Doctrine: what you believe
Apologetics: why you believe it
Most of you can probably tell someone what you believe. However, Peter reminds us that we need to also defend our beliefs: “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15, NASB).
In other words, Peter was promoting Christian apologetics.
So what is apologetics? Simply put, it is making a reasoned argument for something (from the Greek, apologia; translated “defense” in 1 Peter 3:15).
Apologetics can be a very powerful tool in our arsenal. It can help strengthen our own faith. In those times when we start to doubt our beliefs, sometimes all we need is a reminder why that belief is true.
Apologetics is also a tremendous tool in evangelism. When talking to a skeptic, it can be difficult to get them to accept what we say is true. A reasoned argument can help them see that there is a basis, a rationale, to our faith.
In our endeavor to defend our beliefs, it’s important to make sure that our argument doesn’t work against us. Sometimes in our zeal to prove something in the Bible happened, we can end up doing harm to our faith and ultimately strengthening the case against Christianity.
Let me illustrate this using three examples: the burning bush, turning water into wine, and parting the Red Sea.
Why that order? So it’s not two Moses events in a row.
Moses and the Burning Bush
While in the wilderness, God spoke to Moses through a bush that burned but was not consumed by the flames.
Biblical Text – Exodus 3:1-4
Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 The angel of the Lordappeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. 3 So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
I’ve run across three theories that attempt to logically and scientifically explain the burning bush. Although each originates from non-Christians, over the years I have heard one or more cited by Christians as evidence the Bible is true.
One idea is that Moses was witnessing “earthquake lights.” Earthquakes lights is the phenomenon where balls of light appear a few inches over the ground or seem to shoot upward into the sky following an earthquake (hence the name).
A popular theory today is that Moses witnessed an acacia tree sitting atop a volcanic vent that ignited the plant. It’s further speculated that Moses consumed a substance that caused him to hallucinate the voice of God.
Each of these ideas seem reasonable. They offer a logical explanation to an otherwise unbelievable event (at least unbelievable to a skeptic). As Christians, we might think that using one of these theories to explain the Burning Bush event will help prove that the Bible is true—or at least is plausible. However, each of these arguments do more harm than good to the biblical account.
First, each eliminates the need for God. Why do you need a deity to explain a burning bush when it’s apparently already a natural event? You don’t. Interestingly, the third theory discounts any divine aspect of the event.
Second, while there is a scientific basis for these theories, none actually prove the biblical event occurred.
The burning bush, though, is not the only event recorded in history that Christians sometimes defend using natural means.
Jesus Turning Water into Wine
While at a local wedding, Jesus turned plain water into extremely fine wine.
Biblical Text – John 2:1-10
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” 6 Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him. 9 When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”
The scientific explanations mentioned for the burning bush come from non-Christian sources. However, the first time I recall hearing a less-than-supernatural explanation for Jesus’ first miracle was from a Christian pastor: John MacArthur.
In a 2012 sermon, Dr. MacArthur argued that in Jesus’ time it was common practice to evaporate grape juice or wine to create a non-alcoholic paste (essentially, grape jelly or grape juice concentrate). This paste would later be mixed with water to create wine.
In his commentary on Matthew, he argues that the wine Jesus made at the wedding in Cana came from mixing water with this common paste. In order to maintain the miraculous, however, he speculates, “Perhaps Jesus miraculously made wine from water for the wedding at Cana by creating the paste” (p. 262, Matthew 8-15, MNTC).
That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? To a skeptic it would offer a logical explanation for this miraculous event.
Although he uses etymology to support his argument, when it comes to apologetics, Dr. MacArthur’s naturalistic explanation hurts the biblical account more than supports it. How so?
First, like the theories posited regarding the burning bush, the paste-to-wine theory eliminates the miraculous. Although Jesus ordered the filling of the jars, there is no miracle in this explanation. Water was mixed with grape paste resulting in non-alcoholic wine, In essence, Jesus made glorified Kool-Aid (or juice from a can).
Second, it seems to contradict MacArthur’s argument in his commentary on John. In it he states that the jars Jesus used were not those used for storing paste, but for ritual cleansing and housekeeping. Furthermore, he states that, “nothing was added to the water” (p. 81, John 1-11, MNTC). Were these the paste-covered jars or not? Was paste mixed with the water or not?
Now, don’t think I’m simply trying to attack or discredit Dr. MacArthur. Far from it. I recommend his works and his sermons. Rather, I only wish to illustrate that, when it comes to apologetics, seeking a natural-world explanation for biblical events can actually work against us.
But these two aren’t even the relative big fish in the sea of biblical events. One that is often portrayed as a larger, more magnanimous event is the parting of the Red Sea.
Moses and the Parting of the Red Sea
God parted the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to escape their Egyptian slave masters.
