Despite how it sounds, apologetics isn’t about saying sorry. It comes from the Greek word apologia which means to give a defence. Christians often point to 1 Peter 3:15 as a mandate to build and present a robust case for the Christian faith: ‘Always be ready to give a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.’ This is what an apologist does.
When I was a keen, Christian teenager, I spent some time on Facebook groups debating with atheists, primarily as a means to explore and sharpen my own faith; I don’t think I was expecting to convert anyone. I now find myself on the other side of the debate, encountering a number of Christians online who present me with the same arguments that I once advocated a number of years ago. However, beyond the amateur and repetitive back-and-forths that so often characterize inter-religious dialogue online, there are those who actually know their stuff. Randal Rauser is such a person.
Randal is a systematic and analytic theologian who has been lecturing at Taylor Seminary since 2003. He’s written a number of books, including, Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, What’s So Confusing About Grace?, and most recently, Conversations with my Inner Atheist, in which he responds to objections to Christianity raised by Mia (My Inner Atheist). Randal is incredibly knowledgeable and insightful, and he’s also a delight to talk with.
In the first half of our conversation, we explore Randal’s approach to apologetics, unpack some of the challenges to his own faith and theology that he’s experienced, and consider why it is that we believe what we believe.
I came across your Twitter around six months ago, and your name ‘Tentative Apologist’ drew my attention in particular, because in my experience a lot of apologists have been anything but tentative. What made you take that on as your title?
First of all, it's truth in advertising; it's simply an accurate description. I've found that the more that I look at particular issues, the more nuanced and complex they get, and I cannot justify some of the old certainties that I grew up with, so the term ‘tentative’ is an appropriate one. I also think that from a normative, evaluative sense that ironically, ‘tentative’ tends to be stronger than people who are certain in their beliefs and convictions, because on a lot of these issues I find that when people have this certainty where nothing can persuade them or convince them otherwise, that is often because they haven't thought about it more deeply; they haven't moved into the deeper end of the pool. It just does seem to me that a lot of these issues that you end up dealing with when it comes to apologetics probably do warrant that kind of nuance.
And maybe the last thing I'll just throw out there is in terms of effective branding; it got the attention of somebody like yourself! So I think that's testimony to the value of the term.
You mentioned growing up with ‘old certainties’, and you spoke in your book of having a Pentecostal background and then changing some of your positions over time. What are some of the main theological shifts that you've gone through from your early faith to where you are now?
That one in particular, that's indicative of movement away from a traditional second-blessing theology, which is the idea that when you become a Christian, you should look for some subsequent ‘second blessing’ after your conversion experience. In the Pentecostal tradition, the sign that you've received a second blessing experience is that you have the ability to speak in other languages or ‘tongues’ that you had not learned. I grew up with that theology, and the teaching is such that those who have that second blessing now have the fullness of the spirit, which presumably should manifest in particular spiritual fruit that distinguishes that group from the other group that haven't been so baptised.
But in my late teens I didn't see that mapping onto those two different groups; the people that spoke loudly in tongues on Sunday morning at church weren't necessarily people who showed demonstrable fruits of the Spirit. I actually spent six months delivering furniture after high school with a guy who spoke in tongues very loudly on Sunday morning and spoke in other tongues when he was in traffic.
The second thing I also had in terms of my own experience was trying to seek out the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues and not getting it over multiple times. In University I took a course in charismatic Christianity and did a close study of 1 Corinthians 12-14, and I didn't actually find evidence in the Apostle Paul for what the Pentecostals were teaching. That ended up with me saying: You know what? I need to just go to the evangelical church that's closest to my house. I ended up going to a Baptist church, and the denomination that I ended up becoming a member of was the denomination that just happened to be advertising a job in 2003, and I've been teaching at the seminary ever since. So that's that journey.
