Apologetic arguments aren’t perfectly conclusive, and that is okay

Apologetics is the reasoned, intellectual defense of the Christian faith, responding to attacks and offering reasons for belief. It is the responsibility of every Christian to be ready to offer that sort of thoughtful answer to the best of our ability (I Peter 3:15), because such conversations are one tool that God uses to draw unbelievers to himself, encourage the faith of his people, and create a culture that is open to the claims of Scripture.

In many ways, everyday modern Christians can be better prepared for difficult apologetic discussions than any previous generation. The printing press and the internet offer Christians almost limitless resources to equip ourselves to challenge false ideas, and that is a very good thing. However, I am afraid that this wealth of resources has contributed to false and counterproductive ideas about what apologetic arguments can and should accomplish. Our misunderstandings are leaving Christians disappointed and frustrated after their exchanges with unbelieving skeptics, while the skeptics themselves evade the force of arguments that should be much more effective and compelling.

The basic problem is that many of us–whether consciously or not–expect apologetic arguments to be conclusive; to leave no rational option but belief. We expect the cosmological argument to leave absolutely no defense against the idea of a supernatural creator. We want our design argument to demonstrate the need for a universal designer with perfect clarity. We are disappointed if a historical argument leaves any room whatsoever for doubt about whether the modern Bible reflects actual first-century events. And so on. Because we know that God exists and the claims of Christianity are true, we expect our arguments to conclude with the same sort of conviction we ourselves feel. Unfortunately, there is both a theological and a tactical problem with such inflated expectations for our apologetic arguments.

The tactical problem is that evidence-based arguments like this literally cannot offer an absolutely certain conclusion. No matter how strong the argument or how compelling the evidence, a determined doubter can always dredge up a counterargument. This is not just a problem for Christian apologetics. Even the most knowledgeable expert will probably not be able to convince a conspiracy theorist that astronauts really landed on the moon or Al Qaeda really planned 9/11. There is always some “What if…?” which can be magnified until it blocks out all the other evidence. This is why the justice system only requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” even for a death sentence. If the standard was proof beyond any doubt the defense attorney could raise, not even the guiltiest criminal would ever be convicted.

As an example of this problem of limitless “What ifs” in apologetics, let’s consider one of the many convincing arguments for the existence of God: the question of how life came from non-life. Atheistic materialism explains biological diversity through evolution–which has its own problems–but even if we accept the plausibility of evolution for the sake of the argument, we still have to explain where the first, simplest, single-celled organism came from. Evolution cannot help the atheist there, because evolution is a mechanism that only works on biological organisms which are competing to survive. To explain the advent of the first such organism, all the materialist has is raw “stuff” lying about in a primordial stew. Somehow, that stuff must assemble itself, by chance, into a living organism.

That would be… difficult. The most genetically simple free-living organism known to man is a tiny ocean-dwelling bacteria named Pelagibacter ubique. (Perhaps its friends call it Pel.) This bacteria has 1,354 genes which are composed of 1,308,759 pairs of the nucleobases which form DNA. That genetic information is what tells P. ubique how to be… P. ubique. So, if we are going to assume that ancient history’s first organism looked something like this microscopic creature, that means well over a million bits of biological compounds (the cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine which you may remember from biology class) had to accidentally get stuck together in precisely the right order to encode the DNA to build a cell which just happened to “work,” like throwing a million words into a blender and having a novel fall out.

And then, once we got our accidental DNA, well, nothing would happen, actually. Because DNA by itself is just genetic information. It cannot make a cell. So, in addition to the novel-from-a-blender miracle DNA, we would also need some compatible RNA (which is equally complex) to have accidentally happened right next to the DNA, because RNA is what builds proteins based on the DNA blueprint. So then the RNA could build some proteins out of amino acids, which we’ll assume were right there as well, and then we have a working cell, more or less.

I remember reading one secular origin-of-life researcher who said that the emergence of life could only be explained by “a near miracle,” which struck me as an interesting choice of words.

And yet the completely inexplicable appearance of life in the universe does not drive unbelievers to theism. Rather, we get efforts like the study described here which demonstrated conclusively that life could have emerged spontaneously on a primordial earth, if by “spontaneously” we mean “from a clay and chemical soup which scientists carefully designed and then shot with a laser,” and if by “life” we mean “the nucleobases which, if precisely arranged, form RNA, which is one part of the process by which DNA forms proteins that create cells.” Yet the scientists triumphantly declared that their work helped explain how life emerged as “a direct consequence of the conditions on the primordial Earth and its surroundings.”

And so it goes with all apologetic arguments. The skeptic can always come up with a “What if…?” counterargument which keeps the Christian position from feeling like a slam-dunk. Unbelievers respond to the anthropic principle by hypothesizing an infinite number of varied universes; they explain away the disciples’ testimony of the resurrection by suggesting that maybe Jesus just swooned on the cross, felt much better after three days in the tomb, crawled out, and somehow convinced his disciples that he had risen from the dead despite being covered in the infected evidence of a Roman scourging and crucifixion. Maybe. “You can’t prove it didn’t happen!”

Now this really wouldn’t be a problem in any normal kind of debate. “I might possibly have a hypothetical way to evade the force of your otherwise compelling point” is not a winning argument. But because Christians let the debate be framed so we lose unless we can offer 100% certainty, even the most implausible rebuttal feels like a defeat.

If, instead, we embraced the probabilistic nature of all evidence-based arguments and made it clear that we were arguing based on the weight of the evidence rather than trying to offer absolute certainty, the focus of the debate would abruptly change. Instead of a burden of absolute proof for the Christian, the burden would shift to the unbeliever to offer a genuinely plausible rebuttal to our probable conclusion.

The more modest approach is plainly a better tactical idea. But is it theologically defensible? Or are we selling the truth of the gospel short? I would argue that good theology not only allows, but even requires, such an approach.

We know human minds are finite and our knowledge is limited, so any sort of unaided deduction about ultimate reality necessarily carries some uncertainty along with it. Even worse, our minds are fallen, which means they actively rebel against God’s truth. Notice how Paul describes the problem of the unbeliever in Romans 1. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The problem is not that they cannot see the truth, but that they suppress it. The unbelieving skeptic will actively seek any possible alternative, no matter how unreasonable or implausible, to avoid having to confront the claims of God in Scripture. And because apologetics offers arguments made by human minds for human minds, there will always be that bit of wiggle-room he is looking for.

Which raises the question, how in the world is anyone saved? By the grace of God reaching down to where we are. Faced with countrymen who doubted his claims, Jesus explained, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Paul exhorted Timothy, “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (I Timothy 6:12). God’s calling does not remove the need for personal faith, for “taking hold”; but, nonetheless, the Bible says that it is God reaching out to us which makes salvation possible. When an unbeliever reads the Bible and comes to saving faith, it is not because he has encountered a syllogism which is drawing him to a conclusion, but because he has encountered a person who is drawing him into a relationship.

This is why we don’t need to worry if our apologetic arguments are couched in terms of probability. When we are giving a personal testimony, we can and should speak of our assurance of personally knowing Christ, but if the unbeliever has questions about history or science or philosophy, it is okay for us to answer those evidence-based questions with evidence-based answers, even though no evidence can give the deeper assurance that is cultivated in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who “himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15-17). Your job is not to persuade the unbeliever into an assurance which only the Father can gift; rather, it is to give reasonable answers to difficult questions, stripping away objections so the unbeliever is forced to seriously confront the God of the Bible who gives sight to the blind and sets the prisoners free.

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