Every Christian apologist has heard the phrase, “you can’t argue someone into heaven!” This objection has seemingly become the mantra against the advancement of apologetics within the church. When this phrase is spoken, it is issued as a denouncement of the Christian apologetic approach. The objection is founded on the presupposition that apologists are merely interested in ‘arguing’ and that apologists are honestly convinced that ‘arguing’ will somehow direct people to a personal relationship with Christ. Does this objection of apologetics accurately characterize how genuine Christian apologists truly interact with unbelievers? If this denouncement doesn’t fairly criticize the shortcomings of apologetics, what false presupposition does this criticism maintain that leads these objectors to a misunderstanding of apologetics? Given the prevalence of this criticism within the church, it’s important to give some attention to it by honestly addressing the merits and shortcomings of the objection.
First and foremost, a meritorious quality of the statement ‘you can’t argue someone into heaven!’ is that it’s true. You can’t argue someone into heaven. Apologists who conduct themselves with an argumentative demeanor are being counterproductive to their cause of bringing disciples to Christ. If individuals assume that arguing is merely what apologists are out to do, then maybe they have developed this assumption after observing the conduct of some apologists. While this assumption of apologetics may be entirely false, their perception was molded by real experiences with apologists. The reminder that ‘you can’t argue someone into heaven’ can serve as a helpful hint that apologists should be mindful of how they are perceived and cognizant of the way they communicate with others of different worldviews. We don’t want to give the impression of being impersonal, uncaring, and argumentative.
The shortcomings of this objection vastly outweigh the merits. While the objection is true on the face of it, it precludes an honest description of what Christian apologetics is and how it should be practiced. Simply because some Christians have practiced it poorly does not mean that the practice of apologetics is inherently bad. It’s comparable to saying that Christianity is bad because of how Hillsboro Baptist Church conducts themselves. Obviously, those that claim they’re acting in the name of Christianity while acting in contradiction to its teachings shouldn’t be viewed as accurate representations of Christianity. We look to Christ as the perfect example for what Christianity is supposed to look like. Since apologetics was embraced by Jesus, we can safely assume that this objection has an inherent fault within it.
So, where is the fault? It assumes that apologists are motivated by the sheer act of argumentation with unbelievers. Contrary to this objection, apologists genuinely believe that arguments for the existence of God will not bring a person into a saving relationship with Christ. We acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is only capable of that. However, would these same individuals stand by the objection, “You cannot preach someone into heaven!” with the same zeal as they have argued against apologetics? Obviously, no rational Christian would make this objection. Christ specifically called us through the Great Commission to make disciples! Did Jesus say, ‘let the Holy Spirit take over from here fellas!’ before His ascension into Heaven? Uh, no. The teachings found within the Bible promote a Christian worldview where Christians should prepare themselves and each other to give reasons for the hope that they have (1 Peter 3:15). No matter how far you dig in the Bible, you’ll never find a passage that promotes intellectual laziness.
Does intellectual preparedness mean civil and constructive argumentation in some cases? Absolutely. We should be prepared to compare our ideas against other worldviews. Why? The Apostle Paul said that there will come a day where people will preach false doctrines and will happily embrace what their itching ears want to hear instead of accepting the truth (1 Timothy 4:3). We are observing these types of things happening in society now! An informed Christianity will weigh heavily in our favor when having dialogues with unbelievers, especially when that dialogue could potentially open a door for the Holy Spirit to work in the heart of the unbeliever. Ask yourself how many missed opportunities you’ve had in your personal life because of your unpreparedness.
Will our personal preparedness convince the unbeliever of our position 100% of the time? Not likely! However, it will give us the ability to open the door a little wider so that the Holy Spirit may enter and work on the heart of the unbeliever. We must be prepared to answer intellectual and emotional objections to our faith with gentleness, respect, and a loving heart. Sometimes all it takes is the apologetic discernment to know when to shut up and listen and sometimes it takes knowing how to persuasively and clearly communicate an answer to a difficult objection. Knowing how to be winsome in both instances is an important quality for a Christian apologist.
