Don Carson and Tim Keller share their experiences regarding evangelism and apologetics in a university context over the past 30 years. Don argues that in some ways, because of the post-Christian atmosphere that now exists in the US and Europe, evangelism is easier than it was in the past because of the ignorance of Judeo-Christian values that were still being rebelled against.
Keller suggests that the exclusive claims of Christ and how a good God can send anyone to hell is one of the main challenges that offend students today. Answering skeptics with a question like, “So you don’t mind if Hilter or Idi Amin go to heaven?” Keller suggests that this brings the theoretical argument back to reality and helps set a baseline for a better and more serious conversation.
Christianity, Keller argues, makes a way for salvation for anybody who asks for the mercy of Christ, through genuine repentance—be it the abuser, the prostitute, the mafia man who kills people for a living. People who are humble enough to ask for a savior are in and the people who are too proud and self reliant are out. Once you can get to a more serious conversation, it becomes clear that everyone holds an exclusive view of who should go to heaven. It’s often the case that Christianity is a more inclusive exclusivity than that of the skeptic.
Another objection that Carson finds prevalent in evalgelistic contexts today is the offensive of sin before a Holy God. Because the majority of people today view sin as a sociological or cultural definition, this is a particularly difficult challenge he often faces. Without a proper view of sin, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross makes no sense.
Keller ends with an illustration of a mother who sacrifices greatly to put her son through school only to have the son ignore her, which he finds helpful to try and press into that issue with skepts to show how sin is a real offense against God.
In this episode, Carson recommends a helpful book by Randy Newman called, Questioning Evangelism.
For more resources on evangelism, visit https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/topics/evangelism
Thanks to the The Gospel Project who sponsored this episode. To learn more about The Gospel Project, visit gospelproject.com
To submit a question for TGC’s Q&A podcast, direct message us on Facebook or Instagram or write us at [email protected]
Today’s episode was produced by Heather Calvillo and Steven Morales.
Tim Keller: Okay. Don, you and I both do university missions. We’re still not completely been put out to pasture on the evangelism front. So, what are some of the main questions you get from people who are skeptical of Christianity right now? And how do you answer them?
Don Carson: Let me be perverse for a moment, coming from the side door. I still want to argue that it’s probably easier to do university evangelism today than it was 20 years ago.
Tim Keller: Yeah. Why?
Don Carson: Partly because 20, 30, 40 years ago, a lot of university students were still fighting off the background of their own history in Judeo-Christian thought. They were still rebelling. Nowadays, they’re so bone ignorant about classic Christianity that they don’t know enough to rebel. I mean, you approach them courteously and they’ll respond with a certain degree of uncourteous interest. I used to get heckled. It’s much less likely to get heckled today.
Tim Keller: Okay. We’re in that side door. I haven’t gotten heckled either. So, I grant that. What are some of the questions?
Don Carson: Perhaps the most offensive thing to university students today is the exclusive claims of Christ. So, the question shows up in many different forms: “How can you say that unless you’re a Christian, you’re going to hell?” Or, “Yeah, but what about all the Hindus?” Or swap for Muslims or Buddhists or whatever. So, it’s the exclusive claims of Christ that are perhaps the most offensive thing in the contemporary climate.
Tim Keller: And what would you say to that one? I mean, just at least in a nutshell, or where would you start?
Don Carson: It depends how it comes. If somebody says, “You’re not going to send everybody to hell, are you?” Then I like what Randy Newman suggests, answer with a question. “Surely you don’t think that nobody goes to hell, do you?”
Tim Keller: Yeah. That’s right. That’s the first question you say. “So, you don’t mind Hitler, Idi Amin, and people like that. In other words, you don’t want anybody going to hell.” And then they said, “Well.” And then what do you do?
Don Carson: Well, then what are the criteria for who goes to heaven and doesn’t go to heaven. So, suddenly you’re into a serious conversation that traditional apologetics would be concerned about, but you’ve got in it through a side door as it were, about what holiness is, and who God is, and accountability to him, and alienation from him.
Tim Keller: Right. And then, here’s how I’d complete it. Then I say, “Okay, since we do agree that if there is a God that there would be…some people go to heaven, some people would not.” I said, “You can either say all good people go to heaven.” That sounds very egalitarian, until you realize, what about us bad people? And also, what about people who came up in an abusive home and were beaten and they’re never going to be just right? You see. So, you’re being exclusive. You’re saying good people get in, bad people get out. I’m a Christian. I say, anybody, anybody who asks for the mercy of Christ. The abusive person, the prostitute, the mafia man who kills people for a living, they can get in too. And I would actually say that people who are humble enough to ask for a Savior are in and the people who are too proud are out. Everybody’s exclusive in some way. And I feel like my exclusivity is a more inclusive exclusivity than yours. So, that’s one way to go. What’s another objection or question?
Don Carson: Anything that makes sin really offensive. Anything that wrestles with biblical clarity about sin, being bound up with offense before God, “Against you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight,” David would say, even now after he’s committed adultery and murder, and in a sense, he’s sinned against all kinds of people. What makes sin sin, what makes it so ugly, is precisely that it’s an offense against God. Whereas most people today in a university environment think of sin as sociologically defined. It’s a cultural definition and has no eternal status, no fundamental repulsion. And unless you get clarity on the nature of sin, you can’t get clarity on the nature of the cross. You can’t get clarity on the nature of salvation unless you see what the problem is. And that’s a biggie.
Tim Keller: Yes, that’s really good. Two ways to get at that. One is to say, if somebody wrongs you, let’s just say somebody does something illegal to you, it’s not only a violation of the law. It’s also a violation of you. And there’s going to be anger because you’re a person. And what I heard some years ago, I heard this great illustration by an Australian evangelist, you may have heard it too, where he gives the illustration of a woman who put her only son through school at great cost to herself. And she said to him, “I want you to always work hard and care for the poor, once you come into your career.” So, he comes out, and he goes into his career, and he works hard, and he cares for the poor, but he never calls her. He never acknowledges anything. And he maybe sends her a Christmas card, but he just ignores her. And then you ask the person, what do you think about that? After all, that person is doing fine.
Don Carson: Exactly what you said.
Tim Keller: That’s right and he’s being very moral. And the person who I’m talking to would say, “But he owes her his whole life.” And the relationship has got to be there. Or even though he’s a nice guy and he’s a moral guy, he’s actually still, in a sense, sinning. And I think with illustrations like that, people begin to say, “Oh, if there is a God, then sin would have to be an offense against him because He keeps us alive every second. We owe him everything.” So, I actually do think again, that’s a really, really great way to go with that. I think that’s also a key, key problem, objection of a lot of skeptical people. And I think that’s a great way to answer it.