If love is our most-convincing proof, does our combative spirit actually argue people away from the truth?
The last few decades have brought about a revival of the ancient art of apologetics—the skill of case-making for the truth of Christianity. It’s partly a response to the growing presence of popular atheistic arguments across the media spectrum, especially the Internet. While the Internet is a remarkable tool for learning, it also provides greater access to more poorly formed arguments against God than ever before. As apologist C.S. Lewis wrote in his book The Weight of Glory, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Though apologetics has never really ceased to exist in the church (Paul made his case before the Aeropagus in Acts 17 and King Agrippa in Acts 26, Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century gave his five proofs of God’s existence, and G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis penned their arguments in the 20th century), the current revival includes a surge of interest in directly combating the new atheist arguments.
I rejoice and thank God that Christians are becoming increasingly interested in understanding why they believe. Yet I’ve also been saddened at witnessing some Christians use apologetics as a weapon against others, especially against fellow believers. For some, apologetics is a method by which they tear down other people, instead of a means of analyzing and making arguments for the benefit of people. It’s a good time for a sobering reminder of Christian ethics. A solid Christian witness includes well-reasoned, thoughtful arguments and a lifestyle of love. The late apologist Francis Schaeffer entreated us to such a lifestyle in what he called “the final apologetic.”
Schaeffer’s “final apologetic” was based on John 17:20-23. In this passage, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for the believers yet to come. He prayed for unity among believers and that they would demonstrate love for one another as part of the reality of God’s love at work. Through this observable love, the world would recognize that Jesus truly is the Son of God. In his 1970 work The Mark of the Christian, Schaeffer wrote:
“Now comes the sobering part. Jesus goes on in this 21st verse to say something that always causes me to cringe. If as Christians we do not cringe, it seems to me we are not very sensitive or very honest, because Jesus here gives us the final apologetic. What is the final apologetic? “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”(John 17:21). This is the final apologetic. … Now that is frightening.”
In our process of training and equipping Christians, we must not forget to teach them that Christian behavior and attitude cannot be separated from their knowledge of God. Any knowledge gained should first wash over, instruct and challenge individual believers as part of their own transformation and renewal in Christ. It should then affect that believer’s relationships within the body of Christ. At this point, someone might say, “Yes, but you are arguing why we need spiritual disciplines like fasting and prayer. This is not necessarily connected to arguments for God’s existence.” But Schaeffer directly connects this loving attitude to apologetics. He goes further to call it the final apologetic, or the one that really closes the case for belief in the existence of God. I agree.
My Background: The Perfect Storm for Doubt
I didn’t grow up in church or even in a Christian culture. I was raised in an unchurched home in the Portland, Ore., area. My life was full of activities, friends, family, sports, school and music. I had very little time to think about issues like God’s existence, nor would I really have thought to do so. My understanding of the church was shallow—mostly what I saw on television or movies. Church wasn’t for me.
In my senior year of high school, my band director gave me The One Year Bible and told me, “Mary Jo, when you go off to college, you are going to have a lot of tough questions. I would like you to turn to this for answers.” I respected my director and became curious as to what the Bible actually said. I read that Bible all the way through, which brought me to belief in God. Yet I still did not trust in Jesus as my Savior. It wasn’t until age 20 that I was convicted of my sin, committed my life to Jesus as my Lord and rapidly became involved in a youth ministry, of which my husband eventually became the leader.
After several years in ministry with my husband, I began to have a two-part problem with my belief in God. First, it appeared that many of the people I encountered in the church were not upholding the truths they professed. They would say the ugliest, meanest things I had ever personally heard. I was stunned and began to question if there were any real believers in God. I even began to wonder if I was a real believer. Second, I didn’t understand Christianity well enough to handle the depth of the human experience. So when I began to question why I believed in God, I had no personal resources from which to draw. I call this two-part problem a perfect storm for doubt. I had emotional doubt that fueled intellectual doubt.
For some reason, I looked for answers to my questions instead of leaving my faith altogether. This is how I ended up in the field of apologetics. Once I found great answers to my questions, I figured other people probably had the same questions, so I began to teach apologetics in the church.
A Twofold Approach to Apologetics
Over my years of teaching, debating and making a case for my beliefs, I have come to understand that effective apologetics entails a twofold approach: combining knowledge and clarity when presenting arguments with a life that demonstrates the impact of those arguments. For instance, we shouldn’t just argue that God’s love is perfect, but we should also demonstrate the truth of God’s love with a great love for one another. This is a powerful testimony we can give to the world: the lived-out truths of Scripture effectively renewing and transforming us toward Christlikeness.
