John 14:2 says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” In some Bible translations, such as the King James Version, the word for “rooms” is “mansions” in order to translate the Greek word monai. “Mansions” isn’t the best word to use, since it seems odd that a single house could have many “mansions” inside of it (though when it comes to God’s house, we might make an exception!). Regardless, I still enjoy the imagery behind the verse and love to think that God has called me to relationship with him and has prepared an eternity for me, which is better than any 4,000-square-foot house on Earth.
But since God desires all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), we have to do our part in helping other people draw near to God. Ultimately, God is the one who converts hearts and imparts faith, but he has trusted us as his “ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20) to help him with his task. In this article I’d like to outline my preferred method for helping someone come to see that the Catholic Faith is true.
It seems to me that building a case for the Faith is a lot like building a house, a mansion, one floor at a time. Those outside the mansion, in our thought experiment, would be atheists; those on the first floor, theists (believes in a generic god); those on the second floor, theists who believe in the Christian God; and finally those on the third floor would be theists who believe in the Christian God and the truth claims of the Catholic Church. Our goal as Catholic apologists is to lead others out of the darkness of unbelief to the summit of the mansion, the Catholic Church, which contains the fullness of truth.
Let’s examine this mansion from the ground up, starting with the foundation.
The foundation: Logic and reason
When someone wants to build a house, he might daydream about how the master bedroom will look. What most people don’t spend their time thinking about is the foundation of the house. Sure, concrete and steel rebar aren’t the most glamorous parts of our apologetics mansion, but they are the most important parts. Jesus himself admitted that any building project needs a solid foundation lest it crumble to the ground (Matthew 7:24-27).
So what is the foundation of our “mansion”? Prayer and logic. We need logic because we need to know how to use reason to demonstrate that our Faith is true. Logic also helps us, in the words of Paul, “destroy arguments and take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). This includes arguments that are used to try and disprove our Faith. We can show how these arguments commit fallacies, or errors in logic, and as a result these arguments fail to prove their anti-faith conclusions.
Sometimes Christians shy away from arguments, saying things like, “We shouldn’t argue with people but simply share our story.” This, it seems to me, is wrongheaded. Arguing isn’t the same thing as bickering or fighting. It is possible to argue without being argumentative (Paul did it: Acts 17:1, 17). Arguing, then, is simply the process of giving reasons to think a certain proposition to be true.
But while logic and argumentation are important, even more important is having a real relationship with the God we are defending. Catholic author Jon Leonetti says, “When your faith no longer includes prayer, it becomes a hobby.” Indeed, some of the most vocal critics of God or the Catholic Church are former apologists. I fear that in some of these cases these apologists became so enamored of their ability to defend the faith that they trusted too much in their own abilities and lost sight of trusting in God. As a result, when they fail intellectually or morally they lose faith in themselves (which was the person they really had faith in when they stopped praying) and abandon their faith.
Now that we’ve seen how important prayer is to the life of an apologist, you’re ready to learn how logic is our next best friend. In my DVD “How to Win an Argument Without Losing a Soul,” I give ten examples of common illogical arguments people make against our Faith. Let’s look at one of the most common, the fallacy of self-referential incoherence. I know that can be an intimating term, but it’s actually quite simple. This fallacy happens when someone makes an argument that refutes itself. Consider some of the following arguments you might hear when you try to stand up for your faith:
You shouldn’t push your beliefs on other people!
You have no right to judge me!
No one knows the truth, and it’s arrogant to say you’re right and everyone else is wrong.
Notice that all of these arguments refute themselves. The person who says, “You shouldn’t push your beliefs on other people” is actually pushing his belief that you shouldn’t push your beliefs on other people. If someone accuses you of being judgmental, remind him that by saying so he is judging you.
Finally, to say “No one knows the truth” is contradictory, because it assumes that the speaker knows the truth that “no one knows the truth.” He also believes that anyone who disagrees with him and claims to “know the truth” is wrong, even though what he says implies logically that we should not say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
The ground floor: Theistic apologetics
Now that we’ve laid a foundation grounded in logic and prayer, it’s time to build the next floor of our apologetics mansion. Don’t take that Gatorade break just yet; we’ve got a lot of building to do!
So what is the primary truth of our faith? The first paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins by saying, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.”
I’ve seen many cases of people debating the Catholic Faith with nonbelievers without appreciating this basic approach: “Meet other people where they are at.” If an atheist attacks the Eucharist as being a cannibalistic superstition, it’s somewhat fruitless to walk him through an exegesis of John 6, because he doesn’t even believe God became man to give his body as food for the world. He doesn’t believe there is a God at all!
Attempting to convince an atheist about the truth of the Resurrection (or the Eucharist, the assumption of Mary, and so forth) is like trying to teach advanced algebra to someone who denies basic arithmetic. Again, we should meet people where they are at—in this case, the ground floor—and lead them, reason with them, from there.
