Why Apologetics Has a Bad Name
In the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict, my father and I lay out some of the most recent and compelling historical evidence for the Christian faith. And yet before we present the evidence, we offer some reasons why many Christians dismiss apologetics entirely. The goal of this post is to show that while some people have certainly misused apologetics, there is still a vital need for its proper use today.
There are a number of reasons why people dismiss apologetics. Some comes from a lack of understanding the nature, role, and importance of apologetics. Others lie at the hands of apologists themselves.
Apologists often overstate their case. There is a huge temptation to overstate the evidence for the Bible, intelligent design, the resurrection of Jesus or any other apologetic issue. I have succumbed to this myself. In our eagerness to convince non-believers, or our desire to strengthen fellow Christians, we can all fall prey to the temptation to state things more certainly than they may be. In our information age, people have access to counterarguments and perspectives at the tip of their fingers. We also live in a skeptical age where people who say things with dogmatism are often considered suspect. This does not mean the evidence for Christianity is not compelling. It is. But there are smart, thoughtful people that disagree. And we must acknowledge this, or we’ll set up people—especially young people—for failure.
Apologists often do not speak with gentleness, love and respect. A few years ago, I had a public debate with a skeptic on the question of God and morality. As part of my preparation, I listened to many debates from Christians. Although I won’t mention any names, there were a handful of Christian debaters that honestly made me cringe at how they treated their opponents. One debater (the head of a well-known apologetics ministry that will remain anonymous) demeaned and personally attacked his opponent. I even showed the video to my wife and she was appalled at his antics and behavior. But it’s not just public figures that act this way. We probably all have an example of some overly eager apologist who was unnecessarily argumentative rather than loving. If this is you, PLEASE STOP because you are giving Christianity and apologetics an unnecessarily bad name. I often tell my students that if they can’t speak the truth in love, then don’t even bother to speak truth.
Apologists are often not emotionally healthy. Youth expert Mark Matlock wrote a compelling essay about apologetics and emotional development for my book Apologetics for a New Generation. In it, he argued that apologetics often attracts people who have been emotionally hurt, and in turn, who use apologetics to hurt other people. He’s absolutely right. As Rick Warren has said, “Hurt people, hurt people.” There is power in knowledge. And many people seek power by gaining more information so they can control and even humiliate other people. If you are an apologist, I encourage you to ask yourself some deep questions: Why (honestly) are you an apologist? Is your heart genuinely broken for non-Christians? Do you pray for humility and guidance in your research and conversations with both Christians and non-Christians? I hope so.
Apologetics is often done in a cold, mechanical and rationalistic manner. Many of us think of apologetics as the impersonal deliverance of facts meant to convince people rationally that Christianity is true—as if people are simply robots that conform to whatever is most reasonable! Apologetics is often void of emotion, passion, and good old-fashioned storytelling. Apologetics is often seen as a narrow discipline for lawyers and doctors. But this is not apologetics. It does (or should) engage the mind but through the heart, passions, and emotions. C.S. Lewis beautifully modeled this approach with his use of fiction. Insofar as apologetics is viewed as simply rationalistic, it will fail to captivate people.
The issue is not really apologists versus non-apologists. C.S. Lewis was right that we are all apologists. The question is just how effective of an apologist we are. So, besides these four points, what other reasons are there for why apologetics has a bad name in some circles of Christianity? I’d love to know your thoughts. And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.