By Spencer Gear
I was talking with a Christian who was devastated by a program he had seen on SBS TV, “Jesus to Christ.” This show featured some scholars who claimed that the Gospels are essentially myth and could not be trusted as historical documents. My friend was so upset by what he heard that he said to me, “I am shocked. My faith has been shaken to the core. I am numb in disbelief. As a Christian, have I been living a fantasy all this time?”
This TV show featured scholars who were doubters about Bible content. If you read Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan, you will learn that Luke 2:41-52, the story of Jesus' youthful wisdom, and Luke 4:1-30, Jesus' wisdom in finding and interpreting a certain passage from Isaiah, are in his opinion (wait for it): “Lukan propaganda.” It was propaganda made up by Luke.
Crossan also concludes, as “history's best guess,” that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but
was born, possibly . . . to Joseph and Mary at Nazareth. . . . He was born into but not necessarily as the first of a large family and had at least six siblings. The rest is mythology, telling us much about Jesus' later followers but nothing about Jesus' earlier origins, telling us how future history might be founded but not at all how past history had happened.
In other words, the early church created some of this information in the Gospels and the Gospels contains myth. It didn't happen historically but was invented by the Gospel writers or by the early church.
When you read or listen to the mass media at Christmas and Easter times, you generally will hear from those who do not believe the Gospel and do not trust the historical authenticity of the Bible. You'll hear people such as Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and others who doubt the Bible. You might get the occasional orthodox believer.
There is a new breed of Bible bashers in the world today. These scholars have been in the closets of academic institutions. But no more! They are taking their message to the world through the popular mass media – newspapers, magazines, television, radio, writing their own books at a popular level, and the Internet. They could have their message of tearing into the Bible in Time magazine, any of the leading Australian newspapers, TV current affairs, radio news and talk-back shows.
In building a case to support Bishop Spong's opposition to fundamentalism, there was an article in The Canberra Times,titled, “The Gospel Truth?” In my view, the journalist used a number of unfair methods to distort the views of Bible-believing Christians. I was living in Canberra at the time, so I submitted an article as a right of reply and The Canberra Times published it as “Distorting the Gospel Truth.”
Use your favourite search engine on the www and make a search for the teachings of Anglican Primate of Australia, Dr. Peter Carnley, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk and Burton Mack. You might be surprised at what you'll find that is antagonistic to the Gospels and the reliability of the Bible.
Many of these doubters and destroyers come from within the church. How will your faith deal with their destructive claims about God, Christ and the Bible?
There's a new kind of missionary group that is very active in the world today. Greg Koukl, a Christian apologist, says they
“practise evangelism in reverse. They don't want you to commit your life to the Christ of the Gospels; they want you to surrender that commitment. And they claim to have history, science and scholarship on their side. They call themselves The Jesus Seminar.”
This new group has been active since 1985.
When you see these people in the mass media or hear their teaching in some churches or on the www, how will you respond?
What about our youth who may get this doubt and castigation in high school and university classrooms? Has the church adequately prepared its people for this tirade against God, the Bible and Jesus? These are some of the newspaper headlines these scholars have grabbed:
- “Scholars Say Jesus Was Often Misquoted.”
- “Jesus Didn't Claim to Be Messiah, Scholars Say.”
- “Lord's Prayer Not Jesus's, Scholars Say.”
- “Jesus Never Predicted His Return, Scholars Say.”
- “Jesus Didn't Promise to Return, Bible Scholars Group Says.”
This is only a sample, but they could be repeated many times over in our mass media.
What will you do, Christian leader, when one of your flock comes to you with questions from these newspaper articles? What answers will you provide? Are you simply going to say, “Go read your Bible” or “Make sure you are at mid-week Bible study and keep up your devotions and praying”?
When I say that, “I believe in Jesus Christ and that the Bible is a dependable record,?” which TV news reporter will rush for an interview with me? But, you claim to be a Bible scholar and make this kind of statement, what will happen? If you say, “I don't believe in the traditional, historical Jesus Christ; the Gospels cannot be trusted, contain myth, and were made up by Christians long after the events of the Gospels,” you will have the media pounding on your door. That's news and it makes sense for the journalists to be interviewing scholars about a story – with a difference.