Now, I've had a lot of others, for example moving from thinking about hell as eternal conscious torment to thinking about it as annihilation. That happened in the penultimate year of my undergraduate where I took an apologetics course. I committed to arguing the devil's advocate position against eternal conscious torment and I managed to persuade myself of my own case. One other quick example: I was Calvinist for about three years during my doctorate, and then when I had my daughter in 2002, that was the final catalyst for me rejecting Calvinism, because of the implications it seemed to have about God’s particular love for some creatures rather than his equal love of desiring Shalom for all creatures. I've had a lot of developments over the years, but those are some big ones.
The idea of trying to seek out the gift of tongues but never quite finding it resonates with me. In your Pentecostal tradition, how would people go about receiving that gift?
There was this key day where an evangelist came to our church and was speaking to the youth group, and that was going to be where we would get it. I went up to the front and he was going down the line laying hands on people and praying for them. He got to me and he's saying ‘Come on, you can feel it coming up in your throat, just start moving your mouth, boy!’ And I was like, I don't feel anything. Finally he just moved on to the next person.
Looking back at that now, I would say that I was less susceptible to suggestion. I think that there are a lot of well-established phenomena in terms of social conformity and the pressure of mimicking behaviours in which people can think something supernatural has occured when it hasn't. Now, that's not to say that there is no such thing as speaking in tongues; I believe there can be such a gift. But I believe that in the majority of cases, this is simply people who are creating and maybe deluding themselves into conforming to patterns of social expectation within their belief communities.
At summer camps, we had experiences where people would pray for you and they’d say ‘Repeat the sounds after me and eventually they will become your own, and then you should practise it everyday.’ Which made me think, at what point could you say that’s supernatural? You're just learning a behaviour. Picking up on another strand, what lay behind the change to viewing hell as annihilation?
You always have to be careful about retrojecting back your later, more sophisticated arguments to an earlier time. So, if I were to think back to the mid-nineties, particularly key for me was reading Clarke Pinnock, a Canadian annihilationist theologian, and also Edward Fudge and John Stott. They were all making arguments, first of all that the idea of the eternality of the soul underlay eternal conscious torment, and once you got away from that Platonising of the Bible, you recognise that human beings are mortal, and you realise that passages like Matthew 10:28 seem to talk about the destruction of the whole person within hell. Therefore, if you could remove the assumption of immortality, then you can view the imagery of fire as a metaphor of destruction and the cessation of existence.
And then you can think about some of the broader theological issues: if people are suffering forever in hell, how does that relate to a state of blissful existence in heaven? You get to some pretty stark options there. One option, which is actually a historically dominant one in the tradition of the Church, is that the suffering of those in the hell in fact illumines the delight of those in heaven, because it manifests God's glory and his justice. At some point you're thinking, there's something awry here.
I committed to arguing the devil's advocate position against eternal conscious torment and I managed to persuade myself of my own case.
I've certainly added more arguments since then. To give one example, the common argument for eternal conscious torment in terms of free will is that people freely choose to be separated from God forever, and so God says, ‘Thy will be done,’ to borrow the C.S. Lewis term. Now, the problem there is that allowing someone to undertake an action that is self-destructive of their Shalom is not justified just because they wanted in some sense to will their own misery. For example, there was a friend I knew in high school, and we discovered when we were at a party that she was cutting her wrists and her arms in the kitchen with a knife, and so the first thing that we did was pry the knife out of her hands and stop her from engaging in that self-destructive behaviour. If you think about hell on the eternal conscious torment view, God is just going to stand by and watch the infinite correlation of that girl cutting herself in the kitchen? That doesn't make any sense to me.
I'd like to get deeper into some of the questions around the end times a bit later. But rewinding a little, apologetics is quite a broad discipline, and I know people approach it in a lot of different ways. For you personally, what is your goal when you engage in apologetics?
The first thing I'd like to say is that apologetics is simply the presentation of your own beliefs in a winsome, persuasive way to someone else. It's not something unique to Christianity; it's something every person should be doing at some point. You really need two things for apologetics: first of all, to have a belief you hold that’s important, not just a trivial belief; the second thing is you have to value the other human being that doesn't have that belief. Because you value that person, you want to share your belief with them.
