Apologetics In Practice In Light Of Evangelical Atheism
(The Need for Quality Apologetics)
By Mark McFall
Critics have likened many popular apologetic books that are supposed to be the big-guns of Christianity to that of a banana that goes squish when you pull the trigger. That may sound a bit unkind, but a similar analogy of the face off of Evangelical Christianity & Evangelical Atheism is much like a shootout at high-noon. Unfortunately, when the Christian pulls out the popular apologetic material (via: Josh McDowell, John Haley, Norman Geisler etc..) that he thinks is a sure-fire weapon, he is in for some surprises. After all, it was a critical Christian thinker, Brian Lawson, who pointed out in Thank God For The Skeptics! that:
"All too often, Christians (including myself) are too eager to accept a fine sounding idea from one of our fellow Christians without really putting it to the test. We think, ‘it is from a Christian (perhaps a popular teacher or preacher), so it must be right."
Indeed, the need for quality apologetics is more pressing than ever in a world where assertions and claims can be so easily checked for accuracy. In that regard, we as Christians can begin to identify ways in which we may discover that need by practicing apologetics. However, a consideration of the knowledge and familiarity that some skeptics have of the Bible should not be underestimated. Consider the words of the editor of The Skeptical Review, Farrell Till:
"Altogether, I spent twelve years preaching for the Churches of Christ, and five of those years involved in missionary work in France. My skepticism began while I was there...When deep-seated doubts finally led me to abandon the ministry, I wasn't content to be just a skeptic; I had to become an evangelical atheist." (See: http://members.fortunecity.com/wantobe/ldjil.html )
What can we learn from this type of informed counter-evangelism? In the following pages we will explore this question and we will also discuss the type (generally speaking) of over-extended comments that have a tendency to get the practicing apologists into trouble. In that respect, I believe that we can learn from some of the more glaring hyperbole remarks made by some prominent apologists in our field.
In response to the charges made against Christianity here in the 21st century, many apologetic writers feel they need to meet that challenge with as many new books as they can muster. The problem is, those new books are based on old and in some cases outdated material that take the same line of approach as their predecessors centuries earlier. Yet, you may see on the covers of these modern day books this: "To Answer Questions Challenging Christians in the 21st Century." The impression this type of blurb leaves on the uniformed Christian is obvious. But, is that impression correct?
To answer that question we must first consider that the beginning of this new millennial signified the birth of the information age through the conception of the Internet just a few years earlier. As babes in this new era of abundant information, our development as apologists is crucial. How we react to our critics now, will greatly affect how future Christian apologists counter this new form of critical skepticism in matters relating to biblical issues. However, the field of Christian apologetics as a whole is currently slow in keeping pace with modern-day critics. In light of that, Mr. Till does have a point when he says on another occasion:
"Information is religion's greatest enemy, and in an age when information is just a few keyboard strokes away from anyone with a computer, this is going to pose a greater threat to Christianity than anything it has yet ‘survived.’" ( http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/farrell_till/unique.html )
Though comments like this have a ring of truth as well as a feel of intimidation. The Skeptical community needs to be reminded that information is a double-edged sword that can be used both ways. Indeed, information does not play favorites (see article by the present author What is Atheism?).
According to Amazon.com, Josh McDowell, one of the most popular Christian fundamental apologist among faithful churchgoers, has sold over "21 million copies" of his book entitled Evidence That Demands A Verdict (ETDAV). That is absolutely mind blowing! Why you ask? Because the intended readership seems to be directed at the novice to intermediate level Christian for the purpose of equipping them to answer informed contemporary skepticism. However, when fast-food apologetics is confronted by real criticisms, those Christians who use McDowell’s book will soon see that popular apologetics isn’t at all what it is cracked up to be. In that respect, Jeffery Lowder, the co-founder of the Secular Web, offers churchgoers some helpful (believe it or not) advice which I believe the average Christian should be made aware of:
"Those believers who rely on ETDAV as an apologetic resource will still have to deal with the negative evidence. But in place of having it presented to them by McDowell in relative comfort of ETDAV, they will instead be blind-sided by this negative evidence when they hear it for the first time coming from the skeptics they will be trying to convert. Imagine the surprise of such Christians when they realize that they have only been told half the story, and that half containing serious flaws.....What excuse can McDowell have for leaving out the negative evidence in ETDAV, and leaving users of ETDAV caught off guard and unprepared to answer skeptics? The answer, i.e., that McDowell never had any desire whatsoever to examine all the evidence, immediately suggests itself." ( http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/jury/apologetic.html#1 )
Indeed, experienced Christian apologist J.P Holding of Tekton Apologetics Ministries conveys a similar awareness regarding McDowell’s updated version of the same book:
"It is a fair start for the new Christian, but a waste of time for the knowledgeable one...Don't expect it to answer things like, oh, the points Jeff Lowder brought up against the secular references to Jesus...In fact, don't expect it to answer anything found on the Secular Web...The cover blurb says that it is intended to help Christians ‘answer questions challenging (them) in the 21st century:’ I suspect someone at Thomas Nelson got the numbers on the century reversed. 12th century, perhaps, but use this in the 21st century against the 21st century skeptic or critic and you may as well hand them the keys to the steamroller and lie down on the pavement...The bottom line is that the "new" ETDAV is a tragic farce, and McDowell bears full responsibility for it. (Although he can share blame too with Bill Wilson, who was the major impetus for the revision, and Norman Geisler, who was the Managing Editor. One can clearly sense Geisler's "shoot from the hip" apologetic style as a factor in snuffing out in-depth revision.)."( http://www.tektonics.org/JM.NETDAV_0785242198.html )
Unfortunately, many Christians will probably never hear of these type of reviews due to the comfortable environment that most churchgoers circulate in. However, when fast-food apologetics is confronted by real skepticism on an informed level, the results can have eternal consequences for the newly interested apologist if he’s not prepared.
