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Josh McDowell on Defending the Bible

  • Christy Tennant Columnist for Bible Study Magazine
  • Updated Apr 07, 2010
Josh McDowell on Defending the Bible

To say that Josh McDowell is passionate about the truths of Scripture is a gross understatement. Defending the Christian faith through an examination of "the evidence" has been the primary focus of his ministry for forty-plus years. From churches to universities, in the U.S.. and overseas, McDowell engages skeptics and seekers alike, ready with strong, researched responses to the most difficult questions. McDowell admits that he has entertained so many questions that he is not often surprised. "I can't think of a new question I've heard in ages. Probably one out of fifty questions takes a new or different slant. Most people have the same questions because they're influenced by the same people's opinions." Whether in a recent popular novel, or in a philosophy class, they often begin by saying, "I heard somebody say," or "I read in a book that," and a familiar dialogue ensues.

Perhaps the reason McDowell is so eager to engage with inquisitive young minds is that he is a former skeptic whose questions sent him on a truth-seeking mission resulting in conversion. As an undergraduate student, he was challenged by some fellow students and professors to investigate the claims of Christianity. He was sent on a life-altering trajectory toward becoming one of the twentieth century's most influential evangelicals. "Prior to that, I thought the Bible was strictly a compilation by men written after the time of Christ, so far removed that it could not accurately portray what Jesus said or did," he says.

"McDowell began his investigation with a strong bias against Christianity."

However, the more he studied and considered the historical and biblical evidence, the more convinced he became that the claims of Christianity were true. His conviction was so strong that he abandoned his plans for law school and went to seminary.

However, McDowell is quick to clarify that it was not the study of the historical evidence that finally convinced him to trust Jesus, but the tender love of the risen Savior to whom he prayed one night in his dorm room. "Most people don't understand that about me. All the evidence that I've collected for the resurrection and the deity of Christ—and the Scriptures—none of that brought me to Christ. All it did was get my attention. It was kind of like I slammed the door on God, and God put His foot in the door with the evidence. Once I was convinced the Bible was true, then, and only then, did I consider the message. In Jeremiah 31, God says ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love, with tender kindness I have drawn you.' What brought me to Christ was the love of God, not the evidence. The evidence showed me what was true. What motivated my belief was the realization I had that Saturday night in my dorm room: If I were the only person alive, Jesus still would have died for me. That's what brought me to Christ."

McDowell asserts that while apologetics will not cause a person to come to Christ, it can bring someone to a point of seriously considering the validity of the biblical claims. He says, "If I hadn't considered whether the claims of Christianity were true, I would never have considered its message. So for me, apologetics had to come before I exercised faith." Yet, he acknowledges many Christians practice their faith for years before they are exposed to logical, evidential arguments. He goes on to say, "I know many people who came to Christ as children or teenagers, but it wasn't until they got to high school or university that their faith really started to be challenged; they didn't question it until then. That was when they needed apologetics."

Josh McDowell answers questions based on careful study of the historical evidence, extra-biblical first-century writings, archaeological findings, and the canonical Scriptures themselves. In forty years of ministry, McDowell has learned one very important lesson about how to approach a theological debate. "When I debate someone, the first thing I have to investigate is their presuppositions. What do they assume to be true? The majority of people I debate are motivated by one significant presupposition: naturalism. They assume that everything must be identified with a natural process or it cannot be true. That's not from examining the evidence. That's a philosophical assumption, and it goes along with the assumption that we live in a closed universe. They believe that in a closed universe, all things that happen within that universe must have a natural explanation from within that universe. So, even if there were a God, he could not intervene in the natural course of the universe. Well, if that were your assumption, then all the evidence we have for the resurrection, no matter how solid the evidence is historically, would have no significance."

To illustrate this, McDowell offers this example: "I was at Memphis State University speaking to the history department, and after I gave the evidence for the resurrection, during the question and answer period, the professor said, ‘Well, I know Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead.' I said, ‘Sir, do you know that because you have examined the evidence and the preponderance of the evidence shows that to be true? Or is it because your philosophical presupposition is that the supernatural does not exist?' He said, ‘It's because of my presupposition.' It didn't matter what evidence I had. So, I had to deal with his presupposition."

