Handling An Objection: “But Apologetics Doesn’t Convert Anyone!”

In the past, I have already mentioned some of the obstacles getting apologetics in the local congregation.  One thing that comes up quite frequently is that we need to simply give people the Gospel. After all, the Gospel is what brings someone into a relationship with God. First, let me say the following: Several years ago, I read a popular level book on apologetics which was Norman L. Geisler’s and Frank Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. In this book, they rely on the classical method. The outline of the book goes like this:

1.Truth about reality is knowable
2. Opposites cannot both be true
3. The theistic God exists
4. Miracles are possible
5. Miracles performed in connection with a truth claim are acts of God to confirm the truth of God through a messenger of God
6. The New Testament documents are reliable
7. As witnessed in the New Testament, Jesus is God incarnate
8. Jesus’ claim to divinity was proven by an unique convergence of miracles/his resurrection
9. Therefore, Jesus was God in human flesh.
10. Whatever Jesus (who is God) affirmed as true, is true
11. Jesus affirmed that the Bible is the Word of God
12. Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the Word of God

Now let’s say you are trying to share the Gospel with someone, and they bring up objections that are listed here such as “I don’t think the God of the Bible exists,” or ” I think David Hume has shown miracles aren’t possible.” If this is the case, the Gospel may fall on deaf ears. The other issue is the continual confusion between evangelism and apologetics. In Mark Dever’s book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism. I appreciate these comments about the relationship between evangelism and apologetics. There can be a tendency to confuse them. Dever says:

“People mistake apologetics for evangelism. Like the activities we’ve considered above, apologetics itself is a good thing. We are instructed by Peter to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15). And apologetics is doing exactly that. Apologetics is answering questions and objections people may have about God or Christ, or about the Bible or the message of the gospel. Apologists for Christianity argue for its truth. They maintain that Christianity better explains that sense of longing that all people seem to have. Christianity better explains human rationality. It fits better with order. They may argue (as C. S. Lewis does in Mere Christianity) that it better fits with the moral sense that people innately have. It copes better with problems of alienation and anxiety. Christians may – and should – argue that Christianity’s frankness about death and mortality commends it. These can be good arguments to have. Answering questions and defending parts of the good news may often be a part of conversations Christians have with non-Christians, and while that may have been a part of our own reading or thinking or talking as we came to Christ, such activity is not evangelism. Apologetics can present wonderful opportunities for evangelism. Being willing to engage in conversations about where we came from or what’s wrong with this world can be a significant way to introduce honest discussions about the gospel. For that matter, Christians can raise questions with their non-Christian friends about the purpose of life, what will happen after death, or the identity of Jesus Christ. Any of these topics will take work and careful thought, but they can easily lead into evangelism. It should also be said that apologetics has its own set of dangers. You might unwittingly confirm someone in their unbelief by your inability to answer questions that are impossible to answer anyway.

You can easily leave the impression that if you don’t know how to answer your friends’ questions, then you don’t really know enough to believe that the Christian gospel is true either. But just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. All knowledge in this world is limited. We proceed from what we know, and we work that out. Everyone, from the youngest child to the most celebrated research scientist, does this. Apologetics can be very important work, but it should be undertaken with care. By far the greatest danger in apologetics is being distracted from the main message. Evangelism is not defending the virgin birth or defending the historicity of the resurrection. Apologetics is defending the faith, answering the questions others have about Christianity. It is responding to the agenda that others set. Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda, the news about him. Evangelism is the positive act of telling the good news about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him.

One of the most common and dangerous mistakes in evangelism is to misinterpret the results of evangelism – the conversion of unbelievers – for evangelism itself, which is the simple telling of the. gospel message. This may be the most subtle misunderstanding, yet it is a misunderstanding still. Evangelism must not be confused with its fruit. Now, if you combine this misunderstanding with a misunderstanding of the gospel itself, and of what the Bible teaches about conversion, then it is very possible to end up thinking not only that evangelism is seeing others converted, but thinking that it is within our power to do it! According to the Bible, converting people is not in our power. And evangelism may not be defined in terms of results but only in terms of faithfulness to the message preached. John Stott has said, “To ‘evangelize’ . . . does not mean to win converts . . . but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.” To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.”—  Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism,  (pgs. 76-79).

I always start with the Gospel with people. Hence, I do evangelism. But in many cases, I have to do apologetics as well. If you talk to people on a regular basis, you will most likely run into the same issue.

