© Copyright 2014 by Jimmy Akin
Recently, Gretchen Passantino Coburn posted an interesting piece on whether Jesus was trying to avoid the Cross when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Not My Will, But Yours Be Done). The piece very correctly points out that Jesus knew it was his Father’s will for him to die on the Cross and that he lived his life in complete submission to the Father’s will (thus also setting an example for us). As a result, there was never any conflict between his will and the Father’s, properly speaking.
What are we to make, then, of his prayer, “Not my will but yours be done”? The article makes a striking proposal:
[W]e argue below that it was not death on the cross that Christ was longing to avoid, but death in the Garden before the cross; and that Christ’s will was not different than the Father’s will, but in harmony with the Father’s will. We argue below that Christ, in danger of expiring in the Garden, cried out to the Father for the necessary power either to remain alive through his Garden experience, or, if he expired in the Garden, to be revived by the Father so that he would be alive for his coming crucifixion.
I have a different understanding of this passage, and Gretchen has very graciously invited me to do a follow-up piece for purposes of discussion.
The First Question
The first question we need to address is whether Jesus was about to expire in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to the article,
Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Luke says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Matthew and Mark affirm, “he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38, cf. Mark 14:33-34). [Theologian J. Oliver] Buswell notes that profuse perspiration is a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead “shuts down” preparatory to death.
What should we make of this argument?
“I Could Die”
The statement that he is sorrowful “to the point of death” is generally understood as hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). This is a common mode of expression in the Bible and one that Jesus uses in the Gospels. We even have similar sayings in English where the possibility of death is raised without it being meant literally (e.g., “I’m so embarrassed I could die”).
The possibility (probability) of hyperbole is so significant in this case that Jesus’ statement about being sorrowful “to the point of death” can’t be relied upon as proof he was literally about to die in the garden.
The argument for the claim thus depends critically on Jesus’ sweat becoming like blood and this being an indication of imminent death.
Is the Text Original?
The statement that his sweat became like blood is found only in Luke 22:44. It is not in Matthew, Mark, or John. However, there are significant reasons to question whether this material was originally in the text of Luke. Most modern Bibles will carry a footnote on verses 43 and 44, like this one from the New American Bible:
These verses, though very ancient, were probably not part of the original text of Luke. They are absent from the oldest papyrus manuscripts of Luke and from manuscripts of wide geographical distribution.
It is risky to make a dramatic interpretive claim (Jesus was about to die in the garden barring divine intervention) concerning an event found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke) when the key detail is found only in one Gospel and there is strong reason to think it was not in the original.
Is Bloody Sweat a Sign of Imminent Death?
If we assume that the statement was in the original, there is still a problem, because Buswell appears to have been mistaken about the nature of this phenomenon. While rare, bloody sweat is a known medical condition. Referred to as hematidrosis (Greek, “blood-sweat”), it is caused when the capillaries rupture into the sweat glands. Hematidrosis frequently is the result of anxiety, and it has been successfully treated with beta-blockers such as propranolol, which are used (among other things) to treat anxiety: however, it does not appear that hematidrosis is “a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead ‘shuts down’ preparatory to death.” The condition is not on that order of magnitude. While often produced by anxiety, the condition is a dermatological one that involves the capillaries leaking into the sweat glands, not a sign of overall systemic shutdown.
I did a quick review of online medical literature and turned up many cases where hematidrosis was not a sign of impending death. (See, for example, here, where patients are noted to have had repeated instances of hematidrosis.)
Buswell, writing in the early 1960s, may have had less access to medical information about hematidrosis. In fact, the condition is rare enough that it had not been studied as much then as it has been now. As a result, it could be understandable for Buswell to draw inaccurate conclusions.
A Clearer Indication? An Explanation?
It also strikes me that, if the Evangelists meant us to understand that Jesus was about to die on the spot, in contravention of God’s plan for him to die on the Cross, they would have signaled this to the readers in a clearer way.
They also likely would have provided some explanation for why this last-minute crisis was occurring. For example, was it a final attempt by Satan to foil God’s plan? If so, how do we explain the Gospels’ insistence that it was Satan who prompted Judas to betray Jesus? Furthermore, Jesus himself describes his arrest (not the agony in the garden) as “the hour of darkness” (Luke 22:53), suggesting that Satan was behind it.
But if it wasn’t the devil that tried to bring about Jesus’ death in the garden, what did? It wasn’t the Father’s plan for him to die there, and so it wouldn’t have been the Father. That would leave us with either an accident that seems to threaten God’s Providence or Jesus simply having a panic attack so severe that it threatened his life. Personally, I’d be inclined to resist either of those suggestions.
An Alternative Theory
As an alternative theory of the event, I propose that Jesus knew in advance that he would die on the Cross and that he was resolute toward this goal. However, it is emotionally one thing when death is remote and another when it is staring one in the face.
Thus Christ was able to deal serenely with the prospect of Lazarus’s death—and even remark on how it would bring glory to God—when he was still in Galilee (John 11:1-4), but he nevertheless wept when he was standing at Lazarus’s tomb (John 11:35-36).
This response is rooted in the death aversion that is part of human nature. Being in proximity to death causes averse feelings in humans (fear, sorrow, revulsion), and that’s a good thing. It is part of God’s plan, and it leads us to try to preserve life.
By virtue of his human nature, Jesus had death aversion also, and—as with the rest of us—it manifested with particular intensity when the hour of his death drew close: nevertheless, he was resolute to go through with the climax of his mission.
“Not My Will But Yours Be Done”
Jesus’ statement “Not my will but yours be done” does not indicate an actual opposition of wills. Indeed, it indicates the opposite—that he is completely submissive to the Father’s will.
