Apologetics for the 21st Century - by Charles Fox
In the open marketplace of religions, ideas, and wishes, people don’t normally rush to the “Christianity” shelf, take down the gospel, and bustle over to the cash register to buy it for dinner. By nature, shoppers avoid truth that requires them to relinquish their self-centeredness and submit to a holy, perfect, and rather demanding God, who quite selfishly, it seems, insists that everyone does things his way. The fact that doing things his way is the only path to joy, love, peace, life, freedom, sanity, and the rest of the “Top fifty Things that make life worth living” list is something that the unregenerate consumer can’t see. In the end, the remedy for this shopping conundrum is the cross of Jesus, applied by the Spirit, in response to a proffered message, and proffering that message, my friends, is our job. As shopkeepers in this trendy marketplace we have a crucial area of study and discipline called Christian Apologetics that is dedicated to explaining, defending, and proving the Christian message to reluctant consumers who are hostile, sinful, blind and rebellious, and to Christians who mostly aren’t quite as hostile, blind, and rebellious. Apologetics is the discipline that gives us what we need to divert shoppers from making a life-threatening purchase, and direct them rather, to receiving the life-giving gift.
So, let me start by saying, from my first exposure, I have always found apologetics to be the most crucial, misunderstood, irrelevant, and boring topic. This is profoundly ironic because I was brought into the kingdom, kicking and screaming at the hands of a brilliant apologist who argued past my blindness and objections. But, I’ll let you in on a secret, for reaching most people, classical, historic apologetics is a miss. The reason for the modern failure of classical apologetics is that it is always taught as though people are somehow inherently committed to some form of logic, and deep, unbiased, and careful consideration and evaluation of the facts. Most apologetics assume that people think this way:
All humans are mortal.
Socrates is human.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Nice, neat, sound, clear, irrefutable. Syllogism. Statement, statement, conclusion. There. Believe in Jesus.
Let’s look at the way real people think.
I think that humans should follow their dreams.
Socrates is boring
Hold on, I need to respond to this text.
Huh? What? Wait! Are you listening? Question everything? Feelings! Emote, guess, wish. Vague. Believe whatever makes you feel good about yourself.
I was recently speaking with a twenty-something graduate student who told me, in sum, “It isn’t just that nobody follows rules of logic, it isn’t just that they have a skewed view of the facts, the problem is that we now live in a culture that doesn’t even believe that facts exist. I tell my writing students that in meaningful argumentation they need to discern the difference between facts and opinion. I point out that we can verify facts, but we can’t argue with facts. The students respond, ‘What do you mean? Of course, we question and challenge facts.’” In the 21st century, we aren’t arguing over what is true, or not. We aren’t arguing the philosophical concept, “How does one discern truth.” We are talking to a world where people don’t believe that truth (or facts) even exist.
In the old days, we would say, “The sky is blue,” and an argumentative person would say, “sometimes the sky is grey.” Hmmm… that leaves an opening for potential dialog about whether they should believe in blue skies.
Now, if you say, “The sky is blue,” the answer is, “My sky is any color I want, and why are you pushing your blue skyism on me! Stop being such a hater!”
Reality is no longer a question of history, or facts, or truth. Each person has their own reality, and each person makes their own reality, based on dreams and wishes. Jean Twenge, in her book, Generation Me (which we will be looking at closely) provides endless examples of this:
“One professor encountered the GenMe faith in self-belief quite spectacularly in an undergraduate class at the University of Kansas. As she was introducing the idea that jobs and social class were based partially on background and unchangeable characteristics, her students became skeptical. That can’t be right, they said, you can be anything you want to be. The professor, a larger woman with no illusions about her size, said, “So you’re saying that I could be a ballerina?” “Sure, if you really wanted to,” said one of the students.” (Twenge, Generation Me, 2014 – Kindle p. 113)
How do we present the gospel as a desperate necessity in a world where reality doesn’t exist?
That is what this blog series is about. Although in this blog post I am only going to introduce five general areas of preparation and discipline that we need to have in place to be successful in bringing the gospel to bear in the 21st century.
Message – Ultimately the content of our message is critical. The barest faith requires an object that must be understood and upon which the conviction of assent can be placed. There are some message minimums; God, sin, Jesus, repentance. And those minimums must be understood as they are revealed in the Bible. I won’t put the entire story here, in the midst of this summary, but it’ll be at end of this blog.
Messenger – God's salvation is not received merely by giving assent to a body of principles we need to obey, but upon a person we need to love. Certainly, the Bible is packed with endless crucial truths and requirements for life, but a person, Jesus, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is through incarnation that God makes himself present in the life of his people. In the same way, we need to be the right people as we pass on the message to the world. This not only includes a holy lifestyle and a living faith, we need to be intimate with God through Jesus Christ and loving others the way he does. People won’t care for our message if we don’t care about them. (Much of this is the content we will be looking at in the AgapeStorm blogs.)
