Apologetics as Love of Neighbor

By Bob Hiller

We’ve all been there: You’re having a conversation about the faith with a person who is struggling to believe, or doesn’t at all. In the course of the conversation, they bring up an argument you don’t have an answer for. In fact, the point is way over your head, and you worry that pursuing the question will challenge your faith in uncomfortable ways. Maybe they are questioning how you know Jesus rose from the dead, or why you believe the New Testament is full of trustworthy documents. They’ve watched the latest Food Network special on the historical Jesus or checked out the latest Bart Ehrman thriller reconstructing the first four centuries of the church, and now they have questions. They aren’t afraid to put you on the spot: “How do you know? Why should I believe?” And all you can say is, “I just have faith that it is true. You just need to believe it! Take it on faith!”

Now, any non-Christian worth their weight in intellectual gold should eat you for lunch. Don’t get me wrong. Your response may be true for you. You believe this stuff, and the questions they ask don’t bother you. What’s more, you are certainly right in saying they should have faith in the things you believe. But your position of (blind?) faith does no good in helping your interrogator. They are looking for answers, and if you aren’t willing to engage them, they will go elsewhere (Food Network specials and Ehrman books) to find the what they are looking for.

What’s more troubling is that many people are leaving the church because the church so often (intentionally or otherwise) offers “just believe” answers to their own sheep who are struggling. When the confirmation kids are demanding how we know God made the earth in seven days as opposed to over the course of millions of years, if we respond, “We just believe it because the Bible says so,” they will not be convinced. Far too often, our youth go off to college ill prepared for the philosophical brainwashing they are about to endure. And make no mistake, a weakly held theistic position is the very thing these professors are prepared to wash out!

What if the problem is not so much the questions and doubt being raised within and outside of the church, but our fear of having our faith shaken? The problem is not that the atheist or the curious high schooler are not taking God seriously enough. It is that they are taking God more seriously than we are. They are actually suggesting that if our God is the true God, then He’s going to stand up to the hard questions. And they’re right! The trouble is, our fear of having our faith stretched, our presuppositions challenged, or giving the wrong answer stifles us. We appeal to a sort of nebulous faith to comfort ourselves, but all the while, we leave our curious friends to find answers from all the wrong places.

For this reason, I am becoming more and more convinced that the practice apologetics (the defense of the faith) is necessary for the church. The apologetic discipline, in fact, is not merely a matter of having all the right arguments so you are able to win in some intellectual, religious pissing contest (though, sadly, it has been reduced to that). Rather, learning apologetics is an act of love for your neighbor. Learning how to listen seriously to the arguments of Christianity’s detractors and then finding ways to engage their doubts demonstrates that you love the questioner enough to take them seriously. Demonstrating that you take their argument, and therefore them, seriously will tear down all kinds of walls that prevent people from hearing the Gospel.

I remember a conversation back in seminary where we were warned against apologetics. The idea was that arguments for the reliability of the New Testament or the veracity of Christ’s miracles won’t save anyone. Sure, they reinforce what Christians already believe, and it is nice to have some good arguments to help you sleep at night, but they do no good for the unbeliever. The only thing that will save them is the preaching of Law and Gospel, repentance and forgiveness. Or so it was said.

I bought it for some time. But no longer. Don’t get me wrong. Of course the last part of that paragraph is true: Only the preaching of Law and Gospel will save. Only the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified and risen creates faith in the heart. But we cannot, for the sake of the love, be dismissive of the real, hard questions raised by our friends and loved ones. Just as, for the sake of the Gospel, the New Testament authors used rational arguments to counter false representations of Christ (see every single epistle) and appealed to historical research to testify to the truth (Luke 1:1-4, I John 1:1-3), we too should “be prepared to make a defense to anyone (even confirmation students!) who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15).

It is true that only the preaching of Christ will save anyone. But it is also true that taking the challenges to our faith seriously is an act of love for our neighbor. Equipping the saints with the resources they need to face the onslaught of doubt-inducing questions is a great blessing to the church. Showing our students that our faith is not a blind faith that we cling to merely to help us sleep at night encourage them and gives them confidence. Finally, engaging the questions of non-believers seriously, “gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:16), will go a long way in disarming further objections and creating opportunities to deliver Christ into new ears. In this way, the apologetic discipline is an act of love for our neighbors that we need now more than ever!