What place do human emotions, needs, and desires have in apologetics? Should we appeal to the satisfaction of basic human needs and longings as a reason to consider Christianity? In a series of blog posts (here, here, and here), I’ve argued that although this aspect of apologetics has been much neglected, needs-based reasoning should have a significant role in an overall apologetic strategy.
To prove that this is not some unbiblical version of the health, wealth, and prosperity Gospel, I want to show you that this strand of needs-based (or experiential) apologetics is both present in the Bible and has been utilized throughout Church history. Today we will offer the biblical evidence and tomorrow the historical evidence.
Yesterday I distinguished two different kinds of experiential apologetics (evidentialist and existentialist). As it’s often difficult to distinguish them (especially in older writers), today and tomorrow’s survey will merely highlight the appeal to human need, desire, and emotion without categorizing whether these are evidential or existential arguments. My main point is to prove that biblical authors and Christian writers have frequently incorporated arguments based on the experiential benefits of Christianity (and the corresponding misery of the non-Christian life).
Below are samples of the biblical evidence, some of them including explicit appeals to need and others more implicit. Before you study them, bear in mind our definition of apologetics:
Christian apologetics uses arguments that defend and commend the Christian faith, and that critique non-Christian religions and worldviews, in order to persuade non-Christians to accept the Christian faith or to persuade Christians to greater faith.
Thirteen Basic Human Needs
In his book, Existential Reasons for Belief in God; A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith, Clifford Williams lists thirteen basic human needs that Christianity meets. We’ll look at each of them and supply biblical examples of appeals to these needs. Before doing so, though, let’s note Williams’s two qualifications. First, he is not claiming that everyone feels all thirteen of the needs (feeling only one of the needs is all that’s required to make the needs-based argument relevant). Second, he demonstrates that not all these needs are purely self-centered by dividing the thirteen needs into two categories.
- Self-directed needs: Aimed at getting something for ourselves.
- Other-directed needs: aimed at the good of others or is what is good (which incidentally and unintentionally gives us something too).
I’ll list the needs, followed by a description of them, followed by both Old and New Testament evidence of appeals to need.
Cosmic security: We want to feel protected from difficulties and suffering; but if these do come, we want to be sure that all will still be well with us.
References: Psalm 91; Matthew 7:24-26; John 10:28-29; 14:27; Romans 8:28
Hope of life beyond the grave: That we will keep on being conscious even after we die.
References: Psalm 16:9-10; Daniel 12:2,13; John 11:25
Heaven: This goes beyond just existing after death, and describes the kind of blessed existence we crave.
References: Psalm 16:11; John 14:1-3; Revelation 21
Goodness: Despite the imperfection of this life, we still crave a good and virtuous life, and not just for ourselves, but for others too.
References: Deut. 32:47; Psalm 15; 34:11-16; Matthew 22:34-40. The existence of so many commands and instructions in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 20; Romans 12) imply that we feel the need for moral order and goodness and that we should want it for others too.
A larger life: We want new experiences of things, people, and places, that we may experience amazement, exhilaration, and moral awe (i.e. the admiration of others’ goodness).
References: Psalm 4:6; 27:4; John 10:10
To be loved: For emotional security, we want to be known, loved, trusted, and enjoyed by our parents, by friends, by a spouse, by our children, and by others.
References: Psalm 63:3; Jeremiah 31:3; John 3:16; 13:35; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 John 3:1
Meaning: A sense of significance, purpose, and destiny.
References: Genesis 1:26-28; Job 23:10; Isa. 43:10; Matthew 4:19; 6:33; 28:18-20, 1 John 3:2-3.
Forgiveness: For going astray, and especially for transgressing in our pursuit of love and meaning.
References: Psalm 51:7; 1 John 1:9
I’d also add the need for refreshment and rest (Isaiah 55:1-2; Matthew 11:28; John 7:37).
John Piper has counted more than forty times in the Gospel of Luke where promises of reward and threats of punishment are connected with the commands of Jesus.
Surely “other-directed needs” is an oxymoron. How can needs be other-directed? Don’t needs spring from self-concern? Williams admits the seeming contradiction, but insists that these desires are both other-directed and self-satisfying. Although these needs spring not from self-concern but concern for others, yet they also enrich the self when satisfied and impoverish if unsatisfied.
To love: We want to love others (including God) and have the opportunity to express it
References: 2 Samuel 1:26; Psalm 116:1; 133:1; Acts 2:40-47; 1 Corinthians 13
Awe: Experienced through encounters with a magnificent landscape, powerful people, or moral heroism, and especially when we encounter God.
References: Exodus 15:11; Psalm 8; 104; Matthew 7:28-29; 27:54; John 7:46; 20:28; Rom. 11:33
Delighting in goodness: We take pleasure in the goodness of our beloved. The classic example of this is the Song of Solomon. The Bible records many examples of commendable moral courage for us to rejoice in. For example, Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:6-9); Daniel and his three friends (Daniel 1; Daniel 3); the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostle Paul holds out the prospect of cheerful goodness (Rom. 12:8).
Being present: Enjoying being with those we love.
Again, the Song of Solomon is a superlative expression of this. Jesus chose the twelve disciples “to be with him” (Mark 3:14).
Justice and fairness: The desire to see justice done for ourselves and others. We want to see the wicked punished and the victims compensated.
References: Genesis 18:25; Psalm 98:7-9; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15.
These and other verses indicate that God can meet those needs and therefore it is worth believing in him. Every time Christian teachers extol the benefits of being a Christian, they are assuming a human need, claiming that Christ can satisfy that need, and therefore faith in him is justified. This existential argument from need is intended to be inviting, appealing, and persuasive. In some ways, the entire book of Proverbs is an existential argument from need.
On the flip side, the Bible is replete with examples of how false religion and irreligion fail to satisfy the deepest needs of humanity. A classic example of this is the book of Ecclesiastes. Also in the latter part of Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul portrays idolatry in the most hideous of terms both in its causes and effects.
In fact, when you survey the biblical evidence, might it be said that experiential apologetics or needs-based apologetics is the most frequently used apologetic in the Bible?