Is Apologetics Biblical?
The Christian mandate to defend the faith
Given that many in our society are growing increasingly hostile to Christian beliefs, we must be thoughtful about how we go about responding to this trend.
In a previous article, I advocated for the claim that apologetics should play a vital role in helping push back against this hostility. Apologetic thinking may not be all that’s needed, but it should be one of the tools in our shed — and it needs to be a sharp one.
Jesus tells us to make disciples; that will, at minimum, involve making converts. If those far from Christ today are ever going to investigate the truth of the Christian worldview, apologetics can help show them why it is indeed worthy of serious consideration.
Even if it is true that society’s opposition to Christianity is at high tide, some might object to an increased emphasis on apologetics as a way to respond. After all, doesn’t engaging in apologetics mean that we’re attempting to replace the work of the Holy Spirit with the reasoning of humans? In answering this objection, it will be helpful to consider a few relevant passages of Scripture that make clear that the Bible not only doesn’t teach against apologetics, but it actually promotes it.
We believe Christianity is true because we have good evidence that it is true.
Let’s begin with the apostle Paul’s oft-quoted statement to the Corinthian church that some take to establish that apologetics is not biblical. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul writes that “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (NASB). If, the argument goes, apologetics is an attempt to make the Christian worldview more reasonable, then doesn’t this run directly contrary to Paul’s statement? In other words, isn’t apologetics just an attempt to make the cross not foolish?
Here it will be helpful to think about the context of the letter to Christians in Corinth. Given the Greek influence in Corinth, it would have led some to expect eloquence and powerful rhetoric to be the focus of Paul’s teaching. Instead, Paul regularly emphasizes that salvation is not to be found in such things but in the power of the Cross. Keep in mind also just how bizarre it would have been for people to consider that salvation could come through a cross. As Mark Taylor notes, “The Roman orator and philosopher Cicero called crucifixion a ‘most cruel and disgusting penalty’” and that “from a Jewish perspective the one crucified was under God’s curse” (1 Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture).
For those that took the cross to be a disgusting penalty or something that brought one under God’s curse, it’s easy to see how the “word of the cross is foolishness.” There is no indication in this letter, or in Paul’s other writings, that the foolishness of the Cross is related to its being irrational, its being believed without evidence or anything of the sort.
Much more can be said about this passage and various others, but for now it seems this may be enough. One of the most commonly cited verses against the use of apologetics does not, in fact, teach against it. But it may be helpful to say more about the relationship between apologetics and the Bible. That is, we can explore how the Bible provides examples of apologetic reasoning and specific mandates to engage in it.
There are many aspects to apologetics, but J. P. Moreland sums up nicely its core focus. He writes, “Apologetics is a ministry designed to help unbelievers overcome intellectual obstacles and believers to remove doubts that hinder spiritual growth” (Scaling the Secular City). We do this by helping people see that there are reasons for our Christian beliefs, that these reasons are true, and that they are open to examination by others. In other words, we believe Christianity is true because we have good evidence that it is true. This evidence-based approach to understanding reality is exactly what we see throughout Scripture.
Consider first Matthew’s account of Jesus healing the paralytic in Matthew 9:1–8. It is easy to focus on this miracle and skip past its purpose. Recall that the reason Jesus tells the man to get up, take his mat and go home was that some of the teachers of the law thought Jesus had blasphemed God when He earlier told the man his sins were forgiven. Jesus had forgiven the man’s sins, but the teachers of the law did not believe He had such authority. So, Jesus provided them with evidence that He did have the authority to forgive by showing them He could heal the paralytic. And, it’s worth noting, it seems the strategy worked since the crowd then “praised God” (verse 8).
In the Book of Acts, we see another instance of people coming to accept something as true based on evidence. Luke tells us that Jesus appeared to the apostles and “gave many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3). His post-resurrection appearances seem to have genuine apologetic value. That is, they provide reasons to believe — evidence — that He is indeed alive. The apostles had faith that Jesus was alive, and that faith was grounded in evidence.
We not only see examples of apologetic reasoning in Scripture, but the Bible also specifically mandates it. In 1 Peter 3:15, Peter tells his readers always to be ready “to make a defense [an apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (ESV).
Similarly, Jude exhorts his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith” (verse 3, NASB). His specific concern was false teachers telling people that God’s grace gave them freedom to sin, but this epistle was also written for a wide readership. Whether it’s false teaching within the church or outside attacks on Christianity itself, we should contend earnestly for the faith.
What we have, then, are clear examples of both evidence-based reasoning and a call to engage in a defense of the faith. And, it turns out, providing reasons for our beliefs is one of the best ways to help people with intellectual obstacles to their coming to believe in God or to growing in their love of Him.
See also “What Is Apologetics, and Why Do We Need It?”