Lessons from a Combat Veteran
“Are you classical or presuppositional?” a pastor asked me, referring to the two major schools of thought in Christian apologetics.
The question irritated me, although I wasn’t yet sure if my irritation was justified. This is the kind of question I get from people who don’t do any actual apologetics. It typically comes from those who, while not in the arena themselves, nonetheless love to discuss it with the confidence of a man who has never been in battle.
“I just try to do what works,” I replied.
He frowned and then did what I knew he had been waiting to do: to lecture me on what he believed was the most effective way to defend the Christian faith.
In your debate on CNN with the Muslim, you should have said …”
Yup, irritation justified.
He was talking about a debate I had done as a last-minute request from CNN International based in London. Much to my disappointment, my opponent, a Baptist convert to Islam from North Carolina, was more hippie than Muslim.
“… Lennox’s mistake with Dawkins …”
He had now moved on to critiquing my friend John Lennox’s debate with atheist Richard Dawkins at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. I had both organized and chaired the debate. Lennox handled himself well in a high-pressure situation.
I interrupted. “Well, Jeopardy! is always easier at home on the couch.”
A comment that should have given him pause, did nothing of the sort. And that got me thinking: Christian apologetics are broken. We need new ones.
THE BIBLICAL CONCEPT
I recall a seminary president of some renown telling me that he did not believe in Christian apologetics when I was on his campus to, well, speak on Christian apologetics. That view is more than a little theologically problematic since Jesus clearly did believe in apologetics. So did the Prophets and the Apostles. Each made a case for the truth of the Gospel in one form or another in the marketplace of ideas.
The word “apologetics” comes from 1 Peter 3:15:
“… but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you …”
The word that is translated here as “defense” or, in other translations, as “answer,” is the Greek word apologia.
Paul expands on the idea in 2 Corinthians 10:5:
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
The concept, better yet, the principle, of apologetics is visible throughout Scripture. Whether it is Moses before Pharaoh, Elijah opposing the prophets of Baal, Jesus sparring with the Sadducees and Pharisees, or Paul engaging the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on the Areopagus, apologetics is not some obscure area of Christian endeavor. It is central to the faith of a believer living in obedience to the Lord. Christians are called to defend the hope that comes from having believed on the person and promises of Jesus Christ.
WHAT IS BROKEN
I have publicly debated antagonists of the Christian faith ranging from the late atheist icon Christopher Hitchens and Muslim cleric Zaid Shakir to Tuft’s cognitive scientist/atheist Daniel Dennett and Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer. These took place in venues such as Al Jazeera television, a packed Seattle Concert Hall, and a standing-room-only theater in Billings, Montana. Whether I acquitted myself honorably or not I leave to the judgment of my Lord.
In each instance, I felt a tremendous weight of responsibility. I would have seconds to answer difficult questions. There would be no do-overs. The potential for misstep, to put my foot in my mouth, was considerable. And it would all be filmed and rebroadcast. Any mistakes would be preserved as if in amber. The Al Jazeera debate was, they told us, aired across all of their platforms to a global audience of 260 million. And at last count, the Hitchens debate has 225,000 views. Such work is not for the fainthearted.
But these days, what too often counts for Christian apologetics is easy, as it is the exclusive domain of an elite class of professional apologists who, so far as I can tell, don’t do any real apologetics. Regarded as experts, they are brand names who make the rounds on the Christian lecture circuit selling their books and making mincemeat of this or that secular idea, agenda, or philosophy as their followers cheer them on.
Back when I did the speakers’ circuit, I recall listening to a popular Christian apologist who was giving a presentation on the atheist arguments of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Given what I have already said in this essay, you can well imagine that this topic interested me. With great confidence he slew one straw man and paper tiger after another to the joy of his audience.
The problem, however, was that I knew Richard and Christopher personally. I had heard them many times publicly and privately make the very arguments this man was grossly mischaracterizing, and I knew they would demolish him had he the nerve to engage either in an actual dialogue. This isn’t Christian apologetics. It isn’t equipping the faithful. It’s a show. It’s marketing. And it has created a Christian subculture of armchair apologists.
“Don’t try this at home”
Unfortunately, Christian apologetics has come to mean something like the 2014 hit film God’s Not Dead. When I was consulted about the proposed film, I said it was utterly unrealistic. A professor of philosophy surrenders several class periods to a student who proceeds to outwit him, forcing him to receive Jesus as his Savior? Not a chance. I’ll sooner believe a celestial farmer named Luke Skywalker blew up a Death Star. They, of course, ignored me and made millions. What do I know?
