reason itself is not the proper instrument to use in order to find God. How then can we know God? God Himself must speak to us, for He alone can testify to Himself without limiting Himself. God has done so by His Word, both written and incarnate (John 1:1-14).  The inerrancy of the Word and the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ become crucial. These must be understood and defended in order to truly defend the faith’s foundations.

What happened to being open minded?
It never left. On a fundamental level, a person’s worldview can be classified as theocentric (God-centered) or anthropocentric (man-centered). This worldview permeates his or her vision and affects the way basic facts are interpreted. Having an open mind should not preclude worldview analysis. Once we understand that their arguments are built on presuppositions founded in their worldview, we see that some of the demands and arguments are worthless. The theocentric worldview can not be forced to conform to the demands of the anthropocentric worldview, because they are, on the deepest level, at odds with each other. This in no way should keep anyone from questioning the key points of the Christians faith. This should not eliminate debate and exchanges between both sides of the aisle, but it should bring greater understanding to the defenses given. Presuppositional apologetics has been a turning point in my defense of my faith (and a note of thanks to Dr. Harry Reeder, who has patiently worked me through some of these very issues).

How should this affect my defense of the faith?
Misunderstanding the view of the opposing side spawns tension and miscommunication, leading to an ineffective defense. We can better defend the faith when we understand the grounds the arguments are rooted in.

Father, I want to be able to defend the reason for the hope that is in me, yet I can not do it with gentleness and respect unless I understand the grounds for my own faith as well as the worldview of the lost. Please grant me a love for their heart, not a mere desire to win arguments.

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Ways to avoid ruining the opportunity to defend the faith

1033538_37897003#1: Have a hope to defend.

1 Peter 3:15
“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,”

While recently conversing with an agnostic, I was struck by the impotency of our diluted faith. Through the agnostic’s eyes, Christianity does not change your life, it only offers an alternative way to explain life. Or, to put it another way, the Christian appears on the outside no different than the agnostic.

The world will not look at two faiths of the same appearance and wonder why they are so different.

If our hope…
–    ultimately lies in ourselves,
–    is focused on avoiding hell and going to heaven, not communing with the real God in a personal relationship,
–    does not change how we handle to life situations such as conflicts and disappointments,
–    lies in the same idols of the world, such as security, wealth, and comfort,
…then our faith commitment differs little from that of the world.

Do we handle life issues any differently than an atheist or agnostic?

There is a counterfeit hope, one that poses as Christianity but is an impostor.
Is “living to glorify God” our label for “living a moral life so that people look at us and think more highly of us”? Self-exaltation enrobed in feigned spirituality may rise to the heart’s throne if motives are never scrutinized. And this impostor is just self-enthroned, and is no real hope at all. It is the same as the world’s hope.

As Jonathan Edward’s 23rd resolution states: “Resolved, frequently to take some deliberate action, which seems most unlikely to be done, for the glory of God, and trace it back to the original intention, designs and ends of it; and if I find it not to be for God’s glory, to repute it as a breach of the 4th Resolution [to do all to the glory of God].”

If we are striving only, at heart, for our own self-interests (even if they appear spiritual), are we so different from the world?

Richard Wumbrand writes in his book, Alone with God:
“I remember the chill that went down my spine when I read the secret formula disclosed only to initiates during the third degree of Masonry: ‘Let my will happen in all things.’ The formula was not new to me. It tapped into the huge drive for self-assertion which we all have in us. It is just contrary of the teach of our Lord: ‘Whoever desires to come to Me, let him deny himself’ (Mark 8:34).
Human nature says ‘no’ to this command of Jesus. But if the grace of God comes and you are inclined to fulfill it, be aware that Satan can disguise himself and make of conversion to Christ an initiation into the satanic rite. If you were to express in clear words what happens in such a case, it would be as follows: ‘I must be a man with a very strong ‘I’ to be able to decide even the rejection of ‘I’, the only great treasure I possess. So let my will happen in religion, too. My will is to deny myself.’
Afterwards you can go to great length of self-denial. You can go even as far as giving away all your possessions and being burned at the stake for your ideal. It is the ‘I’ that will have chosen poverty or martyrdom. Without knowing it, you will have been faithful to the formula of initiation: ‘Let my will happen in all things-even in matters regarding my relationship with Christ.’
‘Deny yourself’ is one of the many command of Scripture. They have not been given to be fulfilled. As a man born in sin, you cannot fulfill them. You can only take cognizance of them, seeing in them, as in a mirror, how far away you are from what is beautiful and right. You then acknowledge your sinfulness, at which point Christ can work in you. He changes you from glory to glory. But every human work you engage in by yourself, even a very holy one, is extremely dangerous.
Every day I have to decide whether to yield to torture or not, whether to deny Christ or not. It might be not a consecrated attitude but a devilish one to say, ‘Let my will be done, and my will is that I should be a hero of the faith.’
The Lord wants some to be such heros but he also allowed Peter to pass through moments of cowardice and then return with repentance, thus giving an example throughout the centuries to Christian who might fall in times of persecution that they can rise again. (pg 103-104)”

The result is an impotent faith, because a deep relationship with the real God is not the driver of my spiritual life. And this impotent faith is difficult to defend to the nonbeliever, because it exudes hypocrisy with the undercurrents of pride.

Where is our hope?

Our hope is in:
The message of the gospel (Col 1:23).
The name of Jesus (Mat 21:21)
The promise of God, Eternal life (Titus 1:2, 3:7, Heb 10:23, Acts 26:6, Acts 24:15, 1 Pe 1:21)
Christ (1 Cor 15:19, 1 Thes 1:3)
Salvation (1 Thes 5:8)
The living God, who is the Savior (1 Tim 4:10, 1 Pe 1:3, )

How does this differ from the world?

This hope humbly ascribes no worthiness, power, or good to man.
At heart, the hope in the world and/or self fails us because man fails. Man is in need of a Savior, One to bring hope. A man in need of saving lacking hope can not be his own hope. A hope based in man is a hope as fragile and incapable as man. I need to be led to the Rock that is higher than I, a Strong Tower and Refuge. (Ps 61:2).
This hope brings me into a relationship with the Father, where I find One who stands ready to be my strength. I find a purpose outside of my self, a calling that does not disappoint.

Let the world see that hope in the way we live, so that we can give a ready defense for it.

Father, may our life reflect such a hope. Our hope is nothing to defend if it be found within ourselves.
May the eyes of our hearts be enlightened, that we may know what is the hope to which You has called us, what are the riches of our glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of Your power toward us who believe, according to the working of Your great might that You worked in Christ when You raised Him from the dead and seated Him at Your right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And You put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:18-23).

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