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Practical Evangelism: Taking the Roof Off

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Published: 30 July 2015 (GMT+10)
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The condition of mankind can be compared in some ways to an analogy developed by the late evangelist and philosopher Francis Schaeffer.1 Imagine trying to piece together the story from a book whose pages had all been mostly ripped away, leaving only a strip of remaining type on each page. Looking at the remaining text alone, it would be impossible to figure out the whole story. However, if we further imagine that the ripped out pieces were hidden in the attic, and you were able to find them and examine them, then it would be possible to discern that they were indeed the missing pieces to the book in your hand, and looking at the completed pages, you could find out the whole story. In this analogy, the book with the remaining bits of text corresponds to the facts available to all people: the external universe and human nature. The ripped out pages represent God’s revelation to mankind—the Bible. When we compare God’s revelation to us in the Bible with the world we see around us, we find a perfect match. The Bible, unlike any other competing claim to truth, coherently and self-consistently explains the range of evidence available to us all: the external universe and human nature.

The Bible uniquely explains why we see both astonishing design and tragic decay and evil. It explains the paradox of human nature: that we are simultaneously loving and evil, caring and cruel. And unlike atheistic or polytheistic systems, the biblical worldview provides the necessary framework for the pursuit of science: a stable, predictable cosmos governed by absolute and unchanging physical and logical laws, a habitable zone suitable for life and scientific pursuit (against all odds!), and human bodies and minds with the innate capacity to properly observe and comprehend the universe around them. In addition, the facts of science and history available to us line up with and provide corroboration for the claims of Scripture. Far from being an isolated, purely hypothetical solution, the biblical worldview is well-attested by many lines of evidence. In light of this, Paul the Apostle justly proclaims that we are “without excuse” for denying God (Romans 1:20). But, as our ministry has pointed out in many places, people generally interpret the evidence through the ‘glasses’ of their worldviews, meaning that unbelievers are often blinded to the clear and powerful evidence that exists in favor of the Bible—they don’t see it because they don’t step outside their presuppositions.

How should we present the Gospel to those who reject the Bible?

So what, then, should we do as Christians when confronted with unbelievers who deny the Bible is true? Before proceeding, it’s important to be aware that there is no ‘magic bullet’ in witnessing and apologetics. Ultimately, our final commitment to God is part of the internal work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the state of the heart—not the mind. Therefore, our job as apologists and evangelists consists of presenting the Gospel and, if necessary, removing intellectual stumbling blocks. Regardless of your skill, there is no way to argue a person into the Kingdom of God!

With that said, however, it can be helpful to have a game plan when dealing with skeptical nonbelievers. Schaeffer took an approach he named ‘Taking the Roof Off’, which informed Christians would do well to emulate. To truly witness to someone, we must treat them as a genuine human being. We must get to know them as an individual and assess their worldview on its own terms. Apologetics—witnessing to skeptical nonbelievers by giving answers to their objections—if it is to be successful, must truly be a personal interaction, and not just an academic pursuit or a chance to get in the last word. Since non-Christian worldviews inevitably break down at one point or another and fail to explain reality, there will always be a ‘point of tension’ where the unbeliever’s worldview is at odds with the real world. It is at this critical point that the unbeliever builds up a psychological ‘roof’ over their head to shield themselves from the reality their worldview fails to deal with. To really get through to such a person, we must ‘take the roof off’ by showing the person the unpleasant and unsatisfactory consequences of their own belief system, and forcing them to acknowledge them head-on.2 This can (and should) truly be an uncomfortable experience for them. Only in this way can we get down to the heart of the matter, and perhaps, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, shake them from their disbelief and turn them to God.

What might this look like in a day-to-day example? Imagine that you’ve just met a person and found out that they’re very interested in technology and science, and is an atheist as a result of a commitment to a Darwinian naturalistic worldview. You might ask them, “What is the point of doing science?” Most likely you’ll get a response that waxes poetic about the virtues of science as a means to improve the lives of people—making us happier and healthier—and leading ultimately perhaps to a new utopian age of prosperity driven by scientific advancement. In this case we are dealing with a worldview (evolutionary naturalism) which cannot provide a basis for meaning or purpose in life, or for the value of human life.

This unbeliever’s ‘roof’ is their irrational blind leap of faith to believe that science can solve all the problems of death and suffering in the world, and that human life has intrinsic value apart from God. Removing their roof, exposing them to the true ugliness of the Darwinian worldview, will show them their need for God and a Savior, and prepare them for receiving the Gospel. This is known as pre-evangelism. To do this, we need to gently point out the fact that, if Darwin was right about life being a product of blind natural processes, then human life has no intrinsic value. In the Darwinian scheme, humans are nothing more than higher apes—in other words, we are not special. We are just animals which happen to have evolved differently from other animals (we cannot even say ‘better’ or ‘higher’, since that would imply an objective standard which cannot be justified). In fact, life itself is nothing special, but just represents a different configuration of the same ‘stuff’ that makes up the rest of the universe. The only real difference between a human being and a coconut—or a rock—would be that humans have a different configuration of atoms. Therefore, there’s no point in saying that we should do science to improve human life, because human life is not valuable in the first place! Since the intrinsic value of human life is self-evidently obvious to all (except perhaps sociopaths), making this point should strike a chord and provide a real avenue for productive discussion.

