About a month ago, I wrote about my frustration with being a lay apologist and I stated my frustration often came from two camps, both fellow Christians and unbelievers. I mentioned in that post how it seemed I could not win sometimes because unbelievers told me I was not intellectual enough, while my fellow church members often said I made things too complicated. In my first post, I primarily dealt with fellow Christians and church members (link here: http://bit.ly/MR60Xv). In this offering I shall deal with the unbelievers. When I talk about unbelievers I often mean those who are highly educated, are indeed intelligent, and who may even know the Bible better than the average Christian.
First of all, when someone charges you with not knowing what you are talking about, take a step back, assess and see if there is something you may have left out in your presentation. At first give the accuser the benefit of the doubt and ask them what they meant by that accusation (a la Greg Koukl’s Columbo tactic) to clarify what they don’t think you understand about a certain topic. Maybe there really is something you need to read up on more. When warranted, study the topic more and then come back and make a revised defense.
However, there are times when the unbeliever makes the accusation because they don’t really know about the topic themselves, and they are simply putting up a smokescreen. This tends to happen in public forums when there are other onlookers, and the power of persuasion is at hand. The unbeliever may think by simply making the charge, you’ll be discredited in the public at large and therefore think they have proven your Christian worldview untenable to others. Realize here persuasion is important, but is not the “be all, end all” in what we are doing. Our arguments are persuasive because they are true, not because someone else accepts them. Though others are possibly unconvinced by what we know is true, our knowledge is at least persuasive to ourselves in our Christian walk. So continue to press the unbeliever on his accusation, demonstrate to them that you do know what you are talking about, and try to draw out their misunderstanding of the topic. This can take time and a great deal of patience, and be prepared for them to leave the conversation or to move to the next tactic below.
At other times, the unbeliever is probably avoiding your arguments altogether. I have found in certain instances where I would be talking with an atheist or agnostic, and I would present one of the classical arguments for God’s existence, and they would not even engage the argument at all, but instead would trot out their own pet peeves or their own talking points instead. It is helpful here to make sure you are not pulled off the argument trail by these red herrings. A good way around this is to tell them you will address those other things they brought up once they acknowledge the argument you set forth. Sometimes in doing this, you may need to present the argument again, maybe in different words, in order to get them to address it because they may have missed your point in the first place. It is possible you may need to restate and work through the premises of an argument one by one with the unbeliever, likely because it is the conclusion the premises are leading to they refuse to accept. Once you work through the premises of an argument, then you can talk through the conclusion and how it is demonstrably unavoidable given the premises of the argument.
Then there are those times where the unbeliever is simply trying to mock. I have had these occasions also, where I was dealing with someone who was not an honest questioner looking to gain more understanding of my beliefs, but was one who wanted to mock no matter what. One example of this is when you have someone who responds with the same three or so points on everything you present or post, even though you may have answered those points numerous times before. I do think in these instances you can call the unbeliever on this when it gets so repetitive, and be fairly stern in doing so, and at some point it gets to where you need to dust your feet off and devote your time on more fertile ground.
Another instance with the above example is someone who held to a radical empiricism. On many of my Facebook posts, he would post the same thing about how we could not know this or that because it could not be apprehended by the five senses nor tested and falsified by scientific experimentation. I pointed out to this person repeatedly that not all knowledge comes about by empirical means, for instance history, archaeology, philosophy, and theology do not work this way (never mind the fact that we could not reliably solve and try murder cases upon his view!), and I told him that his view is radical indeed because even he could not live in this way. Even scientists have to rest on the authority of those who came before them, otherwise if they were an honest empiricist, they would need to actually experience everything that has gone before, and in effect science would have to start over with each generation of scientists (1). But we know this is not the case, since we all rest on some other authority and testimony, and science thankfully does progress to new discoveries.
Finally, I’ll just add it is rare anyone concedes our points, let alone becomes a Christian because of what we are presenting. Keep in mind the person you are talking to is often as invested in their worldview as you are in yours, for a variety of reasons and motivations. Moreover the Bible tells us that everyone suppresses the truth in their pre-regenerate state, even we did before we were believers. Minds do not change easily and whole worldviews change from one to another even less so. The stakes are high because when a given unbeliever sees conclusions like the nonphysical beginning of the physical universe, or there being more to life than the here and now, then clearly that knowledge requires action and acceptance of another and higher authority other than themselves. One either assents to this reality or denies it, but there is no middle ground. In doing this, we should remember salvation and the changing of hearts is the work of God and we are here to plant the seeds. So let us go and answer the questions, defend against objections, dust our feet off with the mockers when necessary, and in all cases present the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
1. I am thankful for my friend Jim Shultz (http://jimshultzblog.com) for this point in one of our morning discussions over coffee and Dr. Dallas Willard’s book Knowing Christ Today.