Christian Apologetics: Evidentialism

apologeticsby John Ellis

The oft repeated phrase “faith is by definition irrational” is as irksome as it is untrue. It’s irksome because it has contributed to a lack of robust faith among many American Christians. It’s untrue because, well, it’s untrue. Faith, specifically faith in the God of the Bible, is not irrational because, first and foremost, God is not irrational and neither is His revelation of Himself. The Evidentialist school of Apologetics recognizes this beautiful truth about God, the Bible, and the faith Christians place in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Christian faith stands on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ. Narrowing it down even further, the Christian faith is dependent on the resurrection of Jesus. Writing to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul plainly stated, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”[1]

Apologetics professor Dr. Craig J. Hazen confesses that he finds I Corinthians 15:12-19 “to be one of the strangest passages in all of religious literature.”[2] Hazen explains that he has “not been able to find a passage in the Scriptures and teachings of the other great religious traditions that so tightly links the truth of an entire system of belief to a single, testable historical event.”[3]

The Christian faith is not irrational, and Evidentialists stand in the gap and push back on the unbiblical fideism that has sickened much of the American Church for over two centuries. Sadly, often under the guise of epistemological sophistication, some Believers disparage Evidentialism.

In an essay titled, “Epistemological Perspectives and Evangelical Apologetics,” philosopher and theologian John Frame wrote, “I have sensed that in recent years the debate within evangelicalism over apologetic method has degenerated into a series of partisan shouting-matches.”

And here’s the dirty little secret that many who identify as Presuppositionalists don’t like to admit. Many times, Presuppositionalists erect straw men as they “refute” the validity of Evidentialism. Many of those who identify as Presuppositionalists rarely present the best of Evidentialism. However, Evidentialism, especially when framed by R.C. Sproul’s teaching[4], is not only a valid approach to apologetics, but is also faith affirming and God honoring.

The shovel digging the seeming chasm between the two main schools of Christian Apologetics is their respective approaches to epistemology. Briefly, epistemology attempts to delineate what we can know as well as explaining how we know the things that we know – the study of knowledge – epistemology is the knowledge of knowledge, like the Panera Bread Company. Panera means “bread,” so it’s the Bread Bread Company.

What do Presuppositionalists generally believe about human knowledge – specifically about the things of God? Quoting the guest post on Presuppositionalism from Jed Kampen, “The unbeliever has a[n epistemological] commitment. But it’s a commitment to autonomy, to the wisdom of this age. It’s a commitment to suppressing the truth of God and rebelling against him and exchanging the truth of God for a lie.”

For Presuppositionalists, even though unbelievers are surrounded by God’s revelation of Himself, unbelievers refuse to see (have knowledge of) the objective truths about God because of their presuppositions that ultimately amount to a desired autonomy from God. And this greatly hinders the possibility for points of epistemic contact between Believers and unbelievers. In contrast, Evidentialists believe that there are points of epistemic contact between Believers and unbelievers.

Interestingly, though, Presuppositionalists and Evidentialists have epistemic approaches to Apologetics that are grounded in the same place – a Biblical Anthropology. Anthropology is the study of what makes us human, and both schools base their understanding of what makes us human in the Creation account found in the first three chapters of Genesis.

The first chapter of Genesis contains a very familiar passage that tells us that “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[5]

Humans are made in the Image of God. Humans reflect who God is. Part of that reflection is found in things like our desire for community/love and our ability to think and reason beyond pure instinct. Being made in the Image of God is the primary defining factor when asking “what makes us human?”

But, something tragic happened; the Bible didn’t stop at Genesis 1. Two chapters later, Genesis recounts the story of humanity’s fall into sin – colloquially referred to as the Fall. In Genesis 3, humans throw their lot in with Satan, and attempt a coupe on God’s throne. One of the consequences of that rebellion was that the Image of God in man was marred, it was disfigured. While the Fall did mar the Image, the Image of God in humans remains. And that’s an important point for Evidentialists.

Moving forward in the Bible to Romans 1:19-20, it’s revealed that God makes Himself known to all humans. “For what can be known about God is plain to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”[6] Moving down the passage to verse 28, we read, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”[7]

Unlike Presuppositionalists, Evidentialists do not conclude from those verses that humans’ epistemological rebellion can achieve an erasure of common or neutral ground with Believers in reference to knowledge about God. Being made in God’s Image combined with the incontrovertible truth that God has plainly and graciously revealed Himself means that even while being given over to their sinful desires, “the revelation does indeed get through.”[8] In other words, Evidentialists believe that there is a neutral-ish, at least, epistemological starting point upon which Believers can engage unbelievers.

