Imagine if there was one argument for the truth of Christianity so convincing that everyone who heard it immediately embraced the gospel. Imagine evidence so persuasive that all you had to do was share it with your unsaved friend, and she’d instantly leave her unbelief behind. Imagine a proof that could overcome all obstacles to Christian faith.
Almost sounds like magic, right?
And yet, these musings reflect how many Christians think apologetics ought to work. Reasons to Believe (RTB) frequently receives letters from readers asking questions like, “How can I change the naturalist’s mindset?” and “What can I do to get my brother to believe when he isn’t convinced by the scientific evidence for God?”
These idealists are looking for an argument so compelling that it can almost overcome freewill itself. And in most cases, Christians want this bulletproof argument to be very easy to learn and articulate—about as effortless as learning a nursery rhyme.
The reality is, however, there is no foolproof way to help someone overcome all their intellectual obstacles and bring them to faith in Jesus. Why? Belief involves a complex network of factors. Here are four thoughts to consider.
1. There is a difference between sound arguments and persuasion.
Taking a course on critical thinking skills can help Christians understand the differences between sound arguments and fallacious ways of thinking. Being aware of these differences sharpens our ability to evaluate the quality of the arguments that we share with unbelievers.
However, articulating sound arguments should not be confused with persuasion, which is another thing entirely. Many attorneys know that it’s quite possible to present an elegant, tightly reasoned argument based on well-established evidence but still fail to persuade a jury. When you’re engaging in apologetics with an unbeliever, what you find persuasive might not be enough to convince that jury of one.
2. Conversion is seldom a straight line from unbelief to belief.
Coming to faith often involves multiple layers of movement in a person’s life. Occasionally, it happens quickly. For example, a street preacher approaches someone, shares the gospel, and the person is so overcome with conviction that they give their life to Jesus right on the spot.
Most of the time, however, conversion is a slow process of investigating claims as God orchestrates situations to bring about a change in a person’s thinking. It’s slow because conversion essentially involves changing one’s entire worldview. A person might need to rethink their view of the existence of God, life after death, the source of morality, and the reliability of the Bible.
3. Evangelism often involves a long-term investment.
Hugh Ross has astutely noted that it usually takes about six to seven years for a research scientist to come to faith in Christ. As mentioned above, worldview systems involve a complex web of interconnected beliefs, so it’s rare that people overturn all of those belief systems in quick fashion. They often need time and space to undergo a process of evaluation, and they need people who are willing to go through that process with them. This is why evangelism is rarely a one-shot conversation.
With this in mind, you want to be careful not to burn all of your relationship bridges in one conversation, especially if it’s with a family member, roommate, or coworker. It’s generally a good idea to have multiple conversations over time and patiently stay the course instead of trying to force the person into a decision. If the person feels heard and loved, they are more likely to revisit difficult conversations about faith. But if the person feels intimidated, pressured, or shamed, the door to future conversations will probably be closed. I have found that it’s often better to stop a little short in a conversation, take some time to pray and even ask the Holy Spirit for an opportunity to re-approach.
4. Faith is a work of the Holy Spirit.
There is a common misconception that apologetics is about arguing people into the kingdom of God. This explains why so many Christians are searching for easy-to-explain bulletproof arguments, but it is a gross misunderstanding of how apologetics works.
Apologetics is merely one tool in a Christian’s evangelism tool belt. In the book of Acts, early evangelists utilized a variety of tools, including praying for healing (Acts 3, 5:12–16, 19:11–12), casting out evil spirits (Acts 8:4–8, 19:12), preaching the gospel (Acts 2:14–39, 3), reasoning from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2, 18:4, 18:19, 19:8), and reasoning from philosophy (Acts 17:17).
The modern concept of apologetics most closely resembles the apostle Paul’s message at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22–31). In this passage, we see how Paul presents argumentation to the philosophers of his day by building an intellectual bridge from the familiar (Greek philosophy) to the unfamiliar (a Jewish Messiah as the Savior of the world).
At the close of Paul’s sermon, we notice three responses: yes, no, and “I’d like to hear more” (Acts 17:32–34). Every Athenian gathered there heard the same sermon, so what causes such differing responses? Ultimately, it is the movement of the Holy Spirit that changes hearts. That’s not to say that we should just defer to sloppy arguments. Rather, it’s a call to be very clear about our job description. Our job is to present sound arguments. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to persuade people and change hearts.
Not every unbeliever needs a high level of evidence in order to consider Christianity. Some people simply need to know that Jesus can heal their wounds. Other people need to know that their sins aren’t too big for Jesus to handle. But there are those who need a more evidence-based approach to faith. Just like the Christians in the book of Acts, we must discern which tool in our evangelism tool belt should be used at any given moment. And whatever method we use, we need to also give the Holy Spirit room to do his job!
Looking for an easy-to-explain bulletproof argument is like looking for Bigfoot; the search would be in vain because they’re mythical. A one-size-fits-all solution could never address the variety and complexity of belief systems that people bring into a conversation about faith. Being an evangelist is the calling of every Christian. Let’s make smart investments of our time and develop a robust evangelism tool belt instead of looking for shortcuts.
By Krista Bontrager
Krista Bontrager is the dean of online learning at Reasons to Believe. She is a teacher at heart and enjoys teaching the Bible to all ages. She has an MA in theology and another in Bible exposition from Talbot School of Theology.