One Strategy to Rule Them All

How to Answer Skeptics from Romans 1

In high school, Dylan was a natural leader, voted Most Valuable Player on his football team. Everyone expected him to succeed. But when he went to college, Dylan’s Christian convictions were assailed by doubts in virtually every class.

In his science classes, Darwinian naturalism was an unquestioned assumption. In English class, a postmodern attitude treated all truth claims as disguised power plays. In psychology, the prevailing theories — from Freud’s psychoanalysis to Skinner’s behaviorism — treated Christianity as a symptom of mental pathology.

Dylan’s church had taught the basic gospel message, but it had not equipped him to meet the challenges of the university classroom. Deeply shaken, he dropped out of college and began to rethink whether Christianity was even true. Dylan eventually found his way to L’Abri, the ministry of Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. There he finally met Christians who could teach him to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

How can the church be more effective in equipping young people to keep the faith when they leave home?

Why Young Adults Reject Faith

Research shows that Dylan is not alone. When studies asked young people why they left the religion in which they were raised, the reason given most often was unanswered doubts and questions. The researchers were surprised — they expected to hear stories of emotional wounding and broken relationships. But the top response from young adults themselves was that they did not get answers to their questions.

But learning to respond to every competing worldview would take a lifetime of study. Do we have to memorize a different argument for every “ism”? The exciting answer is that the Bible itself offers a single, universal strategy we can apply to all systems of thought. The key passage is Romans 1. We could even call it Paul’s apologetics training manual.

In this chapter, Paul unfolds the drama of divine-human interaction that is the source of all belief systems. The great plot line of history is the tug of war between God and humanity. On one hand, God reaches out to humanity to make himself known. On the other hand, humans desperately seek to suppress that knowledge by creating God-substitutes.

The Romans 1 narrative provides the theological grounding for all apologetics. All arguments fall into two basic categories:

  1. We test a philosophy externally to see if it matches the real world.
  2. We test it internally for logical consistency.

What makes Romans 1 unique is that it explains why these tests work — and provides a strategy for how to apply them.

The Real World Test

Romans 1 teaches that those who reject the transcendent Creator will “exchange the glory of God” (Romans 1:23, 25) for something in creation. They create idols. An idol can be defined as anything put in the place of God as the ultimate reality.

The prevailing philosophy in the academic world today is materialism, which puts matter in the role of God. Matter is considered the eternal, uncreated, self-existent source of everything else — a God-substitute. The secular thinkers (Darwin, Freud, Foucault) that Dylan studied in the classroom were all materialists.

To be consistent, materialism must deny the reality of anything not material. Humans are reduced to complex biochemical machines, robots with no will, mind, soul, or spirit. Richard Dawkins says humans are “survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed” by their genes.

But such a simplistic, one-dimensional view does not line up with what we all know about human nature. No one lives like a robot. We make choices from the moment we wake up in the morning. One philosopher jokes that if people deny such free choice, then when ordering at a restaurant they should say, “Just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined that I will get.”

You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize that materialism does not fit what we know about human nature. Any philosophy that exchanges the glory of God for something in creation will also exchange the image of God for something in creation. Because it starts with something lower than God, it always leads to a lower view of humanity.

This is called reductionism, which means it reduces humans to something less than their full humanity. Materialism fails the first test because it does not match human nature as we experience it.

The Logic Test

We can also be confident that every non-biblical worldview will fail the second test. Why? Because a reductionist view of humanity must include the mind or cognitive faculties. It reduces reason to something less than reason. Yet how does it support its own case? It has to use reason — logical arguments. So when it discredits reason, it undercuts its own case. It is self-refuting.

Materialism reduces thinking to neurons firing in the brain. For the materialist, humans don’t believe something because we are rationally persuaded of its truth, but because of neuronal patterns in our gray matter.

But what does that imply for materialists’ own views? To be consistent, they must apply the same reasoning to themselves: Their own materialism is not a product of rational thought, but of neurons firing in their brains. In that case, why should the rest of us give it any credence? As apologist Greg Koukl puts it, this is how a worldview “commits suicide.” When its own definition of truth is applied to itself, it discredits itself.

This is called self-referential absurdity and the Romans 1 approach tells you why it works and how to apply it to any worldview. Find the reductionism: That’s the point where it will commit suicide.

The Romans 1 narrative provides the theological rationale for all apologetics arguments. The good news for young people like Dylan is that the biblical strategy can be applied universally. No more memorizing different arguments for each theory. We can be confident that Romans 1 applies to all of them.