5 things you need for better apologetics
Apologetics is the reverent, reasonable, and humble defense — through our words and through our lives — of the hope we have in the risen Christ.
1. Apologetics is not an apology; it’s a defense that includes evidence.
I was in my late teens the first time I read the words “apologetics” and “apologist.” At first, I thought these words had something to do with Christians apologizing for misdeeds undertaken in the name of Christ. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that apologetics was precisely what I needed most at that moment in my life, when I was struggling with whether or not the claims in the Bible were believable.
A few years ago, I was reminded of my initial misunderstanding when I found this comment appended to an online review of one of my books: “It says he’s an ‘apologist’! If Christianity is worth believing, why would he need to write a book apologizing for it?” The band R.E.M. was apparently operating with a similar misunderstanding when they produced a song entitled “The Apologist”: “They call me the apologist…/but now I’m facing up/I wanted to apologize for/everything I was — so I’m sorry.”
As it turns out, even though “apology,” “apologetics,” and “apologist” can all be traced back to the same root words, being an apologist has little to do with saying we’re sorry and everything to do with whether the facts confessed in the Christian faith correspond with reality and are internally coherent.
The philosopher Aristotle used the words apologia and kategoria to describe the two types of speeches presented in a court of law. Kategoria was a speech of accusation related to events that had happened in the past; the apologia was a speech of defense in response to the kategoria. The Apostle Peter used this term for a defense when he wrote these words to Christians in Asia Minor: “In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15, emphasis added).
Here’s how I define “apologetics,” on the basis of this text and others scattered throughout the Scriptures: apologetics is the reverent, reasonable, and humble defense — through our words and through our lives — of the hope we have in the risen Christ, as this hope has been revealed in his Word and in his world. Apologetics isn’t saying, “I’m sorry”; it’s a defense that reveals the incoherence of the unbeliever’s worldview by pointing to the internal coherence and external evidence for the believer’s hope in the risen Christ and in his written Word.
2. Holiness provides the foundation for the proclamation of our hope.
The words of Simon Peter in 1 Peter 3:15 can become a bumper sticker for apologetics, but this text is far richer, deeper, and more beautiful than we sometimes recognize. This text seems to have been written to Christians who are beginning to experience social exclusion and perhaps even civic consequences for their faithfulness to Jesus. In this context, the first defense of the faith to which Peter calls them is holiness (1 Pet 1:15–17; 2:9–17; 3:13–17).
Our defense of the Christian faith doesn’t end with our holiness, but it must start with holiness. Holiness won’t ultimately protect the people from persecution, but it ensures that whatever they suffer will be for the sake of their Savior and not because of their sin.
3. A Christian’s hope is centered in the resurrection — and so is our defense.
Throughout 1 Peter, Simon Peter centers the Christian’s hope in the resurrection (1 Pet 1:3, 13, 21). Sometimes, his focus is on the resurrection of Jesus on the third day; other times, it’s centered on our future resurrection, which the resurrection of Jesus guaranteed. But, either way, resurrection is the foundation of our hope.
So what does this mean for apologetics?
If apologetics is giving a reason for our hope, and hope is centered in the resurrection, the resurrection should be central in Christian apologetics. When the resurrection is not central in apologetics, the practice of apologetics can turn into a bad game of theological trivia, with the unbeliever raising a random series of objections until he or she “wins” by coming up with a question that the Christian can’t answer. When the resurrection of Jesus is central, however, apologetics can never stray far from the gospel, and we respond to the unbeliever’s questions by turning the question toward the cross and the empty tomb.
If you choose to focus your apologetics on convincing an unbeliever that a particular approach to creation is correct — even if you convince the unbeliever that you’re correct — that individual has still not been confronted with the gospel. If you convince someone that there are sound philosophical reasons why a good God might allow evil in the world, and they agree with you but never hear the hope of the resurrection, your defense is a miserable failure. Why? In your passion to defend the truth, you have wandered from a focus on the gospel — the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus by which God is reconciling sinners to himself and revealing his reign in the world.
Any apologetic that defines the truth and defends the truth but never delivers a call to believe the gospel is empty and vain. Apologetics is a means that God chooses to use for his glory; the power, however, is not in our apologetics but in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel alone is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). That’s what Charles H. Spurgeon was getting at when he said, “Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion. … Open the door, and let the lion out! … He would take care of himself. … The best ‘apology’ for the gospel is to let the gospel out. … Preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let the Lion out!”
