Epic Failure: My Biggest Evangelism Mistake

During a trip to Breckenridge, a beautiful ski town in the mountains of Colorado, a friend and I decided to get our hair cut at one of the little shops downtown. As we waited our turn, I read another chapter of the book I had brought along with me, a book whose title clearly indicated my interest in spiritual things.

When my turn came and I settled into the chair, the young hairstylist noted that I was reading a Christian book and wondered if it would be okay for her to ask me a question about God that had been on her mind. Of course I said yes, relishing the opportunity to talk about theology. After all, I had been studying apologetics and was ready with all the right answers. Bring it on, I thought, smiling to myself.

“Well,” she started, with just a hint of hesitation, “why does God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?”

Really, that’s all you got? raced through my mind. Why is this such a big problem? It’s one of the most oft-asked questions in apologetics, and I was ready with the classical free-will defense—emphasizing that God desires a relationship with us, which is possible only if we have free will. I made the point that evil can exist only if there is first a standard of objective good and there can be good only if there is a God. In other words, her very question, I pointed out, presupposes the existence of God.

This led to more questions, and I found I could answer each one pretty easily. She’d ask a question, and I had an answer ready at hand.

Things were going extraordinarily well, I thought, until she paused for a long moment, lifted the scissors away from my head, and then began to cry. She stepped back from cutting my hair and said in a quavering voice, “This is a bunch of bs! You’ve got an answer for everything. It can’t be that easy. You just don’t understand.”

I was speechless (and a bit nervous, since she was clearly upset and had very sharp scissors poised not far from my head).

What had just happened? It seemed like we were having a great conversation…and now this. Well, I quickly changed the topic and made sure to give her a big tip on the way out. Outside the shop, I turned to my friend and asked him why he thought she had been so defensive. He took a deep breath and looked me in the eyes, probably trying to determine if I was ready to hear the truth.

“Well,” he said, as gently as he could manage, “do you have any idea how arrogant you were toward her?”

I was taken aback. But as we walked along the streets of Breckenridge, I thought about the encounter and realized he was absolutely right. Rather than really listening to her, asking questions, and trying to learn from her, I was more interested in scoring points and winning the argument. My replies had come across as prepackaged sound bites rather than compassionate and respectful responses. What I saw, maybe for the first time, is that truth must be wedded to grace, and that what we say is important…but how we say it is equally critical.

If we have the best arguments but not love, our arguments will often fall on deaf ears (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). As I write in my newest book A New Kind of Apologist, Christians today must have both truth and love. This is why the apostle Paul said,

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Whenever the problem of suffering and evil come up, I try to avoid simple answers. I typically respond with a question: “Of all the things you can ask about God, why that one?” Occasionally people have a genuine intellectual issue they want to wrestle with, and I am more than happy to help. But more often than not, the intellectual question masks a deep personal wound. When I ask this question, I often hear painful stories of sickness, broken relationships, and abuse. The Christian response is not to simply give a reason, although there may come a time for that, but to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and to show comfort and care to the afflicted (Psalm 82:3).

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.

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11 replies
  1. Robert Lawrence says:

    Wow…. I would stop there because it is enough,but now I cant wait to pick up your next book brother. I think mostly because the only training so many have is JUST the right answers. The new Apologist needs to be mentored and shown how to give these answers with grace and mercy, compassion and sacrificial love. It is awesome that we teach all the responses in schools, churches and seminaries, but just as the Apostles WATCHED Jesus in every situation, they learned with their eyes and hearts when to speak to a Pharisee and when to speak to the Samaritan woman,
    .

    Reply
  2. Andy Ryan says:

    “If we have the best arguments but not love, our arguments will often fall on deaf ears”

    This is funny thing to read on this blog. Tim Stratton publishes articles here often, and his comments underneath when responding to people questioning his arguments generally descends into trash talking and proclaiming his victories.

    Tim: “Your responses failed miserable” (sic)
    Tim: “Better luck next time you are up to bat, Andy”

    Reply
  3. Luke says:

    I think this blog post is pretty spot on.

