Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive
Magazine Article

The Pulling Down of Strongholds: The Power of Presuppositional Apologetics

We live in an age of unbelief. Our culture has abandoned its faith in God’s Word and has turned aside to idols.

  • Michael R. Butler,
Share this

We live in an age of unbelief. Our culture has abandoned its faith in God’s Word and has turned aside to idols. Humanism has replaced Christianity as the established religion. Our churches as well have ingested the toxin of humanism and no longer hold out a viable alternative to the unbelief of our age. This is why Christianity seems, at least to some, to be irrelevant.

There are many ways Christians are called to combat unbelief. Education and political activism are perhaps the most apparent. But the most effective way to combat unbelief is through apologetics. We must confute the gainsayer and establish the truth of Christianity if we expect to dominate, once again, the institutions and thought of our culture.

We cannot effectively defend Christianity against unbelief unless we know something about the faith we endeavor to defend. Too often, well-intentioned Christians pursue apologetics without considering the issue of methodology. Rather than reflecting upon how Christianity should be defended, they jump right into the fray and employ any argument that appears to offer some hope of success. This hope is futile. Because Christianity is a complete system of thought, the apologetic method that we use must be organic to it. The defense of the faith must be consistent with the Christian system of thought.

To develop a proper method of apologetics, we need to consider some basic philosophical and theological issues. After this is done, we will be in a position to develop an argument that will demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion.

Philosophical and Theological Considerations

Many people do not have an interest in philosophy. This is mainly due to a misconception of the subject. It is often thought to be unnecessarily abstract with little or no practical value.

Philosophy is a systematic attempt to answer the questions that all of us occasionally ask: “How are claims to knowledge justified?” “What kind of a world do we reside in?” “Are there values, and if so, what are they?” These are not only practical questions, but are the most important questions we can ask. The way we answer them provides the basic perspective from which we lead our lives.

Let us start by considering the first question, “How are claims to knowledge justified?” This is perhaps the most fundamental question in the area of philosophy called epistemology. Implied in the question is a distinction between knowledge and belief or opinion. Not everything that is believed is known. 

Jones may, for example, believe that Cleveland is the capital of Ohio, but he could not know this since Columbus is, in fact, the capital. Knowledge thus requires truth. One cannot know something that is not true. But even if Jones believed that Columbus was the capital of Ohio, he still does not necessarily know this to be the case. Jones may have formed the belief that all state capitals, like that of his native state, North Carolina, are named after famous explorers. Since Columbus is the only city in Ohio that is named after a great explorer, he concludes that it must be the capital. If this were the only reason he believed Columbus to be the capital of Ohio, we would not say that he had knowledge, but that his erroneous theory just happened to lead him to truth in this instance. What Jones is missing is what philosophers call justification. He has a true belief, but lacks proper justification.

The question of what qualifies as justification has vexed philosophers for many centuries. Some even maintain that something in addition to justification is necessary for knowledge, but there is no need to add complications here. It is sufficient is to understand that when challenged on our claim to know something, one can challenge us on the veracity of our belief or on its justification (or perhaps both).

What, then, constitutes justification for a belief? This depends on the belief. Suppose Jones asks Smith (who recently returned from a trip to Germany) what the population of Saxony is. Smith replies that it is 4.3 million. Surprised at the precision of the answer, Jones asks how he knows this. Smith tells him that he read it in a paper while in Germany. This would likely be sufficient for Jones since, like most people, he believes newspapers are typically reliable when it comes to facts and statistics. But if he wanted, Jones could press the issue and ask Smith how he knows the paper got the figure right. Smith answers that the paper cited the latest census. 

Next Jones wants to know why Smith thinks the census is reliable. Smith replies that census takers went through every neighborhood in Saxony and counted every resident within a certain degree of accuracy. Undeterred, Jones wants to know why Smith believes they counted accurately. Smith tells him that they are trained to count the number of people residing in each house and, when not possible, to ask the neighbors how many people reside in a certain house. But Jones can press still further. Why, he asks, does Smith believe that counting this way is reliable? Smith answers that counting basically relies on sense perception. The census taker asks how many people live in a residence; the housewife counts the members of the household; and the census taker jots down the figure. When Jones asks Smith how he knows that sense experience is reliable, Smith may simply say that he just knows it is. If so, Smith has reached his final authority.

