“Jesus Loves You” Sounds Meaningless to a Skeptic: The Problem of Apologetics

By Holly Ordway 

Dr. Holly Ordway is Professor of English and a faculty member in the Master of Arts in Apologetics program at Houston Baptist University; she holds a doctorate in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith. Her work focuses on imaginative apologetics and on the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

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Photo Credit: Aaron Sebastian

We are awash in data, awash in claims for and against Christianity—and for and against any number of competing ideologies and lifestyles, ranging from Marxism, gender ideology, and radical feminism to health fads and fashion. One lifetime isn’t enough to weigh the merits of each of these; in the meantime, dialogue is often reduced to shouting slogans back and forth (a problem not limited to religious dialogue, to be sure). In the chaotic shopping-mall environment of modern media, the call to “follow Christ” or “repent and be baptized” or even “love God and your neighbor” must compete with “just do it” and “have it your way,” and with a million images that wordlessly present the modern gospel of sex, money, fame, and power.  

No wonder, then, that Christianity is more often ignored or mocked than thoughtfully discussed. To those who do not know Christ, and unfortunately also to many who do, much ‘Christian language’ rings empty. Although words like ‘grace,’ ‘sin,’ ‘heaven,’ and ‘hell’ point to reality, for many listeners they might as well be empty slogans or the equivalent of the user’s agreement on an upgrade to your phone’s operating system: words that are received without attention, and without a grasp of their meaning. It is this lack of meaning, rather than disagreement with Christian doctrine properly understood, that often presents the most significant barrier to any serious consideration of the Faith. 

For instance, the statement “Jesus loves you” may be meaningless to a skeptic on a number of levels. For the Christian, this statement about Our Lord’s love is profoundly meaning-full; it connects to life-changing insights about hope for eternal life, joy in the present life, and the availability of forgiveness and grace for all who turn and ask. But it makes a difference whether people want this hope, joy, forgiveness, and grace. If they are not interested, or do not find those ideas, in turn, to be meaningful, then all that is represented by “Jesus loves you” is insubstantial and irrelevant.  

That’s a best-case scenario; at worst, a statement like “Jesus loves you” comes across like the nonsense-language in Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.” The sentence, while grammatically coherent, makes about as much sense to the atheist as saying “Winston Churchill loves you” or “King Arthur loves you.” The skeptic may not believe that Jesus existed at all, but even if he does concede Jesus’s historical existence, another question arises: how is it possible for a man who died two thousand years ago to ‘love’ anyone? An attempt to further explain will likely use terms such as ‘the Christ,’ ‘the Son of God,’ and the ‘Savior,’ but the explanation will fall flat if those terms are also just “counters in an intellectual game.”  

Likewise, an attempt to talk about the Resurrection can lead to endless rabbit-trails of debating implausible alternatives, but not necessarily because the atheist is convinced by arguments that the disciples experienced group hallucinations, or that they conspired to hide the body and lie about the Resurrection. Rather, the atheist may favor even a highly implausible explanation of the empty tomb, simply because concepts like hallucinations, conspiracies, or even aliens have more meaning for him than ‘resurrection from the dead’ or ‘miracle.’ 

To most people raised in a secular culture and educated in a secular school system, the words we use to talk about even the most basic principles of the Faith are jargon-words. They have no substantial content for the non-Christian—and indeed, often not much meaning for the Christian either, which is why one of the most important tasks for apologists is catechesis and formation inside the Church. As a result, when apologists have conversations with skeptics about issues of faith, or even when catechists and pastors talk to people in church, there’s often a huge, but hidden, meaning gap. 

We must help people find the words we use to be meaningful—for the words to be something other than tokens in a game. Then, and only then, will we have a hope of real communication. Only when something has meaning, which is generated by the imagination, can we begin to use our reason to judge whether it is true, or false. If someone can find the idea of the supernatural to be meaningful—an idea that can be grasped, that is worth grasping—then, and only then, is the question ‘Is it true?’ significant. 

The greatest challenge that apologists face in meaning-making is to make connections for those who know little or nothing of the Faith. Apologists are often faced with a communication challenge because we often work on the borderlands where those we hope to reach do not yet have much, or any, lived experience of the truth being presented. We often have very little to work with. The most straightforward way of presenting truth under these circumstances is propositional and doctrinal, but unfortunately, this is also the way that is most difficult for people to grasp unaided if they lack experience of the reality to which the doctrine points. In order to begin to understand a totally new propositional claim, the listener needs to have at least some building-blocks of meaning. The apologist must be willing to start small, and be able to cultivate meaning at different levels and in different ways. In this work, rational and imaginative apologetics are intertwined, as we present the truth in both abstract and imaginatively realized ways. With both the imagination and the intellect engaged, the will has a solid foundation upon which to act. 

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Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith

In Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the FaithHolly Ordway shows how an imaginative approach—in cooperation with rational arguments—is extremely valuable in helping people come to faith in Christ. Making a case for the role of imagination in apologetics, this book proposes ways to create meaning for Christian language in a culture that no longer understands words like ‘sin’ or ‘salvation,’ suggests how to discern and address the manipulation of language, and shows how metaphor and narrative work in powerful ways to communicate the truth.