Reductio Ad Absurdum – The Consequences of an Argument
Jesus Christ was the master Teacher, and he employed a wide variety of didactic skills. One format the Lord occasionally used is known as ad hominem, a Latin expression meaning, “to the man.” This line of argument is not designed to establish positive truth; rather, it is a form of refutation whereby the inconsistency of error is exposed. Sometimes the inconsistency is so extreme that it can be reduced to an absurdity. It ought to be recognized that a position is false if it legitimately can be reduced to an absurd level. Truth stands with dignity; it cannot be embarrassed.
Christ once encountered a man who was possessed of a demon. The Lord cast out the evil spirit and the multitudes were amazed. They mused whether or not this sign might demonstrate that Jesus was “the son of David,” i.e., the Messiah (Mt. 12:22-23). But the Pharisees, dedicated enemies of the Savior, scoffed, charging that Jesus effected the miracle “by [the power of] Beelzebub” (v. 24). But Christ, knowing their thoughts, demolished their proposition by demonstrating how utterly absurd their premise was. If he (Christ) was casting out demons (Satan’s agents) by the power of Satan, then Satan was divided against himself, and in such a state he could not stand (v. 26).
Inasmuch as the Lord himself was not reticent to reduce an opponent’s argument to the level of the absurd, it is entirely proper for his followers to do so today. We must ever keep in mind, of course, that our goal is not merely to win arguments, but rather to help folks who are in error see the fallacy of their doctrine, and hopefully abandon it. It is in this spirit that we call attention to a few positions which we believe are effectively exposed by the reductio ad absurdum method.
The Possibility of Apostasy
Many modern religionists, following Augustine and Calvin, contend that it is impossible for a child of God to so apostatize as to be lost. Such a view is plainly at variance with the testimony of the Scriptures (cf. Gal. 5:4). Some old-time debaters would demonstrate the absurdity of this position in the following manner. The question would be posed: Can a child of God get drunk? Of course he can, because Noah, a child of God, once got drunk (Gen. 9:20-21). A follow-up query then would be: Can a drunkard enter heaven? No, he cannot, as Paul shows in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:10). The obvious conclusion would seem to be this: If a child of God dies drunk, he would not enter heaven; thus, he can fall from grace. The Calvinist would then respond: “But God would never let his child die in a drunken state.” To which the shrewd debater would reply: “Well, then, if a child of God wishes to live forever, all he need do is to get drunk and stay that way, for God will never let him die in that condition.” Error leads to many an incongruous conclusion.
A sincere soul, who believed in the impossibility of apostasy, once told me: “I don’t believe a child of God can be lost, but he will live a better life if he believes he can.” I then inquired: “Don’t you think it rather strange that error (as you perceive the idea of falling-from-grace to be), should be a better motivation to Christian living than the truth?” That is not reasonable.
Are Some Saved in Ignorance?
It is not uncommon to hear some argue that those who never have the opportunity to hear the gospel will be saved in spite of their lack of obedience. This assertion, of course, stands in vivid contradiction to the inspired affirmation that the Lord will render vengeance “to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel” (2 Thes. 1:8; cf. Lk. 12:47). If those who are lost can be saved in their unbelief, it would be better to leave them in that state, for once they are exposed to the truth, and then reject it, they surely will be condemned. Thus, all mission work should be suspended. Furthermore, since it is also the case that everyone is held accountable for the degree of knowledge he possesses (Heb. 10:29; Jas. 3:1), we might do well to not educate the church. In this way we would not intensify the punishment of those who defect from the faith and finally are lost. This implies that the whole system of gospel instruction is meaningless. The notion that “ignorance is bliss” is absurd on the face of it.
Ideas Regarding Divorce & Remarriage
Certain brethren advance the notion that non-Christians are not amenable to the marriage law of Christ. The motive behind this concept is to justify those who have been involved in unscriptural divorce and remarriage relationships, but who, subsequently, have obeyed the gospel. It is alleged that their pre-baptism unions are irrelevant since God’s marriage law did not apply to them before their conversion.
The fallacy of this doctrine can be demonstrated by reducing it to an absurdity. It is conceded by virtually everyone that it is possible for a Christian to be scripturally married to an unbeliever. Though there are principles which should discourage the believer from marrying outside of Christ, the union itself is legitimate (1 Cor. 7:13-14; 1 Pet. 3:1). It is possible for a Christian to be married to an unbeliever. On the other hand, if God’s marriage law does not apply to “the world,” the unbeliever cannot be married to the Christian (or anyone else, for that matter). The notion that the marriage law of Christ is not applicable to unbelievers forces the following conclusion: The union of a Christian to a non-Christian is, at the very same time, a non-marriage/marriage. That is, it is a marriage for the believer, but not a marriage for the unbeliever. The doctrine is truly nonsensical.
There is another aspect of the divorce and remarriage controversy that warrants consideration. Jesus taught that one who divorces a spouse (unless fornication is the basis) and marries another, is committing adultery. Moreover, the one who has been “put away” may not remarry (Mt. 19:9). In recent years, some brethren have argued that since a divorce for fornication breaks the marriage union, the guilty party is as free to remarry as the innocent mate. There are many things wrong with this view, but for our purpose here, let us note this point. If it is the case that the innocent victim of a capricious, unscriptural divorce is not allowed to remarry, but a guilty fornicator is, then it logically follows that it is more advantageous to be guilty (of fornication) than not to be. This absurdity demonstrates that this “guilty-party-may-remarry” notion is not consistent with truth. A truthful position does not lend itself to such a ludicrous conclusion.
No Marriage Today
Many are familiar with a bizarre teaching that has come to be known as the “A.D. 70 doctrine.” Popularized by Max King and a small cluster of his zealots, this theory alleges that all Bible prophecy was fulfilled by A.D. 70, the year in which Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This means that such events as the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment day, and the end of the world – all occurred in A.D. 70! These folks seriously teach this.
But Jesus unequivocally taught that following the resurrection there will be no marriage (Mt. 22:30; Lk. 20:35). If, then, the resurrection occurred in A.D. 70, there has been no institution of “marriage” since that time. Accordingly, the entire world population – generation after generation since the first century – has been produced by billions of acts of immorality. And human beings, if they mate, can do naught but commit fornication, since marriage became obsolete in A.D. 70. Has a more foolish notion competed for our attention in this century?
No Salvation Today
The doctrine of “dispensationalism” contends that Christ came to the earth twenty centuries ago to re-establish the Davidic regime of Old Testament fame. Advocates of this view argue, however, that since Jesus was rejected by the Jewish people, he postponed his kingdom plan, and so he will not sit upon “David’s throne” until he commences his millennial reign at the end of this “church age.”
There is a real flaw in this theory. The Old Testament contains a vivid prophecy which indicates that Christ was to function as our “priest” at the same time that he “rule[s] upon his throne” (Zech. 6:12-13). If the reign of Jesus upon his throne has been postponed, then clearly the Lord’s work as priest has been delayed as well. This would mean that we have no priest functioning on our behalf. If no priest, no forgiveness. Thus, the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism implies that, lo, these past 2000 years, there has not been available any redemptive system for man’s benefit. This is the logical consequence of dispensationalism, and the very absurdity of it is a forceful negation of its validity.
No Church Benevolence for Non-Christians
A few decades back, there was a serious disruption within a goodly number of churches. A faction arose contending that it is sinful for a church to take funds from its treasury for benevolent purposes on behalf of those who are not Christians. The fact that God himself bestows benevolent favors upon the unjust as well as the just (Mt. 5:45-47), that benevolence itself, in principle, is a form of evangelism (Mt. 5:16), and that we are instructed to do good unto all men (Gal. 6:10), apparently meant nothing to these folks. Not a dime can be taken from the treasury to care for the destitute non-Christian.
I once heard a man debate one of these “saints only” advocates. He reduced this position to a dramatic level of absurdity. The gentleman pointed out that the “saints only” folks do not scruple to take money from the congregational treasury to maintain the church’s building and grounds. They will buy food (fertilizer) to feed the church lawn, but will not, from the same bank account, buy food to help sustain a hungry neighbor. He then pressed the point that the “grass … which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven,” is of lesser value than a human (Mt. 6:30). The argument was devastating.
A Final Word
In advancing a position, therefore, one should ask this question: What possible consequences does this proposition imply? If an argument implies a very foolish conclusion, that should be an immediate signal that something is wrong with the teaching. Surely a conscientious person does not wish to discredit the name of Christ. And yet, that is precisely what some do by certain absurd positions they maintain. The devout Christian should attempt to be very careful in the way he argues his positions.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.