    Empathy and understanding will take you further than a formal argument with just about anyone. Yeah, when you’re thinking “why is the suffering of the world such a big problem?” you’ve gone seriously off the rails. “The Shoah, pfffff, that really bothers people?” you might as well say.

    The stuff Dr. McDowell has written here seems obvious, but every day we see that it’s clearly not to many people.

    I think it’s a terrible mistake for apologists to turn to the “you’re presupposing G-d because you said things that are objectively evil” because no one ever says that. I’ve been asked that question, and have seen it asked more times than I could count. No one ever says “objectively evil”. When you turn people’s words around and tell them what they are saying — PUTTING WORDS IN THEIR MOUTH — you’re telling them “I don’t have an answer to your actual question, so I’ll answer the one I want to answer”.

    Of course that’s not convincing to anyone. You’re shining a light on your weakness for anyone who actually cares to think. Compound that with what I said above — empathy wins more friends than logic — and you’re just digging a big hole.

    (Of course some people do come to us for concrete logical arguments, but you can usually tell when that’s the case, and it’s very rare at the barber or the coffee shop. Even there, saying something like “not everyone finds this argument convincing, but here is why I do” tends to work better than “this is logical and you’re dumb if you don’t agree”.)

    Thanks,

    Luke

    Reply
    • Andy Ryan says:

      “Yeah, when you’re thinking “why is the suffering of the world such a big problem?” you’ve gone seriously off the rails.”

      Barber: “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”
      Prosperous white middle-class straight American Christian: “What do you mean? Everything seems dandy to me!”

      “When you turn people’s words around and tell them what they are saying — PUTTING WORDS IN THEIR MOUTH — you’re telling them “I don’t have an answer to your actual question, so I’ll answer the one I want to answer”.”

      Yes. Apologists try to frame it as ‘the problem of evil’ rather than ‘the problem of suffering’ so they can give their presuppositionist argument. CS Lewis had an answer along the lines of “Then I realised that a God would have to exist even for the problem of evil to BE a problem”. With respect to the man – a smart fellow by all estimations – he was completely missing the point of the problem.

      The problem is that a world full of gratuitous suffering* (we don’t need to use the loaded term ‘evil’) seems to be incompatible with the existence of a God who a) wishes to minimise suffering, b) is omnipotent (so knows in advance that suffering will occur), and c) is all powerful, so could reduce suffering if he wanted to.

      There’s a Richard Dawkins quote that is often bandied about here to make a point that Dawkins wasn’t actually making. In it he says that the universe doesn’t care about us. He’s not saying we can’t or shouldn’t care about each OTHER, he’s just saying that the suffering we see in the world makes perfect sense from the perspective of there being no God. What happens in nature is happening without outside influence. It’s just what happens.

      Contrary to CS Lewis’s attempted response to the problem of suffering, it’s completely a problem for those who believe in a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful God. Suffering makes more sense if the God only has two of these traits, but it makes little sense if he has all three, and it makes PERFECT sense if there’s no God at all.

      In short, all the attempts to explain the problem of evil strike me as convoluted post-hoc explanations for why the world looks exactly as if there was no benevolent God who takes an interest in our affairs and has the power to intervene.

      By the way, I’ve just been reading up on responses to Lewis’s arguments. This was a good one:

      “Lewis claims that “With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent” (p.26). This seems to be the opposite of the truth. Human beings have removed several elements of the creation – polio and smallpox, for example. By his logic this should have been impossible. If we can remove these things from the world, why could not God have created a world without them in the first place?”

      * CS Lewis at least acknowledged this tacitly by calling his response ‘The Problem of Pain’

      Reply
      • Josef Kauzlarich says:

        Andy Ryan said, “The problem is that a world full of gratuitous suffering* (we don’t need to use the loaded term ‘evil’) seems to be incompatible with the existence of a God who a) wishes to minimise suffering, b) is omnipotent (so knows in advance that suffering will occur), and c) is all powerful, so could reduce suffering if he wanted to.”