4. There are good reasons to believe the resurrection happened.
But is it even reasonable to believe that the resurrection — this event that, according to Peter, is the foundation of a Christian’s hope — happened? The claim that the corpse of a crucified man made the ultimate comeback 2,000 years ago is a radical claim that defies every ordinary experience of life and death. And yet, I contend that there are robust reasons to recognize the resurrection as an event that took place in history. In the first place, multiple independent witnesses testify together to the truth of this claim. The resurrection of Jesus appears not only in the four Gospels but also in an early oral history recorded by Paul (Matt 27:62–28:1; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 16:1–2; Luke 24:1–49; John 19:38–20:2; 1 Cor 15:3–7). The details differ, but all of these disparate accounts agree that Jesus died and then returned to life three days later. So does an independent but secondhand report composed in the second century and preserved in a later document known as the Akhmim Fragment. All but one of these reports also include incidental details, such as the claim that Mary Magdalene was the first witness — a detail that was unlikely to have been fabricated in a first-century context where there was systemic bias against testimony from women.
If the Jews of the first century A.D. expected any resurrection at all, it would have been a resurrection of all the righteous at the end of time. They knew that death was typically a one-way street, and they were fully aware of alternative explanations such as post-mortem dreams and hallucinations. And still, somehow, the men and women who first followed Jesus concluded that what they saw three days after Jesus died required the physical resuscitation of a previously deceased person, and they shared the news of this resurrection from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.
What’s more, encounters with the resurrected Jesus reshaped the lives of certain witnesses in such a way that they eventually chose death over any denial of what they proclaimed about Jesus. At the very least, Simon Peter, James the son of Zebedee, and James the brother of Jesus died for what they declared about Jesus. Of course, millions of people throughout history have died for lies that they believed were true — but people do not typically give their lives for a lie if they’re in a position to know that it’s a lie. If anyone might have been in a position to know that the claims of resurrection were fabrications, one or more of these three men would have known. And yet, all three of them went to their deaths still declaring that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Either Peter and the two Jameses were convinced that Jesus was raised and they were mistaken, or they were convinced and they were correct. Based on the evidence, it seems far more likely that they were right than that they were wrong.
5. The canon of the New Testament is resurrection-shaped.
The term “canon” can be traced back to an early Semitic root that meant “tube” or “reed.” Centuries before the birth of Jesus, this loanword developed into kanon, a Greek term that referred to a reed that grows along the Nile River. So how did a word that refers to a tubular reed end up connected to the books in the Bible? It began when the Greeks began cutting the reeds into specific lengths and using them as measuring sticks. Because these reeds functioned as measuring sticks, the Greek word kanon came to denote any tool that set standards and measured limits. In Galatians 6:16, Paul used this term to signify the all-sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice as God’s standard — God’s kanon — for life and faith. By the fourth century A.D., the meaning of the word “canon” had expanded to describe writings that were recognized as the infallible standard for God’s people.
Now, this doesn’t mean that there was no canon of Scripture prior to the fourth century! Before that time, Christians used other phrases to describe the idea of a list of authoritative books. For example, some Christians referred to authoritative texts as those that were “read publicly in the church” to distinguish them from writings that were read privately for the purpose of personal inspiration and devotion.
When it comes to the New Testament and the supposed “lost Gospels,” the basic criterion for inclusion or exclusion was whether or not the document could be traced back to an apostolic eyewitness of the risen Lord Jesus or to a close associate of these eyewitnesses. The so-called “lost Gospels” were never received as authoritative because they did not include reliable, eyewitness testimony about Jesus; they couldn’t be reliably linked to anyone who had walked and talked with Jesus.
When early Christians were confronted with texts that claimed to come from eyewitnesses, they compared these texts with others that they knew came from eyewitnesses or from close associates of these eyewitnesses. For example, in the late second century A.D., a pastor named Serapion ran across a text that claimed to be a Gospel from Peter. When he compared it to texts that he knew came from reliable witnesses, he realized that this supposed “Gospel of Peter” had been falsely ascribed to Peter, and he wrote these words: “We accept the writings of Peter and the other apostles just as we would accept Christ, but, as for those with a name falsely ascribed, we deliberately dismiss them, knowing that no such things have been handed down to us.” Once God’s promises were fulfilled in Jesus and the eyewitnesses of his resurrection passed away, no further texts could be considered authoritative for God’s people.