Turning the Tables on Unbelief

Apologetic conversations aren’t about hypothetical truths, but about life’s most important matters. We mustn’t simply stick to the scripts of critics; we must see ourselves as God’s prophets “anointed to confess his name” and reveal the mysterious “counsel and will of God concerning our deliverance.”[1] Apologists aim to disrupt the status quo of the critic. Why? Because “as an outsider I don’t need reasons to dismiss something. My ignorance of the subject is already doing a good job of that. I need reasons to take seriously something that I would otherwise dismiss.”[2]

How can we do that? Apologists answer that question differently. For example, “The Van Tillian methodology was negative, to reduce the opponent to absurdity. The Lewisian methodology was affirmative, to persuade the opponent that they actually needed and wanted the Foundation and Anchor of Truth.” [3] Folks might favor one approach over the other — but aren’t they both needed?

This was Paul’s plan. Apologists must “destroy arguments” (2 Cor. 10:5). They also must “entreat … by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (1). And before doing either we can help our friends better understand their unbelief.

Clarify Unbelief

Because you believe God’s Word, you know more about the unbelief of your friends than they do. The woman at the well was amazed because of the personal things Jesus knew about her (John 4:29). His analysis of her life got her wondering about the claims of Christ’s lordship. We don’t have to be omniscient to understand important truths about unbelief.

Unbelief Is Always Moral, Not Merely Intellectual

Intellectually unbelievers know there is a God, but find it morally intolerable to honor him as God (Rom. 1:21). They stumble over Jesus’ claim of Lordship (1 Peter 2:8) despite his promise of gentleness (Matt. 11:29).

To truly receive Christ, we have to disown everything we thought was to our advantage (Phil. 3:7–8). The gospel offends us because it “deprives us of all credit for wisdom, virtue, and righteousness.”[4] Some people use intellectual arguments to excuse their refusal to trust Jesus. Others use less sophisticated methods. J. H. Bavinck puts it like this: “fear of the future, fear of the pitiless discovery of his own insignificance, fear of death, and fear of God—all that dark and somber fear which lives and hides in the inner man is covered with a pattern of banter and lightheartedness.”[5] Either way, refusal to trust in Jesus is always a matter of the heart; it is never simply about mental hurdles.

Unbelief Is Contrary to Our Deepest Desires

Unbelief is dissatisfying because we are wired to know God. The teenager who rebels against her parents violates deeper desires. She wants acceptance, security, and love. Rejecting her parents drives her further from what she truly wants and needs. So it is with unbelief. The peace and healing God promises, and which everyone desires, cannot be experienced by unbelievers. Here’s how Isaiah put it: “‘Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,’ says the Lord, ‘and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’” (57:20–21). Truly, “Our restless spirits yearn for thee, where’er our changeful lot is cast.”[6] No matter how intelligent, competent, and lovely unbelievers are, because they reject God they are “wandering through life aimlessly, not knowing the right perspective on the simplest things of life.”[7] That is contrary to our deeper desires. Paul describes non-Christians in terms of homelessness. As aliens and strangers they have “no hope” and are “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). I’ve never been homeless, but I’ve been away from home—where I belong—for too long. Unbelief keeps people from being where they belong.

Don’t fear telling unbelieving friends what the Bible says about their unbelief.

Critique Unbelief

Scripture teaches us to tear down strongholds and destroy lofty opinions. So we can’t simply interpret unbelief. We must critique it. Here are three ways.

Non-Christian Worldviews Cannot Give Confidence

Believers can believe boldly: “I know that my redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). “I know whom I have believed” (2 Tim. 1:12). Unbelievers cannot truly say, “I know God does not exist.” Such knowledge would require unlimited wisdom and a comprehensive search of the universe. And the reality of God’s existence is strong; it takes effort to “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:17). So unbelief is always tentative; it is truly a guess contrary to better evidence. Rejecting God requires faith in oneself, that the evidence for God has been fully examined and found wanting. Believers do not need unlimited knowledge, just a certainty that God has spoken.

Non-Christian Worldviews Do Not Promote Morality

There is much truth, goodness, and beauty in the unbelieving world. But these virtues are derived from the truth, goodness, and beauty that is in the God who created this world. They aren’t generated by unbelief. These virtues actually contradict an unbelieving worldview. Take justice for example. What makes certain behavior wrong? No one talks of animal rape or murder as issues of justice. Why is it different among humans if we are simply advanced animals? [8] Because we know better (Rom. 2:15). Rape and murder—and all other sins—are unjust because humans are uniquely valuable as God’s image-bearers.