The fact is that many aspects of our faith that we find easy to believe do become absurd if God did not exist. Take, for example, the Resurrection of Christ. An atheist might say that it is ridiculous to believe that a dead body can come back to life when the uniform experience of the human race is that when people die, they stay dead. When the Catholic points out “five hundred people saw the risen Lord” (1 Cor. 15:6), the atheist is more likely to accept any other natural explanation.
For example, he might argue those accounts are legends or hallucination. He might even claim (and I have heard this!) that Jesus was actually a space alien and fooled everyone into thinking he was God. He might cling to any explanation other than a miracle, because to him miracles can’t happen, since there’s no God to cause the miracle.
A better response is to admit to the atheist, yes, a dead person coming back to life is pretty absurd. Any naturalistic explanation is probably better than saying a dead person has risen from his grave. But I as a Catholic am not claiming that. I’m saying that God raised Jesus from the dead, so that isn’t absurd, because God is omnipotent. If God exists and Jesus can plausibly be seen to have a special relationship with God (which is well-attested in the Gospels), then the accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection are not of a bizarre, freak occurrence but are vindication of Jesus’ claims to divinity that are seen throughout the New Testament.
So now, instead of debating the occurrence of miracles in the Bible or Church history, you can center the discussion on the “ground floor.” Is there a God who could perform these miracles and make them more likely to have occurred? Once we’ve established that framework, then we are in a far better position to determine which religion, if any, is true.
If you want to learn how to build this floor of the mansion, I recommend Trent Horn’s newest book, Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity (Catholic Answers Press). If you consider yourself a budding apologist and haven’t read this book, consider yourself uneducated. It’s that good.
The second floor: Christian apologetics
Well, the first floor looks nice. It’s got a spacious dining area, a parlor room, maybe a bowling alley (hey, this is a mansion after all). But our mansion would be missing a lot if it had only this first floor, just as our faith would be missing a lot if it possessed a belief only in a generic “God of the philosophers.” We have to go upstairs to the next step in our journey, which is the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Even if you can show an atheist that it is reasonable to believe God exists, he might shrug his shoulders and say, “All right, there’s a god. But what does that have to do with my life?” However, if God has revealed himself to mankind and extended an offer of salvation from sin, then that has a lot to do with our lives!
“But lots of religions claim to be ‘inspired by God.’ How do we know which one to follow?” says our skeptical friend. Here is where we can put on our “historian hardhat” as we build the hallways and doors of the second floor of the mansion. In this step we show that the Christian faith is unique, because there is good evidence that Jesus of Nazareth lived, died, was seen alive by both followers and skeptics after his death, and that those people died for their belief in Jesus’ Resurrection and divinity.
One might respond, “But don’t other religions have similar miracle claims that make what people claimed about Jesus less special?” Actually, most other religions don’t or can’t make these claims. For example, the miracles associated with Buddha were recorded nearly four hundred years after his death, which gives ample time for legend to creep in and soil the historical record. In contrast, the Resurrection of Christ is recorded in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which was written only twenty years after Jesus’ death. The creed describing the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is even older, dating back to within five years of the Resurrection itself. This just isn’t enough time for legend to replace history.
Other religions don’t even have miracles to back up their claims. The Quran, which is the holy book of Islam, does not describe the prophet Muhammad performing any miracles. Sura 10:13 states, “And the Unbelievers say: ‘Why is not a sign sent down to him from his Lord?’ But thou art truly a warner, and to every people a guide.” Muhammad merely served as a “warner” or “guide” who would lead people to belief in God. Most Muslims try to argue that the beauty of the Quran itself is the “miracle” that proves their faith is true; but just because something is beautiful doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.
This focus on the core historical vindication of our Faith can also be helpful when you are talking with skeptics who are fixated on parts of the Bible they disagree with, such as the Bible’s depiction of slavery or God’s orders to slaughter the Canaanites in the Old Testament. Once I was in a conversation with a person like that, and I simply said, “All right, let’s say I didn’t know how to explain these difficult parts of the Bible. I think there’s good evidence Christ rose from the dead, and he trusted the Bible. If a man can walk out of his own tomb, then why shouldn’t I believe in what he believed in?”
If a person does not believe in the gospel message, then it’s easy for him to become fixated on so-called “Bible difficulties.” But if he has a relationship with Christ, then it can become much easier for him to see how God’s word, even when it is confusing, ultimately find its fulfillment in the revelation of Christ.
The third floor: Catholic apologetics
Let’s now move to the third floor. If our home started with a basic belief in God, and then progressed to trusting Jesus Christ was the unique Son of God, the next logical step is to trust in the Church that Christ founded.