This is the prevailing notion of Christian apologetics. It is understood to be a kind of intellectual jujitsu. Those who do it are like God’s special forces, always ready with a devastating response to some interlocutor’s godless assertion. Quick on the draw, they gun down God’s enemies with witty retorts, irrefutable logic, and eloquent arguments. Apologetics is thought to be an island shrouded in mystery, occupied only by the enlightened few.
There are many problems with this view of apologetics, chief among them being that too many professional apologists like it. It creates a kind of exclusivity in their field where a warning is always implied: “Don’t try this at home.” Better leave it to us, the pros. But this is contrary to the spirit of biblical apologetics which is, like evangelism, something every Christian should be doing. You should try it at home. And at the office. And over the backyard fence.
This is not to say that there is no place for specialists or professionals. There most definitely is. Just as some are gifted evangelists, some are gifted apologists. Apollos seems to have been just such a man. We are told in Acts 18:28 that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.”
Nearer to our own time, C.S. Lewis was uniquely gifted in this field.
One can do as much damage to the Christian faith as good if he assumes a knowledge and an authority that he does not possess. Tim Keller and Russell Moore are among the worst, speaking as they do with great authority on topics—science, socialism, immigration, politics—where they possess no expertise whatsoever. Worse, their teaching these days frequently runs counter to Scripture. The damage done in each instance is considerable.
Frederick the Great, a clever military strategist, observed: “He who would defend all, defends nothing, because defense lines cover more ground than available troops can defend. Little minds want to defend everything; sensible men concentrate on the essentials.”
No one can defend the totality of Christian belief. A Christian apologist’s expertise—an apologist of anything—typically falls into narrow categories: the historicity of Christ, the authenticity of the manuscripts, inerrancy, science, sexuality, miracles, biblical violence, the Resurrection, and so on. Rather than trying to defend everything, focus on the essentials, and that begins with your story. I come back to I Peter 3:15:
“… always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you …”
You aren’t asked to defend the hope that is in me. No, can you defend the hope that is in you? Can you tell your story, how Jesus Christ changed your life? Can you defend that plot of ground? Over time, you might expand the territory you’re able to defend by developing some additional knowledge in another aspect of the faith. Till then, make it personal. Relate what He has done for you. That’s more powerful than Thomas Aquinas’s “Five Proofs for the Existence of God.” Because in my considerable experience, a refusal to receive Jesus Christ is never, at bottom, intellectual, and the moment you take it to a personal level one of two things happens: those who pursue these questions insincerely change the subject; those who are seeking eternity, listen carefully.
In John 4, we find the story of the woman at the well. I will not recount it in full here, but when Jesus moves the discussion with this Samaritan woman to the personal—“Go, call your husband …”—she ignores the request and, in an attempt to move it back to the impersonal, she asks his opinion on the most difficult theological question of the day: the right place of worship.
The personal is often uncomfortable, threatening. She tries to wriggle free. But Jesus would not be distracted. He dismisses the question, not because it is unimportant, but because his mission will render it irrelevant, and he goes straight to the heart of the matter: “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” This time, rather than trying to escape her discomfort, she surrenders. She is saved along with many in her village.
The Gospel is personal, not theoretical. Your apologetics must get there, one way or another. If the person to whom you speak doesn’t allow you to take it there, dust off your sandals and move on. Don’t chase people. No one was ever argued into the Kingdom of God.
The Wrong Strategy, The Wrong Battle
The horrific casualties of World War I can, in no small measure, be attributed to the fact that generals on both sides had not only been schooled in the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars, they were enamored with them. The American Civil War, Pickett’s Charge in particular, had demonstrated that the development and mass production of the rifle had rendered them obsolete. But European military schools ignored the lesson.
By 1914, technology had outpaced strategy by a full century. Infantry were still being trained to close quarters with the enemy and use their bayonets. Thus, when British soldiers were sent charging across No Man’s Land on the first day of the Somme, roughly 20,000 of them fell before a murderous weapon known as the Maxim machine gun. The bodies were piled so high that German machine gunners had to push the heaps over or mount their tripods on them to get a clear field of fire.
How do we explain the carnage wrought on the American church and God’s people in recent decades?
