Is Apologetics Really Needed? Answering Objections to Apologetics

Paul in Athens 4Apologetics, the study and practice of defending the Christian faith, has always been a part of the historical church. In fact, it dates back to the New Testament when the Apostle Paul entered the Greek city of Athens and debated the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (see Acts 17). The Apostle Peter even commanded his readers to always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15; NASB). Defending the faith continued on after the apostolic era with Christian theologians and philosophers developing arguments for God’s existence, defending miracles, and providing good reasons to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he was raised from the dead. Even today, especially in the last several decades, Apologetics continues to thrive as apologists like William Lane Craig and the popular Lee Strobel develop and write about the arguments and reasons for faith in God and Christ.

But Apologetics has not been without its critics. Some from the Reformed wing of Christianity, like Cornelius Van Till and those who followed his line of thinking, have been especially harsh toward the practice of Apologetics. Their main contention is that unbelievers have no ability to reason appropriately and thus cannot reason to the existence of God and belief in Christ. This opinion is based upon the theological doctrine of total depravity and bondage of the will—the idea that the rationality and will of unbelievers are entirely distorted—even destroyed—by sin.

Others also object to the practice of Apologetics but for different reasons. Some in my Christian tradition (i.e., the Restoration Movement) have qualms with the enterprise. For example, the apologetic argument known as the “moral argument” has been criticized for “not working” with unbelievers.[1] One author claims she has seen apologetics replace “grace and love,” essentially becoming a practice in “name-calling” and “mud-slinging.”[2] It is simply an exercise in arguing with unbelievers. Still others view apologetics as ineffective because “God doesn’t need to be defended” or “people do not come to faith in Christ through arguments.”

These objections, however, are a misunderstanding of the objective of apologetics, and they are not good objections themselves. The following is a brief look at the more common objections to the study and practice of Apologetics. As we will see, they are not good reasons to abandon Apologetics.

“You Can’t ‘Prove’ that God Exists”

Oftentimes, some object to Apologetics because they misunderstand its objective and what it is as a discipline. Some have dismissed Apologetics out-of-hand because they believe it is about “proving” that God exists or that Jesus is the Son of God. But most apologists today, and quite a few throughout church history, do not believe it is about “proving” the existence of God. Why? Because “proof” is too strong a word. What constitutes as “proof” varies from one person to another. Moreover, if an argument for God’s existence, for example, were a “proof,” then unbelievers everywhere would be immediately converted after being presented with the evidence. Obviously, this is not the case. Apologetics is not about “proving” anything. Rather it is about providing evidence that shows why belief in God (and ultimately the Christian faith) is reasonable, or rational.

“Apologetics is About Arguing with Unbelievers”

ArguingOthers believe that Apologetics is about “arguing people into the faith.” The picture that comes to mind is an ugly Facebook conversation in which a Christian comments to an unbeliever that he is an irrational person if he does not believe in God and that he does not want to believe because he is stubborn, foolish, and ignorant. But, again, this is not Apologetics. Does Apologetics use arguments? Yes, but this is not the same as quarrelling, name-calling, or mud-slinging. Arguments in the context of Apologetics is the practice of laying out premises (often numbered for easy reference) with evidence and ending with a conclusion. For example, the kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence looks like this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

(1) and (2) are the premises of the argument, and (3) is the conclusion that must follow if (1) and (2) are true. This is what an apologetic argument is. Quarrelling or fighting (and even emotive language) with unbelievers is to be avoided. Apologetics is simply the study and practice of defending the Christian faith and showing why belief in the Christian faith is reasonable by using evidence and good arguments.

Apologetics, then, is useful in leading people to belief in God. By using evidence and good arguments, Christians have led unbelievers to faith in God and Christ. In this sense, unbelievers have been “argued into the kingdom.” One thinks of C. S. Lewis and Lee Strobel as just a few examples. Even the late atheist Anthony Flew became a believer in God (unfortunately, not in Christ) before his death through apologetic arguments, particularly the design argument. (See the book here for Flew’s story.)

“God Doesn’t Need Defending”

God DefenderOne popular objection to Apologetics is that God does not need anyone to defend him. God is sovereign and almighty; he does not need anything from anyone or anything. At the surface, this argument sounds pious. But what exactly does it mean that God does not need defending? Is this what Apologetics is about? No, not at all. Apologetics is about giving reasons why Christians believe what they do. It is also an attempt to clear away objections believers have for faith in Christ in order to allow faith to arise in the unbeliever. Apologists do not defend God; they give reasons to believe in God and Christ.

