Each semester, I teach an introductory apologetics course to undergrads who are in either their junior or senior year. The class is designed to be comprehensive, covering topics such as the biblical basis for apologetics, defending and commending the faith by our words and our lives, understanding and responding to cultural assumptions that make Christianity seem implausible, engaging people at the level of their desires and imaginations as well as their intellects, and responding to frequently encountered objections. Our required text is Apologetics at the Cross by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen, a volume which I highly recommend.
One of the assignments I require of students is that they interview a non-Christian using a series of questions I’ve prepared. By “non-Christian,” I mean anyone who would not claim to be trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That includes atheists, agnostics, adherents to other world religions, and those who might describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Students are free to supplement my questions with their own if they’d like, as long as they make sure to ask all of the ones I give them. (In response to two of their conversation partner’s answers, students also have to ask one of the Columbo Tactic questions, but they can’t use the same question both times.)
The aim of the interview is not for students to actually do apologetics. I just want them to become more comfortable talking with non-Christians and to establish a habit of asking questions and listening attentively. I also want them to see firsthand how and where the ideas that we discuss in the classroom are at work in the lives of people they know.
Here are the required questions:
- How would you describe your personal spiritual beliefs?
- Do you believe God exists? If so, why, and what do you believe God is like? If not, why?
- What has your exposure to Christianity been?
- As best as you can, describe what you think Christianity teaches.
- Who do you believe Jesus was and why?
- What do you think about the Bible?
- What is your honest perception of Christians?
- What are your top reasons for not believing the Christian faith is true?
- Do you have any objections to Christianity? If so, what?
- Is there anything that could persuade you that Christianity is true? If so, what? If not, why?
Reading through the responses is always interesting and sometimes disheartening—disheartening because it’s a revealing glimpse into the prevalence of misconceptions that exist about the Christian faith and the work that needs to be done to correct them. Another reason for heartache is that some of the objections people raise to the faith are due to mistreatment they’ve experienced and/or misconduct they’ve observed on the part of those professing to be followers of Jesus. I haven’t kept a running tally, but there are a few recurring responses that I’ll briefly discuss below.
Those who deny or are skeptical about God’s existence frequently offer the lack of evidence as a reason for their disbelief. I’ve noticed that it’s especially the absence of scientific evidence to which many appeal. This reveals a number of things. First, it shows the prevalence of the assumption of scientism, namely that science is the only reliable means of ascertaining what is true or real. Many take it as a given that empirical verification is the sole means of determining that something actually exists. Indeed, we do learn much about reality by way of our senses, but to insist that reality is restricted to that which is capable of being detected by our senses is, as Alvin Plantinga has observed, like the drunkard who loses his car keys at night and insists that they must be under the street light because that’s the only place he can see. Science is invaluable for learning about the workings of the natural world, but it can’t tell us about everything. To acknowledge this is not to be anti-scientific; it’s simply to recognize science’s limits. The God of the Bible is not a part of the natural world but its Creator and Preserver. As theologian James Dolezal says, "God isn't the greatest thing in the world—because God isn't a thing in the world. God is the reason there is a world." To attempt to find God using the same means we employ to detect finite natural entities is to deny an essential component of Christian belief—namely that God transcends and gives being to all else.1
Another noteworthy point is that the majority of responses to the question about what Christianity teaches has to do with ethics and morality. According to most of those interviewed, Christianity teaches things like how to become a better person, to love others, to forgive, etc. In other words, the perception of many unbelievers is that Christianity is primarily an ethical code; it’s heavy on right conduct but light on redemption and grace. I’d like to think that this misunderstanding is primarily due to non-Christians having little to no contact with genuine Christians. I’m sure that in some instances this is the case. However, I have to admit to a lurking fear that this is not wholly to blame. There’s no way to be sure, but I can’t help wondering how many of those who so responded did so as a result of interaction with believers. In any event, it’s a good reminder to me of the necessity of keeping Jesus and the message of the cross central in my conversations with the lost. The cross was necessary because of the reality of our rebellion, so we can’t escape addressing conduct (and shouldn’t try). But it’s crucial that we so emphasize the Christ-centered gospel of grace that we don’t contribute to any misguided notions that biblical Christianity is essentially a self-improvement plan.
There aren’t many surprises among responses about what non-Christians object to regarding Christianity. People frequently bring up opposition to homosexuality. Another frequently-encountered response is that Christians are hypocritical. In some cases, this is born out of non-Christians really having been hurt by professing Christians. In others, it’s a general accusation not associated in any particular offense. Every now and then, however, respondents express an appreciation and respect for the Christians they know.
What, if anything, could persuade people that Christianity is true? Many of the answers to this question have something to do with a personal experience of God or some kind of empirical proof. One person, for example, replied, “I would absolutely be able to be persuaded to believe. But it would take actually hearing or seeing a physical God or Heaven and Hell to get me to believe. Or even some solid proof that humans have a soul and that it’s an actual part of us.” Answers like this take us back to the widespread assumption of scientism.
One of the things I want students to take away from this assignment is the realization that apologetics, while it does involve responding to objections and answering questions, requires so much more. It requires taking people seriously by asking questions. This conveys interest in them and can also serve them by helping them, perhaps for the first time, to give more concentrated thought to what it is that they actually believe. Some of their answers will reveal misconceptions about what Christianity actually teaches, in which case we can gently and respectfully offer clarification and correction.