Apologetics lends itself to martial arts metaphors. Christian apologetics lends itself to many other metaphors too, besides combat, war and martial arts. Apologetics can be modeled after any number of other helpful analogies, for example (1) Cultivating an Intellectual Garden, (2) Worldview Surgery, (3) Theological Housecleaning, or (4) Ideological Homebuilding, etc. etc. I’m afraid my examples today fall in line more with images of combat, fighting, and warfare. But hey, the best movies in history tend to be love-stories and war movies right? Christianity has both, the epic love-story of all history set within a series of battles. In the end, the apparent tragedies dotting the timeline of history (crucifixion, tribulation, cosmic destruction) give way to a comedic ending, a heroic victory (Christ’s return), with wedded union (Church and Christ), and an eternal wedding party (heaven).
When someone tries to attack your faith, for example, claiming that the Old Testament has too much violence or injustice to be able to witness to a good God, here are some tactics you may try.
1) Stand Your Ground
Ask them to prove their claim, or justify their question. A lot of times, skeptics and antagonists don’t know a lot about the things they are attacking and it doesn’t take much to show that anyone can ask a question but only thinkers can give responsible reasons and make a good case for their position. Asking them to defend their position might even intimidate them a bit. Now I’m not talking about foolhardy bravado. I’m talking about a principled courage of conviction where you say something like, “That’s interesting. That sounds different from what I’ve read in the Bible. Would you give some of your reasons for interpreting that passage that way?” Or you might say, “That’s an interesting opinion, but since I’m not a scholar in the field, I don’t know how to tell whether you are on target or not. Do you have some experts or historical evidence to show why reasonable people should agree with you?”
2) Do some Logical Blocking
There are some common countermoves you can use which challenge the other person to improve their approach using better logic and stronger evidence before drawing their conclusions about Christianity. I recommend you phrase these as questions (which is how they are phrased here).
(a) Prooftexting–“have you interpreted the text fairly in light of the context?”
(b) Non-sequitur–Latin: “does not follow;” “have you taken a logical leap that doesn’t follow from the evidence?”
(c) Anachronism–“Have you inserted or interpreted something modern into an ancient setting, for example, prisons, standing police system, free-market economy, bill of rights, Geneva Convention, etc.?
(d) Hasty Generalization–“Have you rushed to a conclusion generalized from too few examples/evidence?”
(e) Steam Roller Fallacy–“Are you trying to bowl me over with more questions than could be answered in the time we have?”
(f) Causal Fallacies–“Have you called something a ’cause’ without enough evidence?”
(g) Illicit Assumption–“Have you assumed something that we haven’t agreed on or you haven’t proven?”
3) Duck the High Kicks
Sometimes people try to accomplish too much with their argument. For example, this verse is difficult therefore your Bible is false. Or in this case, they try to take out God entirely with just a few Old Testament verses about homosexuality or rape. Now those kinds of verses deserve a response, but let’s be clear. There could still be a God if all the world’s religions were deeply mistaken. There could still be a God in a different religion, but Christianity is wrong about him. There could still be a God, but the Calvinists are more right than the Arminians, or the Arminians are more right than the Calvinists, or the Jews are right and everyone else wrong. Maybe the Catholics are right, and Protestants can take a walk. Or good ole’ fashion inerrancy-affirming ecumenical Christianity is the most right of all and we just have to live with a degree of mystery and discontent about some OT passages. All of those are options, even if the OT violence can’t be answered.
When you duck the high kicks you are reframing the discussion so that their over-ambitious goal is out of reach. In this case, God’s existence is not really a target; that would be aiming too high. Instead, you are pointing out that there are problem passages in the Old Testament which might be answerable, but even if they are not, there could still be a God and we have some unresolved issues with how he works. There are some tough passages in the Bible which I’m prepared to admit are tough to resolve, and even if we grant inerrancy, and orthodoxy with it, we probably should never sit too comfortably with the ferocity and austerity of God’s justice. Mercy and grace are great, but our God is still an utterly holy God who exacts justice more pure than we can imagine.
4) Dodge a little (but not too much)
Some questions are loaded and shouldn’t be answered. For example, “How can your God support wanton killing of innocent people?” That’s a loaded question. It assumes things that you might not assume. You can’t answer it without granting that there is wanton killing of innocent people. In the case of a loaded question, first identify the loaded question and break them up into their component questions. Rephrase their question into those smaller questions, and answer those instead. “What do you mean by ‘innocent’ people? Do you mean the whole culture is innocent, just some of it’s members, or perhaps every individual there is innocent?” And “By ‘wanton’ do you mean it’s some sort of blood-thirsty rampage irrespective of justice or greater-goods?”
Other questions are fine, but they would be too involved to answer in a given time period. In that case, affirm the importance of the question and ask for a better time to answer it, or ask for a different setting where you can give that question proper focus and attention. If neither of those options work, then try to refer them to some sources that might help them get answers (see the resource list below).
Many people enjoy the questions too much to waste energy listening to answers, but that’s not your problem. If they ask you for answers about violence in the Old Testament, then you should assume (all else being equal) that they do want answers. If they really push you here, showing that they have no interest in answers then that’s the combat equivalent of heckling and throwing darts at the boxer without entering the ring. In that case you you might have to bid them good day, say “God bless” and be on your way.
