How useful are apologetics in convincing someone about the truth of the gospel?



Easter is a time when evangelical Christians love to showcase all of their reasons for believing that a man really did rise from the dead 2,000 years ago. We see it in books, sermons and feature-length movies, all seeking to reinforce the faith of the faithful and persuade the skeptics. A brief survey of world religions would easily demonstrate that Christianity is the only one so obsessed with providing rational, tangible, objective evidence for its tenets. None of the other religions even come close.

For example, in modern times, many people have taken pains to research the claims of the Bible, using all the latest scientific, archaeological and literary evidence. One of the first modern pioneers of this approach was C.S. Lewis with his book Mere Christianity. Later came Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict and journalist Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (both of whom began their research with the intent to disprove Christianity but in the process were converted).

These men are apologists. The term apologetic, of course, has nothing to do with being sorry. Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a branch of theology devoted to the defense of the divine origin and authority of Christianity.” Within the study of apologetics, there are at least five branches: Classical, evidential, presuppositional, Reformed epistemology, and cumulative case. Steven B. Cowan's summary of each has been summarized below.

1. Classical apologetics begins by establishing theism as the correct worldview. After that, it presents the historical evidences for the deity of Christ, the trustworthiness of the Scripture, et cetera, to show that Christianity is the best version of theism.

2. Evidentialism is fairly eclectic in its use of various positive evidences and negative critiques, utilizing both philosophical and historical arguments. Miracles do not presuppose God’s existence, but can serve as one sort of evidence for God.

3. Presuppositionalists simply presuppose the truth of Christianity as the proper starting point in apologetics. That is, they argue that all meaning and thought–indeed, every fact–logically presupposes the God of the Scriptures.

4. Reformed epistemology states that if human beings are born with an innate sense of the divine, then people may rightly and rationally come to have a belief in God immediately without the aid of evidence.

5. Cumulative case apologetics is an informed argument that pieces together several types of data into a theory that comprehensively explains that data, and does so better than any alternative hypothesis.

What role are biblical apologetics designed to play? Apologetic arguments inherently appeal to the intellect. But evangelist Ray Comfort insists that when it comes to persuading people to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, the intellect is not the primary impediment. Rather, the conscience, under moral conviction of sin, is what keeps people from believing. As Jesus states in John 3:19-20:

 

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

 

This is in line with the presuppositional position which says that deep down in our heart of hearts, everyone already believes in God. They are merely choosing to suppress that innate knowledge (Romans 1:18-20) in order to avoid facing their guilt.

As a result, no amount of evidence, no matter how compelling, is ever sufficient to counteract this strong aversion to facing one’s accountability to a holy God. This is why Comfort bypasses most intellectual rabbit trails—such as creation/evolution, the integrity of the Bible, and moral absolutes—and goes straight for the jugular. He employs what he believes to be the same tactic that Jesus used (hence, his evangelism training title, “The Way of the Master”). He uses the Law, embodied within the Ten Commandments, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to prick people’s conscience and reveal their desperate need for a Savior.

God could easily write for us in the sky, “Here I am; believe in me!” He could present to every soul on the planet absolute, undeniable, irrefutable proof of his existence, authority and power. But love cannot be coerced. This is probably why Jesus spoke to the multitudes largely in parables, rather than plainly. He would not cast his pearls before swine. So he made faith the key to his riches, rather than forced intellectual assent. As Blaise Pascal has said, “In faith, there is enough light for those who want to believe, and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”

But it is not a blind faith that God has required. It is a reasonable and informed faith, a faith that is grounded in and supported by hard sciences such as biology, statistics, thermodynamics, astronomy, physics, archaeology and more. It is also attested by numerous and credible eyewitness testimonies - the same kind of testimonies that are used to determine the fate of people in our courts of law today. At the time of Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians, over 500 people had witnessed the risen Christ at one time, many of whom were still alive to corroborate Paul. Mass hallucinations do not typically occur on such a scale, but can we call that “proof”? Contrary to what skeptics believe, the Bible does claim to offer “proof” for those who are willing to see it, and it is is in the forensic and historical evidence that documents the veracity and integrity of the resurrection (Acts 1:3, Acts 9:22, Acts 17:31).

Sometimes, people will have legitimate, intellectual hurdles that must be addressed before they can take the plunge of allegiance to Christ. But in order for such endeavors to be profitable, the harder work of being drawn to God, being given an open heart, hearing of God’s Word and being granted repentance for sin must first be accomplished by the God himself (John 6:44, Acts 16:14, Romans 10:17, 2 Timothy 2:24-26). When this is the case, apologetics can be a useful support toward a true, saving faith.

Far more profitable, however, is the regular use of apologetics for fortifying the faith of believers. This is what Jesus did for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27, and it resulted in their edification and strengthened faith. It’s what he provided for doubting Thomas when he showed him the wounds (objective evidence) in his hands and side. Corroborating evidence is welcomed and received by those in whom God’s Spirit dwells, resulting in worship. The same cannot be said for the unregenerate. So apologetics has its place, but also its limits, depending on the condition of the hearer’s heart.

Fortunately, one need not be scientifically inclined or have all the answers to skeptics’ questions in order to be an effective witness. Your personal testimony of how Christ has changed your life is perhaps the most difficult kind of evidence for a skeptic to refute or dismiss. So in that sense, every Christian can be an apologist. As the Apostle writes in 1 Peter 3:15:

 

. . . but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense [Greek: apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect . . .

 

How we live and work and speak and serve are all powerful ways to adorn the gospel. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

This Easter, soak up all the apologetics you can. Rest in the reasonableness of your faith. Worship God for so solid a foundation. And then (unapologetically) declare your hope with joy and confidence to those who have already believed and to those who are yet seeking truth.