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Articles: Evangelism
Engaging a Relativistic World by Paul Copan

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Paul Copan (Ph.D., Marquette University) is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is the author or editor of various books, including The Rationality of Theism. Paul was a speaker at the Awakening 2010 evangelism conference at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, CA and this essay was part of his presentation.

Part I: Problems with Relativism

  1. Relativism is self-refuting: relativists believe their view is absolutely true for everyone!
    1. Defining relativism and truth
      a. Relativism: A belief can be good or right for one person or culture but not necessarily for another--the opposite of the absolute. Today's university students (NAS/Zogby poll): "what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity."1
      b. Truth: A match-up with reality; we don't determine truth. Reality confers truth and fantasy; reality is the "truth maker."
    2. WHY RELATIVISTS ARE ACTUALLY ABSOLUTISTS: They believe lots of things are true for everyone!
    3. Understanding tolerance and judging: Find out what the relativist means by these terms. In fact, the relativist uses terms he can't live up to himself.
      a. Tolerance: Compare the standard definition vs. the revised contemporary definition. Dorothy Sayers: "In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for."2
      b. Judging: Compare the biblical definition vs. the misused definition. Contrast Matthew 7:1 and John 7:24. See Ephesians 4:15, "speaking the truth in love."
    • Relativism tends to be a lazy person's philosophy.
    • Truth and knowledge are inescapable.
  2. Relativism is selective: people are usually relativists about God/religion and ethics.
    1. Relativists are actually absolutists when it comes to their rights and property.
      Example #1: stealing stereos
      Example #2: flunking relativists
    2. Relativism presupposes a certain orderliness and basic moral decency in society, which makes a selective relativism possible.
    3. The relativist's motivation is worth considering.

Part II: Reaching Relativists

  1. Ask WHY the relativist holds the view he does. (He'll likely give an absolute reason.)
  2. Relativists don't need to have their views shot down as self-contradictory or incoherent. Distinguish between (a) truth and attitude; and (b) persons and the beliefs they hold.
  3. God's authority and commands aren't oppressive. But God is for us and His commands are given so that we might flourish in the way He's designed us.
  4. Emphasize "idolatry" as "building your identity on anything other than God."
  5. Consider the five major thresholds relativists/postmoderns typically cross in their conversion experience:3
    Threshold #1: The move from distrust to trust.
    Threshold #2: The move from complacency to curiosity.
    Threshold #3: The move from resistance to openness to change in their lives.
    Threshold #4: The move from meandering to seeking.
    Threshold #5: The move into the kingdom of God itself.

Relativists ultimately lead hollow lives without an intellectual, moral, and spiritual compass. They need believers to enter their lives and model a coherent, consistent, abundant life in Christ.


  1. See John Leo, "Professors Who See No Evil," U.S. News & World Report (22 July 2002), page 14. See poll results at the NAS (National Association of Scholars) website:
  2. Dorothy Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1969), page 152.
  3. These steps are taken from Don Everts and Doug Schaupp, I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).