“Some people depreciate the importance of apologetics as a theoretical discipline. ‘Nobody comes to Christ through arguments,’ they’ll you. ‘People aren’t interested in what’s true, but in what’s for them. They don’t want intellectual answers: they want to see Christianity lived out.’” William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 15-16.
Within the church, apologetics is not always an appreciated ministry or intellectual endeavor. Some Christians, who themselves do not struggle with long-term or deep-seated doubts, have the mistaken notion that all Christians are (or at least ought to be) like them. Most Christians did not themselves come to saving faith in Jesus through arguments, evidences, or reasonable appeals. Rather, they encountered the Lord in a personal religious experience. If that is how people come to faith, such folk may wonder, why waste time and energy on apologetics instead of focusing on worship and evangelism?
Outside of the church, apologetics is often demeaned. Apologetics is branded ‘Sunday school in disguise,’ or a ‘veiled attempt at theological brainwashing.’ Timothy Keller writes, “There are still many of a secular turn of mind who confidently say orthodox faith is vainly trying to ‘resist the tide of history.’” [Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), xvi.] Apologetics is thus a fruitless attempt by religious fundamentalists to oppose the inevitable victory of liberating secular philosophy.
Both within and without the church, then, apologetics is sometimes viewed suspiciously. This is certainly not always the case, but there is resistance and opposition to apologetics as an intellectual discipline and as a vital ministry.
In this reflective essay, I want to share a dual mandate for apologetics. My primary argument is that apologetics is a desperately-needed ministry within the contemporary North American church. I will first share the biblical mandate for apologetics, pointing to many Old and New Testament passages demonstrating the centrality of apologetic encounters throughout Scripture. Then I will seek to expose the crying out for apologetic resources in the contemporary church. My hope and prayer is that individual Christians will be spurred on to pursue answers for their own questions and doubts, and churches will be sparked to start apologetic ministries, or to intentionally incorporate apologetic approaches to existing ministries.
I. The Biblical Mandate for Apologetics
1 Peter 3:13-16 reads: Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
Verse 15 reads: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The word translated “answer” is απολογια, which often takes the context of a courtroom appeal. It conveys the idea of providing evidence, building a case, responding to questions, or defending against attack. Thus, many translations supply the word “defense” (NASB, ESV) instead of “answer”. Notice the other keys in this verse, keeping in mind the context of the larger passage.
First, apologetics is commanded for believers, not encouraged or exhorted. “Always be prepared”—this is a Greek imperative, God’s mode for giving commands. The grammatical construction is like that of the Great Commission in Matthew 28—“GO, MAKE DISCIPLIES, BAPTIZE THEM.” These are not suggestions, they are commissions, commands required of all believers. So, just remember that apologetics is not an optional exercise, it is a ministry commanded of followers of Jesus Christ.
Second, Peter reminds his audience that they are going to be asked why they believe what they believe.
Third, we are to be ready to respond to those who ask us; we are to be ready to give answers—explaining what we believe and why we believe it. We are to provide a reasonable response, to demonstrate The Reason for God, or to show that ours is a Reasonable Faith.
Fourth, apologetics is intimately connected to the Christian hope that we have. Biblical hope, please keep in mind, is not some airy-fairy wishful thinking—“I hope my Prince Charming will come to sweep me off my feet.” Rather, biblical hope is a sure and certain hope grounded in the uncompromisable promises of God Almighty.
So, following from 1 Peter 3:15, we can say that apologetics is providing reasonable answers to people who ask us why we believe as we do.
Consider the opening to Luke’s Gospel. Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to be to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Why does Luke write his gospel? So that his readers may know the certainty of the things they have been taught. In other words, Luke is giving them reasons to believe. How does Luke go about it? By carefully investigating what Jesus said and did; by recording his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. And he claims to have done so using the testimony carried by eyewitnesses of those events. Luke is very careful to insist that he is providing good, historical reasons for us to believe that Jesus truly did say this, Jesus really did do this, and these things really did happen to Jesus.
Briefly, consider the letter of 1 John. It opens: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. Note the emphasis on eyewitness testimony – we have heard, seen, touched what we’re writing about. Toward the end of the letter, in 5:13, John writes: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. Heretical tendencies had already arisen in the early Christian communities, and John writes to those who believe, but have some questions or doubts, in order to assure them of the truth of their faith.
Paul emphasizes the same theme in his letters—there are others who try to pervert or alter the faith, but Paul confirms the truth of the apostolic witness. Galatians 1:6-8 – I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! You have believed in the Gospel message, the good news that Christ Jesus came to save sinners; now stand firm in that Gospel, rejecting the false gospel preached by false apostles and others who seek to change the message of Jesus Christ to suit their own purposes.
Another example, this time of active personal apologetic ministry in the life of Paul. When Paul comes to Thessalonica, we read, in Acts 17:2-4:
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.
Why does Paul have to reason with the Jews in the synagogue? Why does he have to explain and prove that Jesus had to suffer for our sins and rise from the dead? Because the Jews would not have immediately and easily accepted the message. “How can that be, Paul?” “Doesn’t Deuteronomy 21 proclaim that any man who dies hung on a tree is accursed by God?” “Isn’t the Messiah of God going to be a victorious, conquering king?” Paul’s reasoning ministry, demonstrating to the Jews by their Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ, explaining and proving the truth of the Christian faith, is a biblical example of apologetics. He responds to the questions and doubts that the people have, giving them reasons to believe and follow Jesus Christ.
If you read on in Acts 17, beginning in verse 16, you find Paul doing the same thing again when he comes to Athens—this time reasoning with both Jews, according to their scriptures, and Greeks, according to their philosophy. This time it is a fascinating picture. Paul is distressed by the rampant idol-worship in Athens, and reasons with both Jews and Greeks. Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers hear Paul expounding this new doctrine, and bring him to the Areopagus, a regular gathering-place for philosophers to exchange ideas. In what is known as the “Areopagus address” or the “Mars Hill address”, Paul very interestingly begins his apologetic and evangelistic appeal by establishing common ground with the idol-worshiping pagan philosophers in the heart of intellectual Greece.
Verse 22: Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
Paul goes on to expound the Christ, focusing, as always, on the resurrection. At the end of the day, some hear and embrace the message, others sneer and mock Paul, while others yet are intrigued and just want to hear more about it.
The Gospel of John closes with an explicit declaration of its apologetic intent. John 20:24-29 contains Jesus’ famous encounter with ‘doubting Thomas’. I want you to notice, first, that having doubts is not a cause for condemnation in the Bible. We all know the story here – Thomas was not present with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them after His resurrection. Thomas says he will not believe their testimony unless he too sees the risen Jesus. Verse 26: A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’
Now, does Jesus rebuke or condemn Thomas for his doubt? No. There is perhaps some mild, slightly humorous correction, but there is nothing like a rebuke. Next, notice Thomas’ response to Jesus’ appearance: “My Lord and my God!” I contend that this is the clearest personal declaration of Jesus’ divine identity that you can find in the New Testament. And, importantly, it is professed by doubting Thomas.
John then concludes this chapter: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. What is the purpose of John’s Gospel? Very explicitly, he writes so that the reader may be convinced that Jesus is the Christ and thereby believe and receive eternal life. That, my friends, is an apologetic gospel.
John then concludes his gospel, in chapter 21, with the following. John 21:24-25 – This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. There is so much richness in this ending as well – it points to John’s Gospel being finally edited and published by a disciple or group of disciples; it also openly acknowledges that not everything is covered in the Gospel of John. Indeed, it hints that perhaps John has consciously chosen to recount many things precisely because the other Synoptic gospels did not record them. From that perspective, it is not surprising that the content of John is so different than the content of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Lest you think that apologetics is always and only God’s followers reasoning with others to convince them of the truth of the Gospel, I want to point to some passages where God Himself is presenting an apologetic either to His children or to the nations.
The book of Exodus can be read as God’s apologetic treatise. Chapter 3-4 contain God’s apologetic and self-revelation to Moses, anointing Moses as His chosen servant to deliver Israel out of Egypt. Chapter 7-12 contain God’s apologetic and self-revelation to pagan Egypt, demonstrating Yahweh’s absolute sovereignty and Lordship over the idols and false gods of the Egyptians. Chapters 13-17 contain God’s apologetic and self-revelation to the children of Israel, demonstrating Yahweh’s intimate care and meticulous provision for His chosen nation.
We could look at many other biblical passages which exemplify apologetics. Many of the sermons and encounters in the Book of Acts are apologetic in nature. Philippians 1:16 affirms that Paul is in prison for the defense of the Gospel. Apologetics simply permeates the Scriptures—as long as one is open to seeing apologetics there, it is difficult to miss.
II. The Historical Mandate for Apologetics
I am not going to spend much time at all discussing the history of apologetics within Christianity. I have emphasized the biblical mandate for apologetics already, and that is central. But it is important to stress that apologetics has a long and rich history within the Church, beginning with the Apostolic Fathers and continuing to the present day.
Justin Martyr is perhaps the best-known early church apologist, particularly as he wrote the first full-length defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Others can be considered – Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Polycarp, Papias, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Origen, etc. For more on the history of apologetics in Christian history, I suggest consulting Avery Dulles’ History of Apologetics, and/or Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman’s Faith Has Its Reasons.
III. The Contemporary Ministry Mandate for Apologetics
From my perspective, it is enough to know that God commands believers to be involved in apologetics, and that we see examples of apologetics throughout Scripture. But as we observe and reflect on the situation of the contemporary church in North America, I think we can see how desperately we need to engage in apologetics today.
