Apologetics,  Logic

Apologetics and Arguments

The core of apologetic studies is the consideration of arguments. I don’t mean fights, the kind that break out over lunch between siblings. I mean sets of statements one of which is the conclusion or main point. The other statements somehow support or lead to the conclusion.

We use arguments all the time. We even use them when we don’t mean to. They are the warp and woof of human discourse. The crucial thing to notice about arguments is that they can be good or bad. Here is a good argument:

(1) If you listened carefully to Ben, then you understand apologetics
(2) You don’t understand apologetics
(3) Therefore, you did not listen carefully to Ben

There are three statements that make up this argument. The first two are premises and the last one is the conclusion. The premises lead to the conclusion. The argument is good because (hopefully) the premises are true, and if they are true, then the conclusion follows. For contrast, here is a bad argument:

(1) If you listened carefully to Ben, then you understand apologetics
(2) You do understand apologetics
(3) Therefore, you listened carefully to Ben

Can you see why the second argument is bad? The answer is that the second argument’s conclusion does not follow from the premises. You may well understand apologetics because you were taught it by someone else!

The Bible has plenty of good arguments in it. Paul was especially good at constructing good arguments. Here is one from his letter to the Romans:

“And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom 8:30).

Actually, it is not quite an argument yet. It needs a conclusion. We could rewrite it and add a conclusion. Here is one way to put it:

(1) All people God predestined are people who God called
(2) All people God called are people God justified
(3) All people God justified are people God glorified
(4) Therefore, all people God predestined are people God glorified

The conclusion isn’t difficult to come up with since the premises lead to it. Conclusions from good arguments are like that – they seem to fall naturally of the back of the premises. Paul makes it look easy, so easy that he assumes we can see the conclusion without having to mention it!

Learning to do apologetics has at least something to do with learning about arguments. It is a task that requires us both to understand an argument against the Christian faith and to be able to make an argument in defense of the Christian faith. It will even require us to make arguments against non-Christian worldviews.

Here is an argument against the Christian faith:

(1) According to Christians, God is both all-good and all-powerful
(2) If God is all-good, then he would want to remove evil from the world
(3) If God is all-powerful, then he can remove evil from the world
(4) There is evil in the world
(5) Therefore, God is not both all-good and all-powerful

Do you see how the argument works? It takes you through statements that seem plausible and you end up being forced to conclude something that you think is false. If you do think the conclusion is false, you must either show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises or that one or more of the premises are false.

The above argument works – its conclusion follows from the premises. But can you think of a premise that you might want to challenge?

If you picked premise (2), you are on the right track. What you should do next is argue that just because God is good it does not mean that he must want to remove evil. Why not? Presumably because God has a good reason for not removing evil either because he cannot remove evil without removing some other greater good or because leaving evil in the world produces an even better good which would not be possible without evil.

Some of the best known arguments in history conclude that God exists. They are arguments in defense of the Christian faith. Here is one:

(1) If God does not exist, then objective moral obligations do not exist
(2) Objective moral obligations do exist
(3) Therefore, God exists

You may have noticed something about all the arguments mentioned so far. They have certain kind of force. If you accept the premises, you are forced to accept the conclusion. There appears to be no escape! But there are other kinds of arguments that do not have the same kind of force. Here is an example of the kind of argument I mean:

(1) All the crows that we have seen so far have been black
(2) Therefore, it is highly likely that the next crow we see will be black

You can probably see that the argument is persuasive, but it is not the same kind of persuasive force as we have seen so far. This is because it is possible (no matter how unlikely) that the next crow we see is not black. Similarly, consider the following argument:

(1) Nearly anyone we ask has not seen anyone or known anyone who has risen from the dead.
(2) A few people in Israel a long time ago report having seen someone rise from the dead.
(3) Since we should always proportion beliefs to the evidence the reasonable thing to do is reject the reports of someone who rose from the dead.

You can probably see that this argument is not conclusive. It is possible that the report of a resurrection is correct. But the argument says that the evidence is stacked against it, so we should be highly skeptical.

Another kind of argument tries to explain some set of commonly accepted facts. For example, imagine if I told you that there is a chocolate bar missing from your cupboard, the wrapper lies next to the sofa, and a child is hiding behind the sofa. What would be the best explanation for these facts? It is possible that I ate your chocolate bar and am attempting to lay blame on one of my sweet innocent children. But it is more likely to be the child hiding behind the sofa who took your chocolate bar. The latter explanation is a better explanation.

