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preaching to the choirApologetics isn’t for the lost, it’s for the already saved.

Generally speaking, apologetics books and articles are written by Christians and for Christians, no matter who their authors claim are the target audience of their work. The only people who are ever impressed with the arguments therein are people who are already “within the fold.” I virtually never hear of people actually coming to the faith through work of an apologist. On the other hand, I know of three people in a single town who deconverted reading Lee Strobel‘s Case for Christ.

Apologetics isn’t about outreach, it’s about retention. It is an attempt to reduce the attrition rate within an embattled religious tradition increasingly assailed by the very culture wars which they themselves helped provoke through their inability to learn or grow or change their beliefs.

I could not disagree more with Richard Land, who serves as both executive editor for the Christian Post and president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, when he insists that effective evangelism in the 21st century will be dominated by apologetics:

“I said in my inaugural address, that we were going to be involved in doing ‘apologetic evangelism’; that I was increasingly convinced, and have been even more so during the time that I’ve been here, that the way we’re going to spell evangelism, the way we’re going to spell missions, the way we’re going to spell discipleship in the twenty-first century is going to be APOLOGETICS.”

That perspective, in my estimation, is terribly misguided. And discipleship via apologetics? Have all the important terms changed meaning since I left? Is he even listening to himself?

Apologetics is ultimately about self-defense. It’s not about achieving a meeting of the minds with people who don’t already agree with you. Nor is the goal to think very deeply about the questions outsiders have about your faith, as if you felt it were a real possibility that your belief system could be untrue. It is assumed true from the outset.

For this reason, discussions on apologetics aren’t usually about searching for the truth, which is the occupation of the skeptic. They are about protecting what one believes from outside assault. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for people to acknowledge this and quit talking about it like it’s a kind of outreach, as if it’s for us instead of for them.

Fighting an Artificial Enemy

For a case in point, you can read Greg Koukl‘s response to my review of the last chapter in Tim Keller‘s book The Reason for God. Given the purpose of Koukl’s organization, Stand to Reason, it’s no surprise this article reads like a page from a handbook on self-defense technique. It doesn’t try to think very deeply about what is being charged, as if he were trying to reach me or anyone else on my side of the fence. It is a pragmatic, utilitarian approach to vanquishing an opposing viewpoint. He simply asks, in effect, what is the shortest route to dismissing the other side’s considerations?

My friend Joe Sutter did such a good job of summarizing Koukl’s method, I’m going to quote him at length here:

It strikes me how this “method” he’s demonstrating on your blog seems to be teaching people to win by straw-manning arguments. In fact several pages I’ve seen on that site are literally teaching people to use logical fallacies.
Click on the “February Mentoring Letter” he links to. He tells his readers to assess the argument they want to defeat, boil it down to a ‘big picture’, then put a ‘because’ or a ‘therefore’ after it. This might or might not be a useful technique, I don’t know, but look at the examples he gives. “Christians are hypocrites,” he offers. Rework that, he says, into “Many Christians are hypocrites, therefore Christianity is false.” I’ve never heard somebody use “Christians are hypocrites” as some kind of PROOF that Christianity is false. That might be one step in an argument, or one BIT of evidence that all builds together to make a larger point, but no matter. According to this apologist, you can simply take someone’s nuanced and careful argument, boil it down to a sentence or two in summary, put a “therefore” after the argument which was NEVER implied by the person who made the argument, and then because your simplified construction is absurd, you can dismiss the whole argument as absurd.
Another post on the site seems to be encouraging believers to use the ad hominem fallacy in their arguments. Now, I know these fallacies are used pretty frequently, but I didn’t know intelligent, ‘reasonable’ people would actually encourage their readers to twist reason in this way. But according to this author, you should assume anybody who is ‘sinning’ will have their reason ‘warped’. She quotes another author saying, “A vicious or immoral person has a motive to reject vital truths that condemn his or her lifestyle.” So obviously if you’re arguing with her, you must be just believing those things because you want to hide from God or something.
It’s funny, because if you said to me “The earth is round because of these objective reasons,” and I respond, “Oh yeah? You’re cheating on your spouse with your neighbor’s spouse, why should anybody listen to you?” everyone can clearly see that’s just a distraction. But apparently the only reason I think science and archaeology and physics all make a global flood impossible is because I want to sin or something. [emphasis mine]

In the world of Christian apologetics, such logical fallacies are called “sound arguments,” and are considered to be quite persuasive by those already personally committed to finding them persuasive. The alternative outcome would be life-altering in all the most disruptive ways. If you ask questions too vigorously, you could end up on the outside. Sometimes the fear and insecurity are palpable.

