05 / 06
birds birds birds

Has Christian Apologetics Failed?

September 29, 2019
Has Christian Apologetics Failed?


Are popular speakers like Jordan Peterson more effective than apologetics at pointing to the truth of Christianity?

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, this certainly got my attention when I saw the name of this article: “Has Christian Apologetics Failed?” It is written by Esther O’Reilly of “The Young Fogey” blog on Patheos.[1] Let me go ahead and just give a spoiler here, and that is: “No,” she says. [laughter] But she thinks that it is mystifying quite often, and it is misconstrued to be something that it is not. This article has got a big picture of you, and a big picture of Jordan Peterson. What I have noticed in what she talks about here is that a lot of people say, Well, look at this. Christian apologetics seems to be failing because two non-Christians these days are being used to bring people back into the fold or bringing people to Christ. A young Jewish man, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson. What gives? Why is it that they're having all the success and actually pointing people to Christianity? That's what's so strange about it. I have kind of noticed that phenomenon. It's almost like it's an incidental thing that it has gotten young men in particular (the two of these guys) interested in spiritual things, interested in God, actually coming to Christ some of them. Both Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro use reason and logic which is part and parcel of apologetics. So I don't know what the beef is here.

DR. CRAIG: Right. It is interesting to see how effective these folks are in reaching out to non-believers. It seems like perhaps non-believers are put off by people like myself who are Christian apologists and perhaps therefore biased, and they like the kind of open, exploratory approach of a Jordan Peterson better perhaps. But I would distinguish, I think, in this regard between apologetics and evangelism. As I've explained in my book Reasonable Faith, I think that apologetics is primarily a theoretical discipline. It's like physics or chemistry or history. It's a theoretical discipline that seeks to answer the question: What is the rational justification for Christian truth claims? By contrast, evangelism is the attempt to persuasively present the Gospel so as to draw people into a relationship with Christ. Evangelism will use and draw upon apologetics in presenting and defending the Gospel, but it's not the same thing as apologetics. Apologetics is a theoretical discipline. Evangelism is a practical form of outreach or ministry. So the fact that people like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson are more effective in drawing people toward Christ or the Kingdom isn't a failure of the theoretical discipline, apologetics. If anything, it would be a failure of the practical discipline, evangelism. Namely, we're not doing our evangelism as effectively. We need to adopt perhaps a more invitational and exploratory approach like Jordan Peterson than a preaching and dogmatic approach.

KEVIN HARRIS: Again, as she points out in this article, that is also a matter of personality and style and things like that. It is very humble of you to say that people would bypass you and somebody like you because you're supposed to represent Christianity and so on when Ben Shapiro has had you on his show and you've shared the podium, the platform, with Jordan Peterson.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, I have.

KEVIN HARRIS: There's the influx of Christian influence of these two people who are having this influence.

DR. CRAIG: The odd thing though I find is that some people do find Jordan Peterson's approach more persuasive than the approach that I take, which is to give arguments and evidence in support of the truth of the Christian worldview. I don't understand this, frankly. I have to admit I'm mystified. Why is it that Jordan Peterson telling young men to sit up straight and make their bed in the morning is something that's so appealing and arresting to them? It gives them, I guess, a sense of confidence and maleness that perhaps eventually leads them in the direction of Christian faith, but it seems to me at the end of the day there's just no substance for asking the question “but is it true?”

KEVIN HARRIS: That’s true. And there's something very disarming about him. I mean his most popular videos he's disheveled, rumpled, he hadn't had any sleep, and he looks like he's about to fall over, and he's just got this approach that only he can do because he's just kind of being himself. That somehow provides a vehicle to kids – some of the truth of what he's saying in. You might need to do that, Bill!

DR. CRAIG: I hope not! I mean, I could.

KEVIN HARRIS: But it’s not you.

DR. CRAIG: No, it's not me. That would be inauthentic. I feel that I'm just as authentic as Jordan Peterson, frankly, but we're different people. I'm not depressed in the way he struggles deeply with depression. I am blessed by the Lord with a very sanguine personality so I'm just never depressed. I am upbeat, and I don't share these kinds of existential struggles. I guess I did as a non-believer and maybe that's the difference. Jordan Peterson is still in that pre-Christian phase of struggling with the meaning of life and existence which I went through but came out on the other side.

