She was sober. Too sober. A few parties ago, my teenage self had figured out that other sober teens did indeed exist. They tended to be either religious or had a family history of alcoholism.
While people outside were busy spinning in circles and yelling at the moon (as kids do), the girl in front of me was very different. She was an imposing figure. She was dressed in a long black dress (tablecloth?) with a Wiccan symbol around her neck. The girl was around my height (6.2ft), and standing in this tiny kitchen together didn’t help my teenage awkwardness.
“Hey” I said.
“Hey” she replied.
“Big party, huh?” I ventured.
“Sure” she said, her immobile expression betraying nothing.
“So…” I said “What do you believe in?” (Told you I was awkward).
“I’m an existential nihilist” she answered.
“Oh,” I said, blinking like a deer in a set of headlights….
We shall return to this story a little later, but let me ask you, dear reader, some simple questions.
Is this what you imagine apologetics to be? Awkward conversations? Fancy philosophical words? Do you have images of loud verbal duels at functions with “that” family member or workmate over religion?
Sadly, these are some of the common stereotypes that surrounds apologetics. Just like all stereotypes, there is just enough truth in them to be readily believed by some, yet just enough falsehood to be rejected by others.
My conversation with this girl contained a fascinating, almost stereotypical start between a Christian and non-Christian dressed entirely in black. We were both on opposite sides of the religious spectrum, yet thankfully our conversation progressed as the night went on.
Most apologetic discussions are much more “pedestrian” and occur between family members, work colleagues and random people on the Internet every day.
But what *exactly* is apologetics? What part should it play in the Christian life anyway?
THE WHAT OF APOLOGETICS
Let’s look at a simple definition of apologetics. Christian apologetics is a verbal defence of the hope within us. This definition is sourced from 1 Peter 315, which says:
“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame.”
When we are sharing this Christian hope, it is natural that some people will want to ask us questions.
Sometimes these questions are well-meaning….at other times, people will use questions to demonstrate the foolishness of Christianity.
-You know the Bible is a bunch of ancient fairy tales, right?
-Hasn’t science shown that miracles are impossible?
– How can you follow a God who takes away our freedom?
When these pointed questions come, Peter says we are to be prepared to give a defence, which is the word “apologia” in Greek. An “apologia” is a verbal defence that a person makes against accusations in a court of law.
We are to present our defence to “…anyone who asks you…but to do so with gentleness and respect..”
You can find several dramatic examples of this in the New Testament. In Acts 2, Peter provides a verbal defence against the charge of apostolic drunkenness on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 4, Peter and John speak before a hostile assembly of Jewish leaders. Later we find that Apollos “greatly helped those who through grace believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:27a-28). We even find Paul reasoning in the Jewish synagogues (Acts 18:4 among others) and even publicly conversing/debating with Greek philosophers from the Epicurean and Stoic schools of thought in Acts 17.
When we look at the list of encounters above, you may feel somewhat overwhelmed. However, let’s be honest… many of us won’t be defending our hope in a formal debate with professional philosophers or Jewish rabbis.
Yet while this may be the case, ordinary Christian like Peter’s original audience right down to you and I will still be called upon to give a reason for the hope that we have. Suppose you’ve been a Christian for more than a few years. In that case, the odds are that you and Peter’s original readers have something in common…a shared, ordinary-yet-extraordinary experience of needing to provide an apologia to those around us.
This may be around the dinner table. It may be at work. It may be online. Regardless of where it inevitably occurs, if we love our God and love those around us, we need to be ready.
THE HOW OF APOLOGETICS
So how can we refute objections to Christianity and show the Christian faith’s truth, beauty, and goodness? Firstly we need to get our hearts right. In our hearts, we need to “honour Christ the Lord as holy” (1 Peter 3:15a)
What does this mean? Well, one inescapable meaning is that we defend God’s truth God’s way.
We are to honour Christ the Lord as holy, i.e. recognise the unique importance of Christ and His all-encompassing Lordship. This honouring naturally includes our apologetic efforts.
We will defend the Christian faith in a Christian manner. We need to learn what the Christian faith teaches (because you don’t want to be accidentally defending a concept the Bible doesn’t actually teach), and then we need to defend it in the way Christ calls us to.
I would contend that Christians need to discover the Christian ROEs (Rules of Engagement).
One such ROE is the requirement for our hearts to “honour Christ the Lord as holy”. Another ROE is found in the same verse, in the instruction to defend the faith with “gentleness and respect”.
Now, if you haven’t already noticed, the gentleness and respect we show others (or not show them) can often be traced back in part to our motives.
We need to humbly examine our motives before, during and after we eagerly learn arguments for Christianity or engage others in conversation. Ask yourself, “Why do I want to learn arguments for Christianity? Why do I want to demonstrate the fatal weaknesses of opposing worldviews?”
You see, far too often, Christians (esp young Christian men) come at apologetics with a 10% care for others and a 90% desire to conquer their dialogue partner. We see apologetics not as one beggar trying to persuade another beggar regarding the location of bread, but rather as a UFC cage match where (to reference Highlander) “there can be only one”.
This sinful mindset is not helped by YouTube, the comments section in social media or by the way Aunty Sharon wields her opinions around the Christmas table each year.
Simply put, Christians need to defy this trend. We are told that we are to make our defence with “gentleness and respect”. This has numerous benefits in conversation. If you’re gentle and respectful, it disarms and indeed shames those who engage in dirty slander against you (1 Peter 3:).
It also lowers the temperature in a world that currently produces far more heat than light in civil discourse. You wouldn’t know it by listening to the media, but our world is desperate for a reprieve from the shallow, relentlessly viscous argumentation that characterises our public discussion.