What’s the Big Idea?

Using what Koukl refers to as “our system” in response to my article, he says the apologist should first identify the main idea of the challenger (in this case, me), then identify the supporting points in order to take them one by one, countering them as completely as possible. As Joe implies above, this is a somewhat reductionistic approach to what could be a more open conversation, but remember the goal here is to reassure the believer, not to persuade the unbeliever.

What does Koukl see as the big idea in the piece? That it is the Christian system of belief which is broken, not we ourselves. He rightly observes that I begin and end my review of Keller’s chapter with that assertion, although I personally wouldn’t say that arguing this point was my chief purpose in writing.

My chief purpose in writing my review was to show that the usual injunctions which Christians find so persuasive just aren’t very meaningful to us. They’re not effective. They may “work” on believers but they don’t work on us. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough. But how did Koukl respond? By taking the three main tactics I say don’t work and simply restating them again, essentially arguing that they should work, and do, at least for those already on the inside.

Instead of embracing or internalizing what I’m trying to say about how these arguments strike those of us now looking in from the outside, he turns and preaches to the choir, reaffirming that the points I just dismissed are all perfectly fine, and should be accepted because deep down everyone just knows they’re right. Another friend, Jennifer Cobb, read Koukl’s review and asked:

Did I miss the factual counter analysis? How exactly did he argue against the points? And did he really counter the circular argument by making another circular argument to show that a circular argument works?

In fact the logic he employs in order to support each point illustrates the very thing I’m trying to say, namely that these arguments persuade only those people already inclined to accept their conclusions before the process even begins.

Re-Kellering Keller (or Tautologies Are Tautological)

In Keller’s last chapter, he rather hastily assumes that his reader has heard enough to be convinced and then instructs skeptics of the Christian faith to do three things:

  1. Repent
  2. Believe
  3. Go to Church

In my review, I try to explain why each of these three appeals falls on deaf ears since we ourselves as former believers have all “been there and done that.” We’re not just “nones,” we’re “dones.” These appeals would only work on people who haven’t already tried—and succeeded—at doing each of them.

And I don’t mean we just tried one or two of these things for a bit and then quit. Many of us successfully did these things and enjoyed doing them for years, decades even. But in time they grew to be hollow for us, and our perspective on each of them changed such that hearing yet another person telling us to try doing them has come to mean very little.

And what does Koukl do in response? He simply restates the value of each of them, failing to demonstrate any awareness of why our experience of them was different. He also doesn’t seem compelled to suggest anything different, given that what we tried before ultimately became ineffective.

This is why I say apologetics isn’t for the lost, for the already saved. He shows by his approach who his true audience is. He doesn’t choose his tactics based on what changes the mind of the outsider. He’s merely choosing the reinforce those things that insiders already accept as legitimate.

After stating his version of my thesis statement, he breaks down my reasoning into four points, then addresses each one.

1. We quit the Christian faith because it didn’t work for us—didn’t do what we incorrectly expected it to do.
2. Sin is SO last millennium, and it’s totally overdone.
3. Circular reasoning is circular. The Bible can’t be proven true by citing the Bible.
4. Church teaches you to be scummy.

What Does Jesus Actually DO?

Taking each of these points in order, Koukl first counters the idea that Jesus ever does anything at all beyond what he did a long time ago, centuries before any of us were born. He asserts:

“Jesus “works” for some things, but not for others. He does all He was intended to do, but He promises nothing more.”

He goes on to say that Jesus “will save you,” but beyond that he can be counted on to do nothing else. There are at least two problems with this. The first is that it is patently dishonest to pretend that Jesus himself didn’t lead us to expect more than just going to heaven when we die. I’ve written about this many times before, explaining how any intellectually honest reading of the New Testament has to admit that it makes a number of claims which can be experimentally tested to see if they are true.

[Read: “Making Your Faith Impossible to Disprove]

From what I can tell, it has been the job of the Christian church ever since then to explain why you should never have gotten such an impression from reading the Bible, and also you should be ashamed of yourself for being so petty as to expect God to ever DO anything at all. Most of the time, you see, he just sort of exists.

The other thing is that if all we can legitimately expect from Jesus is “getting saved,” presumably from everlasting destruction, then this means that we will have to wait until after we are dead to expect any results at all from our entering into a relationship with this person whom we are otherwise being led to believe will be an ever-present personality in the midst of our daily lives.

Christians cannot seem to make up their minds. Around each other, they talk as if God is everywhere all the time, showing up in everything that happens. To everyone on the outside, however, God is nowhere to be found, absent, invisible, and completely removed from actual experience. And shame on you for expecting him to be there in any discernible way.

