There are myriad apologetic arguments that have been employed for evidential Christian apologetics. But generally speaking, the best starting point out of all them is the Argument for the Historical Jesus.
What is the Argument for the Historical Jesus?
In its simplest form, this argument is claiming that Jesus was a real man, and was not a myth as some atheists claim. This claim is often paired with the claim that the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus of history are the same person, not just in reference but in fact, historicity, and substance. The more substantive form of the argument aims to eventually bring the unbeliever to a point of belief in the Christian faith. The progression I recommend is as follows:
- Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived and died in first-century Palestine.
- Jesus claimed to be God
- Jesus’s claim to be God was founded on his rising from the dead
- Evidence, in the Bible as well as outside of it, supports the resurrection of Jesus
- Given 1 through 4, Jesus’s claim to be God is supported.
There are other progressions that could be used to arrive at the same conclusion. However, many of them are not as close to universally applicable as the Argument for the Historical Jesus. A note to keep in mind: these items do not necessarily apply if your discussion is about theism generally and not Christianity specifically. But I do believe that when your discussion pertains to Christianity specifically, the historical Jesus is the best approach with most people.
It’s not as Open to Interpretation
If you start a discussion with a skeptic on arguments for design, for example, your first premise (typically something like “Design present in the world supports the presence of a designer”) is dependent on facts that can be interpreted in different ways. I, as a Christian, believe that theism is the most reasonable conclusion from these arguments, but must concede that alternative explanations (no matter how unlikely) are indeed possible. But when your first premise is that of the historical Jesus, this is not the case. While the laws of thermodynamics don’t necessarily point to Jehovah per se, historical evidences for the existence of a literal Jesus, including but not limited to his presence in extrabiblical historical accounts, a physical, known tomb, and multiple eyewitness accounts from known historical people, the first premise is hard to reject. This progresses the discussion quicker, instead of getting hung up on the first premise.
It Doesn’t Presuppose Terms that Cannot Be Agreed Upon
The only assumption in this argument that skeptics would not agree on is that evidence, whether real or hypothetical, could introduce a supernatural explanation as a possibility. This is a breaking point for many skeptics (particularly naturalists), and is a significant obstacle to dialoguing with them about Christianity. However, this is really an assumption on the part of the skeptic rather than the believer (the assumption being “supernatural explanations are never logically valid”).
Aside from this “non-assumption” that is often treated as one, there are no assumptions the believer is making that most skeptics will not agree to. In other arguments, presuppositions are frequently employed. To start with God and then move to Jesus as the Messiah, for example, presumes the existence of God. If it doesn’t, the apologist must then prove the existence of God as the mere first step. Proving the existence of a historical Jesus is a far easier feat.
The terms that the believer and the skeptic are agreeing to here are essentially that reliable historical sources do exist, that historical truth is objective, and that claims ought to be supported by evidence. Unless the apologist is speaking to a committed post-modernist, these are highly reasonable terms.
It Includes Various Types of Evidences
Each of the claims in our set require evidence in order to be presented. But to do this gives the opportunity for various types of evidences. For instance, we have historical evidence starting with the historical Jesus. We have Biblical evidence in details of the life of Christ. We have medical as well as historical evidence external to the Bible for the resurrection, and we can also bring in elements of philosophy when speaking of Jesus’s claim to be God. Once the resurrection is introduced, we also have evidences of prophecy, and can introduce evidences of design.
This is a key advantage, and something that J. Warner Wallace talks at length on in God’s Crime Scene. According to Wallace, the key is not to fix our entire argument upon one evidence, but to gather various kinds of evidence, so that we are building a cumulative case for Christ, something that homicide detectives do all of the time. The case for the historical Jesus allows us to work from a point of mutual confidence (evidences of history) and broaden to include various kinds of evidences, and thus build a cumulative case for Jesus from common ground.
Objection: You Cannot Get to God from Man
This objection is sometimes raised, that it is impossible to use a man (Jesus) as a starting point and get to God, that this is a leap that is artificial and cannot be justified. However, this objection can only be true if and only if presuppositionalism is the only proper way to do apologetics, at the exclusion of evidentialism.
The reason is this: if you cannot get from Jesus the man to Jesus Christ, then all that is left is to use God as the starting point and thereby get to Jesus the man, that is, Jesus Christ. If God is the starting point, then we must either 1. Prove that God exists or 2. Presume God’s existence. The first is impossible, either in actuality or in practicality. That is, God’s existence probably cannot be proven beyond any doubt, because God himself is not observable. The skeptic can always say that design is due to an enormous anomaly. The evidence greatly supports God, but he cannot be proven with observable facts (and certainly not to the extent that a historical Jesus can). And even if that point is objected to, it is certainly true that God’s existence cannot be proven practically – this is an inefficient starting point with nonbelievers.
That only leaves presuppositionalism, the idea that we must presume God’s existence in any spiritual discussion. This approach in and of itself is bankrupt because it does not reach the nonbeliever. By presupposing the very thing that the nonbeliever by definition rejects, you have cut off all discussion and have almost no chance of reaching him or her. If our aim in apologetics is to reach nonbelievers with the faith (and I do believe it should be), then this approach is essentially bankrupt.
So then, if we are to reach others with apologetics, then going from Jesus the man to Jesus Christ is the only legitimate way to do so, with those who are already holding to the belief that God does not exist, and so Jesus cannot be God. Other approaches are, generally speaking, either impossible or inefficient.
There are many different approaches that we could use in apologetics. Different arguments are appropriate at different times, especially in response to different objections. But if we are given the choice to lead the conversation, and if we are to have a go-to set of arguments which bring the skeptic to Christianity specifically (as opposed to theism generally), the historical Jesus is, in effect, the best starting place for any discussion of Christianity.