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Why We Need to Walk With Skeptics

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About 30 miles north of Jerusalem, in a Samaritan town then known as Flavia Neapolis, a boy was born. The year was 100 A.D., and his parents named him Justin. His was a pagan family of Greek and Roman descent, and he was raised in keeping with the philosophy and values of those cultures. Writing years later, Justin remembered his early education as a stream of logic and rhetoric from his tutors—the fruits of classical education.

But the soil around the young philosopher was the soil of Palestine, where prophets grow so easily. Bare philosophy quickly failed to satisfy Justin, who began to long for something more than the rational deliberations of the philosophers, longing to search for whatever it was that rooted philosophy itself.

A day came when his mind felt overwhelmed by it all. Needing space to think, he went for a favorite walk in a field near the shore. He noticed, annoyed, that an old man was following him. In one of the great passive-aggressive moments of Christian history, Justin turned, stood still and just stared at the man (“rather keenly,” he remembered later) until the stranger walked up and said hello. On hearing that Justin was out to ponder philosophy, the old man dove in to a kindly debate with enthusiasm.

By the end of the conversation, this Christian stranger had introduced not only a doubt of Justin’s belief, but a doubt of Justin’s happiness, and deftly ended the conversation exactly at the moment it was getting good—hinting at the impossibility of experiencing the Creator unless the Creator opens the “gates of light” and lets you truly know it first. And hinting further, the old man indicated that in years past, there had been some people, “prophets,” who had been allowed precisely that experience of God in the very land where they were walking.

“A flame was kindled in my soul,” Justin later wrote about their conversation. That flame would not go out. The idea of the God of the prophets haunted him and turned into genuine love for Jesus—whose doctrine appealed to both the head and the heart.

In this way, what began as an awkward social moment led to the conversion of one of the first and greatest apologists of the Christian faith. Justin went on to publish extensively, advocating for Christianity in the face of his culture’s dismissal and disapproval and of the lies misrepresenting the Christian community both for the Empire’s authoritarian politics and for the mockery of urbane Romans. Justin’s passion and incisive mind led to a career that even addressed two emperors and eventually led to his conviction (for “subversion”) and martyrdom.

What started as a walk on the beach and an argument with a persistent stranger led to a martyr’s defense of his Christian faith before the most powerful men in the world. And the story of Justin, the strong and winsome apologist to a hostile culture, makes me wonder what kind of apologists we need today.

How to Win Skeptics and Influence Christians

Beginning with Justin and a few other Patristic-era thinkers, Christianity has a robust history of apologetics. Answering theological, moral, philosophical, ethical and social questions has been a vital part of our faith. Some of the most beloved Christian voices of the 20th century found their best expressions while advocating for Christianity to skeptics or outsiders, including C.S. Lewis (a former atheist himself) and Francis Schaeffer. But few things are more off-putting than Christian apologetics done poorly—when the richness and nuance of our faith devolves into straw-man arguments, cheap tracts and bait-and-switch questions that play out better in rehearsal than they do with a “live one” on the line.

Pastors find themselves in particular need of a way forward. In our rapidly post-Christian culture, how does one defend Christian faith without becoming combative? How does one honestly, seriously entertain the objections of skeptics without introducing confusion or doubt into a congregation? How does one respond to social questions or dilemmas when there seem to be few gracious options for dialogue or disagreement?

Perhaps the way forward is to listen to the Christian voices that, like Justin, have dedicated themselves to arguing against what they once believed. Mark Clark, pastor of Village Church, a multisite church in British Columbia, is a modern-day member of that long tradition.

Born into a staunch atheist family in Toronto, it was not until he was 19 that Clark found his way to faith. It was a process of questions and struggle every step of the way, even encompassing a process of healing from Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it ended in the searching skeptic finding wholehearted—and wholeminded—renewal.

It’s a renewal that he cannot keep to himself. Today, Village Church is growing explosively in the Vancouver metro area—in the heart of the most secular part of post-Christian Canada and with a planned site soon to come in far-off Montreal. Clark credits much of the congregation’s traction to simply addressing the questions people are really asking with a preacher’s heart and an honest skeptic’s mind.