Why, then, is there so much talk about “defending” the faith in apologetic circles? Even the well-known apologist William Lane Craig has a Sunday school class named “Defenders.” The word “defense” comes from the Greek word apologia, and it is found in 1 Peter 3:21: “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always beingready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (NASB; emphasis mine). The word “defense” (apologia) was used in Greek times to refer to the reasoned response by an attorney to deflect accusations against his client. As used in 1 Peter, apologia conveys the idea that Christians ought to give a reasoned response for the hope they have in Christ when they are asked. Thus, the objection that “God doesn’t need defending” misfires. God is not being defended by apologists per se; they are defending their beliefs in light of unbeliever’s objections and accusations. They are giving a reasoned response for believing what they do.

“Apologetics is Contrary to ‘Faith’”

Faith and ReasonAnother popular objection to Apologetics is that it is “contrary to faith.” The idea is that if Christianity is shown to be reasonable, then it leaves no room for faith. Faith will be jettisoned as pure head-knowledge takes up residence in its place. Belief, then, becomes cold and non-relational. Faith is no longer faith; it is merely a text book of “facts.”

This objection, however, fails. It assumes that faith is merely a feeling or belief in something without any evidence. This is what is known as fideism, blindly believing by a sheer act of will. Fideism is an unsatisfactory foundation for belief in God and Christ. It asks the unbeliever to believe and put trust in something without giving any evidence of its existence in reality. The Christian may as well ask the unbeliever to believe in little green men who live on the dark side of the moon. In fact, with faith defined as such, it would be justified to believe in just about anything because no evidence of its existence is required.

Surely fideism is an irresponsible position to take. Certainly we would like to believe in something based upon good evidence. To be sure, what counts as “evidence” would be debatable, but to believe in something that has absolutely no evidence takes us into the realm of irrationality, like believing in little green men. As the Christian philosopher and apologist J.P. Moreland points out, “Faith is relying on what you have reason to believe is true and trustworthy.”[4] Moreover, what Christian would say he only has “faith” that Christ was raised from the dead, not that he knows he was raised from the dead? Hopefully, a Christian would affirm both: he has faith and knows that Christ was raised from the dead. And to know something requires reason, or justification, of belief.

“Apologetics Doesn’t Work”

Some believe that Apologetics does not “work” with unbelievers. For example, Jonathan Williams relays how he attempted to persuade an atheist of God’s existence by using the moral argument.[5] Unfortunately, his atheist friend did not find his argument very strong and continued to reject theism. According to Williams, this shows that apologetics just does not “work.”

What does it mean that Apologetics doesn’t “work?” Work for what? Work for whom and for what purpose? Perhaps those who believe Apologetics does not work have the incorrect assumption that unbelievers ought to be converted immediately upon hearing apologetic arguments. But why should this be assumed? Scripture clearly indicates that unbelievers suppress the truth that God exists in their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18ff). Many unbelievers simply do not want to believe; it is an issue of the will. And why should anyone think that an unbeliever will give up his worldview so easily? Moreover, just because an unbeliever does not immediately believe in God does not mean he will never believe or never consider the argument further at a later time. To say that “Apologetics doesn’t work” is just too short-sighted, expects too much from the unbeliever and the arguments given for belief, and underestimates the impact that such arguments may have on an unbeliever.

“You Can’t Reason with an Unbeliever”

Finally, some believe that Christians cannot reason with unbelievers. Their reasoning and will are entirely corrupted by sin and they are therefore wholly opposed to him. Apologetics, then, is a bankrupt enterprise—it is an attempt to reason with someone who cannot do so.

Is it true that unbelievers’ will and rationality are so distorted by sin that they cannot reason? Although sin permeates the entire unbeliever’s worldview and person, there is no biblical evidence that the unbeliever cannot be reasoned with and persuaded to believe in God. In fact, Scripture is replete with the call for unbelievers to “repent.” If they cannot repent, then such a call is irrelevant and pointless. Additionally, Scripture records the Apostle Paul reasoning with the unbelieving Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in attempt to persuade them to believe in God and the Resurrection (see Acts 17). If believers cannot reason with unbelievers, then it seems very odd that we see this occurring in Scripture—by an apostle, nonetheless.