The point of this is to show that most of our beliefs are grounded in more basic beliefs. We justify our beliefs in terms of other beliefs. But this process cannot go on indefinitely. Sooner or later one will come to what he considers the bottom line. When this point has been reached, one is said to have reached his ultimate authority. 

This authority is such that it not only provides justification for beliefs, but also determines what will be counted as true. This entails that ultimate authorities are self-attesting; they do not go outside themselves for justification. The Word of God is, of course, the only true ultimate authority, but fallen man has turned to false surrogates. But whatever is chosen as the final authority, there is no questioning its supremacy. This is why the Christian cannot appeal to some other authority to justify the authority of the Bible. If he did so, then whatever he appealed to would be his actual final authority. The same holds for the unbeliever.

Ultimate authorities reside within a nexus of other beliefs. They are bound up with other fundamental beliefs, which together provide a basic framework for understanding the world. This is called a worldview. Since everyone has an ultimate authority, it follows that everyone has a worldview.

For apologetics, it is crucial to realize the significance that ultimate authorities and worldviews play in a person’s belief structure. It is fruitless to reason with unbelievers without taking account of their worldview. Since they adhere to a different authority, there is little point in trying to argue for the truth of Christianity without first shattering their intellectual stronghold. Because they interpret everything, including our apologetic arguments, through their worldview, nothing we say will convince them of the truth of Christianity since their fundamental commitments are antithetical to it.

At this point, it seems natural to note that there are different worldviews and move on to the issue of how this will inform our apologetic methodology. But it is important first to consider how these different worldviews arose. The reason for this will become clear in a moment.

When man was created, he viewed the world through the perspective of God’s revelation. There were no competing worldviews because man lived in submission to God’s authority. But when the serpent came and asked, “Yea, hath God said?” he introduced the possibility of there being another authority. Rather than answering as the second Adam (“it is written …”), man chose to reject God’s authority and become his own final authority. With his new authority he introduced an alternative worldview to compete with the one he rejected.

Man’s choice to reject God’s authority and replace it with his own was not a mistake, but a conscious and deliberate decision. What we often fail to realize about the account is that Adam knew he was choosing a lie. As the children of Adam, we, too, apart from grace, choose to believe this same lie. 

Arguments alone will never convince the unbeliever of the truth of Christianity. As a rebellious son of Adam, he knows the truth, but despises it. He hates God and will not bend his knee to his Lord and Maker. If we fail to realize these basic truths of our religion, our defense of the faith will lack both authority and power. 

The only effective argument is one that takes account of these Biblical truths together with the gospel of Jesus Christ and presents them to the unbeliever in an uncompromising manner. The unbeliever does not need to be convinced of the truth of Christianity. He needs the Spirit of God, working through the proclamation of the gospel, to vivify his dead heart. And it is only presuppositional apologetics that does this.

Before turning to the presuppositional argument, it will be a helpful exercise first to consider two traditional arguments for God’s existence to illustrate the problem of defending the faith without taking account of either the issue of worldviews or the doctrine of sin.

Traditional Arguments

The Cosmological Argument

Perhaps the most famous of the arguments for God’s existence is the cosmological argument. While it comes in many forms, its general thrust is that a world that is constituted by contingent facts (such as, there are caused things) must have a sufficient explanation for such facts. In its most common formulation, the argument contends that since there are caused things and since no caused thing is the cause of itself, any caused thing must be caused by something else. Since there cannot be an infinity of causes (otherwise the causal chain would have never commenced), there must be a first or uncaused cause. And this first cause is God. This is essentially Aquinas’ “second way.”

There are several problems with this argument. First, the claim that there cannot be an infinite series of causes is controversial; many philosophers have disputed this. They ask why a series of causes must terminate at some point. No doubt our intuition is that there can be no infinite causal sequence, but intuition often leads us astray. What, after all, forces us to maintain that an infinite series of causes is impossible? There seems to be no a priori reason to deem such a series impossible. Even Aquinas himself thought that an infinite series of temporal causes could not be ruled out on philosophical grounds alone.

Modern proponents of the cosmological argument maintain that there cannot be an actual infinite set of anything, including caused events. To hold to the contrary seems to lead to absurdity. Bertrand Russell offers the example of a man who writes an autobiography. The man is a slow writer, and it takes him a year to write about any given day of his life. This, of course, means that he gets further away from completing his project every day that goes by. But given an infinite amount of time, he will be able to complete his project.

This is because of a paradoxical feature of infinite sets. Since there is an infinity of years as well as days, the two may be mapped out in a one-on-one correspondence. And if they can be so mapped out, they are equal. Hence, there is a year for every day, which gives the writer enough time to complete the book. So despite the fact that given a finite duration of time, the writer falls one year behind for every day that goes by, in an infinite duration he would be able to finish. But this seems absurd. For this reason and others, some have maintained that there cannot be an actual infinite sequence of events. And if there are no actual infinites, then there must be a first cause.

Whether this defense succeeds in the end is beyond the scope of this article. (One typical reply is that this judges infinite sets on the standards of finite ones, which is, of course, question begging.) Assuming it does, the second objection to this version of the cosmological argument reveals a deeper flaw. Since the series of causes in the world are finite, it is not necessary to posit a first cause that is infinite. At best, all one needs is a cause that is a little less finite than the whole series or perhaps a little less finite than the first event in the sequence. In other words, if the series is finite, there is no reason to conclude that the first cause of the series is itself infinite.

Third, even granting this argument proves there must be an uncaused cause, it does not preclude the possibility that there are two or more uncaused causes. Since there seems to be quite a few divergent series of causes (physical interaction, thoughts, moral decisions, reproduction, and so on), it is not unreasonable to conclude that different causal sequences have different uncaused causes. More than one pagan religion has posited two ultimate causes of the world order: the good and the bad. Given this way of reasoning, there seems to be no adequate ground to reject this possibility.

To press this objection further, why can there not be as many first causes as there are effects? In other words, why is it not possible that every event has its own unique uncaused cause? There seems to be no good answer to this. This tells us that the only reason this argument concludes with only one uncaused cause is that the rabbit is already in the hat. Christian philosophers believe there is only one God, and so they force their belief into their conclusion.

Fourth, even if these objections were overcome, the argument does not necessitate that we identify the first cause as the God of Christianity. Muslim philosophers at one time used this argument to prove the existence of Allah. Even the non-religious philosopher Aristotle appealed to this kind of reasoning to prove his unmoved mover. Thus the god that is proved by this argument is compatible with pagan gods. If it is so compatible, this alone indicates that it is not compatible with the living and true God.

The Teleological Argument

The teleological argument, as the name indicates, is concerned with the design or purpose of the world. William Paley offers the classical statement of the argument in his famous analogy of the watch. He asks us to suppose we came across a watch on a deserted beach. Unlike finding a pebble or a seashell, which are natural objects that we would expect to see there, we would infer that there must have been a maker of the watch. For the watch, unlike the pebble, has parts such as gears and dials that exhibit planning or design. The parts of the watch function together to keep time. Such things do not come about by random chance. 

In the same way, Paley argues, when we observe the world, we see that there is design as well. Take the eye with its various parts (iris, cornea, lens, pupil, retina), all functioning together to produce vision. Or the oak tree with its root system, trunk, branches, leaves, and acorns. Like the watch, the parts of the oak all operate in perfect harmony with each other, producing a unified and purposeful organism. Even more than the watch, the eye and the oak tree reveal upon investigation a staggering complexity down to the microscopic level. Since we would infer the existence of a watchmaker if we found a watch, how much more should we infer the existence of a grand designer whose work far surpasses the skill and ingenuity of the greatest of watchmakers? Since nothing in the universe has such power, imagination, and skill to make these and the vast number of equally complicated and ordered objects, the designer must transcend the universe. The designer, therefore, must be God.

Like the cosmological argument, there is something to be said for this. Creation does indeed display wonderful design. Kant himself (a critic of the traditional arguments) views this as the strongest of all the proofs for God’s existence. 

But as the argument stands, several objections can be raised against it. First, the premise that there is design in the world is hotly disputed. Of course there appears to be design, but this does not mean that there really is design. Take the following analogy. It is possible for a toddler to scribble on a piece of paper what appears to be the sentence “The barn is red.” Assuming the child is not precocious, we would not say he intended to write such a sentence. It would be accidental. In the same way, the appearance of order and design may be accidental.

Most modern scientists are willing to say that there is design in the world, at least in the biological realm. The eye, for example, exhibits so much complex order that it could not have come about by random processes. Darwinians have an explanation for this, though. Vision has a great deal of survival value for predators and prey alike. Nature selects for this advantage and culls out those creatures without vision. What appears to have been designed by an intelligent agent turns out to be designed by a “blind watchmaker.”

I am not advocating an evolutionary approach to biology, of course. But this Darwinian account of design is enough to debunk the teleological argument as it stands. Of course, Darwinism can be refuted on philosophical grounds, but this requires a presuppositional argument. The teleological argument loses much of its force in the light of modern evolutionary theory.

Second, even if we assume that there is design, this argument gives little reason to conclude that there must be only one designer. This is the same basic objection raised against the previous argument. Perhaps there are two designers or more. To extend Paley’s original analogy, suppose that while walking along the beach I discovered two watches lying in the sand. I would no doubt conclude they each had a designer, but I would not necessarily conclude they had the same designer.

Third, the teleological argument can be used to prove any number of gods. Many religions view their god or gods as the designer of the cosmos. Plato, for example, taught that a god or demiurge fashioned the world by impressing forms upon preexistent matter. There is no reason given in the argument that we should conclude that the Christian God as opposed to Plato’s god is the designer of the world.


Apart from the specific criticism of these arguments, the fundamental flaw in both is that they grant that the unbeliever can understand the world on his own terms. The concealed assumption is that man’s intellect is sufficient to stand in judgment over God. If man would simply follow his own reasoning to its logical conclusion, he would realize that God exists. But this autonomous way of reasoning only engenders further rebellion in man. Man’s problem is not that he has failed to consider the implications of the principles that underlie his approach to life. He has done this all too well. Rather, man’s problem is that he refuses to cast aside his man-centered principles and turn to God as his ultimate authority.

In essence these arguments assume that one’s worldview plays little or no role in determining whether God exists or not. But as we have seen above, worldviews are the crux of the matter. If his worldview is not challenged at a fundamental level, the unbeliever has no reason to believe in the God of the Bible. This does not preclude the possibility that he will believe that some god may exist. But as long as his basic humanistic principles are left intact, this will be a god made in his own image—whether it is a god of traditional man-made religion or something of his own devising.

Presuppositional apologetics avoids the debilitating compromises of the traditional arguments. It does not offer man more of what he already believes, but challenges his view of the world at every single point, contending that without God man is not only lost spiritually, but in every way—including intellectually.

The Presuppositional Argument

Unlike the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the presuppositional argument starts where our faith demands: with God’s revelation. It presupposes the truth of God’s Word and presents the Christian worldview as a necessary precondition for all knowledge. It refuses to grant that the unbeliever has any knowledge apart from God. And it refuses to answer the skeptic by appealing to principles and philosophies that are congenial to him. Rather, it attacks these principles and demonstrates their failure to provide a foundation for knowledge.

Presuppositionalism maintains that questioning God’s existence is on par with the satanic question posed to Eve. Eve succumbed to the seducer because she failed to stand upon God’s Word as her final authority. Presuppositionalism endeavors to answer the satanic question in the same way our Lord answered him—by appealing to the authority of Scripture.

The presuppositional argument takes any aspect of human experience and reasons that only the Christian worldview can account for or make sense of such experience. This involves a two-step method.

The first step is to answer the fool according to his folly. The fool (one who has denied God in his heart) believes he can understand the world on his own terms and by means of his own philosophy. We let him try. We ask him to take any experience and account for it on his own terms. We then proceed to offer an internal critique of his account, showing that his worldview is either contradictory or arbitrary and thus unable to account for the experience in question. This process is illustrated at some length below, but a brief example may be helpful at this point.

Empiricism serves as a good example. The empiricist claims that all knowledge is ultimately grounded in sense experience. Aside from the glaring problem that omniscience is necessary to establish this claim (how could one know that all knowledge comes through the senses without knowing all there is to know?), the fundamental error with empiricism is that it is self-contradictory. It claims x is the case, and then at another point denies x. It claims that all knowledge comes through experience. 

But the knowledge that empiricism is true itself does not come from sense experience. Empiricism is a philosophical theory. Theories cannot be felt, tasted, touched, heard, or seen. Thus empiricism is contradictory. If the empiricist tried to rescue his theory by claiming that all knowledge comes through sense experience, except the knowledge that all knowledge comes through sense experience, he would be making an arbitrary and gratuitous claim.

Notice that this internal critique makes no appeal to the Christian worldview. Empiricism, as well as all other non-Christian philosophies, fails on its own terms. It is unable to provide a coherent system of thought.

Refuting a non-Christian worldview does not establish the Christian worldview. It may be that both his worldview and ours are false. To prove the Christian worldview, we must demonstrate that it and it alone can account for human experience. 

This leads to the second step. In this step we do not answer the fool according to his folly. Rather, we invite the unbeliever to come inside our worldview in order to show him that Christianity makes sense of our experience. It provides the necessary preconditions for knowledge.

Let us illustrate this method in more detail by taking atheism as our example. In evaluating atheism, we will look at the atheist’s ability to make sense of science and ethics. In the end, we will see that it does not account for either, whereas the Christian worldview does.


Science is the systematic attempt to understand the natural world. Through the scientific method it seeks to discover general laws that explain the diverse phenomena of our experience. The scientific method is that the scientist observes the world, notes patterns, and formulates generalizations about some aspect of it. These generalizations or hypotheses are then tested by experiments and are either confirmed or disconfirmed. Those that are confirmed become theories or laws. These laws then provide a heuristic for forming new hypotheses, and the process begins all over again.

Though overly simplified, both Christians and atheists agree with this conception of science. The atheist, though, often thinks that science and religion are incompatible. Science is rational, but religion is a matter of faith. And faith amounts to irrationality and superstition. Religion, moreover, is dogmatic, and dogmatism has no place in science. The atheist thinks we must choose one or the other. If we choose religion, we cannot have science, and if we choose science, we cannot have religion.

As it turns out, science and religion (meaning, of course, the Christian religion) are not incompatible as the atheist claims. In fact, religion provides the necessary preconditions for science. Apart from Christianity, science lacks a foundation. And since the atheist rejects Christianity, he must reject science as well.

To prove this, we will look at the scientific method and ask how we are justified in believing that it leads us to truths about the world. Though we could choose any number of the components of the scientific method, the principle of induction is probably the easiest one to focus on. Induction is often said to be the pattern of reasoning that moves from particulars to generalities. (This is not quite how a logician would define it, but it is sufficient for our purposes.) Today the sun rose in the east; yesterday the sun rose in the east; and every day in recorded history prior to yesterday, the sun rose in the east. We conclude that the sun always rises in the east.

Many philosophers, though, have questioned the propriety of inductive reasoning. Hume was the first, but others, including Karl Popper in the twentieth century, have rejected it as a reliable form of argumentation. Why is it reasonable, they ask, to accept the conclusion of inductive arguments? This is called the problem of induction. If the atheist fails to offer a viable solution, he has no basis for his adherence to science.

The atheist typically justifies induction on the grounds that the universe operates in uniform and law-like ways. If nature is uniform—where the future will operate the same as the past—then the atheist does appear to have justification for induction. But this only pushes the problem to another level. How does the atheist know that nature is uniform? Why in a world that is not created by a sovereign Creator does he think that the world behaves in an orderly manner? In so far as the atheist attempts to answer this question (most just take the uniformity of the world as given), his answer is viciously circular.

The atheist typically says that our experience of the world gives us warrant to believe that nature is uniform. He argues that since all of our previous experience of the world has been that the world operates in regular and uniform ways, it is reasonable to conclude that the world has always operated in the same way and will continue to do so.

There are at least two problems with this argument. First, the premise may be called into question. Is it really the case that all of our experience has been that the world operates in a uniform manner? Perhaps most of our experience is like this, but all have experienced what appear to be incongruities. Bertrand Russell notes that the chicken that has been fed every morning expects that this morning is not different. But this morning the farmer comes to wring its neck and serve it up for supper.

Even if the atheist can provide an adequate defense to this objection, a more difficult objection for him to answer is the second problem. His argument that all past futures have been like the past, and therefore the future will probably be like the past as well, is itself an inductive argument. But this begs the question. We began by asking the atheist to provide an account for induction. He argues that since the world is uniform, he has an account. But when asked how he knows that nature is uniform, the atheist makes recourse to an inductive argument. This is no solution at all. The atheist, thus, can provide no account for induction; and without induction, he cannot account for science.

Where the atheist offers a viciously circular defense of induction, the Christian does not. The Christian worldview teaches that God is providentially in control of all events. God has revealed to us that we can count on regularities in the natural world. “He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down” (Ps. 104:19). He providentially causes the harvest to come in due season. Nature is uniform because God makes it so. Since nature is uniform, the Christian can account for induction. And with induction, he can account for science as well. So while the atheist touts science as being on his side, the reality is that only the Christian worldview provides the precondition for science.