KEVIN HARRIS: She goes on to say that anybody who's complaining that Christian apologetics has failed, first of all you're making Christian apologetics this big monolith. What exactly do you mean by that? What style or approach because there are various approaches? She says,

In light of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, people seem to be defining “success” as “inducing an openness to Christianity among atheists.”

If you see a sudden influx of people, you are seeing all this fruit and all these results suddenly, you see the trend and the phenomenon, well then it's successful.

DR. CRAIG: I want to just underline the point I made before. I would say that that would be a measure of the success of evangelism. But that's not the measure of the success of apologetics. If apologetics is a theoretical discipline, the measure of the success of apologetics would be the formulation and defense of sound arguments for the existence of God and his decisive self-revelation in Jesus. That would be the measure of the success of apologetics. Has this theoretical discipline done an effective job (and by “effective” I mean formulating sound, cogent arguments for Christian truth claims)? What she's talking about here is success in praxis – that is to say, evangelists’ success in inducing openness among non-believers.

KEVIN HARRIS: In the middle of page three again it says there's more to it than just counting noses as well. Again, that gets into evangelism. But how do we know how many people have stayed in the church or who have come to faith in Christ because their neighbor shared with them in evangelism, and were there with some apologetics that helped that person come to faith in Christ?

DR. CRAIG: Absolutely. It has a tremendous effect in the lives of Christians. In my published work, I've named three applications of apologetics, or three reasons that the study of apologetics is important for Christians in Western society. The first one is shaping Western culture. It's really important that we maintain a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can still be heard as an intellectually viable option. The second one would be the one that she's talking about here, namely winning unbelievers to Christ. Apologetics can be used in evangelism as a means of winning people. Then the third one would be strengthening believers. Apologetics can be a way of helping believers to deal with doubts, questions, and struggles that they have. So, as she says, we shouldn't underestimate that third area of application because it is hugely important that we do all we can to prevent defections from the Christian faith.

KEVIN HARRIS: The bottom of page three, she seems to be addressing people who are complaining that we don't see this massive herd of,

people flooding into churches because they watched William Lane Craig spank Christopher Hitchens on YouTube and saw the light. It’s true that apologetics has never catalyzed a clearly definable “hot spot” of renewed interest in church and Christianity on the scale of what we are currently observing with the Jordan Peterson phenomenon.

People are saying apologetics is not producing this flood in here. Is that again confusing evangelism and apologetics?

DR. CRAIG: It is. It would be saying that I'm not as effective an evangelist as Jordan Peterson in a sense is. While that may be true, he is a phenom. He is apparently the most publicly demanded public speaker in the world today and is on international media channels all the time. He is a very visible public figure. Nothing that I have done has that kind of visibility. But nevertheless, as I think you know, every week we receive the most heartwarming emails from people who have watched a YouTube video or read a book and who have come to faith in Christ or who have come back to faith in Christ after years away from him because of the arguments and evidence that are offered. So I'm tremendously gratified by the way the Lord has seen fit to use our ministry even if it isn't as visible and splashy as the Jordan Peterson phenomenon.

KEVIN HARRIS: She says here in the middle of page four that anybody who says “apologetics never converted anybody” just is not even looking. She says, I know for a fact that these quiet, unsung, one-dollar apologists everyday are interacting online, with friends and neighbors, and in forums using apologetics in their evangelism. That's one of the main fruits of the apologetics renaissance. I agree with her. I'm glad to see this happening. I see good apologetics and philosophy in the comment sections. I don’t even feel pressured to go in there and put anything myself because 15 people did it ahead of me on some of the things that I see. I'd like to fire off an answer. That's some real fruit right there that you see this intellectual grounding in this apologetics renaissance as people are interacting today. She says this may not be the heavy eye-catching op-eds and spicy pieces of investigative journalism but it's going on, and it's happening. I never hear apologetics doesn't work. I mean, I've never had anybody tell me that or write me that or anything. I know one guy – we did a podcast on his book awhile back. He wrote a book that apologetics doesn't work or something like that. It was an apologetic against apologetics. But other than that I see people just electrified in their faith.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, I do, too. I see Christians strengthened and encouraged in their faith, and then also we see these non-believers coming to faith in Christ because they've heard a robust defense of the truth of the Christian faith.

