I’ve just graduated from a Christian college, where a discussion in my final religion class last fall caused me consternation. We’d been looking at data on declining church attendance and reasons people were leaving. We realized that all of the most-cited reasons were intellectual in nature. For example, “If God were real he wouldn’t allow so much evil,” and “I stopped believing in Christianity because of science.” This ran counter to the common belief that most people leave the church because of bad experiences.
What disturbed me was watching the class discussion play out. One student said the church should train people to understand the problems with these reasons. Others in the class seemed to agree this would be an effective first step. I chimed in to say this was in fact one of the primary tasks of apologetics. I noted that even though many of the religion professors at this Christian school disliked apologetics, these students were making a case for it.
That struck a bad note in the class. At the mention of apologetics, they backed down on what they’d been saying, and began to object that apologetics would not be good for the church.
My classmates’ initial support for intellectual defense of the faith was right. The data makes that clear. We must prepare to respond to the objections raised against apologetics, so that no one will be led astray by misconceptions and false assumptions.
What follows, then, is a response to each of the anti-apologetics arguments I heard from professors and fellow students at college.
MAJOR OBJECTION 1: “We are all Christians already, why do we need this?”
We need apologetics because the Bible supports it. 1 Peter 3:15 says to be ready to give a defense, an “apologia” in the Greek, to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope within us, with gentleness and respect.
One benefit of this comes in its application to evangelism. Author and detective J. Warner Wallace and Southern Evangelical Seminary president Richard Land agree that evangelism in the 21st century is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S. If we listen to skeptics and take their questions seriously, we will undoubtedly look to apologetics for guidance.
And there is much to gain for Christians from the study of apologetics. It answers many of the issues over which people leave the church. It strengthens our foundations. It’s naïve to assume that our faith will never be shaken. Those times will be easier to get through if we know our foundations are strong.
Apologetics helps us understand why we believe what we believe, for the sake of communicating effectively with those who don’t believe, and to strengthen the foundations of those who do. Even if apologetics weren’t supported in Scripture, these benefits alone would make it worth the pursuit.
MAJOR OBJECTION 2: “If you ask people to study apologetics, especially the kids, they won’t want to come. People have been at school and work all day, they don’t want more school when they come to church.”
We should want people to come to church. We have to also keep in mind that life can get busy, making commitments to church activities difficult.
Even so, many churches today are more focused on attendance than doctrine. I’ve heard too many testimonies of church visits featuring fancy lights, a rockin’ praise band, an inviting environment… and shallow, sometimes even heretical preaching. Of course we should want people to come to church, but the overemphasis on attendance has noticeably detrimental effects in many churches.
One of those negative effects is that we are afraid to ask people to commit to serious Bible study, apologetics-related or not. It’s easy to increase church membership if we only ask people to come to church once a week on Sunday mornings. But if people only come an hour a week, how deep are they going?
This is not how church should be. Isn’t being a disciple of Christ the most important thing we do? If so, shouldn’t we be committing more than an hour a week to preparing for it? Christians today need to realize what a total commitment Christianity really is.
And sometimes commitments require things of us that we don’t want to do. Children don’t typically want to study geometry at school, but parents don’t tell them that justifies dropping out of school entirely. They understand there are benefits to graduating that heavily outweigh their kids’ distaste for geometry. Parents make their children do things they don’t like all the time, because they see a greater purpose.
Committing to the Christian life should be no different. Is church attendance still declining? Yes. Should we be concerned about our children’s spiritual wellbeing, and our own as well? Absolutely. Then we might have to make time to tend to those things, even if it means exerting the extra effort to attend another class at church.
Churches that call for that kind of discipleship may turn away those who are only interested in half-committing, but Jesus was willing to let the half-committed walk away, too. We can’t make disciples out of them anyway. The lukewarm are not talked of kindly in Scripture. High expectations may bring in fewer people through the front door, but deeper commitment means fewer wandering out the back door.
MAJOR OBJECTION 3: “There’s no room for faith if we prove everything we don’t already understand with evidence!”