Here, in the information age, the use of temperate communication is crucial when discussing anything related to Christianity with today’s skeptic. But many Christians aren’t even aware when they are crossing the line of temperance because of all the issues they unknowingly take for granted in comfortable Christian circles.
Take for instance the Gospels, many Christians take for granted the names attached to them (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). So it is customary in churchgoer circles to say that "Matthew wrote" such and such, or, "Mark wrote" such and such (etc..). However, phrases like that stick out like sore thumbs in the skeptical community. Why? Because it is generally known that all four Gospels are anonymous writings that represent what later tradition had to say about the identity of the author. Indeed, in order for a typical Christian to avoid any problems in dialog with skeptics, it is more proper to refer to any one of the Gospels in the following way: "...the writer of Matthew," or, "...the writer of Mark" (etc..). This may sound trivial, but to do otherwise invites unnecessary divagation from the Christian message in today’s critical world.
In light of that minor corrective, how is it possible to know when crossing the line of temperance occurs? To answer that question we must first realize that the books written by some of the more popular Christian apologists contain too many exaggerations to be considered objective in their overall approach even though they may be useful in many respects. Nevertheless, there are books published by serious academically inclined scholars that are aimed and written for the general laity. It is through these type of scholarly resources (commonly known as "main-line scholarship") that you will begin to learn and seek other alternative temperate methods to communicate your thoughts without causing the attention of skeptics to be drawn away from the central focus of your message towards an unnecessary assertion or claim.
What type of exaggerations or misnomers should we be aware of? And what type of approaches should we avoid? How can we learn from our mistakes? As we consider these questions we should first take a look at the mistakes of others in order that we may learn from them.
For instance, Josh McDowell likes to really pump things up for his audience by subject headers that re-direct readers attention. The following quote appears as a subject header in Evidence That Demands A Verdict which sets the tone for the section that follows it: "The Incredible Accuracy of Luke" (pg. 63). Given that imposition, whatever McDowell has to say after that subject heading is colored. In other words, McDowell’s claim has taken away the focus of Luke’s use of historical settings and re-focused it on McDowell’s view of Luke being of super-hero status among ancient historians. When in fact, Luke is recognized as being on the same par as other ancient reliable historians i.e. Polybius, Plutarch, Josephus, and Tacitus. Those who raise Luke’s status above these historians because of his knowledge on the various titles in the Roman Empire, should be made aware that this type of extended knowledge should not "mask the difficulties in accepting the historicity of Acts, a particular problem being the reconciliation of the accounts of Paul’s career in Acts, Gal. 1-2, and the Corinthian correspondence" (see: The Oxford Companion To Classical Civilizations, pg. 4). Indeed, these type of minor problems also plague other ancient reliable historians.
By way of careless appeal, at another location in The New Evidence That Demands A Verdict (pg. 211-212), McDowell quotes the church father Ignatius (A.D. 50-115?) who seems to give a very early and detailed account of the death and burial of Jesus Christ in the ancient writings of The Epistle to Trallians (tr. Roberts/Donaldson). A portion of the text quoted by McDowell reads:
"He also rose again in three days. . . On the day of preparation, then, at the third hour, he received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the Ghost; and before sunset He was buried. During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea had laid Him." (tr. Roberts-Donaldson, pg. 199-203.)
