Christian apologetics: Kicking ass for Jesus. (Don’t!)

by K.W. Leslie, 01 September
APOLOGY e'pa.le.dzi noun. Justification for one’s behavior, theory, or religious belief; usually in form of a logical argument.
[Apologetic'dzet.ik adjective, apologist e'pa.le.dzist noun.]
APOLOGETICS'dzet.iks noun. The study and use of logical arguments to defend [usually religious] beliefs.

Years ago a pastor introduced me to a visitor to our church thisaway: “He knows a lot about apologetics.”

“Well, theology,” I corrected him.

’Cause at the time this pastor didn’t really recognize much of a difference between theology and apologetics. In fact a lot of Christians don’t. Theology is what we know about God. Apologetics tends to be based on those beliefs, and regularly argues in favor of them. But ’tain’t the same thing.

Yeah I actually do know a lot about Christian apologetics. Before I studied theology, it’s what my church taught me. Started in high school. My youth pastor (same as a lot of undereducated youth pastors whose job is to babysit the teens, not actually pastor us), wasn’t all that solid in theology anyway. But his youth pastor taught him Christian apologetics, and in college he got into apologetics-heavy ministries. So he taught what he knew. And it turns out lots of youth groups get taught apologetics instead of theology. ’Cause kids already wanna argue and debate… so why not lean into it?

So I learned all the standard arguments in favor of Christ and the bible. And now I can fight anybody!

Let me emphasize that word again: FIGHT.

If you’re a brawler, if you love to argue, apologetics gives you full permission to indulge. It’s why the practice is so very popular. Apologists even claim it’s a form of spiritual warfare: They’re battling false beliefs! They’re striking down lies and half-truths and misrepresentations and faulty logic! They’re contending for the kingdom!

True, they’re totally contending. With other people.

St. Paul explicitly said our fight isn’t with flesh and blood. Ep 6.12 We’re fighting spiritual forces and devilish ideas. But that passage about God’s armor is about fighting the forces which lead us to sin. Not fighting other people. Not fighting nontheists and antichrists who have no intention whatsoever of turning to Jesus. Jesus himself told his students to shake the dust off their feet at such people and move on. But Christian apologists don’t obey Jesus: They just keep fighting, and claim maybe some of this arguing is “planting seeds.”

Fighting, argumentativeness, making enemies, quarrels, and factions are works of the flesh. Ep 5.20 Christians should know this already, and back away from any form of Christian apologetics which descends into verbal brawls. But too many Christian apologists do no such thing. They figure the ends—y’might win someone for Christ!—justify their fruitless means.

Hence Christian apologetics is a field that’s full of abuse. Too many apologists can’t keep their emotions and temper in check. Too many of ’em love to belittle their opponents, mock their intelligence, tear ’em down, or call ’em evil and devilish instead of just mistaken or misguided. Too many of ’em love to win a debate—so much so, they’ll ditch the logic they claim to uphold if it’ll make ’em feel they’ve scored a point. Too many of ’em will even claim things that simply aren’t so, or use false testimonies, false information, and bear false witness, just to win.

There’s a lot of unchristlike behavior in Christian apologetics. It’s why I gotta warn you away from getting mixed up in it. It’s produced way too many Christian jerks. Don’t become another one!

We don’t get a free pass just because we’re “fighting for Jesus.” In fact engaging in such behavior alienates the people we fight. It makes enemies. Makes ’em more bitter and resentful, and drives them even further away from Jesus, repentance, and the kingdom. We’re unwittingly doing the work of the wrong side.

So no, I’m not into apologetics. I’m into theology. I stick to what the scriptures have to say about God, how our God-experiences and the scriptures confirm one another, and the importance of being fruity like Jesus wants. And then I take questions.

I don’t wanna create yet another Christian know-it-all who’s eager to go slap down some naysayers.

“No! Apologetics is really important!”

Whenever I say such things around Christians who consider themselves apologists, obviously they’re gonna push back. Because it’s human nature to justify ourselves. We don’t wanna be evildoers, and if it ever turns out that’s what we are, our knee-jerk reaction isn’t to repent and stop doing it; it’s to say, “Nuh-uh! I’m being good! You’re the evildoer!” Although we won’t always phrase it like a four-year-old; we have bigger vocabularies now.