Let’s take this in two parts. First, suppose it’s true that faith is “believing when there isn’t any evidence.” I don’t know any apologists who would argue there’s evidence for everything. So there’s always room for faith, based on that view.
Second, though, this definition of faith is not biblical. All through Scripture people offer evidence and attempt to persuade others of the Christian story. Even the story of “Doubting Thomas,” which many people try to use to show that faith is blind, actually means the opposite when evaluated properly in the context.
If we take faith’s standard meaning, “trust,” we know trust is based on evidence. We have faith that friends will be there for us in times of struggle, because they’ve been there in the past. We have faith that our plane won’t crash, because the bulk of the evidence supports that conclusion. Our faith, our trust, is always based on evidence.
Evidence doesn’t have to mean proof. We can’t “prove” that friends will stay friends, or that a plane won’t crash. Nonetheless, the evidence is strong enough that we put our faith in it.
So this objection misunderstands the biblical definition of faith and overestimates the power of evidence.
MAJOR OBJECTION 4: “Apologetics isn’t fair because if you’re just setting up another person’s view so you can knock it down, you’re clearly not trying to understand them. We need to stop picking fights and start trying to understand and show love. We’ll never be able to argue anyone into the Kingdom.”
This objection seems to be a hasty generalization. Is there any evidence that apologists do this? While I’m sure it does happen occasionally, it’s certainly not the norm.
Many apologists dwell upon quotes or videos from skeptics before discussing their reasons for disagreement. Apologists I’ve worked with and studied under make a strong point of letting those who disagree speak for themselves so their views are not misrepresented.
Apologetics is not about setting up straw-man worldviews and knocking them down. No one is going to be led to the truth that way. Apologetics is about understanding our own views and also the views of those who disagree, so that when we engage them we can effectively communicate the truth of Christianity in the way that’s best for that person. We can’t do that without first understanding what their views actually are. Understanding is essential to good apologetics. This objection is a serious mischaracterization of what apologetics looks like in practice.
Furthermore, different people respond to different things. Some people are wired more intellectually, so they will be more receptive to discussion than displays of kindness. Many atheists have told me that Christians frequently avoid their questions in favor of trying to show them love. While they appreciate the gestures, they are frustrated that their intellectual issues aren’t taken seriously. We should be prepared to engage with people in any way that may be effective in leading them to the truth of Christianity, because the Holy Spirit can work in many ways.
Though it may be that we can’t argue people into the Kingdom on our own, through the Holy Spirit many people have been persuaded to follow Christianity because of the evidence in its favor.
MINOR OBJECTION 1: “Even if we wanted to do apologetics in the church, there’s no way all the churches would pick the same curriculum.”
This objection suggests that if we study apologetics, we have to pick the same curriculum or not pick one at all.
I’m not aware of any other aspect of church activity that operates this way, so I don’t know why we would think this way about studying apologetics. Different study groups look for different things. Do we really think if high schoolers and senior adults can’t pick one apologetics curriculum to share it’s not worth studying?
Churches typically have study groups on a wide variety of topics. It only makes sense that different options would better suit different groups.
MINOR OBJECTION 2: “It’s easy to say the church needs to fix all of our problems, when we should really be accepting responsibility for our own households.”
This objection makes sense on one level. We should take responsibility for teaching within our own families. It’s easy to use ways the church could be better as excuses to push the blame away from ourselves.
But on another level, this objection smuggles in an “either-or” fallacy. Why do we have to choose between taking responsibility for our own families and figuring out the best practices for the church? The home may be better suited for some things than the church, and vice versa. Church improvement and home improvement are not mutually exclusive, so objecting to one on the basis of the other is illogical.
The problems facing the church on the intellectual plane are growing every year. If we want to stay relevant in the culture and in the intellectual life of the coming generations, we have to step up our game, because we are losing the battle. Hopefully removing objections to the study of apologetics will open more minds to its study, thus bolstering our collective understanding and confidence to engage the world for Christ.