This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal , volume 28, number 5 (2005). For further information about the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Throughout history, preachers and teachers of God’s Word have used analogies to communicate truth. In the first century, Jesus used many analogies to teach His listeners. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the apostle Paul used analogies to teach the saints and evangelize the lost. Today, on any given Sunday, pastors all over the world use analogies to preach and teach God’s Word. It is strange, however, that although analogies are prevalent in Christian preaching and teaching, one rarely hears a lesson on how to use analogies effectively. I would like to explain three ways that analogies can be used to reach the lost and refute the cults, and suggest some guidelines for using them.
What’s an Analogy? An analogy is a comparison between two things that are similar; they are the same in some respect and different in some other respect(s). For example, Jesus said that faith is like a mustard seed: they are the same in that both can be small and yet can grow into something large; but they are different in that a mustard seed is an actual kernel that grows in dirt, but faith is not.
Explain Concepts. One way analogies can be used is to explain difficult concepts. Analogies help explain what is unknown in terms of what is known. For example, most people are not familiar with the concept of substance dualism, which is a view of relation between the soul and the body. You could explain this concept by saying, “Substance dualism is the view that the soul and the body are ontologically separate entities, and that the soul acts upon the body.” This explanation is correct, but it does not communicate very well to those who are not already familiar with the concept. A better way to explain it would be in terms of something simple with which your audience is already familiar. You might say, for example, “Substance dualism says that the soul is to the body as a hand is to a glove. The hand is not the glove and the glove is not the hand; they are separate things. The glove, moreover, cannot perform any action without the hand. Similarly, the soul and the body are separate things, and the body cannot perform any action without the soul.” By using images and concepts that are familiar to your audience (i.e., the relation between a hand and a glove), you can explain concepts that are not familiar to them (i.e., a view of the relation between the soul and the body).
Make Arguments. A second use of analogies is to make arguments. One common form is called an a fortiori (“all the stronger”) argument, which asserts that if something is true in one case, it is probably true in a similar case in which the reason for it being true is even stronger.1 The parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18:1–8 is an example of this type of argument. In it, Jesus tells the story of an unjust judge who executed justice on behalf of a widow who continued to nag him. Jesus then asks a rhetorical question: “Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?” (v. 7 NASB). The implied answer is yes, God will speedily bring about justice for His elect who continually cry out to Him. Jesus used an analogy to argue that if an unjust judge grudgingly renders justice to an oppressed widow who is persistent, how much more (a fortiori) will God, who is a just judge, speedily render justice to His oppressed elect who are persistent.
Using an analogy to make an a fortiori argument can be an extremely effective tool when witnessing to unbelievers. I remember street witnessing years ago in New York, when a lady came up to the corner where I was standing. I said, “May, I ask you a question?” She replied, “Sure.” I responded, “If you were to die today, where would you go?” She responded, “I don’t know. I never thought about it, but I think I would go to heaven.” I asked, “Why do you think you would go to heaven?” She responded that she was a good person. I replied that all our “righteous” deeds are like filthy rags before an infinite holy God, so it is impossible for us to get to heaven based on our own merit. I then said to her, “Imagine that you committed some crime, and the judge sentenced you to 20 years in prison. Would you want to serve the prison time?” She responded, “No way!” I said, “What if there were a person who was willing to serve your time and the judge allowed it; would you go for that deal?” She responded, “What’s the catch?” I said, “The only stipulation is that you must trust the person who serves your time and believe that he is always looking out for your best interest.” She responded, “I’d go for that deal.” I then told her that God is a judge and we are all guilty before Him, and because of our sin we will be sentenced to an eternity apart from God; however, Christ died on the cross so that we do not have to spend an eternity separated from God. Christ was willing to serve our sentence, but we must trust Him. I then asked her, “If you are willing to have someone serve your 20‐year sentence on earth, are you not willing to have someone serve your eternal sentence?” She said, “Yes, I would be willing.” I then led her in the sinner’s prayer. The a fortiori argument by analogy did not save her, of course, for only God saves; but God can use analogies to touch people’s heads so that He can also touch their hearts.
Refute Arguments. The third way analogies can be used is to refute bad arguments. If you change the content of a bad argument, but keep the same logical form of the argument, you can show that the conclusion of the argument does not follow from its premises.2 This is not as difficult as it might sound. For example, Mormons and certain Word Faith teachers assert that God has a body. One of their favorite passages is Genesis 1:26–27, which states that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Those who assert that God has a body reason as follows: man is made in the image and likeness of God; man has a body; therefore, God must have a body. The logical form of their argument is as follows:
x (man) is made in the image and likeness of y (God); x (man) has z (a body); therefore, y (God) has z (a body).
By replacing the content of x, y, and z with similar content, you can show that the conclusion does not follow from its premises. For example, suppose x = a statue, y = Abraham Lincoln, and z = a marble head. Just because a statue is made in the image and likeness of Abraham Lincoln, and the statue has a marble head, it does not follow that Abraham Lincoln has a marble head. Similarly, just because man is made in the image and likeness of God, and man has a body, it does not follow that God has a body.
Guidelines for Using Analogies. There are several things that should be kept in mind when using analogies. First, use simple things that are familiar to your audience. Jesus and Paul, for example, drew many of their analogies from things that were familiar to the first‐century Jewish culture in which they and their listeners lived (e.g., seeds, sheep, wineskins, the temple, etc.).
Second, the greater the similarity between the things that are being compared, the better the analogy; conversely, the less the similarity, the poorer the analogy.
Third, arguments that use analogies render only probable conclusions. The two things (or relationships) being compared are only similar (e.g., an unjust judge’s rendering justice to a nagging widow compared with God’s rendering justice to His elect); therefore, what is true of one is only probably true of the other. The more alike the two things are, the more likely it is that the conclusion is true of both things.
Finally, when comparing two things by analogy, you should compare those characteristics that are essential for making your point. For example, William Paley argued that just as a watch requires an intelligent designer, so does creation require an Intelligent Designer. In his writings, however, Paley emphasized the beauty of the watch, the material of the watch, and other characteristics that do not necessarily indicate intelligent design. Charles Darwin picked up on the fact that Paley’s analogy rested on nonessential features and responded: “The old argument of design in nature as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man.”3 Darwin was correct that neither beauty in itself nor being an artifact in itself indicates intelligent design; however, the essential characteristics in Paley’s analogy actually were specified complexity and irreducible complexity, which have always indicated intelligent design. Darwin, therefore, was wrong when he concluded that such artifacts cannot be used to argue for the existence of an intelligent designer.
Now, as lights of the world, go let your light shine by using analogies to present the gospel to the lost and refute the cults.
- Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 335.
- Showing that the argument is invalid does not demonstrate that the conclusion is false; instead, it shows that the conclusion does not follow from its premises. The conclusion may still be true, but it has not been demonstrated from its premises.
- Charles Darwin, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1958), 87.