(Published Gospel Advocate, February 2012)
The term apologetics refers to the reasoned defense offered by an individual in support of his beliefs or actions. Derived from the Greek apologia, the word pictures one who is presenting his case before a court of law. This is how the apostle Paul used the term in 2 Timothy 4:16 when he stated: “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me” (NKJV; cf. Acts 25:16). Importantly, Paul also used the term in a more specialized manner by connecting it to the gospel message (Philippians 1:16, ESV). Thus, the field of Christian apologetics is concerned with presenting a reasoned defense of such matters as God’s existence and nature, the deity of Jesus, and the inspiration of the Bible.
Admittedly, the arguments used in apologetic materials are sometimes complex. This does not mean, however, that the field of apologetics is closed to anyone besides scholars or experts. All Christians are obligated to discern between truth and error (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Given this fact, it is little wonder that Peter urged: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15). Rather than shrinking from the arguments of those who deride Christianity, we must make every effort to prepare to answer the challenges that come our way. As we do so, we must be careful to remind ourselves that our abilities are limited and that truth does not depend upon our method of argumentation. Nevertheless, we must use the faculties that we possess to analyze the evidence available and draw the conclusions warranted by it.
An Important Distinction
At this juncture, it should be noted that although the field of apologetics is concerned with evidence, such does not diminish the importance of faith. One should not think of faith and knowledge as existing in opposition to one another, for they actually work together. Rather than being exclusive concepts, they are intertwined. We believe in God because we have good reasons to do so. The same thing could be said about our support for Jesus’ deity and the assertion that the Bible is inspired.
Perhaps the relationship between faith and knowledge can be illustrated by considering Peter’s willingness to walk on the water to Jesus (Matthew 14:25-33). Surely Peter’s experiences as a fisherman taught him that he could not walk upon water. But in spite of this previous knowledge, Peter stepped from the boat in order to approach his master. This action reflected Peter’s faith in Jesus. He was willing to step out of the boat because the Savior, who was walking on the water, bid him to do so. We could rightly say that Peter acted out of faith rather than knowledge. But at the same time, we also recognize that his action was not one of blind faith. His willingness to walk upon the water was based upon the trust that he placed in Jesus. As we seek to base our beliefs on the evidence that is available, we must keep this balance in mind. Knowledge does not diminish or replace faith. Instead, it serves as the foundation for it (cf. Romans 10:17). Because the aim of apologetics is to defend what we might properly refer to as reasonable faith, a sound apologetic approach will seek to maintain this delicate balance.
A Biblical Example
An example of an appropriate apologetic approach is found in Peter’s sermon recorded in Acts 2. Circumstances surrounding that sermon were obviously miraculous in nature. The Jews who had come to Jerusalem from various parts of the world heard their native languages being spoken by the apostles (Acts 2:7-8). This fact could not be denied. By way of explanation, Peter declared that the events transpiring were the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Joel but actually occurred because of Jesus (Acts 2:16-21, 33). The thesis of Peter’s sermon—“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36)—is directly related to this event. In support of this significant claim, Peter offered four arguments: 1) Jesus’ identity is supported by His miracles (Acts 2:22); 2) Jesus’ identity is supported by His empty tomb (Acts 2:29-31); 3) Jesus’ identity is supported by the testimony of credible witnesses (Acts 2:32), and 4) the events occurring before the eyes of the Jews resulted from Jesus’ action (Acts 2:33).
Peter’s sermon relied upon facts that could not be denied. The Jews could not deny that notable miracles were associated with Jesus. They could not deny that Jesus’ tomb was empty, nor could they deny that the apostles claimed to have seen the risen Christ. At the same time, they could not look into heaven and see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. Nevertheless, Peter’s argumentation was based upon evidence, and his conclusion was reasonable. Consequently, many of the Jews responded to Peter’s admonition in faithful obedience (Acts 2:37-41).
Given the prevalence of doubt and skepticism in our world today, it seems that all Christians would be interested in learning how to better defend their beliefs. The fact that men differ at all hints that God expects this of us (cf. Acts 17:26-28). But what can those who have not spent their lives studying the intricate arguments of apologetics do?
We must begin by familiarizing ourselves with the available evidence. If those around us question God’s existence, we would do well to point to the existence of our universe and ask about its origin. The creation itself offers one of the strongest testimonies for God’s reality. The psalmist proclaimed: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1; cf. Romans 1:18-21). One does not need to be a scientist to realize that something does not come from nothing. If we find a building, we know that there must have been a builder. As the author of Hebrews put it: “For every house is built by someone, but he who built all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4).
Other important arguments to use in support of God’s existence include the presence of intelligent design in our world (cf. Proverbs 20:12) and the existence of objective moral law. If, for example, the human body is merely the product of billions of years of mindless evolution, why does it exhibit evidence of intentional design? Christians need to know that design points to the existence of a designer! Similarly, if there is no ultimate source of morality higher than man, who can say a particular action is always wrong? Such a right only belongs to one who is higher than man—the objective moral lawgiver!
As Christians, we also need to become familiar with arguments that are offered in favor of Jesus’ deity and the inspiration of the Bible. By doing so, we learn that our faith does not rely upon baseless assumptions. When used appropriately, apologetic arguments show that Christianity is reasonable. Rather than being confused by complex arguments, Christians may draw courage from the fact that their faith can endure the attacks of skeptics.
But the real value of apologetics is not in winning arguments; it is in winning souls to Christ. As Paul noted: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). This is not just the task of scholars or experts. All Christians have a responsibility to be evangelistic, and it is quite impossible to ask someone to obey Jesus when they do not even believe in God. Here is where a working knowledge of apologetics becomes practical. Once we have adequately presented to others why we believe in God, they can no longer claim ignorance. The issue then is not whether God exists but how one is supposed to respond to Him. In his essay, On Obstinacy in Belief, C. S. Lewis described what results when this occurs: “You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence” (392-393). If we can utilize apologetics in this way, we will have done well.
Lewis, C.S. “On Obstinacy in Belief,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Ed.
Louis P. Pojman. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998.