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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

How Do You Change a Belief?

As I wrote yesterday, Christians are called to evangelize, and to be faithful in that calling the Christian must engage in the medium of ideas. We must, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor. 10:5). These arguments and opinions that non-believers offer are based upon their beliefs of how the world works. In order to destroy their arguments, we must ultimately change their beliefs, but this is much more easily said than done.


Just how does one go about changing a belief, anyway? Realize that a belief is an idea a person takes to be true. In other words, if someone holds to the belief that Jesus was created by the Father, then that person thinks the statement "Jesus is a created being" is true. No person can be said to believe something that he consciously acknowledges is not true. If he knows it isn't true, then he doesn't believe it, even if he may continue to act as though the belief is true. The contradiction is between his belief and his action, not between the truth value he holds and the belief itself.

Two Ways to Change a Belief

There are only two ways that I can think of to change a belief. You can either provide new information that the person hasn't yet considered, or you can show how their current beliefs are contradictory and therefore cannot both be true. Because beliefs reflect the truth value of a proposition, one cannot simply decide to hold different beliefs, to change statements from false to true. Beliefs don't work that way.

I've demonstrated this many times when I've spoken to groups in the past. I've asked "How many of you believe that there is a pink elephant in the parking lot across the street from this building right now?" Consistently, my audience responds incredulously. I then modify my question. "How many of you would believe that there is a pink elephant in the parking lot across the street if I offered you a million dollars to believe it?" Of course, a few hands go up, but then I ask, "Do you really believe that's true or are you just assenting to the proposition to get the money, even though you don't believe it?" Everyone agrees that they are just acting out the agreement, but they don't really think there is a pink elephant in their vicinity.

1. Providing New Information

The first way to change a belief is to provide new information to a person, or perhaps highlight information that they may know but have neglected to consider. Going back to my pink elephant example, I usually ask my audience, "Would your beliefs change if I told you that driving in today I saw a fleet of Ringling Bros. trucks also parked across the street?" They will nod in agreement that the new fact helps open them to the possibility of an elephant nearby. I follow with something like "What if I also told you that albino elephants will appear pink when wet; would that increase your ability to believe the statement?" Now, they have two new facts and the ability for them to believe the statement is increased.  I can then continue to build my argument, but I've eliminated some of their resistance to the idea already. You can clearly see that additional information helps people believe things they may not have held before.

2. Showing a Contradiction

The second way one can change a belief is to demonstrate that the person's current belief isn't valid. Let's use "Jesus is a created being" as an example. Whenever I talk with Jehovah's Witnesses about the nature of Jesus, they always tell me they believe that the Bible is true and the Bible teaches that Jesus is a created being. I then ask, "What if I can show you where the Bible explicitly denies this idea? Would you still believe it?" Usually the reply is, "Well, it doesn't." But as I press, they usually relent, mostly because they think I will be quoting from John 1:1 or something like that.

I preface my remarks by asking if they agree that everything we know can be categorized into two compartments, that is placed in one of only two "buckets" if you will: there are things that began to exist and there are things that never began to exist. Everything you can think of falls into one of those two categories. There simply is no third choice. To this I've had no one disagree.

I then take them to the book of John, chapter one verse three. (I skip John 1:1 altogether). In the NWT the verse reads, "All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence." I ask, "Is the 'him' in verse three referring to Jesus?" to which they answer "Yes." I then explain, "Here, in John, it says that every single thing that came into existence, it came into existence through Jesus. Jesus made every single thing that had a beginning. The NWT explicitly says, "apart from Jesus not even one thing came into existence." If that's true, then Jesus must exist before the very first thing that began to exist.  Jesus put everything into the "came into existence" bucket. But that means that Jesus must be in that other bucket. Jesus must have existed eternally. He cannot be a created being because John 1:3 doesn't allow that option."

You can see the problem the Witnesses have here. If they hold to their belief that Jesus is a created being, then their own Bible, the thing that informs them about who Jesus is, is wrong. If they want to hold that the Bible is true, then they have to give up their belief that Jesus is created. They know they cannot believe a contradiction, but they don't know what to do at this point.

Tomorrow I will end my short series on beliefs by talking about how these techniques play out in the real world. In short, there is no magic bullet that is going to make someone believe But realize that these tools are necessary when we are engaging others in the battle of ideas. Let's not go into battle unarmed.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Retiring the Cliche "If You Can Talk Someone into Heaven, Then You Can Talk Them Out"

Yesterday, I read two different articles on the upswing of apologetics in Christian ministry. The fact that apologetics is getting any press at all is both exciting and telling as our culture continues its decline into a more secular worldview. What struck me, however, was that in both someone cautioned the use of apologetics in witnessing by quoting the old trope, "If you can talk someone into heaven, then you can talk them out of it." Like most clich├ęs, at first blush this sounds like a truism we need to take to heart, but I'd like to examine it further because I think there's something fundamentally wrong with the idea.

The basis of a belief

The command to evangelize in Matthew 28:19 is well known. The call to evangelism is essential for those within Christendom that define themselves as evangelicals. But what exactly does evangelism entail? Evangelism at its core is changing a belief. It requires an individual to move from a state of non-belief in Jesus as savior and Lord to a state of belief. That is no small thing, since embracing that belief affects one's understanding of things like the nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of sin, and the nature of one's own eternity.

Now, I know of no reasonable person, whether believer or non-believer, who does not have at least some sense of belief on each of those issues. Some feel that people have souls that will live on after their bodies die. Others hold that people are just a physical byproduct of evolutionary processes and once the machine stops, so will they. Some hold to a fuzzy concept of God while others dismiss the idea of God altogether. The point is that beliefs at their core are ideas that one takes to be true, and everyone holds certain ideas as true, whether or not they have good reason for so doing.

