Apologetics has a rich cause in Christian history, from Paul to Justin Martyr to Luther’s defenses of reformed theology to CS Lewis.
But today, apologetics seems nearly dead. Most Christians are non-apologists, completely incapable of defending what they believe. They do not really even understand their beliefs, let alone being able to answer the complex questions of our faith: Was God unfair and vengeful in the Old Testament? Why does God allow people to go to hell? Why is the suffering in the world? Why is Christianity narrow-minded? How can Christianity deal with evolution and scientific results?
It is important for us to know these answers, at least on a basic level – both because it gives us strength during our times of weakness, but also because it can help convert those who, based on their relationship with us, see that we have a peace that they desire to have.
But, as I say, most Christians are completely non-apologists: they neither understand what they claim to believe, nor how to defend it.
Perhaps more disappointingly is those who claim to be apologists, but are not. They claim to offer a defense for the Christian faith, but they are not apologists. Many of them are kategorists—they are on the attack, not the defensive. They don’t want to defend the faith but to attack (often mean-spiritedly) any of those who disagree. For a long time I was a poster on a major apologetics website, even winning a few awards; I stopped because I found that for every hundred posts or so, only a handful met the requirements set out by the Bible for apologetics.
So let us look at the key verse in Scripture regarding apologetics – 1 Pet 3:15-17 – and see what we should know as Christians.
“[I]n your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having good conscience, so that when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ shall be put to shame.” –1 Pet 3:15-17, ESV
So what does this tell us Christian apologetics should be about?
1. It is motivated by a desire to honor Christ.
The motivation for apologetics is that we want to honor Christ as holy. We want His name to be a good name, well thought of in our communities. We want people to say that they respect Christ—even if they do not follow Him.
2. It is a defense, not an offense.
Notice that it is the word apologia (defense) that is used, not kategoria (offense). Peter says that we are to be ready to provide a defense – when approached by someone else. The Christian is not the conversation-starter here. But he is never taken off guard. When someone asks him why he has hope in times of suffering he has an answer. When he is asked why he is a creationist rather than an evolutionist, he has an answer. When he is asked about alleged contradictions in Scripture, he has an answer. But he is not the prosecutor in the debate, but the defender.
3. The conversation starts based on your relationship with the other party.
Why does Peter say they ask about faith? Because they have seen “hope” in you, and cannot explain it, so they want you to explain it to them. This was written in a time of great suffering; Peter told his readers to simply remain quiet, peaceful, and content—and those neighbors, friends, and coworkers who saw that peace would want an explanation of it.
What Peter is talking about here is something that I have called before, “passive evangelism”, which is all too often overlooked among modern Christians. We all understand the need for active evangelism—God calls some to be missionaries and go out into the world and preach His good news. But passive evangelism (which is also Biblically sound, as we see in this passage) is often overlooked. What Peter is saying here—in both points #2 and point #3—is that Christianity does not spread by having everyone play the role of evangelist or preacher. This is not effective, because we do not all have the tools of an evangelist or preacher. But for those of us who are Christians, and have the peace of Christ to carry us through our pain and suffering, we have something far more valuable: an example. When our neighbors, friends, coworkers, and family—the people with whom we “do life”—see our peace, they want to understand it. And then they start a conversation with us: not a conversation of debate, but an honest, seeking conversation to learn the source of our peace.
Peter says that this is why we must be prepared to give a defense. But this also implies two things: (1) that we are living in the hope of Christ, so that others will notice our peace; and (2) that we have relationships with unsaved Christians all around us, who might be attracted to our lifestyle.
4. Do it with gentleness and respect.
We are not to talk down to others, or consider ourselves superior. If you have a good understanding of Christian theology, this is not an issue – for you realize that you were brought into the peace of Christ not of your own works, but by God’s grace only. As a result, what reason do you have to feel superior to anyone? You did not climb out of the pit, God lifted you out. So you are no better than the person asking you for the reason for your hope. If you realize and truly believe that—that you are the lowest servant of all, greater than none—then your answer will naturally be one of gentleness and respect.
We are not to disrespect someone’s beliefs, or their person, or respond with sarcasm or belittlement. We are to defend our faith with respect and honor for the other person. Why?
5. If you are reviled, your opponent is put to shame rather than Christ.
There is a fairly well-known internet apologist whom I used to read. He is a very bright individual with extremely good arguments. He does great research. He is very knowledgeable about both history and the sociology contexts of the Bible.
He also violates virtually every point that Peter makes here. He is arrogant, writing for his own superiority. He is a kategorist, not an apologist—always on the offensive, starting fights about faith rather than defending. His answers are sarcastic and belittling, trying to paint those who disagree with him as foolish and uninformed (even giving awards for the dumbest arguments among non-Christians).
Do you know what his ministry has brought? Two observations from when I used to read his work. (1) In the three or four years I read his work—monthly—I never once saw a person converted to our faith. Not once. (2) Internet comments and thread posts on his site also often had this statement: “If you are what a Christian is, then I don’t want to be it. I thought Christians were supposed to be about love…”. You see, Christ’s name wasn’t magnified, it was vilified.
And so, when people reviled him…Christ was the one put to shame. His name was the one that suffered, along with the apologists.
What Peter is saying is that if you follow his method—be prepared, build relationships, answer on defense rather than starting the conversation, be gentle and respectful—then you will win converts. And if you do not win a convert, and the atheist is disrespectful or mean to you, then it is he who loses the respect of other onlookers. His name is put to shame, not Christ’s.
We need more apologetics--but real apologetics, which follow Peter's guidelines. In fact, every Christian should be an apologist. You don’t have to be a theologian—read Lee Strobel’s The Case For… series, and Tim Keller’s Reason for God. That’s it—four or five easy reads, and study your Bible. That is all the seminary you need to be a good apologist. Because Peterine apologetics is not about theology, it is about relationship-building; it is about loving those around you; and it is about knowing the reasons that you believe, so that when those around you want what you have, you can share it effectively with them.