Running Heads

From the editors of Cascade Books and Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock Publishers

The dangers of apologetics

Apologetics, the defense of the faith, is an important activity but in my experience it is one that has many hidden dangers lurking in the nearby bushes. Indeed, apologetics can become a barrier to mission.

First, there is a danger of deciding the questions we feel people ought to be asking rather than looking at those they are asking. For instance, one student mission I was involved with was based around a set of evangelistic meetings that focused on issues such as, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?” and “Are the Gospels reliable?” Now these are important questions that require sensible answers but they were not burning issues for most of the students.

The opposite side of this coin is avoiding the questions that people actually are asking about the faith (e.g., why do you treat gay people badly? Why has Christianity inspired so much violence in its history?), perhaps because they are harder to answer in such a way that Christians come out looking good.

Second, at least in the mainstream, there is a tendency to give crass and simplistic solutions to genuine and complex issues. For instance, I have been in seminars in which we have been told ‘the answer’ to give if we’re asked why God allows suffering. The ‘answer’ we were provided was trivial nonsense. The impact of such ‘solutions’ on intelligent and sensitive people (Christian and non-Christian) is to reinforce the suspicion that Christian faith is stupid and callous.

Third, there is the danger of a ‘battle’ mindset descending upon Christian apologists, especially those who do know what they are talking about and can ‘wipe the floor’ with their opponents. I have seen very gracious atheists brutally demolished and mocked in debates. Such apologetics is utterly counter-productive. As Kierkegaard says, this intellectualist approach, which thinks ‘Christianity is an objective doctrine and it makes no difference how it is served, . . . has abolished Christianity.’

Fourth, the pressure created by apologetic contexts is that we feel that we have to go in to discussions with non-believers with the answers all pinned down, closed to the possibility that we might learn something new. (Even Alpha with its healthy encouragement of open conversation has over-prescribed end-points for the discussions.)

Fifth, there is a tendency in some circles to think that the route to faith is an intellectual one. The problem with a faith that lives on brain alone is that it is ever vulnerable to the latest fads in the academy. One man I knew became a Christian because of apologetic arguments but his faith thereafter was one crisis after another depending on which book he had just read.

Do not misunderstand me; I am committed to a reflective and informed faith and to attempting to offer intelligent and helpful answers to genuine questions. And I believe apologetics can play a role in the journey to faith. One of my students, a very bright atheist, spent a lot of time carefully considering the arguments for and against Christianity. In the end, he had an unexpected existential encounter with Christ during his revision but the credibility of the arguments for Christianity played a ground-clearing role in making faith a live possibility. But, when apologetics goes bad (by giving the wrong answers or the right answers in the wrong way or to the wrong people or at the wrong time) it does more harm than good.

The key apologetic for Christianity—far more important than knowing the right answers to hard questions—is love. Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive and are themselves evidence (not proof) of the truth of the gospel.

‘[T]he life of the church is its witness. The witness of the church is its life. The question of authentic witness is the question of authentic community’ (Norman Kraus).

I myself became attracted to Christianity because of the quality of relationships I witnessed among members of a Christian youth group. Without that I would never have been open to consider any attempts to show the intellectual integrity of the faith.

Intellectual apologetics embedded in the context of lives committed to God’s love for the other is a beautiful and fitting adornment. But apologetics divorced from lives of love is like a gold ring in the nose of a pig. Apologetics is never just about being right; first and foremost it is about living right.

21 Comments

  1. Thank you. This is a good read. The problem is really with certain type of apologetics—either irrelevant or insensitive! But I’m afraid that a write-ups like this, after pointing to what apologetics shouldn’t do/be, should also point out ‘what shape apologetics might take today’ lest we make ‘apologetics’ the new thing we ‘evangelicals’ love to hate!

  2. Damn, I wish I’d written this post, both comprehensive and concise. Superb. It deserves dissemination, so I hope it gets lots of links.

  3. Varughese

    Hi. I hope that nobody reading this would take it as an excuse to hate apologetics. As you say, it is a critique of bad apologetics. I hope that I am clear that I am in favour of apologetics so long as it is (a) a manifestation of love, and (b) has intellectual credibility and sincerity. And I have no doubt that a lot of apologetics is that. But … well, you know.

    Pax

    Robin

  4. Kim

    shucks, I’ve gone all shy.
    Thanks

  5. Very good; while, as one writer has said, “the heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects as false”, Jesus also said that the world would know both that we are his and that he is God’s because we love one another. We are, as those who bear God’s image, both rational and emotional creatures, and both of those seemingly conflicting facets of our nature must be convinced.

  6. Amen. Thanks for this. This is inspiring and very helpful.

  7. I really like what you said about “there is a tendency in some circles to think that the route to faith is an intellectual one.” I teach an Apologetics class at a local Christian High School. I have noticed over the years that students don’t respond well to intellectual arguments about faith. But, what they do respond to is stories. Stories about faith. Stories about love. As I think about this I can’t help but think of how God reveled himself to his creation. He did it in Story. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt he didn’t take them on an expedition to find Noah’s ark, and thus prove to them it was real. Instead he gave them a story they could read and live. And then asked them to accept it on faith.

  8. This is fantastic, Robin. As Kim said, I wish I’d written this post. My own version, written a long time ago, is not nearly so concise, but I think comes to the same conclusion: the reason many students are repelled by religious traditions is the example of religious adherents, rather than a lack of intellectual arguments.