[Related: “Changing Gods in Midstream]

The Key Is Feeling Really Bad About Yourself

Next Koukl moves on to address my contention that the Christian faith overdoes the notion of our sinfulness, magnifying our flaws far out of proportion while also taking things that are otherwise good things, but calling them “sinful” anyway because evidently we are doing them out of the wrong internal motivations.

“Yes, you can get all the answers right and still fail the test because getting the answers right is not the test. Salvation is not based on scoring high on a theological pop quiz or following all the rules, but rather on humbly beating your breast with the tax collector of Jesus’ parable saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’”

Two thoughts: The first may be purely academic, but it still amuses me how we all know you’re supposed to say that salvation is based on the work of Jesus, not on anything we ourselves do, as if it were a trophy to be earned through doing the right things. But then they turn around and say “But here’s the thing you have to do,” in this case indicating that you must feel really bad, really sorry for who you are and what you have done. I find that contradictory. Do we earn our salvation or not? Make up your minds.

My second thought is to note the mental gymnastics that happen in his argument here. First, I suggested that in his system of belief, the concept of moral rectitude is rigged—artificially twisted such that even the good things we do become bad because we’re doing them in the wrong spirit or whatever. Koukl objects and says it’s not really about what you DO at all, but how bad you feel about what you do. Evidently the key to true virtue is feeling sufficiently guilty in whatever you do.

But then he seems to push back against that point as well, and then no sooner does he do that than he turns back around and affirms exactly what I am trying to establish:

“Carter makes much about pastors making us feel guilty. It’s not the pastor’s aim, though, to make us feel lower than we are…pastors are not manufacturing guilt; they are pointing out blame that is already there, fault that we already know is ours.”

Ah, now I see where the problem is. When I say that pastors are peddling guilt, he’s not objecting that they don’t really do that. He’s merely agreeing with the point and then suggesting they’re only doing exactly as they’re supposed to be doing because of course we’re all terrible people who deserve to be punished forever. Incidentally, this isn’t helping his case from my point of view, but then I’m not sure either Koukl or his readers would put much stock in my opinion, anyway. They’ve got an ancient book that says otherwise, and the book cannot be impugned. All reasoning leads back to that no matter what, because it must.

It should be enough to say that any reasonable person would reject the notion that people should be made to suffer forever for their shortcomings while they were still alive. That’s not justice, and it requires the least charitable reading of humanity imaginable, ignoring all the things that are good about who we are in order to paint a damning picture of human nature in order to justify asking for complete obedience to a system of belief.

[Related:Is Humanity Fundamentally ‘Broken?’ (A Conversation)]

But Koukl argues this system makes perfect sense:

“As for the game being rigged, all systems of law require full compliance. No amount of moral fortitude atones for moral failure. There is no law in any legal system that one can break with impunity without being held responsible for the violation.”

No amount of moral fortitude? That’s a strange comment to encounter in this particular discussion. Isn’t Koukl bound to a belief which states the moral fortitude of Jesus in fact does atone for the moral failures of others? And granting that he didn’t mean to exclude that consideration, is it really a just system for one person to be held responsible for the mistakes of another?

And does it make any sense that for some it will take an eternity to pay for seventy years of mostly thought crimes like “wanting things too much,” meanwhile this one guy managed to atone for a billion people’s lifetimes of moral failures in the space of a single afternoon? He suffered for, what, twelve hours? And that covered it?

If we truly do deserve to be punished, why can’t we just choose to be beaten and die the same day? Evidently that can cover it.

This makes no sense. And it’s definitely not justice. I find this line of reasoning highly suspect, the kind of logic that would only be persuasive to people already bound to believe it by a lifetime of social conditioning.

Koukl winds down this portion of the discussion by noting that all normal healthy people experience feelings of guilt. This, he implies, should validate his book’s assertion that we are so very bad that we deserve to be punished forever. To me that seems like a bit of a leap, but he doesn’t seem to notice. If you feel guilty at all about anything, that means you believe “sin” is a legitimate category and that you should suffer forever for it after die. Because duh, everyone knows that.

It’s Not Circular Because I’m Right

Next he turns to address the circularity of the argument that the Bible is reliable because someone in the Bible says it’s reliable.

“Laugh if you like, but it is not necessarily circular to believe the full inspiration of the Bible because Jesus in the Bible said it was inspired…[We can] approach the Gospels just like one would any other primary-source historical record of antiquity: as accounts of a person’s life—Jesus, in this case—written by mere mortals. If the history is shown to be sound, then we can have confidence of Jesus’ views about a host of things without making any presumption about divine inspiration.”