        Thanks for laying that out Andy.

        If I understand correctly your argument is:

        The world is full of gratuitous suffering…if a god with the combined qualities of love, perfect knowledge, and unending power exists, this suffering is inconsistent with these attributes…therefore, it is unlikely that any such god exists (please correct if wrong).

        Your first premise assumes suffering of an unwarranted degree to be unnecessary. How can you know? How do you even know the current degree is unwarranted? Maybe it could be much worse? What are you comparing it to? Your own experience? This seems very limited and subjective.

        If there was a designer, perhaps suffering was essential to his objectives for creation. We may dislike the designer for this, but we can’t assume it isn’t needed. We can’t see all ends, so calling suffering “gratuitous” is a subjective opinion. Find all the horror stories in the world, calling all this suffering unnecessary will always be an assumption from a human perspective that can’t see all ends.

        The second premise of your argument essentially says, “A god that loves perfectly, knows everything, and has all power wouldn’t allow suffering”. This again seems presumptuous. Let’s discuss each. All I have to do to refute your argument is show possible reasons why a god with these three characteristics might allow suffering. You don’t have to like the reasons, but you disliking them is different from proving them not possible.

        Love: a loving god might have needed suffering to grow people to be good. Parents use suffering of a sort with their kids all the time. Perhaps they let their kid fall off something so the child learns not to climb unstable objects. Perhaps a parent uses discipline to correct their child’s behavior. Perhaps they put their kid through harsh exercise to be ready for a competition.

        A loving god might have needed suffering in order to have true love with his creations. This is the classic free-will therefore suffering argument. In order for us not to be robots, the designer would have to make us with the ability to go wrong.

        Omniscient: I think the core of this is, “Wouldn’t it just have been better for god not to create anything at all to avoid suffering?” If anyone’s answer is yes, we have found the creator because they are obviously all knowing. I find it funny that creatures who can’t see all ends would ever assume that an all knowing god didn’t know what he was doing by allowing for suffering. Of course he knew. If he exists, obviously he thought human suffering suffering was worth whatever objectives he put in place. I don’t see any problem with this, unless you combine it with his love. Well, let’s use an illustration that might help understand one reason why these two don’t conflict. If I want to build a robot wife that truly loves me, I need to design in free will. This means I might have to make multiple robots before I get one that loves me, pre-knowing I will scrap the rest (assuming created robots won’t want to be scrapped). Perhaps I know I will have to create and destroy five robots before I get the sixth that loves me. Should I not do it? Deciding if this is worth it is up to me, the designer, not the robots. I will also say it would be very unloving not to proceed because of the sixth one that did choose to love me. Should she miss out on being created and loving me because five chose to reject me? Seems very unjust not to move forward. Now I’ll caveat that by saying I’m a Christian and don’t think that exactly illustrates how God did it. But to present Christian theology is going to be pretty useless for disputing this argument.

        Omnipotent: this one is a wash with the other two explained. If there is a role for suffering, why would an all powerful god not allow it? Why would he want to get rid of it if it is the only way to achieve his aims? Assuming there are other ways is just that! Assumptions! This isn’t to say that a god would never intervene. As I said before, perhaps the world could be a whole lot worse! We could never know…perhaps god is intervening. We only have our present experience to judge by. I personally believe god does intervene…for hell will be a place with no god.

        I think this successful refutes your argument because all I had to do was show possibilities. If you want to bring up a particular Christian argument on this topic, I’d be happy to discuss, provided I have the time 🙂

        May the God I believe in, Yahweh the God of all wisdom, bless you as you pursue truth.

        Reply
        • Andy Ryan says:

          ” Maybe it could be much worse? ”

          I’m sure it could, but that’s irrelevant. The only important question is whether it could be less.