Notice how our presentation of the faith ascends like a staircase. This approach is able to meet a person exactly where he his in his spiritual journey. For people who doubt that any religion can be true, we need to walk them around the logical foundation of the house (not yell at them about hell from the second or third floor). For those who are open to truth, we must see if they believe in a God who created the world and, if not, we must show them the first floor. Since the majority of nonreligious people believe in God (only two to five percent of the population is atheist), we usually have to help the nonreligious see that Jesus was not just a first-century hippie who preached, “Love your neighbor, man” but was instead God incarnate who takes away the sins of the world.
Once the person sees that Jesus is important and we should be a part of Jesus’ Church, we are now in a position to present them with the case for the Catholic Church. When you present the Catholic faith to Protestant Christians, the most likely objection you will hear is, “Where is that in the Bible?” Where in my King James Bible [you know, the one where Jesus’ words are highlighted in red text and has all the neat thees and thous?] is purgatory, the Mass, the Assumption and Immaculate Conception of Mary, or the pope?”
Instead of rattling off Biblical verses that support each of these doctrines (which, to be sure, has its place), try meeting people where they are and return to the second floor of the mansion. Ask them, “How do you know that everything we believe must be explicitly taught in the Bible?” Or, “Why should I believe that the Bible is even the word of God? Just because it says it is no more proves the Bible is the word of God anymore then the Quran saying it is the word of God proves it is the word of God.”
While we’re at the second floor of the mansion, we can use an argument for the Catholic Faith made popular in Karl Keating’s book Catholicism and Fundamentalism. It goes like this: We can know from historical investigation that Jesus existed, selected apostles to form a church, rose from the dead, and commissioned those apostles to evangelize the entire world. Since we have good historical evidence that Christ founded upon Peter and the apostles what we now know as the Catholic Church, we can have confidence in the Church’s authority to not only interpret Scripture but to recognize which books of the Bible are inspired and which are not.
Every other method proposed by Protestants to resolve this puzzle has come up empty-handed or self-defeating (to learn more about this approach to defending the Catholic Faith, you should also check out Devin Rose’s new book, The Protestant’s Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism (Catholic Answers Press).
Now, instead of arguing about whether certain Catholic beliefs or practices are biblical, you can center the discussion on the most important question: “Who has the authority to determine Christian doctrine and practice (including the nature and interpretation of the Bible) in the first place?” Once you’ve resolved this issue, you can walk up the steps and show your guests how the third floor of the mansion is the natural outgrowth of the revelation seen in both the Old and New Testament.
Now that we’ve reached the third floor of this apologetics mansion, there’s still one more part of the house we need to construct: the attic. But what goes up there? Not the odds and ends you can’t fit in a normal house but some of the most precious teachings the Church has given us: its teachings on morality.
The principle of meeting people where they are comes up most often when we are trying to defend the Catholic view of morality in the public square. An atheist, or even a Protestant who relies on the “Bible alone” to guide his worldview, may be dumbfounded that the Church prohibits things like contraception, in vitro fertilization, or homosexual behavior.
The atheist may say these things cause no real harm and therefore he believes they are not wrong. The Protestant may say the first two are not prohibited in the Bible, so there is nothing wrong with them. He might even try to argue that the last item is not really prohibited in the Bible but that the Bible only condemns unloving same-sex behavior in things like pagan temple worship, not modern, “loving,” same-sex relationships.
They have these reactions because their worldview is not built up with the structure you see in our mansion: Logic – God – Christ – his Church. Your mission is to meet each of these people where they are and help them see why the Church’s teachings on morality make sense.
If someone respects only the foundation of the mansion, you might have to start there. Romans 2:14-15 says that the law of God is written on the hearts of men, so even if they don’t know God, they know his moral demands.
Most people, even if they are not religious, have an internal sense of right and wrong. For some moral issues, like abortion, you can make a case that relies on commonly held logical truths such as “It’s wrong to kill innocent human beings” and then back that up with scientific evidence for the humanity of unborn children. The principle of natural law can also explain why other acts against the natural order, such as sterilizing procreative acts through contraceptives or using the sexual organs in a way they weren’t designed to be used, are wrong.
But if the person is unresponsive to these natural-law arguments, or the issue is one God revealed to man through special revelation, then you’ll have to assure the listener that these moral teachings make sense if they are “higher up in the mansion.” The Church’s prohibition on contraception, for example, makes more sense to a Christian who believes God has a plan for sexual union and procreation then to an atheist who denies sex is “for” anything.
Ready to move in?
As you can see, showing the Catholic Faith is true should never be boiled down to a sound bite like “Two thousand years of tradition can’t be wrong” or to an emotional plea like “The Catholic Faith has really made me happy, and it can make you happy, too.” There is a time for showing how the Church has outlived its historical threats, as well as a place for personal testimonies of how God has changed our lives. But we should always keep them in the context of building up the Faith for someone one step or one floor at a time, always being ready to meet them where they are with sound answers for their honest questions.