Back in the “salad days” of my association with apologetics, I was regularly plagued by the perception – not overwhelming but consistent – that I was on the defensive side of discussions with unbelievers and skeptics too regularly. The feeling was one of struggle to keep up with their endless cascade of questions and objections. Like I was in a race to answer every voiced reason for their lack of faith, barely keeping pace and barely keeping my breath – mostly trailing in the conversation, rarely leading.

That experience never had much to do with feeling ill-equipped to “give a reason for my hope.” (1 Peter 3:15) Having been a Christian for some years, I was typically able to offer something in reply to questions and objections. As Peter recommends, we should not only be willing to give a reason for our hope but also “prepared” or “ready” (depending on translation),[1] and I worked hard toward that end.

But on reflection, I did eventually notice a significant flaw in my strategy, which was to treat every question and every objection to my faith as if it were legitimate. My intentions were good. “If this presents a genuine problem for the unbeliever let me take it seriously, and let me do my best to provide a credible response.” The thought that the question or objection itself might have been faulty at the core[2] was something I didn’t spend too much time considering. To have done so would have seemed confrontational, maybe even aggressive. In my mind the ultimate goal was engagement, so a big part of my bottom line was avoiding responses that might have resulted in a premature termination of the conversation.

The other side of this tactic was that many of my reasons, explanations and responses were met with mixed results. My answers were regularly awkward and strained; obvious attempts to fit square pegs into round holes. At other times it was simply a draw. The unbeliever would respond with something like, “Yes, you could be correct. But then again I could be. So I have no reason to seriously consider a change of position.” Maybe the worst outcome was an answer that was logically persuasive, but one that required putting God in a very poor light. “Ok, I can see what you’re saying. But who can follow a God like that?” And the biggest problem of all? In the spontaneity of trying to answer the question or objection on its own terms,[3] I wasn’t certain that I even bought all the answers I was peddling.

And always looming, the quiet awareness that the unbeliever was typically the one setting the trajectory of the discussion. But if the unbeliever had questions or objections it was my responsibility to come up with my best attempt at a persuasive response. It was my responsibility to answer the unbeliever on his or her terms. Right?

In Colossians 2:8, Paul states, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” Paul says that any philosophy not based on Christ is, first of all, empty deceit. Not just a lie, but a lie void of any real substance.

That is not to say that many philosophical ideas don’t contain elements of truth that sound tremendously persuasive, if not appealing. Just prior (Colossians 2:4), Paul explained, “I say this so that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” Empty deceit can sound quite credible and worthy of deep consideration.[4] But Paul exposes a fatal flaw – the fact that such ideas are rooted in the “elemental principles of the world rather than Christ.” As such, their wisdom is earthly and ultimately foolish (1 Corinthians 1:20; 3:19)[5], as opposed to what James calls “the wisdom that is from above.” (James 3:17)

The point is that Christ’s truth should never be pulled behind an argument that is nothing more than a plausible-sounding-yet-empty deceit. If the truth of Jesus Christ is higher it should not merely supply a reasonable answer to contrary and opposing ideas. It should crack their foundations in the manner indicated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:25: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.”[6]

So how do we reset the terms, such that the truth of Christ leads, rather than trails in discussions and debates with unbelievers? Is there a practical methodology we can employ? Yes.

But before we discuss the practical let’s take a moment to discuss the spiritual. Make no mistake about it: The power of the gospel is not finally dependent on our intellectual prowess or our methods. There is power in the message itself (Romans 1:16)[7] and this must remain the central focus of our dependency and reliance.

Additionally, we must ultimately rely on the wisdom of the Spirit rather than human wisdom in providing an answer. In 1 Corinthians 2:4-5, Paul says, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” In the final analysis, Paul confirms that the real secret to his effectiveness was not his great rhetorical skill or the application of all his vast learning in his preaching and witness. Rather, it was the power of God in a demonstration of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 10:25 (cited above) and Luke’s observation of Paul’s ministry in Acts 19:8 (“Paul…spoke boldly there…arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God”) confirm that this display of the Spirit in power did not preclude Paul’s use of debate, deliberation, engagement, and reason in calling people to reconciliation with God through Christ.

