When Apologetics Fails


I began my education several years ago by enrolling in the Philosophy and Religion programĀ at Appalachian State University. It was there that I endeavored to start a career in NT and early church history and it was in my last year that I began exploring the question of oral tradition in the first century. This is now where my learning is focused as I interact daily with questions of how the gospels came into form and what happened in the meantime. Trust me, it’s exhilarating! šŸ˜‰

Nevertheless, I would not trade the education at App for anything (despite a degree which qualified me to wait tables…again!!). In addition to loving the school and mountainous landscape, I began to explore the depths of Christianity, church history, and religious thought from a secular perspective and I must say it has helped me immensely in knowing the alternative vantage point. I know now not just what Christians believe but what non-Christians believe and why they believe it. It gave me an upper hand in apologetics…and I used it! But three years into my program, I had an interesting conversation…one of the few that sticks out to me to this day as personally and theologically shaping.

I met with a professor of mine, one who I was decently close with and one whom I respected immensely. Despite his personal integrity, I felt his intellectual committments were quite skewed. He was a Jesus Seminar fanboy, one who was committed toĀ The Five GospelsĀ as if they actually were the Bible! Indeed, in one class entitled “The Life and Teachings of Jesus” I was advised to drop the class because I questioned why we only read books by Jesus Seminar participants (where’s Witherington, DeSilva, Wright, Achtemeier, Thiessen, Green, etc…I at least hoped for the famous exchange between Borg and Wright…Alas, I only got Borg). It was less a class about Jesus as it was a class about what the Jesus Seminar says about Jesus.

One day I approached him in his office about a project I was to complete (a project which was to outline and present an article on why the birth narratives are fictional and born from myths). He asked me the simple question: What would happen if it could be shown that the gospels were not historically reliable? If Jesus was not divine, when he died he stayed dead, and that things like miracles are either legend, fabrication, or magic? My simple response: it would shatter my faith. I am not opposed to a contradiction in geography, chronology, etc. Honestly, I am not really that bothered if Matthew really believed there was one angel at the tomb and Luke thought there was two. We can deal with that and my faith does not rest on such a supposed contradiction being explained awa. But if the resurrection itself lay in contradiction with true history than there is no true way to have the genuine Christian faith which is founded on the resurrection of Christ. It would be shattered.

Of course, as any good (or obnoxious student!) would do, I asked him the opposite question. What if they were proven to be true? What if Jesus did claim to be divine, what if the resurrection was true, and miracles did occur? What follows, interestingly enough, shook my apologetics-oriented evangelism beyond what I thought possible. He looked at me, shrugged, and said “Randy, I don’t know. I don’t think it would change a whole lot.”

Such a response was perplexing, especially for someone who was nearly told in all the apologetics books that he had read that if you could argue it you would convince someone into faith. What I heard that day was noteworthy: Even if it were true–and you could show me such–I still would not believe it.

Most people at least give voice to the idea that if you could provide the evidence for God, the resurrection, absolute morality, etc. then they would believe it. But here was an admission, from a trained educator, that was contrary. I am beginning to sense that this is more true than we think. In countless interactions with nonbelievers over the past several years I have sensed that there is more than ever a demand to stand up for ones own presuppositions and make the evidence conform to those presuppositions rather than let the evidence determine one’s outlook on life. Few are open to change based solely on intellectual persuasion.

Do not worry! This is not to say that apologetics does not have a place…It does. Indeed, I am still pursuing my NT history career and will soon be beginning a Youtube series on the reliability of the NT. But I think apologists have tended to place to much emphasis on the effectiveness of apologetics as a discipline and have certainly gotten it incorrect if they assume that you can reason someone into faith. Does reason make a difference? Yes. We’re not called to blind faith. But does reason makeĀ allĀ the difference? Definitely not!