Kicking ass for Jesus. (Don’t.)

The use and misuse of Christian apologetics.

APOLOGY /e'pa.le.dzi/ n. A logical argument used to justify a behavior, theory, or religious belief.
[Apologetic /'dzet.ik/ adj., apologist /e'pa.le.dzist/ n.]
APOLOGETICS /'dzet.iks/ n. The study and use of logical arguments to defend [usually religious] beliefs.

“This is Leslie,” he said, introducing me to a new Christian he’d just met. “Leslie knows a lot about apologetics.”

“Well, theology,” I corrected him. (Among a certain Christian crowd, confusing theology for apologetics is a common mistake.)

I actually do know a bunch about Christian apologetics. Learned the field in high school; practiced it for years. I learned all the standard Christian arguments for the faith. And over time I got to know all the anti-Christian arguments, as presented me by real live intellectual anti-Christians. Arguments woefully left out of a lot of apologetics books and classes, which means they wind up blindsiding your average young overzealous apologist. Which, in the long run, is probably best. Overconfident Christians need to learn, sometimes the hard way, we don’t know it all. Jesus does, but we’re not him.

But apologetics is an area really rife with abuse. For every Christian who uses apologetic arguments to encourage fellow Christians about the solidity of our faith, there are about 50 who use them to get into verbal fights with skeptics and pagans.

Let me emphasize that word again: Fights. If you’re a brawler, if you love to argue, apologetics gives you a brilliant excuse to indulge. It’s why the practice is so common—and popular. Apologists claim it’s a form of spiritual warfare: They’re contending for the kingdom!

True, they are contending. With other people. Yet Paul explicitly said our fight isn’t with flesh and blood. Ep 6.12 We’re fighting spiritual forces and devilish ideas. I know, apologetics is supposedly all about how one idea—one rational argument—is more solid than another. It might start that way. But too often deteriorates into one person fighting another. Call it collateral damage or not; there’s still damage.

Argumentativeness, making enemies, anger, quarrels, and factions are all works of the flesh. Ep 5.20 And defending Jesus is no excuse for behaving in such ways. We don’t get a free pass just because we’re “fighting for Jesus.” In fact, engaging in such behavior alienates the people we’re fighting with, makes them more bitter and resentful, makes enemies of them, and drives them even further away from Jesus, repentance, and the kingdom. We’re unwittingly doing the work of the wrong side.

So when my discussions begin to fall apart into a debate, I shut ’em down. I don’t take issue with people who have honest questions, or think they found holes in my reasoning. But when they’re no longer trying to listen to and understand me, but defeat me: “You already have your mind made up,” I’ll point out. “So there’s no point. I’m done.”

Often they wanna argue further, and find it extremely frustrating when I quit. They try to goad me into continuing. They try insults, or claim the only reason I’m retreating is ’cause they’re winning. I try not to take the bait. I’m not gonna encourage their fruitless behavior.

So this is the sort of stuff I had no intention of teaching the newbie. Instead I stick to theology: I explain what the scriptures have to say about God, how our God-experiences and the scriptures confirm one another, the importance of the Spirit’s fruit, and I take questions. I don’t wanna create yet another Christian know-it-all who’s eager to go thump some naysayers.

When are apologetics appropriate?

There’s a time for everything. Ec 3.1 Including a time to take down a bad idea. Pagan as well as Christian. I’m doing it right now: I’m explaining why Christians need to treat apologetics as carefully as plutonium, and stop picking fights everywhere.

There’s one, and only one, purpose for apologetics. It’s to detect, and reject, error.

We find it all over the bible. All over the Prophets, all over the Apostles, every time Jesus had to correct the 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 quote bible verses at them: They’ve taken the verses out of context, so quoting more bible isn’t gonna get us very far. We have to show them they’ve logically gone wrong; that the verses can’t mean what they claim they do.