Then add the September 11 disaster, the cyclone that devastated Burma, the horror of the earthquake in China, the tsunami, and we have lots of questions being thrown at Christian believers: How can you believe in such a God who allows or sends these? He must be a brute!
This is the kind of world we face in 2009.
I consider that we are in a crisis in many evangelical churches because we are failing to equip Christians to answer these questions for themselves and to provide answers for questioners. I had a recent example where I was talking to a man who was an abuser of his wife. I asked him: “Where did you learn to abuse your spouse?” He responded: “I read it in the Book, the one with a cross on it. That’s a violent book!”
This leads to the core of this article:
We need to be answering questions about God and the world
I am convinced that as a general rule, many churches are not equipping their people adequately for the critical ministry of apologetics. Ephesians 4:11-15 provides direction for us. Note these fundamentals in this passage:
- These are the ministry gifts of Christ – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. They are for what purpose?
- They are given "to equip the saints for the work of ministry" (v. 12). This includes equipping for many ministries, including the ministry of apologetics. This will lead to this outcome:
- According to v. 14, it means that we will no longer be children in the faith, tossed about by false doctrine and human cunning, craftiness and deceitful schemes.
- Where does this equipping ministry begin? The responsibility lies at the feet of church leaders who are committed to the scriptural ministry of equipping believers for their work of ministry.
1. What is apologetics?
Woody Allen, the American actor, director, musician and comedian, asked: “Can we actually 'know' the universe? My God, it's hard enough to find your way around in Chinatown. The point, however, is: Is there anything out there? And why?” Woody retorted: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.”
You might wonder why I would bother quoting a comedian with an objection and response like this. Woody gets the publicity but ordinary people in our world are asking similar questions and need more accurate answers than those of a comedian.
What kinds of questions are people asking?
- Is there meaning in life? How can modern human beings find that meaning? I have counselled a number of people on the verge of suicide over the years who are asking these questions.
- Can we ever discover truth in a postmodern world?
- How can you know that Christianity is true, over against Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, paganism or spiritism?
- How can you know if the Bible is a trustworthy document when compared with any document from history?
Those are the types of questions that the ministry of apologetics seeks to answer.
Apologist Winfried Corduan wrote:
the defence of the truth of Christianity is called apologetics. The Greek word apologia (defence) is the word that would be used to defend one's case in a court of law. Thus the Christian should be able to state what he or she believes, and why. Apologetics helps the Christian mount a credible case for the truth of Christianity.
The English word, “apology,” has a different meaning to the Greek noun. The Greek noun, apologia (defence) and the verbal form, apologoumai (I make a defence) appear approximately 20 times in the Greek New Testament.
2. I need to apologise for apologetics
Since I have been promoting the need for more apologetic teaching within the church for a number of years, there has been some resistance among Christians. Objections include these:
- You can’t argue anybody into the kingdom.
- Apologetics only caters to pride.
- Conversion is not about the intellect; it is all about the heart.
- You are only catering to the intellectuals and this is not for everyday people.
Apologetics is a ministry that defends itself. All who argue against the ministry of apologetics end up using their own kind of apologetic argument. Ravi Zacharias, one of today’s leading apologists, said it well,
The one who says apologetics is a matter of pride ends up proudly defending one's own impoverishment. The one who says conversion is a matter of the heart and not the intellect ends up presenting intellectual arguments to convince others of this position. So goes the process of self contradiction.
What are some reasons why the church should be equipping God's people for an apologetics ministry?
Reasons for Defending the Faith
I am grateful for the excellent work of apologist and theologian, Dr. Norman Geisler. He gives these reasons for defending the faith and I use his outline:
1. God Commands the Use of Reason
The most important reason for doing apologetics is that God told us to do it. Over and over the New Testament exhorts us to defend the Faith. Let's look briefly at some primary verses in 1 Peter 3:15-16a:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
Note the five straightforward emphases from these two verses:
a. You are already acknowledging Christ as the Lord in your hearts.