Surveys and studies show that an alarmingly large proportion of children raised in Christian homes walk away from Christianity as students or young adults. The most recent Lifeway surveys mentioned that just over 70% of “Christian teenagers” drop out of church before the age of 25. Why is this happening? There are many things at work, but a lack of apologetics is part of the problem. Honest, genuine answers need honest, genuine responses, and often these youth are not getting such answers.
Christians and non-Christians alike have questions and doubts. A friend of mine, a pastor in rural Georgia, asked members of his congregation what kinds of issues they would like him to address in future sermons and Bible studies. Lots of great questions – How old is the earth? What about the Bible and scientific teaching about evolution? If people believe in Scientology, can they be saved? Do we have to be perfect to enter heaven? What is the difference between the God Christians worship and the gods of other religions? Is God real? Is the story of creation a myth? Is the Bible really true? I've heard you say that Jesus is the God-man. Is Jesus a man? Or is He God? My friends tell me that all religions lead to heaven: Is Jesus the only way to heaven? If God is a God of love, is there really a hell? My friends and I are not bad people; isn't it true that people are basically good? These are issues that apologists typically address. These questions are on people’s minds. If Christians are not equipped to respond to the questions on people’s hearts and minds, we are not doing our job. Apologetics is not optional: it is a commandment from the Lord.
Carol Anway did an extensive study of American women who converted to Islam. She writes that, of the fourteen women she interviewed, “Three of the women, prior to converting to Islam, were hoping to convert their [Muslim] husband to Christianity by agreeing to study Islam if the husband would consider Christianity. One woman started asking questions of ministers and theologians to help her prove the superiority of Christianity to her husband. She said, ‘I wanted it so badly; I cried to several of them to help me and most of them said, “I’m sorry—I don’t know” or “I’ll write to you,” but I never heard from them.’ . . . Nine of the women expressed problems with the belief in Jesus as God, Jesus as the Son of God, or the concept of the Trinity. Five others said they had major questions about Christianity that no one had satisfactorily answered.”
From 2001-2008, I served as the English pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In the course of ministry, I got involved in campus ministry, leading Bible studies and serving as a part-time Baptist chaplain at the University of Alberta. I regularly had students drop by my office to talk about spiritual matters. Many of the students I talked with had concerns about morality, sexual ethics, how to discern God’s will for their studies and careers. But over the years, I also encountered dozens of university students with questions and doubts about Christianity. How do we know that we can trust the Bible as God’s Word? Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the 3rd day? My philosopher professor insists that it is a proven fact that God does not exist—why would he say that? My biology professor says that modern evolution has disproved the Bible—is that true? Why is there evil in a world created by a good God? Inevitably, we would spend a considerable amount of time talking about their questions or doubts. Tell me, what is that called—when you talk with someone who has serious questions or doubts about the truth of the Christian faith? Yeah – that’s apologetics. And I’ll tell you what – it is absolutely exhilarating to have someone come to you with serious questions or doubts about Christianity, and to see their faith restored and strengthened through your conversation with them. As they receive answers to their questions, you can see the Holy Spirit reassure them, re-awaken their love for God, and deepen their faith walk. Just as the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents, so too they rejoice over the restoration of those who have been struggling in their faith.
On a few occasions, after engaging in a lengthy apologetic dialogue with a student, I would hear words which chilled me to the bone. “Tawa, thank you so much for talking with me about this. I tried to ask my parents these questions, but they just got mad and said I shouldn’t be having those kinds of questions.” Or: “I asked my pastor about these things, but he just said that Christians are supposed to have faith, not doubt or questions, and that I should just believe and not ask questions about it.”
Those comments break my heart. When our children, neighbors, friends, or co-workers, have legitimate questions about the Christian faith, it is not sufficient to rebuke them for lacking faith. You remember the father who comes to Jesus, begging that He heal his son? Jesus says, “Do you believe I can do this?” The father responds, “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief!” Most of us are like that father—a combination of exuberant faith and lingering doubt. When our children or friends or parishioners are asking honest, searching, deep questions about the truthfulness of Christianity, it is not enough for us to say, “don’t ask these questions – just believe!” It is not enough to minimize or deny the validity of the questions. It is our responsibility to engage the questions, and provide reasonable, thoughtful answers to them. When the biblical command to be ready to give an answer to those who seek reasons to believe is not fulfilled, the back door of the church becomes well-used. People with unanswered and unresolved doubts just leave.
We can see, in short, that there is a biblical, historical, and contemporary mandate for apologetics. Scripture both commands and exemplifies apologetics. Church history is replete with apologetic ministries. And the contemporary church context demands and requires that Christians engage in intentional apologetics. Fortunately, the time is ripe and God has equipped His church with rich resources to engage in apologetics. I am persuaded that there has never before been the breadth, depth, and wealth of active apologists providing written and spoken materials to strengthen the apologetic ministries of today’s church. But that, I think, is a topic for a different day.