The paradoxical nature of this statement is to be understood along the lines of similar paradoxical statements that Jesus makes—e.g., “He who saves his life will lose it,” “The first will be last.” These statements rely on ambiguity of language for their solution (i.e., they rely on the fact that terms like “saving” and “losing” and “first” and “last” can be taken in different senses).
In this case, the term that is subject to ambiguity is “will.” This can indicate a determination, decision, or choice—or it can indicate a wish, preference, desire, or similar emotional rather than volitional state. One can even recognize that one’s wish is not going to be fulfilled, but still give voice to it as a way of expressing one’s feelings.
That ambiguity seems to be in play here. By making his statement, Jesus is expressing his fundamental submission to the Father’s will while giving voice to the fact that he is experiencing death aversion. His statement could be paraphrased, less paradoxically, as “Not what I might wish, but may what you determine be done.”
Emotions vs. Resolve
This does not imply that Jesus’ will is not united to the Father’s. Indeed, he indicates that it is united to the Father’s. Rather, it implies that Jesus is feeling something different than what he wills. What he wills is to do what the Father has determined, but he is experiencing the feelings of death aversion that are normal for human beings in the presence of their own imminent demise. His giving voice to those feelings allows him to achieve an emotional release—just as when he wept or when he cried out in anguish—but his will is still in submission to the Father’s.
This incident thus highlights the dynamics of Jesus’ experience as a man. We also find ourselves in situations, particularly when we are suffering or preparing to die, where we need to say what we’re feeling as part of dealing with our emotions—even though we are resolved in our wills to a particular course of action.
By way of conclusion, I’d like to thank Gretchen and Bob Passantino for defending the fact that Jesus was always resolved to do the Father’s will, and I’d like to thank Gretchen for her gracious invitation to do this post.
A classic article from the late Bob Passantino and Answers In Action
© Copyright 2003 by Bob Passantino
Nearly everyone is familiar with the “Golden Rule” even if they don’t realize that it comes to us in its perfect form as a command of Jesus: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).  This command to deal fairly with others should govern everything we do as Christians, including how we defend our faith.
Taken within the context of Jesus’s other teachings, the Golden Rule is a minimalist argument, that is, the conduct commanded in the Golden Rule is the least one can do acting in imitation of the love of God. As a matter of fact, in many other places Jesus tells us that the superior commandment is not merely to be fair to others, to treat them as we would like to be treated, but even to excel in love toward others. He tells us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27, 35) and to forgive someone repeatedly (Matt.18:21-22). Jesus Himself provided the best example of this Better-than-the-Golden-Rule: He sacrificed Himself willingly for us while we were still sinners, deserving nothing better than God’s condemnation:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
The maximalist argument we could call the “Platinum Rule,” exemplified in Paul’s command to the Christians in Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Whether minimalist or maximalist, the command to treat others fairly is a command Christians can’t ignore, even when we are practicing apologetics, which is defending the faith. Years ago I was disturbed by the attitudes and arguments some Christians were using as they defended the faith, arguing with non-believers, cultists, and those of other faiths. Far too often I saw Christians making fun of the beliefs of others, taking unfair advantage of them in discussions, even misrepresenting the truth or their opponents’ arguments if they thought they could get away with it. I began to encourage others to remember the Golden Rule when they were practicing apologetics. At first I called this the “Golden Rule of Apologetics” – the Golden Rule has a place in our apologetics. Although that is true and sufficient, I quickly began to see people respond to my encouragement by using the Golden Rule selectively in their apologetics – when it served their purpose and they thought they couldn’t get away with anything else.
Over the years I have modified my principle and now I call it the “Golden Rule Apologetic” – the only apologetic system worth pursuing is the apologetic system that is governed by the Golden Rule. There is good biblical and philosophical precedent for this principle.
The passage we chose to exemplify the ministry of Answers In Action is 2 Timothy 2:24-25:
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
Paul reminds Timothy to be kind and to gently instruct; in other words, to practice the Golden Rule with those who oppose the Gospel.
In 1 Peter 3:15b-16, which actually uses the word apologia (defense or reason), Peter says that one’s apologetics should be governed by gentleness and respect:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Paul uses the Golden Rule Apologetic with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-31). Rather than merely mocking them for their polytheistic beliefs, he treated them kindly and fairly, commending them for their religious respect and using their own poets’ statements as a starting point for declaring the truth of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead.
Paul condemns religious hypocrites in Romans 2 for not following the Golden Rule Apologetic. He argues,
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things (Rom. 2:1)
Paul contrasts this hypocrisy with God’s Golden Rule by which he continues to extend his grace and mercy to sinners even though they deserve condemnation:
Do you show contempt for his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance? (Rom. 2:4).
In the Old Testament the principle I have applied to apologetics is applied to the every day activities of God’s people. Deuteronomy 25:13-16 gives this command:
Do not have two differing weights in your bag – one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house – one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Leviticus 19:35-37 parallels this teaching:
Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.
This is commonly referred to as the principle of “equal weights and measures.” Remember, to deal fairly and honestly is our minimal obligation under the Golden Rule. To deal generously and better than expected is our maximal obligation which transforms the Golden Rule into the Platinum Rule.
In philosophy a general rule called the “Principle of Charity” reflects the Golden Rule. In philosophy, one should give the most generous understanding and weight to what someone says. For example, if someone states his argument poorly, rather than merely pointing out the logical mistakes he has made, the Principle of Charity demands that his opponent correct the flaws in the argument (if they can be), and then respond to the best form of the argument rather than his opponent’s poor form of the argument. Another application of the Principle of Charity is to replace poor arguments with better arguments. If, for example, a Jehovah’s Witness gives two poor arguments against the deity of Christ, the Christian has the responsibility to give that Witness the best arguments against the deity of Christ – and then show that those arguments do not overturn the truthfulness of the deity of Christ. Those who fail to follow the Golden Rule in philosophy end up refuting “straw man” arguments that don’t properly represent the position we oppose in the first place.
