What Keeps People from Becoming Christians?
A central task of apologetics is to identify the general pressures that persuade people not to believe. These problems are not simply intellectual. They include cultural pressures and personal feelings—and, these can very significantly from person to person. We see in the New Testament that the reasons vary greatly as to why some people refuse to believe (Mk 4:1-20). We need to discover, to the best of our ability, why individual people refuse to come to faith.
I think of one of the atheists I met who became one overnight through the death of the father whom he idolized. . . . I think of another celebrated atheist, with whom I was due to debate. During the dinner beforehand, it became evident that the cause of her atheism was a series of terrible experiences in a Catholic school as a youngster. Another was a survivor of Auschwitz. Another was brought up in a strongly anti-religious home, and had imbibed his parents’ attitude uncritically. . . . We must be people-centered in our approach and discover, if possible, what lies behind the atheist front. It may of course be sheer reasoning, but I have found that rarely to be the case. Whatever the cause, we need to find it before we can hope to deal with the person appropriately.” (Michael Green, Evangelism Through the Local Church, 144-145).
The historical associations of Christianity
We’re to learn from the past, and some of the barriers of faith lie in the past. One of the most common historical barriers to faith relates to the church as an institution. The growth of anticlericalism in Europe on the eve of the Reformation is a case in point. Surely, there were faithful priests who dutifully ministered to people. Yet, they were more than outnumbered by those who brought the institution of the church into disrepute.
Two common themes underlie this problem.
One: Priests became alienated from the communities they were meant to serve.
The church was exempt from taxation and the church, because it was a major landowner, had no trouble in providing for its clergy. The people all around them were starving, and the people became disaffected with the church.
Two: Christianity tends to get identified with the institutional church.
The truth and relevance of the gospel become dependent on the quality of its institutions and ministers. In theory, people were merely protesting the shortcomings of the medieval clergy and the fallibilities of the church. In practice, they ended up rejecting medieval Catholicism. Ideas were judged, not on the basis of whether they were right or wrong, but on the basis of the quality of the individuals and institutions who embodied them.
Experience suggests that people can cope surprisingly well with many of the intellectual problems raised by Christianity—for example, the problem of evil. But when they have to face up to a Christian leader who preaches fervently against certain practices, only to indulge in them himself, their faith can be severely undermined. It is not internal theoretical problems that really bother most people—it is the way in which Christianity relates to life in general and to individuals and institutions in particular.
The task confronted by the apologist here is that of exercising the past. The associations that Christianity possesses for people need to be brought to conscious articulation. People need to be helped to see how their attitudes toward the gospel are being shaped by other people and events, rather than the gospel itself.
One: We need to stress that historical and personal associations do not have any necessary or direct bearing on whether a position is true or not.
But shouldn’t Christianity make people nicer? Yes, it should! However, to say that Christianity should make people nicer overlooks the pervasiveness of sin (Rom 7:14-25). It would be wise to point out that this demonstrates just how powerful a force sin is in the world.
Two: You need to guard your own example.
Three: Some of what passes for Christianity in the world is a pathetic distortion of the real thing.
The Problem of Relevance
A common response to a rational justification of Christianity runs like this: “What you say may well be reasonable. It may well be true. But it lacks any real relevance to life. Why should I be interested in such irrelevant ideas, even if they are true?” This highlights a deficiency in classical apologetics that is primarily concerned with the rational justification of faith. Truth is no guarantee of relevance.
Two problems give rise to this problem: (1) A failure to grasp what the “benefits of Christ” are (a failure of the apologist to particularize the gospel in the situation of that personal or community) and (2) a serious misunderstanding of the nature of faith.
The apologist cannot be content to mumble vague generalities of the gospel, adopting a “to whom it may concern” approach that blunts the force of the gospel.
How can you make the gospel relevant to the person with whom you’re studying? Is his marriage about to fail? Is he facing financial ruing? Is his alcoholism about to cause problems? Etc. If the gospel seems irrelevant, it is because of our failure to take the trouble to make it relevant.
The relevance of Christianity is grounded in three distinct aspects of life.
The need to have a basis for morality.
Moral values reflect an understanding of the nature and purpose of the world and of the human beings in it. The relevance of morality is obvious: societies and individuals need moral values and personal ideas to govern the way in which they act.
The need to have a framework for making sense of experience.
Psychologists have stressed that there seems to be an inbuilt human need to make sense of things—a phenomenon known as “attributional processes.” E.g., the need to make sense of suffering. If there is this basic need to attribute meaning to human events and experiences, it is clearly important to base these interpretations of the world of experience upon as reliable cognitive foundations as possible.
The need for a vision to guide and inspire.
The utter dreariness of a world without ideals points to our need for inspiration.
