This is the eighth in a series of posts focusing on communicating the gospel. Each post is a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fifth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.
The second “D” of the 3D's of a gospel conversation (borrowed from Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism) is - defend.
It is a common occurrence in a conversation for someone to provide a defense for their declarative statements. Think of the last time you went out for a meal with a friend. It’s likely that at some point during the meal your friend, or the server, asked you how your meal tastes. If for some reason your meal is really disappointing, you not only say that your meal is not good but you also provide reasons why your meal is not good. Without consciously knowing it, you have just made a declarative statement and provided a defense. The Apostle Peter wrote about the importance having reasons for our belief in 1 Peter 3:13-16:
13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Many people we engage in gospel conversations with will see the world in a very different way than we do. When we gently give reasons for what we believe and how we think, we are providing a defense that will help our conversation partner know why we believe what we do. We need to be prepared to provide a defense for why we believe what we do. The area of defending Christian thought and belief is known as apologetics. There are many questions and claims that apologetics provides answers for, but there are two significant themes that will arise in most of our gospel conversations: (1) There can’t be just one true religion; and (2) If a good and loving God exists then why is there is evil and suffering?
1. There can’t be just one true religion.
Canadian culture, more than that of many other countries, is intrinsically pluralistic. According to the latest Canadian statistics about religion in Canada, almost 84% of the population self identifies as religious in one way or another (e.g. Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, etc.). While there is a seemingly growing population of staunch atheists in Canada, it is still very common for people in Canada to be respectful of your religious beliefs. However, what the majority of Canadians will not accept is the belief or attitude that there is one true religion. There are three claims that will often be made by people surrounding the belief that there cannot be just one true religion: All religions teach the same thing, all religions see a part of the spiritual truth but not the whole, and it is arrogant to insist one understanding of religion is right and all others are wrong.
The first claim made by people arguing there is no one true religion is that all major religions are equally valid because they basically teach the same thing. Much of the multicultural efforts and events in our cities grow out of the belief that all religions essentially teach the same things (e.g., loving people, being kind, helping the poor, etc.). While there is certainly some overlap between various religions regarding how people should be treated, there are still distinctions. For example, within the Sikh worldview, all people are created equal regardless of their ethnicity or gender and should be treated fairly. The Sikh people try to feed the hungry and give money to the poor, regardless of who they are, as a part of their religious duty. However, in the Hindu worldview, people are divided into distinct and unchangeable castes. A person of a higher class ought never engage with people of a lower class - and it would be unthinkable to help someone who is in a lower caste experience a better life because they deserve that life (the proof being that they were born into that caste). A quick exploration of these two Indian religions shows very clearly that while there may be similarities between religions, they do not essentially teach the same thing - even regarding how people ought to treat each other.
Furthermore, a closer examination and comparison of different religions shows that different world religions, at their very core, teach fundamentally different doctrine. One quick example will hopefully suffice. At the very core of Buddhism is an impersonal life force that overflowed so that the world, and people, appeared. The goal in life is to return, and become amalgamated, into this impersonal life force just as a drop of rain becomes indistinguishable from the ocean water it falls into. The very core of Christianity is that the God who was personally responsible for Creation, and who was rejected by the very people he created to have relationship with, entered into history as the man Jesus of Nazareth (who was fully God and fully man) so that he could die to absorb all of the consequences and punishments due to humanity for their rebellion against him. Jesus rose from the dead to prove that he is truly God, that all he taught was true, and that he has finished all that is necessary for humans to be reconciled to God and enjoy him forward. When humans choose to follow Jesus they are reconciled to God and wait in anticipation to enjoy eternal life with him and everyone else who trusts and follows Jesus. The two fundamental narratives of Buddhism and Christianity could not be more different. One is essentially atheistic, in the sense that it does not believe in one god or multiple gods; the other is monotheistic, or holds to the belief that there is one true God. One brings ‘salvation’ through human effort; the other offers salvation to all who trust in the One who is fully God and fully human.
When someone makes a claim that all religions teach essentially the same thing, it is evidence of their desire for people to get along and not fight each other (a noble desire!), but it is also evidence that they have not spent significant time investigating the narrative and claims of the different major world religions. The more one invests time in learning about different world religions, the more one realizes just how unique Christianity is from all the other world religions. There are certainly some similarities between different world religions, however the claim that all religions essentially teach the same thing is simply an untenable and flawed statement.
The second major claim made by people in a multicultural and pluralistic setting is maintaining that there is no one true religion (that each religion sees part of the spiritual truth, and that no one religion can see the whole truth). Often this claim will be quickly followed by a story about three blind men and an elephant. The story goes something like this:
There are three blind men who stumble upon an elephant. Each man encounters a different area of the elephant. They ask each other what this object is that is in front of them. One blind man puts his hands out in front and he feels the firmness and flatness of the elephant’s side. He emphatically proclaims, “This object is certainly a wall!” A second blind man puts his hands out in front and he wraps his arms around the wide, sturdy, and circular characteristics of the elephant’s leg. He yells with excitement, “No, this object is certainly a tree trunk!” The third man feels the tube-like features of the elephant’s trunk. He emphatically responds, “No, the object is certainly a hose!”