At bottom, of course, is a loss of confidence in not only the authority of Scripture, but its relevance. An aggressive and deeply corrosive secularism has done its work. This state of affairs may in part be attributed to a catastrophic failure in Christian apologetics. Apologists and professors of the subject are mostly teaching arguments, strategies, and topics that are vastly outdated. Social justice, for example, like the socialism from which it springs, masquerades as an essentially Christian idea, and to Christians only superficially familiar with their Bibles, it has proved highly seductive. Where apologists and seminary professors ought to be educating themselves and their students on what it is, how to identify it, and how to combat it, they’re doing donuts on the lawn with books and courses on battles long over.
But it’s not just them. Pastors, who should be making apologists every Sunday morning, are often far from the sound of the guns. As a consequence, so are their messages. Many are the times that congregants hear a fine sermon on, say, John 2. They leave in the full confidence that Jesus could turn water into wine. But what precisely that has to do with the world beyond the stained glass they aren’t entirely sure. It’s not to say that it doesn’t have relevance to the larger world. It does. But that connection isn’t being made.
The Apologizing Apologists
But it gets worse: the issues being taught as fundamental to Christianity frequently stand in strong opposition to it. Issues like Marxism, socialism, social justice, white privilege, intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, transgenderism, homosexuality, the sexualization of children—all issues that currently dominate the cultural landscape—are more than godless, they are demonic. But when was the last time you heard a sermon that demonstrated them to be such?
Too often, the people talking about them in the pulpit, in the seminary classroom, and on InstaTwitFace are advocates of these godless ideologies.
If I had any doubts about this, they were quickly dispelled when I was recently invited to give a series of apologetics lectures to students majoring in pastoral ministry. Apologetics was an elective course, and these students, I was told, were seeking to equip themselves for the ministry ahead.
Lectures of this sort are generally fun. I am used to speaking to hostile groups. I have given presentations of this sort at Washington University, Georgia Tech, Yale Law, Washington & Lee, The University of Connecticut, and elsewhere. Sometimes you enter into rooms where students and faculty are practically foaming at the mouth to get at you. This, I reasoned, would be different. This was the home team.
Or so I thought.
Within minutes of beginning my lecture I could feel the students and their professor writhe uncomfortably as I tilted at one the most significant issues of our day: the sanctity of life. As I expounded on the century-long erosion of Christian influence in Western civilization and a corresponding rise of dehumanizing ideologies like fascism, Marxism, intersectionality, and Critical Race Theory, my audience shot glances at one another and their professor. So be it, I decided. I pressed on. At the mention of two words their professor erupted. (By this time, I was expecting it.) The words?
“Stop! This lecture is over! You are not to say another word!” Shouted my host and their professor of Christian apologetics.
“Students, don’t listen to him!”
He then launched into a tirade about how racism and lynching were much bigger problems in America.
“Professor,” I began gently, “the last lynching in America was in 1981—and that guy went to the electric chair. Do you realize how many children have been slaughtered in the genocide of abortion? Shouldn’t this be of concern to every Christian—”
“Stop! Don’t you say another word!”
He later sent me an email stating that he had to “counsel” his students to help them cope with my “radical” presentation. “Counsel” here is code for herding them back onto the social justice plantation. My reply was unapologetic:
“A class like that needs to produce evangelists and apologists for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not social justice warriors—and there is a difference. One sees themselves as bearers of a message of eternal hope and grace, the other as self-appointed agents of retribution. Which are you trying to produce?”
THE HEART OF APOLOGETICS
I have said that a refusal to receive Jesus Christ is never, at bottom, intellectual. Intellectual arguments can remove barriers to belief, but the final decision to believe or disbelieve is made by the heart, not the mind. And this brings me to a story I have never told. Perhaps enough time has passed that I can relate it to you.
Many years ago, John Lennox and I traveled to Paris at the request of a scientist. He was flirting with Christian conversion, or so he said, and he wanted us to address his questions about the Christian faith. We took him at his word, and, at considerable expense, made our way to the City of Lights.
For three days we sat with him in his home, and, from morning until night, this hardcore intellectual pelted us with questions. No sooner had one been answered than another spontaneously generated like heads on the mythical hydra. It was exhausting. During breaks John and I would walk around Paris—where he complained incessantly that I walk too fast!—discussing our sessions with this puzzling man.