An important part of the Golden Rule Apologetic is that you must not demand of your opponent what you are unwilling to provide. For example, if you are arguing with a Mormon that the Book of Mormon is full of contradictions, you must be willing not merely to cite those contradictions, but also to provide reasonable answers if the Mormon points to supposed contradictions in the Bible. If you launch ten quick arguments against your opponents’ view and then don’t give him time to respond, you cannot fairly complain if he does the same thing to you. On the other hand, if you bring up one argument at a time and spend the time necessary to be sure you both understand each other and where the evidence leads, you should feel free to ask your opponent to have the same patience and single mindedness with you.
You can even use the Golden Rule Apologetic to defend yourself. If your opponent makes fun of and misrepresents your view, you have every right to ask him if he would like you to act that way toward him. I am not saying that you should “pay him back” by mockery and misrepresentation (remember our Platinum goal), but that you bring out your Golden Rule principle to reason your opponent into a fair discussion.
If you apply the Golden Rule Apologetic every time you defend the Christian faith, you will find that those of opposing beliefs will listen more closely to what you say, respect your position even if they continue to deny it, give greater weight to your arguments, and be more willing to examine their own beliefs. You will not only give a good representation of Christianity, you will also be used by God to extend his mercy and patience to others, just as it was extended to you.
The next time you are tempted to perform sloppy apologetics, to mock someone with whom you disagree, or to dismiss opposing arguments without fair consideration, remember the Golden Rule and practice it until it becomes the Platinum Rule in your life.
 Other versions are in the Old Testament (see, for example, Leviticus 19:18) and in the writings of other religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism).
© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NIV).
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Defining the Gospel
The gospel, or “good news,” is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf (1 Corinthians 15:1-5). It is God’s Great Redemption Story – the work of God by the Holy Spirit through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ by which fallen, sinful, broken humanity is reconciled to God and regenerated to become the fulfillment of God’s image in his restored Creation.
The gospel is the reconciliation of humans with God. The working of the gospel is empowered and enacted by God, not humans. While God uses humans to proclaim the gospel, it is God’s power that acts in that gospel to produce repentance and salvation in the recipient of the gospel.
Apologetics, specifically Christian apologetics, is a defense of the truthfulness of Christianity and its truth claims, centered on the reality of the gospel.
The term apologetics comes from the ancient Greek apologia, used in the legal sense as a defendant’s response to the charges against him in a law court. When Socrates was accused of treasonously corrupting the youth of Athens, his speech in his own defense was called his Apologia. The term occurs in the New Testament specifically by the apostle Paul when he defends himself against the charges of heresy lodged by the Jewish leaders to the authorities (Acts 26:2); in another form in Philippians 1:7 (16) for defense of the faith; in a negative form in Romans 1:20 indicating that reprobates’ sins are indefensible; and most popularly known in 1 Peter 3:15 as not merely the “why” of belief, but the reasoned, argued, evidenced defense of the Christian hope.
Christian apologetics may include defenses such as rational arguments for the existence of God, historical arguments for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, scientific arguments affirming God as creator (intelligent design), philosophical arguments for biblical morality, etc.
The Appropriate Use of Apologetics
When someone testifies to the gospel, and his or her message is challenged, apologetics is the discourse by which those challenges are met. In this context, apologetics has three main purposes: (1) to hold scoffers accountable for their rejection of the gospel; (2) to remove the roadblocks of ignorance and/or misinformation that impede someone’s serious consideration of the gospel; and (3) to strengthen the faith of the believer (not merely giving the believer facts that support his or her faith, but actually nourishing one’s faith life).
Apologetics Exposes Resistance to the Gospel
First, apologetics exposes the scoffer’s rejection of the gospel as a spiritual or life issue, not an intellectual or fact issue. It breaks down the walls of defense that disguise someone’s rejection of God.
Most often, when someone is asked why he or she is not a Christian, some kind of an “ant-belief” apologetic is offered: “Christians are just hypocrites;” “How can I believe in a good God when I see so much evil around me?” “That Jesus stuff is ancient mythology;” “The Bible is full of contradictions;” etc. Some people specifically identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or skeptics and their objections appear more sophisticated: “The existence of God is unprovable;” “Science has done away with the need for people to believe in God;” “The Big Bang explains everything without need to resort to some Creator explanation;” etc. None of these kinds of objections disprove the existence of God. (They may bring into dispute the nature or character of God, the character of those who believe in Him, or the reliability of the revelation attributed to Him. They do not disprove God’s existence.) In fact there are abundant counter-arguments and positive arguments for the existence of God, the truthfulness of Christian theism, the reality of the Incarnation and Resurrection, and the trustworthiness of the Bible.