          If one were arguing against the idea that there’s a God who is maximally sadistic, then it would be relevant to point out that things could be worse, and hence such a God doesn’t exist – or he’d be making things as bad as he could. But that’s not the argument being made, so not the idea being argued against. So my point stands.

          Suggesting that five people must suffer and die so the sixth loves you is bizarre. Why make anyone suffer just so you can be loved by someone else? That doesn’t sound benevolent, it sounds capricious, vain and cruel – to make others suffer for your own vanity. Further, it’s using people as tools for your own ends. Like they’re just robots, in your analogy, despite them not being robots at all but sentient beings with the ability to suffer.

          Reply
          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            “I’m sure it (suffering) could [be worse], but that’s irrelevant. The only important question is whether it could be less.
            If one were arguing against the idea that there’s a God who is maximally sadistic, then it would be relevant to point out that things could be worse, and hence such a God doesn’t exist – or he’d be making things as bad as he could. But that’s not the argument being made, so not the idea being argued against. So my point stands.”

            Sorry, not convincing. The fact that suffering could be more isn’t irrelevant because the possibility of more suffering could point to intervention by a designer. Not that it does, but it could. Thinking suffering could be less is assuming that things aren’t already as good as the designer can make them given his objectives. Thinking about less or more suffering implies a scale with many possible outcomes. Perhaps, given certain objectives, the designer required a level of suffering equal to what is in the world today. Our desire to see less suffering doesn’t change that it may be necessary (assuming it is necessary at all to accomplish his objectives). So your point doesn’t stand…but I’ll let people reading decide that.

            “Suggesting that five people must suffer and die so the sixth loves you is bizarre. Why make anyone suffer just so you can be loved by someone else? That doesn’t sound benevolent, it sounds capricious, vain and cruel – to make others suffer for your own vanity. Further, it’s using people as tools for your own ends. Like they’re just robots, in your analogy, despite them not being robots at all but sentient beings with the ability to suffer.”

            You are saying it doesn’t sound benevolent and that it is vain and cruel…who are you to say what is vain and cruel? It’s your subjective opinion that the five shouldn’t suffer for the sake of the one. And perhaps you should tell that to the face of the sixth robot…I think you will find her happy to have been made and glad the designer went through with it.

            I am confused that you say these robots lack free will. The whole reason for scraping the first five is that they have free will and chose not to love their creator. So why make the first five at all? Well it may very well be that it is impossible to get to a sixth without making the first five! We don’t know and we can’t know.

            My overall point is that any opinion on the level of suffering in the world is subjective. You don’t know. You can’t possibly know because you aren’t omniscient. You can have strong feelings, but those feelings don’t change reality or the creators choices or indicate that a loving, omniscient, and omnipotent god doesn’t exist.

            So far I haven’t talked about the Christian God, because that requires Christian theology to provide specific reasons why God made the world the way He did. I just want folks to realize that is a different topic from the level of suffering in the world and whether suffering proves or disproves god.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Sure, why not just say that it’s benevolent to torture and torment people, if it’s all just opinion! Then you can define benevolent and loving to mean what you want and say that any conceivable God qualifies for that label under your definition.

      • Brian says:

        Andy, aren’t you doing something similar to what you accuse others of doing, not addressing the issue, so one can propose a straw man argument? In this case you misquote the Barber so you can focus on suffering and dismiss evil. I went back and read Sean’s original post. According to his account the Barber asked “why does God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” So, apparently evil was part of her concern. In addition, Sean’s post was entirely about addressing people’s suffering rather than providing a merely academic response.

        Lastly, the “good” response to C.S. Lewis’s argument you provide at the end of your comment is, in my opinion, not sound. Polio and Smallpox were not part of the original creation according to orthodox Christian theology. In addition Polio has not been eradicated. So this particular rebuttal, as stated, fails.

        Reply
  4. Josef Kauzlarich says:

    Andy,

    Now you are getting into morality, a separate topic. Related, but I think you and others would agree that it is a huge topic on its own.

    Thanks for the conversation. I look forward to more 🙂

    Reply

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