Sunday night came and we sat in a triangle in a quiet corner of the lobby of our hotel. We had systematically knocked down, one by one, the hurdles standing between this scientist and belief in Jesus Christ. He then said one of the most extraordinary and heartbreaking things that I have ever heard:
“You have answered my questions. You have convinced me. I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. I believe that he lived a sinless life, was crucified, and rose again from the dead. I believe that he is the only way to eternal life—”
And then this little bomb:
“—but I don’t want to become a Christian.”
John and I looked at one another aghast. The weekend, the conversation, was over. Oh, there was chitchat, but there was really nothing more to be said. In the end, having rightly perceived that becoming a Christian meant submitting to the Lordship of Christ, he was unwilling to do it. In retrospect, I think he was disappointed to have had his questions answered because that removed the excuse he needed to justify his agnosticism and thus his lifestyle.
While I have never before or since had an experience like this, it is what happens every time someone rejects belief in Jesus Christ. It’s just that very few are as honest in stating their reasons for the rejection. They’ll claim it is for an intellectual deficiency in the Christian faith when the truth is, they have counted the cost and deemed it too high. The intellectual underpinnings of our faith matter. But it comes down to the heart, and in the case of this gifted and charming scientist, he wanted a Savior, not a Lord.
Take to heart a lesson here. If apologetics were just about winning arguments in God’s Not Dead fashion, then this man would be Kingdom-bound now. Our objective is winning souls.
The Purpose of Apologetics
However, one shouldn’t assume that the purpose of apologetics is always evangelistic in nature. When David took the field against Goliath in what I call physical apologetics, he wasn’t out to convert him. He meant to kill the “uncircumcised Philistine” who “defie[d] the Armies of the Living God.”
Perhaps the reference is jarring to you. Scripture is jarring. We think we do God a favor by not bringing his Word into the conversation since, we reason, people will find it unpalatable. Like an episode of “What Not To Wear,” we give Jesus a makeover and present him, if we present him at all, in what we believe is his best light. Listen, Jesus, I recommend that you don’t mention hell or how you ordered the killing of the Midianite women. Too confusing, too unsavory. Got it? But the Lord is our model for apologetics, and nowhere does he ask us to recast him as anything other than who he is.
And the uncomfortable truth is that he didn’t always have an evangelistic objective in his apologetics. At least it wasn’t always directly evangelistic. Jesus no more expected the conversion of the Pharisees and Sadducees with whom he did battle than I expected it of Daniel Dennett on Al Jazeera or the radical Muslim I debated in London’s Hyde Park. No, Jesus wanted to defeat them, to expose their arguments as spurious and of the devil so that others might believe.
Acts 13:4-12 offers us an example of this. There we have the story of Paul before the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus. As Paul is attempting to lead this man to Christ, “a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus … opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” Paul wheeled on Bar-Jesus and pronounced God’s judgment on him. We are told that when the proconsul saw this, he was astonished, and he believed.
Our purpose in apologetics is to give a defense for the hope that is in us. Period. Whether or not others choose to believe the Gospel is beyond our power. French historian, philosopher, and theologian Étienne Gilson put it well:
“It does not depend on us that [the Gospel] be believed, but there is very much we can do toward making it respected.”
Apologetics vs. Polemics
A distinction must be made between apologetics—that is, defending the faith—and polemics—going after the guy’s worldview. All Christians are called to do the former, not all are called to do the latter. That requires specialization. You should be sufficiently familiar with your faith in Jesus to defend it. But that doesn’t mean you are qualified to dismantle the worldview of the Buddhist or Hindu.
My friend Jay Smith—who will, incidentally, be with us for an event April 19th—spent 24 years in London taking on radical Muslims. He learned Arabic, studied the Quran, and engaged scholars in the field, both Christian and Islamic. He was thoroughly trounced in debate more than once. He picked himself up and went back to the library or to a mentor or to his knees in prayer. Today he is one of the most effective Christian apologists working in that field. But he is also an outstanding polemicist. Having immersed himself in Islam, befriended Muslims, traveled to Islamic countries, and earned a doctorate in the subject, he’s qualified.
Apologetics is defending. Stay within your fortified position unless you are qualified to get out of it. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” I recall a woman emailing me for help. She related how she had bumped into a former college roommate at a reunion.
“I told her that I had become a Christian,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She mocked me and started asking me questions about everything from the Resurrection to Noah’s Ark.”
