5. Why should we choose presuppositional apologetics over other systems of apologetics?
The biblical doctrine of man and the biblical doctrine of sin are very helpful to us in understanding - from a Biblical perspective - who are we talking to and thus help us to know the better method as to how to do the task. The Bible is very clear about the problem of unbelievers. It is not about a lack of evidence, but rather it is a spiritual problem.
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul tells us (emphasis mine): “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 18-22).
Paul says unbelievers “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” It’s not that they lack evidence; on the contrary, they know God because God made Himself known to them (v19), and according to Paul they don’t know a god but they rather know “the God.” The word Paul uses for “without excuse” is “ἀναπολογήτους;” a more literal translation is “without apologetics.”
Paul goes on to explain that it is because the unbeliever refused to glorify God or give Him thanks that their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened (v21). In Ephesians, Paul even goes further when he advises believers not to “…walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:17-18). The unfaltering image of the unbeliever can be found all over the Bible: they are fools (Psalms 14:1), wicked (Psalms 10:4), do no good (Psalms 53:1), given to a depraved mind (Romans 1:28), they find no pleasure in understanding but only love hearing their own voice (Proverbs 18:2), all their thoughts are evil continually (Genesis 6:5), their heart is full of evil (Ecclesiastes 9:3), deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), they chose darkness over light because of their evil work (John 3:19), ... and the list goes on.
The scriptures are very clear that the problem of unbelief is much more than a question of evidence (even though there is a time and a place for evidence). Rather it is moral and spiritual as well as intellectual. Unbelievers are running away from God, not searching for Him (Romans 3:11). Therefore we need another approach to apologetics other than simply giving unbelievers more evidence or more data; no amount of new data is going to change the heart of an unbeliever. C.S. Lewis explains this rather brilliantly: "Let us make no mistake. If the end of the world appeared in all the literal trappings of the Apocalypse, if the modern materialist saw with his own eyes the heavens rolled up, and the great white throne appearing, if he had the sensation of being himself hurled into the Lake of Fire, he would continue forever, in that lake itself, to regard his experience as an illusion and to find the explanation of it in psychoanalysis, or cerebral pathology. Experience by itself proves nothing” (C.S. Lewis, God In the Dock, from the chapter on miracles). In other words, miracles don’t make believers; unbelievers (and sometimes even believers) will simply reinterpret what they see or hear in the light of their presuppositions. In Matthew 28 we read “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:16-17). Here Christ appears to the apostles, but we read these two words “some doubted” some of whom exactly and what did they “doubt”? It's some of the apostles and they doubted their own senses, because what they were seeing, conflicted with their presuppositions.
Let us also recall the resurrection of Christ. The Jewish elders paid the Roman soldiers, who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb at the time He was resurrected, to lie and say they were asleep and the body was stolen. You might say, the elders didn’t actually see the resurrection for themselves and that’s why they didn’t believe the disciples’ account. But how about when Christ healed the man with a shriveled hand? The Pharisees were there; they saw the miracle with their own eyes. Did they become believers? No, they became furious and started to plot to kill Jesus (Luke 6:11, Mark 3:1-6). And how about when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? Here we have a testable, provable miracle; after all, he had been dead for four days (John 11:39), and now he was alive and well. But as we know, not only did the miracle not change their minds, but rather it hardened their hearts and they plotted to eradicate any trace of it. They first plotted to kill Jesus (John 11:53) and even to kill Lazarus (John 12:10). Do you want some more examples? Read Exodus and see the reaction of the Egyptians to what they clearly saw as the finger of God, yet which hardened Pharaoh’s heart even more (Exodus 8:19). Unless the unbeliever’s preconceptions (presuppositions) are challenged, unless they repent and renounce their autonomy and be renewed in their mind (Romans 12:2), miracles and evidence are going to make very little difference.
