Why We Need to Walk With Skeptics

He’s friendly and outgoing, his voice carrying the pleasant rasp of someone used to speaking up for a living. “A pastor’s first book can be a lot of things,” I ask. “Why did you pick apologetics?”

“I wanted to reach people like me,” he says. “I wanted to preach the Bible, but through a skeptic’s filter. It’s what I’ve done every week for the seven-and-a-half years of our church’s life. It’s natural for the people that I pastor and the people in my city. I think the move away from apologetics over the past few decades is fundamentally flawed. This stuff still has major impact. Our church is made of people actually asking these questions,” Mark replies, “and we need to answer them. But it’s not just for them. This is stuff we need ourselves too. We need to go to the questions they—and we—really have, and address them in the open, with honesty and clarity.”

“But do you see people these days really turn to Jesus because of rational deliberation?” I ask. For a moment I picture Soren Kierkegaard sitting in the corner of my office, mouthing Leap of faith, and giving my question an approving nod.

“Some types of people do,” Clark answers. “Obviously the gospel is not just answering questions or running from something, it’s running to something. It’s moving toward treasuring Jesus more than anything else. It’s not like ‘Oh, I had an issue with hell, now that’s resolved so I’m good for the rest of my life’; it’s more like ‘I had an issue with hell, now that’s answered, so I can continue on my journey of pursuing Jesus.’ What keeps someone a Christian for a lifetime is their connection with Jesus, not rational arguments. But sometimes there’s a rational move needed to remove obstacles to that connection.”

He goes on. “As well, part of the challenge isn’t just internal argument—it’s convincing people that what they think Christianity is might bear little resemblance to the teaching of Jesus. We have to try to separate the beauty and truth of the gospel from the cultural dynamics of ‘Christianity.’ The cultural ethos of politics, family dynamics, history and inherited faith all contribute to why we need strong, open apologetics. We need to affirm what we believe to help remove what obscures Jesus.”

“As a pastor, how does a healthy apologetic shape the hearts of Christians?” I ask.

“Well, it’s about formation too. People can’t grow in their faith if they are embarrassed by it. Let’s say that a 25-year-old walks into my church, and all he’s ever heard is that science and faith are enemies and that Christianity is anti-rational. Why would he become a disciple? He thinks it’s dumb. But if he hears a compelling defense of why Christianity is not anti-science at all, not as easily shot down as he’s heard and has a foundational scientific legacy in the West, he may become open not just to hear the gospel one time, but softened toward a whole worldview of Christian life, now and after he first believes.”

I pause him there, fascinated by that word “softened.” It harks back to Paul’s argument in Romans 1, I note, to the idea that even when we see the truth, it’s innately human to suppress it in favor of what we want to believe. “How does that suppression relate to all this?” I ask.

Clark tells the story, which he also references in his book, of the quietly legal abduction of his 97-year-old grandfather by “caretakers” eager for his money. “He rationally knew the people who were keeping him were just after his money,” he says. “But they were feeding him and keeping him company. When my brother and I showed up to try to take him home, he didn’t want to leave, because he was getting something comfortable out of it. I thought that the truth would set him free, but he didn’t want to leave.”

He goes on. “We’re not that different. We’re all terrified to disrupt our worldviews, our patterns of life, our beliefs, what we spend money on, and so forth. If Christianity is true, then it’s going to be disruptive. It will dislodge me from my comfort. There is self-preservation involved in our internal suppression of the truth. It holds us back from objectivity. Our resistance is deep.”

“And rightfully so,” I say.

“Of course!” He laughs. “It’s a whole-life thing. The Sermon on the Mount, right? If Jesus is who he says, we have to tear our eye out, reconcile with those who hate us, pray for those who curse us. We’ll look completely absurd when the world around us is moving to kill those who do them wrong and we’re saying that we need to model love and mercy.”

“This characterizes your ministry,” I say. “How do other communities move toward this?”

“We need to be in actual engaged dialogue with our non-Christian friends, talking about the issues that matter to them. We need to move toward an apologetic that doesn’t just try to convince them of stuff, but shows that Christianity has a freedom and a welcome for skeptics that has been there from the beginning. Christianity is about brass tacks, real-life stuff. It is powerful. Meaningful. It gives you a backbone and helps you wake up in the morning. It’s not about just going to my flavor church, or “winning” atheists for my worldview. It’s about wanting people to really know God, to know freedom the way that Jesus talked about.

He continues, “There’s energy when people see a church engage questions publicly and honestly instead of being focused on passing down an unquestioned or inherited faith. Bringing honest skepticism into the pulpit is an odd idea, but I try to question anything that the evidence doesn’t bear out. Even though I’m a Christian. There’s a lot that we can learn from skeptics—including questioning some of the nonbiblical things that we just absorb from Christian culture. We can learn to be skeptical Christians in a way that earns respect from others and strengthens our faith. I often point out that if you’re skeptical about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, you’ll have friends in the disciples. Because in every gospel, that’s what they came up with until faced with physical evidence to the contrary. They thought folks stole Jesus too. Read John 20. That kind of skepticism is completely legitimate in Christianity.”