So Christian apologists are quick to point to how they’re not jerks; they’re simply correcting those who’ve gone wrong. And I’m the jerk for tolerating error.

Awright look. There’s a time and place for everything, Ec 3.1 including a time to take apart a bad idea. (I’m doing it right now.) And yes, there is actually a time and place for apologetics! We’re meant to use logic and reason to detect, and reject, error.

We find the practice all over the bible. All over the Prophets, all over the Apostles, every time Jesus had to correct Pharisees. Loads of people get the wrong idea about God. Often dishonestly, but sometimes honestly—they were led astray by some wrong-headed people. It’s not gonna be enough to simply quote bible verses at them, because they’ve learned to misinterpret these verses, so quoting bible isn’t gonna get us very far. We gotta show them where they’ve logically gone wrong: The verses can’t mean what they claim they do.

The ancient Christians, the “church fathers,” kept the practice up. Most of their letters correct various churches about inaccurate beliefs and heresies which crept into Christendom. In the 150s, St. Justin of Flavia Neaplois (or as we usually call him, Justin Martyr) wrote his Apologia to rebut gnostics, and wrote his Dialogue with Trypho to rebut Pharisees. A lot of Christian apologists point to Justin as the first apologist… but that’s largely ’cause they think of apologetics as debating unbelievers, not correction.

And most of that correction needs to be directed towards fellow Christians. Not pagans.

Because, duh: Pagans don’t follow Jesus! How’s the Holy Spirit meant to convict them they’re wrong, when they don’t yet have the Holy Spirit? First things first: Lead ’em to Jesus!

Outside of Justin, most ancient Christians limited their logical arguments, rightly so, to fellow Christians. For the purpose of exhorting and correcting us. ’Cause there are way too many feel-good statements and beliefs we Christians follow, and spread… and get God so wrong y’may as well be speaking of Odin or Zeus. We need to test everything! Christianity isn’t based on wishful thinking or happy thoughts. It’s about knowing and trusting Christ Jesus: His teachings, his ministry, his character, his death and resurrection, his power through the Holy Spirit, and his return to set up his kingdom.

So it’s nice to know (via Romans) that grace and forgiveness and redemption through Jesus, are logically consistent with the Old Testament. It’s nice to know why the bible isn’t mere mythology—that it’s confirmed by history and archeology. It’s nice to know centuries of clever people have taken Christianity seriously; it’s not just a crutch for fools. Apologetics, done properly, encourages the faithful.

But like a nail gun, apologetics can build… and apologetics can shoot holes into our competitors. And you don’t use it for that second thing.

Letting kids play with the nail gun.

Like I said, my own introduction to Christian apologetics came in high school.

Young people have loads of questions. ’Cause they’re trying to figure out how to be Christian in a world which feels like it’s pulling ’em every other which way; or they have no questions, ’cause they’re pretty sure they know it all. (It should come as no surprise to you I was in the know-it-all crowd.)

To answer our questions, our youth pastor kept referring to well-known youth pastor Josh McDowell, author of Evidence That Demands a Verdict—one of the most popular texts in the Christian apologetic field. If you have questions, McDowell has answers! And if you memorize all the answers in Evidence, you too can answer everybody's questions. To know-it-alls like me, this was a godsend. Bought the books, sucked ’em down, and started debating everybody I knew.

But knowledge without love is noise. 1Co 13.1 Ministry without love is toxic. So apologetics, in the hands of a little bully like me who only wanted to pick fights and win, doesn’t accomplish anything we hope it will. I figured I could now win every debate I ever entered.

I figured wrong. See, there are skeptics and there are cynics. Skeptics question everything ’cause they’re searching for truth, and know better than to believe everything they hear. You’ll get somewhere with a skeptic. But more often you find cynics, who question everything ’cause they don’t believe in anything, and aren’t searching for truth; they don’t think it exists. Or they figure they already know it, and aren’t getting it from you, ’cause you’re full of crap. And people don’t know the difference between skeptics and cynics. Especially when cynics claim they’re really skeptics.