The Dutch theologian Cornelius Van Til describes the reaction of an unbeliever to the truth like this: “Because we have not challenged the assumptions which actively guide his interpretations of the evidence. Every piece of evidence thrown to him, he tosses behind into the bottomless pit of his beliefs. He feels no discomfort from the evidence given to him, because he is allowed to interpret that evidence based upon his own presuppositions -- his own rebellious system of beliefs. There are no "brute" facts. That is, there are no completely objective pieces of information in the world which are free from interpretation. There is no piece of evidence that does not carry a true or false statement with it. We are active interpreters of our world, and it is our host of presuppositions that guide the interpretations. What, then, has the evidentialist proven to the non-believer? That some very strange, mystical things have happened in past history. Apart from the biblical framework of interpreting, the evidence need not strengthen the Christian position or break down the nonbeliever's position.” (Bryan Neal Baird, Theology and Presuppositional Apologetics)
We are talking to someone who doesn’t want to understand (Proverbs 18:2), who despises instruction (Proverbs 1:7), and whose way seems right in their own eyes (Proverbs 12:15). So it seems from the Biblical account that starting with empirical, historical evidence isn’t going to work, because it isn’t going to address people’s moral or spiritual problems, or the fact that people have become autonomous, or have replaced God’s authority over their lives with their own.
Miracles and empirical evidence may seem convincing, yet we have seen how these are simply not enough to change people’s minds. However, the Bible actually offers us something even stronger, even surer: the very word of God. When Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, he relates the dialogue between Abraham - spokesman for Jesus here - and Lazarus “…And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house - for I have five brothers - so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:27-31).
According to Jesus, if someone doesn’t believe Moses and the prophets, a miracle - even someone rising from the dead - is not going to convince them. We found out later how true that was. After the resurrection of Jesus, the elders still didn’t believe in Him. They even bribed the guards to lie, so impossible was it for them to accept the truth.
Peter made the same point. “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‛This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place,” (2 Peter 1:16-19).For Peter, the word of prophecy is more reliable than being an eyewitness. Even though Peter was there; even though he saw, heard, and was an eyewitness, he still believed that the word of prophecy is more sure than his own experiences.
If then the Bible says that unbelievers aren’t interested in knowing (1 Corinthians 2:14) and think God’s way is foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18), it might seem that there’s no point in even talking, as there’s no common ground. Is this really the case? Not at all. There is actually a lot which we have in common; the Bible tells us that believers and unbelievers alike are all made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), that God is knowable (Psalms 19:1-6), that God’s revelation is clear to everyone (Romans 1:18, Psalms 19), that the Bible is self evident (Luke 16:31). So it seems then we have a very good starting point because unbelievers - whatever they claim to believe - are still made in the image of God and can’t escape Him (Psalm 139:7-9).
This common ground is crucial in our discussions, as we shall see below. It is important to note however that common ground is not the same as neutral ground. It may be tempting, in our desire to relate to unbelievers and to more effectively communicate with them, to try to find some neutral ground which emphasizes that which we agree on. Don’t fall into this trap! Neutrality is impossible; we cannot leave God out of things as He is the foundation for absolutely everything. We know from the Bible that God is not at the end of the thinking process but at its beginning (Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10. Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 2:5. Proverbs 15:32). We also know from the Bible that all knowledge is deposited in Christ (Colossians 2:3). We are asked to walk in Christ (Colossians 2:6), and not to follow philosophy based on human tradition (Colossians 2:8), but rather follow that which is according to Christ (Colossians 2:8). Paul also tells us to avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” (1 Titus 6:20).
We should heed the advice of Paul “Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Ephesians 5:7-11).
We are advised not to partner with unbelievers! What does this mean? Paul is talking about partnering with them intellectually or methodologically; we should not be “yoked” with them, or be subject to the same authority (2 Corinthians 6:17). We shall see how this is of great significance in the way we conduct discussions with unbelievers, who subscribe to a fundamentally opposite worldview.
If we look at any non-Christian belief system, we will note two things:
- 1 - what they claim to believe, i.e. the professed worldview.2 - what their actions assume about the world, i.e. how they live their life.
These two are always at odds with each other, no matter what the belief system. The Christian worldview is the only one which makes sense of reality.
Some systems of unbelief might claim everything that exists is material in nature (materialistic atheism or atheistic evolutionism, for example). Others might claim that everything is an illusion (Hinduism or Pantheism, for example). Still others might claim that they came to correct the Bible (Muslims, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example). Then there are those who claim we can’t know anything about God (such as agnostics or skeptics). An apologist’s job is to expose the inconsistency and arbitrariness of all of these systems, to show them in the words of Paul how God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Corinthians 1:18), or in the words of Isaiah that "I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by Myself and spreading out the earth all alone, causing the omens of boasters to fail, making fools out of diviners, causing wise men to draw back and turning their knowledge into foolishness, confirming the word of His servant” (Isaiah 44:25). Whatever the world claims as wisdom is in fact foolishness and unless the world turns to God on His own authority, they will remain not only fools but unsaved.