Christianity offers a vision—a vision of God’s gracious intervention in our sinful lives, of his forgiveness of our sins through the death of Christ, of the continued presence and power of God in our lives, and of our final entry into the glory of heaven, where we share in the resurrection of Christ.
Misunderstandings of the Nature of Christianity
Christianity is rarely understood by those outside its bounds. There is a very real possibility that one’s rejection of Christianity isn’t really rejection of Christianity at all, but it’s a rejection of a caricature of Christianity.
How do you deal with this? Imagine that as you are talking to someone about Christianity, you become aware that s/he is resistant to it. Invite the person to tell you what s/he thinks Christianity is all about. And listen carefully. Be prepared to ask the person where his/her ideas originate. Also be prepared to present alternatives—alternatives that are more reliable, just as they are more attractive.
The Hunger for Absolute Certainty
“Unless you can prove that to me, I won’t accept it!” The demand for proof, for demonstration beyond conceivable doubt, is unquestionably one of the most problematical (and often one of the most common) predicaments the apologist faces. What sort of things can we know with absolute certainty? Vast tracts of human knowledge would have to be set to one side as lacking this characteristic of certainty. Among them would be both historical and scientific knowledge.
I may firmly believe that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 or that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. But I could be completely wrong. My belief rests on eyewitness reports, which may rest on confusion or misunderstanding or even represent deliberate fabrications.
It is surprising how few people have thought about this point. The apologist could do far worse than ask a question such as “When did Julius Caesar die?” and immediately follow this up with, “And how do you know this? Are you sure?” An important points is being made even if it is being made in a trivial way.
The laws of physics would initially seem an excellent example of things we know with absolute certainty, but this situation is far from simple.
First, we need to recognize that those laws are not prescriptive; they are descriptive. They do not prescribe what nature must be like; they describe what nature seems to be like. The predictive value of science is based on the assumption that the future will continue to be like the past, and that what happened in one situation will happen again in a different situation.
What scientific knowledge really comes down to is probability. You find what seems to be the best explanation of things, knowing that you are unlikely ever to be able to prove that it is the best explanation, and you continue to work with that assumption until something happens to make you change your mind. All of us, Christian and non-Christian, have to make assumptions about life. But they are hardly ever grounded in the hard-nosed certainty that critics of Christianity seem to want and expect.
Atheism, like all other worldviews, is a matter of faith. It rests on the belief (not the proven certainty) that there is no God. There is no proof—philosophical or experimental—that there is no God. The atheist’s decision is a matter of faith, even if the atheist fails to recognize that to be the case.
Prior Commitment to Another Belief System
Some people are searching for the meaning of life, for personal fulfillment, and for a belief system that will make sense of the world and their place in it. Others believe that they have found them and need to search no longer. Sometimes the outcome of such a search is belief in Christianity, but that isn’t always the case. How does the apologist cope with a situation in which there is already a commitment to a rival belief system?
At first, it might seem that all is lost. Yet, curiously, it is perhaps easier to enter into a creative dialogue with, for example, an atheist or a Marxist than with an agnostic, because at least the former believe something, whereas the later sits permanently on the fence of ideas, taking refuge in the ambiguities of life to justify a perpetual stance of indifference and noncommitment. It must be recognized from the outset, however, that this dialogue may be long and difficult, involving patience as much as intelligence, and loving care as much as argument.
- Experience often has relatively little impact on worldviews.
- Where experience seems to contradict a worldview or belief system, the most likely outcome is an internal readjustment of the system rather than its rejection.
- In fact, it might even be suggested that some worldviews are so constructed that they are incapable of being falsified on the basis of experience.
Where do you start?
Explore the Issue of Historical Erosion
What seems permanent often proves to be temporary. Surveying the great empires of the ancient world, each of which seemed so permanent a feature of the political landscape, we often find that they are quite temporary. This same historical perspective needs to be applied to worldviews. In their heyday, they seemed permanent, destined to abide forever and remain a serious threat to Christianity until the end of time. With hindsight, they are shown for what they really are: systems confined to a narrow band of history.
Christianity has been around for two thousand years. Its main rivals in the Western marketplace of ideas today are recent inventions. For how long will they remain a serious threat? In the 1969s, we were told that Marxism was here to stay and that if Christianity wanted to survive, it would need to change to meet the Marxist challenge. The dramatic destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the remarkable disintegration of the Communist Party in Moscow in 1991 showed how superficial this judgment was.
The point of this approach is clear: In dealing with a rival belief system, it is perfectly proper to inquire about its historical pedigree. How long has it been around? What reasons are there for suspecting it will continue to be around in a hundred years’ time? These questions need to be asked—persistently.