For that reason, we end up getting into apologetic discussions about all sorts of issues, some of which can be relatively trivial. For example, I became a convert to a particular brand of vacuum cleaner, the Dyson, some years ago. When my wife bought it, I thought that we didn’t need another vacuum cleaner, but she vacuumed our living room and then went over it again with the Dyson and we had another bag full of dust and dog hair. That persuaded me, and I started sharing that with other people. It's not the foundation of the universe, but hey, a clean carpet is still important.
When it comes to Christianity, there are then these two factors. The first factor is we believe that our beliefs are about the foundation of the universe and the most important things in terms of human flourishing, so the very nature of the beliefs themselves is maximally important, infinitely more than a vacuum. And in terms of other people, you should value them as created in the image of God and of infinite value. And thus, if anybody should have a warrant for pursuing apologetics, it is a Christian.
Do you see your audience as primarily those within the Church or those outside of it? Not that it has to be one or the other!
I would say that my greater passion is arguing for an intellectually-serious, engaged, properly-nuanced understanding of Christianity. I have much less interest in abstract discussions about the existence of God as such; those are still important, but I think I'm much more interested in those real concrete questions that we would wrestle with. For example, the book I have coming out this year is about trying to understand biblical violence in such a way that you don't sacrifice your moral integrity. So it's not so much insider or outsider that is my primary issue, but anybody who also has a burning interest in those questions, be they Christians or non-Christians.
Biblical violence has been a big question for me, so I’m looking forward to when that comes out! I know that the idea of worldviews is also an interest of yours. While we often change our positions, do you think that we can transcend our worldview and approach something from a more neutral perspective? Or are there at least things that we can do to try to create greater objectivity?
I'm not sure about the assumptions of the question; there is no God’s-eye point of view. All consumption of evidence is from a particular perspective, and that point of view will necessarily have certain background assumptions to it. It doesn't mean it's not objective, it would just mean that that all objectivity is perspectival objectivity; you're still seeing the object, but you're not seeing the object from that God's-eye point of view.
When people end up changing their worldviews, if they are doing so in a critical, introspective, thoughtful way, then there is a long build up and a long process afterwards.
So then the question is: can you change your worldview rationally, or is there just a leap from one to another? Well, certainly you can change it. It's much in a way like the slow movement from the breaking of dawn: there's a moment where the light appears on the horizon and now officially the day has started, but there was a long build up, and there will continue to be a long build up of the light illuminating the landscape as the sun rises. Even though there's a moment, it is still part of a long process. Typically when people end up changing their worldviews, if they are doing so in a critical, introspective, thoughtful way, then there is a long build up and a long process afterwards, even though there is a moment where they come to believe that something they previously held as true is now false.
What do you think might affect that build up? It will obviously depend on what the situation is, but what do you think might be some general factors that would impinge on someone's worldview?
Personal experience is huge. I really have a lot of impatience for people who want to talk about, ‘Is X rational or irrational?’ because rationality is inherently a contextualised concept, it's always: ‘Rational for whom?’ For me to ask, ‘Is this rational for Logan to believe?’ first tell me a little bit more about Logan and what he currently believes, and then I can understand whether that belief would be rational for Logan; it may be irrational for Logan but rational for another person. We have to realise that we are all processing evidence and information from our particular perspective, and in light of particular experiences and a particular set of intuitions as to just how the world seems to be to us.
So often we don't take the time to take a step back and reflect on the degree to which we are just taking things in a particular way because it seems to be so. I think usually, prima facie, that's a good ground to accept reality – accept that’s the way it seems to be unless you have some reason to doubt that – but also that there are times to question and think about that. That's just a very general, abstract response to your question, because it is so contextualised for the way that each person comes to change their beliefs about something.
