Recently, thousands of spectators across the country watched as a clash of ideologies took place. Bill Nye, beloved science guy of children’s television, debated Ken Ham, creationist and founder of Answers in Genesis. As I watched the debate, I analyzed both sides, trying to keep a fair mind despite my already firm belief in biblical creationism. After both men had been going back and forth for a while, it seemed to me that they both had flaws in their arguments; both had begun repeating themselves and even attacking each other at times. The way the argument went back and forth with neither man willing to concede reminded me of certain internet discussion boards, like Facebook, where heated discussions tend to take place. But before I point the finger at individual debaters or the faceless masses of the internet, I have to admit that it also reminded me of myself—once upon a time.
There was a time, earlier in my undergraduate years, when I spent far too many hours arguing with skeptics and atheists on the internet. Sometimes it was with old acquaintances from high school or people I’d encountered through mutual friends, many of whom I had never met in person. Whenever topics related to Christianity came up, I was convinced that it was my job to persuade these people to believe the truth of the Bible.
Armed with an introductory philosophy course and one on creation studies, I crowned myself captain of my own debate team. I had listened to different speakers on the issues and done some internet research of my own. Whether the topic was creationism versus evolution, or historical evidence for the Bible’s prophecies, or even biblically-based politics in the modern world, I felt fully equipped to change people’s minds with my extensive knowledge and superior debating skills. After all, if I didn’t correct people when they were wrong, then how would they ever be saved? How could anyone refuse to believe the truth with so much compelling evidence on my side? That was my mindset then.
To be fair, some attempts to persuade skeptics may have taken on healthy and civil discussions, but all too often these debates escalated into full-blown arguments. Both the Christian and atheist in the conversations would sometimes get angry or become offensive by implying that the other person was stupid or blind for not agreeing with the other. While my arguments may have been sound, my actions and attitudes were definitely flawed.
It turns out that no one was saved due to my arguments. Not one showed the slightest desire to become a Christian. That’s not surprising. In most cases, Christ wasn’t represented very well. What may have been good intentions, at first, ultimately became an effort to provoke people. Trying to win an argument became more important than showing love. I had become a holy troll.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that this isn’t our mission. These types of arguments do more harm than good for obvious reasons. The hostility displayed is largely ineffective. Yelling and insulting are much less likely change minds than kind reasoning. As a current teaching assistant for a college freshman English course, I stress that students write arguments which are credible and ethical, not only by the words they use, but also in the way those words are communicated. Civility, kindness and understanding go a long way in keeping disagreements healthy and thought-provoking. Not only is a peaceful disposition the practical way to handle differences, but it’s also the Christian way. We are told in I Peter 3:15 to be prepared to give an answer but “with gentleness and respect.”
Upon further reflection, our entire approach can be flawed. Even if our discussions remain entirely peaceful, they may not be the best ones to have in the first place. Logical arguments don’t change people’s minds or speak to their hearts as does God’s Word and genuine Christian love.
If we think about it, Jesus didn’t seem as focused on debating creationism or homosexuality with the scribes and the Pharisees as He was about showing love to broken, contrite sinners. He did speak forcefully to His opponents when the situation called for it. He even invited doubters of the miracles He performed to carefully consider the evidence before them. So, there’s definitely a time and a place for those conversations, and there’s ultimately nothing wrong with people like Ham and Nye debating. But we as Christians should engage in those discussions if, and only if, we still have the central message of the Gospel in mind, with Christ’s love guiding all that we do and say. After all, to paraphrase Paul in I Corinthians 13, what good is it if we say a lot of fancy words or try to do a lot of great things for God, but do so without love?
To an extent, it’s fine to be skilled at apologetics and use logical arguments to back one’s beliefs. There is quite a bit of historical and scientific evidence to support the Bible’s claims. But the very word “apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia, which in the above verse from Peter means an answer or defense. Therefore, apologetics and intellectual knowledge should be used more as a shield. They’re great for defending against the criticisms of others, but we shouldn’t wield them as a sword to attack or attempt to win over others to our side. God’s Word is the only sword that “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
So let us beware the trap of acting like holy trolls on the internet or jerks for Jesus anywhere in life. If we do want to lead people to Jesus, as we should, then let us do so as Jesus did—not with a mean spirit, but by building meaningful relationships and showing genuine love.Sam Harris is continuously striving to follow Jesus Christ more closely and to love others more fully. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he also works as a teaching assistant for English classes. He enjoys writing nonfiction accounts of his life experiences, as well as science-fiction and fantasy stories and the occasional poem. He would like to be either a teacher, a writer, or a superhero when he grows up. You can find his blog at http://www.sirrahleumas.wordpress.com, or like “Samuel N. Harris” on Facebook.