Peter links doing apologetics with Christ’s Lordship in our hearts. Since he is Lord, then we should be obedient to Him as
… we demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
We should be confronting issues in our own minds and entering into private and public discourse with others who have doubts that are preventing them from knowing God. This is included in the ministry of apologetics.
b. “Always be prepared”
It couldn’t be clearer. All believers must be ready and prepared. This is emphasised with the words, “Everyone who asks.” All believers must be prepared for that person who asks about your faith. Too often we miss the subtle ways that people ask or hint. I recall one who asked me, “Why are so many teenagers depressed?”
What an opportunity to discuss meaning in life and the Gospel connection!
You may not come across those who ask the tough questions about our faith all that often, but you should be prepared for them when they come. Being ready is not just a matter of having the right information available. It is also an attitude of readiness and eagerness to share with others the truth of what we believe.
What will you say if somebody asks you:
Who say to you:
- “You have the meanest most obnoxious God! Look what he did in killing all those people in the Chinese earthquake and causing such destruction. Take a read of the Book of Judges in the OT. He must be a monster!
- Scientific, modern human beings can never believe in miracles. That's outof- date stuff. That nonsense is for old-timers.
I speak with people who say that Christianity is a myth. Are you prepared to respond?
c. We must be prepared “to give an answer.”
Notice these various Bible translations of 1 Peter 3:15: The KJV and NIV use the phrase “to give an answer.” However the NKJV, NASB, ESV and NRSV state: “to give/make a defense.”
Be ready “to give an answer” somewhat disguises the meaning of apologia, which means to give a defence as in a court. The NKJV, NASB, ESV and NRSV provide the more precise translation.
First Peter 3:15 tells us what we are to provide:
d. A defence for the hope you have in Christ.
It is here that we sometimes become stuck. We make assertions like: “I’m a born again Christian” or “my hope for the present and the future is in Christ for eternal life,” but we are not prepared for these kinds of reactions:
- Who would believe that junk?
- The Bible is just like Greek mythology.
- As with John D. Crossan, parts of Luke's Gospel are “Lukan propaganda.”
- You believe in God; you believe in fantasy;
- You can’t believe in God and Christ and still believe in science.
e. Do it “with gentleness and respect.”
These kinds of questions can naturally cause us to become defensive, sarcastic and antagonistic in our responses.
There's no place for self-assured cockiness in apologetics. Putting people down is contrary to the way of Jesus. I'm reminded of Colossians 4:5-6 and how we ought to do evangelism, apologetics and many other ministries:
Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of your time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (ESV).
This word, “answer” is used only once by Paul in his epistles but seven times in the NT and is not apologia, but apokrinomai, which means an answer or reply to something or someone when they ask.
Remember God's emphasis in Isaiah 1:18:
'Come now, let us reason together,' says the LORD. 'Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.'
So is the use of reason opposed to the Bible? Obviously not!
Paul wrote in Philippians 1:7, speaking of his mission as one of “defense and confirmation of the gospel” (ESV). There’s that word again, "defence" (apologia). He added in Phil. 1:16, "I am put here for the defense of the gospel" (ESV). We are put wherever God has placed us to defend the Gospel as well. We are here to be apologists for the Gospel and that means providing a defence of the faith to those who ask us for reasons to believe in Christ.
You are familiar with Jude 3:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
The people Jude was writing to had been assaulted by false teachers and he needed to encourage them to contend (literally, agonise for) the faith as it had been revealed through Christ. Jude makes a significant statement about our attitude as we do this in verse 22 when he says, "Be merciful to those who doubt." Apologetics, then, is a form of mercy.
Titus 1:9 makes knowledge of Christian evidences a requirement for church leadership. An elder in the church
must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
In 2 Tim. 2:24-25 Paul declares:
the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
Anyone attempting to answer the questions of unbelievers will sometimes feel wronged and be tempted to lose patience. Avoid quarrelling. Our ultimate goal is that they might come to knowledge of the truth that Jesus has died for their sins.
Indeed, the command to use reason is part of the greatest command. For Jesus said,
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37-38).
Why engage in the ministry of apologetics? Firstly, God commands the use of reason.
2. Reason Demands It
Take a look at yourself. Do you just buy any old or new car? You have your reasons for purchasing this car instead of that one.
Why have you chosen to worship the Lord of the universe as revealed in the Holy Bible, rather than the God of the Quran, the gods of the Hindus, or choosing not to worship at all? Why?
