Christian Apologetics: The Value of Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

by John Ellis

During an apologetic session for high schoolers, a student once asked me, “Why did God create Adam and Eve when He knew that they would sin?”

Several of his classmates eagerly chimed in. Almost all their answers were along the lines of the Arminian belief that true love is only possible if we choose it out of our own free will. For those students, complete human autonomy from God is the only way for God to know that we truly love Him. If you think about it, that doesn’t actually answer their classmate’s question, nor is it theologically nor philosophically consistent. However, for my part, after allowing the students a brief time to discuss their answers, I replied to the original question, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know.”

The students were taken aback. How could the instructor not know the answer? Sadly, I’m afraid that their initial response reflects the response I would receive from many faithful Christians if they too had been present in that class.

However, the answer “I don’t know” should be a welcome tool in the Christian’s apologetics tool bag. As already stated, though, many faithful Christians are afraid of the phrase “I don’t know.” For them, Christianity has all the answers. 

Christianity has answers, yes. And, please, count me among those who explicitly reject the push for doubt from the likes of Peter Enns and Shane Claiborne. The confession that the Bible is “the only rule for faith and practice” is part and parcel with the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible plainly reveals who God is and how sinful humans can be reconciled back to Him. It also provides a clear picture of what it looks like for a person to faithfully pursue holiness for the glory of God. There is much that we can be certain about because the Bible provides the answers in no uncertain terms. There is no sin in certainty over matters that the Bible teaches with full epistemic claims of certainty.

Yet, if the Bible is true, then it stands to reason that there are things that we not only do not know but cannot know.

In his short and helpful book Why Should I Believe Christianity?, James N. Anderson lays out four categories by which to evaluate worldviews: “The Consistency Test, The Coherence Test, The Explanation Test, and The Evidence Test.”[1]

All four categories are useful, and I encourage you to read Anderson’s book. For the purpose of this post, though, I’m going to briefly focus on just one of the categories: The Coherence Test.

Explaining the category, Anderson writes:

The word cohere literally means ‘to stick together’ or ‘to be united.’ A worldview coheres if its parts hold together well and support one another. If a worldview includes beliefs and assumptions that appear to be unrelated to each other, or in tension with each other, then that worldview lacks coherence. Conversely, if a worldview includes beliefs and assumptions that are closely intertwined, where some parts explain other parts, then that worldview has coherence.[2]

Anderson uses the illustration that since the Bible teaches that, “the universe was created by a personal God and also that there are objective oral laws which govern how human beings should live. … it makes sense to think that God designed us to live in certain ways.”[3]

If positing “A” logically leads to “B” within worldviews, then a coherent worldview will also posit “B.” Inserting actual propositions into “A” and “B,” the Bible asserts that God is the eternal, Sovereign Creator of all. The God of the Bible has attributes that are incommunicable. Louis Berkhof explains that the incommunicable attributes, “are those to which there is nothing analogous in the creature, as aseity, simplicity, immensity, etc.”[4]

Since God has attributes that have no analogy in us (Berkhof’s “creature”), it stands to reason that we cannot fully comprehend God, much less explain aspects of Him. If the God of the Bible is who He says He is (proposition A), then we should expect to be at a loss of words from time to time when confronted with questions about Him (proposition B). It’s not possible for the finite to define the Infinite. In other words, if there are no questions about the Christian worldview to which we respond, “I don’t know,” the Christian worldview lacks coherence.

Acknowledging that there are questions pertaining to the Sovereign Creator of the cosmos to which we don’t know the answer is an apologetic for Christianity. Being uncomfortable with “I don’t know” reveals the desire to exert control as well as a lack of understanding of the goal of Christian apologetics.

Refusing to accept that we can’t know everything about God and that we will never (including in the new heavens and new earth) know God the way God knows Himself may reveal pride. In that instance, it’s reminiscent of Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God. It’s also mimicking our ancient ancestors desire to build a tower to the heavens. Resisting our epistemic limitations when it comes to God may reveal that we believe that we are owed honor that is only owed God.

To be fair, though, many Christians resist owning “I don’t know” not because they want to be like God, but because they believe that doing so cedes apologetic ground and is a failure on their part. Except, we’re not called to win arguments. We can’t argue anyone into Christ’s Kingdom, anyway.

We are called to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that the world will find the teaching of the cross foolishness. Winning debates does not necessarily equal winning souls. Sure, the Holy Spirit can and has used winsome and intelligent apologetics from Christians to convert sinners. But we could answer every question and challenge thrown our way, and still watch the unbeliever walk away clinging to his rebellion. In fact, that’s more likely to happen than not.

I always tell my students that the goal of apologetics is to share the gospel, not to win an argument. By God’s grace, answer the questions of unbelievers to the best of your ability with humility and charity. While doing so, though, do not neglect to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” It’s the Holy Spirit who works in the person’s heart anyway, not you or your eloquence. And answering “I don’t know” is also a good transition into opening the Bible and looking at what God reveals about Himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] James N. Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity? (Scotland: Christian Focus Publishing, Ltd., 2017), 41-45.

[2] Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity?, 42-43.

[3] Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity?, 43.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 55.

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