In the beginning, apologetics feel like Kung-Fu posturing. The non-Christian has his moves and style. You, the believer, have yours. Both of you circle on the mat. He hopes to stop you with stuff from the Discovery channel, You-Tube atheist rants, and remarks he remembers his professor making in freshman biology class. You have your evidences of the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus which you’re nervously trying to keep straight in your head, but know they’re probably not going to come out right. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. The non-Christian isn’t your opponent. The Gospel isn’t about having the better fighting style. Nonetheless, this is all part of your learning. These initial, awkward encounters take you outside of the abstract dimension of thought and goes head to head and heart to heart with real people. You’ll probably learn as much about apologetics by “doing” them with human beings than reading and preparing for them with books, research, etc.
Here’s one thing I learned the hard way: Some of my most unproductive encounters occurred when I “won” the debate. People don’t like to feel stupid (Recall the last time you felt happy losing a chess game). Humiliated folks typically don’t stomp off and pray to receive Jesus. Instead they go looking for better responses so they can beat you next time. I found out when I scored major points, it was good to do so with great (but not condescending) respect. Admit that sometimes you’d wondered about that yourself. Admit the other person is smart, that his or her objections are on the money. Level the playing field as much as possible so you’re not talking down, but to the side. I think the old adage “Heat doesn’t necessarily generate light,” is true. Make your points with confidence, but as much as it depends on you, keep the temperature in the conversation cool, friendly, interesting, and open.
John: Guys, while running your discussion group, what is the most important principle you’ve learned about communicating Christian truth to doggedly skeptical individuals?
Thad: Always remember the centrality of the gospel. I’m not content with weak arguments, but I wasn’t saved by good ones. And while my conduct shouldn’t bring shame to Christ, I wasn’t saved by my good behavior. Jesus had to die for me because of my sins. That should humble me. Unfortunately, the gospel can get lost during conversations with skeptics. But if we leave that out, what are we accomplishing?
Greg: I think the most important principle is to really find out if they live that way in all aspects of their lives. This requires you to ask a lot of questions and help them come to the realization that they don’t hold the same standard of truth for practically anything else in their life. People naturally make judgment calls and discern the truth hundreds of times a day. Yet when it comes to biblical truth, they will claim that there is no way to discern the truth.
John: What is the most helpful book(s) of Christian defenses you’ve ever read? Why?
Thad: The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller. If you’re looking for a high-level treatment of some difficult philosophical, theological, or scientific issue, find another book. But most of the skeptics I know aren’t interested in that kind of depth. Keller’s book offers concise, yet thoughtful, well-researched responses to some of the most common objections to Christianity. It’s interesting to read, and the gospel is woven into every chapter. I would also recommend Mere Christianity. I have a skeptical friend who said C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity contains the best arguments for Christianity that he has ever heard. My friend is still a skeptic, but many Christians have cited this classic as being significant in helping them move from skepticism to belief, like Chuck Colson and Francis Collins (former head of the Human Genome Project).
Greg: Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace. He is a former atheist who really gets into how to evaluate the validity of sources and even your own preconceived notions. Also, The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ by William Lane Craig. He is one of my favorite authors and is considered the world’s foremost expert on the resurrection of Christ. Honorable Mention goes to The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. It’s just a good all-around book.
John: I’ll throw in a couple, too. I was recently impressed with The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski. The book’s high-brow bearing will have a more limited reading audience, but will reach people of credentials. Berlinski’s Princeton writing style is refreshing and his logic impeccable. I also like No Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith by John Wilkinson. It’s a quirky book that upends apologetics by suggesting none of us actually knows why we believe. The book is a little postmodern-leaning, but only enough to add balance to the sometimes overly cerebral approach to apologetics.