Paul Copan on winning hearts, not arguments

Q&A | A Christian philosophy professor talks about the real purpose of apologetics
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 7/27/15, 04:10 pm

Paul Copan teaches philosophy and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. As a philosophy professor, he explains tough questions about God to both Christian and non-Christian audiences. He’s the author or co-author of more than 25 books, including Is God a Moral Monster? and Did God Really Command Genocide: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. Copan served as president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society for six years. 

How do you explain hard, abstract ideas to people where they are today? Did your pastoral experience inform the way you teach and the way you write? Pastoral experience does indeed help that. Also, I’ve been on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and working with university students helps. Another thing is, I’ve got six kids. When you’re communicating a number of these things to your kids, you’ve got to bring it down to their level. That is pretty helpful, to be able to articulate it at a basic level so that your kids can understand this. I remember one time my daughter asking, “What does God do all day?” What a great question to answer for a kid. 

One time, this same daughter asked this question: “How could God bring such judgment upon the entire world at the flood of Noah?” I said, “Remember that God was also very sad that He had to do this. It wasn’t something that He took pleasure in doing. Also, think of how wicked people must have to be for that to take place. For a long time, Noah was trying to persuade and win people over to listen to God, but yet they refused. What else could be done?” Again, these sorts of scenarios give the opportunity to boil it down, to simplify it.

I’ve heard that about 50 percent of the philosophers graduating with PhDs today are coming from Christian colleges or colleges and universities with a strong Christian heritage. Is that true? Sixteen to 20 percent of people who are teaching philosophy would identify themselves as theist, most of those being Christians and many of those being evangelicals. We have really seen a seismic shift take place since the 1960s when people reluctantly identified themselves as Christian philosophers, if at all. Now, we’re seeing evangelical Christians who really are, in many ways, at the forefront of philosophical discussion. They are the ones who are getting their books published with Oxford University Press and in other mainstream publishers, something really unthinkable a generation and a half or two ago. We’re really seeing a swelling of the ranks. This really is a golden age for Christian philosophy, for Christian apologetics. Many positive things are taking place here. 

Sometimes people who study apologetics use it as a weapon. Their No. 1 goal is to win arguments and not to win people. How do you guard against that? A lot of people do define apologetics as beating people up for Jesus. Even if they don’t say it, they do act that way. I think that because apologetics is the art and science of defending the Christian faith, you are going to be engaging not only in the science part—that is, the publicly accessible reasons and arguments—but you’re also going to do so in a wise and winsome way. That’s the art part, where you maybe just need to listen for half an hour or an hour to where a person is coming from. You begin to realize, “Oh this person’s issues are not so much intellectual, but they really are emotional. They are based on false perceptions of the Christian faith.” If you take time to just listen, you will say, “Wow, this person has a completely wrong impression of the gospel,” or, “This person’s really been hurt by a father who was a professing Christian or abused by this or that professing Christian.” …

Apologetics is not simply intellectual, but also takes into account the pastoral dimension where you listen, where you try to understand where a person is coming from, you try to determine whether a person’s issues are really intellectual or maybe they’re moral. Maybe this person doesn’t want to believe in God because he wants to engage in sexual immorality. That’s what’s keeping him from believing in God. It’s good to highlight that and say, “I don’t think your issue is really the intellectual side. I really think you don’t want there to be a god in your life because that’s going to interfere with how you conduct yourself morally or sexually.” 

As we engage in apologetics, we do so in a person-relative way. We try to treat persons in a way that honors who they are and where they’re coming from rather than having a canned approach that is one-size-fits-all. … Just as Jesus addressed people like the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus differently, we ought to be adaptable enough to engage with people where they happen to be coming from. You’re right, apologetics is often misunderstood and abused by people who just want to win arguments. If they’re going to apologetics for that reason, it’s an ungodly and unbiblical reason.

It’s easy to be a pessimist if you look at the culture more broadly. We’re also having this conversation just a week after the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and other troubling events in American culture. Are you an optimist about where we are right now? Someone once said there are no times that are so dark that a good man cannot still live well in them. I think we have an opportunity to take the circumstances as they come and realize this is an opportunity for us to not only speak the truth, to be bold about it, but also to do so in a winsome way and … a way that is not simply verbal but is representing a life well-lived. So often, people are distracted by professing Christians whose lives are a poor exemplification of the Christian faith. Jesus, of course, said, “By this, all will know that you’re my disciples if you love one another.”

When it comes to homosexuality and gay marriage and so on, we need to be better at living lives of fidelity within marriage, of true, loving marriage the way that God intended for it to be. … Rather than saying, “Oh that’s bad,” what about our own marriages? Are they the kind of marriages that actually draw people, that attract people to the gospel, or are they actually a distraction from the gospel because of the mixed messages that we’re sending? It’s an opportunity for us to step in to be lights in a dark world.

I think stripping away the Christian culture that we have so readily see disintegrating, this may be actually a good thing for genuine Christianity to rise to the fore and to really be bold and courageous to live lives that make the gospel look like a credible alternative to a lot of the junk that is around us.

Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Paul Copan on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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