On Whose Side of the Door is the Handle?
You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste or touch. A prison for your mind.
Morpheus to Neo, The Matrix
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
2 Cor 4 v 4
This paper first offers a brief examination of the biblical teaching regarding the impact of sin upon our noetic powers, particularly as regards our ability to know God. The corrosive impacts of sin are so severe that no one can come to a saving knowledge of God without His intervention. Second, a way forward is proposed for integrating this biblical teaching with Christian apologetics by recognising the scripture’s focus on an ‘apologetic of witness’.
A complete review of all the biblical material and Christian tradition is beyond the scope of this paper; instead only key points will be made.
Firstly, scripture is unequivocal in the way it describes an unbeliever’s attitude to the gospel. They are described as enemies Rom 5v10, Phil 3v18 and Col 1v21. They either think the message is foolish or they stumble because of it 1 Cor 1v23 indeed unbelievers are unable to accept the message 1 Cor 2v14.
In 2 Cor 4v3-6 Paul writes:
Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
This is not only a Pauline theme. John’s gospel begins with a declaration that light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it 1v5. No one accepts Jesus’ testimony 3v32. Why? Because they love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil (3v19-20).
The Old Testament makes a similar assertion, pointing out that people need a new heart and new spirit (Ezekiel 11 & 36).
Clearly there is a blindness, a suppression of the reality of God. People are unwilling to come to God to recognize Jesus and accept His message.
But are there limits to this blindness? Are some areas more unknowable than others? Various thinkers (Calvin, Kuyper and Brunner) have argued for a range of distortion depending upon the subject being investigated. The spread is from no or minimal blindness in areas like mathematics and logic to maximum blindness in areas relating to God. Some will ask why is this? To find an answer we need only look to the Genesis account: man’s rebellion breaks his relationship with God, not the physical world. Does it not follow that the epistemological break would be the same?
This inability to know fits conveniently with the post modern mindset. We have moved from the confidence of modernism where man believed he could understand everything, to a position of doubt. Now everything is relative. We ‘explore’ beliefs. This shift in thinking is a friend as it has removed the arrogance of modernism but also a foe as every view may now be dismissed as applicable only for a particular group, nothing has a universal claim.
Unlike the postmodern skeptic, the Christian does not despair because God has not left us without hope of coming to a saving knowledge of Himself. He finds a way to do for us what we can not do for ourselves, It is He who causes the prodigals to ‘come to their senses’. How? By the work of the Holy Spirit.
In John 3 – Jesus insists that we must be born from above, born of the Spirit. It is the work of God’s Spirit to convict us of sin (John 16v8).
In 1 Cor 2v12 Paul writes “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.”
There is a breaking in, a revelation. Dungeons flame with light as chains fall off!
Augustine wrote ‘You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I tasted you, and feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.’ Confessions X. xxvii (38)
Apologetic of Witness:
Does this mean that we cease our apologetics and leave everything to the Spirit? By no means! Scripture is just as clear that we are to reason with the unbelievers Acts is full of examples of Paul doing exactly that.
When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.
Acts 17 v16ff:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
When in Corinth we are told that ‘Every Sabbath he [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.’ (Acts 18v4)
Again, in Acts 26, Paul is making his defense before Agrippa and Festus. Towards the end of his defense Festus interrupts and says: "You are out of your mind, Paul! ... Your great learning is driving you insane." Paul’s response? "I am not insane, most excellent Festus…. What I am saying is true and reasonable”.
Finally 1st Peter 3v15 states‘… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’
The practice of the early church was to argue for and defend the gospel. This was done in situations where the hearers were biblically literate but also with those who had no prior knowledge of God’s dealings with man. The biblical meta-narrative of creation, fall and redemption is reasonable, rational and should be argued for in the marketplace of ideas.
So we come to the question, how do we weave the truth of man’s blindness with the practice of apologetics? To find our answer we must look once again to scripture. The term that is repeatedly used to describe those that speak for God is ‘witness’. Paul is to be a witness (Acts 22v15); the first believers are to be witnesses (Acts 1v8), the Holy Spirit is a witness (Acts 5v32), a person’s conscience bears witness (Rom 2v15).
The OT law required the testimony of two or three witnesses, therefore this paper proposes an apologetic of witness which should consist of multiple avenues of approach. Following W L Craig in ‘Reasonable Faith’, the focus is not to bring someone to know the truth by our apologetic, rather, it is to show them that it is the truth.
Firstly, there is a witness of changed lives due to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. As Craig writes, The ‘ultimate apologetic involves two relationships: your relationship with God and your relationship with others’.