This means that being made in the Image of God means, among other things, that humans have the ability to appropriately interact with information and propositions. Including, and most importantly, information and propositions about God. Therefore, R.C. Sproul says, “Before we can actually call people to saving faith, we have to give them the information or the content that they’re asked to believe, and that involves the mind. It involves communication of information that people can understand.”[9]

According to Sproul, the ability to communicate information and propositions about God to unbelievers is, in large part, based on four epistemic principles. In his book, Defending Your Faith, R.C. Sproul lists the four epistemic principles that Evidentialists stand on; their basis for claiming that Believers have common ground with unbelievers. 1. The law of non-contradiction. 2. The law of causality. 3. The basic (although not perfect) reliability of sense perception. 4. The analogical use of language.

Evidentialists believe that these four epistemic principles are found and assumed in the Bible. And, these principles act as a bulwark against relativism – relativism teaches that truth is relative, that the only truth that exists are interpretations and, hence, truth is fluid depending on time, place, and the individual. And, in reference to Apologetics, these four principles are points of contact between Believers and unbelievers.

(I leaned heavily on Dr. Sproul’s book Defending Your Faith to flesh out the following epistemic principles. For those who are interested in further study, I highly recommend the book.)

The Law of Non-Contradiction

In a nutshell, the Law of Non-Contradiction means that a circle cannot be a square. Not now, not yesterday, not tomorrow, not ever – not even in the new Earth.  Or, more “technically,” if you will, the propositions (A is B) and (A is not B) cannot both be true.

The law of non-contradiction is a law of logic that all Image Bearers recognize, even if they are attempting to disprove it. For the record, disproving it requires wandering into things like Quantum Physics, Quantum Math, – Schrödinger’s Cat type of headache inducing stuff.

The Bible assumes the law of non-contradiction. For example, Genesis 8:13, “And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry.” The law of non-contradiction means that the ground cannot be dry while also being wet. Reaching Genesis 8:13, the reader knows that the flood is over. The Bible assumes that if the ground is dry it cannot be wet. And this law is assumed throughout the Bible, as it is in our everyday interactions with the people and even things around us.

Since all Image Bearers recognize the law of non-contradiction, whether they want to admit it or not, all Image Bearers recognize that absolute truth exists (whether they want to admit that or not) –  the only people who actually live as if absolute truth doesn’t exist are insane. And I’m not using that in the pejorative sense; I’m using that in the clinical sense. Antonin Artaud, a French theatre theorist and playwright, was kicked out of the surrealist movement of the early 20th century for being too surreal. It turned out he was insane and he ended up spending most of his life in an asylum. My point, even those, like the surrealists, who attempt to deny absolute truth don’t want to live in a world where that’s actually true. And since the Bible is the ultimate truth, Evidentialists believe that we can appeal to the nonbelievers on that basis.

The Law of Causality

Moving on to the law of causality – everything has a cause, right? Wrong. Every effect has a cause.

In the words of Jack White, the law of causality means “that you can’t blame a baby for her pregnant ma, and if there’s one of these unavoidable laws, it’s that you just can’t take the effect and make it the cause.”

The law of causality has produced one of the most famous and most utilized proofs for the existence of God – the cosmological argument. Briefly, the cosmological argument utilizes the law of causality to declare that the universe, an effect, cannot be its own cause. Hence, something had to cause the universe. Unless, of course, you claim that an effect caused the universe. That claim, however, means that you’ve simply pushed the problem back one step further. Ultimately, the cause of all things must be something that is not an effect itself. And that something is God, who is not a contingent being; God is not an effect. Theology refers to that as the Aseity of God – He is uncaused; He is not dependent on anything for His existence.

Coming back to a ground level definition, the law of causality is necessary for acquiring knowledge. In fact, without the law of causality, we can’t know anything about the world around us. The scientific method would be useless without the law of causality. And, like the law of non-contradiction, the Bible assumes the law of causality – for example, the wages of sin is death. Or, consider when Nicodemus approached Jesus and said that Jesus must be divine because “no one can do these signs that you’re doing unless God is with him.”[10] The effect of miracles could only be caused by a divine being.