Like Jennifer above, I’m having a difficult time seeing how his tweaking of my presentation of Keller’s argument makes it any less circular. I have charged that the words of Jesus reported in the New Testament cannot be accepted at face value without having some way to externally validate its historicity, and he responds by saying that we can have confidence in its accuracy “if the history is shown to be sound.”

But has it been? To my knowledge it has not. And I have to observe that people seem all too ready to leap to conclude its report can be trusted before any such vetting has even occurred. This argument essentially boils down to asserting that if you assume some of the New Testament to be reliable records of things that happened, then that can be used to establish that other things it claims to have happened must have actually happened. Anybody besides me find that unpersuasive?

[Read: “The Absurdity of Inerrancy]

Not to mention the fact that even if Jesus really did believe the Bible is infallible (or at least the Hebrew scriptures), that wouldn’t necessitate that it really is…unless you also assume that Jesus is divine and infallible himself. But now we’re having to swallow far too many things without first finding any kind of external validation for what the Bible has claimed about everything else, much less whether or not the concept of divinity and perfection aren’t both null sets anyway, devoid of any real life occupants.

Like the World, but Sorrier

Finally, Koukl takes on the notion that church teaches people to think of themselves as wicked and depraved.

“I don’t know what church Carter went to that routinely taught him he was scum, but in 43 years of church-going all over the country I have never heard such a thing.”

I can only assume he objects to the use of the word “scum” itself, because the concept is certainly pervasive within evangelical Christianity. Perhaps it’s a semantics game at this point. But listen to any popular Christian praise and worship collection. At times the groveling gets so intense you can almost taste the dirt they’re eating. I recall at one point the Bible suggesting that even our best attempts at doing the right thing are like menstrual rags to Yahweh, who in case you were wondering isn’t too fond of such things.

“Ironically, Carter admits to finding the same evils outside the church as well (“human problems…plague every other religion and subculture on the planet, my own tribe included”), so I fail to see how this is a mark against Christianity.”

The difference of course is that outside the church we are not claiming that a special power lives inside of us enabling us to bear “fruit,” however imperfectly, which people without this empowerment cannot possess. We are not the ones claiming to have something supernatural inside of us, making us into something that makes us any different from the rest of the world.

It doesn’t really help his argument to point out that people outside the church behave exactly the same way as people inside the church, because his religion teaches that what goes on inside is supposed to be different…because the Holy Spirit. Whenever anyone on the outside suggests that, some kind of tu quoque argument always rears its head. But this is a diversionary tactic.

The church is supposed to be different, but it’s not. People on the inside are exactly like people on the outside, and that’s exactly what you would expect to find if the notion of an indwelling Moral Rectifier were a purely fictitious thing. But it will never be seen as such by people like Koukl because anytime these promises ever fail to materialize, that is reasoned away as a failure on our part. It cannot be concluded that the system of belief itself is flawed. That is one place you can never go.

People Really Do Need Jesus

I don’t really expect a great deal to come of interactions like this, which makes me hesitant to engage in them. If I’m honest, I have to confess that analyzing and responding to articles like this bores the hell out of me. I know good and well my words aren’t going to persuade people still inside the church to think differently, and frankly, I don’t feel any personal compulsion to encourage them to leave. Maybe that means I’m preaching to a choir of my own.

Quite frankly, though, I think I’ve finally come to accept that some people really do need Jesus. They need him in the same way that Dumbo “needed” that magic feather to figure out that he could fly. If it had never been for the feather, he never would have tried it and discovered he could.

[Related: “Faith and the Power of a Magic Feather]

Ideally, of course, I’d prefer that people discover that placebos only work because we’re already perfectly capable of pulling off most of what we want to accomplish ourselves. But humans are a funny bunch, and we’re still evolving, so we don’t exactly have this thing down yet. That doesn’t mean we deserve to be guilted our whole lives for being who we are (and should give money to God to show our appreciation for his not snuffing us out in anger). It just means we are still in progress as a developing species. Is that really too hard to swallow?

I like what Bishop Shelby Spong has concluded after a lifetime of ministry in the church:

We are not fallen angels, but emerging beings. We are a work in progress, constantly victimized by the unfinished nature of our humanity.

I think that sums it up really well (and many thanks to my friends who reminded me of that quote). It may not fit the biblical narrative, but it’s long past time for people to accept the idea that the Bible is a product of a particular time and place, and people make mistakes, right? Is there any conclusion more Christian than that? Why can’t that translate into how they read the Bible?

Still waiting for some of them to figure that out.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...