Witnessing to Liberals
by Ron Rhodes
Liberal Christians typically seek to adapt religious ideas to modern science. Their goal is to make Christianity “relevant” to modern man. By elevating science to supreme authority, they assume the Bible is a fallible human document, approach Scripture with an antisupernatural bias, and dismiss miracles as the fantasies of ignorant people in biblical times who did not understand the laws of nature. They also view humanity as fundamentally good, with no real sin problem.
Jesus is not viewed as God incarnate or as a divine Savior. Rather, He was a man supremely full of God and was characterized by ethical and moral excellence. He is an example to—and moral teacher of—the human race. He didn’t die on the cross for our sins, but His death nevertheless has an uplifting “moral influence” on people (setting an example of sacrifice).
God’s primary attribute is said to be love. His holiness, judgment, and wrath are practically ignored. Thus, it is not surprising that liberal Christians hold out the hope of immortality for all people. The idea that any will spend eternity in hell is rejected.
Confronted with such a plethora of unbiblical ideas, conservative Christians might wonder how to begin in evangelizing their liberal counterparts. Following are some guidelines I have found helpful when dialoguing with liberal Christians.
Be loving. Liberal Christians sometimes view evangelicals as narrow-minded and unloving. For this reason it is all the more important that all of your personal encounters with liberals be marked by love. Be courteous, tactful, kind, and humble.
Debunk the caricatures liberal Christians often have regarding evangelicals. As a case in point, some liberal Christians think typical evangelicals believe in the dictation theory of inspiration (the view that God literally dictated the Bible word for word to the biblical writers). Emphasize that typical evangelicals reject this view.
At the same time, however, be ready to explain and defend the correct view of inspiration. Biblical inspiration may be defined as God’s superintending of the human authors so that, using (rather than bypassing) their own historical situations, personalities, and writing styles, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to humankind (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). (Space forbids a detailed apologetic defense of inspiration, but good resources are available for this.)
A necessary consequence of this view of inspiration is that the authority of Scripture cannot be separated from the authority of God. Whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms. Since the written revelation from God has been recorded under the Spirit’s direct superintendence, that revelation is authoritative—just as authoritative as the One who gave it.
Now, besides dealing with inspiration, you should also address the liberal view that because the four gospel writers had theological motives (the intent to convince readers of Jesus’ deity, for example), their historical testimony is untrustworthy. This is clearly faulty reasoning. As scholar Craig Blomberg put it, “The fallacy...is to imagine that telling a story for a purpose, even in the service of a cause one believes in passionately, necessarily forces one to distort history. In our modern era, some of the most reliable reporters of the Nazi Holocaust were Jews passionately committed to seeing such genocide never repeated.”
Another caricature you may need to deal with is the liberal’s misperception that evangelicals interpret Scripture too literally. Point out that evangelicals do not hold to a “wooden literalism”—the kind that interprets biblical figures of speech literally. Explain that what is understood to be symbolic and what is taken literally should be based on the biblical context itself—such as when Jesus used obviously figurative parables to communicate spiritual truth.
Emphasize that a literal approach to Scripture recognizes that the Bible contains a variety of literary genres, each of which have certain peculiar characteristics that must be recognized in order to interpret the text properly. Biblical genres include the historical (e.g., Acts), the dramatic epic (e.g., Job), poetry (e.g., Psalms), wise sayings (e.g., Proverbs), and apocalyptic writings (e.g., Revelation). Point out that an incorrect genre judgment will lead one far astray in interpreting Scripture.
Even though the Bible contains a variety of literary genres and many figures of speech, the biblical authors most often employed literal statements to convey their ideas. And where they use a literal means to express their ideas, the Bible expositor must employ a corresponding means to explain these ideas—namely, a literal approach. Such an approach gives to each word in the text the same basic meaning it would have in normal, ordinary, customary usage—whether employed in writing, speaking, or thinking. Without such a method, communication between God and humankind is impossible.
A third caricature you may have to deal with is the notion that evangelicals are unaware of—or are not willing to deal with—so-called contradictions in the Bible. Challenge this charge. Put the burden on the liberal, and ask him or her to cite specific contradictions. Use resources like Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and Norman Geisler’s When Critics Ask to demonstrate that there are alternative explanations that make good sense.
Debunk the liberal’s charge that miracles are the fantasies of ignorant people in biblical times who did not understand the laws of nature. People in biblical times did know enough of the laws of nature to recognize bona fide miracles. As C. S. Lewis put it, “When St. Joseph discovered that his bride was pregnant, he was ‘minded to put her away.’ He knew enough biology for that. Otherwise, of course, he would not have regarded pregnancy as a proof of infidelity. When he accepted the Christian explanation, he regarded it as a miracle precisely because he knew enough of the laws of nature to know that this was a suspension of them.”
