“You can’t argue people into the Kingdom, it just doesn’t work that way. People just need to be shown God’s love, to have an encounter with the Holy Spirit’s power. Trying to prove God’s existence is a waste of time.”

I think this statement captures the feeling that many of us have about apologetics today. Those of us who don’t take this position are probably familiar with it. Apologetics is associated with heated arguments that lead nowhere, arrogant rationality, and a misguided understanding of what motivates human beings to change. Was anyone ever logically persuaded to become a Christian? On the contrary, ask any number of recent converts how they got saved, and you will hear countless stories of God’s love breaking into a person’s life, softening their heart, and showing himself to them. These things speak for themselves. Perhaps there is a small place for defending the faith intellectually, for a few high-flying Christian academics in Universities, but by and large we have more effective ways of spreading the gospel.

I want to suggest that we’ve misunderstood the point of apologetics. I believe if we think about it differently, we will see that apologetics is actually an essential way to show God’s love to our non-Christian friends and neighbours – a love enriched with wisdom and understanding. Also, we will see apologetics as something for everyone, to a greater or lesser degree, to get involved with.

First of all, I agree wholeheartedly that you can’t argue anyone into salvation. A lot of harm has been done by attempts to do this, and it usually alienates people even further from the gospel. It’s also obvious that hardly anyone has ever become Christian from losing an argument about God’s existence.

Second, I agree with the two usual evangelism alternatives: “Just love people” and “They need an encounter with the Holy Spirit.” Once God has touched someone’s life – either in a way that we call supernatural, or through the power of the love of Jesus operating through his church – only then will they be open to the gospel’s message. Belief will come after experience has made belief possible.

However, I think we’re often too quick to assume that we know what it looks like to love people and what it looks like when the Holy Spirit encounters them. We think that we can love someone adequately without understanding how they see the world, and we think that the Holy Spirit works through miracles or emotions that happen instantaneously, not through slow, gradual transformation of our thoughts.

Let me be precise about what I mean here. I am not saying that God can also work through apologetics or rational thinking. That would be hard to deny! I’m saying something more: that apologetics (redefined) is an indispensable part of evangelism, just as much as love and the Holy Spirit’s power are also indispensable. We can’t do without any one of them.

There are limits to how much we can love someone before we understand them. This includes understanding their deeply rooted beliefs about reality and how the world works. Learning to see life from another’s point of view is hard and takes effort. It involves understanding why and how their worldview makes sense to them, and also how our beliefs look from their perspective. We will be poor communicators unless we understand how our message is perceived by others.

There are therefore two aspects to apologetics: understanding others, and understanding ourselves through the eyes of others. The problem with the caricature of apologetics the way most people see it, “arguments for God’s existence” or “proofs of the resurrection,” is precisely that it doesn’t take the effort to understand the world from another perspective. It looks defensive, a reactionary kind of arguing that people do when they are afraid they’re wrong and don’t even realise it.

There is an ever widening gulf between Christians and non-Christians in our society. Christians increasingly have no idea what non-Christians really believe, and vice versa. Even when people do become Christians through a powerful encounter with God, their faith often doesn’t last unless their mind begins to be transformed. God’s reality in our lives doesn’t remove the presence of hard questions, for example about suffering and evil. The culture can retain its grip on our way of thinking even when we have started going to church, because our thoughts are still rooted in secular patterns and assumptions. The gulf between Christians and non-Christians has become so deep and wide that it is now difficult to cross. We have to start far back in our assumptions. We must learn to explain why we believe what we do, where our doctrines come from, why they matter, and how they differ from other worldviews and explanations. This applies not just on surface issues like God’s existence, but at deeper questions underneath the surface, such as the nature of right and wrong, what ‘existence’ is anyway, and what it means to be human.

This is hard work. It would be easy to make excuses, to say that we should trust God to transform people’s minds, that we can’t rely on our own intellectual ability to bring people to Christ, or that faith is not based on how much we know. Also it seems unfair if some people find it easier than others. Can’t we just leave that to the brainy people who like it? Why should everybody have to do it?

I don’t think this is different from love, however. Some people find it easier to love than others. But all of us have a duty to love with every ounce of love we have. Some people find the intellectual aspect of evangelism easier and others will find it harder. But no matter how hard or easy, or how much we feel it’s “our thing,” all of us have a responsibility to love our neighbour by understanding them.

Getting Started Reading List

Benson, Bruce Ellis. Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida & Marion on Modern Idolatry. Inter-Varsity Press,US, 2002.

Chesterton, G. K. Heretics. Dover Publications Inc., 2006.

Jr, John G. Stackhouse. Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. New Ed. OUP USA, 2006.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. HarperCollins, 2002.

Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Baker Academic, 2006.

This post was first published at Kings Theology on Feb 23, 2013

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.