When you’re doing apologetics on the ground, it’s easy to get stuck on the issues that unbelievers want to talk about. Often they have pet talking points they want to press, or an endless network of rabbit-trails they want to retreat into any time they feel cornered. In either case it can be hard to get the conversation on a track that will actually lead somewhere constructive, rather than spiraling into a pointless debate over trivialities.
Over the years, I’ve developed a semi-automatic reflex to try to steer discussions toward what you might call the “ultimate questions”—fundamental issues every worldview needs to be able to address and adequately explain without contradictions, falsehoods or other absurdities.
These ultimate questions are valuable to apologists because they expose the key “structural points” where worldviews break down. This is because of a simple fact:
Every non-Christian worldview tries to make sense of the world while eliminating judgment for sin.
Since this is an impossible task without recourse to the God of the Bible—who demands an account of everyone for their sin—the more you can press people on the inconsistencies of their worldviews the better chance you have to show how God is the answer. This then opens the door to talk about judgment, and that in turn to talk about escaping it.
But if you don’t want to spend years trying to subconsciously develop some half-assed “sense” for where to steer a conversation so you can get to these ultimate questions, you might find my attempt to systemize what I’ve developed helpful:
TROPE: Truth, Reality, Origins, Purpose, Ethics.
Each of these represents a logical progression along a continuum of interrelated ideas. I’ll explain them briefly below, with examples showing how they apply to common non-Christian worldviews.
Truth: how do we come by it, and how can we be sure? It’s often helpful to bring a conversation back to this question before it goes too far if you suspect there’s a disagreement here. (Even when you’re talking to other believers—it’s alarming how many Christians can’t adequately answer this question.) Some examples:
- If you’re talking to a Mormon, there’s no point showing how they mangle Scripture, if the benchmark they use for deciding which interpretation is true is a burning in the bosom, rather than the meaning of words. The same thing applies when talking to Arminians—I have given up arguing from Scripture for things like predestination and unconditional election, and instead start by simply asking whether it is possible for Scripture to be teaching those things. Usually the response is a flat denial—in which case I have at least exposed the real point of disagreement: whether God can simply speak for himself, or whether we should be using our personal concept of goodness as a benchmark to decide in advance what things are acceptable for him to say.
- If you’re speaking to a new atheist, the question of what constitutes evidence, and how we can acquire knowledge, is fundamental. As a rule, they hold that only scientific truths can be known—a view manifestly self-refuting in that you cannot demonstrate it scientifically.
- For new agers and many vaguers, assessing the truth of a position comes down to how they feel about it. If that’s how they plan to assess your historical and theological claim that Jesus died and rose again to pay for their sins, you will need to back up.
Reality: what does it consist of? You can see how this builds upon the question of truth. The nature of reality (ontology) is a key worldview issue. It’s often helpful to know what someone thinks about reality—what kinds of things possibly exist—before getting into arguments that rest on those sorts of assumptions. If you disagree here, you won’t come to any agreement on “higher level” issues. Some examples:
- Atheists almost invariably believe that only matter-energy and space-time ultimately exist. This is inconsistent with the existence of mental properties, logical laws, and ultimately minds themselves—to say the least. So if you’re familiar with the various arguments from reason and logic, you have a strong opening here.
- New agers tend to think we have a “higher self” of some kind. God is something within each of us, rather than an external being. They’ll often try to hijack the Bible itself to make this point, taking passages like Luke 17:21 out of context, or pointing to supposedly similar mystical experiences across religions. This gives you a good opportunity to not only get back to the question of truth, but especially to start digging into the Bible. Or you can go the opposite direction and head into the higher-level questions, as we’ll see below.
- Many vaguers believe that God exists, but they don’t do anything with that belief. If you can agree that God exists, that’s an excellent starting point for asking questions about origins, purpose and ethics (see below) which will force them to confront the implications of God’s existence for their own lives.
Origins: where did the universe—and we ourselves—come from? This is closely related to purpose, below—but of course, also to the question of the nature of reality. This makes it a good halfway point to use for getting at both those questions if necessary. But it is also an important question in its own right, particularly since it bears on both the origin of the universe (a key proof for God) and the origin of man (a key line of attack against Christianity). Some examples:
- Atheists strongly promote a narrative where the “science is settled” that we arose by naturalistic evolution—random mutations being selected by environmental pressures. Although it’s easy to push back on this narrative by showing how it scuttles purpose and ethics (below), we can also ask difficult questions about how it got started—forcing the atheist to concede a sizeable leap of faith on the issue of abiogenesis. We can also take the question back a step and show that whatever one’s attitude to evolution, the question of the origin of the universe itself strongly favors a Christian explanation.