What’s wrong with this citation? According to modern scholarship, it’s a forgery and has "little claim to originality" (Ferm, Encyclopedia of Religion, pg. 358). According to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, the quote comes from the so-called Longer Edition of the corpus of Ignatius in which case eight out of fifteen Epistles of Ignatius are considered spurious and date much later than their attributed author (see: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-27.htm#TopOfPage ). In my opinion, these type of misnomers may give truth seekers the wrong opinion regarding how Christians use evidence.
By way of extreme hyperbole assertion, Norman Geisler, Professor of "Theology and Apologetics" at Southern Evangelical Seminary, claims in his magnum opus entitled, the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, that:
"Historical evidence that Jesus was supernaturally conceived of a virgin is more than substantial. Indeed, there are more eyewitness contemporary records of the virgin birth than for most events from the ancient world." (Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 764)
Other than the obvious, it must be admitted that we as Christians accept the virgin conception of Christ by way of the sagacities of the not-too-distant traditions of Matthew and Luke. To present to the reading public that there is "historical evidence" by means of "eyewitness contemporary records" concerning "the virgin birth" when there really isn’t any - can cause a believer to experience deep seeded doubt concerning his faith in Christ when confronted on it. For the skeptic, this is more confirmation of why not to believe.
In my opinion, what can be learned from these type of exaggerations and misnomers is temperance. Indeed, rather than following the lead of over-enthusiastic modern day evangelists who make hyperbole claims, the use of temperate language is the most effective way to communicate faith in Christ to a world where accurate knowledge is an issue. I have personally spoken with a number of skeptics who have de-converted from the faith from false expectations imposed by such over-enthusiastic writers.
Furthermore, informed Christian apologist Glen Miller lists some of the most common mistakes believers sometimes make in apologetic arguments. They are:
1) If there is a POSSIBLE solution, then the problem is RESOLVED.
2) Implicit character assassinations.
3) Not investigating the possibility of bias and conspiracy in our EXISTING bible.
4) "Special Pleading" on difficulties.
5) Accepting "western" interpretations uncritically.
6) Accepting 'traditional' interpretations uncritically.
7) Accepting evangelical authors uncritically.
8) Not understanding the question (or not listening in some cases).
9) Not knowing when 'to fold' (admit inconclusiveness).
10) Implied ad hominum arguments.
11) Minority scholars WITHOUT justification.
12) Only dealing with the supportive data.
13) Hiding behind a false "Error domino theory."
14) "Reading data back into" passages
15) Superficiality of exegesis or historical study.
16) Being unaware of 'actual' problems.
Speaking from experience, the present writer has committed every one of these errors at one time or another. Developing skills as an apologist involves trial and error, but like everything else in life, you learn from your mistakes making appropriate adjustments as you grow in faith toward being a more focused Christian.
By way of final remarks, Apologist Matthew Bell, of the website Contend For The Faith, recommends the laborious act of "immaculate research" which encompasses checking all possible related angles before engaging in specific critical discussions. Why? Well, in this process you become much more objectively informed on issues rather than depending on quick-fix-it apologetic type books that hinder the education involved. Nevertheless, no matter how good a Christian’s research skills may be, Matthew Bell goes on to inform us of the many general awareness’ involved in apologetics. Says Bell:
"There are no answers that will satisfy those genuinely questioning our faith....That is not because they are stubbornly refusing to embrace answers, nor because they do not understand what those answers are, but because our faith, i.e. the Christian religion is ultimately a matter of having faith and not empirical evidence strong enough to convince the sceptical unbeliever. What major factor of the Christian faith does not ultimately rest on faith? Look at the existence of God. It is our consideration that there are evidences for his existence but ultimately we rest our case on faith. Look at the existence of Jesus. It is our consideration that there are evidences for his existence but ultimately we rest our case on faith, especially in a day where mythicists and the like are in abundance along with their books and articles. Look at the inspiration of the Bible. It is our consideration that there are evidences for that inspiration but ultimately we rest our case on faith. Look at the creation of the universe and life on earth. It is our consideration that there are evidences for that work of initial creation but ultimately we rest our case on faith. So I could go on but I think the point is made. That upon which Christianity rests is ultimately faith. That is God's way, but that way is antithetical to the way of the unbelieving sceptic" (Matthew Bell, Xtianity, 2/26/01, "Some Dudes Learn the Hard Way.")
In my opinion, quality apologetics encompasses reflective thinking processes followed by temperate communication skills. Those who are interested in engaging skeptics - either in evangelism or apologetics - should view the criticisms leveled against them by the critics as constructive. Such an attitude is highly beneficial if God has called you into this type of service for the purpose of standing on the front-lines of doubt. Remember, God may cause you to experience that same deep seeded doubt for a time in order for you to be a more communicative and understanding witness to those who are on the fence of faith. Indeed, a new breed of Christian apologist seems appropriate in light of Evangelical Atheism.