That’s okay – I think my question was quite a generalised, abstract question! It does give you a bit of epistemic humility when you realise that you don't always have a lot of control over what it is you believe. I've recently been finding it interesting listening to shows like Unbelievable? in which people discuss issues from different worldviews, but I’ve discovered that there are different qualities of conversations; while some are more enjoyable, others are quite frustrating to listen to. When people disagree, what steps do you think they can take to make sure that they have a productive conversation and don’t just argue over one another?
I think you need to keep aware of the person with whom you're having a conversation, and recognise that some conversations may not be worth having. For example, if a person is very contemptuous of you at the outset – that they can't take you seriously, that they are chronically strawmanning your arguments, indulging in ad hominem insults, and so on– and your desire is to try to win them over, there's a good likelihood that it will not be a helpful conversation to have at that point. I recently had a debate on Capturing Christianity with Dan Barker about biblical violence, and I find that Dan Barker is quite contemptuous, and he really can't get over thinking about Christianity in terms of Protestant fundamentalism, which, lo and behold, is the kind of Christianity he left thirty-five years ago. So it's kind of like he's still doing an exorcism of his own Christian experience.
I think the best kind of conversations and the most promising are the ones that are not with people who are contemptuous of you but actually think you have an intellectually-serious, respectable position; they are much more likely to engage with you charitably, and the exchange that the two of you have is itself more likely to be a positive modelling of intellectual engagement for anyone else who's watching. Whereas if you have someone who is very contemptuous, even if you’re skilful, it can often just look like mutual mudslinging.
As well as those on the atheistic side, I know at times you've not shied away from being critical of other apologetic approaches. What do you think are some of the current issues around how others approach apologetics, and any unhelpful things that may cause, both in the eyes of those outside of the Church and also for the faith of those within it?
I think that the recent terrible situation with Ravi Zacharias is a good illustration of why we have to avoid the kind of back-slapping, good old boys club that you get in some Christian apologetic circles, where everybody knows everyone, and nobody is going to say anything critical about anyone else. I've been outspoken for a while that I didn't think Ravi Zacharias’ arguments were very good whenever I've heard them, and for three years I was speaking out about the very serious allegations against him in terms of fabulating his credentials, and in terms of his interaction with Lori Anne Thompson. And I just received silence from a lot of people; they wouldn't talk about that.
I think that it's so very short sighted, because if we really are people who care about truth, then you're not going to worry about stepping on toes within your belief community, and you're not going to worry about getting blacklisted from all of the apologetics conferences you won't get invited to; you’re just going to call things like they are. That gives you something of enormous value for your audience, whoever they may be, and that is credibility. Kind of like the salesman who will tell you when he doesn't think this car is a good car for you, or when there are problems with it; if you know who that person is, you'll come back to them in the future even if you don't buy a car that day.
That honesty comes out a lot in your book, and you’ve said that you may go into a chapter to address a certain issue without actually knowing what the outcome of that would be. Which of those chapters in particular caused you the most personal discomfort?
There's a chapter on Torah punishments, and so that's an example of one that would quite bother me. As I try to illustrate in the book, I think certain judicial practises like stoning people to death and amputating people’s appendages are just clearly wrong to my mind and are not the mark of a civil society. So, how do we think about the Bible then? It has been liberating for me to really come to terms with the fact that I don't have to be afraid of raising those issues, because they're already there, and so just acknowledging it is like lifting a weight off your shoulders, even if you don't know how to answer them. This is going to be the foreword to my forthcoming book about biblical violence:
One summer evening, some twenty-five years ago, I happened upon a haunting story in a newspaper about a man who decapitated his son because he believed God told him to. As I read of the horrifying scene that unfolded beside a U.S. Interstate, my eyes blurred with tears of anger. I couldn't begin to understand why God would allow such a terrible thing to occur. But one thing I did know, and I knew it immediately and with every fibre of my being, I knew that God would never ask a man to sacrifice his son, not really. That moral truth radiated out from me with the same force as any truth I have ever known. What I didn't realise at that time was how that direct, powerful acquaintance with an undeniable moral truth was my first step on a long journey toward a new understanding of the Bible. As the tears of rage rolled down my cheeks, I knew that God was a God of love and peace, not a God of violence and carnage. The tears that rolled into the dust that summer evening twenty-five years ago were the seeds; for better or for worse, this book is the harvest.