- Vaguers are often ambivalent on this issue. Many harbor doubts about the truth of evolution, but equal doubts about the truth of Genesis. Although parsing Genesis is a big topic, sidestepping that issue to just look at which option in principle is more plausible can be very useful. Considering the world as a whole, is it more likely that we were created by God to image his loving authority over creation, or is it more likely we developed from single-celled organisms through a non-rational mechanistic process? Asking about someone’s intuition here is a good starting point for developing a conversation, because whether they agree with you or not, they will tell you something you can ask further questions about.
- New agers might say we are higher beings who failed to “balance” something, and thus have to pay off karmic debt until the scales are set right. That’s a good opening to ask how that process got started—and often for discussing Genesis. If you’re into ANE studies, you can really open their eyes as to how terribly, implausibly absurd their ideas about Genesis are (mind you, the same goes for most anyone; new age people just tend to interpret the Bible as pointing to their own beliefs, which is easy to falsify).
Purpose: what are we doing here, and where are we going? It’s important to remember the second half of this question, because death comes to us all. This is basically asking about the meaning of life. Even the most vapid, thoughtless people think about this once in a while. Death is a certainty for everyone, so knowing what happens after it is a pressing concern.
- New agers like to say the purpose of life is to balance karma, achieve enlightenment, and eventually return to some higher state—often something like the dissolution of the person in a universal consciousness. Which is a good time to ask who decided that this was the purpose of life—the universal consciousness is almost always impersonal (a contradiction in terms), which makes it hard for it to decide anything. One also wonders why the universe seems to be aimed at eliminating the existence of all people; if you’ve already discussed origins, you might be able to expose another tension here.
- Vaguers often have no answer to this question. Depending on whether they have any belief in God, they might say their purpose is to be happy, or that they don’t really have a purpose, so they make their own. I think the best approach here is to push the question back to what happens when you die. Assuming you’re ready to tackle the question of truth, above, this is a fruitful avenue for moving into ethics, below, where the topic of judgment becomes rather important.
- Atheists think there is no purpose to life. The universe just exists, and we are the product of natural forces acting according mechanistic laws. They create their own purpose. This is easy to push back on, since if no purpose ultimately exists as they claim, then whatever purpose they create ultimately doesn’t exist either—which seems to make them delusional for believing in it. (Atheism is almost always the easiest worldview to demonstrate contradictions within, which is perhaps why atheists are much more proactive in brow-beating others with their alleged monopoly on rationality.)
Ethics: how ought we to act, and why? You can see how this is closely tied to purpose. Both deal with issues of teleology: what human existence is aimed at or directed toward. Discussing morality is key to any apologetic debate because it is not only a critical feature of human experience, but also is fundamental to understanding sin. If we don’t understand sin, we can’t understand the gospel, and if we can’t understand the gospel we can’t be delivered from judgment.
- Atheists are once again very easy targets on this point. If there is no purpose to life or the universe—if there is nothing we are supposed to do—then there can’t be any obligation to do it. Morality itself becomes a sort of superstitious nonsense. But because morality is so important to us, and we know that we really ought to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, atheists will concoct all kinds of ad hoc solutions to salvage it from the inherent meaninglessness of their worldview—usually resorting to pseudo-scientific theories. The problem with these is that they just end up looking like coping mechanisms rather than rules we have an obligation or duty to follow.
- New agers have a similar problem: if karma is a system for balancing your morally bad choices, then who makes the moral rules you must follow in the first place? The only satisfactory answer they can give is God, since he is the only kind of moral authority to whom it seems plausible we could owe any sort of duty. But most new agers are attracted to new age ideas specifically because they eliminate a personal god.
- Vaguers are often ready to agree that God must set the rules. If they aren’t, they are often easily swayed by simply examining the nature of duty as something imposed by—and owed to—a legitimate moral authority, and then asking what must be true for us all to have obligations to act in certain ways. What kind of authority does that entail? This then sets the stage for asking whether they have ever acted unethically, which in turn demonstrates that they are not a “good person” in God’s eyes according to their own conscience. It’s a simple question: God obviously requires perfection from us since otherwise we wouldn’t feel guilty when we do wrong. But since we are guilty, what will God do with us when we die? (You can see how the question of purpose is tightly related to the question of ethics.)
Obviously these are not the only issues you can discuss. There are other major questions you need to be ready for—particularly concerning the truth of the Bible, since that is where we learn about God and about salvation. But these ultimate questions are very useful for keeping a random discussion aimed in the right direction, so you can eventually bring it to Jesus.