When God created you in His image, He created you with human reason (Genesis 1:27, cf. Colossians 3:10). One of the things that distinguishes us from "brute beasts" or “unreasonable animals” (Jude 10, ESV) is our ability to reason and have a relationship with God.
God calls, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). John the apostle affirms that “we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6). According to Hebrews 5:14, mature believers “have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV).
Are you getting the message? A fundamental principle of human reason is that we should have sufficient grounds for what we believe. An unjustified belief is just that—unjustified.
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And an unexamined belief is not worth believing. Therefore, God's requirement is for all of us to be able "to give a reason for our hope." I understand this to be part of the great command to love God with all of our minds, as well as with our hearts and souls (Matthew 22:36-37).
The third reason for engaging in the ministry of apologetics is:
3. The World Needs It
Many secular people I speak with are not prepared to accept our Jesus and the Bible on our say-so. They want to know why you believe that "nonsense." God made us as rational, reasonable human beings and He wants us to look before we leap.
Please understand that faith is always needed but God wants us to make a step of faith in the direction of evidence concerning Himself. You need to know that this God is the one who matches reality and is not any kind of God. You wouldn't get into your car and drive it if there was smoke coming from under the bonnet. You have reasons not to drive that vehicle. Evidence and reason are important to establish whether you should drive that car. Evidence and reason are even more important when making the ultimate decision of your life: Will I believe in God? Which god?
4. Results Confirm It
One of the reasons against apologetics that people sometimes give me is that Paul was a failure on Mars Hill (Acts 17). Norman Geisler has correctly diagnosed this situation:
Opponents argue that Paul was unsuccessful in his attempt to reach the thinkers on Mars Hill (in Acts 17), discarding the method and later telling the Corinthians that he wanted to “know Jesus and Him only” (1 Cor. 2:2). However, this interpretation is based on a serious misunderstanding of the text.
For one thing, Paul did have results on Mars Hill. For some people were saved, including a philosopher. The text says clearly “A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:34).
For another thing, nowhere in either Acts or 1 Corinthians does Paul indicate any repentance or even regret over what he did on Mars Hill. This is reading into the text what simply is not there.
There are people throughout history and in our contemporary world who were led to faith in Christ through a defence of the faith?
a. Augustine of Hippo
This early church father lived from A.D. 354- 430. He “is considered one of the great fathers of the Christian church, and has been of momentous importance in the development of Christian thought.” There were a number of apologetic turning points in his life before he became a Christian.
He was into Manichaean dualism and he was helped out of that cult by a young Christian, Helpidius, who would debate the Manicheans. A defence of the faith helped Augustine out of total scepticism and to see the self-defeating nature of Manichaean religion.
Dualism claims that there are two essentially different principles of reality. Sometimes these two are represented by pairs of opposites as light/darkness, knowledge/ignorance, spirit/matter (also mind/body), Good/Evil, etc.
But the Manicheans were a major Gnostic religion, started by Mani in 3rd century Persia. They believed in "radical dualism", that these “two principles are absolutely contrary (neither bipolar nor binary!), i.e. they oppose each other in their very essences and have nothing in common, and they are eternal, non-created and indestructible.”
Augustine tells that if it were not for his studying Plotinus, “he would not even [have] been able to conceive of a spiritual being, let alone believe in one.” Read of it in Augustine's autobiography, Confessions.
From the ancient past to the present!
b. Ravi Zacharias
This contemporary Christian apologist, born in India, now travels the world defending the Christian faith. But it was not always that way. In his teen years he tells of how he would skip school for days on end and arrive for exams and barely scrape through. He wrote:
My relationship with my father left a lot to be desired and my aimless life was a cause of immense frustration to him.
Ravi's father found out that he had not been at school one day and Dad's "torrent of anger" was unleashed on him and the thrashing he received left him "trembling and sobbing." Had his mother not intervened, he "could have been seriously hurt."
Ravi explains that
no one who knew me would have ever suspected the depth of emptiness within me. I was one of those teenagers who struggled with much on the inside but did not know where to turn for answers. Putting it plainly, life to me just did not make sense.
That night, in his teens, after a trouncing from his father, Ravi says:
The intense soul search that began that night was ultimately to lead me to the person of Jesus Christ. How that happened in a culture that is rigorously pantheistic and (at least on paper) religiously all-encompassing is a miracle in itself.