This past summer, I had an opportunity to indirectly demonstrate this twofold project when a student asked me a question at a conference. The student asked something like, “How does the Kalaam Cosmological Argument for God’s existence actually affect your spiritual life?” [The Kalaam Cosmological Argument holds that everything that had a beginning had a cause. The universe had a beginning. Therefore, the universe had a cause.] Notice that the student didn’t just want the argument so he could ponder and analyze it. He actually wanted to hear how this argument impacts my life.
I responded that if the universe has a cause, and if that cause is the God of Christianity, then I can infer that God intended to create everything—which further means creation has meaning. Since I am a part of God’s creation, my creation was intended, and therefore my life has meaning. I am not an accident of an indifferent, purposeless universe with no ultimate meaning to my life. Rather, God created me with intention as a physical and spiritual being. So the argument spurs me to learn how to live more closely aligned with what God intended for human flourishing, both physically and spiritually.
As the student’s question noted, we should see the effect on our individual lives of the arguments we use to prove God’s existence. One of the major effects of the reality of God’s existence should be that his real love flows to us and out of us toward others. It may sound like a basic thing to accomplish, demonstrating the reality of God and of Jesus as God’s Son through our love of one another, but that admonition made Francis Schaeffer cringe when he read Jesus’ prayer. Christian love must go further than what is generally expected—that is, doing good to those who think like us or believe like us. Jesus said our love is to go so far as to love our enemy (Luke 6:27). As we step into the field of apologetics, offering a case for our belief in God, we must never forget Jesus’ prayer to show a love that transcends, a love that is different.
How can a person enact a twofold approach to apologetics?
Know Your Beliefs
When you begin to understand what you believe and why you believe it to be true, you will more confidently explain your convictions to others. Think about any other area in which you are knowledgeable: sports, cars, school, your family. You probably converse confidently in those areas because you are familiar with them. The same holds true for beliefs. If you do not know why you believe something to be true, you are not likely to enter a conversation on that topic. Read some beginner apologetics books with arguments for God’s existence.
Practice Discussing Beliefs
Once you gain some knowledge about your beliefs, you will need to experiment with explaining those beliefs. Things sound differently in your head than they do aloud. Even seemingly innocuous statements can come across as abrasive or condescending due to voice inflection. Gather a group at your church and have some conversations on the arguments. Ask for constructive criticism on your ideas and thought delivery. Then throw yourself into the frying pan with someone who disagrees with your beliefs.
Remember, you will make mistakes in a discussion, and not everyone will find your arguments convincing. Learn from your mistakes and learn to love people no matter what they believe. The second admonition, to love people, is vitally important to effective twofold apologetics.
Don’t View People as a Means to an End
No one wants to be our “Jesus project.” They want to learn, discover and grow with others. We must demonstrate that we love them first, no matter what they may believe. We are there to walk with them, not ram our arguments or presentations through them. This is true whether we are having a face-to-face dialogue or witnessing through social media.
Further, whenever we argue, we should search our own hearts first. Are we trying to affirm ourselves in some way by arguing? Are we trying to gain a personal victory that will boost our ego? These are subtle and destructive motives for engaging in apologetic arguments. If you do not love people, it will show.
Don’t Aggressively Target Other Christians
More than once, I’ve watched friends get publicly raked over the coals by fellow believers because they disagree on a passage of Scripture. Typically, both believers are attempting to defend the faith and the truth of Scripture in the way they think best. However, in the process, one of them may fail to demonstrably love the other, as found in John 17. This is an example of how we can fail greatly in our witness to the truth while trying to defend that very truth.
As we uphold the truth through argument, we must also uphold the truth in love. If we cannot constructively and respectfully criticize a fellow believer’s views in public, we may do public harm to the truth of the gospel. The world is searching for salvation, something that transcends humanity. What do we have to offer that is uncommon, especially when arguing about sensitive and important topics?
We have an opportunity to effectively argue for the existence of God and for the hope of his salvation to a broader audience through more efficient means than ever before. It’s a privilege that demands excellence in relationships and in presentation of thought and argument. My hope and prayer for our current epoch in Christian history is that we will be remembered for answering arguments against the swell of new atheism with reason and intellectual integrity—and that we will also be remembered as those who loved greatly.
The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity and The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God, by Lee Strobel, both published by Zondervan (1998, 2000, 2005).
Defending the Faith: Apologetics in Women’s Ministry by Mary Jo Sharp (Kregel Ministry, 2012)
The Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics by Doug Powell (Holman Reference, 2006)
On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision by William Lane Craig (David C. Cook, 2010)
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller (Riverhead Trade, 2009
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Gregory Koukl (Zondervan, 2009)
Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation by Mary Jo Sharp (LifeWay Christian Resources, 2012)