What I'm expressing there is that it was just a relief to be able to recognise that this is wrong, this is fundamentally wrong, and that's got to have implications for how I think about God and the problem of evil in the world, eventually circling back to issues such as biblical violence and how you understand God’s revelation in light of that. So for me, that is the biggest ongoing issue, and the forthcoming book will not settle all of those issues either, but at least it gives me a very helpful framework for pursuing them in the future.
One of the things that struck me in Conversations with my Inner Atheist were the occasions in which Mia would end a chapter by saying, ‘That doesn't satisfy me, I don’t think that’s the best answer.’ I’m aware that she represents a mixture of your inner atheist, but also others you’ve encountered; do those particular instances generally reflect the fact that you're still wrestling with those issues? Or was it more that you had reached the end of a chapter and thought that there are some whom it wouldn’t satisfy?
A little bit of both. I think that the biggest issue there is just to recognise that you're never going to satisfy everybody, and you’re probably never going to always satisfy yourself. One of the ones that sits with me and bothers me – and there's a chapter in there on it – is the age of Mary when she had Jesus. Now I have a nineteen year-old, I think back to when she was twelve or thirteen years-old, which is likely the time that Mary would have been considered marriage material in first-century Judea, and she likely would have given birth to Jesus around that age.
There are so many apologetics books that I've seen over the years that are like, ‘The six hardest questions for Christians,’ and I look at the chapters and I think, those aren't the six hardest questions, I can come up with way harder questions than those!
I've been raised and certainly trained in the Me Too era to think about issues like consent. Now, some people will go, ‘Are you nuts? Why are you even talking about consent? This is just God!’ But it's a reasonable question to ask: can a thirteen year-old really consent to bearing a child at this age? It’s a good sign that there's something here that troubles us, and that we’re okay to admit that it troubles us; if a thirteen year-old was giving birth in any other context you’d be kind of horrified. This could just be an anomalous exception, and it is possible that God certainly knew that Mary was unique among young girls, and God is certainly within his rights to do this, but having said all that, it's okay to think: it still seems a little bit problematic to me, I'm just going to have to leave it the way it is, but it doesn't mean I'm entirely happy with it.
That’s an issue I hadn't really come across before I read your book. It’s interesting that you're coming up with more arguments against the Christian position. But I think that’s quite an important thing to do, isn't it – to recognise and to represent the strongest arguments for the position that you don’t necessarily hold?
Some people would be worried that if I start going down that road and raising issues, I might give people more ammunition to believe that my beliefs are false. Of course that’s always a risk; life is full of risks. There are so many apologetics books that I've seen over the years that are like, ‘The six hardest questions for Christians,’ and I look at the chapters and I think, those aren't the six hardest questions, I can come up with way harder questions than those! But sometimes people are just pitching softballs to themselves.
Ultimately, what I simply have to do is be true to the way the world seems to me, and that has to be my primary commitment. We’re actually at this point into the distinction between a deontological or a utilitarian approach to ethics; in other words, do I just have certain principles that I have to follow irrespective of what the consequences may be, or do I have to look for the greatest good, and try to anticipate what that would be? There are certain points where I have to follow that deontological principle to be true to thyself and to speak what seems true to me, even if it could ultimately lead people away from the truth. I can't determine how what I say will be received by anyone else; all I can do is try to be as honest as I can.
In the second half of our conversation, we dive into some of the questions raised in Conversations with my Inner Atheist, addressing how we might approach the violent passages in the Bible, and whether there are some problems with the Christian understanding of the afterlife.
The above has been lightly edited for clarity and length.