Clark’s debut book, The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity (Zondervan), is an apologetic for people held back from faith by foundational questions—the classic objections of science, morality, authority and theology. I called Clark on a gray autumn day, curious to hear more about how pastors can grow into a healthy, practical apologetic that remains fresh and relevant for today.

He’s friendly and outgoing, his voice carrying the pleasant rasp of someone used to speaking up for a living. “A pastor’s first book can be a lot of things,” I ask. “Why did you pick apologetics?”

“I wanted to reach people like me,” he says. “I wanted to preach the Bible, but through a skeptic’s filter. It’s what I’ve done every week for the seven-and-a-half years of our church’s life. It’s natural for the people that I pastor and the people in my city. I think the move away from apologetics over the past few decades is fundamentally flawed. This stuff still has major impact. Our church is made of people actually asking these questions,” Mark replies, “and we need to answer them. But it’s not just for them. This is stuff we need ourselves too. We need to go to the questions they—and we—really have, and address them in the open, with honesty and clarity.”

“But do you see people these days really turn to Jesus because of rational deliberation?” I ask. For a moment I picture Soren Kierkegaard sitting in the corner of my office, mouthing Leap of faith, and giving my question an approving nod.

“Some types of people do,” Clark answers. “Obviously the gospel is not just answering questions or running from something, it’s running to something. It’s moving toward treasuring Jesus more than anything else. It’s not like ‘Oh, I had an issue with hell, now that’s resolved so I’m good for the rest of my life’; it’s more like ‘I had an issue with hell, now that’s answered, so I can continue on my journey of pursuing Jesus.’ What keeps someone a Christian for a lifetime is their connection with Jesus, not rational arguments. But sometimes there’s a rational move needed to remove obstacles to that connection.”

He goes on. “As well, part of the challenge isn’t just internal argument—it’s convincing people that what they think Christianity is might bear little resemblance to the teaching of Jesus. We have to try to separate the beauty and truth of the gospel from the cultural dynamics of ‘Christianity.’ The cultural ethos of politics, family dynamics, history and inherited faith all contribute to why we need strong, open apologetics. We need to affirm what we believe to help remove what obscures Jesus.”

“As a pastor, how does a healthy apologetic shape the hearts of Christians?” I ask.

“Well, it’s about formation too. People can’t grow in their faith if they are embarrassed by it. Let’s say that a 25-year-old walks into my church, and all he’s ever heard is that science and faith are enemies and that Christianity is anti-rational. Why would he become a disciple? He thinks it’s dumb. But if he hears a compelling defense of why Christianity is not anti-science at all, not as easily shot down as he’s heard and has a foundational scientific legacy in the West, he may become open not just to hear the gospel one time, but softened toward a whole worldview of Christian life, now and after he first believes.”

I pause him there, fascinated by that word “softened.” It harks back to Paul’s argument in Romans 1, I note, to the idea that even when we see the truth, it’s innately human to suppress it in favor of what we want to believe. “How does that suppression relate to all this?” I ask.

Clark tells the story, which he also references in his book, of the quietly legal abduction of his 97-year-old grandfather by “caretakers” eager for his money. “He rationally knew the people who were keeping him were just after his money,” he says. “But they were feeding him and keeping him company. When my brother and I showed up to try to take him home, he didn’t want to leave, because he was getting something comfortable out of it. I thought that the truth would set him free, but he didn’t want to leave.”

He goes on. “We’re not that different. We’re all terrified to disrupt our worldviews, our patterns of life, our beliefs, what we spend money on, and so forth. If Christianity is true, then it’s going to be disruptive. It will dislodge me from my comfort. There is self-preservation involved in our internal suppression of the truth. It holds us back from objectivity. Our resistance is deep.”

“And rightfully so,” I say.

“Of course!” He laughs. “It’s a whole-life thing. The Sermon on the Mount, right? If Jesus is who he says, we have to tear our eye out, reconcile with those who hate us, pray for those who curse us. We’ll look completely absurd when the world around us is moving to kill those who do them wrong and we’re saying that we need to model love and mercy.”

