by Elgin Hushbeck
Christian apologetics has its ups and downs. At times it is seen as a positive force defending the Christian faith against the attacks of critics. At other times it is seen in a far more negative light as trying to argue people into the kingdom, or even worse, arguing for argument’s sake. Most of the time it is just ignored. As the author of two books that hopefully fall in the positive-force category, (Evidence for the Bible and Christianity and Secularism), with a master’s degree in Christian Apologetics, and who has been doing this for several decades, I do consider myself to be a Christian apologist. As such, I would address the proper role for apologetics and how I believe it should be done.
First,I would agree that there is merit in these criticisms. I would certainly agree that apologetics can be misused, i.e., done incorrectly or for the wrong reasons, though I would quickly point out that the same could be said about most things. Just think what damage a pastor can do if not working as a true servant of God. 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.
I would also agree that we should not try to argue people into the kingdom of God and, in fact, I have consistently taught in my ministry that the role of apologetics is not to do this. 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 first part of this verse may be familiar to you. I would hope the second half would be equally familiar. Unfortunately often the “gently and respectfully” part gets left off. It should not as it is a key part.
There are practical reasons for doing apologetics 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 on the non-believer who builds walls of excuses so 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. What happens next it is between the person and the Holy Spirit.
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 someone 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. First 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.
Secondly, it opens up a dialogue and builds a relationship. I encourage people to be a safe place where those with questions can get answers; to be a person someone can ask a question to 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 than an event. A process 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 in some pretty intensive debates, but remaining respectful, even when my opponents were not. At times I would wonder to 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 afterward I would reflect on what they said and I now believe the Holy Spirit used those arguments to work on my heart. 2) As a Christian working with non-Christians, 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 blessed 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.
The Bottom line is that 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.