Biblical Text – Exodus 14:21-29
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided. 22 The sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on the dry land, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23 Then the Egyptians took up the pursuit, and all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen went in after them into the midst of the sea. 24 At the morning watch, the LORD looked down on the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud and brought the army of the Egyptians into confusion. 25 He caused their chariot wheels to swerve, and He made them drive with difficulty; so the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from Israel, for the LORD is fighting for them against the Egyptians.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may come back over the Egyptians, over their chariots and their horsemen.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state at daybreak, while the Egyptians were fleeing right into it; then the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, even Pharaoh’s entire army that had gone into the sea after them; not even one of them remained. 29 But the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea, and the waters were like a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
Think about this from a skeptic’s point of view and you’ll start to understand why they’d say the whole idea seems preposterous. One guy divided a giant body of water in two. Then a massive group of 600,000 (Num 1:46) to over 3 million crossed on completely dry land between two walls of water. Finally, the water returned to normal only when the Egyptians tried crossing, killing them all.
If the parting of the Red Sea actually happened (and for the record, I believe it did), then it was a miracle! Because it defies logic, though, skeptics often reject it.
Enter the apologist.
In order to convince someone that the parting of the sea was a real historical event, scholars look for evidence and natural-world explanations. Over the years I’ve heard all sorts of theories as to how the famous water-parting occurred. Two in particular are often cited by Christians and non-Christians alike.
The first theory postulates that a volcanic eruption caused a tsunami. This caused water to withdraw as the wave approached, exposing dry land. It’s also noteworthy that this (or another) eruption is also credited for most-to-all of the plagues.
The second theory argues that a “wind setdown” (a very strong wind) exposed an underwater land bridge. I’ve seen two variations on this theory. Slate cites Florida State oceanographer Doron Nof, who speculates that “a northwesterly wind of 20 m/s blowing for 10-14 h[ours] is sufficient to cause a sea level drop of about 2.5m.”
The other, and probably more well-known, variation is from software engineer Carl Drews. According to him, a wind setdown of just over 60mph exposed the dry land, giving the Israelites 4 hours to cross.
Both theories—the volcanic tsunami and the wind setdown—depend greatly on translating the Hebrew yam suph as “Sea of Reeds” instead of “Red Sea.” As a result, both theories move the crossing from the modern day Red Sea, to the Nile River delta region.
Linguistics aside, Christians often use one of these theories as a defense for the biblical parting of the Red Sea. To a skeptic this would make sense because it does at least make the event plausible.
However, using these (or other) naturalistic explanations in our apologetics may do more to argue against the Bible than defend it.
First, it negates the need for God. (Notice a recurring theme?) The only thing left of the divine is timing, as noted by Ken Ham: “Such an explanation might leave God with credit for the timing of the event, but little else.” Furthermore, the timing could easily be explained as keen observation of the natural world on the part of Moses or other Hebrews. One could also dismiss it a grand coincidence.
Second, neither natural-world justification accounts for the whole story. Interestingly, the volcanic eruption theory offers the broadest explanation in that it accounts for plagues, possibly the burning bush, and the parting of the Red Sea.
Central to both theories is the location: a relatively shallow marsh. According to the Bible, the returning waters “covered” all the Egyptians, likely killing them (Exod 14:28). It doesn’t make sense how a shallow marsh would cover horses, chariots, and men, least of all killing them.
Furthermore, the biblical account states that there was a wall of water on both their left and right and that the land was dry (Exod 14:22, 29). In the naturalistic theories, there would have been a single wall of water, not two. Additionally, in these theories, the ground would have likely remained damp and muddy. According to the Bible, the Egyptian army started to cross on the dry land and attempted to turn around only because “the LORD is fighting for them [the Hebrews]” (Exod 14:25). There is no indication that they ceased the chase due to the ground being too soft for their horses and chariots.
Despite these problems, Christians continue to use these or other natural explanations in their apologetics, hoping that these non-God theories will help convince the non-believer that the Bible is true.
Sadly, they are mistaken.
Be Wary of Apologetics that Strengthens the Non-Believer’s Position
There is a logic to using scientific explanations to help skeptics and non-believers accept the possibility that the Bible is true, that miracles do happen, and that Jesus is Messiah. However, using them can often have the opposite effect: giving the skeptic even more reason to reject the notions of God and miracles.
Put yourself in their shoes. You don’t believe in miracles or God. The biblical accounts, to you, are mere myth, works of hyperbolic fiction passed down over time with changes made to fit a specific culture or ideology.
Your friend, a devout Christian, tells you that the Bible is true, there is a God, and miracles happen. To convince you, he tells you how naturally-occurrig chemicals on a plant burned, not harming the plant itself. Also, that paste was mixed with water to turn water into wine. Furthermore, that a giant wind blew away the water of a shallow marsh allowing the Hebrews to cross.
Would you be more or less convinced that God is real, miracles happen, and that the Bible is true? If you’re honest, you’d be even more confident in your skepticism and non-belief. Why? Because none of these reasonable defenses prove there is God, but only prove there are natural events.
This approach is flawed and even harmful to the faith.
As we engage in apologetics, we must be wary of arguments that, although they sound logical, actually help disprove biblical events as acts of God. When we build our faith on the foundation of a godless, all-natural explanation, we only strengthen the doubts of others and do harm to our own faith.
Use apologetics wisely. Be familiar with natural-world explanations. Often the scientific world can help us understand creation and how God uses his creation for his purposes. However, we must always make sure that the arguments we present accord with the biblical accounts.