Apologetics Harms and Offends People


By Gordon Hawkes Apologetics is a dirty word in some circles. But not without reason.

I once heard someone, with heartfelt fervour, explain why he was opposed to it. "Apologetics does real harm," he said. "I know people who have been deeply hurt by apologists. Apologetics makes Christians combative and offensive." I have heard this objection from people I respect and consider to be sincere Christians. As such, we should take this objection seriously.

Many within the church have an aversion to even the word "apologetics" because of the connotations it carries for them. The thought of becoming a Christian "apologist" would be, for them, comparable to the thought of becoming an obnoxious boor, or an aggressive, argumentative know-it-all.

Theological Rambo

The negative caricature of a Christian apologist comes readily to mind. One pictures a theological Rambo, locked and loaded with a string of rhetorical bullets strapped across his chest, ready to blow away any enemy foolish enough to contradict even the most minor doctrine of the Strudelberg Catechism of 1726. He sneak-attacks you with his sharpened blade of truth, cutting you down before you can finish your thought. He fires a bazooka at your smallest doubt, lobs hand grenades at your hidden logical fallacies, and blasts you with his machine gun delivery until your position is so full of holes it collapses in a bloody heap. This warrior of the faith is covered in the blood of his past foes.

For some Christians, this metaphor is not hyperbole.

Sadly, there is some truth to this objection, but I think the objection against apologetics as a whole arises from a misunderstanding. Admittedly, there are some who go by the name of "apologist" who are jerks. They show little or no respect for their opponents, and their attitude implies they have singlehandedly discovered ultimate Truth, and all who oppose them do so merely out of petty spite. But are these people good representatives of Christian apologetics?

No. Most decidedly not. Scripture condemns such behaviour. Over and over in this series, we have pointed to 1 Peter 3:15, one passage among many that provides the grounding and rationale for Christian apologetics: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."[1] But Peter doesn't stop there. He goes on to say, "But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (emphasis added). Any theological Rambo stands condemned by the very book he seeks to defend.

Attractive and Winsome Ambassadors

Scripture is clear as to how we are to conduct ourselves. We should be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19). Solomon warns us, "To answer before listening—that is folly and shame" (Proverbs 18:13). Jesus tells us that we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves, and Paul tells us that "love is patient, love is kind . . . it is not proud. It is not rude" (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). How could one follow these words and be offensive?

"I opened Mere Christianity and found myself . . . face-to-face with an intellect so disciplined, so lucid, so relentlessly logical that I could only be grateful I had never faced him in a court of law." —Charles ColsonOnce, when a friend posed this objection to me, I responded, "I completely agree that we shouldn't be seeking to argue. Our goal can't be to win arguments, or smash people who disagree. But, for me, apologetics is about being ready and able, when the opportunity presents itself, to explain Christianity in terms that people can understand. It's about being able to remove obstacles that people have in their minds to believing in Christ. It's about becoming attractive and winsome ambassadors for Christ. The goal isn't to convert people every conversation; instead, the goal is to put stones in people's shoes, to plant seeds in their minds, by gently challenging their beliefs—with questions, with polite responses. Apologetics is a tool we can use to help people think clearly about reality."

"I have no problem with that," he said. Once he understood apologetics rightly, his opposition disappeared.

Put in the correct light, Christian apologetics—insofar as it is consistent with the teachings of Christ and Scripture—cannot be done in a pompous, superior, attacking, vicious way. Giving an answer "with gentleness and respect" means speaking with sensitivity toward one's conversation partner, and with an approach that acknowledges and maintains their dignity as a human being made in God's image. This means we don't callously disregard people's feelings, and we never seek to manipulate them into agreeing with us.

We must acknowledge that apologists—just like every follower of Christ—have failed to live up to the standards set in Scripture. The Rambo mentality is clearly an error, and a mistaken view of Christian apologetics.

We Musn't Be Tricked Into Silence

If I were to stop this article here, however, I fear some readers would fall into an opposite, and equally pernicious, error. I suspect that some might conclude that we ought never to offer arguments against other religions, or challenge the beliefs of our friends, or write pointed letters to the editor; that we have no obligation to defend Christianity either in the public square or in private. Instead, we ought to merely wait meekly to "give an answer" when asked.

Besides, in our culture, opposing people's religious beliefs is offensive. Many consider it to be downright rude. Doesn't Paul tell us that we should never be rude? And doesn't being gentle and sensitive mean that we shouldn't ruffle people's feathers?