You can read of Ravi's struggle with scepticism, the meaning of life and how Christ saved this man, in his book, Jesus among Other Gods. The struggle for the meaning of life in a pantheistic culture, led him to “firmly believe Jesus Christ to be who He claimed to be—the Son of the living God, the One who came to seek and to save a lost humanity.”
Ravi Zacharias migrated to Canada when he was 20 years old. Today he, as a Christian apologist,
has spoken in over fifty countries, including the Middle East, Vietnam and Cambodia (during the military conflict) and in numerous universities worldwide, notably Harvard, Princeton and Oxford Universities. He has addressed writers of the peace accord in South Africa, the President's . . . cabinet and parliament in Peru, and military officers at the Lenin Military Academy and the Center for Geopolitical Strategy in Moscow.
But this journey began as a troubled teenager in India who was on the verge of committing suicide.
c. Frank Morrison
[This] sceptic set out to disprove Christianity by showing the resurrection never occurred. The quest ended with his conversion and a book entitled Who Moved the Stone? in which the first chapter was titled ‘The Book That Refused to be Written’
Norman Geisler tells this story of the impact of Frank Morrison’s book:
Let me tell you just one story about an atheist I had the privilege of introducing to Jesus Christ. After reasoning him from atheists to open-minded agnosticism, he agreed to read Frank Morrison's book. The evidence for Christ's resurrection convinced him and we had the privilege of leading him to Christ. He has subsequently raised his family for Christ and is a leader in a church south of St. Louis.
d. Simon Greenleaf
At the beginning of the 20th century, Greenleaf was the Professor of Law at Harvard University, who wrote a significant book on legal evidence. He was challenged by students to apply the rules of legal evidence to the New Testament to see if its testimony would stand up in court. The result was a book titled The Testimony of the Evangelists in which he reported his own conversion to Christ.
Ravi Zacharias, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig and other apologists report of those who come to Christ as a result of a defence of the faith. Norman Geisler gave another example:
Following a debate on the rationality of belief in Christianity with the head of the philosophy department at the University of Miami, the Christian student leadership held a follow-up meeting. The atheist professor attended and expressed doubts about his view expressed at the debate. It was reported that some 14 people who had attended the debate made decisions for Christ.
These are some of the reasons for the need for a ministry of apologetics in the 21st century. This ministry needs to be equipped and promoted by the local church.
I have a very personal application that fired me up in the ministry of apologetics. I was sitting in a doctoral class in a certain American university. In class, I questioned one of the examples of evolution in a textbook. I did not mention a word about Christ or creation, but the professor unleashed his bitterness towards my comments: "Your views are blankety blank" and he swore at me. He later apologised to me privately, but not in front of the class where he assailed me.
I felt spiritually naked that day. I did not know how to respond to him. I had two diplomas from Bible colleges, a BA in biblical literature and NT Greek, and a master's degree in pastoral psychology and counselling, but I had not done one course in apologetics to prepare me for that day.
Since 1984, I have made it my business to prepare myself and others in the defence of the glorious Christian faith. I needed to put I Peter 3:15 into practice:
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
1. The best introduction to apologetics for the laity that I have read is by Stephen Gaukroger 2003, It Makes Sense,Scripture Union, London. The latest edition comes with a DVD and study guide. I recommend it highly for study as a group.
2. Ravi Zacharias & Norman Geisler (gen. eds.) 2003, Who Made God? And Answers to Over 100 Other Tough Questions of Faith, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter.
3. Ravi Zacharias & Norman Geisler (gen. eds.) 2003, Is Your Church Ready? Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the conclusion of each chapter, this book also has "questions for reflection and discussion."
4. Norman Geisler & Ron Brooks 1990, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois.
5. Winfried Corduan 1993, Reasonable Faith: Basic Christian Apologetics, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee.
6. Lee Strobel has some good material in his books, The Case for Christ (1998), The Case for the Real Jesus (2007), The Case for a Creator (2005), The Case for Faith (2000), Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
7. If you want something more intellectually challenging, try William Lane Craig 1994, Reasonable Faith, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois, or Norman Geisler 1988, Christian Apologetics, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan.