Wishes Made True: A Pascalian Approach to Persuasive Evangelism

Note: Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned. It has been over 20 days since my last blog post. School work has (rightly) been taking up most of my time, and I haven’t been able to post as much as I used to over the summer. I am currently working on my next post in The God Series, but in the meantime, I thought you might enjoy reading this post I wrote for the Growing Deeper Roots blog. Do check out their other content and look for information on the wonderful conference they host every year.

John Warwick Montgomery tells the story of a man who was convinced that he was dead. His wife took him to the local psychiatrist, who decided to change the man’s mind by convincing him of one fact: Dead men don’t bleed.

After a week of reading medical texts and viewing autopsies, the man was overwhelmed by the evidence and confessed, “Fine! I’m convinced that dead men don’t bleed!”

The psychiatrist promptly jabbed a needle into the man’s arm. Blood spurted out.

“Great Scott!” the man exclaimed, “Dead men do bleed after all!”

Christians often find themselves in a similar conundrum when sharing the gospel with non-Christians. What they frequently discover is that their counterparts remain unconvinced even when presented with logically watertight arguments for the truth of Christianity. This occurs because their presentation is devoid of persuasion. While the evidence matters immensely, a persuasive method of presentation is also necessary; for our audience must be persuaded of the need to give it a fair hearing and be open to changing their minds.

In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal presents one such method. He writes,

“Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next, make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”

I consider the three-step method delineated in this pensée to be a valuable method for evangelistic apologetics since it highlights the need to persuade both the head and the heart during our presentation. Let us examine each of these steps in the context of presenting the Christian message.

THE RATIONAL STEP

Most atheists dismiss religious faith as irrational, or in Dawkinsian terms, a delusion latched onto despite the complete absence of evidence. These preconceptions are the largest stumbling blocks preventing people from considering Christianity.

The rational step is aimed at removing these stumbling blocks to belief. This is the function of a large part of Christian apologetics today, including things like arguments for the existence of God and responses to the problem of evil; while they often don’t convince people to turn to Christianity, they do help them overcome the obstacles erected in their path, demonstrating that the Biblical God is not a “capriciously malevolent bully” and that Christianity itself is “not contrary to reason”.

Unfortunately, many fail to realize that presenting these rational arguments is but the preliminary step in evangelistic apologetics and fail to move beyond this step. Observing that most remain unconvinced of Christianity after hearing them, they wrongly assume that these arguments have no utility.

Conversely, Pascal urges us to continue on from the rational step to the emotional step; to move from the issues of the intellect to those of the heart.

THE EMOTIONAL STEP

Pascal once noted that people are more likely to be convinced by reasons they’ve discovered themselves than by those presented to them. An aim of the emotional step, then, is to help your counterpart generate reasons for belief on their own instead of presenting them with ready-made ones. Another aim of the emotional step is to personalize our presentation. The rational step presents impersonal arguments that respond to objections, while the emotional step takes a more personal approach, attempting to answer the person (Col 4:6), and not just his objections. But how might one go about this?

Perhaps you’re engaging with a friend who is a naturalist and a humanist, or someone who holds that there is no reality beyond nature and its laws, but also holds that humans have intrinsic value/dignity and human flourishing ought to be pursued. You can begin by demonstrating how such humanism is naturalistically unsustainable. According to naturalist Richard Dawkins, “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference…. We are machines for propagating DNA.” The logical consequences of naturalism include a world without objective morality, for without a transcendent source, moral facts become the subjective preferences of the majority; a world without objective meaning or purpose, since there’s no explanation for why my life’s purpose is better than Hitler’s; and a world without love, for what is love but a reaction produced by a certain set of hormones when you see that mewling bag of chemicals you call your ‘baby’?

Now, you ask your friend whether he wants to live under a nihilistic naturalistic framework or wants to continue in his humanism, for clearly, he cannot have both. In most cases, he will choose humanism, given our shared desire for a world with morality, meaning, purpose, and love. It is now your opportunity to present a plausible alternate hypothesis – the Christian faith, where morality is ensured by Him who is the Good, meaning and purpose are ensured by the One who created us in His image, and love is ensured by Him who is Love and was willing to demonstrate it in the ultimate form. You can now present the Gospel message in all its beauty, culminating in the sacrifice on the cross as a solution to the human condition.

What have you done so far? You have removed the false obstacles that made him dismiss Christianity at the outset. You’ve then personalized the approach by deconstructing his worldview and presenting him with an alternate hypothesis that has far more appealing consequences to him. You have brought out what is attractive about Christianity, making him “wish it were true.”

But it is imperative to note that the truth of a set of propositions is independent of their emotional appeal or ethical consequences. Why couldn’t nihilism be the ugly truth and the real world be one without morality, meaning, purpose, and love?

It is time to proceed to our final step, showing that while Christianity is rational and attractive enough to make us wish it were true, it is actually true for a completely different reason.

THE FACTUAL STEP

Whether Christianity is true hinges on the historicity of one event- the resurrection of Jesus. Why?

Christ made some outrageous claims. He claimed to be one with God, the definer of morality, the dispenser of meaning, the giver of eternal life, the forgiver of all sins, and the ultimate judge who would restore justice to his creation. But one can argue that several charlatans made similar claims but never lived up to them. Has Christ proved to be any different?

Jesus’ opponents probably had this in mind when they asked him for a sign to prove his credibility to make these ridiculous claims. He responded with an even more outrageous claim- he predicted that he would be killed, but that he would then raise himself from the dead to prove that he was who he claimed to be.

And did he do that? Many reputed scholars, using one of two methods (the minimal facts or the maximal data method) have concluded that the best explanation of independent historical facts surrounding Jesus’ death, burial, and post-burial accounts is that he rose from the dead; no other theory comes close to explaining those facts.

What did this prove? It proved His deity, for He fulfilled the very sign He offered as proof of His outrageous divine claims (Romans 1:4), and that His promises about everything from the forgiveness of sins to granting eternal life to ultimate justice could be trusted, for He had fulfilled the most improbable and difficult one of them all. Through this one event involving its founder, we can not only wish for Christianity to be true; we can know that it is true and that we’re assured of the morality, meaning, purpose, and love that it guarantees.

CONCLUSION

What then have we accomplished? We’ve shown that Christianity is not irrational, that it is something worth valuing, and finally that it is true, in that order. Consider what would’ve happened if we’d changed the order. If we’d skipped the rational step, we wouldn’t have gotten far, for the entire belief system would’ve been dismissed as irrational at the outset; skipping the emotional step would’ve failed to show why the resurrection matters so much; and skipping the factual step would’ve reduced belief in Christianity to mere wishful thinking. But put together, we’ve demonstrated that Christianity, is “not contrary to reason”, we’ve made “good men wish it were true”, and we’ve shown them that it is true.

I would like to close with a word of caution. While our persuasive efforts are essential, they alone are impotent to bring about conversion. While he himself engaged in persuasion (Acts 18:4, 28:23), Paul states that the gospel’s effectiveness is ultimately based on the Spirit’s power that transforms, not on rhetorical ability (I Corinthians 2:4). Conversion/transformation remains the Spirit’s prerogative. Our duty, then, is to obey the Great Commission, bringing together the rational, emotional, and factual components to make a persuasive case for Christianity. Only the Spirit can carry it across the finish line.


For more on effective Christian persuasion, I would recommend Tactics by Greg Koukl and Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness. Read them in that order to fully appreciate their content, given that the latter is at a slightly more advanced level compared to the former.

 

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