We can go further still. This person has suggested that science is worthwhile because it can improve human lives and lead to a better world. The previous point notwithstanding, we still have no real basis for optimism or hope for the future without God, because even under the best case scenario there’s no way human science can achieve any lasting goals. Even secular evolutionary scientists freely admit that our planet is ultimately doomed, because our only source of the energy we need for life, the sun, is going to eventually burn out and be extinguished:

“All things must end. That’s true for us, that’s true for the Earth, and that’s true for the Sun. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but one day in the far future, the Sun will run out of fuel and end its life as a main sequence star and die.”3

A better future?

Wait a minute! If we know we’re ultimately doomed as a species, then why do we hear so much grandiose optimism for the future coming from scientists? No matter how many skyscrapers we build, or how many cures for diseases we find, we will all have to die one day—as Jesus pointed out in Matthew 6:27, our worries and efforts cannot even add one hour to our lives. Even in a hypothetical scenario where science did succeed in greatly expanding human lifespans, we cannot live without the sun! Yet the problem is worse. Even if we were to advance to the point that we could fly to some distant star and recolonize a totally new planet, that planet would eventually become uninhabitable as well. This is called entropy—all things are winding down—and ultimately the whole universe will be devoid of usable energy.4 So, in other words, there’s nowhere to run. We are doomed, and all science is doomed to ultimately be fruitless and forgotten. Science alone cannot offer us hope for the future.

So, after having taken away false hope from this unbeliever, they will stand naked in the light of the truth: their worldview presents an ultimately pointless and hopeless reality. Now the stage is set for you to present the alternative in Jesus Christ and the true Gospel. Only in Christ can we find true hope, because Christ is God incarnate, and God is not limited by His creation. God’s power transcends the physical decay of this universe, and as such he can offer us real hope for the future.

Of course, in the real world such interactions are almost never simple, and almost never confined to only one issue. Most educated non-believers have a whole arsenal of objections to Christianity at the ready, and dealing with all the stumbling blocks to their faith may take time. That’s why we must get to know them as a person and deal patiently with them, and we must take the time to get informed on how to deal with a wide range of objections and issues. Yet this is the charge we must take up as disciples of Christ, who commanded us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth—that includes your neighborhood and your college campus! As the Apostle Paul writes,

“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).

References and notes

  1. Schaeffer, F., Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy pp. 119 – 120, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 1990. Return to text.
  2. This style of argumentation could be seen as a type of the formal philosophical Reductio Ad Absurdum (reduction to absurdity). Return to text.
  3. Cain, F., Life of the sun, 10 March 2012, universitytoday.com. Return to text.
  4. Wieland, C., World Winding Down, Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, 2012. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
From
US $17.00
World Winding Down
by Carl Wieland
US $10.00
Soft cover

Readers’ comments

S. M.
Phil K, actually the Universe is expanding at an increasing rate. The universe is not winding down at all.
Paul Price
I think you're confusing two completely different concepts: the theorized expansion of the universe (see our articles on starlight and time and the Big Bang for more on this concept) and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (entropy). Entropy means that the total amount of usable energy in the universe is decreasing over time (which shows us that the universe had an absolute beginning in the finite past); it does not have anything to do with saying the universe is contracting spatially.
Phil K.
I couldn't help but place myself in the position of the unbeliever when Paul was describing the sun burning out and all things dying. Young people today would simply brush that thought away by saying "that won't happen for billions of years and I'll be long gone by then. No worries, mate!" However, this does illustrate the point that the universe is winding down which supports the Biblical position of original sin.
Jeremy M.
I enjoyed the article but would point out that "pre-evangelism" is not a protracted affair. If every person is born with a "book" (i.e., general revelation) as Schaeffer analogized, and more importantly, as Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-16 clearly reveal to be true, then every person is more than ready to immediately hear the gospel. It is, in fact, the gospel that is written on Schaeffer's so-called "missing pages" (i.e., special revelation). Consider Paul's encounter with the worldly philosophers on Mars Hill. He makes a bee-line for the gospel and ends the encounter with these words: "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

An apologetic without evangelism is like faith without works. The unbeliever's stumbling block isn't the cosmos, it's his self-righteous heart!
Paul Price
Thanks for your comment, Jeremy. It's good that you're pointing to Acts 17- Paul's speech at Mars Hill is a great illustration of the pre-evangelism approach to witnessing! If you read vv. 22-29, you'll see he immediately engages the Greek worldview on its own terms, even appealing to one of their own poets (v. 28) to make his point about the nature of God. Only after first refuting their false worldview and directing them to the true God did Paul then proceed to call them to repentance in accordance with the Gospel message. Before the Greeks could understand, first they needed the foundation of a biblical worldview starting with the Creator. Thanks for reminding us that pre-evangelism must always lead to a clear presentation of the Gospel.
David G.
This is well and good but any opportunity we have should include whenever possible the ultimate removal of someone's roof by speaking about the coming judgment and that Jesus Christ will be seated there. We either heed his wonderful invitation to meet him now in repentance, faith and peace or then when it will be eternally too late.
Paul Price
I think the point I wanted to communicate in this article is that, in the modern world, not everyone is ready to properly understand the message you want to communicate (the gospel), without doing some pre-evangelism first. We need to be aware of just how much a person's worldview will color their ability to hear and understand. Try reading through some of the linked articles for more information on this.

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