Thursday, July 5, 2012

Apostasy and Apologetics

Apologetics begins out of a genuine heart for lost people and a deep desire to see them embrace the faith in Jesus Christ which will give them new life in both the present and eternity. And it also begins with the recognition that a great many things Christians believe are confusing, hard to swallow, or otherwise totally alien to average unbeliever in general and to the apologist's non-Christian friends in particular. And underlying all apologetic efforts is a passionate conviction, even if left unarticulated, that if the faith can be sufficiently clarified, explained and rightly presented, then the non-Christian(s) that the apologist loves will intend place his/her/their trust in Christ and be saved from sin, death, and hell. In other words, apologetics begins with noble motives of love for the non-Christian.

However, it can and often does turn quickly toward apostasy. It frequently proves a short jump from "clarifying and explaining the faith correctly" to softening it down to a level felt to be more palatable, removing hard teachings, sharp corners, and rough edges. The apologist's motivation often leads to simply eliminating or explaining away scriptural statements that, on their face, are pretty clear and don't require much explanation. For example, no one reading the New Testament, and in particular Jesus' teaching on the subject, can come away from that concluding that Hell is something other than a place of eternal conscious torment away from God's presence or that consignment to that place is anything less than permanent. Likewise, there is no biblical evidence supporting women as elders/pastors or having teaching authority over men, the holiness of homosexual relationships of whatever label or type, or a view of Scripture as less than the authoritative, divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God.

Yet today, we find evangelical pastors and leaders espousing all of these views. Why? I think in most cases, it is because they find the actual teaching of Scripture in these areas too hard, presenting too high an obstacle for the unbeliever to clear to come into the Kingdom of God. To put it as charitably as possible, their apologetic desire for people to come to Christ stands in the way of faithfully preaching the Word of Christ. And though their love for people and desire for them to enter God's Kingdom is commendable in itself, it is loaded with serious problems.

Number one, it rests on the assumption that God didn't really mean it, or that the Bible isn't "fully" (i.e., in every place) inspired, or that there is some "trajectory" or arc from Scripture to the current day from which we can infer a different teaching about hard passages than the Bible itself presents. That is problematic in itself, since the Scripture's unreliability about "hard" teaching doesn't exactly fill a person with confindence about "easy" teachings like Jesus' death and resurrection as the hope of forgiveness and eternal life. But the bigger problem is that it sets up the apologist himself or herself as the final arbiter of truth, determining what is truly biblical and what isn't. And as a basis for building a new life, that's a pretty shaky foundation.

Number two, it assumes the apologist is "more gracious" or "more loving" than God. If it is true that the Bible is indeed God's Word (and if it isn't, then the whole debate is absurd!), then the apologist's feeling that softening hard truths is better than leaving them hardened presumes that God is less interested in seeing people converted than the apologist. Yet the idea that humans love their fellow humans more than the God who sent His Son for the rebellious is not just wrong, it's blasphemous. Moreover, if God is really loving, then we must conclude that He gets to define what love is, and apparently, it includes telling people the real truth, hard edges and all. After all, which is better, telling a man with stage 4 cancer that he needs aggressive chemo, radiation, etc. or that he should go home and eat a fudgsicle and he will be fine? One is "harder" for sure, but that road is also the one that leads to life and freedom, while the other feels better but leads to death.

Number three, it does not produce what it promises. The dirty little secret of almost every effort to round off the corners of the Christian faith is that they do not produce converts. The people who bought Rob Bell's books, and Brian McLaren's, and countless others, from Schleiermacher's on back through time, were largely the disgruntled children of the orthodox and evangelical. They aren't reaching new people so much as helping people who find their parents' faith distasteful to still call themselves Christians. But such efforts lead not to a revitalization of the church, but to its decline. The last 20 years, which have witnessed the rise of both the megachurch and the "emerging church" as major influences in evangelicalism, and which have both sought, in divergent ways, to make Christianity "easier" have also witnessed a declining percentage of actual Christians.

Finally, it assumes that becoming a Christian is actually easier than it is. It is true that our message is so simple that even a child can understand it and believe it. But there is simply no easy way to tell someone that he or she is a sinner deserving of God's wrath, and that Jesus' death and resurrection is the only hope of eternal life. Nevertheless, those who try to cushion the blow for the non-Christian act as if the only thing separating  him/her from fully embracing the Gospel and the new life that flows from it is a good presentation of the right information and a decision to embrace it. But that's not actually true, at least not fully. What actually separates the person from God is the very sin we proclaim as part of our message. And that sin makes the transformation of a non-Christian into a Christian the most miraculous thing that can occur. Indeed, it is an impossible thing, apart from God's own power. We must therefore not forget our role: we are to proclaim the Gospel, hard edges and all, and God who is rich in mercy and love, will save those whom He has called.

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