Dealing With Doubters, And The Quest For "Proof"

Dealing With Doubters, And The Quest For “Proof”

by Alex McFarland


You've heard the saying everything old is new again.

This is certainly true regarding objections raised by those who are skeptical about the Christian faith. Though blog sites and recent books by several high profile atheists have given a fresh platform to skepticism, the basic objections to the Christian faith being batted around today are not new. Questions and objections that a defender of the Christian faith should know how to answer have not changed much in nearly two millennia.  

Common questions about the faith that are heard from skeptics today were posed to Christians during the first centuries of the church's existence.  Though it would be nearly twenty centuries before C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Ravi Zacharias would come along, what we know about many early Christian thinkers reveals that they did an impressive job handling skeptics in their day.  It should be an encouragement to know that you have the same available resources that Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian did (they were some defenders of the faith who came along very early in the life of the church): Prayer, The Scriptures, Your God-given reasoning abilities, And the Holy Spirit.  We in the 21st-century also benefit from years of good Christian scholarship that has amassed over the past two millennia.

Writing in the third century, St. Augustine (354-430) made an observation about the doubters of his own day.  In Confessions,Book 21, chapter 2, Augustine writes about doubters, who refuse to accept the claims of Christianity unless a believer can, "prove them by ocular demonstration." The skeptic's demand for "ocular demonstration" is heard to this day. The standard for "proof" becomes essentially this: "If Christianity cannot be physically demonstrated before my very eyes, in a way that I can watch on demand, touch, and verify by repetition, I will not believe."

So, our generation is not the first in which people have made empiricism the only test for truth. But the skeptic should be reminded that all people hold to beliefs that cannot be replicated on demand, or "proven" by observation. We accept on the authority of history that George Washington crossed the Delaware, though none of us was alive to see it. We cannot scientifically prove that our family members love us, though we take it for granted that they do. And (as has been pointed out by many an apologist), the skeptic has never visibly seen his own brain, but we know that he has one!

So, even the strictest empiricist accepts things that aren't always empirically verified.

Two types of doubters
Having debated a number of atheists myself, and in my experiences sharing the gospel with many skeptics, I can relate to Augustine's observation. The late Adrian Rogers- a beloved pastor and prolific author- often talked about an honest doubter and a dishonest doubter. When a skeptic would confront the pastor with an objection, Rogers would sometimes ask a question of his own: "If I can sufficiently and factually answer your question," Rodgers would ask,  "... Will you open your heart to Christ and to the Gospel?"  

I have posed this same question to people at times.  The responses given can be very interesting. An honest doubter will say, "yes," or in some way indicate that they are, indeed, trying to resolve the obstacles that lay between them and belief in God.  Bottom line: An honest doubter really does want an answer to his question.  

The response (and heart condition of) a dishonest doubter is different entirely.  The dishonest doubter will respond negatively to questions like, "Are you asking this question in hopes of finding your way to God?  If I answer your question would you be open to becoming a follower of Jesus Christ?"  An atheist whom I interviewed last year said to me, "I am not so much against God, I am against believe in God."  When asked if there was anything that could ever convince this person to believe in God, he said, "No." The dishonest doubter may have a number of different motives for the issue(s) he is raising, but the search for truth is not one of them.  

When the will says, "I will not"
Augustine of old could sympathize with anyone who has ever struggled to dialogue with a dishonest doubter. The dishonest doubter engages in conversation over spiritual issues, and as the Christian responds to the (supposed) "key issue" standing between the person and God, the information laid out is quickly dismissed. Augustine wrote of such persons who, "...content, with the same skepticism, that these facts are not examples of what we seek to prove."
The dishonest doubter is avoiding the reality of God and Christ by saying, a) You haven't proved your case sufficiently for me; or, b) You have proved your case (or something like it), but this wasn't what I was
really asking.

Romans 1: 18 talks about the universal human tendency to know God's truth but to suppress it. In John 3:19, Jesus explained that people prefer darkness rather than light because of desire to keep their sins hidden.  Thus, apologetics and Christian worldview ministry is not a mental exercise only. Dialoguing fruitfully about spiritual questions and objections does require tact and preparation, but also prayer.

Would physical proof really suffice?
Regarding perennial demands for empirical proof about the claims of Christianity, I am reminded of the exchange between Abraham and the lost Rich Man recorded in Luke chapter 16. The unbelieving rich man who found himself in hell asked Abraham to go and tell his family members about salvation. Abraham said that the people had ample revelation of God through Moses and the prophets. The Rich Man prophetically observed that a resurrection from the dead would be the highest proof: "...If one went unto them from the dead, they will repent" (v. 30).

Abraham did not have quite as much faith in the skeptics of that rich man's family:  "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead' " (v. 31). Abraham had a keen understanding of human nature. When the will has been turned against God, no amount of evidence is enough. Conversely, when a person is hungry for truth and is sincerely trying to work through an intellectual impasse, a solid answer is usually readily accepted.

In light of I Peter 3:15 (and 2:15, as well), the apologist's calling is to present, explain, and when necessary, defend the Gospel. Honest or not, the doubter's response is between them and God. The Christian's role is to share truth, model Christian love, and we do these things
prayerfully and carefully.

The twenty-first century Christian witness is following in a long line of apologists that goes back nearly two thousand years. Regardless of how people respond to the reality of Jesus Christ, continue to sow seed, spread truth, and field questions. Journey with the searcher and (respectfully) spar with the skeptic. Don't feel bad if not every one accepts your message. Not even Augustine could claim that.

Alex McFarland is the founder of Truth For A New Generation, an annual apologetics conference that draws attendees from across the US and internationally. The 2013 TNG event will be held in Charlotte, NC, September 27-28. Learn more at: