John Warwick Montgomery tells the story of a man who was convinced that he was dead.
His wife took him to the local psychiatrist, who decided to change the man’s mind by convincing him of one fact: Dead men don’t bleed.
After a week of reading medical texts and viewing autopsies, the man was overwhelmed by the evidence and confessed, “Fine! I’m convinced that dead men don’t bleed!”
The psychiatrist promptly jabbed a needle into the man’s arm. Blood spurted out.
“Great Scott!” the man exclaimed, “Dead men do bleed after all!”
Christians often find themselves in a similar conundrum when sharing the gospel with non-Christians. What they frequently discover is that their counterparts remain unconvinced even when presented with logically watertight arguments for the truth of Christianity. This occurs because their presentation is devoid of persuasion. While the evidence matters immensely, a persuasive method of presentation is also necessary; for our audience must be persuaded of the need to give it a fair hearing and be open to changing their minds.
In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal presents one such method. He writes,
“Men despise religion…The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”
I consider the three-step method delineated in this pensée to be a valuable method for evangelistic apologetics since it highlights the need to persuade both the head and the heart during our presentation. Let us examine each of these steps in the context of presenting the Christian message.
THE RATIONAL STEP
Most atheists dismiss religious faith as irrational, or in Dawkinsian terms, a delusion latched onto despite the complete absence of evidence. These preconceptions are the largest stumbling blocks preventing people from considering Christianity.
The rational step is aimed at removing these stumbling blocks to belief. This is the function of a large part of Christian apologetics today, including things like arguments for the existence of God and responses to the problem of evil; while they often don’t convince people to turn to Christianity, they do help them overcome the obstacles erected in their path, demonstrating that the Biblical God is not a “capriciously malevolent bully” and that Christianity itself is “not contrary to reason”.
Unfortunately, many fail to realize that presenting these rational arguments is but the preliminary step in evangelistic apologetics and fail to move beyond this step. Observing that most remain unconvinced of Christianity after hearing them, they wrongly assume that these arguments have no utility.
Conversely, Pascal urges us to continue on from the rational step to the emotional step; to move from the issues of the intellect to those of the heart.
THE EMOTIONAL STEP
Pascal once noted that people are more likely to be convinced by reasons they’ve discovered themselves than by those presented to them. An aim of the emotional step, then, is to help your counterpart generate reasons for belief on their own instead of presenting them with ready-made ones. Another aim of the emotional step is to personalize our presentation. The rational step presents impersonal arguments that respond to objections, while the emotional step takes a more personal approach, attempting to answer the person (Col 4:6), and not just his objections. But how might one go about this?
Perhaps you’re engaging with a naturalist friend who is also a humanist, or someone who holds that there is no reality beyond nature and its laws, but also holds that humans have intrinsic value/dignity and human flourishing ought to be pursued. You can begin by demonstrating how such humanism is naturalistically unsustainable. According to naturalist Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference…. We are machines for propagating DNA.” The logical consequences of naturalism include a world without objective morality, for without a transcendent source, moral facts become the subjective preferences of the majority; a world without objective meaning or purpose, since there’s no explanation for why my life’s purpose is better than Hitler’s; and a world without love, for what is love but a reaction produced by a certain set of hormones when you see that mewling bag of chemicals you call your ‘baby’?
Now, you ask your friend whether he wants to live under a nihilistic naturalistic framework or wants to continue in his humanism, for clearly, he cannot have both. In most cases, he will choose humanism, given our shared desire for a world with morality, meaning, purpose, and love. It is now your opportunity to present a plausible alternate hypothesis – the Christian faith, where morality is ensured by Him who is the Good, meaning and purpose are ensured by the One who created us in His image, and love is ensured by Him who is Love and was willing to demonstrate it in the ultimate form. You can now present the Gospel message in all its beauty, culminating in the sacrifice on the cross as a solution to the human condition.
What have you done so far? You have removed the false obstacles that made him dismiss Christianity at the outset. You’ve then personalized the approach by deconstructing his worldview and presenting him with an alternate hypothesis that has far more appealing consequences to him. You have brought out what is attractive about Christianity, making him “wish it were true.”
But it is imperative to note that the truth of a set of propositions is independent of their emotional appeal or ethical consequences. Why couldn’t nihilism be the ugly truth and the real world be one without morality, meaning, purpose, and love?
It is time to proceed to our final step, showing that while Christianity is rational and attractive enough to make us wish it were true, it is actually true for a completely different reason.
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