Consider the following set of facts:

(1) Jesus was executed
(2) Jesus was buried
(3) Jesus’ tomb was empty three days later
(4) Some people claimed to have seen Jesus alive after the tomb was found to be empty
(5) The people who claimed to have seen Jesus had no motive to lie (they risked death by telling other people that Jesus had risen)
(6) Paul claimed to see Jesus. Paul was an ardent persecutor of the church who became Jesus’ biggest defender.

What is the best explanation for these facts? Perhaps Jesus only faked his death. Perhaps he had an identical twin. Perhaps the disciples stole the body. But the best explanation is that Jesus really did die and rise from the dead.

Some arguments are slightly tricky. The following is an argument for Theism and against naturalism. Naturalism is the view that non-material things (like God, souls, angels and numbers) do not exist and that what does exist is a product of unguided evolution:

(1) If any person knows anything, then they must have a reliable mind that functions properly according to a design aimed at producing true beliefs
(2) If naturalism is true, then no human person has a reliable mind that functions properly according to a design aimed at producing true beliefs
(3) If no human person has a reliable mind that functions properly according to a design aimed at producing true beliefs, then human persons do not know anything
(4) But some human persons do know something
(5) Therefore, naturalism is false

One might go on and suggest that if naturalism is false, then it is likely that God exists. Arguments like this try to show that being an atheist would be impossible if God doesn’t exist. They are my favorite kind of argument!

Some arguments don’t set out to prove the truth of any belief but try to get the opponent to lower their confidence in what they believe. Consider this one:

(1) There are many different religions in the world
(2) People of different religions are no better off than each other when it comes to their ability to observe and reason
(3) All the world’s religions cannot be true
(4) Therefore, people of different religions should lower their confidence in the truth of their religion

The trick of this argument is the plausibility of the premises. Who can deny that there are many different religions? And no one wants to say that their non-Christian friend can’t think straight. And it seems pretty clear that all religions can’t be true. So, perhaps we should all be less confident. Of course, there are answers to this. One could say that the argument doesn’t rule out one religion being privileged in some way that doesn’t entail that everyone else can’t think properly. For example, a Christian could reply that God can choose some people to whom to make a special revelation and to give those people the Holy Spirit.

So far we have considered kinds of arguments for and against the Christian faith. However, there are some people who think arguments are a waste of time. What we really need is faith, and faith is not the kind of thing produced by arguments. Now, you might think this is only something that Christians would say. But, in fact, many non-Christians believe something similar. For non-Christians who are suspicious of arguments, the world is entirely unknowable. Instead, what we need to do is choose a way of life that suits us the best. Many people believe that even if God exists, there is no way for anyone to know it. What is important is finding a form of life that is authentic or in some way satisfying. On this view, you can’t have an argument for or against one’s choice. Arguments are about what is objectively true or false and no one can know what is objectively true or false. One has to choose what is true for oneself.

Similarly, Christians have often argued that faith is something one has despite evidence or good reasons. We just have to throw ourselves into the Christian life and have faith that it is all true even though we cannot know whether it is true or not. What’s important is that it is true for us.

Perhaps people who think this way might be opposed to apologetics. But this is not necessarily true. Christians who think this way often believe that their convictions are strengthened by their lack of reliance upon arguments for belief. What if an atheist comes up with a cracking argument? Should this weaken our faith? Surely our faith cannot be based on argument alone.

You can perhaps see that different kinds of arguments in defense of the Christian faith appeal to different grounds or different kinds of evidences. In fact, the kind of evidence used in apologetics also demarcates different methods of apologetics. Some prefer arguments that appeal to what we can think about without having to observe very much. You just have to consider the premises as somewhat self-evident. In contrast, others much prefer some particular facts about the world to make their case. These arguments require empirical data to work. Other arguments are aimed at showing that the Christian faith is necessary for some important feature of human thought. They often appeal to the resources within Christian revelation to make their point. Finally, those who think formal arguments are not that useful will primarily appeal to human subjective experience.

So, there you have it – a very brief survey of arguments in apologetics.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.