Christian Apologetics: What’s the Point?

apologeticsby John Ellis

Last week, the news that Jesus’ burial place had been “discovered” began popping up all over my social media newsfeeds[1]. At first, I ignored the shared articles and the accompanying declamations of “Praise, God! The Bible is true!” because I tend to be skeptical of the validity, much less the use, of “major archeological finds that prove the Bible to be true.” But then The Gospel Coalition posted an article defending the claim.

Since TGC is an organization that I have great respect for and an organization that the Holy Spirit has used to bless me, I read Justin Taylor’s article. The article’s arguments make sense and are far afield from the sensationalism that is often the Achille’s heel of American Evangelicalism. Don’t misunderstand, I still have questions and some doubts. Regardless, I found the TGC article compelling and forwarded it to several friends.

All that being said, the veracity of God’s Word is not dependent, in the least, on the veracity of this current apologetic claim that is burning up my social media newsfeeds. But, if that previous statement is true, and I firmly believe it is, doesn’t that call into question the need for Christian Apologetics? I mean, if God’s Word is true regardless of what archeologists discover or don’t discover, why bother with Christian Apologetics to begin with?

Well, in a nutshell, the value of Christian Apologetics isn’t found in the discipline’s ability to “prove” Christianity; the value of Christian Apologetics is found in bringing God glory through the strengthening of the faith of God’s children, those already believing and those yet to believe.

Before jumping into my defense of Christian Apologetic (my apologetic for apologetics, if I may be allowed a nerd joke), I feel compelled to offer a word of warning concerning Christian Apologetics (from here on out, referred to as simply “apologetics”). My biggest problem with apologetics is that many people put their faith in apologetics instead of putting their faith in Jesus.

Unfortunately, some who love apologetics view it as a rhetorical trick that will help them win arguments – whether on Facebook, in the comment sections of articles, or even in person. For those Christians, apologetics provides the necessary ammunition to put smug atheists in their place. They believe that the right proofs invalidate the jeers of those who believe that an intelligent Christian is a contradiction of terms. If they just learn the right airtight arguments, they can convince their unbelieving neighbor that the only legitimate intellectual option is to become a Christian.

Many of us probably know people like that. We’re friends with them on social media. We’ve watched their YouTube videos. We’ve met them in our churches. And, unfortunately, some of us are guilty of placing our faith in apologetics instead of in Jesus, at least from time to time. I know I have been. Several years ago, as still a relatively new Christian, I “discovered” apologetics and became obsessed.

My love-affair with apologetics began right about the time my naïve belief that I would be considered a “cool” Christian by unbelievers was painfully destroyed. During that time, I began devouring books and videos on apologetics. They helped solidify an us versus them mentality in my mind, and, sadly, at best, I began to view evangelism as a full-contact sport, so to speak. At worst, I began to view my interactions with unbelievers as a battle of the wits. Often, I sought out engagement with unbelievers solely to show off my newfound knowledge of apologetics. The church we were members at had a prayer service every Sunday morning before the main worship service, and I cherished the opportunity to use the prayer service to point out, in the form of a prayer request, all of the evangelizing I was doing. In reality, my motives and efforts were far removed from a joyful outworking of my faith in God. My motives and efforts were a product of pride and misplaced faith in my ability to argue people into the kingdom of God. Thankfully, my sinful pride was exposed by the Holy Spirit.

I had been having conversations about God, the Bible, and the veracity of the Christian faith with an agnostic named Ken. He was quite the proselytizer for agnosticism and was as determined to prove me wrong as I was determined to prove him wrong. During one of our arguments, both Ken and I became more heated than usual.

As we argued, Ken kept insisting that no one can know for certain that are right or not, and he began to call into question the right for Christians to make any truth claims about God. As he did so, he continued to make some very certain truth claims about his own worldview in contrast to what he felt were abhorrent Christian beliefs. Every time he did, I would call him on it, using his own previously expressed epistemology. He became angrier and, sadly, I became more amused and thrilled.

Finally, Ken reached the end of his rope, cussed me out, let me know how hateful, stupid, and useless Christians are, and ordered me to leave. As I was walking out the door, I couldn’t resist a parting shot and smugly said, “It never ceases to amaze me how intolerant and close-minded people are who claim to be tolerant and open-minded.” He charged me and pushed me into the door. That was the extent of the physical altercation portion of the evening, but it was unsettling, nonetheless.

He later apologized, but we never again spoke about God or the Bible. Thankfully, by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit used that episode to reveal to me my sin; I loved apologetics more than I loved Jesus. And because of that, I viewed opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers as the chance to gain another notch on my intellectual belt.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique. As I mentioned earlier, apologetics is often used as an intellectual bludgeon in order to feed the pride of the one yielding it (watch some YouTube videos as exhibit “a”). I don’t know what happened to Ken, and, thankfully, my sin is not a deterrent on any level for the Holy Spirit. Humans cannot argue anyone into the Kingdom of God, and our sins aren’t going to hinder the Holy Spirit from changing someone’s heart and giving them the gift of saving faith.

However, many Christians falsely believe that the salvation of souls is dependent on their abilities – If we can just convince people that God is who He says He is and that the gospel is true, they’ll get saved. If they don’t get saved, maybe it’s because I didn’t frame the arguments correctly. – That false assumption often leads well-meaning Christians to believe that apologetics and their ability to present apologetic arguments are what brings the fruit of faith in the soul of unbelievers. But we know that it’s the Holy Spirit that brings about the fruit of faith.