When McDowell approaches a dialogue with someone who has drawn conclusions opposite from his, he considers several angles on their perspective while engaging with them. When faced with the example of a person who does not believe that Abraham, the patriarch, was a real person, but rather a mythological character in ancient folklore, McDowell tries to get to the bottom of what has led them to that conclusion. "I always ask people, ‘What are you assuming to be true? What would convince you that Abraham was a real person? Or what has convinced you that he wasn't a real person?' "

"Second, I hold the view that the Bible should be taken literally, unless it indicates otherwise. There are plenty of places in the Bible where it says, ‘this is a parable' or ‘this is an allusion,' or ‘this is a story,' but when it comes to Abraham, there is not one single passage that would indicate that he was not a real person." McDowell clarifies that while archaeology often lends powerful support to the historical reliability of the Scriptures, it does not help determine whether the Scriptures are inspired by God. However, he says what archaeology can do is show that historically and culturally, the Old and New Testaments are accurate.

McDowell will continue to engage with skeptics and equip people for solid, rational arguments in favor of Christianity. But at the very heart of everything McDowell does is a passion to see people receive salvation by putting their faith in Jesus Christ. Following September 11, 2001 in New York City, over 1.5 million people were handed the special 9/11 New York City edition of More Than a Carpenter. In subways and on street corners, people who sought answers from God in the midst of tragedy found answers in McDowell's book.

The "evidence for Christianity in the Scriptures is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient."

Surprisingly, More Than a Carpenter was not premeditated. "For about six months, I had many professors, businessmen and students say to me, ‘I wish you had been with me in my office,' or ‘I wish you had been with me last week.' And I'd say, ‘Why?' And they'd say, ‘I was talking with someone who had so many questions about Jesus, the Bible and the resurrection, and I couldn't answer them, but I knew you could!' And so I was in Chicago, downtown at the Rock and Roll McDonalds, and I told my wife, ‘ I'm going to go across the street and get twelve legal pads, and then I'm going back to the room, and I'm not going to leave, or go to bed, until I write a book.' " Forty-eight hours later, More Than a Carpenter was scrawled on twelve legal pads.

Pointing people to truth and equipping them for studying Scripture has been fundamental to McDowell's writing and speaking. Because most of his speaking engagements are keynote addresses, his teaching is primarily topical rather than expository. His own approach to studying the Bible, especially in preparation for speaking or teaching, is labor intensive, in part because he rarely (if ever) delivers the same message twice. His preparation begins with a yellow legal pad, where he writes down everything he knows about the subject at hand. "I'll take a legal pad and start writing. Sometimes it will be one page, sometimes it will be twenty pages," he says. "I'll make up stories, illustrations, and think of Scriptures related to the topic. You might ask, ‘Why don't you start with the Bible, or good commentaries?' The reason is that I want my talk to be as personal and authentic as I can make it. The first thing I do is put down my thoughts, not a popular pastor's or somebody else's, not the ancient writers', but everything I can think of about the topic."

After he has exhausted his own Scriptural knowledge, he searches for other Scriptures he may not have thought of to support his view. A fan of Logos Bible Software, McDowell uses the program frequently to explore and cross-reference every passage he can find that relates to his topic. He attempts to exhaust every verse he chooses, from Genesis to Revelation. "I'll record everything relevant," says McDowell. "I always over-study. I probably study and collect 400% more material than I can ever use in teaching. It gives me a greater confidence that I am speaking the truth."

"This is where Logos is good," he continues. "I'll search out all the biblical writers who have addressed the topic and pull out everything that is relevant to the text I've chosen." McDowell also examines modern commentaries and dictionaries. "When I've got all that information, I create an outline. The second-to-last thing I write is the introduction, and the last thing I write is the conclusion."

It is clear that McDowell has a tremendous amount of Scripture in his heart. Whether discussing why he writes books or exploring some favorite passages, his conversations burst with biblical references. One has to wonder, when an apologist looks for apologetic writing in Scripture, what gets his attention? "Gosh, all of it!" he says. "First Corinthians 13-15. The book of Acts—where the constant appeal for the foundation of the Church and their martyred lives is the eyewitnesses of what Jesus said and did, his crucifixion, burial and resurrection."

"Luke is phenomenal," he continues, "because Luke was not written by an eyewitness. Luke says he got his material from those who were eyewitnesses, to record the exact truth of the things ‘that were taught among us.' And he tried to be exact. I think the Gospel of Luke is probably one of the greatest apologetic pieces of all time." McDowell points out that in Luke 3:1-3, there are between twelve and fifteen historical references, helping to clarify exact timetables and preserve an accurate historical record.

