This September City Bible Forum have commenced our national Dive Deeper campaign where we encourage Christians all around Australia to attempt three spiritual conversations over three weeks, and share their experiences with others. How does that sound? Like a walk in a park? Or more like a dark alley? When we think of evangelism it’s common to assume we need to have all the answers to all the hard questions in order to be ‘ready’. I want to suggest that there is more to evangelism than answering objections.
The term ‘apologetics’ comes from an ancient Greek legal term. The accused would give their ‘apologia‘ (defence) to the charges brought against them. The New Testament often speaks about defending oneself against accusations (Acts 22:1; 24:10; 25:8,16; 26:2, 24; Rom 2:15; 1 Cor 9:3; 2 Cor 12:19); but also, occasionally, of defending the gospel (Phil 1:7, 16). In the first place, when applied to the gospel, apologetics is defensive. They are about answering objections to Christianity.
Classical and Cultural Apologetics
When most of us think of apologetics, certain classic questions come to mind: How can a good God allow suffering? What’s the evidence for God’s existence? Is the Bible historically reliable? Aren’t science and faith incompatible? Hasn’t the Bible been corrupted over time? Christians will continually need to answer these questions, together with new objections that arise.
There are also novel questions arising from evolving social norms. Some of these questions come and go, but some of them stick and become another brick in the wall of objections to Christianity. Discussions around politics, gender, sexuality, race, identity, economics, and the natural world all present opportunities to articulate a Christian response that links back to the gospel.
Some will be gifted in giving a persuasive answer to these classical or cultural objections to Christianity, but most of us will flounder. Many of us retreat from these conversations as they can take a lot of time and energy, for underwhelming or even counterproductive results. The good news is that there’s a complementary positive form of apologetics.
In 1 Peter 3:15–16, the apostle Peter instructs believers to “be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you … with gentleness and reverence” (NRSVA). We see here that apologetics is not only defending the faith, but commending it as well.
Arguably we see an example of this in Paul’s speech in Athens. When some in the marketplace “want to know more clearly and fully what he’s talking about” (17:20), he is invited to speak at the Areopagus. He points out that the idols littered throughout the city are evidence of an admitted ignorance and an unfulfilled need. He then teaches them what the true and ultimate God –the God they do not know– is like (verses 22–31).
We get small opportunities for positive apologetics more than we might realise. Opportunities to connect people with the transcendent. Opportunities to share that precious commodity of hope. Opportunities to explain the goodness of the gospel. They are usually not occasions to give a long speech like Paul did. But there are often openings to share some aspect of the goodness of Christian faith and life.
One form of positive apologetics is sharing the potential positive benefits that come from the Christian faith. If you keep an eye out, there are often articles, podcasts and videos that reveal some of these benefits that you could share with friends and acquaintances, or bring up in conversation, when the time is right.
For example, have you noticed the sudden interest in Sabbath from a secular perspective? Or did you know that regular religious attendance has positive health effects? Jewish sociologist Ilana Horwitz makes the case that sending kids to church correlates with higher grades in school. Or again, recently studies have found that suicide rates are significantly lower for people that have a clear spiritual framework to guide them.
These kinds of findings are rarely exclusive to Christian spirituality; and they say little about the actual truthfulness of Christianity. And of course, raising such benefits may lead people to bring up the negative impacts of the church or Christian beliefs on their lives or on society—throwing you back to defensive, cultural apologetics. But there are many people who, although they do not want to engage with Christianity at an intellectual level, might actually their interest aroused from this different angle. They might be interested to hear more from you about your lived experience as a Christian.
As you pray for opportunities to have spiritual conversations with the unbelievers in your life, it is good to become familiar with some basic answers to classic and cultural apologetic questions. But it might also be refreshing to look for more positive approaches to commending the wisdom and goodness of the gospel.
An earlier version of this material was published on the City Bible Forum website.