Evangelism works in the medium of ideas

So if the evangelist is engaging with a nonbeliever, he or she must take into account their current beliefs. Asking someone if they want to avoid an eternity in hell will not be very effective if that person believes he will cease to exist at death! The sensitive evangelist will look for ways to interact with the nonbeliever in order to remove wrong beliefs he may hold about the world. He or she should strive to show why the ideas the non-believer has about the world are faulty. This means the evangelist is in the idea business. As a building inspector uses his knowledge of weight loads, safety requirements, and material specifications to ensure a new structure is safe to occupy, the evangelist uses evidence, arguments, and reason to correct faulty beliefs. Even one's testimony of how coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus transformed our lives is a type of argument. The evangelist is using a known sample (his or her own life experience) to tell the non-believer that he too can have a similar experience.

All of this shows the problem with the "If you can talk someone into heaven, then you can talk them out of it" retort. Christianity isn't like selling a used car. The evangelist or apologist should be offering reasons that are not merely convincing, but true! Apologetics is not and should never be Christian hucksterism. It isn't some kind of verbal ju-jitsu. The apologist simply sets out to deal with the fuzzy and illegitimate ideas that non-believers have so they can properly receive the Gospel message. We don't offer arguments instead of reasons; we offer arguments based on reasons, hopefully good reasons. If the non-believer changes one or two of the beliefs that he holds, then that's progress.

The ideas that matter in evangelism are either true or they're not. The Christian that rejects apologetics because "if you can talk someone into heaven, then you can talk them out of it" is really rejecting the concept of objective truth. That person doesn't mark the difference between good reasons for believing something and bad reasons for so doing. But Christianity depends on truth being objective. Paul made this clear when he said that if the belief in the resurrection of Christ is only a belief, if it isn't rooted in an objective fact of history, then it's a worthless one, even if it helps us feel better now. Indeed "we are of all people most to be pitied."(1 Cor. 15:12-19).

Ideas matter. The truth matters. Tomorrow, I will talk about how one may go about trying to change a belief, but know this for now: talking about beliefs is how God intends for us to go out and make disciples.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The One Question Mormons Hope You Don't Ask


Talking with Mormon missionaries can feel daunting. They seem to know their scriptures and have all the answers. Do the LDS really worship the same God we do? Are they Christians? Here is a very special four part podcast series where I offer a key question that Mormons cannot answer. Listen to all four parts here:
Photo courtesy Saaby and licensed by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic License.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

How Heresies Tried to Change Scripture


Were books left out of the Bible? What are heresies against scripture? How did the early church determine which writings should be recognized as scripture and which shouldn't? In this one hour lecture, Lenny reviews the heretical movements that plagued the early church in regards to Scripture. The teaching is part of the Deepening Your Faith series put on at Harvest Christian Fellowship. For more information on that class, visit http://deepfaith.harvest.org/


Friday, November 01, 2013

Don't Avoid the JWs, or You May Lose a Christian!


Two Jehovah's Witnessed came to my door yesterday. We talked for some time and during our conversation I asked the more experienced gentleman, whose name was Albert, to tell me why he decided to follow the teachings of the Watchtower. This is his response:
"I was raised Baptist. However, one day when two men came up to my door, they told me a lot of things that I had never heard before. They told me the truth. For example, they told me the truth about holidays. Today is Halloween and many of the different churches will celebrate this holiday that has its roots in paganism. It was a pagan holiday, started by pagans but Christians don't seem to mind. Even Christmas.  People will say 'Oh, on Christmas we celebrate Jesus,' but Jesus wasn't born on December 25! We know that he wasn't because snow would have been on the ground in December, but the shepherds were out feeding their flocks."
During this point in the conversation, I began to wonder why holidays would be the thing to cause one to change belief systems. It sounded trivial to me. But then Albert got to the crux of the problem:
"They also talked about things like the Trinity and how the Trinity isn't right. They told me things that I'd never heard before in all my time at church. Afterwards, I was confused and called my pastor. I told him what they said and asked about the holidays and the points they brought up. He asked me, 'Are those Jehovah's Witnesses? You just need to stay away from those guys. They aren't good for you. And he hung up. It was after that that I began to learn from the Witnesses because they would tell me the truth."
This really saddened me. It wasn't the problems with the holidays that turned Albert away; it was his pastor's lack of response. Albert thought that his pastor either was trying to hide something from him or possibly that the pastor had no answer to his questions. But he didn't care about these issues that bothered Albert. He simply dismissed his meeting with the Witnesses and said, "Those guys are dangerous. Don't listen to them."

Albert's pastor should be ashamed of his counsel. Instead of protecting Albert from the wolves that cone in to devour the flock, the pastor's warning had the opposite effect and made Albert a Jehovah's Witness. That was in 1980, and Albert has spent the last forty years going door to door trying to pry others away from the faith.

I've heard several pastors tell their congregations not to engage with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons.  They say don't confront atheists. They don't see any benefit of arguing with a person whose mind is made up. But, as Albert's story shows, this kind of response doesn't protect people from falling away. In fact, it may actually drive them towards a heretical belief since the Mormon or JW appear to want to engage in difficult questions about the Bible and faith.

Churches today need to become more serious in tackling the hard questions that both their congregants and their critics have. If Christianity is true, tough questions shouldn't scare us. Given the complexity of humanity and the transcendence of God, it also shouldn't surprise us that there will be some difficult issues we'll need to handle. But, we do a grave disservice to both the unbeliever and the Christian if we don't start working hard to find the best answers we can to the objections to the faith and incorporate them as part of a mature Christian life. In the Great Commission, Jesus commands his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19)." If we neglect the life of the mind, we are not fulfilling that call.
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