As 1 Peter 3:15 commands us, Christians are to be “always ready” or “constantly prepared” to defend the Christian faith, and when we take this charge seriously, God can use our arguments to expose the scoffer’s resistance to the Holy Spirit. The scoffer, those influenced by the scoffer, and, of course, those believers who challenge the scoffer can then see clearly that the scoffer is rejecting the truth, not clinging to the truth. Romans 1:18-20 tells us that scoffers “suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Many years ago my late husband Bob Passantino and I were asked by a new Christian to persuade her atheist husband to stop mocking her for her faith and to allow her to attend church and other Christian events. The atheist (we’ll name him John for this story) claimed he embraced the truth of atheism and didn’t need the crutch of belief in a myth like his wife. Bob talked to John on the phone and discovered he was an unsophisticated atheist. John was unprepared to appreciate the force of the apologetics Bob and I were prepared to deliver. So Bob sent John a list of books (this was before the Internet) to educate him in his atheism. All of the books were against Christian theism. Bob challenged John to read and learn more sophisticated arguments in preparation for talking with us. In the meantime, John agreed to stop harassing his wife for her faith. A couple of months later we met with John, who was eager to demonstrate his newly acquired anti-God prowess against us. (Evidently he didn’t consider that Bob, the Christian theist, who had prepared the atheist reading list for him, probably had answers to those arguments.) After several hours of discussion, we had answered all of his new arguments, improved some of his arguments but answered the improvements, and given him even more sophisticated arguments which we also successfully answered. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, John finally gave up his intellectual subterfuge. He said, “You both have every reason to believe what you believe, and I have no reasons to reject belief. But I will never believe in God! I hate God!” That was the crux of the matter: in his deepest heart, he knew God existed but he hated God and would not surrender to him. As far as we know, he never relented in his rejection of God, but it was evident to us, his wife, and himself that his problem was not intellectual, but spiritual. And he never mocked his wife for her faith or interfered with her practice of it. Apologetics holds people accountable for rejecting the gospel.
Apologetics Removes Mistaken Assumptions
When someone’s heart is softened toward the gospel, he or she often becomes distracted or confused because of exposure to false ideas about the truth of God, revelation, salvation, and Jesus Christ. That false information can obscure the truth. Like a “magic eraser” sponge, apologetics can wipe away those false arguments. While there is an abundance of evidence for Christian truth claims, and abundance of evidence against contrary world views, unless someone is aware of those arguments, he or she may fail to seriously consider the call of the gospel. Whether one’s spiritual head is turned by an attractive philosophical argument, a scientific conundrum, or a social fad, such diversions rob potential believers of the truth. The apostle Paul described this kind of spiritual blindness in Acts 17, as he addressed the Greek philosophers of Athens, describing their indiscriminate polytheism as ignorance, and proclaiming to them that he would enlighten them about the truth. He preached Christian theism and the reality of the resurrection, concluding, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
My late husband Bob and I once talked in a mainline Protestant church on the dangers of “New Age” beliefs and practices, including pantheism (God is everything and everything is God), psychic readings, reincarnation, etc. Afterward an older gentleman approached us and loudly announced, “I liked your presentation, although with my hearing problems, I missed a lot. I’m glad you brought up reincarnation. I’m fascinated by it and am trying to recover memories from my previous lives.” He seemed completely unaware that we had criticized reincarnation, refuting it from reason, science, and the Bible. We had the opportunity to meet with him in a quieter setting later and spent quite a bit of time listening to why he was so intrigued with reincarnation and explaining its inadequacies to him. By removing the attractiveness of reincarnation and exposing it as a cruel imagination that punishes people in this life for sins they didn’t even know they committed in a previous lifetime, and which gave no assurance that the cycle of rebirth would ever end, we were able to eliminate the man’s attraction to reincarnation. Then when we gave him the assurance of the gospel and the evidence for the resurrection of Christ, he was drawn to firm confidence in immediate salvation and confident hope for eternal life with God instead. Apologetics erases mistaken false ideas and clears the way for the persuasive truth of the gospel.
Apologetics Nourishes the Faith of the Believer
Most Christians know that spiritual nourishment, including food for the mind, is necessary for Christian maturity. Most churches emphasize Bible study and education for successful discipleship. Many pastors exhort their congregations to learn the Word of God. Even though apologetics is sometimes treated as the neglected step-child of Christian education, believers acknowledge that defending the faith against rational attack is an important part of Christian living.
Often overlooked is the essential factor of Christian apologetics for the individual believer’s spiritual health and welfare. It is not sufficient for a Christian to know what he believes and why he believes it merely for the purpose of defending the faith or winning the convert. Apologetics is not merely the “supplement” to the Christian diet. It is the spiritual nutrition boost that can complete the spiritual diet and revive the flagging spirit. Rooted in the saving power of the Holy Spirit, the new Christian life must be nourished not only by worship, fellowship, learning the Bible, and prayer, but also by confirming the faith through apologetics.
One of the key apologetics passages for the truthfulness and historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is in chapter fifteen of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Most who know apologetics are very familiar with this chapter, which represents an early proclamation of the resurrection dating from between AD 30 and 33, virtually contemporaneous with the event itself. The chapter begins with the strong command of Paul that this gospel of the resurrection has not only saved the Corinthian Christians, but it is that on which they have taken a stand, and it will continue to keep them strong if they hold firmly to the Word: otherwise, they will have believed in vain (1 Corinthians 15:2). How do we “hold firmly” what we’ve been told to believe? By understanding and knowing the strength of the belief. Paul spends the rest of the chapter preaching to the believers the truth of the resurrection and the falsity of its denial. He is not practicing apologetics to non-believers nor primarily equipping believers to combat unbelief outside the church. He is encouraging and nourishing the faith of the believers by proving the resurrection and disproving false beliefs. That is why he ends the chapter by encouraging the believers with the same images with which he opened the chapter – stand firm, let nothing move you, give yourself completely to the Lord’s work, because the reality of the resurrection gives you confidence “that our labor in the Lord is not in vain” (58).