Non-Christians fall into both these categories: Some are searching for truth, and would be happy to find it in Christ, but haven’t yet. Others figure they know it all… and are happy to fight us. They’re not searching for truth; they only wanna prove us wrong and take us down. You wanna fight? They’d love to fight!

My dad’s an atheist. He’s not atheist because he followed any facts to that conclusion: He’s atheist because it works for him. He doesn’t have to answer to God; he can do as he pleases. Instead of Christian apologetics, he practices atheist apologetics: Logical arguments to justify a godless universe, as opposed to a God-centered one.

Christian apologetics taught me how to knock down basic atheist arguments. Better-educated atheists than Dad taught me much, much better atheist arguments; ones that’ll really horrify your average Christian apologist. (I learned how to knock those down too. Tell you later.) So any time Dad wants to challenge my beliefs, he’s a really easy victory for me. But once I win, does Dad concede and embrace Jesus? Nah. Because surrender’s not an option.

Be fair: Do we consider surrender an option? If an atheist really tears our reasoning to shreds, do we accept their premises and embrace atheism?

…Okay yeah, some of us totally have, and became the biggest pagans ever. I’ve known a few. But more often we’ll figure, “Okay, you beat me this time. But you’re wrong. You gotta be wrong. So I’m gonna go study some more, and next time you’re going down, not me.”

We’re like Ultimate Fighting contestants who really want that belt back. Losing one battle doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war. Never surrender.

And many an atheist, many a Muslim, many a Jehovah’s Witness, and just about anybody we debate with apologetic arguments, has the very same attitude. They’re not gonna surrender either. We think we won, but inwardly every fight is a draw.

Yes, some apologists will claim they actually convinced someone to accept Jesus. Nope. What’s actually the case is the Holy Spirit had been working on ’em on the side, using entirely different tactics, for some time already. We used fiery darts; he used loving kindness. We might’ve witnessed their very last argument with the Spirit, where they finally gave up and repented; and we arrogantly think we brought that about. Nah; we were just in the room at the time.

But do you remember what originally won you over? Did you come to Jesus because you were argued into it?

…Really? None of you? Not a one? Gee. Wonder what lesson we might take from that?

You don’t eat a bowl of oregano.

Think of these intellectual defenses of Christianity as spices.

We don’t pick fights with pagans, then try to brute-force ’em into believing in Jesus. That’s wholly inappropriate. We don’t fight, we don’t argue, we don’t battle. We share. We give our testimonies: “Here’s my experience with Jesus.” Here’s what I’ve seen and heard. Here’s what I’ve done. Here are the miracles the Holy Spirit empowered me to see and do. Here are the things which prove God to me. My experience isn’t yours. But I invite you to take a look at Jesus for yourself, and see whether you don’t wind up having mighty similar experiences.

Once we share the gospel like this, sometimes apologetics will come up. A pagan might claim she heard the Jesus in the scriptures is way different from historical Jesus. In those cases I gotta clear up her misconceptions. A lot of times that’s all they are: She heard some rumors, and she wants to hear a Christian’s point of view. But sometimes she wants to argue her point of view—and I’m not there to get into a fight, and I say so. I’m only presenting facts. If she won’t accept information from me, I can’t help her. She doesn’t want my help anyway. And we should know better than to give holy things to those who won’t appreciate them. Mt 7.6

But if she does wanna be set straight, I know better than to spend the rest of our discussion talking about historicity instead of Jesus. Like I said, apologetics are like spices. When your taco needs Tapatio, you don’t empty the bottle into it. When your pasta sauce needs oregano, you don’t dump the whole container into it. Doesn’t matter how much you like soy sauce; you don’t drink it! These are condiments, not courses. They work best in small doses. Sometimes very small.

’Cause Jesus is the point, and apologetics is a sidetrack. Don’t waste their time sharing an intellectual argument. Use it to share him. They need a relationship with him. The argument… well, it may not work for them. But that’s okay. Get them to Jesus, and let the Holy Spirit work on their doubts.

And once they’re following Jesus, then we can talk apologetics. Then we can support their faith with evidence and logic and history and archaeology and all this stuff. Although I should point out: Personal experience with the Spirit’s power does far more to quiet doubts than any clever argument. That’s what demolishes the best atheist apologetics; not better arguments.