Messagee – (I know this isn’t a word, but what else do you call the recipient of the message, if you are enslaved to having all “M” words?) We need to understand the people to whom we are talking. This is a theological task, of course, because the Bible tells us a ton about human’s, but it is also one of inquiry and investigation. Ultimately, we need to know what makes people tick, how they view themselves and the world. Why are people more afraid of the opinions of celebrities than the hand of God? How do you engage a person who has retreated into an empty phonelife? We need to know the hearts of the people God wants us to reach so we can mold the message into a compelling story that they want to hear.
Method – Ultimately, we need to be fully prepared to engage our hearers with a spectrum of content including a clear gospel message as well as arguments, facts, and quotes from C.S Lewis or other helpful authorities. But we need to be winsome and engaging. Christianity is no longer the first voice among many, it is a muted and shunned voice in a cacophony. Our approach to the lost and fearful must be bold and assertive, yet compassionate. We need to be truthful but understanding. We need to be evocative and provocative and challenging and intimate, avuncular and simple, mighty and wise. But we need to do this in a way that competes successfully with Steam, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, Netflix, and Facebook, CandyCrush, Bejeweled, and Fortnite. Ahhhhhh!!! And, actually, we need to know how to properly use our iPhones and Facebook and the rest to share the gospel.
Milieu – We need to penetrate the soupy mire in which we live and understand it intimately and craftily. Only in this way can we be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16) The gospel is supra-cultural. It is always relevant, and it challenges the assumptions and authorities of every culture, nation, political and intellectual affiliation, and every philosophy or religion made by man. It also provides an answer to the darkness and lostness of every eon and epoch, and it can utterly obliterate the fears and enslavement that people feel as they endure their way through life. The brilliant illumination of the gospel makes the ways and schemes of mankind plain to our eyes so that we can take that light into the dark and treacherous places where people are perishing.
These five parts of 21st century apologetics will be the focus of this blog series. I can’t promise to be as perfectly methodical as a college course, but hopefully, together, we can learn how to bring Jesus to those who need him and his love.
Footnote #1 - Here you go, the message of the gospel, as promised.
Every human being is sinful by nature and therefore, appropriately, separated from God who is holy and perfect in every way. This leaves mankind in a predicament – as sinners, they are spiritually dead and essentially incapable of saving themselves or even of searching for God at all! In fact, by nature, apart from God’s gracious intervention to open our eyes and change our hearts, we are rebellious people who hate God and flee from Him. But God, out of His great love and mercy established a plan to save us that He has worked out through history and revealed through his word, the Bible. His plan is centered around and completed through and by His Son, Jesus. God sent His son, Jesus, to earth to die on our behalf and take the punishment for our sin. As a result of this amazing sacrifice, we can now be saved through faith in Jesus and in what He has done. When we are united to Jesus by faith, we are adopted by God into His family and we receive all of the promises of God, forgiveness for our sins, a new heart, and the guarantee of eternal life! We are new people, part of a family; children of God and brothers and sisters to each other.
The gospel is the power of salvation for those who believe. It is through the gospel that broken people are made new. It is through the gospel that hurting people find peace and freedom. It is through the gospel that hardened sinners receive a new heart, and it is through the gospel that confused and lost people are transformed by the renewing of their minds. A person who is united to Christ by faith has hope in this crazy world, peace in the face of chaos, and purpose in brokenness. This is the Message.
Footnote #2 – Aren’t we Reformed here?!?!?!?!?
I can’t possibly escape from an introductory blog on apologetics without bringing up Cornelius Van Til. If I don’t mention him, someone might break into my house and steal my diploma from Westminster Seminary. Someone might ask, “Why aren’t you just teaching Van Til?”
Cornelius Van Til was an early 20th century theologian and master of Apologetics. Summarizing Van Til’s model of apologetics would be an epic undertaking because he was so scary brilliant and philosophical, and I’m just not smart enough. He offered a stunning barrage of rebuttal against the classical apologetics model where the apologist uses evidence to convince someone that it is in their best interest to believe in Jesus. His basic premise, and I will receive at least 47 dozen corrections here, is that the Holy Spirit convinces people of the gospel, not us. With that being true, our approach should not be to argue about historical facts or use philosophical arguments, but rather, we need to understand each person’s belief structure, the foundation upon which they build their lives, and bring the gospel to bear on what we find there. He called this presuppositional apologetics, and he believed, and I agree, that his method puts God back in command of our presentation, and Jesus as the center of the story.
My contention would be, actually, that I have taken what I learned from Van Til and molded the pieces into something more easily accessible for normal people, like myself, who think that Socrates, although not necessarily boring, is certainly far too philosophical. Understanding the recipients (messagees) and their/our culture will help us to dig in on the presuppositions that define our hearer’s thoughts, concerns and fears. Understanding ourselves properly as the messenger who needs to be the right messenger brings our own presuppositions into focus and submits them to the scrutiny of the gospel searchlight. Our method is to engage people in their world of ideas, hopes and dreams with a message that is as eternal and unchanging as the God who wrote it.