This aspect of apologetics has been sadly neglected even as the last 30 years of American evangelicalism has seen a blossoming of Christian apologetics. Most of our involvement with apologetics has been for the purpose of refuting the opposition, defending the faith, and equipping believers to do likewise. We ought to expand our apologetic commitment and focus more time and attention on the spiritual nourishment apologetics gives believers. To the Jews who believed in Him, he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).
My husband Pat became a Christian as a young man, believing the gospel as it was told to him by his boss, a painting contractor who took him on as a young apprentice. Pat respected his employer, attended church with him and his family, was baptized, and learned about the Bible from a dedicated and wise pastor. But as he encountered the trials and temptations common to man, his faith stumbled. He didn’t know how to answer his non-believing family members when they mocked his faith. He didn’t know why, much less how, to resist temptations to sin when the lures around him seemed so much more tangible than something eternal promised after he would die. Always inquisitive, interested in science, an avid reader, he encountered more and more challenges to the simple gospel he had simply embraced. As he began to learn more about why he believed (he didn’t even know the discipline was called apologetics), he discovered his faith stirring with new growth. Solid apologetics in science confirmed his conviction that everything in the universe, from the expanses of space to the tiniest particle, was created by an intelligent designer. Apologetics in philosophy gave him confidence that it made sense to believe in Christian theism. Historical apologetics strengthened his identification with an unbroken line of apostolic testimony of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Finally, his study of the evidences for the resurrection enabled him to stand firm in his faith, confidently offering the gospel to others with the same promise of resurrection and eternal life that he had received. Pat’s faith is firm, unwavering, confident, and healthy. It’s not all attributable to apologetics, of course, as the Bible gives us a broad range of ways the Holy Spirit strengthens and confirms our faith. But his faith is an example of the kind of strength apologetics “muscle milk” brings to the believer.
Pat is not alone in his experience. After more than 40 years in apologetics, I can testify that for several of my colleagues, apologetics became a life-giving transfusion of spiritual life as they experienced faith-challenging crises in their own lives. I’ve had more than one apologetics friend in the midst of trauma tell me, “If it weren’t for my confidence in the truth of the gospel, I would have abandoned all hope.”
One of the most common scriptures used in apologetics is found in the short New Testament letter of Jude written to Christians in multiple churches of the first century. Jude verse 3 commands the Christians to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.”
Apologetics is not the gospel, but it has three crucial purposes: (1) It knocks down the pretense of those who reject the gospel; (2) It erases the misconceptions that distract non-believers from the gospel; and (3) It nourishes the faith of the believer.
Let me conclude with Jude’s advice to the Christians about how to use apologetics: “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (20-23).
© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino1
I love stories. I become lost in other people’s worlds. I devour good fiction voraciously, returning to the same wonderful story again and again, marveling each time at the tantalizing power of human creativity. Truly wonderful characters become almost as real to me as people in the “real” world. A gripping suspense story starts my heart pounding, my palms sweating, and my nerves ready to jump at any sound. If I must put down a half-finished intriguing mystery, I find my thoughts straying from my work to the puzzle, looking at it from one angle and then another, bringing my mental tools to bear to solve the mystery when I should be meeting deadlines. Some of the most profound personal and spiritual insights I’ve ever experienced have grabbed me from the pages of a story. In exquisite story telling I see the creatorial image of God reflected in authors who create worlds of ideas never pondered before. As a spiritual novice and a moral ingénue I encountered and came to understand faithfulness, integrity, courage, humility, and self-discipline through good characters; and betrayal, deceit, cowardice, pride, and self-indulgence through evil ones. I can’t count how often God has sneaked up on me in a powerful story, and taught me lessons I wouldn’t have willingly learned had he been so obvious as to challenge my stubbornness directly through a Bible study. My actual conversion to Christ came through a fairly ordinary encounter with the straightforward gospel, but the Holy Spirit softened me beforehand through literature, and nurtures me long after through the same manner.
I’ve used outstanding stories to share some of my most important beliefs with non-Christians who would never listen to an overt preaching of the gospel, but who can be enticed by a good story into thinking for the first time about life after death, justice, morality, and redemption. Mainstream, popular contemporary fiction — if it’s good — is a valuable tool of pre-evangelism, seed-planting, “soft” apologetics.
One of the best pro-life books I’ve ever read is Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss.2 Remember the story from your childhood? Horton the elephant finds a speck of dust on which is a village of little persons, the Whos of Whoville. Horton realizes he must rescue the Whos “Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The rest of the animals scoff and refuse to believe persons could be so small. But Horton can’t give up. He recognizes the moral responsibility he has, “I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they.” When the black-bottomed bird flies off with Whoville, Horton chases after him, crying, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!” In desperation, Horton urges all the little Whos to shout as loud as they can so the other animals can finally hear them and realize they exist. No one hears anything until finally the last little Who joins in with a “Yopp!”
Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover
Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.
And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean? . . .
They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.
And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”
Now, I don’t mean to imply that Dr. Seuss was a pro-life Christian, or that he intended this children’s story as a pro-life statement. Nevertheless, Horton Hears a Who reflects how truth can be recognized even by unbelievers, as Paul stated in Romans 2:15, “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness. . . . ”
Christian author John Fischer describes the importance of using the story to communicate the absolute truth, in today’s society of relativism, where “absolute truth” is rejected in favor of what he calls “truth anarchy”:
What happens to the Christian apologetic in such a world? How do we explain what we know as absolute truth to a generation that cannot even think in terms of such a thing? . . . .
