How many times have you heard an atheist say that they would be happy to believe in God, but nobody has presented him with sufficient evidence for God’s existence? We could at this point launch into a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus or some other standard argument for Christianity, but is that really an apologist’s responsibility?
The primary text on which apologetics is based is 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.”
It strikes me that making a defense for an idea is not entirely the same thing as giving proof for that idea. Making a defense has more to do with responding to objections, showing that christian belief is not irrational or in conflict with observed reality, which does not require proving the whole thing from scratch. So if an atheist wants to say that the Bible is full of contradictions, I’m going to show that those are not really contradictions, but if he wants me to prove Christianity, that’s not necessarily something I’m interested in doing.
Why make this distinction?
Specifically, is this some kind of a cop-out? Is it that I don’t want to give the atheist evidence for God because I know the evidence is insufficient?
No, the reason I would rather defend the faith than prove the faith is that when we try to do the latter, we tend to come at it backwards. We can’t come to the question of the truth of Christianity the same way we would approach questions like the existence of the Higgs-Boson or the authenticity of Shakespeare’s plays. There are two things which make this question different from these more ordinary issues.
1. Christianity and Atheism are two different worldviews
Your worldview is not just an ordinary belief, but it is the foundation for how you see and think about everything else. If I am seeking to persuade an atheist to become a christian, I am not asking him to add a belief to his existing set of beliefs. I am asking him to throw away the whole foundation for how he thinks and replace it with a different one. A feat like that is not accomplished by simply giving some evidence that can be processed with the existing presuppositions. In the fact the underlying presuppositions of the atheistic worldview must be shown to be inconsistent with reality and replaced with christian presuppositions.
2. Christian belief cannot be arrived at by a purely intellectual exercise
We cannot ignore the fact that if Christianity is true, what Bible teaches about people is true. Romans 1:21 tells us that “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Disbelief in God is not primarily an intellectual problem, but a moral problem, and so the solution to the problem is not found in the intellect. That is not to say that the truth is not evident to any fair and impartial observer, but that there is no fair and impartial observer. None of us has the capacity to think rightly about God in and of ourselves. What is needed is the work of the Holy Spirit to change the heart so that the mind can see what has been there all along. “For God, who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)”
What do we do then?
Does that mean that there can be no debate or dialogue between christians and atheists? Not at all. That conversation can and must take place. However it needs to take place with the recognition that we do not imagine that it is possible to argue somebody into christian faith. Rather, in obedience to the apostolic command, we use arguments to vindicate our doctrines against the objections of unbelievers, and this for two reasons. The first is that it strengthens the faithful who might otherwise be shaken if objections were left unanswered. The second is that we take away excuses from the unbeliever and take pains that the truth be clearly presented to all, so that when the Holy Spirit does open someone’s eyes the gospel of God is there for him to see.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” – John 18:37