Likewise, Jesus Himself was so skilled in the practice of answering objections under the Spirit’s direction that after one particularly embarrassing interaction, Luke tells us that the religious leaders opposing Christ “no longer dared to ask Him any questions.” (Luke 20:40)

In fact, this very encounter provides us with an excellent example of the methodology I’m suggesting.

In Luke 20:27-33, a group of Sadducees approached Jesus with a hypothetical tale that they felt proved a theological error in a rather incontrovertible way. “There came to Jesus some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked a question, saying, ‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married the woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’”

Jesus’ answer is supremely instructive. In vs. 34-38, He replies, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

Note Jesus’ method. Jesus didn’t ignore their question, insincere as it was, but He addressed it only briefly, merely as a prelude to his real design. He quickly went for the root and the foundation that their argument was built upon. Their question was not about marriage in heaven at all. At the bottom, it was this matter of the resurrection of the dead.

Within a few short sentences, Jesus shot past their question and effectively undermined the entire premise (or assumption) behind it. In going after the root of their reasoning Jesus simultaneously felled all their branches – the myriad questions and objections stemming from the root. Remember, v. 40 tells us that Jesus’ opponents were left in such stunned silence that they ceased trying to trap Jesus with any more questions.

Let’s take another example from the ministry of Jesus, one that was in response to a sincere question rather than an objection, but still based on faulty foundations. In John 4:1-26, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water from a local well. After “perceiving that Jesus was a prophet,” she proceeded to pose a religious question to him, as curious unbelievers often do.

She asked, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship. Which one is correct?”

I can imagine all kinds of answers being given to this question based on theological biases, denominational preferences, and a range of other factors. But, again, Jesus rightly discerns that the foundations underneath the question are faulty – leading to a question that ultimately missed the point.

The woman assumed was that worship is fundamentally about geography and presenting oneself at the appropriate holy site. Jesus could have gone down that road. He told her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” He could have then prescribed the Temple as the appropriate site for worship, citing any number of Old Testament commands and examples. This is exactly how we tend to operate in our discussions with unbelievers and skeptics. Fixating on the branches rather than the root of their questions and objections.

Jesus corrected her understanding at the root, and in doing so, naturally dispelled the thinking that prompted her question: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus instructed her by explaining that worship is really an inward matter, having nothing to do with location. It is not “here or there,” but an attitude of the heart (worship in spirit) in union with an acknowledgment of God’s principles, His rightness, and His infallibility (worship in truth).[8]

Some readers may note that these incidents from the ministry of Jesus do not actually involve unbelievers, but highly religious people with wrong religious ideas. The principle is the same regardless of whether we are out of alignment with God’s truth as theists or atheists. But for the sake of argument, let’s take a more modern objection from outside the religious community.

A common question or objection to belief in God is what is known as the dilemma of God’s hiddenness, an assertion that God’s seeming absence or silence is a problem for belief in His existence. 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell is often referenced for his pithy summation of this idea. Asked how he would respond to God if, upon dying, he discovered God to be real, Russell replied, “I would ask, ‘Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?’” Richard Dawkins echoed this retort when presented with the same question by Ben Stein in the 2014 documentary Expelled.

In this case, the root and foundational assumptions are not hard to see. It is that God is so aloof and undetectable that the atheist is justified in his unbelief, regardless of whether or not God exists.

To answer Russell on his own terms is to assume that his premise is correct – that God is a God who hides Himself completely beyond our ability to perceive or detect, such that one is reduced to an irrational blind faith. But is this premise correct? We cannot speak for all religions here, but we can speak for Christianity. How does the Christian faith respond?

There are a number of replies that could be offered. Depending on the situation, we might choose a singular example, or we might decide to build a cumulative case by combining two or more responses.