The more he talks about the Bible, the more enthusiastic and animated McDowell becomes. "Then there's John, which records the miracles. In john 21, the author says that there were many other things that Jesus did, things that prove that he was the Messiah, which are not included in his gospel. John says that these things are a testimony that Jesus was the Christ, so that all who believe in him may have eternal life. John is saying there that the evidence for Christianity in the Scriptures is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient. John says, ‘These have been recorded that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and in believing, have eternal life'—John was an eyewitness. In 1 john chapter 1, he confirms that he and the other apostles got their information as eyewitnesses. He says, ‘What our eyes have seen, what our ears have heard, what our hands have handled'—not somebody else's, our own. In other words, ‘We have first-hand information of what he said and what he did.' That makes John pretty strong apologetically."

McDowell believes that Christians should always be ready to explain why they believe in Jesus. "First Peter 3:15 says, ‘Be ready always to give an answer for the hope you have received,' which simply means, if someone asks you why are you a Christian, why you believe in Jesus, why you believe the Bible, you should be ready to give an intelligent answer for it."

Is there a need for new books on evangelism and apologetics? McDowell offers a resounding yes, for the simple reason that there is new evidence regularly being discovered. "I have re-written Evidence That Demands a Verdict several times, and the latest one was a complete rewrite. I named it The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict because there have been so many new discoveries made since the last version.

New archaeological discoveries are made all the time, corroborating biblical records and adding credence to the Bible's historiography. Nonetheless, culture changes, worldviews develop, and communication patterns change. McDowell understands this well. "Truth remains the same, but culture changes. So, the way we present truth needs to change. Often the reason why we need new books on evangelism is that there has been a shift in culture, among adults or youth. Some of the questions we deal with are different from those addressed five years earlier." The postmodern generation, for example, is characterized by a resistance to absolute truth, making the exclusive claims of Christianity a hard sell. Yet McDowell sees the present generation, both at home and abroad, as among the most receptive he has seen. "I have seen more young people come to Christ lately, than I have in forty-six years of ministry, in the U.S. and overseas." At a recent conference in Poland where McDowell spoke, an estimated 6,800 young people turned out. "When I gave the invitation, 5,000 stepped out to trust Christ as their Savior and Lord." McDowell was also in Romania recently, speaking at a youth conference where approximately 6,200 people attended and 1,800 went forward at the invitation to put their faith in Christ. He goes on to say that in the U.S., he is finding young people to be more responsive to the gospel today than ever before.

"The best defense of Christianity is a clear, simple presentation of the gospel that is culturally relevant, in the power of the Holy Spirit, backed up by a lifestyle and calling for a decision."

McDowell attributes this, at least in part, to a unique approach that combines the logical with the relational. "I present evidential, concrete truth, but I do two things with it. First, I do it in the context of relationships. Truth without relationships leads to rebellion. Second, I always take the truth and relate it to people's lives. I tell them how it affects their relationship with the Truth Giver, and in their own lives. And when you do that with young people, they are very interested."

"Here's the problem," he says. "Everyone's going around saying, ‘This generation responds to stories. You just need to tell stories. They're not interested in evidence, nothing concrete, nothing with substance.' And the people saying that always quote Jesus, but I don't think Jesus would have taught the way he did if he didn't know that the epistles were going to be right around the corner. Jesus gave the story; the epistles gave the content of the story. Without the epistles, much of the teachings of Jesus would not have had the impact they do today. The epistles help us understand what Jesus was saying through the parables, whether it's the kingdom of God or salvation. People are running around today saying, ‘Just tell the story, tell the story.' Well, I'll tell you what: If I were a Mormon, I could come up with a story about Mormonism as powerful as Christianity. If I was a Muslim, I could come up with a story that would win over many Christians to Islam."

"But what determines whether each story is true or not? It's substance. The evidence. And without that, then you've given up the truth of Christianity. When it comes to story, it comes down to this: Is the person a good storyteller? If they're good storytellers, good communicators, then they must have the truth. If they're not good storytellers, then people don't respond."

"First of all, our faith is an intelligent faith," says McDowell, quoting several Scripture passages to prove his point. "Be ready always to give an answer for the hope that is in you. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. A saving faith is a studied and intelligent faith. Not a blind faith, not something without evidence."

"Second, you can't argue anyone into the kingdom of God. Only God can convince someone that something is true, I don't care how much evidence you have. Third, for some people, apologetics, which is setting forth reasons to believe, comes before they exercise faith. For others, it comes after they exercise faith. They get saved through a story, but then they get out in the world and start reading some of the books by Richard Dawkins and others, and they start thinking: ‘Wow is this really true?' It is then that apologetics becomes meaningful to them."

