Given that I am a Christian Apologist, a friend of mine was interested in my reaction to T E Hanna’s recent post on 3 Reasons Why I Gave Up Christian Apologetics. As the author of two books that would clearly fall into this category (Evidence for the Bible / Christianity and Secularism), and one who has a master’s degree in Christian Apologetics, and has been doing this for several decades, I do consider myself an Christian apologist. So at the risk of being argumentative, I thought I would respond.
First, there is a lot that I would agree with in his post. I would certainly agree that apologetics can be misused, i.e., done incorrectly or for the wrong reasons and that his 3 reasons would all fall into that category. I would only point out that the same could be said about most things. Just think what damage a Pastor can do if they are not working as a true servant of God. In fact, just reading the last sentence may have brought to mind some examples. But that would hardly be a reason to give up on the role of pastor, rather it would be a call to do it correctly. The same can be said about apologetics.
Hanna claims “I have yet to meet anyone that has come to know Christ as the result of an intense debate.” In my several decades as an apologist, neither have I. In fact, I have consistently taught in my ministry that the role of apologetics is not to argue people into the kingdom of heaven. The reason is simple, it cannot be done, and if this is why someone does apologetics, they are wasting their time.
Of course this raises the question of why do apologetics? A simple one is that we are commanded to do so in passages like 1 Peter 3:15-16,
Instead, exalt the Messiah as Lord in your lives. Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have. But do this gently and respectfully, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak evil of your good conduct in the Messiah will be ashamed of slandering you.
The apologetics that Hanna is critical of is an apologetics that stops at verse 15, but for me verse 16 is just as important.
But there are practical reasons as well. True, no one is or can be argued into the kingdom, but they can be helped to the foot of the cross. One of the ways I teach this is with the metaphor of a wall. We all like to build walls to keep God at a safe distance. Christians build these wall was well, but our focus here is the non-believer who builds walls of excuses as to why they can ignore God. It is the role of apologetics to remove those walls block by block till there is nothing standing between the believer and the cross. At that point the role of apologetics in evangelism ends.
So while no one is argued into the kingdom, some have been brought to the foot of the cross, and thus apologetics did play an important role in their conversion. I know this to be the case, for I was one of them. I was an atheist who had a long list of reasons why I could safely ignore God. But one by one over several years, Christians answered these objections.
True, not everyone has such questions or objections, and thus for them discussions on the reliability of the Bible, etc., would be irrelevant at best, possibly even counter-productive. This is why I stress that the first and most important step in apologetics is to listen. Find out what it is that is keeping them from the cross.
Now to be clear, I do not expect, or even believe, that everyone would be a trained apologist, ready with all the answers at their fingertips. For me the best answer is often, “that is a good question, and I don’t know. Let me find out and get back to you.” I like this answer for many reasons. 1) You don’t need to have all the answers, only a resource where you can get them. If you do not know of one, then I recommend that you start with your Pastor. Bottom line, it is a one size fits all answer. 2) It opens up a dialogue and builds a relationship. I encourage people to be a safe place where those with questions can get answers, a person someone can ask a question of without getting a full come to Jesus sermon. Perhaps it is because of my conversion experience, but I see conversion as more of a process then an event, one that can take a long time, and one in which while there are many stages, there is no set order. Everyone is different and this is why listening and building a relationship is so key to apologetics.
I do want to say something in favor of intense debates. I have been in many. But intense does not mean disrespectful. In fact I came to the attention of my editor many years ago because he noticed me in an online forum engaging some pretty intensive debates, but remaining respectful, even when my opponents were not. At times I would wonder myself, what is the point? These people never seem to change, and at times the argument would just seem to be going in circles.
Two things would keep me going. 1) When I was on the other side, I never told the Christians I was debating that they were right. But afterword, I would reflect on what they said and I now believe the Holy Spirit would use those arguments to work on my heart. 2) When I was really discouraged, inevitably I would get an email from someone I had never heard of, expressing thanks for what I was doing and letting me know how my responses had bless them, and helped them. This is a second dimension of apologetics, strengthening believers. It is important to note that a lie unanswered will be taken as the truth. Currently the lies about God, the Bible and Christianity are rampant and are overwhelming what little apologetics is out there.
While I could write a lot more on this, this has already gotten longer than I intended, so let me just close by saying that as a Christian apologist I do not judge what I do by how many debates I win or souls I save, because the first doesn’t matter and I can’t do the latter in any event. My goal is to be a faithful servant, and I will leave the results to God.