The other day I was listening to a radio program. The speaker is someone who is very popular in Evangelical apologetics. He is someone that I have learned a lot from and whom I respect a great deal. However, he propagated something that I think is a very poor apologetic response to questions for which the individual does not have answers. It goes like this:
Apologist teacher: “We need to be ready to give an answer for our faith.”
Student: “But I am scared. What if someone asks a question that I don’t have an answer for.”
Apologist teacher: “Don’t be scared. It is okay if you don’t know. Don’t feel bad about your lack of knowledge. You just need to remedy it. Tell them that it is a good question and that you will go find the answer and get back with them about it.”
However, I find this sort of carte blanche response disturbing and quite demeaning.
I am not saying that it could not be a good answer in certain circumstances for certain questions. But when it comes to our defense of the faith we had better be more prepared and more reflective. What do I mean by this?
Think about it. Let’s put this in a particular situation. You are an enthusiastic Christian who believes deeply in the Gospel. You are talking to a co-worker about Christ one day. They begin to tell you about why they don’t believe in God. The crux of their issue is the problem of evil. “How could a good God allow evil?” That is their question. You respond, “I don’t know. Good question. I will research this some and get back to you next week.”
What you have just done here is illegitimized your faith to this person. As well, you have diminished the seriousness of the question and the person asking it. To this person, your faith is carried even though you have not dealt with one of the most serious theological questions that anyone can ask. You have just told the person, “Hmmm…Good question. Never thought of that.” Once this person (who obviously does think deeply) recognizes that you have not personally wrestled with this issue, they will see your faith as shallow and fake. By essentially saying, “I have never thought of that,” you have just lost your representation. To them, whether true or not, your faith is naive.
Not only this, but you have also belittled the person by demeaning the question. How did you demean the question? By not engaging it, but simply saying “I will get the answer and come back.” Quick fix, eh? How do you know you will get the answer? Is it really that easy? Is it as simple as “getting the answer and coming back.” You are saying to this person, “I know that this is the main reason why you reject God. You may think you are a smart chap, but you are not that smart since I can simply go get the answer and come back in no time!”
I am not saying that we have to have an answer for everything. But this is the point: Most pop apologetics today are concerned with good Evangelical cliché answers. It is not about engaging the issue. It is not about wrestling with problems. It is about “getting the answer and coming back.” Sometimes there will be good answers. Other times there will be many legitimate options. Still, other times there will be no answers, just an understanding of the difficulty.
This is why Christian discipleship of the mind is so important. We need to show others that we are not disqualified due to intellectual shallowness. We need to have wrestled with the issue ourselves. We need to show them that we understand the problems not simply because we have read a question/answer book on the subject, but because we have been in the same place and asked the same questions. We have engaged and wrestled with the question personally. Therefore our answer comes from the depth of who we are, even if the answer is “I don’t know.”
Another example: Think about this. You are witnessing to someone and telling them about Scripture as God’s word. They begin to inquire about the contents of Scripture saying, “So many people have different books in their Bibles. How do you know that the books you use are the right ones?” You say, “Good question, I will get back to you on that.” Say what? You have not even wrestled with a foundational question such as this? How real can your faith actually be? That is what is going through their mind.
Or, how about this: They ask you how you know historically that Jesus rose from the grave and it is not just a Christian myth. You respond, “Good question. I am going to find out and get back to you on this.” You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave? You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave?? You are going to find out how you know Jesus rose from the grave???? You, a Christian, are going to go (future tense) to find out why you believe the central element to the Christian faith is true? And you expect this person to follow you?
This comes in all areas of theology. As a Calvinist (one who believes in unconditional predestination) I am often asked many questions about why God did not choose everyone. I don’t have an answer for this. It disturbs me too. But this is not from lack of studying or reflection. I know all the options. I have spend many a night dealing with this with the Lord. Hoever, I don’t have a good answer. But I do have an informed answer: “I don’t know.” Sometimes an informed I don’t know is better than an unreflective text book answer. Why? Because it legitimizes the question (and the one asking) and legitimizes your faith. You have shown that you are a real person, not a theological bot. Theological bots are simply concerned with the “right” answer to everything, not the struggle and the depth that accompanies true belief.
We are not theological bots. God wants us to love him with all our understanding. But our discipleship process must engage issues truly. We need to avoid surface level shallow defenses of our faith. They do more harm than good. And, remember, on some issues, informed agnosticism is the best and most effective position to have.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]