McDowell believes that when it comes to effectively communicating the claims of Christianity, the best defense is a good offense—a twist on a popular sports analogy. McDowell tells a story about how he drew this conclusion. "I did a graduate paper for Dr. Clarence Bass at Talbot Seminary. It was a fifteen-page paper, and it was 80% of our grade and due ten days before the end of the course." The assignment, according to McDowell, was to give the best defense of Christianity he could. "Well, I kept putting it off … and putting it off, and finally, the night before it was due, I figured, ‘I better start this paper!' So I sat down and I started writing, and I said, ‘Many people say, the best offense is a good defense. But I say to you that with Christianity, the best defense is a good offense. The best defense of Christianity is a clear, simple presentation of the gospel that is culturally relevant, in the power of the Holy Spirit, backed up by a Christ-like lifestyle and calling for a decision.' " In his paper, McDowell wrote out the Four Spiritual Laws and supplied some evidence for the resurrection of Christ and the reliability of the Bible. He finished his paper by giving his own personal testimony of his conversion experience. "I got the only A in the class, and until he died, for years, when he assigned the paper, he would always quote me, saying, ‘By far, the greatest defense of Christianity is a clear simple presentation of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, backed up by a lifestyle.' " McDowell still holds this conviction today.

When skeptics become seekers and ask McDowell for guidance on how to approach reading the Bible, he is ready with a simple suggestion. "I challenge them to start with the Gospel of John, then Luke, then Mark, and then the book of Romans, and the rest of the New Testament before they ever go to the Old Testament. And I tell people to simply pray an honest prayer: ‘God, if you're God, and Christ is your son, and if it is true that he died on the cross for the sins of humanity and my sins, then give me the conviction of it as I read.' The reason is, in John 14:17 and 15:26, it says that the Holy Spirit will lead you in all truth. Now even though that's a direct reference to the apostles, I think if you take into account all of the scriptural teaching, you can apply it to anyone. God gave the Holy Spirit to lead people in truth who are sincerely seeking the truth." As far as translations, he recommends for first-time Bible readers, "I would tell them to use the New American Standard Bible or the New Living Translation."

Having spent nearly five decades in ministry, Josh McDowell is no stranger to the unique challenges that face people whose vocation is to be ready in-season and out-of-season to preach the good news of the gospel. Recognizing that preaching and writing, and speaking out as a proponent of Christianity, is a demanding vocation, McDowell has a good support system in place: his wife and family. "Probably the number one thing comes back to my family—my wife and my four children. If I am right in my relationship with Dottie and if I am right in my relationship with my children—if I am in a healthy place in my marriage and family, I hardly ever get depressed or down. If I'm not in a right relationship with Dottie or one of my kids, it can greatly affect me, but that is very seldom. First, it comes back to my own family."

Besides maintaining healthy relationships and open communication with his immediate family, McDowell says he meditates on Scripture often, keeping his thoughts on Christ and God's paradigm for life. "I constantly think through Scripture, whether it's preparing for a talk or in my own personal life," he says.

Third, McDowell does what he can to make sure that he is filled with—and being filled by—the Holy Spirit every day. Consciously desiring to be filled, confessing his sins to God, examining his heart and life to see that every area he can think of is yielded to God, he then simply thanks the Holy Spirit for filling him, by faith. "Because if I'm not filled with the Holy Spirit, moment by moment by moment, it is easy to get my eyes off Christ, get my eyes onto myself, get my eyes onto the problems around me and get discouraged." Fortunately, for McDowell, discouragement is very rare, thanks in part to a circle of friends he credits for consistently and consciously encouraging him to walk with Christ. "If I am kind of down, I'll call my wife and say, ‘Honey, I'm kind of down, but it's really stupid because everything is going great.' In fact, come to think of it, the only time I get down is usually when things are going great. I think most people are vulnerable not when things are going wrong, but when things are going fantastic and God is using them in a mighty way."

Deeply rooted in Scripture, zealous to contend for the faith and with a full calendar for the foreseeable future, Josh McDowell is, by all accounts, being used by God in a mighty way. With new books in the works, buzzing excitement about new evidence for the Christian faith, and a growing overseas ministry, McDowell anticipates many more years' worth of writing, speaking and equipping believers around the world. In everything he does, his mission is the same: to present skeptics and seekers with solid evidence for the deity of Christ, the reliability of Scripture and the historical facts of the resurrection of Christ—to equip believers to always be ready to give an answer for the hope they have as followers of Jesus Christ.


*Josh McDowell's book More Than a Carpenter is available in several languages and continues to be in hot demand, particularly overseas.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Kay Arthur, Mark Driscoll, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Nov-Dec 2008): pgs. 11-16.

Publication date: April 7, 2010