1. We might point to Genesis 3:8-10. In this text, Adam and Eve have just disobeyed God by eating from the forbidden tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Christian theology, this is known as the Fall, an event that effectively terminated the connection between God and mankind. But after this incident was it not the Lord who came looking for the man? And it was not the man who hid from God? “But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ [The man] answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid…so I hid.’”

2. A second approach might explain the reason that man hides from God. In John 3:19-21, Jesus explains, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

So in this cat-and-mouse game between humanity and Divinity, who is hiding from whom? At least the question is now out on the table and Russell’s assumption, if not completely undermined, no longer looks as strong as it initially did.

3. The Christian response might also point to Romans 1:19-20: “Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

The Christian declaration is that God is not hidden from us at all. If He seems to be, it is because we are hiding from God rather than the other way around. Paul’s argument in Romans is an appeal to reason from our own experience. “God’s reality and His power are clearly understood from what has been made, so much so that we are without any excuse.”

Additionally, Acts 17:26-27 tells us that, “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”

We may feel that we are “groping for God” because of the distance we have placed between ourselves and our Creator, but the writer is clear – God has set the times and boundaries of our lives in the hope that we should search for Him and find Him. We are being presented with a challenge, as well as an offer: God is not far from you. Will you make the effort to find Him? That is His desire.

4. Finally, scripture teaches us that Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God. In John 14:9, Jesus declares to his disciple Philip, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.”

And how far did God intend His revelation through His Son to extend? In Luke 2:25-32, Simeon the prophet, after taking the Christ-child into his arms, proclaimed, “For my eyes have seen God’s salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations…”

This greatest and most complete revealing of God to the nations is through His Son, Jesus Christ. This revelation of Christ’s identity, His works and His sufferings on the cross, His resurrection, and His “subsequent glories” (1 Peter 1:11), most certainly made its way as far as Bertrand Russell. After all, one of Russell’s most famous works is entitled Why I am Not a Christian. Russell seemed to have much light and insight into this God who so completely cloaks and shrouds Himself in darkness.

While I do not expect that these points would end all objection, we at least started with a man demanding that God answer for Himself, and we ended with good reason to suspect that the man might need to answer for himself to God. And I think answering to the wrong assumptions…the faulty foundations…underneath Russell’s statement gets us much farther than agreeing with Russell’s premise and trying to answer his objection on its own terms.

The reason we so often trail in our discussions with unbelievers is that we fail to recognize the faulty foundations of our interlocutors. As a result, like Absalom’s locks, we easily become ensnared and entangled in the branches of their arguments, completely neglecting the roots supporting those branches. This leads to the problems mentioned at the beginning: Feeling blitzed by rebuttals and objections, and feeling like our answers don’t always “fit” as well as they should if they are truly accurate.

If foundational assumptions are rooted in a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of God’s truth, then the questions they give rise to will be faulty and misled, too. If we try to answer faulty questions and objections built on faulty assumptions, then it’s likely that our answers will also be faulty, at least in some measure.[9]

The task is to discover whether there is a root error being expressed by the unbeliever, and then, as both Peter and Paul recommend, respectfully and graciously exposing and correcting the mistake. This does not guarantee that the inquirer or objector will be persuaded, but if we are effective it can:

  1. Dispel or at least call into question that specific objection – which can be significant if it is a major obstacle.
  2. It can possibly cause the hearer to reassess their confidence in other objections.

In other words, a door or window for the gospel that was previously closed and locked can be opened or at least unlocked.[10]

Important to this practice is to understand that not every question or objection to our faith is built on a faulty foundation. When the foundations are sound we can safely answer questions and objections on their own terms. For example, in Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-21, and Luke 5:33-35, we are told that some Pharisees and disciples of John the Baptist came asking, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replied, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

In this case, an objection was raised concerning the practices of Jesus and His disciples regarding fasting. Because the principle of fasting is sound, and because their assumption that God’s disciples should fast was correct, Jesus answered the question on its own terms and satisfied their inquiry.