Story. Narrative, novel, film, music, art, but tell a story. As in the parables of Jesus, we intrigue the modern mind through story and entice them to start thinking differently. Through story, one can encounter a world where absolutes are true even if one does not believe such a world presently exists, and in the process, the soul can unconsciously hunger for what it knows to be the truth but is culturally and intellectually being denied.3
We don’t need to spell out the entire gospel message in block letters to provoke some serious soul-searching. A local Southern California mystery novelist and newspaper columnist, T. Jefferson Parker, recognizes the power of a good story, “I like a sense of danger and a sense that in the book that I’m writing, life and death are the issues as opposed to financial solvency or cocaine problems. I want large things to be at stake.”4 In one of his columns, he focused on the meaning of life in only a few words of contemplation. He recounted the true story of a local teenager who was convicted of killing his friend over a robbery dispute. The convicted murderer, Robert Chan, “wrote in letters to the court that he had read Albert Camus’ The Stranger some nine months before the murder and claimed that the book encouraged him to kill his victim because ‘everything [is] meaningless and nothing matters because we are all going to die.'” Parker notes that he read the same book some twenty years earlier when he was a teenager, but responded differently:
Rereading Chan’s words . . . I was struck by how close he was to the mark, and at the same time how far away. Because we are all going to die, he reasons, everything is meaningless and nothing matters.
But the truth is: Because we are all going to die, nothing is meaningless and everything matters.5
A carefully crafted, compelling protagonist in an outstanding story provides not only a creativity reflective of the one true Creator, but also a prototype of a person redeemed to the creatorial position for which God originally intended us. In an imaginary conversation between mystery writer Dorothy Sayer and the protagonist of her classic Peter Wimsey stories, these two themes are echoed,
“Perhaps you’re right in a way. Perhaps I did create in you the man I couldn’t find in this life. But it was not for some subliminal and sordid satisfaction. It was to show the world the type of man required for the satisfaction of a modern, unfettered, educated woman. The awful, unattainable goal to be achieved.”
“And yet, if I may be allowed one more immodest observation, you achieved it,” Wimsey said softly.
“In art, Peter.”
“It is no less of an achievement for that. It is no common soul that can shape the world to its own ideals, no matter that the world it masters is a fiction. And no common reward awaits the creators of this life. However modest their creations, each echoes the larger work.
‘The glory of Him who moves all things soe’er
Impenetrates the universe, and bright
The splendour burns, more here and lesser there.'”6
Mysteries and horror stories lend themselves particularly well to sowing the seeds that make us vulnerable to the gospel. In a way, the good mystery or horror parallels the story of redemption: Everything is right in the world until evil intrudes and spoils what it finds. After searching, recognizing clues, and chasing suspects, redemption comes as good triumphs over evil and the world of the story is restored by justice. Jewish mystery writer Majer Krich recognizes this parallel, “Judaism in general deals with good versus evil in the Biblical sense. . . . [M]ysteries deal with good versus evil. Period.”7 Horror author William Relling (Brujo) agrees, “The essence of horror stories’ ‘scary stuff’ lies in a struggle between good and evil. I believe that, in fiction, good has to win. Otherwise we’re in trouble.”8
The best contemporary fiction can promote godly morality with subtle persuasion rather than brash revivalist preaching. Jewish mystery writer Faye Kellerman’s stories feature an orthodox Jewish couple, Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, whose deep faith seems a natural part of the story. In Sanctuary, on the trail of diamond thief murderers, Rina visits the “Cave of the Pairs” in Hebron, the traditional site of the burial of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Adam and Eve:
It smelled like a compost pile of rich, decaying vegetation, as if the shrine echoed God’s very words — for dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return. . . . These people weren’t fairy-tale characters or mythological creatures, they were real people. And like all real people, they had lived, and they had died.9
The Jewish sholdier guarding the site later explains how he knows Rina is not an Arab terrorist in disguise:
“I see with my own eyes that you’re a good woman. Because I followed you in the Ma’arat. I saw the tears in your eyes when you prayed, the expression on your face when you davened shemona esreh. I saw you mouth the words with clarity, with assurance, with purpose and meaning. Your posture, your sincerity. It shows through as if you have a window to your heart. You pray to a God of mercy, not to a God of revenge. Many pray here — Arab and Jew. I don’t think you’re a crazy fanatic. And I don’t think you are an Arab spy, either. Many try to pretend to be us to infiltrate. They speak our language, eat kosher food, drink our wine, and love our women. But they cannot love our God.10
Novelist Elizabeth George, without intruding sermonizing, but within the natural rhythm of the story, explains the forgiveness of God in the words of a parish priest consoling young Maggie Spence:
“If the Lord’s last words were, ‘Forgive them, Father,’ and if His Father did indeed forgive — which we may be assured he did — then why wouldn’t He forgive you as well? Whatever your sin may be, my dear, it cannot equal the evil of putting to death the Son of God, can it?”11
Verteran mystery writer Dick Francis doesn’t preach celibacy in Driving Force, but his protagonist understands its sad consequences: a young daughter, the unintended product of a physically enjoyable but uncommitted relationship, growing up with no knowledge of him as her father; and a recognition that sex is a poor substitute for being loved:
The older I grew, the more I saw consequences in advance and the more I cared . . . about not doing damage for the sake of a passing pleasure. I looked back over the years with horror, sometimes. After I’d lost Susan Palmerstone I’d drifted in and out of several relationships without understanding that I might have awoken much deeper feelings than I felt myself; and I’d dodged a thrown plate or two and laughed about it. How dreadfully long it had taken me to stop grazing.12
One of Francis’ most poignant stories is of a security consultant, whose loneliness is drawing him seemingly inexorably toward suicide. Gene Hawkins has no significant reason to live, and it takes all of his fortitude to resist ending his life: “The day-to-day social level had lost all meaning and underneath, where there should have been rock, had opened a void of shriveling loneliness.”13 The despair plagues him throughout his search for stolen race horses in company with an insurance agent who seems to possess all the meaningfulness, love, and family security Gene so desperately lacks. The temptation to end it all pierces the prose with an authenticity that speaks to the heart of anyone who has been close to self-inflicted death:
I shut my eyes, and the desolation went so deep that for an unmeasurable age, I felt dizzy with it, as if I were in some fearful pitch-black limbo, with no help, no hope, and no escape. Spinning slowly down an endless shaft in solitary despair. Lost.