However, taking into consideration my warning, I joyfully acknowledge that apologetics has its place. In my own life, God, in His mercy, chose to use C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity as one of the means to reveal Himself to me and provide me with saving faith.

A good, possibly the best, starting point for a defense of apologetics is I Peter 3:15 which admonishes Believers to, “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”[2]

First and foremost, God has called us to defend our faith. And, under most circumstances, defending our faith should not be divorced from sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, when unbelievers ask us how we can believe that a man literally came back to life after being dead, our apologetic for the Resurrection of Jesus includes an obvious segue into why Jesus died to begin with.

There are many historical and even logical defenses that can be mounted whenever someone challenges the veracity of the Resurrection of Jesus. However, our goal shouldn’t be to win the argument; our goal should be to introduce the unbeliever to Jesus. Ultimately, only the Holy Spirit can do that; but God has graciously ordained that the making of disciples is most often mediated through the ordinary means of Christians speaking the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the lives of unbelievers. When our non-Christian friends, co-workers, and family members ask us about the reasons for our faith, they have provided us a great opportunity to share the gospel. As a bonus, we get to rehearse the gospel in our own hearts, a faith building exercise. In fact, within the call to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” is an opportunity to affirm and strengthen our own faith.

A couple of years ago, I heard a friend question the value of apologetics. Specifically, he questioned an apologetic that wanders even the slightest from the unbeliever’s presuppositions[3], concluding that because of the nature of sin and the answer to sin, preaching the gospel was the only job that Christians have. Apologetics was a useless trick in his eyes. I responded that I believed that building the faith of listening Believers (not to mention my own faith) is cause enough to practice apologetics.

Like our brothers and sisters in Christ from ages past, Christians today are surrounded by those who hate God. Jesus told his followers that the world would hate them and that his disciples shouldn’t be surprised when persecution comes. At times, it can seem as if the entire weight of the intellectual world is bearing down on faith. The rise of social media has only exacerbated that.

The so-called “new atheists” are shrill and their arguments have permeated much of society’s thought[4]. Arguments purported to refute Christianity abound, and many Christians find themselves feeling intellectually buffeted by the attacking rhetorical storms. Confronted by voices far more intelligent than mine, there have been times when I have felt my smallness and have shrunk away from the call of my King to preach the gospel. Many times, though, during moments of small faith on my part, the Holy Spirit has provided a comforting word from the discipline of apologetics.

While our full hope is found in our identity in Christ, it is nice to be made aware that brothers and sisters in Christ have provided Biblically sound and God honoring answers to the challenges sneerfully hurled by unbelievers at the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason, I engage in apologetics, and I encourage all Believers to engage in apologetics.

Lastly, I believe that Christians should pursue the discipline of apologetics because we are called to love God with our mind. Sadly, many in American evangelicalism have bought the lie that faith is fundamentally irrational.

That lie has its genesis in Immanuel Kant’s teaching that human knowledge is limited to the phenomenal world, or, rather, the world that can be perceived through the five senses – empiricism. Kant also argued that knowledge of God was also unachievable for humans through reason – rationalism. According to Kant, there is no way for humans to know if things like the laws of logic are a part of the noumenal world, or, rather the world that exists outside of sense perception (the spiritual world).

At the risk of over-simplification, but for the sake of space, the “Christian” outworking of Kant’s epistemology is called fideism. Noted theologian and apologist Dr. R.C. Sproul helpfully defines fideism as, “the belief that the idea of God’s existence is to be assumed on faith; given that God’s existence cannot be proven rationally, we must therefore accept his existence through a blind leap of faith.”[5] Except, as Dr. Sproul has eloquently and frequently pointed out throughout his ministry, God does not call Christians to take a blind leap of faith. Rather, God calls us to love Him with our mind by pursuing truth – truth about this world, truth about Him, and the truth about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christians, of all people, should love truth and should not fear pursuing truth. Christianity is a faith that is grounded in real events involving real people. And the author and object of our faith is the Creator God who ordained the universe to reveal His glory. Part of loving God with our mind, at the least, involves Christians engaging apologetics.

God doesn’t need archeologists to discover Jesus’ tomb to prove to the world the veracity of the Bible’s claims about the Resurrection. Then again, God doesn’t need John Ellis (or you) to make His name great. Thankfully, in His kindness, God chooses to work through ordinary means to reveal Himself to the world and to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Apologetics has been and continues to be used by God to bring Himself glory, build the faith of His children, and to open the door in the minds of unbelievers to allow the entrance of the salvation that can only be found through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Sola deo Gloria


 

[1] This isn’t a new discovery. The work of archeologists at the tomb site was recently written about in National Geographic.

[2] I Peter 3:15, ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2410.

[3] Lord willing, over the next week or so, I’ll be posting articles that delineate the differences between the two main schools of Apologetics – Presuppositionalism and Evidentialism – as well as defending the value of both schools.

[4] There is actually nothing new about these atheists and their arguments, unless you count learning how to make money by utilizing the New York Time’s bestseller list. Every argument posited by the “new atheists” was refuted generations ago when those arguments were first introduced.

[5] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 93.

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