It’s all a matter of discerning and wisely considering the question or objection at hand. Granted, this can be extremely difficult to ferret out on the spot, so in addition to prayer – which is undoubtedly the greatest source of spiritual wisdom and insight – begin compiling an ongoing list of common questions and objections that atheists, skeptics, and other stripes of the unbelieving pose. Make a practice of praying and thinking through these questions, applying the scriptures, and seeking to discern whether or not these questions have been laid on faulty foundations. If they have, what is the root error that should be addressed? Place your primary focus on developing responses to those foundational mistakes and misunderstandings. If you can accomplish this, dealing with all the secondary questions and objections spinning off from the root will not be as overwhelming and difficult. And be willing to enlist other like-minded believers to assist you with the project, recalling Peter’s recommendation in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to give a reason for your hope.”

 

[1] 1 Peter 3:15 – “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to give a reason to anyone who asks for the hope that is in you.”

[2] We want to clarify this phrase from the outset, as it is central to the entire thesis. Faulty is not meant to infer that questions or objections to the Christian faith are necessarily antagonistic, hostile, dishonest or poorly motivated. Unbelievers and skeptics have a wide range of intellectual and emotional reasons for their questions and objections, and these can be inspired by a host of reasons. By faulty we mean premises based on misunderstandings or incomplete information, leading to conclusions that are (to greater and lesser degrees) defective.

[3] This is another concept central to the argument. To answer a question or objection on its own terms is to engage it without consideration of its underlying premises. It is to assume that the question or objection is based on an accurate representation of all the relevant facts.

 

[4] Having established this, I am an advocate of reading and listening broadly in the realm of philosophy. “Ideas have consequences,” and I am persuaded that a familiarity with the world of ideas, past and present, can only help us as we seek to answer unbelievers and skeptics. Paul does not seem to be recommending avoidance of philosophical ideas, but rather cautioning us to always let the true and eternal philosophy of Christ light the way in our encounters with the thought-brokers of this world. Paul is not forbidding exposure to philosophical ideas, but warning us about the dangers of being undiscerning in our engagement with them.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:20 – “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” 1 Corinthians 3:19 – “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.”

[6] It could be easy to misunderstand Paul’s language as an endorsement of militancy or inflexibility. Paul is simply noting what should be the final effect on falsehood when it encounters the truth. Our words should always be “with grace, seasoned with salt.” (Colossians 4:6)

[7] Romans 1:16 – “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

[8] In saying that worship has nothing to do with location, we are saying that God is not prescribing a particular location, setting, atmosphere, or external requirement for worship. This is not an endorsing a growing error, embodied in such cultural subgroups as the None’s, that asserts a privatized approach to worship. Hebrews 10:25 is clear: “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves, as is the practice of some.”

[9] Empirical research methodology cites a common stumbling block that often emerges in scientific experimentation, that of spurious relationships. This is a situation in which the relationship between variables A and B (in this case, assumption and conclusion) is mistaken or misunderstood because of a failure to recognize or account for critical variable C. “It is essential that we carefully examine the assumptions that we are making in an effort to uncover possible spuriousness in relationships before we build them into theories…” (Manheim, Jarol B., Rich, Richard C., Willnat, Lars. Empirical Political Analysis. Longman Publishers, 2002) In dealing with what we’ve been calling “faulty foundations,” what the Christian is doing – and should be uniquely qualified to do – is bring these missing variables and their explanations to light.

[10] We should not underestimate the Spirit’s power to deeply affect the hearer by the practice we are considering. But we should also be realistic. It is rare that someone with deep questions or objections is turned as the result of a single response or a single conversation. If results are less dramatic than expected, trust your role as one who plants a seed or waters it, prayerfully resting its growth in God’s hands. (1 Corinthians 3:5-8)

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Jason Limbaugh

About Jason Limbaugh

Jason is a staff writer for Tactical Faith and teaches on biblical topics wherever an invitation is extended. His focus tends to revolve around the intersection of ancient scriptural truths with the genuine experience of those truths, and their application to contemporary life. A lifelong Alabama resident, he enjoys a quiet, rural existence with his family on the outskirts of Birmingham.

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