Moreover, Lewis observed, “when the disciples saw Christ walking on the water they were frightened: they would not have been frightened unless they had known the laws of nature and known that this was an exception. If a man had no conception of a regular order in nature, then of course he could not notice departures from that order.” Nothing can be viewed as “abnormal” until one has first grasped the “norm.”
Don’t let the liberal get away with saying that science “disproves” the biblical miracles. Science depends upon observation and replication. Miracles—such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection—are by their very nature unprecedented events. No one can replicate these events in a laboratory. Hence, science simply cannot be the judge and jury as to whether or not these events occurred. The scientific method is useful for studying nature but not super-nature.
Scientists are speaking outside of their proper field when they address theological issues like miracles. R. C. Sproul observes, “Today when somebody steps outside of his area of expertise, people tend to follow and believe him. That is the basis of much advertising. For example, a baseball star may appear on television and promote a particular brand of razors. If that star were to tell me how to hit a baseball, he would be speaking with authority. But when he tells me the best razor blade to buy is a certain brand, then he is speaking outside of his area of expertise.” Scientists do the same type of thing in regard to miracles.
The skepticism of liberal Christians notwithstanding, there is good reason to believe in the biblical miracles. One highly pertinent factor is the brief time that elapsed between Jesus’ miraculous public ministry and the publication of the gospels. It was insufficient for the development of miracle legends. Many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ miracles would have still been alive to refute any untrue miracle accounts (see 1 Cor. 15:6). One must also recognize the noble character of the men who witnessed these miracles (e.g., Peter, James, and John). Such men were not prone to misrepresentation, and were willing to give up their lives rather than deny their beliefs.
There were also hostile witnesses to the miracles of Christ. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, for example, none of the chief priests or Pharisees disputed the miracle (John 11:45-48). (If they could have disputed it, they would have.) Rather, their goal was simply to stop Jesus (vv. 47-48). Remind the liberal that because there were so many hostile witnesses who observed and scrutinized Christ, successful “fabrication” of miracle stories in His ministry would have been impossible.
Demonstrate that nature and Scripture, properly interpreted, do not conflict. God has communicated to humankind both by general revelation (nature, or the observable universe) and special revelation (the Bible). Since both of these revelations come from God—and since God does not contradict Himself—we must conclude these two revelations are in agreement with each other. While there may be conflicts between one’s interpretation of the observable universe and one’s interpretation of the Bible, there is no ultimate contradiction.
We might say that science is a fallible human interpretation of the observable universe while theology is a fallible human interpretation of the Scriptures. If the liberal challenges the idea that science can be fallible, remind him or her of what science historian Thomas Kuhn proved in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—that is, science is in a constant state of change. New discoveries have consistently caused old scientific paradigms to be discarded in favor of newer paradigms.
Here is the point: it is not nature and Scripture that contradict; rather, it is science (man’s fallible interpretation of nature) and theology (man’s fallible interpretation of Scripture) that sometimes fall into conflict. Hence the liberal cannot simply dismiss certain parts of the Bible because “science and the Bible contradict.”
Also keep in mind that the allegation that the Bible is not scientifically accurate is sometimes related to the Bible’s frequent use of phenomenological language. Ecclesiastes 1:5, for example, refers to the sun “rising and setting.” From a scientific perspective, the sun does not actually rise or set. But let’s be fair. This is the same kind of language weather forecasters use. “Rising” and “setting” are accepted ways of describing what the sun appears to be doing from an earthly perspective.
Demonstrate that Jesus was not a mere example or moral teacher. No mere “example” or “moral teacher” would ever claim that the destiny of the world lay in His hands, or that people would spend eternity in heaven or hell depending on whether they believed in Him (John 6:26-40). The only “example” this would provide would be one of lunacy. And for Jesus to convince people that He was God (John 8:58) and the Savior of the world (Luke 19:10)—when He really wasn’t—would be the ultimate immorality.
Certainly, if Jesus had intended to teach doctrines compatible with liberal Christianity, He was a dire failure as a teacher. Indeed, His words led all those who followed Him during His earthly ministry in the precise opposite direction than He supposedly intended. All His followers ended up believing in miracles, that man is a sinner, that Jesus died on the cross to save them, and so forth.
In proving that Christ is the divine Messiah He claimed to be, one good approach is to demonstrate Jesus’ fulfillment of messianic prophecies in the Old Testament—including ones He couldn’t have conspired to fulfill, such as His birthplace (Mic. 5:2), being born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), and the identity of His forerunner (Mal. 3:1). (This is what first got my attention back in the 1970s when I was attending a liberal church.) Since liberals respect science, mention that the science of statistics shows there is something like a 1 in a 10-to-the-17th-power chance of one man fulfilling just eight of the hundreds of messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Peter Stoner, author of Science Speaks, provides an illustration to help us understand the magnitude of such odds:
Suppose that we take 1017 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote using their own wisdom.
