What Is Apologetics, and Why Do We Need It?
Answering the objections of today’s skeptics
Many in the Church today spend immense amounts of time and energy ensuring that our churches and ministries are “relevant” to today’s culture. In general, this is good, and we should encourage efforts to make connections and become more relatable.
However, there is one area that does not get enough attention, and if it doesn’t change, people will never take the truth and reality of the gospel seriously — no matter how relevant we may think we are.
Simply put, we need more emphasis on (1) demonstrating that the truth of Christianity is grounded in reality — and not simply our beliefs — and (2) providing compelling responses to those who raise objections to the Christian worldview.
Why are these tasks now so important? The main reason is that more and more people are beginning to believe that Christianity somehow precludes the believer’s ability to thoughtfully engage with the rest of the world. We’re told over and over that we must choose between being a thoughtful person and being a person of faith. Both inside and outside the Church, people have embraced this message.
In the book unChristian, authors Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons reveal that 70 percent of “outsiders” (those not affiliated with Christianity) they surveyed said present-day Christians are “out of touch with reality.” The authors write, “Many outsiders believe Christianity insulates people from thinking. Often young people (including many insiders) doubt that Christianity boosts the intellect.”
When we combine this perceived disconnect between reality and Christianity with the growing popularity of the attitudes toward Christianity we find in the writings of so-called “New Atheists” (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.), we shouldn’t be surprised that people with no religious affiliation (e.g., atheists, agnostics, etc.) now make up 23 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to Pew Research Center. This represents a significant increase from 2007, when just 16 percent of Americans were religiously unaffiliated.
More than 100 years ago, J. Gresham Machen wrote of the problem we are now experiencing in full force:
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the Gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.
Because many Christians are unable to speak thoughtfully about their belief in God and relate their Christian beliefs to the world around them, our culture does increasingly see Christianity as a harmless delusion.
The more prepared we are to answer difficult questions, the more relevant our culture will find us.
We must be equipped to spot false ideas about Christianity and capable of correcting them. This requires us to love God with our minds (Matthew 22:37) so we can “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5, ESV).
In other words, we need to engage in the ministry of apologetics.
Although many of us probably should spend some time apologizing to others, that’s not the ministry of apologetics. The term “apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia and means “a defense,” “an answer,” or “an account.” It’s what Peter had in mind when he wrote that we should, “Always be prepared to make a defense … ” (1 Peter 3:15, ESV). He’s telling us to be prepared to make an apologia.
As with nearly any other ministry, there are many different ways to go about doing apologetics, but it’s typical to divide such activities into one of two groups (and those Christians who want to stay relevant to a culture that is increasingly hostile to the Christian faith should be conversant in both).
The first group is often referred to as positive apologetics, which is primarily focused on the rational basis for belief in the truth of Christianity. Common components of this group are general arguments for God’s existence and arguments for the truth of claims made specifically in the New Testament.
Being acquainted with these arguments is immensely helpful when people ask why you’re a Christian. We are not Christians simply because God helped us become better people. There are scores of adherents to other religions who can say the same.
We are Christians because we have reasons to believe not only that God exists, but also “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
It’s important to note that these reasons don’t simply amount to what we believe, but instead are grounded in reality. As such, these reasons are open to evaluation by anyone who cares to examine them.
Although the name isn’t as pleasant, to retain the contrast with the first group, we can call the second group of apologetic reasoning negative apologetics. Negative apologetics doesn’t have anything to do with one’s demeanor, but instead refers to an attempt to show that some argument against Christianity fails.
So, for example, when one objects to God’s existence because of the presence of evil in the world, we may provide this person an account of why God might allow evil to exist. In doing so, we’re trying to help them see that their argument against belief in God fails.
The same applies when we explain why neither the Trinity nor the Incarnation are logically contradictory, how the existence of hell is compatible with a loving God, or that the presence of so many different religions does not undermine our belief that Christianity alone provides the means of salvation.
The more Christians become acquainted with positive and negative apologetics, the less likely it will be that people will think Christianity is out of touch with reality. The more prepared we are to answer difficult questions, from both inside and outside the Church, the more relevant our culture will find us.