We must be clear in our own minds that it is not rude or inappropriate to oppose others' beliefs with arguments, let alone politely disagree. But we must also be clear that our culture thinks it is indeed both rude and inappropriate to claim openly that other religious beliefs are false. How do we reconcile these two things?

First, we must understand why people think it's rude to claim other religions are false. There is an all-pervasive notion in our culture that every religious view is equally valid. There is no objective reality when it comes to religion. Rather, religion is subjective. In other words, each person decides for herself what is true for her. If you tell someone that Jesus is the only way to God, he will hear you saying something as absurd as, "You are wrong for not liking country music!" Who are you to tell him what music he should or shouldn't like?

As a result, to oppose a person's religious beliefs is to oppose the person himself. Any attack on someone's religious beliefs is like an attack on his taste in music. It's an attack on something very personal to him. No wonder people think it's both rude and inappropriate.

Notice, though, that this sensitivity is only the case for religious (and moral) beliefs. I suspect no math teacher has ever presented the Pythagorean theorem and had the response, "Who are you to judge?" And presumably, you've never heard someone say, "Well, everyone has a right to his or her own scientific beliefs!" (Not to mention: "Oh, that's just science!" or "Give me one non-scientific reason why I should agree!")

Now, it is absolutely essential that we understand the contradiction inherent in this broad notion, known as religious pluralism. When someone condemns Christians for claiming that other religious views are wrong, what is that person doing? That person is claiming that the Christian religious view is wrong, the very thing he is condemning Christians for doing! Our culture will shame us for being "exclusive," "intolerant," and "narrow-minded," but we need to recognize such shaming for what it is: a bald attempt to get us to convert to their religious view, namely, religious pluralism. Either Christianity is true and pluralism is false, or vice versa. We can't have it both ways. So we should never be tricked into silence by this shame game.

In other words, we don't need to be ashamed for trying to convert people with respectful and polite arguments. The culture is trying to convert us with shame and insults. Which method of engaging people do you think is more respectful, more honest? Shaming and insulting people as if they were a puppy who's peed on the carpet? Or offering them arguments and reasons as if they were a dignified adult?

There is No Way Around Giving Offense

Every age has its characteristic vices, and, to paraphrase a great writer, the fashionable outcry is always aimed against those vices of which it is in the least danger. In making this objection, our rush to condemn theological Rambos and bellicose blowhards reveals something about us. Think for a moment: Are you in any danger of being too bold in sharing your beliefs with others? Are you too zealous in your efforts to fulfil the Great Commission? Are you too bold, too loud, too rancorous in your opposition of lies and bad arguments against Christianity? I suspect, if you are like me, you shrink at the first sign of opposition. Cowardice, not fanaticism, is most likely your vice. (If you read the previous words and think, "Not me!"—be careful that you are not the obnoxious blowhard already discussed.)

In order to be faithful to Christ, who charged us to "make disciples" of all nations, we cannot avoid sharing the gospel. And we need to remember one simple truth: the gospel is offensive. The gospel says that we are all evil, twisted, corrupt, God-haters. This is the bad news, and it is offensive. (Have you told your mom that she's a twisted, evil, God-hater anytime lately?) But without the offensive bad news, there's no good news. If there's no sin, what did Jesus save us from?

I like to think of apologetics as a means of minimizing the offence we give in sharing the gospel. The better we learn to graciously explain the truth about reality, in a winsome, attractive manner, the less needless offence we will give. By offering reasons for what we believe, we express respect for the intelligence of others. As one apologist puts it, "The gospel is offensive enough. Don't add any more offence to it." So, study apologetics to minimize offence in sharing the gospel!

Apologetics is a tool, and tools can be misused. I'm reminded of the childhood board game, Clue. In the game, regular household items are potential murder weapons. ("Colonel Mustard . . . in the library . . . with the wrench!") Poor Mr. Boddy, the victim, is brutalized by something meant for a good purpose. We should remember, then, that apologetics is a tool—a powerful tool—that must be used properly. We don't need any more Mr. Boddys being clobbered by would-be-apologists. ("Mrs. White . . . in the church foyer . . . with the Cosmological Argument!") But we also need to be aware of those who will cry "Murder!" in order to shame us, in the hope that we'll play dead. The balance we must strike is expressed perfectly by Jesus in His instructions to His disciples: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

[1] Scripture citations are taken from the New International Version (NIV).