How To Keep Apologetics in Perspective

As a mush-minded college student in the 1990s, I was haunted by a pesky question—What if someone just made it up? What if someone in a dark corner fabricated the story, people began to believe it, and now I’ve blindly accepted it? I wondered how I could know that the Jesus I believed was the Jesus of fact. I hadn’t a clue that I was wading into a long-debated epistemological-historical matter. I only knew that I had an honest question, and it haunted me. I didn’t ask friends or professors because I was a ministry major. My faith was supposed to be “stronger” than that.

A friend—who didn’t know what was happening—gave me a copy of Josh McDowell’s little book, More Than a Carpenter, ostensibly to help me witness to others. I devoured it in a single sitting. His development of C.S. Lewis’s “trilemma” had a way of cracking my assumptions, piercing my mind, and settling my soul. There are other (and arguably better) ways to approach it, but McDowell’s work removed a perceived intellectual barrier and somehow made me bold.

The Bad of Being Bold

My newfound boldness became my biggest problem. The following summer, I went to Yellowstone National Park as an Innovator Summer Missionary through what was then called the Home Mission Board of the SBC—with McDowell’s little book in my bag. I was there to work among park employees and share the gospel. In the employee cafeteria, I quickly jumped into conversations with agnostics, Mormons, and new agers—spelling out with precision the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. In the employee dorm, I began a “Bible study” that was really only a regurgitation of everything McDowell said.

It failed. Miserably. Eager conversations descended into heated arguments and a Bible study morphed into a weekly philosophy debate for which I was grossly ill-prepared. Called to be Christ’s witness, I tried to be his attorney, resulting in frustration and futility. I left my summer appointment feeling like a failure, knowing that I probably pushed more people away from Jesus than I attracted to him.

A Love/Hate Perspective

I love apologetics for what it can do for you, but I hate apologetics because of what it can do to you.

I love apologetics because it’s useful internally and defensively. Internally, apologetics can help the believer who has honest questions. Understanding the historical development of Scripture, seeing the evidence for Christ’s resurrection, and grasping the rationality of the Christian faith can help remove perceived barriers caused by bad assumptions and bald speculation. Defensively, apologetics provides answers when false accusations fly against Christianity.

I hate apologetics, though, because we expect too much of it. Sometimes a ministry major will take my introductory apologetics course anticipating something of a panacea—a final remedy for all intellectual tensions and the solution to effective evangelism. Then, the panacea begets a punk. The young apologist uses logical arguments to incite actual arguments in the residence hall, the cafeteria, or with unbelieving family at home—and experiences everything I did in the summer of 1996. Used without caution, apologetics can replace the passion of witness with the posture of an attorney.

Witness > Defense

Apologetics (defending the faith) is not the same as evangelism (sharing the gospel), and confusing them forces argument to accomplish what only the gospel can. Recently, a paper submitted by an openly agnostic student reminded me that while apologetics can be helpful, gospel witness transcends apologetic defense. This student read a hefty textbook. She debated her classmates. She wrote papers. She knew all the frameworks and angles. Yet, when charged with assessing the arguments for Christianity, she said,

The best defense for God is the conviction of people that follow him, and their enthusiasm and sincerity trumps any text on a page, any artifact in a desert, or any speculative philosophy. . . . Leading by example is the best way to draw people closer to Christianity.

Witness trumps defense, because unbelief isn’t a problem of a confused mind—it’s a problem of a rebellious heart. Apologetics can help with doubt but can’t solve unbelief. Only God can do that, which means it’s possible to win a debate and not move a soul. Our calling is Spirit-fired witness to our risen Lord. We use apologetics only insofar as it assists that work.