Christian Apologetics – what, why and who?

I still find it remarkable how many people don’t know what the word “Apologetics” means. This is especially surprising for Christians because the field of Christian Apologetics is seemingly in the middle of a golden age, and the importance of Apologetics has never been more apparent.

So let me provide just a quick intro to the subject; what is it, why bother with it, and who should learn it?

First, what is it? Apologetics is simply an attempt to answer a most basic question; why should we believe that some claim about reality is true? A Christian Apologist would be somebody who provides reasons to believe that Christianity is true, but Christianity certainly has not cornered the market on the term. One can be an Atheist Apologist by providing reasons to believe that Atheism is true. Or a Muslim Apologist. Or a Buddhist Apologist.

And it’s not even specifically a religious term either. One could be a Trump Apologist or a Trudeau Apologist if they believe such politicians and their platforms are best for their respective nations. One could be an Apologist for their company if they believe their product solves some problem for humanity better than other products on the market. One could be a nutrition Apologist if they believe that healthy eating matters. Or an Apologist for organic food or GMOs.

So that’s the “what,” now what about the “why?” Why bother with this? Why bother studying this stuff? For a very simple reason; reality matters. Truth matters. If I am wrong about GMOs then my error will bring consequences. If I am wrong about Trump or Trudeau then there will be consequences for my nation if I vote for them.

And if I am wrong about Christianity then, my goodness, what a waste! In his letter to the church in Corinth the Apostle Paul says, in my paraphrase, “If we’re wrong about this Christianity thing, then we are to be pitied more than anybody else.”

Of course, the flip side is also the case; if Christianity is true then there are consequences for everybody else if they get this wrong. Either way, the question of what the world is really like – with respect to religious claims – is a question that really shouldn’t be ignored. And this is why Apologetics is such an important question to ask.

So that’s the “what” and “why,” now on to the “who.” And the answer is simple: everybody. If you are convinced of anything in life – religion, politics, sports, healthy living – and you are trying to convince others to accept your view, then it is incumbent upon you to have at least some kind of half-decent attempt at answers to their questions. Imagine this conversation,

“You should only eat organics because the other food isn’t nearly as good for you.”

“Really, did somebody study the health effects of different kinds of foods in order to come to that conclusion?”

“I don’t know, but I believe it and I think you should too.”

Not convincing, right? Or how about this?

“Vote for Trump, he’ll make America great again!”

“Tell me more. How will he make America great again? What’s wrong with it?”

“Well, I don’t know, but I’m voting for him and you should too. I find him inspiring.”

Again, not convincing. So, on to religion.

“You should accept Jesus in your heart. He loves you and wants to forgive your sins.”

“That sounds interesting. There are a lot of religions and religious leaders out there, though, so what makes Jesus so special?”

“Well, I don’t know much about the other religions, but Jesus made a big difference in my life so I think you should give your life to him.”

Um, thanks but no thanks.

If you want to do a good job at persuading people about anything at all, religious or otherwise, then you need to have given some serious consideration to the kinds of questions that any reasonable person might bring up. This means everybody. If you are young, old, male, female, a brand new Christian or if you’ve been a Christian for many years, you need to know about Apologetics.

And here’s the real kicker, you need to know about Apologetics even if you are not a particularly “intellectual” person. Even if you aren’t academic, and some of the material goes over your head. The question of whether what you believe is true or not is so important that no reasonable person can afford to ignore it.

Isn’t “persuading” people about Christianity kind of not-spiritual?

There is this idea that evangelism should be all about spiritual experiences and personal testimonies. We pray that God would “touch their heart” and “make himself known” to them, and so on.

Interestingly, the New Testament paints a much different picture of evangelism. In the opening verses of Acts 17 we find out about Paul’s “customary” method of sharing the Gospel of Jesus.

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

Reasoned. Explaining. Proving. Proclaiming. Some were persuaded. This hardly sounds like the kind of evangelism we might be accustomed to today, right?

Or, take a look at the first ever mass evangelism of the Christian church; Peter addressing the crowd on Pentacost, in Acts 2. In that lengthy message Peter points out that, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” In short, God provided miracles for you to see. Evidence. Proof. Signs. Furthermore, Peter (speaking to a Jewish audience) references numerous Old Testament passages (the Jewish holy scriptures) in order to persuade them of the truth of Christianity.

Peter did not merely stand up in front of the crowd and pray, “God, please make your presence known to these people. Touch their hearts so that they may know your love.” He was not striving for some kind of spiritual experience at all, but a rational recognition of the truth of the situation – once again including Jesus’ resurrection from the dead – in order that they might understand and respond accordingly.

As one last data point from the book of Acts we have an interesting little story from the end of Acts 18 involving a little-known fellow by the name of Apollos. It ends off by observing that Apollos was very helpful to the Christians in Achaia because, “he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.”

Refuted. Debated. Proving. There are those kinds of words again.

So, no, evangelism is not all about spiritual experiences and divine movements in our souls. Not to say that evangelism should explicitly exclude that, of course, just that evangelism is, without a doubt, in large part an intellectual exercise.

The importance of our minds

This may also come as a shock to a lot of Christians, but the Bible places some fairly significant emphasis on the human mind. While we might be predisposed to favouring spiritual and emotional experiences, the Biblical emphasis seems to be more on the activities of the mind than the activities of the emotions. Or, at least they are treated as equals, and we ignore the mental aspects of faith to our peril.

Let’s start with the words of Jesus himself. When asked what the greatest commandment is, he did not merely answer, “Love God and love others.” He spelled that out. He explained that loving God meant to love him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Yes, that’s right, Jesus specifically included “mind” in the list. Our whole mind, no less. Christianity is a thoroughly intellectual faith; or at least it ought to be. If it isn’t, then you can blame the Christians, not their leader.

The Apostle Paul also placed significant emphasis on our thought life. The letter to the church in Rome is considered one of this foremost pieces of writing. It captures a good many theological concepts all in one letter, and lays them out in a relatively systematic and coherent manner.

In short, it is a very intellectually satisfying letter. That is interesting in itself, but what he says in the letter makes that point even clearer. At one of the turning points in the book he switches gears from “what’s this Christianity thing all about?” to “so how are we supposed to live as Christians?” It happens right at the beginning of chapter 12. He writes,

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Several observations. First, where it says, “true and proper” worship, the Greek word there has a strong flavour of “reasonable” as well as “spiritual.”

  1. pertaining to speech or speaking

  2. pertaining to the reason or logic

    1. spiritual, pertaining to the soul

    2. agreeable to reason, following reason, reasonable, logical

So our “spiritual” act of worship is, necessarily, also a very reasonable, logical, act of worship.

Furthermore, we are to be transformed not by the renewing of our souls, or the renewing of our imaginations, or the renewing of our emotions, but by the renewing of our minds. Transformation is an inherently mental activity.

Of course, much more could be said, but hopefully this brief intro is enough to lay it all out in broad terms. Here are a few key take-aways:

  • Apologetics is just a fancy word to describe a basic human activity of asking, “do I have good reason to believe this?”
  • Anybody who believes anything should have good reasons for their beliefs, so Apologetics is not limited to academic, intellectual type of people. It’s up to all of us.
  • A Biblical faith is necessarily a thoughtful faith. It asks questions. It seeks proof. God worked hard to persuade us through evidence, proof and reason, and we need to work hard to persuade others. That must be a foundational aspect of our evangelism as Christians.

I have a few other follow-up thoughts on this that I’ll put down in the future, but that’s enough for now.