10. Know your audience
Firstly, in order to be effective in our apologetics, you need to know who you are talking to and what you are talking about. At Christmas time when trying to put a new gift together, we sometimes have to say “When all fails, read the manual!” So why don’t we start by reading the manual, to find out who we are talking with and what we’re talking about. That is to say, let’s go back to the Bible to understand what it teaches about the nature of unbelievers and their problem:
These passages give us a roadmap showing how to answer whoever asks us. -- We have to note, firstly, that we are not presenting anything new for unbelievers. The problem is not missing information. Unbelievers already know God (Romans 1:18), but they don’t know Him in a saving sense. They know his wrath. They come to the world knowing Him, because God made Himself known to them. (Romans 1:19) It’s evident within them.
-- Secondly, we should see the problem of unbelief as not being merely spiritual but also intellectual. Unbelievers are described in this way by the Bible:
- 1. They are futile in their thinking (Romans 1:21)2. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:22)3. They walk in the futility of their minds (Ephesians 4:17)4. They are darkened in their understanding (Ephesians 4:18)5. They have ignorance in them (Ephesians 4:18)6. They are hard of heart (Ephesians 4:18)
This is not flattering to unbelievers, and some of us might shy away from describing people in this way. Ironically, many theologians or apologists who say the Biblical description of unbelievers is harsh have no problem at all calling them “unbelievers.” But what is an unbeliever in the Bible? Someone who is faithless, condemned, and who will endure God’s wrath for eternity. However, there is a good reason why the Bible would use such harsh language. The Bible presents Christ as the one, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). If all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, then apart from Christ there is no wisdom. Everything else is falsely called knowledge (1 Timothy 6:20). When the Bible uses such language, it is not engaging in name-calling, but it is simply describing someone stubborn, refusing to recognize their mistakes, someone who is not interested in understanding, who likes to hear his own voice (Proverbs 18:2), and keeps returning to the products of their folly (Proverbs 26:11). They don’t lack mental capacity; rather they feed on folly (Proverbs 15:14), and no matter what you do, their folly will not depart from them (Proverbs 27:22).
-- That is why, thirdly, the Bible warns us not to follow a philosophy that is based on the elementary principles of the world (Colossians 2:8). We must build our philosophy and base our actions on Christ. The problem with this is that an unbeliever is not going to listen. As the Bible said, they are not interested in understanding; they have already made up their mind that our faith is wrong. So how can we communicate with such a person? Here we are (kind of) on the horns of a dilemma:
- a) If we follow the unbeliever’s presuppositions, we will end up like them. We will be like the blind leading the blind, ending up in the same hole together.b) If we follow Christ’s presuppositions, the unbeliever won’t even listen to us.
The problem here is at the same time a clue to the answer. The problem is that we don’t disagree with unbelievers about just a few sets of rules or facts, but rather we have an entirely different world-view. When we look at one and the same thing, the word of the cross for example, one of us sees it as the power of God the other sees it as foolishness. We are not just talking about whether it happened or not. We have completely different outlooks!
If we were to be consistent Christians and unbelievers - whatever flavor of unbelief they have - were to be consistent unbelievers, we would be able to agree about nothing at all!
The Christian apologist Cornelius Van Til put it this way: “We who believe in God have not always made this position plain. Often enough we have talked with you (the unbelievers) about facts and sound reasons as though we agreed with you on what these really are. In our arguments for the existence of God we have frequently assumed that you and we together have an area of knowledge on which we agree. But we really do not grant that you see any fact in any dimension of life truly. We really think you have colored glasses on your nose when you talk about chickens and cows, as well as when you talk about the life hereafter. We should have told you this more plainly than we did. But we were really a little ashamed of what would appear to you as a very odd or extreme position. We were so anxious not to offend you that we offended our own God” (Cornelius Van Til, Why I believe in God).
-- Fourthly, how can we overcome such a dilemma? Well, the Bible gives us the answer in Proverbs 26:4-5. We have to talk indirectly to unbelievers:
- a) We use their presuppositions and see where they lead us. That is to say: We “answer the fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5). In other words, we take the “fool’s” presuppositions and drive them to the ground, by taking them to their logical conclusion.b) Then, in a second step, we “do not answer the fool according to his folly, lest we will also be like him” (Proverbs 26,4).That is to say we use our presuppositions to answer the problem we have.
Many might feel uncomfortable with this. They might think they know a lot of unbelievers who are very nice, kind, and even intelligent. Here we must make clear that we are not saying unbelievers are not moral, or kind, or reasonable. Of course they are! And they can’t do anything other than this because they are made in God’s image. The point we are stressing here is that if unbelievers are to be consistent with what they claim, the morality and reasonableness they are showing won’t make any sense. We will return to this point again later on.