We must live different lives: lives that show our preoccupation with knowing God and glorifying Him, our love for others and our servant hearts. We should be always ready to tell of how God has changed us. We should tell the story of our own lives: of present day conversion and transformation. This is particularly important in an age where experience is highly valued.
Secondly, we should be witnesses of the reasonableness of the Christian faith. We must show how the Christian meta-narrative is an explaining story, it explains this world. To do this we could choose any / all of the following:-
Aselm’s ontological argument.
The Cosmological / Kalam argument of first dependence or first cause.
Arguments from design.
Information / complexity theory – e.g where does the information in DNA come from? How does a more complex series of information come from a simple one?
Third, we must explain how the resurrection of Jesus is historically reliable. The Word tells us that if Christ was not raised our faith is futile. We should be able to recount the proofs for the resurrection.
Finally, it is proposed that we must be a witness to the weaknesses and dangers of the non believer’s framework.
Bultmann, in his commentary on John put it like this;-
“If the revelation consists in a calling into question of the natural man, then it will be unintelligible to a man who is not aware of his own questionableness”.
The thoughts of the great French thinker, Blaise Pascal (d 1662) are of great assistance. He famously wrote of a wager: a bet on God’s existence! The downside of losing the bet is relatively small, a ‘wasted’ life spent following Jesus. But the upside if God does exist is huge - eternity with Him. Therefore, after considering the risks against the possible returns, he determined that a rational man would choose to bet that God does exist. The fact is that in such circumstances reason impels belief! Pascal’s point is that it is irrational not to bet for the existence of God. But, people do not ‘bet’ in that way. Why? Because, in Pascal’s words, ‘a man’s passions will not let him believe’.
In our discussions with nonbelievers we must be alert to the fact that, no matter how strong the evidence, they do not want to believe; there is a moral dimension. We should graciously but firmly uncover this refusal. We should challenge the unbeliever with the question of why they are so against God and in doing so we should point to Roman’s 1 (they are suppressing the truth). Their heart is against God, it ‘has reasons that reason knows not of ‘(Pascal). We should ask them to ponder why that is so.
Another way of questioning an unbeliever’s position could be to point to the self-centred focus of so many that results in social breakdown, wars etc. There is, after all, ample evidence from the last century of the evils that man without God is capable of (see Rom 1v29ff).
From there we would go to God’s explanation of why they are against God: we all want to be like Him; knowing good and evil (Gen 3). Or, as Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime & Punishment declares: ‘I want to be Napoleon’.
There is a desire for autonomy; to make our own decisions; to be accountable to no one. However, this simply will not work when there is a God to whom we must give an account. So in our apologetic we must courteously point out that the wages of sin is death Rom 6v23 that Jesus warns of hell and destruction – that there is ‘bad news’ of life without God.
As it has been said, “a man will not cry out to be found unless he thinks he is lost nor plead to be saved unless he fears he is dammed”.
The judgment of God must not be a “no-go” area in our discussions.
There are risks that even within the apologetic process we reinforce this autonomy! We can so easily bring the unbeliever to the point of thinking that they can stand in judgment on God, whether He exists and whether He is worthy of being followed. We often use the language of ‘decision for Christ’ and although this has its place, it must not be allowed to reinforce the unbeliever’s framework of control. If we are the witness, they must not keep the idea that they are the judge; they are the accused! An acknowledgement of blindness, and a plea for mercy is all they can do.
‘What shall we do’ were the words used of some of the earliest converts (Acts 2v37) They were cut to the heart as their terrible predicament was exposed. All that they could do was cry for help. The advice they received is as good today as it was then: ‘repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.
The prison of unbelief is not broken out of, it is broken into.
In conclusion, this paper maintains that the Bible speaks of non Christians not in terms of ignorance but of rebellion and inability to believe. The door to their heart can only be opened from the outside: it takes God’s intervention. Although the apologetic task is to reason with the unbeliever, the critical stage in the process is wholly owned by God. When He ‘arrives’ it is not to convince but to convert; not so much to inform as to inflame.
We must play our part as witnesses but the real work is God’s and we must pray tirelessly for Him to act in the lives of our unbelieving friends. The degree to which we truly believe it is God’s work will be the same degree to which we pray for Him to work.
1. Bible (NIV)
2. Akeroyd, R.H. Reason and Revelation - from Paul to Pascal.
3. Augustine, Confessions
4. Craig, W. L. Reasonable Faith
5. Houston, J. M. The Mind on Fire
6. Moroney, S. K. The Noetic Effects of Sin
7. Pascal, Blaise. Pensees
(Author: Rob Ambler
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