Other times, there are just too many questions to answer (Steamroller fallacy). In that case, block the mistake by pointing out the logical fallacy involved. Then dodge any illicit or peripheral questions by asking if there’s one or two major points they would like a response to. Regardless, it’s helpful to have some good resources in mind to which you can refer them in case they are actually seeking answers and you aren’t really in a position to address everything they are saying.
Now don’t try to block and dodge everything. The good blocks and dodges are intended to keep you from getting sidetracked with unreasonable objections or distracting matters. The “judo” analogy breaks down when we remember that Christians are still supposed to absorb challenges to their theology, not as attacks, but as a refining fire. Intellectual and scholarly challenges to Christian ideas can serve as a cauldron of intellectual discipline training us to develop our theology. Without an array of challenges and objections we risk getting soft and fuzzy in our theology instead of strong and fortified in our knowledge of God.
Also, if we are too dodgy we risk being non-committal and insincere. Christians shouldn’t feign different belief systems for the sake of expediency in debate. We should not adopt theistic evolution for that reason, nor open theism, nor even orthodoxy if our main motive is to counter some argumentative atheist. Instead, we should hold to truth wherever we find it, and we should be willing (and preferably ready) to defend it where possible. We don’t have to be cocky or certain about our own faith, but we should be honest that we believe what we do, and willing to have probing conversations about it once in a while. Questions about Old Testament integrity, Biblical theism, Christian ethics are all important subjects not to be dodged. But neither should we answer absolutely everything asked of us, end indulge all opponents especially if the question is asked insincerely, based on prooftexts, or it’s intentionally distracting from more important mattters.
5) Hit Back, With Precision
When a person attacks the Christian God through Old Testament references there are a number of reasons why they may do this. You don’t know those reasons, in a particular case, unless you have a good understanding of the questioner. Your response to their questions can only be as powerful as they are sharply delivered on target. The person may be objecting to God’s apparently low view of women, because some OT passage treats women like property, as spoils of war. Your response might be to counter with a female-dignifying passage in Scripture, or a retelling of historical advances for women achieved through Christianized societies, or you might look closer at the passage and historical context to see if this was about women generally or about prisoners of war specifically. In the latter case, there were reduced options for the treatment of women and children when there was no Bill of Rights, or Geneva Convention, or even a standing prison system. Sometimes loaded words like “sex slave” or “torture” are used too loosely and a closer look at context can deflate things a bit. Be be careful to “pick your punches.” You have limited time and energy so it’s a good to target the most important yet most vulnerable claims.
6) Use their Momentum Against Them
It’s good to use your own tools of offense against a bad idea, but it’s even better to use the idea against itself. Oftentimes a skeptic will take a rhetorical lunge at you, like “Your God is evil! Just look at how the Bible promotes slavery and discriminates against women!” This kind of accusation has a lot of rhetorical force, but logical lunges like that leave the skeptic exposed. He or she has assumed that “evil” is a coherent concept without God, that he or she can recognize it without God, and that all the objections to slavery and sexism make sense even without God. That’s assuming a lot. And assumptions like that can be used against them.
Logically you can use their momentum against them by first blocking their lunge–identify their hasty generalization, illicit assumption, etc.–then grant all their moral indignation, letting their accusation come close, for example, “Yes, I agree that baseless prejudice and pointless cruelty against fellow human beings is terrible.” But then you trip them at the point that they feel strongest. For example, “That’s why I oppose abortion, where people kill half a million girl babies in America every year. Don’t you hate abortion?” Or “I’m wondering how your worldview justifies this moral indignation? It seems that nature is red in tooth and claw and can’t be trusted to give use true morality instead of just truthless wind.”
7) Be Able to Take a punch
Apologists don’t apologize enough or admit when we don’t know something. I think it’s a matter of pride. We get our personal identity mixed into the outcome of an argument, we end up defending ourselves more than defending the Gospel. When we aren’t humble and honest enough to admit error, or admit when the other person has a good point then we foster insecurity. We get emotionally invested taking responsibility for more than we should. We are not saving souls, God saves souls. We are not “winning the battle,” God has already won it. We are not defending truth worldwide all by ourselves, God is already doing that and it’s our privilege to be allowed to help. In short, we need to be secure in our own faith, in our own relationship with God, in our own worldview so that we can “take a punch.” Insecure proud apologists can do more harm than good.
One way to take a punch is by apologizing when we make a mistake. Before your interlocutor gets a full head of steam and rolls right over Christianity, you can absorb the blow saying something like, “I apologize, I misunderstood you. You make an interesting point and I don’t know as much about that as I should.” Then you can make some recommendations where they’ll better information than you could provide them. Here are a few sources regarding violence in the Old Testament.
My Personal Favorite on Slavery in the Bible. By Christian Think Tank
A Good Series by Clay Jones
Resources on Problem Passages, Including OT Violence
Hard Sayings of the Bible, by Kaiser, Davids, Bruce, Brauch, © 1996 InterVarsity Press
The Complete Book of Bible Answers, by Ron Rhodes, © 1997 Harvest House
Is God a Moral Monster?, by Paul Copan (c) 2011 InterVarsity Press