The Task of Apologetics and the Marketplace of Ideas

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The central task of apologetics is to articulate and defend the Christian message against the objections and criticisms of unbelief. More than this, it is to proclaim the Christian gospel, and then to defend that proclamation by means of proving the claims that were made in the proclamation. But many Christians today stumble over that word proving.

It sounds so . . . blustery and dogmatic. And for many Christians who have an appropriate view of the Almighty, the aspiring apologist can come off sounding like a theology geek with a stack of index cards, a technique he learned when he was captain of the debate team in high school, from which he will cast a net of tightly-woven hypothetical syllogisms. He purports to bring our attention to numinous and divine, finishing his presentation with a little flourish. Ta da.

Actual Proof

But thinking you have proven something is not necessarily the same thing as proving something. As we have noted before, a biblical understanding of proof is defined as the moment when you have created an ethical or moral obligation to believe. So let’s talk about that just a bit further.

To understand this biblically, we should not start with the argument, or the structure of the argument—or the index cards. I am not disparaging such as irrelevant or unimportant, but everything in due course. We are not here looking at any particularly argument for the deity of Christ, or for His vicarious death on the cross. Rather, we should start with what such an argument is supposed to do. What effect is it supposed to achieve? From this we can identify the true nature of proof, and we can then structure our arguments accordingly. First we decide on the destination, as well as the importance of getting there, and then we should get out the map.

The Biblical Stakes

At the end of the book of Acts, the apostle Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He arranges for the Jewish leaders in that city to come and talk with him about the Christian message. As we look at this, we should pay particular attention to what he says in his conclusion to those who do not accept his reasoning.

“And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.”

Acts 28:23–28 (KJV)

Now it is very clear that the apostle Paul held that the presentation of his gospel—his exposition and testimony concerning the kingdom of God—was an ethically charged moment. He reasoned with them from morning to evening. When he was done the audience was divided, with some believing and others not. To those who did not believe, Paul did not hesitate to tell them that a crucial moment was passing by for them. Because they failed to believe when they should have believed, they would not be converted. They would not be healed.

What this meant is that they had a moral obligation to believe what Paul was saying. Not only so, but it was a moral obligation upon which their eternal destiny was suspended. Failure with regard to this moral obligation is no trifle—everything was suspended from it.

Flip this around. Suppose that a presentation of the gospel did not create a moral obligation to receive and believe it. Why then would anyone be judged for rejecting it? And if no one should be faulted or blamed for rejecting it, then why is the New Testament filled with so many references to the profound culpability of those who rejected the gospel message?

“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.”

Matthew 10:14–15 (KJV)

These early preachers were not fooling around. They were betting with real money. They were playing hard ball.

When Apollos came to Achaia, he did not come bearing possibilities, or a satchel filled with messages that concluded with “it seems to me.”

“And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.”

Acts 18:27–28 (NKJV)

No, not at all. The thing was settled.

“to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”

Acts 1:3 (NKJV)

The Sin of Unbelief

We have to come to grips with the understanding that doubt is not the virtue we have made it out to be. Skepticism invites us to take a hard, skeptical look at it. We need to do a better job of doubting our doubts. In many cases, our doubts are not honestly come by.

“Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.”

Matthew 28:16–17 (KJV)

Some doubted. The whole apostolic band was in an uproar, many of them had seen the Lord already, the prophets had detailed how this was necessarily going to happen, the tomb was empty, and He here appears to them again. And some doubted.

And what about the time Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead?

“Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.”

John 11:45 (KJV)

Lazarus had died, and had been in his grave for four days. He already would have begun to decompose. A number of Jews from Jerusalem were there to commiserate with his sisters, Mary and Martha. Jesus arrives and summons a dead man out of his tomb, in front of a crowd of witnesses. And what does it say? And many believed. Not all? Many believed? And what did the others do? They went and reported these events to the chief priests and the council of the Pharisees, who then plotted to kill Jesus (v. 53).

It is striking that after Jesus told His only parable that had a proper name included in it, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, He concluded it by having Abraham reply in this way:

“And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Luke 16:30–31 (KJV)

That was true enough. We love our epistemic autonomy.

The heart of the sinner always wants maneuvering room, room to scooch around a little. The word of God comes to us, like Nathan came to David, and says, “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7), or better yet, like the dream that came to Abimelech, saying “Behold, you are a dead man” (Gen. 20:3). As we approach the One before whom every mouth will be stopped (Rom. 3:19), we are frantically trying to figure out a way to keep our mouths from being stopped. We want to approach the Final Day in the vain hope that God will say to us, “When all those things were not proven to you to your satisfaction, verily I reckoned them as not proven to My satisfaction.” The problem with this pipe dream is all the pipey dreaminess of it.

The fact that doubt is a sin does not mean that we should live our lives as gullible chumps. There is a way for a person who is not yet persuaded, but it is a way which approaches the offered evidence in the right way.

“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”

Acts 17:11 (KJV)

The Marketplace of Ideas

Evangelists and apologists are not called to be merchants in the marketplace of ideas. The mission to go out into the world to declare, and not to display our wares.

The reason we drift into presenting “Christ the option for your felt needs” instead of “Christ the risen Lord” is because this latter approach, being biblical, creates moral obligation. And when this happens, people get agitated.

“And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.”

Acts 24:25 (KJV)

And when they get agitated, they sometimes act out. Sometimes the apologist gets in trouble. Sometimes Felix leaves him in jail.