Perhaps the easiest way to understand the presuppositional method is in terms of ethics. Ethics is the field of philosophy that is concerned with imperatives. Unlike science, which seeks to know what is the case, ethics seeks to know what ought to be the case. Ought we to give to charity? Should we always tell the truth? Is the taking of human life ever justified? These are ethical questions.

Most atheists believe in morality. They think there are some things that are right and some that are wrong. Our concern is not whether they believe that there are ethical values, but whether they have any justification for their belief. It turns out that like his belief in science, he has no foundation for this belief.

The atheist has developed a number of systems of ethics to justify his belief in goodness. For the sake of brevity, only two will be considered. 

The two positions concern the nature of the ethical term “goodness.” What is goodness? What does it mean to say something is good? While a number of philosophers have argued that ethical language has no cognitive meaning, most believe that it does. And if it does have meaning, it must have it in one of two ways. Either ethical words such as “good” are simple and unanalyzable (much like the words “red” or “hot”) or their meanings are analyzable to other words (like “bachelor,” which means an unmarried male over, say, eighteen years of age). The former position is known as non-naturalism (ethical terms are not reducible to empirical experience) and the latter, naturalism.

If goodness is unanalyzable, then the atheist faces several difficulties. The first is epistemological in nature. Even if good has meaning, how are we to apply the term? How do we know what the good is? What, if any, criteria do we have to distinguish the good from the bad? 

This typically leads the non-naturalist to intuitionism. Intuitionism is the view that humans possess a faculty of intuition that gives them direct access to what is good. It operates much like the faculties of sense perception. When we see a fire truck, we see that it is red in color. We do not infer its redness from anything else, but see the color immediately. Intuition works the same way, only it perceives goodness (or the lack of goodness). When we see a Boy Scout help an old lady cross a busy street, we immediately perceive the goodness of the act. Or when we witness a bully stealing lunch money from smaller children, we immediately perceive that the action is wrong.

Intuitionism suffers from problems on many grounds. First, some claim that they have no intuitive sense of right or wrong, but come to ethical judgments on the basis of reflection. The intuitionist’s answer to this is unsatisfactory. Such people, says the intuitionist, either are not correctly understanding what is going on inside them or they lack the faculty altogether, much like the blind man lacks the faculty of vision. This type of reasoning, though, is thoroughly question-begging.

Second, the fact that people have different ethical intuitions provides some evidence against intuitionism. If we all have such a faculty, it would seem that our intuitions would almost always be the same. If even two people have different intuitions about an action, how is it to be determined which intuition is the correct one?

Third, another difficulty is that there are some cases where we do not know how to evaluate a specific action. Someone performs a certain moral action, and we have no intuition whether it is good or not. Some intuitionists say that in such cases we need to reflect upon the deed in order to judge its goodness. This seems to place our judgment outside of our intuition and on to another faculty.

Fourth, on the atheistic worldview, how is it possible for there to be non-reducible ethical facts? Of course the materialist atheist could not countenance such facts. But even the atheist who is not a materialist must provide some account of the existence of goodness. But no account has been given. For the atheist, the world just is. In an ultimately impersonal world, there is no space for goodness since personhood is the precondition for value.

Despite these failures, non-naturalism has some commendable features. It rightly refuses to reduce ethical terms to empirically verifiable ones. To analyze good down to nonethical terms violates Bishop Butler’s unobjectionable principle that everything is what it is and not another thing. It also rightly suggests that men know what is good not by means of abstract reasoning, but by something within us. But this something is not a faculty called intuition, but rather the law of God that He has impressed in all men.

Another answer the atheist may give is naturalism. Naturalism defines goodness in terms of something else. The most prevalent form of naturalism is hedonism. Hedonism reduces goodness to pleasure. To say something is good is to say that it tends to lead toward pleasure. Hedonism may be further broken down to egoism and utilitarianism. The egoistic hedonist asserts that something is good if it brings him pleasure. The utilitarian hedonist says that something is good if it tends to bring about the most pleasure to the most people.

There are epistemological problems with both versions of hedonism. How, for example, does one know that a given action will tend to bring about pleasure? Even if a reasonable answer is given, there is still the question of what pleasure consists in. Some hedonists such as Bentham maintain a relatively crass view of pleasure. The highest quantity of pleasure and least amount of pain constitutes the ultimate good. With few qualifications, it matters not what kind of pleasure is enjoyed. 

