the shape of leadership

Jesus’ Strategy for Dealing with Disagreement

Building a bridge to help skeptics arrive at the truth

Paul Franks on May 9, 2018

When talking with nonbelievers about the truth of Christianity, it’s important to help them see how the Christian worldview makes the most sense of the things they already believe are true. Essentially, this is employing the same strategy Jesus used when dealing with disagreement.

In Matthew 22, we read about an attempt by the Sadducees to trip up Jesus regarding His belief in the resurrection. They asked Him to consider a woman whose husband died. She then married his brother, who also died. Eventually, she married all seven of the brothers, and they each died. The Sadducees then asked Jesus “In the resurrection … whose wife will she be?” (verse 28).

In trying to trap Jesus, the Sadducees employed a method of argumentation know as a reductio ad absurdum (reducing to the absurd). The idea is take someone’s position and show that it leads to some kind of absurdity. Based on that, you can conclude that the initial position must be false.

According to the Sadducees, Jesus’ belief in resurrection would lead to polygamy since the woman was married to all seven. That isn’t acceptable, so they concluded that there must not be a resurrection.

Jesus’ response is instructive. First, He corrects their false beliefs about the resurrection. He tells them, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (verse 30). So, the whole basis for their attempt to reduce His position to absurdity fails. If there is no marriage in heaven, then the woman won’t be married to anyone at all.

Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t simply stop at refuting their initial objection. He goes on to show them that, given their own beliefs, they should actually agree with Him. Jesus says, “But about the resurrection of the dead — have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (verses 31-32).

The point Jesus is making here is simple. If there were no resurrection of the dead, then when God spoke to Moses, He would have said, “I was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” and not “I am … .” In order for Him to still be their God, they must still be alive.

It is important to note that when Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 to the Sadducees, He is trying to build a bridge from beliefs they currently have to beliefs they should have.

How do we know this is what Jesus is doing? Well, for most of us, if we were going to quote an Old Testament passage that relates to the resurrection, we would probably quote Daniel 12:2 instead: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” This passage seems much more obviously related to the resurrection, so why didn’t Jesus quote it?

Jesus knew enough about the Sadducees’ beliefs to realize they didn’t accept Daniel (among other prophets) as an authority. They did, however, accept Moses as one. So, Jesus quoted Moses instead of Daniel.

We can apply the same strategy in our own conversations with nonbelievers. When people confront us with objections to our belief in God, we should do what we can to answer those objections. But, we should also look for ways to demonstrate to them that the Christian worldview makes the most sense of other things they accept as true.

We can apply Jesus’ strategy in our own conversations with nonbelievers.

For example, when people say they don’t believe in God because of all the evil in the world, we might respond by noting that much (perhaps even all) of the evil we see in the world is due to the misuse of human free will. Yes, God could have just caused us all to love Him, but His causing us to do so would rob the love from the relationship.

God created us to be in relationship with himself, but that requires we have an ability to enter freely into a relationship with Him. Unfortunately, people can also misuse that free will to cause evil.

This initial response to the problem of evil can help people see that evil is compatible with God’s existence. However, we can actually go a step further, as Jesus did, and help people see that given their other beliefs, they should actually come to accept that God exists.

What would this look like? Well, presumably, these individuals accept that there is a way that things should be. That is, there’s a problem with the evil we see in the world. So, we could ask how they explain the claim that evil is a problem. In other words, we’re looking for an account of how nonbelievers can explain the moral order that is so easily recognized by nearly all human beings.

To be clear, many atheists do have ways of spelling out various moral systems (e.g., Kantianism, utilitarianism, contractarianism, etc.). However, regardless of which moral system they prefer, they will still have a surprisingly hard time answering another, deeper question. Why, in their view, should we even care about morality in the first place?

For example, if someone thinks that morality is best understood in utilitarian terms (an action is morally good if it generates the most happiness for the most people), it’s not at all clear why that should make any difference to us. From an atheistic viewpoint, why should we bother to care about what generates the most happiness for the most people? Why not just care only about our happiness?

This problem, however, doesn’t carry over to the Christian worldview. In Christianity, we act morally because there is a Creator-creature relationship, and the nature of that relationship brings about certain obligations. While not identical, it’s similar from the relationship between a parent and child. The child doesn’t have to obey the parent, but the nature of that relationship suggests the child should obey.

Similarly, people don’t have to obey God, but the nature of that relationship suggests we should. So, it turns out, the very moral intuitions that were at work in recognizing that evil is a problem are best explained by Christian theism.

We could certainly say more about both the problem of evil and arguments for God based on morality. The above, however, is enough to serve as an example of what Jesus’ strategy for dealing with disagreement might look like for us.

For those interested in examining this Matthew 22 passage in more detail, and in seeing how it specifically applies to the importance of developing a life of the mind, see Chapter 2 of the book Love Your God with All Your Mind by J.P. Moreland.


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