“What did you say?”
“I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ I then told her, ‘I know people who do know those things, but I’m not an expert. All I can tell you is my life is different now that I know Jesus than it was when I was in college.’”
“What did she do?” I asked.
“She walked away.”
“You don’t need my help. You were perfect.”
Like Jesus with the woman at the well, she brushed off the impersonal and insincere questions and went straight for the spiritual jugular. Boom!
I want to narrow the definition of what a Christian apologist is—and throw it wide open.
The brand name apologists aren’t always apologists. Throwing red meat to a crowd isn’t Christian apologetics. Discussing the relative merits of Cornelius Van Til or Greg Bahnsen isn’t apologetics. That stuff more closely resembles this scene from Glory.
Like the weekend in Paris with the prominent scientist, the real work of apologetics is often done out of sight. Yes, I debated famed atheist Christopher Hitchens publicly. But my real ministry with him wasn’t done in front of an audience. It was done in the front seat of my Chevy Tahoe on two road trips where we studied the Gospel of John together. And that would never have been known to anyone but the two of us had Christopher not chosen to make it public in a debate on C-SPAN. (60 Minutes’ presenter Steve Kroft and producer Frank Devine, both in the audience, were quick to pick up on this detail.)
There are, however, some big names in the world of Christian apologetics who have never been given the credit they are due. We rightly speak of C.S. Lewis as an apologist because of his books like Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia series. But what is General Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur if not a great work of apologetics that smuggled the Gospel into a compelling work of fiction? What about Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities?
In terms of duration and reach, Hugo’s Les Misérables may be the greatest work of apologetics fiction of all time, pitting as it does Law vs. Grace and having been made into more than a dozen movies and one of the longest-running musicals in history; a musical that has powerfully preserved the novel’s Christian message. I took my students to see the London production for a reason: the Gospel runs straight through it.
Occupying a spot on the same shelf is Dostoevsky. No serious modern-day apologist who hopes to understand the ideologies currently confronting us can do without him. Having once been an atheist and a socialist revolutionary, Dostoevsky dedicated his literary life to destroying both. In his great works Crime and Punishment, The Possessed (sometimes translated as Demons), and The Brothers Karamazov he lays bare that worldview and predicts the expulsion of Christianity from public life and with it, the annihilation of morality, the rise of totalitarianism, and the proliferation of state-sponsored genocide.
There are many other great apologists who worked in a wide variety of fields:
Kepler, the astronomer who said that science was the process of thinking God’s thoughts after him, considered science a praise unto God;
John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a personal favorite and possibly the greatest work of English literature, is a tour de force of beautiful creative theological writing;
J.S. Bach, in whose Mass in B Minor it is said that “one can hear the nails” as they are driven into Christ’s hands and feet, has moved many toward the Divine;
and the writings of John Calvin and Cardinal John Henry Newman, men whose minds were citadels of order;
and, finally, possibly the most formidable of them all, Augustine, a man who turned his extraordinary intellectual horsepower like a great turret on a battleship to those heresies that threatened the theological integrity of the Church of his day.
Apologetics takes many different forms. It’s not just about debate. One can “demolish arguments” in number of ways. But it is always about substance, and it is always driving toward the Cross of Christ. Christianity is not rooted in an idea. It is rooted in a Person, and the great apologists, whatever their weapon of choice for the defense of the Kingdom, know that bringing Him into the discussion is key. It is also important to note what all of the above had in common: they were in the societal mainstream, not the “Christian Living” section of the bookstore.
In summary, some of the most effective Christian apologists I know are people you have never heard of. They aren’t highly educated, clever conversationalists, or brilliant logicians. They don’t even think of themselves as apologists. But they know their Bibles and they believe Jesus Christ has the power to change lives. These people quietly defend the faith within their communities. And that’s what apologetics is. If you’re a politician standing in the gap against a godless agenda, you’re a Christian apologist. If you’re doing it on a school board, within a corporation, or with your coworker in the cubicle next to you, you’re a Christian apologist.
Every effective apologist prays. Before I took the stage, walked on the television set, or penned an article taking on critics of our faith, I prayed. Indeed, every time I sense a conversation moving toward the spiritual, I pray.
I will end with a prayer that began my first book, a work of apologetics, The Grace Effect. It comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
“What is in me dark, illumine, what is low, raise and support; that to the height of this great argument I may assert the Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men.”
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