The law of causality is another epistemic common ground with unbelievers.

The Basic Reliability of Sense Perception

Thirdly, even though we are Fallen, our sense perception is still a reliable guide – not a perfect guide, but a reliable guide. Out of the three epistemic principles I’ve discussed so far, this one may suffer the sharpest attacks from the proponents of skepticism. Those attacks usually boil down to even if the laws of non-contradiction and causality are true, our ability to perceive them is so flawed as to render them functionally untrue for humans.

For the sake of time, I’m not going to attempt to provide any of the philosophical rebuttals. Besides, complex rebuttals aren’t necessary. Intuitively, we know that our sense perception is a reliable guide. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to argue about whether our sense perception is a reliable guide or not because upon our arrival in this world, we wouldn’t survive long enough in order to ever argue about it. Deliberately steering into one of the more common rejoinders against the reliability of sense perception (if only to whet appetites for outside study) based on my sense perception, I do not place my hand on stove tops that have been turned on. And, I do not walk out into oncoming traffic because I trust that my sense perception is delivering me accurate information and, then, the law of causality tells me what’s going to happen next. I’m not unique, every human, who is not insane or trying to prove a point, demonstrates over and over, day after day that they, too, believe that their sense perception is a reliable guide, because, simply put, it is. And Evidentialists take that to be another point of contact between Believers and unbelievers.

The Analogical Use of Language

Now, for the fun one – the analogical use of language. Looking at the opposite of this may help with understanding. And the opposite, called logical positivism, states that only words and statements that can be empirically verified have any meaning. Now, as is pointed out probably every single time someone trots out the proposition that “only statements that can be empirically verified have any meaning,” that statement is self-refuting. Why is that? Yes, because that statement itself is not empirically verifiable. But what does any of that have to do with Christians and Apologetics?

Well, the Image of God in us is analogical. Borrowing from Aquinas, it’s not univocal nor is it equivocal. For example, our ability to love is not exactly like God’s love – it’s not univocal, it’s not the same thing. However, our ability to love doesn’t mean something completely different than God’s love – it’s not equivocal, it’s not completely different. Our ability to love is partly like God’s love and partly different than God’s love – it’s analogical. It does reveal something about God but it doesn’t reveal everything about God’s love. If it did, we’d be God. And claiming that would simply be repeating our first parent’s attempted coupe on God’s throne.

The analogical use of language assures us that we can talk legibly and convincingly about God with fellow Image Bearers, because they, too, carry that analogy within themselves and the way they use language is based on it (and, according to the world of secular academia, that may be one of the most reviled statements in this post). This fourth principle, the analogical use of language, is also a point of connection that Believers have with unbelievers.

Wrapping up, it needs to be stated that none of these four principles tell us what to think; they instruct us how we think. And that’s where the point of connection lies between Believers and unbelievers for Evidentialists. Just because an unregenerate human being presupposes that God does not exist and claims that attempts to prove God are circular reasoning, he cannot escape the fact that he acquires information and knowledge the same way all humans made in the Image of God do. The believer, then, has points of contact in which to present apologetic arguments to that atheist.

Dr.  Sproul argues that “Virtually every attack against theism involves a rejection of one or more of the four basic necessary principles for human knowledge.”[11] Presuppositionalists correctly tell us that people reject the four epistemic principles because they are committed to foundational beliefs that are anti-theism. Evidentialism correctly tells us that sinners can attempt to deny the four epistemic starting points all they want, but they can never escape that the points of contact do indeed exist.

Sola deo Gloria

[1] I Corinthians 15:14, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2214.

[2] Craig J. Hazen, “Christianity in a World of Religions” in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 144.

[3] Hazen, “Christianity in a World of Religions,” 144.

[4] Some would prefer that I use the descriptor “Classical” when describing Dr. Sproul’s approach to apologetics. Well, yes, of course Dr. Sproul’s approach can be described as “Classical,” but “Evidential” also fits neatly and appropriately as a tag.

[5] Genesis 1:26-27, ESV Study Bible, 51.

[6] Romans 1:19-20, ESV Study Bible, 2158-2159.

[7] Romans 1:28, ESV Study Bible, 2159.

[8] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 77.

[9] Sproul, Defending Your Faith, 23.

[10] John 3:2, ESV Study Bible, 2024.

[11] Sproul, Defending Your Faith, 69.


One thought on “Christian Apologetics: Evidentialism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s