The Resurrection of Jesus and the Cognitive Dissonance Hypothesis

Cognitive Dissonance is all the rage these days. In other words, more and more skeptics are trying to postulate that the birth of the Jesus movement is the result of cognitive dissonance. As N.T Wright says:

“One theory which would go against this conclusion [that the rise of Christianity is best explained by Jesus’ bodily resurrection] was very popular a few years ago but is now widely discredited. Some sociologists suggested that the disciples had been suffering from ‘cognitive dissonance’, the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on saying it all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence. Failing to take the negative signs on board, they go deeper and deeper into denial, and can only sustain their position by shouting louder and trying to persuade others to join them. Whatever the likely occurrence of this in other circumstances, there is simply no chance of it being the right explanation for the rise of the early church. Nobody was expecting anyone, least of all a Messiah, to rise from the dead. A crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. When Simeon ben Koshiba was killed by the Romans in AD 135, nobody went around afterwards saying he really was the Messiah after all, however much they had wanted to believe that he had been. God’s kingdom was something that had to happen in real life, not in some fantasy-land.

 

Nor was it the case, as some writers are fond of saying, that the idea of ‘resurrection’ was found in religions all over the ancient Near East. Dying and rising ‘gods’, yes; corn-kings, fertility deities, and the like. But – even supposing Jesus’ very Jewish followers knew any traditions like that – nobody in those religions ever supposed it actually happened to individual humans. No. The best explanation by far for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear, not as a battered, bleeding survivor, not as a ghost (the stories are very clear about that), but as a living, bodily human being”-From Tom Wright’s ‘Simply Christian’, p.96-97

Despite Wright’s comments about the cognitive dissonance theory, it is no surprise that it still seems to be quite popular in skeptical circles. There is also a reply to William Lane Craig’s podcast to the cognitive dissonance topic on Infidel’s website called The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins: A Cordial Reply to Dr. William Craig. After reading the response to Craig (feel free to read it), my thoughts are the following:

1.The resurrection claim was very, very, early. It was something proclaimed from the very start. Therefore, if the disciples/Paul invented the resurrection story (based on a cognitive dissonance issue), they did it from the very start. It was not something invented much later.

2.To posit any kind of cognitive dissonance explanation, we are back to some sort of conspiracy theory. In other words, Jesus did not really (literally) rise from the dead in a physical body. The disciples must of made up the appearance accounts because they were faced with contrary evidence. But what is the contrary evidence? Jesus was really still dead in a tomb since his body was somewhere else?

I find it interesting that many New Testament scholars/historians agree that the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

Allow me to mention few quotes here:

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

Therefore, the cognitive dissonance theory has to rely on the hallucination hypothesis.But this has problems and has been dealt with elsewhere.

Or, see N.T. Wright’s 3 part series on this topic:
Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

3.The cognitive dissonance theory would have to posit an adequate explanation for the resurrection category itself. Of course, Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature, with this being the case until much later (A.D. 200).So if the evidence was contrary (meaning Jesus did not appear bodily to them), this means they could of coped with the situation by making up a category to describe what happened to Jesus such as resuscitation, translation/exaltation (as seen in Enoch and Elijah) or apparitions (visions). Hence, it seems if they did want to win converts they could of picked another category other than resurrection.

4. To posit a cognitive dissonance theory, one must assume in order to deal with the contrary evidence (Jesus was dead), they also made up something else that was radically different: a Messiah that was divine. The birth of the Jesus movement and the birth of Christology are inseparable. Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have about Christology and it is here we see that that the earliest Christology was something from the start. It was not something that evolved over time. And the Christology we see did not stem from the disciples flirtation with religious syncretism, Hellenism, or Polytheism. It is true Jews don’t follow a dead Messiah (as mentioned in the Infidels article), but my question is it true the followers of Jesus really punted to some sort of cognitive dissonance?

If we read the Gospels, we see the case for Jesus being divine even before he was crucified. It is not as if the disciples were presented with contrary evidence and they created a deified Jesus afterwards. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. If this is true, why was Jesus accused of blasphemy?

According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself.

Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12). Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person.

5. The Infidel’s article touched on Jewish messianism. But just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”). Here are some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah:

1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56;Ant.17.271-72)
2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77)
3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84)
4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444)
5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54;4.503-10, 529;7.26-36, 154

As far as I know, none of them (as well as the Jewish leader named Bar Kohba) were accused of blasphemy (as Jesus was). By the way, the Sabbatean movement (something mentioned in the Infidels article) is a movement that borrow heavily from the Jesus story (see Boyd/Eddy’s The Jesus Legend, pgs, 154-156). So trying to compare it to the resurrection story is grasping for straws.

I could go on more here. But it seems to me that the cognitive dissonance theory hypothesis turns into a similar argument that we hear when theists are accused of using a “God of the gaps” argument or atheists are accused of using a “nature of the gaps” argument. Hence, we have a gap in our knowledge and look for an explanation. So now it seems we can punt to the “cognitive dissonance of the gaps.” I also should mention that the cognitive dissonance theory has been discussed in detail in Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographal Approach.