“This characterizes your ministry,” I say. “How do other communities move toward this?”

“We need to be in actual engaged dialogue with our non-Christian friends, talking about the issues that matter to them. We need to move toward an apologetic that doesn’t just try to convince them of stuff, but shows that Christianity has a freedom and a welcome for skeptics that has been there from the beginning. Christianity is about brass tacks, real-life stuff. It is powerful. Meaningful. It gives you a backbone and helps you wake up in the morning. It’s not about just going to my flavor church, or “winning” atheists for my worldview. It’s about wanting people to really know God, to know freedom the way that Jesus talked about.

He continues, “There’s energy when people see a church engage questions publicly and honestly instead of being focused on passing down an unquestioned or inherited faith. Bringing honest skepticism into the pulpit is an odd idea, but I try to question anything that the evidence doesn’t bear out. Even though I’m a Christian. There’s a lot that we can learn from skeptics—including questioning some of the nonbiblical things that we just absorb from Christian culture. We can learn to be skeptical Christians in a way that earns respect from others and strengthens our faith. I often point out that if you’re skeptical about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, you’ll have friends in the disciples. Because in every gospel, that’s what they came up with until faced with physical evidence to the contrary. They thought folks stole Jesus too. Read John 20. That kind of skepticism is completely legitimate in Christianity.”

The disciples have me thinking. “What’s the link between what we rationally think and what we choose to love then?” I ask.

“Well, even though it moves obstacles, it’s not the gospel’s rationality that wins or keeps people,” Clark says, “The power is in the beauty of it. Apologetics removes obstacles to experiencing that beauty. But in the end, it’s not just what convinces us, but what attracts us. Thomas Chalmers preached on this in his famous sermon, ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.’ You can never just eliminate an idol in someone’s life. You have to replace it with something that they love more.”

He’s getting excited at this point, talking fast. “Business research bears this out,” he says. “Especially today. This generation of millennials doesn’t care much about earning more money. They have to be working in organizations that they are passionate about, that align with their values. Faith is like that for this generation too. The only reason any of us change our life or belief is because we’re given something better. Our idol—whatever it is—becomes replaced by the true God. A pastoral apologetic moves people toward love. It’s why good apologists like Lewis, the rational romantic, truly come to life when Christians get both the mind and heart. We need to get people not only to think about God, but also move their love and allegiance to him. We need to present Jesus and the gospel as amazing, not only as truthful but as hopeful, valuable, pleasurable and meaningful.”

“That sounds like a two-handed apologetic,” I say. “We have a responsibility to confront propositional obstacles with one hand, then with the other we offer something better: helping people treasure Jesus. Like clearing a garden of weeds so you can plant it.”

“Absolutely,” Clark says. “And in the end, in terms of our human motivation, it’s about us. We’re asking about ‘the problem of God,’ but really asking what any of it will do for me. It’s not about cold data; it’s about how we live. Whether life makes sense. Whether we experience meaning. Why are we interested in any of this? Because we wonder where we fit into it all. “How will this impact my life for good or ill?” we ask.

As we hang up, I wonder if what Clark just said is actually just another way of asking if our philosophy makes us happy, and for a moment I can hear the old man’s footsteps sloughing through sand, catching up with Justin.

Deepening the Questions

Perhaps Christianity is that old man. Perhaps our questioning culture is Justin, annoyed that someone is following him around and turning to stare us down, ready for an argument.

Perhaps that, with Clark’s winsome wisdom and the heritage of Christian reason, is the image of pastor-as-apologist that we need—simply following those around us, as people in love with the God of both philosophers and prophets.

Ready with an answer, sure, but also ready with many more questions. Ready to deepen, not gloss over the search for truth and meaning in human life that every single person shares as a birthright of our race. Ready to name the question behind those questions, the search behind that search. Ready to ask, with a light in our eye, the shadowy face of Jesus haunting our brain, and just the hint of a smile (for we know we are planting a gentle splinter in a neighbor’s mind):

“How’s your philosophy working out for you?”

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach. His most recent book is The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Volume Two). He lives in Oregon.