Other hedonists such as the Epicureans commend the so-called higher pleasures such as good conversation, good food in moderation, leisure, and art as the most desirable. For them, the quality not quantity of the pleasure is most important. But which version of hedonism is correct? There appears to be no nonarbitrary way of adjudication between these two positions. This being the case, ethics is reduced to a matter of taste.

Naturalism in both its utilitarian and hedonistic forms allows for what we would otherwise consider gross examples of evil in the name of goodness. The egoistic hedonist who finds pleasure in sadistic acts is behaving in an ethically upright manner. The stricture that it is illegitimate unnecessarily to inflict pain on others is incompatible to the theory. If goodness is pleasure, then whatever pleases me is, by definition, good. The utilitarian hedonist faces a similar criticism. If inflicting pain on the innocent results in maximizing pleasure for the many, then such an action is morally acceptable.

The insuperable problem with naturalism in whatever form it takes is that it reasons from what is the case to what ought to be the case. This has been labeled the naturalistic fallacy. As G. E. Moore observes, one can always ask the naturalist who claims a certain action tends toward happiness, “Yes, but is it good?” But on the non-naturalist view, good means pleasure. And so the question would really be, “Is pleasure pleasurable?” But this a trivial question, and Moore’s question is not trivial. It certainly makes sense to ask the man who is leading a life of debauchery whether he is leading a good life. And because it makes sense, non-naturalism cannot be true.


Though this is by no means a complete survey, it illustrates the problem that the atheist faces in the realm of ethics. The atheist wants ethics, but denies the only possible grounds for it. He believes he can have morality without God, but all he has is arbitrariness and confusion.

Whereas the unbeliever has no foundation for ethical judgments, the Christian worldview can account for goodness. God Himself is the foundation of ethics. Because there is an infinite and personal God, there is absolute truth and goodness. Because man is created in His image and has been given access to God’s standards through revelation, the Christian has justification for his ethical beliefs.

This does not mean that the unbeliever never behaves in an ethical manner. He often does what is right. He feeds and clothes his children, gives to charity, and so on. Though the unbeliever may do what is right in some cases and in some sense of the word, he does not do so in all cases nor does he do so in the robust sense of the word. He never acts ethically in a way that brings glory to God since he has denied God in his heart. He lacks faith in God and so cannot please Him (Heb. 11:6). And he does not follow the only standard of good, which is, of course, God’s law. This is why the Bible tells us that even the plowing of the wicked is detestable in the Lord’s sight.

Presuppositionalism forces this point on the unbeliever. It not only demonstrates the futility of ethics without God, it demands that the unbeliever repent from his sin and rebellion. Only by turning away from his autonomy will the unbeliever be saved. In the process of defending the faith, it shows the unbeliever that he is destitute of both a theory of goodness and goodness itself. Only through faith in Christ can he find intellectual and spiritual salvation.


The presuppositional argument is not just one more argument to place in our apologetic arsenal. It is fundamentally different from the traditional arguments for God’s existence. Unlike them, it starts with God’s Word. It considers God to be true and all who deny Him to be liars. It establishes not only the mere existence of God, but the truth of the entire Christian worldview as revealed in Scripture. It forces the unbeliever to acknowledge the impossibility of knowledge apart from God. And it drives him to repentance from his sin and to submit to the only hope he has for salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Contemporary Christianity is weak because it has abandoned its faith in the authoritative Word of God. The church cannot answer the gainsayers of the day because she has compromised her commitment to Scripture’s authority. If the church would rest upon God’s Word and not lean on her own understanding, she would once again vanquish all her foes.

“[T]he weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Cor. 10:4). So said the Apostle Paul. If we wish to pull down strongholds, we must take every thought captive to Christ. When we rely upon His authority, we are able to close the mouth of anyone who rails against our holy religion.

  • Michael R. Butler

Michael R. Butler, M.A. Philosophy, is the Academic Dean of Christ College in Lynchburg, VA. He is an educator, author, conference speaker.  A prolific writer with numerous articles in Penpoint as well as books such as “Yea, Hath God Said...” with Dr. Gentry and The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen.  He has spoken at a number of conferences on subjects such as The Philosophy of Science, The Religion of Islam, Christian Worldview, Evangelism and Apologetics.  Has held debates regarding “Does the God of the Bible Exist?”  Holds membership and association with the Golden Key National Honor Society, Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society and the Society of Christian Philosophers.  Currently a professor of Philosophy and Apologetics with Bahnsen Theological Seminary, a ruling elder in the OPC and an up and coming home schooling father of four.

More by Michael R. Butler