Apologetics is the use of arguments to defend the reasonableness of Christian faith or Christian teaching, often to those who don’t believe. But what if it’s more than that?
When I first got really interested in apologetics, I heard a lecture from a Christian apologist who had a string of successful debates behind him. I expected to hear about tools to employ, new arguments to use and the one-liner that would knock any questioner off their feet. I’m still looking for the last one, but there was plenty of the other two, as expected.
Our own real struggles with doubt and suffering, holding on to our hope in Christ, are themselves part of our witness.
What I didn’t expect to hear was reflection on this apologist’s time as a hospital chaplain, of comforting grieving relatives and reflecting on hope in that context.
Back then, I would have separated this presentation into two distinct aspects: apologetics is part of our witness, having the right answers and performing well in debate, and then pastoral care is what we do in the church. But ten years on, I see these more and more as two wings on a plane. Our own real struggles with doubt and suffering, holding on to our hope in Christ, are themselves part of our witness.
When we hear the word ‘apologetics’ we go immediately to 1 Peter 3:15: “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence [apologia] to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” The apologia was the speech in court for the defence, and often these words make us think of the courtroom or debating chamber.
The Christian life was not a debating chamber. It was a battlefield.
But for the Christians Peter was addressing, the Christian life was not a debating chamber. It was a battlefield. The letter begins with assurance of the permanence of their hope in Christ (1:3-5), which is hard for them to hold on to in the midst of a “fiery trial” (1:6-8). They were praised for serving One they hadn’t seen (8-9), as they had to live a very different life from their pagan neighbours (14-16). They had to struggle to do good in the midst of lies and persecution (2:11-12). They faced constant moral dilemmas as the subjects of unbelieving emperors (2:13-15), the slaves of unbelieving masters (18-20) and the wives of unbelieving husbands (3:1-6). The classic text on apologetics is in fact a side-note in a wider discussion of how Christians speak in response to constant slander (3:14-15).
So Peter does not sugar-coat the Christian life. His readers know that is hard and it is sacrificial. And it is inconceivable that Peter’s audience would be living this out without questions of their own – questions which Peter’s letter sought to answer. Because how Christians lived in response to their struggles and doubts was a part of their witness, just as their reasoned defence was.
In fact it is living in this way that creates the opportunities for apologetics. The ‘apologia’ of 1 Peter 3:15 is not a conversation-starter. It’s a response to a question. And that question is not: “where do you Christians get your inner peace?” or “how did you get so rich?” It’s about the hope in which we live.
It’s the same for us today. The Christian life throws up struggles for all of us, and as a result, the first ‘defence’ we’re probably going to make, and the first apologetic encounter we’re going to have, is with ourselves. Despite this, many people outside the church think that the Christian life is one never-ending golden road of easy certainty – and it’s often this that makes them doubt that Jesus is really for them. In this context, the witness of a hope that wrestles with genuine doubt and unanswered questions can be very powerful.
Many people outside the church think that the Christian life is one never-ending golden road of easy certainty – and it’s often this that makes them doubt that Jesus is really for them.
What does this mean in practice for apologetics? Two points spring to mind:
- Don’t ignore your own doubts. The difference between our doubts and the doubts of another person is that it’s far more socially acceptable to ignore our own doubts than it is to ignore someone else’s when they ask. But how we deal with our own questions is a part of our witness. If we look like we’re ignoring our doubts, or taking comfort in superficial answers, those who aren’t Christians will assume that this is how Christians have to deal with doubt in general. In contrast, I’ve got further in such conversations by talking about how I struggle with my Christian faith than I’ve got by winning every argument and having an answer for every question.
- Update your testimony. One of my former pastors challenged us in a sermon to “update your testimony”, much as we speak of updating our CVs. Our testimony is not just our conversion to Christianity, but of the times God has helped us in our struggles since then – including when we’ve struggled with questions about our faith. So why not keep a written record of the times God has answered your doubts and questions as well as when he’s answered your prayers. Then you’ll have something to say to those who believe Christians never doubt.
Maybe if we’re open about our struggles, rather than expecting to give a knock-down argument at every turn, more people will ask us the reason for the hope that is within us.