Helping unbelievers means being sensitive to their situations
The Scriptures urge believers to constant readiness to give reasons for our hope in Jesus (1 Pet. 3:15). So we want to know how to defend and commend faith in Jesus to our neighbours.
Rod and Suan Li are Christians who desire and pray for the conversion of their contacts. They are good neighbours whose hands and heart are generously open to the people around them.
Let’s look at their contacts. Rod works with an Anglo-Australian called Sam who asserts that the only reality is things than can be experimented on. Suan Li has befriended a nurse with a Buddhist/Taoist background. Mui Khim has a family altar at home and practises traditional ritual. Rod and Suan Li have been helping to settle some new Muslim neighbours, Mohammad and Farsi, from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Ron and Suan Li have a late-teen daughter, Trish, who is into the “whatever” stage. For her, nothing is true, real or right, although she does a good job of complaining of things that are unfair around the house.
How can Ron and Suan Li speak to these people about Jesus? It’s helpful to distinguish between evangelism, witness and apologetics.
- Evangelism is the God-led process of explaining the message about Jesus to people and leading them towards repentance and faith (e.g. Mark 1:14-15; Rom. 10:13-15).
- We can witness or testify to Jesus by living in a way that speaks of Him and brings credit to Him (Matt. 5:16).
- Apologetics is the task and commending and defending faith in Jesus by demolishing arguments raised against Him and taking every thought captive for Christ (2 Cor 10:5). Apologetics is our focus in this article.
Can we argue anyone into Christian faith? People need to understand what they believe, but understanding is not the same as believing. Seen this way, apologetics is just one part of the evangelistic process. We try to give arguments that help prepare for faith by defending belief against objections and commending it as reasonable.
Know the neighbours. The people whom we seek to evangelise have different backgrounds, personalities and worldviews.
We must also be aware of our personal limits in apologetics. Believers should make ourselves as ready as we can to defend our faith. Some will be more able at this than others. It’s good to know when we have reached our limits and how to access other people and resources that can help. For example, Rod may find himself out of his depth with Sam, but can perhaps lend him a Ravi Zacharias DVD.
It’s crucial to lay good starting points in apologetics.
First, we must be sure we know the gospel. Anyone who would commend or defend the gospel must be inwardly persuaded of its heart. The gospel is about who Jesus is, what He did and how we gain His benefits (Rom. 1:1-6, 16-17 and 1 Cor. 15:1-4).
Second, there are different sides to Jesus and the gospel. Consider Jesus as protector, provider, light, saviour and Lord. These can provide different access points through which unbelievers come to the central gospel message.
Third, know the neighbours. The people whom we seek to evangelise have different backgrounds, personalities and worldviews. Consider Rod and Suan Li’s circle illustrated above. No single access point to Jesus is likely to be effective to all. So we need to know our contacts individually. What makes them tick? How do they think about the great questions of reality, truth, values and meaning?
Effective apologetics defends and commends belief in Jesus through entry points and arguments that expose the
weaknesses of an individual person’s alternative worldviews and which commends belief at those same entry points. It needs both to look for the points of affinity with those worldviews and to pay attention to the difficult points where there is a clash. The points of affinity provide the starting point. The clash points raise issues where we must engage.
Different schools of apologetics broadly divide around the two strategies mentioned in Proverbs 26:4-5.
We “answer not a fool according to his folly” (v4) when we engage in arguments that attack the basis of a non-believer’s worldview. That is, we don’t accept the very frame of seeing and thinking about the world. Instead we ask, with Tertullian, “what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In this strategy we present and assert a way of seeing and thinking about the world that has the starting points of God as creator and His self revelation in Scripture. This approach (called presuppositionalism) can be highly effective when done well, as, for example, by Ravi Zacharias.
A key alternate approach is to “answer a fool according to his folly” (v5). For the sake of the argument we assume the way of looking at the world that the unbeliever holds. We then work within his frame to show its inadequacy and contradictions and to turn its arguments in favour of Jesus. Paul used idols and pagan texts, not the Scriptures, to speak about Jesus in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). Justin Martyr spoke of Jesus as the fulfilment of Greek philosophy in the early second century. A modern Christian may use the New World translation of the Bible to show a Jehovah’s Witness that Jesus is more than an archangel. Or we may present scientific arguments for an orderly universe pointing to a creator or arguments for the historicity of Jesus. All these are, broadly speaking, evidential approaches, and seen in the work of Josh McDowell.
Which is the better way to do apologetics? The answer is “yes”. Both ways find support in the Scriptures and both can be used effectively to demolish false arguments and to commend faith in Jesus.
Consider Rod and Suan Li’s friends. They each come from quite different world views that raise different objections to faith and which present different opportunities to talk about Jesus.
Sam represents a modernist and materialist worldview common among adult Australians. He deals with evidence and reason-based argument. It may be important to help him see the historical basis of the Bible and the evidence for the historicity of Jesus. It can also be useful to show that his materialist worldview gives an inadequate life-view. For example, he may dearly love his wife, but if you analyse that love on the basic of his worldview it is irrational. His clash point will be to face the spiritual reality of the gospel.
What unbelievers are you in good contact with? At what points and in what ways can you engage with them to demolish false arguments and to present the claims of Jesus?
Rod and Suan Li’s daughter Trish represents an opposite worldview. It’s a form of post-modernism, common among younger Australians. Trish is uninterested in evidence or argument about anything and only interested in what works for now. She will be dismissive of the exclusive and universal claims of Christianity. Her worldview can be challenged easily. When she complains that Suan Li is being unfair by insisting she helps with the dishes, she can be challenged about her very idea of “fair” which has no place in her postmodernism. On the positive side, Jesus can be presented as the only one in whom life makes sense, and works.
What of Mui Khim with her Buddhist/Taoist background? Guilt and forgiveness have little place in her world so there may be little point in starting with Jesus as the saviour from sin. Mui Khim’s world is one of much fear and superstition. Speaking of Jesus as protector and provider is a good way into her world. Belief in just one God and the news that faith in Jesus is the only way to Him will be hard for her.
Muhammad and Farsi try their best to live by the dictates of the Qur’an and are diligent at prayers. But Mohammad sometimes awakens at night anxious about death: have I been good enough to secure my place in paradise? His entry point may be to speak of the kindness and mercy of God in Jesus and the certainty of eternal life through faith in Jesus. His clash point will be Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.
Let’s leave Rod and Suan Li to their task. What unbelievers are you in good contact with? At what points and in what ways can you engage with them to demolish false arguments and to present the claims of Jesus?
David Burke teaches at Christ College (PTC) Sydney.
First published in the Winter 2014 edition