Examine the Evidence for the Belief System
In theory, people ought to hold to a particular worldview because of the force of the evidence offered in favor of that worldview. In practice, it tends to be nothing of the sort. Often, individuals adopt a belief system because it happens to be fashionable among their peer group or because it annoys their parents.
But a day of reckoning awaits with hard questions. Why this belief system? Sure, it is fashionable—but is it credible? Sure, it makes a statement about your independence from your parents—but is it right? Will your children end up rejecting your belief system, simply to make a statement about their independence? And what does that say about the merits of what you believe?
Belief systems ultimately rest on something. Your task is to find out what and to challenge those foundations. One of the most interesting features of intellectual history is that worldviews very often linger on long after their theoretical foundations have been demolished and discredited. You can help “speed up” the process of breaking with that worldview by helping people see that they are presently committed to a dying and decaying philosophy.
Examine the Presuppositions of the Belief System
All belief systems rest on presuppositions. It is quite possible that a person’s life is based on a whole set of unrecognized presuppositions, which your gentle and patient inquiry can bring to light. Experience suggests that such gentle explorations can sometimes be devastating in that they expose the inner contradictions and confusions within someone’s outlook on life.
Discovering the implications of an outlook is of major apologetic importance, as is a willingness to explore them, gently and lovingly, with those who cling to them.
The Problem of Personal integrity
Getting people to change their minds might seem like a simple matter, but it is far from easy. Apologetics deals with real people—with human beings who often have deeply held views, a fierce sense of loyalty, and an enormous reluctance to admit that they are wrong about anything.
An atheist might be thinking: “I’ve been an atheist for twenty-five years now. That’s a long time. And everyone knows that I’m an atheist. If I change my mind now, people will laugh at me. I’ll lose face. My personal reputation is tied up with my atheistic views. I’m locked into this situation. Somehow, my atheism and my personal identity have become mixed up with each other. If I change my mind on this one, I’ll someone be condemning my entire past.” The apologist can very easily reinforce such prejudices through a tactless and insensitive approach to the matter.
The apologist has two closely connected tasks:
- Separate the people from the problem—In talking about positions, we can do so in such a way that one’s ideas and the person become one and the same.
- Make it easy for people to change their minds. People find it difficult to change their minds if they are made to feel as if it is a win-or-lose situation. Bad apologetics creates the impression that changing your mind is equivalent to losing an argument. And nobody likes losing arguments—especially in public.
One: Do not present Christianity as a confrontational option.
To put this in plain English, do not force your conversation partner to enter into a win-or-lose situation. That is, do not present Christianity as being right (which immediately implies that your conversation partner is wrong, and thus provokes a confrontation.
Instead, present Christianity as being attractive, explaining why. Christianity gives you hope in the face of death, a sense of peace in the presence of God, a new perception of personal dignity, and a revitalized sense of purpose.
Two: Use yourself as an example of someone who changed his/her mind.
Clearly, this approach depends on your having once been a non-Christian and having subsequently changed your mind. If this is the case, you can help your dialogue partner to see that personal identity and ideas are separable. Acknowledge the problem, indicate that facing and resolving it is a matter of courage, and bring home that the outcome of that decision was positive. The instinct to “save face” is thus outweighed by the greater human instinct—to do something courageous and which is seen as courageous.
A Sense of Guilt/Inadequacy
Perhaps surprisingly, a genuine obstacle to faith on the part of many people is an awareness of sin, or a sense of deep and irredeemable personal inadequacy. For people in this position, it is of relatively little comfort to know that Christianity is true and that it is relevant to their situation. Their problem is that they are convinced that they are simply not capable of relating to God.
They might say: “If God knew what I was really like, he wouldn’t want anything to do with me. How can a holy God want to have anything to do with a sinner like me?” Others are convinced that their total insignificance places them outside the sphere of the gospel of grace—It applies to someone else but not to them.
One: God already knows exactly what you are like (Ps 139:1-6).
There is no question of deceiving God, as if he somehow thinks you are a thoroughly respectable and righteous person, when, in reality, you are nothing of the sort. The entire gospel rests on the supposition that God knows exactly what we are like—and loves us nonetheless.
Two: The gospel is meant for sinners (Mk 2:17).
Realizing that you are a sinner is thus the precondition for forgiveness, not a reason for excluding you from faith. Recognizing the full extent of your sinfulness does not disqualify you from the grace of God—it indicates how much you need it.
Three: Sin is a barrier to God—but a barrier that has been broken down by God.
The penalty of sin has been cancelled, its power has been broken, and its continuing presence is being diminished, through the cross of Christ. We clearly have the option of accepting the grace of God.
This Bible class was originally taught by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at Church of Christ Deer Park in Deer Park, Texas.