KEVIN HARRIS: She says in the middle of page five, kind of brings it back to you, Bill. She says,

All of that being said, there are still people, some of whom walked away from the Church and are now fans of Jordan Peterson, who will say “William Lane Craig didn’t do it for me.” . . . And he is a formidable debater, no question. But not everyone has walked away convinced. Why not?

Then she answers,

First, let’s be honest: It’s ridiculously easy to generate a long list of objections to Christianity. . . . It takes ignorance ten seconds to ask a question that requires careful scholarship ten pages to answer carefully. Some will automatically take such thoroughness as a sign that the lady doth protest too much. Of course, a brief response will be waved away as embarrassingly insufficient. For some skeptics, this truly is a “heads I win, tails you lose” affair.

What she says is that people who have a platform like yourself can't get to everybody. They can't come over and have coffee with you. You can't do that, Bill. You can't spread yourself that thin. You can only do that on occasion. So when you have doubts, get with some trusted friends, get with your church community, and things like that, rather than depend on the big speakers to be that for you.

DR. CRAIG: I couldn't agree more. I think that that's absolutely right. I often get messages through the Facebook page or other social media asking for my pastoral advice on something, and I often will tell these people you need to speak to someone in person about this – a trusted pastor or a trusted Christian friend – because these are not the sort of things that are going to be solved through interaction on social media.

KEVIN HARRIS: You might want to clear up at the bottom of page five because there seems to be this belief that you adopt a minimalist approach. She says

The fact that apologists like Craig deliberately adopt a “minimalist” approach doesn’t always aid matters here.

I'm not sure what she means by that because you don't do the minimal facts thing. You are going to have to be brief in a debate setting.

DR. CRAIG: I suspect that what she means here is that I tend to adopt a case for what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” that requires that you prove the existence of God and God’s decisive self-revelation in Jesus. I think that if you've got those two things in hand then you should become a Christian, and you don't need to know that the Bible is inspired or inerrant or all of these other sorts of doctrines. If you believe that God exists and he's revealed himself decisively in Jesus and has shown this by raising him from the dead, that's sufficient for a Christian commitment. So it's minimalist in that sense. But I'm surprised when she goes on to say that people like,

Bart Ehrman require a broader set of tools than many apologists have in their toolkit to refute fully.

I take it that what she means there is Ehrman’s attacks upon the reliability of the Gospels and the manuscript evidence of the New Testament and so forth requires a more fulsome response. Well, I do think that in order to answer those arguments you need a fuller response, but you do not need to answer those arguments in order to justify becoming a Christian. That's the point that I want to make. Those concerns that Ehrman makes about the manuscript evidence and the copyists’ errors and contradictions in the Gospels – those are all in-house disputes among Christians. So long as you’re able to establish that God exists and that he raised Jesus from the dead then you should become a Christian, and that's all you need to answer Ehrman’s attack upon the truth of Christianity. The rest then can be dealt with later.

KEVIN HARRIS: Finally, she relates the story of a young man that she calls Jay. He had apparently, according to the article, rejected his faith, started reading all the internet infidel types, and then reading Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Richard Carrier. He had this new commitment to reason and logic. He started arguing for atheism. Then she writes,

It was around this time that he found Peterson’s appearance with William Lane Craig, in a dialogue titled “Is there meaning to life?” He had written Craig off before (“mostly because he was a Christian fundamentalist who soundly defeated every secular opponent he faced, which was pretty annoying”), but now he listened with fresh ears. Craig’s comments didn’t have Peterson’s drive and unpolished passion, but they made sense. They felt grounded.

DR. CRAIG: I have heard this again and again that people who have written me off at first and dismissed me then after some time and different things in their life have changed come back again to look at it a second time, and they do hear it with fresh ears. It's as though they're hearing it now really for the first time because they're no longer so dismissive and having their ears plugged. It's really gratifying, I think, to see that Jordan Peterson helped to awaken this fellow to his need to point him in the direction, but then when he looked at the dialogue again he could hear it again with fresh ears and the arguments began to make sense. That’s really gratifying.[2]



                  [1] (accessed September 30, 2019).

[2]           Total Running Time: 21:46 (Copyright © 2019 William Lane Craig)