Honest Skeptics Value Intelligent Discussion
As we’ve seen, apologetics is not about arguing someone into a relationship with God. It’s about knowing why you believe in Christianity and communicating these reasons in a convincing manner to unbelievers when given the opportunity. From my experience, learning how to persuasively make a case for His existence has brought me closer to God. Being an apologist has been a blessing in my life! Which is why it’s tremendously discouraging to hear these types of ill-thought objections to apologetics because I’ve personally experienced the satisfaction one can receive from being a loyal student of the Lord.
Imagine if you were an unbeliever on a genuine search for answers. Would you be satisfied with “the Bible says so…” type of answer from a Christian? Would this be persuasive? Absolutely not! If I was a truth-seeking unbeliever and a Christian answered my sincere question with that type of answer, I would be extremely discouraged. I would think, “how could a Christian be satisfied with that explanation!?” When we’re speaking with unbelievers, we are advocates for Christ in their eyes. They are looking to us (as Christians) for answers because we should be the most equipped to answer them! It is our obligation to tell them why they should accept Christ in a persuasive manner. Imagine if you’re a car salesman and a potential customer starts asking you questions about a car he wants to purchase, what would the potential customer think if you couldn’t answer any of his questions? He may not think the car was bad but he would think the representative of the car was an idiot, which would cause him to move to another car lot where there are better salesmen who could provide seemingly better answers. Similarly, if Christians can’t answer questions about their faith to skeptics, it’s likely that skeptics wouldn’t consider Christianity as a serious option because Christians are perceived as largely ignorant and inarticulate?
Some people will never be convinced and many are only interested in seeking out an argument. Maybe this is where today’s Christian apologists get a bad reputation because we sometimes pander to ‘internet infidels’ and unwisely partake in dialogues with unbelievers that sometimes get out of hand. We must avoid these types of conversations because they are counterproductive to the advancement of the Kingdom. There are some skeptics who are sincerely open to following the evidence where it leads. These are the people that we must reach. These are the skeptics that will eventually step through the door if they encounter a Christian who will take advantage of the opportunity to present the Good News. Whether the opportunity is developing a relationship with him over time, having a brief discussion on park bench, or occasionally having a theological discussion with a co-worker, these are the opportunities that we must be prepared for.
In sum, it can be convincingly shown that this objection is not truly representative of Christian apologetics. Have apologists argued inappropriately before? Yes, however we’re all fallible. Mistakes will always be made by everyone. Personally, I feel it is a mistake to needlessly object to apologetics because it is falsely believed by some that apologetics is an attempt to argue people into heaven. I couldn’t argue someone into heaven any more can I force my wife to love me. When speaking with an unbeliever, I could provide substantive reasons for my faith in Christ and pray that they answer the call that the Holy Spirit has placed on their heart. Our ability is limited as apologists. Ultimately, it’s up to the unbeliever to make the decision to accept or reject Christ.
Acknowledging the limitations along with appreciating the immense utility of apologetics can help us better understand what place apologetics should have in our relationship with Christ. Just like prayer, worship, and community have a place in the body of Christ, so does apologetics. It can be found throughout scripture. Not everyone is gifted in this area, which is fine! At the same time, it shouldn’t be ignored entirely; especially if apologetics is being avoided in order to maintain a false presupposition (i.e. apologetics is synonymous with arguing). Christian apologetics is not synonymous with arguing. This notion is flooded with a gross misunderstanding of the apologetics the Bible speaks of. Fruitful dialogue is the vehicle the apologist uses to open the door for the Holy Spirit. Jesus and the Apostle Paul are brilliant examples of apologists that had immeasurable apologetic skill when speaking with unbelievers. If you don’t believe me, I’d invite you to pick up the New Testament!