The church fathers kept it up. Most of their letters correct the churches about inaccurate beliefs which crept in. In the 150s, St. Justin of Flavia Neaplois (or as we often call him, Justin Martyr) wrote his Apologia to rebut the gnostics, and his Dialogue with Trypho to rebut the Pharisees. A lot of Christian apologists point to Justin as the first apologist… but that’s only when they limit their understanding of apologetics to debating with unbelievers.

But most apologetic arguments are presented, and should be limited, to fellow Christians—for the purpose of exhorting and correcting one another. There are a lot of feel-good statements and beliefs we Christians spread around. Some of them are solid, and some of ’em are shifting sand. Some of them bring us closer to God, and some of ’em get him so wrong we may as well be talking about Odin or Zeus. We need to test ’em all. Christianity isn’t based on wishful thinking and happy thoughts. It’s based on 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 the naïve. Apologetics, done properly, definitely encourages the faithful.

It’s just that Christian apologetics is like a nail gun. It’s meant to be used to build up the church, in love. But too many of us use it to shoot nails at our perceived opponents, in competition.

“Who let the kids play with the nail gun?”

My own introduction to Christian apologetics came in high school. If you’ve ever worked with youth, you know they either 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 provided 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.

Ever read this passage?—

1 Corinthians 13.1-3 KWL
1 When I speak in human and angelic tongues:
When I have no love, I’ve become the sound of a gong, a clanging symbol.
2 When I have a prophecy—“I knew the whole mystery! I know everything!”—
when I have all the faith necessary to move mountains:
When I have no love, I’m nobody.
3 Might I give away everything I possess?
Perhaps submit my body so I could be praised for my sacrifice?
When I have no love, I benefit nobody.

Ministry without love turns sour. And 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. A skeptic questions everything, ’cause they’re looking for truth, and know better than to believe everything they hear. You’ll get somewhere with a skeptic. But more often what you’ll find are cynics, those who question everything ’cause they doubt everything. They don’t expect to find truth. They either figure it’s unknowable… or they figure they already know it, and aren’t getting it from you, ’cause you’re full of crap.

Some of us Christians are, as we should be, skeptics: We’re searching for truth, and once we find it we stick to it. And some of us are cynics: We know best, and you can’t tell us otherwise.

And non-Christians fall into both those categories as well. Some of ’em are searching for truth, and would be happy to find it in Christ, but haven’t yet. Others figure they know it all. And they’re happy to fight us. They’re not searching for truth. They only wanna prove us wrong, and take us down. You wanna fight? They’re happy to fight—for all the good it’ll do either of us.

My dad’s an atheist. He’s not an atheist because he followed the facts to that conclusion. He’s an atheist because he wants to be an atheist. It works for him. He doesn’t have to answer to God; he can do as he pleases. He uses atheist apologetics: Logical arguments to justify a godless universe, as opposed to a God-centered one. Problem is, I learned those arguments from better-educated atheists than he. And I learned how to demolish ’em. Now, once I’ve knocked down all Dad’s dominoes, does he concede and embrace Jesus? Nah; surrender isn’t an option. He’ll simply fall back on the atheist’s ultimate statement of (un)faith: “There is no god!” And that’s that.

Be fair: If someone knocked down all our beliefs with some clever reasoning, would we accept their premise and embrace atheism? Okay yeah; some of us would rejoice and do exactly that, and become the biggest pagans ever. (I’ve known a few.) More of us would figure, “Okay, you beat me this time, but you’re wrong. You’ve gotta be wrong. I’m gonna go study up, and next time you’re going down.” We’re like mixed martial artists who really want that belt back. Losing one battle doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war. Never surrender.

Well, many a pagan has the very same attitude. They’re never gonna surrender either. All our fights will end up in a draw. We might win one of ’em to our side, from time to time… but what’s usually the case is the Holy Spirit has been working on ’em on the side, using entirely different tactics. Where we used fiery darts, he used loving kindness.

’Cause that, you might recall, is what originally won us 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.

When we share the gospel like this, sometimes apologetics will come up. A pagan will claim she heard the Jesus in the scriptures is way different from historical Jesus, and 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 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.