    As someone who worked with college students for a long time, I struggle with knowing to what extent, practically speaking, we should be engaged in the apologetic debate. Certainly, as you point out, the apologetic movement does serve a useful function. At the same time, and I particularly like how you put this, there are “many dangers lurking in the nearby bushes.” Do you have any suggestions for how to engage the apologetic game productively, or even better change the game so that it’s safer for all?

  9. The only gospel a lot of people are likely to read is you and me. We are, for good or ill, walking talking representations of the Christian faith that will have a positive, neutral or negative impact on the people we come across. Chances are that they – and particularly those we get to know well – will be far more influenced by who we are, how we treat them and the things we do than the things we say. That’s not to provide a cop-out, saying that the defence of the faith doesn’t matter, intellectual arguments are not to be engaged with, and our words are important. That would be daft.
    But, as has been said, *most* people are not outside the Christian faith because they remain unconvinced it is true. They haven’t seen living examples that provide a compelling enough reason to investigate it.
    Any re-invigoration of apologetics has to be rooted in a rediscovery of genuine discipleship, and a Christian community that is welcoming, loves its neighbour and models the Kingdom. Then we’ll have a great time fielding the questions prompted by the lives we live.

  10. ‘ In the end, he had an unexpected existential encounter with Christ ….’

    Really?

    How?

    I thought Jesus was trapped inside a physical, resurrected body and so if he appeared to people, it had to be in a bodily form.

    Can people really have visions of Jesus?

  11. In my experience , if you scratch a fundamentalist, you will find the character of the Jesus of the Gospels underneath the skin.

  12. When asked, the Christian should explain why he/she has Faith in the God of the Bible and His Plan of Salvation. But Christian “Apologists” should never engage in justifying why an Atheist or any Unbeliever should abandon his/her belief in the absence or the non-existence of God… Arguments can change Minds but only God’s Holy Spirit has the power to change Hearts. Please read 2 Peter: 15-17. Blessings!

  13. When asked, the Christian should explain why he/she has Faith in the God of the Bible and His Plan of Salvation. But Christian “Apologists” should never engage in justifying why an Atheist or any Unbeliever should abandon his/her belief in the absence or the non-existence of God… Arguments can change Minds but only God’s Holy Spirit has the power to change Hearts. Please read 2 Peter: 15-17… Blessings!

  14. Jonathan is correct.

    Romans 9:18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

    Only God has the power to harden hearts.

  15. Great post. The section about a “battle mindset” is something that I have to watch. Sometimes in the heat of the conversation, it is easy to possess a “take no prisoners” mindset. I heard Greg Koukl give some great advice concerning this. He said, “Do not respond immediately. Take your time. Cool off and then respond. Do not think you have to respond to every objection, either.” Although it is difficult for me, I have found that waiting is much better (yet I still struggle with this element from time to time, too). Great post!

  16. Amen! Very well put. Thank you!

  17. Thanks y’all for all your helpful comments

  18. Great post. A group of people got ahold of a similar post I did on apologetics (though I wasn’t as polite as you), and discussed it on Facebook. It was little frustrating reading their comments because I couldn’t comment on that thread.

    I posted a link to this post because yours is longer and more on the subject of apologetics, rather than apologists.

    This was well said and important.

  19. Apologetics on one hand can be used as a good tool and on the other hand be very deeply misleading. Here is an example that you did not mention. There was a popular book about being careful what your doctor teaches. Written by a mainstream Apologetic I wont mention. But It was way off on several toppics and pretty much supported modern medicine as Godly and preventive medicine as Satanic. Some things you could agree with and other things you could tell they had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. This is a shame. They supported the true Satanic way by encouraging modern pharmacopeia and practices wich has its roots in control of the masses and was pushed and owned by Rockefeller . Its ok for them as long as its a “legitimate” doctor who prescribes your poison, but dont take those vitamins and herbs your dabbling in witchcraft! Lol

  20. Don’t get me wrong I like apologetics as long as they are correct. Isn’t that the point? So we need another form of apologetics as a watchdog for apologetics! Lol funny but true. Cause there is a lot of “humans” writing books and putting there own “opinions” on scripture. You got to be real careful if your going to do this!! This happens a lot! Be careful and triple check what they say both with the Bible and with fact checking. You could be eating some guys opinion. Some things are good when in the proper use such as herbs, vitamins and electric medicine.(depending) And of course bad if your using them to conjure spirits and stuff. But a ton of Christians some how confuse the two as the same. At the same time I see pastors seeing nothing wrong with taking opiates for there aches and pains and maybe for a little more as long as its prescribed by a “legitimate” doctor! We just need to be clear on things. And don’t demonize something less harmful and over look something that can be very harmful like prescriptions. This toppic was on medicine,but the same goes for everything apologetics. I know this because my best freinds dad is in the ministry of apologetics and I love him and most of his material is spot on ,but occasionally there are a few materials or books that go beyond facts. And he is one of the old timers that puts way to much trust in modern medicine. Just keep your eyes on Jesus. Things are going to get more and more confusing naturally since we are infact living in the end times.

  21. I found all the arguments in this article all valid points. Yet, in some way I feel the author misses the whole point of apologetics. He seems to warn us to stay away from it altogether, instead of encouraging proper use. It ‘s like saying we should not engage because there are too many dangers. This seems unproductive and antithetical to how God created us. Why do we have the Gospels(story) and epistles (reason). We would never tell an explorers to not venture beyond uncharted territory because its too dangerous. I would encourage all to read a great article by Ravi Zacharias artical “An apologetic for Apologetics” http://rzim.org/just-thinking/an-apologetic-for-apologetics

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