The spinning stopped after a while. The internal darkness stayed.14
In the end, the contented insurance agent, Walt Prensela, saves Gene’s life by throwing himself in front of the suspect’s speeding car, and Gene rails at the unfairness:
It should have been me lying there, not Walt. I shook with sudden impotent fury that it wasn’t me, that Walt had taken what I’d wanted, stolen my death . . . . It would have mattered so little if it had been me. It wouldn’t have mattered at all.15
But finally Gene understands Walt’s sacrifice and turns away from suicide forever:
The gray day turned to gray dusk. I got up and switched on the light, and fetched two objects to put on the low table beside my chair.
The Luger, and the photograph of Walt with his wife and kids.
The trouble with being given a gift you don’t really want is that you feel so mean if you throw it way. Especially if it cost more than the giver could afford.
I won’t throw away Walt’s gift. . . . . I’ll survive.16
Not the gospel, in so many words, but a striking parallel to Jesus’ “greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
One of the most gripping suspense stories I’ve ever read is also one of the most spiritually and emotionally wrenching. T. Jefferson Parker’s Summer of Fear twists together two story lines to illustrate his theme of the triumph of good over random evil: a crime journalist, Russ Monroe, follows the unfolding story of a sociopathic serial killer slashing his way through a Southern California summer as the journalist anguishes over the invading, destructive brain cancer that threatens his wife, Isabella. It is also a story of exquisite soul-searching, a story where what ultimately matters is at stake.
Early in the story Russ recognizes the effect of the Fall on nature, “the way that nature can go so quickly from order to chaos. The popular notion is that nature’s world is ultimately ordered and systematic, that only man’s woeful intrusions can ruin that balance and harmony. This is not true. . . . the natural world isn’t neatly ordered, isn’t flawless, isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is just like our human one: angry and yearning for mayhem.17
Monroe’s ambivalent faith in the face of his wife’s suffering rings true to anyone who has anguished over the suffering of a loved one:
God, help me love her more. God, do something good for her or I’ll cut your heart out with a chain saw and feed it to Black Death. . . .
Have you ever known helplessness while someone you love is suffering? Have you ever cursed God for what He has done? Have you ever felt your heart throbbing with so much love and rage that they get mixed up and you can’t tell one from the other?18
He comes to a crisis where he truly experiences for the first time that he is not invincible, that he can’t make everything right, that he is, in fact, powerless:
If fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, what is the beginning of fear? I have an answer, for myself at least. The beginning of fear is to understand that you are without power. I took me half a lifetime — 40 years — to realize this. Oh, I can hear the protestant brayings of those who are “taking responsibility for their own lives,” or “are God,” but I’m not talking about the mundanities of happiness, success, self-fulfillment, weight loss, life without alcohol, or who is okay and who is not. I’m talking about powerlessness in the face of death, in the face of life, in the face of madness, love, disease, desire, in the face of all things beautiful and terrible that govern our every moment whether we know it or not. And I am talking about the fear of truly realizing that your best may not be good enough, that it may, in fact, be very little good at all. To understand this is to become fluent in the language of terror, to become intimate with the contours of the pit. It is the wisdom of the man before the firing squad. But fear — true fear — is not a reason for anyone to do something so simpleminded as to surrender. No. The acts of the powerless are among the lasting nobilities of the race. To advance with a stomach knotted in terror is more than courage. Fear is beauty.19
From this courage in the midst of powerlessness, Russ longs for a new beginning, “[Did] you ever wish something big, like God, would pick you up by the heels with a pair of tongs and just like dip you into something wet, and when you came out, you’d be clean and fresh again?”20
Finally, he comes to terms with the fear, the anguish, the terror, and God, praying before his wife’s brain surgery:
Dear Father in heaven, I am small, corrupt, hateful, meanspirited and too much a coward to sin importantly. I am a fool. Hear my prayer. I know how you value humility, so I confess to all this to assure you I know my place in your order of things. I deserve nothing. I expect nothing. I will ask for nothing. But you are absent here, you ceded this earth to us, and there are some things you should know. We suffer. We cry. We toil. Sickness comes to us. Death moves among us with arrogance. We die, trembling, bound for unspecified destinations. Christ died for our sins once; we die for them again. His agony is over, but ours continues. Our anguish is real. Do you remember how it feels? I know that your design is huge, so I have stopped trying to understand it. In your larger hands, we leave the larger motions. My concern is this life you have given us. I am too stupid to believe it is only a prelude. I am too weak to be happy that there may be a reward at the end of it. I am too literal to believe that the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. This is the heart of this matter. Do not think less of me for holding dear the life you’ve given. I lied when I said I would ask for nothing. This is what I want: I want you to treat Isabella with respect. I want you to give me the love that I want so badly to have for Isabella in these coming days. Give it to me so I can give it to her. I ask to be your representative. Do not leave us without love. Respectfully submitted to you in this hour of need, Amen.21
Start reading good fiction. You’ll discover spiritual lessons you never would have expected outside the pages of scripture.