Non-Christian Worldviews Cannot Promise Personal Value

The world champions mottos like, “You are amazing, you are important, you are special.” How? If we are accidents of nature how important are we? If our end is simply to die and provide fuel for what survives us do we really matter? Most teenagers today die by the deliberate taking of life through either suicide or homicide. Why should that surprise us, as the Bible’s message (you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” [Ps. 139:14]) is replaced with the world’s message (“you are a product of time and chance”)?

It is right to critique unbelief as an incoherent, unsustainable worldview. But we must also offer an alternative.

Contrast Unbelief

Apologists don’t merely answer questions or defend against accusations. They proclaim and invite. Paul sets the right tone when he told King Agrippa, “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am” (Acts 26:29). And billions of people around the world have found that invitation compelling, even amid nauseating opposition. Why? Here are four promises that only Christianity can make good.

  • You can know God. The gospel isn’t simply an invitation to believe certain truths but to enter into a loving relationship with God. Everyone already knows that God exists (James 2:19). But by believing the gospel you can know “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14).
  • You can know yourself. Calvin is right: “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.”[9] When you believe in Jesus you begin a new life that is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
  • You can have your sins forgiven. Deep down everyone knows that they sin; our “conflicting thoughts accuse” us (Rom. 2:15). Apart from Christ we try to cancel our sins by trying to do better, the very thing we were trying to do when we failed before. But Jesus died for our sins and was raised to new life so that we could be right with God (Rom. 4:25). By Jesus “everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed” by trying to be good (Acts 13:39).
  • You can gain eternal life. The patriarch Jacob wasn’t just speaking for himself when he said, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” (Gen. 47:9). We might say the same thing. But the many hardships that Jacob faced were tempered by his confidence that he would soon “be gathered to [his] people” in eternal life (49:29). Jesus proved the resurrection by quoting the Scripture that said God is still the God of Jacob (Matt. 22:32). Jacob is alive and well right now! And you can join him when you die.

This the message of Christian apologetics. “In whatever circumstances we may be, the defense of the faith must be intertwined with the declaration of the good news that salvation from sin and death has come through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.”[10] “For the Christian faith, a strong offence is the best defense; indeed, it is the only defense.”[11] Only the gospel removes “all obstacles and opens up an easy entrance into the kingdom of God for us.”[12]

This message is our calling. So you don’t have be a philosopher or an apologetic expert. “The believer has no need to fear free and open dialogue, and the only ‘authority’ which wins out is the conscience persuaded by a reasonable exegesis of the Scriptures.”[13] The weapon that destroys arguments “and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” is truth itself. God’s truth has “divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4–5) and give birth to new beauty. Love that truth. Live it. Defend it. Share it. And God will do the rest.

Read the previous posts in this series here.

William Boekestein is pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Related Links

Podcast: "Reforming Apologetics"

"Nature and Apologetics" by Arthur Hunt

"Covenantal Apologetics," review by Stephen Myers

"Reforming Apologetics," review by Ryan McGraw

Defending the Faith by Gabriel Fluhrer

C.S. Lewis: Apologetics for a Postmodern World by Andrew Hoffecker 

[1] Heidelberg Catechism LD 12.

[2] Gladwell, Malcomb. “How Does a Comedy Outsider Make Sense of Norm Macdonald?” Oh, MG. September 24, 2021. https://malcolmgladwell.bulletin.com/224534839714566

[3] Wedgeworth, Steven “You and Me and VanTil.” The Calvinist International. July 16, 2021. https://calvinistinternational.com/2014/01/16/you-me-van-til/

[4] Calvin, Concerning Scandals, 12.

[5] J.H. Bavinck, Faith and Its Difficulties, 38–39.

[6] Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 494.

[7] O. Palmer Robertson, Jonah: A Study in Compassion (Carlisle, PA.: Banner of Truth), 63.

[8] Without God, and his external imposition of a standard of good and evil, there is no moral compass “in me but … the coercion to maintain my place and my position in that life, until one who is stronger than I am destroys me and lives out of my death.” J. H. Bavinck, Faith and Its Difficulties,19.

[9] Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.2.

[10] Pratt, Every Thought Captive, 82.

[11] Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, 149.

[12] John Calvin, Concerning Scandals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 8.

[13] Steven Wedgeworth, https://calvinistinternational.com/2014/01/16/you-me-van-til/