To love someone enough to listen to them, hear them out, and answer their objections and their questions on a “taboo” topic like religion is a beautiful thing and is a taste of water in the burning sands of our time.
The rule of thumb regarding tone in apologetics is this: “If the person I’m speaking to right now was to become a Christian, would they be comfortable sitting next to me tomorrow in Church?”
If the answer is no, then your approach needs to shift from winning the argument to winning the person. It is always better to “lose” an argument than to lose a person to further discussion all because you wanted to “win”.
This is a struggle for each Christian, however by God’s grace, we need to deny ourselves and show the love, patience and mercy to others that Jesus has shown us.
THE NOW OF APOLOGETICS
One of the amazing blessings of living in the 21st century is that we have access to thousands of years worth of Christian apologetics. Our forefathers in the faith have been dealing with objections to the faith since the time of the apostles, and as such, we have a rich storehouse to draw upon.
Here are three of the more well-known schools of thought in Christian apologetics.
Classical Apologetics: This school has a long and varied history. It seeks to demonstrate the existence of God through now-famous arguments such as the Argument from First Cause (The Cosmological Argument), the Argument from Design (The Teleological Argument), the Argument from Morality (The Moral Argument) as well as a number of intriguing, lesser-known arguments.
Evidential Apologetics: The Evidential school seeks to argue from available evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity. Unsurprisingly it covers a vast area of enquiry, such as the historical reliability of the Bible and the resurrection of Christ (among others).
Presuppositional Apologetics: Presuppositional Apologetics offers an intriguing alternative to the above schools. Presuppositionalists claim that the proof for God’s existence is that without God, you cannot prove anything at all. Read that again. Slowly.
The approach of Presuppostionalismm is therefore not to prove the existence of God in the conventional sense. Instead, they presuppose the truthfulness of the Christian faith and then challenge non-Christian worldviews to a side by side examination between said worldview and Christianity. They believe that all non-Christian worldviews are an attempt to live Godlessly in God’s world and, therefore, will contain fatal contradictions in either practice or in theory.
The presuppositional apologist shows the truthfulness of Christianity through the negation of every other existing contender.
Misc Apologetic-Misc Apologetics isn’t an official title; rather, it’s my “catch-all” title that describes apologetic works that are defend against very specific attacks on the Christian faith. These works may or may not fit neatly into the above schools. Such works include (but certainly aren’t limited to) resources that refute alleged Bible contradictions, engage contemporary issues of sexuality/gender, or that demonstrate how the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving and all-knowing God is compatible with our broken world.
If you’re just starting out in learning how to defend/commend your faith, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the above information. The good news is that you don’t need to take out a loan and go to Uni for the next three years in order to be ready to defend your faith.
Rather, you just need to follow in the footsteps of Peter’s original readers. Faithfulness to God in their multicultural context simply meant understanding the basics of the Christian faith (…the hope within you..) and how to refute the common objections from the unbelievers around them.
As an Australian living in the 21st century, I can think of 10 or so objections that I regularly
encounter to Christianity. Most of these objections revolve around sexuality, evolution, hell and heaven and the truthfulness of the Bible. Anyone can learn the basic answers to these questions, especially if you dedicate a week to learning the answer to each question. After ten or so weeks, you will have the knowledge to give a basic answer to anyone who poses these common objections.
Of course, this takes time and effort. But the people around you with genuine questions are worth it. The encouragement and help you’ll give other believers through your answers will be worth it (Acts 18:27b). Finally, you may just have the privilege of seeing God work through you to bring someone out of the darkness and into the light. Demolishing satanic strongholds often leads to just that.
As you seek to obey God in the area of 1 Peter 3:15, please remember that it is not your apologetic mastery that brings people to Christ. I remember I once was speaking to a former school mate of mine during a street outreach. I answered his objections as best I could, and, seeing that he had run out of objections, I asked him, “Is there anything stopping you from following Jesus now?” He replied, “No”.
I then asked Him, “Would you be willing to give your life to Him then?” He replied, “No, not really”. I was somewhat shocked, but we kept chatting for a while. I endeavoured to keep the mood somewhat light hearted after that admission.
It was in this exchange that I first experienced the truth of the old saying, “Apologetics stops the mouth but can’t change the heart”. Our rational defence of Christianity and our ability to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:5) is one act that is empowered by God…but it is a very different thing to see someone enter the Kingdom.
It is the Gospel message that transforms a person’s heart and mind, and thus we must see
apologetics as the setting of the jewel of the Gospel. The Gospel is beautiful in and of itself, and our apologetic efforts must never obscure this beauty. Instead, our defence must self-consciously magnify this stunning vista of redemption.
By God’s grace, let us lift up the truth, beauty and goodness of Jesus to our world. Let us point them to the Saviour who came to save human beings and human reasoning.
Great General Books:
I have to point out that the above book “Tactics” is by far the most useful apologetic book I have ever read. It primarily focuses on how to “navigate” an apologetic discussion. The principles in this book can easily be translated into any discussion you have with anyone on any given controversial topic. I simply cannot recommend Tactics highly enough.
Good Lists of Debates:
Specific Classical/Evidential Resources:
Specific Presup Resources:
Videos introducing to the Presuppositional Method:
Books Introducing/Defending the Presuppositional Method:
Presup in Action:
Since Misc Apologetics is quite a large, eclectic field, I recommend searching some of the “Great General Websites” listed above for the answer to your specific question. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, I would recommend a quick trip to Koorong. Failing that, there is always Google=)
All Scriptures in this post are ESV.