Blaise PascalThe issue here is not that unbelievers cannot reason and be persuaded by apologetic arguments for belief in God and Christ. It is obvious from Scripture that they can. The issue is whether an unbeliever has a disposition to believe or disbelieve. Blaise Pascal once stated, “[God] so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[5] In other words, some unbelievers simply do not want to believe and thus God’s existence will be obscure to them. In this case, apologetics may be effective at showing the unbeliever’s objections to be mere excuses, and it slowly picks away at the foundation of the unbeliever’s disbelief. Some unbelievers, however, are more open to listening to arguments for belief. In this case, apologetic arguments can and often have been effective in leading some to belief. Experience itself shows this to be true, as in the case of C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel as well as many others.

Ultimately, then, popular objections to Apologetics are really not that good. Most, if not all, are based upon a misunderstanding of the nature of Apologetics or rationality itself. Apologetics ought to be practiced by every believer in order to lead the unbelieving world to Christ. May we all be faithful in giving good reasons for why believe what we believe so that others may be persuaded to believe!

Grace,
Peter

Notes:

[1] Jonathan Williams, “Failure to Convince” Christian Standard June 20, 2014; online http://christianstandard.com/2014/06/failure-to-convince/
[2] Casey Tygrett, “This is MY Story” Christian Standard June 21, 2014; online http://christianstandard.com/2014/06/this-is-my-story/
[3] J. P. Moreland, Love Your God with All Your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul, 25-26.
[4] Ibid., 60.
[5] Williams, “Failure to Convince.”
[6] Pascal, Pensees, #430.

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4 Responses to Is Apologetics Really Needed? Answering Objections to Apologetics

  1. Chad Laughrey says:

    Dr. Rasor,
    I was wondering if I could get your take on some of the more philosophical rejections of apologetics by the folks over in Cambridge and other theological think-tanks that fuel many moderate and liberal seminaries. For instance, Radical Orthodoxy proponents reject apologetics because they claim there is no need to justify confessional truth claims to an epistemology of autonomous reason which is undergirded by an ontology that denies divine participation (secularism). Likewise, James K. A. Smith declares, “The project of apologetics—especially “classical apologetics”—must be seen as an illegitimate project, illegitimate not because of its goal of witness or proclamation but because of its mode.” They argue that secularism came about by the philosophy of a univocal ontology introduced just prior to the Enlightenment. They argue that there is no void or space between the Creator and His creation to allow for a “secular rationalism” and the dualism which comes from the result of that presupposition. There is no such thing as a “universal, natural, unaided human reason” but only true and false worship. What are your thoughts on this critique of apologetics?

    • prasor says:

      Thanks, Chad, for reading my blog and engaging this discussion. I am not an expert in Radical Orthodoxy (RO), but I know a little about it. That being said, it seems to me that the RO thought that there is no “universal reason” as such is false. It seems that the very thing RO criticizes (that a “split” in rationality occurred, i.e., secular and theological) is what they have ultimately done: they, through their analysis, have made a distinction between two “rationalities.” I do not think Christian philosophers/theologians have done this throughout church history, whether it is Aquinas or a Descartes sort. In my view (and quite ironically, Aquinas’ view, I believe), there is only one rationality. (Otherwise, why would Aquinas use “unaided human reason” for his 5 Ways?) This rationality, it seems to me, is due to being created in the image of God. Our rationality is a reflection of The (divine) rationality. I think Aquinas was correct here: human rationality is analogical to God’s (not univocal), as well as other human and divine attributes. So, the project of classical apologetics seems legit: it is using human reason (is there anything else other than just one human reason? Me thinks not) to show the existence of God to those who are suppressing the this truth in unrighteousness. Whence differing conclusions by theologians and secularists? It is not due to differing “rationalities” as if they have their own ontological existence; it is due to misuse of rationality (suppressing the truth in unrighteousness). Aquinas even observed this. As a side note, I take “unaided human reason” to be reason as uninformed by special revelation (as Aquinas himself even seems to define it–and other “classical” Christian philosophers and apologists). I hope this makes sense and answers your question.

  2. Mitchell S Hutchins says:

    Well stated, Peter. Thank you for the article it is very informative and thoughtful. Many people use apologetics, not necessarily biblical apologetics, in everyday conversations but do not consider it so.
    God bless,
    Mitch

  3. Chad Laughrey says:

    Thank you for your reply!