The story seems to be a great metaphor for the claim that all religions see only part of the spiritual truth, but not the whole truth. However, the story ironically makes a better case for believing that there actually is only one true worldview that excludes the truthfulness of other worldviews. There certainly are three blind men in this parable, but they are not the only ones involved in the story, there is a storyteller who watches the whole scene unfold. The narrator knows the whole story and is in a position of privilege. The truth of the parable is that the object under investigation was not actually a wall, a tree trunk, or a hose (like the respective blind men honestly believed); the object in question was indeed an elephant. So the question that one must ask at this point is, which worldview or religion gets to narrate the story? Which worldview or religion gets to see not just part of spiritual truth but gets to see all of the spiritual truth?
We live in a world of competing worldviews. That only one of them can be right, and all the others wrong, is not an outlandish belief. Therefore, it is the task of the spiritual seeker not to throw up her arms in bewilderment, but to do the hard work of investigating the claims and histories of the various world religions and worldviews to see which makes the most sense of the world around them. What worldview makes the most sense of the fact that we as humans desire things like love, comfort, and relationship? What worldview makes sense of the fact that we as humans believe that things like a baby’s smile, delicious food, and caring friends are good and enjoyable; yet rape, genocide, and incest are evil and ought to be opposed? As followers of Jesus, we believe that God gets to be the narrator, and Christianity is the one true story. It is the narrative of Christianity that lets us know that the elephant is not a wall, a tree trunk, or a hose but is actually an elephant.
The third claim made by people arguing against the existence of one true religion is that it is arrogant to insist that your religion and beliefs about God are right, and it is unkind to try to convince other people of your perspective. This claim rests firmly on the belief that to claim certainty is arrogant and to disagree with someone else is intolerant. However, the very logic upon which this claim rests is the same logic that makes this claim indefensible. The claim that there is no one true view on a issue, is in itself a claim of being the one true view. The claimer is guilty of the very arrogance of which they accuse the other. Furthermore, the claim that it is unkind to try to convince other people of your perspective is once again self-refuting logic. The claimer is trying to convince the other that they are right. Therefore, the one making the claim must also be unkind in their insistence on being right. While this claim seems to be a conversation ender, it can actually be a comment that may continue the conversation in a (hopefully) healthy and helpful direction. To winsomely show someone that their claim is self-refuting may provide an opportunity to make the concession that both parties think they are right and the other is wrong, but nevertheless they hope the conversation can continue.
2. If a good and loving God exists, why is there evil and suffering?
The idea that a good, loving, and all powerful God can exist even though there is evil and suffering in the world is not a very difficult philosophical idea to defend. However, I won’t be unpacking the philosophical reasoning of it here. The reason for this is because in the context of the vast majority of our gospel conversations, the question of a good and loving God coexisting with a world full of evil and suffering is not coming from a place of philosophical curiosity but rather a place of deep experiential pain. What your conversation partner likely needs most in the moment is not a philosophically sound argument, but a compassionate and caring friend who acknowledges their pain.
Responding to a claim like this one by saying something to the effect of, “There are many people smarter than I who have thought through this issue and have come to the conclusion that a good and loving God can coexist with a world full of evil and suffering. But, philosophical explanations don’t usually take the pain away.” This answer does two main things. Firstly, it acknowledges that there is an answer to the question. Secondly, it acknowledges that you care more about them as a person than you do looking like you’re smart and have all the answers.
If your conversation partner is one of the very few people who asks this question from a place of pure philosophical curiosity, you can refer them to good resource for their own examination. Let them know that you will read it too, and if they want to talk about it sometime you’d be happy to. By removing yourself from being the one who gives the answer on this topic you are able to continue to build your relationship with the person, and you remain a person who is a true friend during times of pain and struggle. Often it is a true friend who cares, and not a philosophically reasonable argument, that brings comfort in a season of pain and suffering.
We have just scratched the surface of Christian apologetics. Honesty is always the best policy when we answer our conversation partner’s questions about Christianity. It is not a failure to honestly admit when we don’t have an answer for a question. Actually, it is probably a wise strategy to admit when we don’t know the answers rather than making something up out of fear of looking stupid. We don’t have to know everything, but we should have some places that we turn to in order to help us find an answer. There are many good books and resources available at both the academic and popular level that can help believers think through their faith. Regardless of the question, and answer, it is imperative to remember that when we defend our faith we do so in a gentle and winsome way. We should not try to win an argument at the expense of losing a conversation partner.