Jesus fulfilled not just eight but hundreds of messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Besides this, Jesus is referred to by the names of deity (e.g., “God,” Heb. 1:8; “Lord,” Matt. 22:43-45); has all the attributes of deity (e.g., omnipotence, Matt. 28:18; omniscience, John 1:48; omnipresence, Matt. 18:20); did the works of deity (e.g., creation, John 1:3; raised the dead, John 11:43-44); and was worshiped as deity (Matt. 14:33). You should thoroughly familiarize yourself with these and the many other biblical evidences for Jesus’ deity.
Don’t be surprised if the liberal suggests that Jesus is just “one of many ways to God.” If they propose this theory, you should contrast the doctrine of God (the most fundamental of all doctrines) in the various religions. Jesus, for example, taught that there is only one personal God who is triune in nature (Matt. 28:19). Muhammad taught that there is only one God, but that God cannot have a son. Confucius was polytheistic (he believed in many gods). Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu scripture) believed in a combination of polytheism and pantheism (all is God). Zoroaster taught religious dualism (there is both a good and a bad god). Buddha taught that the concept of God was essentially irrelevant. Obviously, these religions are not pointing to the same God. If one is right, all the others are wrong.
Emphasize that Jesus claimed that what He said took precedence over all others. Jesus said He is humanity’s only means of coming into a relationship with God: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). One either accepts or rejects this claim, but no one can deny that it is exclusive.
Emphasize that Christianity is a religion of history. The apostle Paul warned the religious men of Athens of an impending objective event: the divine judgment of all humanity. And he based this warning on the objective, historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:31). It was this historical resurrection that instilled such boldness in the disciples. Initially, when Jesus was arrested, “all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56). But following Jesus’ resurrection, these fearful cowards became steel bulwarks of the faith. They remained unflinching in their commitment to Christ, even in the face of great personal danger and death.
There have been various attempts (especially by liberals) to explain away the resurrection of Christ. One of the most popular of these is that Jesus’ followers made up the resurrection story.
In response, point out how hard it is to believe that these followers—predominantly Jewish and therefore aware of God’s stern commandments against lying and bearing false witness—would make up such a lie, and then suffer and give up their own lives in defense of it. Moreover, if Jesus’ followers concocted events like the Resurrection, wouldn’t Jesus’ critics have then immediately come forward to debunk these lies and put an end to Christianity once and for all?
It is worth noting that the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 speaks of Christ’s resurrection as part of a confession that had been handed down for years. First Corinthians was written around A.D. 55, a mere 20 years after Christ’s resurrection. But many biblical scholars believe the confession in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 was formulated within a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Paul noted that the resurrected Christ appeared to more than 500 people at a single time, “most of whom are still alive” (1 Cor. 15:6). If Paul had misrepresented the facts, wouldn’t one of these 500 have come forward to dispute his claims? From a historical perspective, it seems clear that the evidence for the Resurrection is as strong as (or stronger than) the evidence we have for any other accepted event of ancient times.
Emphasize that Christianity ultimately is a relationship, not a religion. Christianity is not just a set of doctrines or creeds—a “dead orthodoxy.” Rather it involves a personal relationship with the living Lord of the universe. This is the most important truth you will want to leave the liberal to ponder because this is the ingredient of true Christianity that the liberal “Christian” is most painfully lacking.
Jesus said His words lead to eternal life (John 6:63). But for us to receive eternal life through His words, they must be taken as He intended them to be taken. A liberal reinterpretation of Scripture that fails to recognize man’s sin (Luke 19:10) and yields another Jesus and another gospel (2 Cor. 11:3-4; Gal. 1:6-9) will yield only eternal death.
The paradox underlying the liberal attempt to make Christianity “relevant” is that for everyone to whom Christianity is “made relevant” (those who believe miracles are unscientific), there are likely thousands for whom it is made irrelevant. For, indeed, the liberal version of Christianity lacks an authentic spirituality to help people and give them hope in the midst of life’s problems. Former liberal Christian Alister McGrath said that, among other things, liberalism’s “pastoral weakness became especially evident to me.” He said “liberalism had little to offer in the midst of the harsh pastoral realities of unemployment, illness, and death.”
In addressing the spiritual bankruptcy of liberalism, you can use the liberal’s recognition of God’s love as a launch-pad to emphasize that God loved humankind so much that He sent Jesus into the world to die on the cross to rescue humankind from hell. Be sure to note that Jesus—love incarnate—spoke of God’s wrath and the reality of hell in a more forceful way than any of His disciples ever did (see, e.g., Matt. 25:46). Hence, God’s love is not incompatible with the reality of hell. Jesus affirmed that His mission of love was to provide atonement for human sin (for which there is plenty of empirical evidence in our world) by His sacrificial death on the cross (Mark 10:45; John 12:23-27).
Inform the liberal that if he or she really wants to experience the love of God, the place to begin is a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Then tell him or her about your relationship with Jesus. There’s no better way to close a discussion with a liberal Christian than by giving your testimony, focusing on how your personal relationship with Jesus has changed your life forever.