Since I wrote the above, I have explored hundreds – probably thousands – of imaginary worlds with novelists, the best transforming me into a better me when I close the book, the worst propelling the never-finished story against my bedroom wall to lie forgotten and broken on the floor. I edited these words as I prepared to give a talk about a popular fiction book that claims to tell the truth about Jesus and the Bible, but which does not. Not only does the book denigrate our Lord, in its poor fiction it denigrates the beautiful power that flows inexorably through good fiction and into a tender heart that longs to be transformed – even a little bit at a time – into the heart of our Creator and Sustainer. Frankly, I didn’t want to spend another talk or interview focusing on the inadequate. I wanted to focus on what raises our hearts from our own inadequacies to Christ’s overflowing adequacy through the transformation of meaningful stories.
Let God work subtly in your heart through stories. Check the authors I’ve quoted above and below. Keep searching until you find God in the middle of a story. You will find a new way of – to paraphrase C. S. Lewis – “getting God inside you so He doesn’t merely improve you, but transforms you.”
Remember, I am not saying these authors are Christians, or that the books I’m recommending are Christian books with clear gospel messages. But they are authors who – however brokenly – are reflecting the Divine image; and whose books will leave you a better person – and better Christian – than you were before. One of my favorite characters, flaws and all, is Harry Bosch, created by author Michael Connelly. Bosch has devoted his life to homicide investigation. It’s not his career. It’s not his job. It’s not what he’s good at. It’s not what he likes. (Although it’s all those things, too.) He does it because it’s his mission – his calling, the only thing that fulfills him. And he lives by the creed that unless everyone matters, no one matters. Isn’t this an echo of Christ, who told of the shepherd who searched for the one lost lamb; and who said concerning his death, burial, and resurrection, “for this purpose I was born”? Look for books and authors whose mission is ensuring that everyone matters – that’s God’s message of redemptive love.
Other Recommended Authors:
Andrew Vachss – his mission is to protect children from evil. He says, “I don’t claim to do what I do because I love children. I do what I do because I hate people that prey on them.” In another place he says, “Sickness is a condition. Evil is a behavior. Evil is always a matter of choice. Evil is not thought; it is conduct. And that conduct is always volitional. And just as evil is always a choice, sickness is always the absence of choice. Sickness happens. Evil is inflicted.”
Michael Connelly – whether it’s his Harry Bosch series or his stand-alone stories, Connelly is always about redeeming the lost from evil into beauty and life. In Blood Work,22 the main character, an FBI profiler retired to receive and recover from a heart transplant, must solve the murder of Glory for her sister Graciella – it is Glory’s heart beating in McCaleb’s chest. Is there a better analogy of the atonement? In a short story Harry is interviewing an inmate on death row, pleading with him to give him the identity of his last victim, a young girl never identified and thus never buried by her family. The killer says nobody cares. Harry says he cares. The killer refuses to tell. Harry tells the killer, “You’re going to burn. You are going to burn in hell.” The killer responds, “Don’t you know, Detective? You have to believe in heaven to believe in hell.” The problem of evil and the problem of good, all laid out in a few short lines of dialog.
Elizabeth George – British mysteries crafted with complexity and richness of character but, in my book, most powerful because her characters change and grow through difficulty and pain. In Well-schooled in Murder one main character, Deborah, having miscarried several times as she and her husband try to build their family, struggles with guilt over the abortion she had years before: “As they gazed across the expanse of their bed, Deborah took the full measure of how completely her past was obliterating whatever future was possible with her husband.” If only a young woman with an “unplanned pregnancy” could see the future Deborah experiences here!
And then there’s Dick Francis’s Proof, of inestimable value for someone struggling through the loss of a beloved spouse; or his Decider, one of the best arguments for free will I’ve ever seen demonstrated in story form.
And for middle school children, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, a series by an archaeologist filled with great first century Roman history, artifacts, customs, and life – and, more importantly, experiences with forgiveness and God.
Other authors I credit for some of my spiritual transformation include James Lee Burke, Donald Harstad (a great, subtle wit, too), William Bernhardt, Robert Crais, Deborah Crombie, Ian Rankin, Val MacDermid, Minette Walters, Bryce Courtenay (The Power of One), Peter Robinson, Archer Mayor, Bartholomew Gill, Ridley Pierson, and Michael McGarrity.
There are many more – enrich yourself with some and grow pleasurably in your leisure reading!
1 An earlier version of this appeared in Cornerstone magazine in 1995.
2 New York: Random House, 1954.
3 Bethany House Publishers UPDATE, “Author Spotlight,” February/March 1995, p. 2.
4 Dennis McLellan, “Turning to the First Person” in The Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1993.
5 Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1994.
6 Terence Faherty, “As My Wimsey Takes Me” in First Culprit: A Crime Writers’ Association Annual, Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin, eds. (New York: Worldwide, 1992), p. 46.
7 Robert Epstein, “The Mystery Woman Who Can Do It All,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1994.
8 Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1992.
9 Faye Kellerman. Sanctuary. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994, p. 295.
10 Ibid., pp. 296-297.
11 Elizabeth George. Missing Joseph. New York: Bantam Books, 1993, p. 88.
12 Dick Francis. Driving Force. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992, pp. 210-211.
13 Dick Francis. Blood Sport. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967, p. 2.
14 Ibid., pp. 267-268.
15 Ibid., p. 283.
16 Ibid., p. 309.
17 T. Jefferson Parker. Summer of Fear. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 1-2.
18 Ibid., pp. 41, 44.
19 Ibid., pp. 181-182.
20 Ibid., p. 225.
21 Ibid., p. 240.
22 The movie version with Clint Eastwood is nothing like the book in regard to its transforming values. Do not substitute the movie for the book. It would be like giving a Coke to a malnourished youngster when he needs the protein shake on your shelf.