Heartless Apologetics or How NOT to Defend the Faith


The popular Catholic theologian Scott Hahn has correctly noted that some people, “practice apologetics as a full-contact sport or as take-no-prisoners warfare.  For such apologists, the goal is to win the argument, even if that means utterly humiliating their ‘enemies.”  For many Christians, apologetics has become a form of mental jousting in which the primary goal is to deliver crushing blows to the pathetic beliefs of their enemies.  This unfortunate approach is what I like to call heartless apologetics and its practitioners have bought into several lies which I feel compelled to point out:

  1. Heartless apologists mistakenly believe they can win people to Christ through intellectually “backhanding” non-believers.

The goal of apologetics is not to flaunt your intellectual superiority or to demean others who hold false beliefs.  If you think or act as if you are superior to other human beings simply because you have a quick wit and know several slick arguments for the existence of God, then you are a fool.  If you think you are successfully engaging a persons heart after intellectually slapping them in the face, then you are an incredibly ineffective fool.

Effective apologetics begins with love; a genuine love, in your heart, for other people.  It is founded upon a deep and sincere hurt for those who are in bondage to sin and have been captivated and led astray by false worldly wisdom.  It flows out of a loving desire to help those who are drowning in a sea of doubt.  The effective apologist will always treat his “opponent” with respect and dignity and genuinely attempt to understand who they are and why they believe the things they do.  This can only take place through meaningful conversations and with a certain amount of humility.

The heartless apologist tends to emphasis St. Peter’s call to, “make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you,” while ignoring his admonition to engage in such apologetics with, “gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).  He relies, primarily, upon his own knowledge and intellect–using these tools as a weapon to take his opponent down.  When all is said and done, there is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that he enjoys after humiliating his sparing partner.  There is a certain amount of pride that he takes in belittling the beliefs of his enemy; and, whether he knows it or not, this pride manifests itself in every encounter he has with non-believers.

The scriptures teach us that all men are made in the image of God (this includes atheists and charlatans) and are, therefore, valuable and lovable.  It teaches us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves; and even to love our enemies.  Hence, we should not gloat over our enemies or take pleasure in defeating them.  As the scriptures say, “do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the Lord see it, and be displeased” (Proverbs 24:17-18).  In everything we do we should do it out of love–love for God and love for those made in His image.  Hence, the effective apologist will not make it his aim to beat down his enemy; rather, he will seek to build him up by using his intellectually abilities to point him to the truth which can set him free.

2. Heartless apologists mistakenly believe their great intellect or education will make the Word of the cross “respectable.”  

The heartless apologist puts all of his trust in his intellectual abilities and often puts a lot of stock in his education.  He works hard to hone his abilities through intensive study and sincerely believes that his extensive knowledge coupled with the acquisition of a Ph.D will earn him the utmost respect among non-believers.  The underlying assumption is that attaining these worldly measurements of wisdom will somehow make the gospel respectable among the cultured elite of his day.  In short, his aim is to make the message of the cross less “foolish” through his great learning and scholarly accomplishments.

Again, this approach misses the whole point of apologetics while ignoring the Bible’s clear teaching on the matter.  The primary goal of apologetics is to direct lost sheep to Jesus and to help tear down the barriers which hinder the lost from putting their faith in God.  Secondarily, apologetics is meant to edify believers by providing rational answers to common, and uncommon, questions, concerns, and challenges to the faith.  The goal of apologetics is not to impress people with your great learning or to somehow make Christianity respectable in a worldly sense.

The Word of the cross will never be respectable among those who do not believe no matter how many Ph.D’s you have behind your name.  St. Paul states clearly that, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . . for Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:18-23).  You may be a genius and you may have attained the highest education in the land but you will still be laughed at and treated like an idiot when you proclaim Christ crucified (no matter how brilliantly you proclaim it).

The word of the cross will always seem foolish to those who do not believe no matter who is proclaiming it and this is okay; because it is not our goal as apologists to make the word of the cross “respectable.”  Our goal is to point people to the word of the cross.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating some form of anti-intellectualism.  I strongly believe that we are to love the Lord through cultivating our mind.  It is extremely important for Christians to be knowledgeable of science and philosophy and to grow in the knowledge of their faith.  It is imperative that Christians enter the world of academia and earn Ph.D’s.  I myself hope to earn a Ph.D in the future.  I’m not disparaging these important pursuits; I’m arguing that we should not put all of our trust in them.  I’m simply pointing out that no amount of intellectualism will make the gospel passe among non-believers and that the goal of apologetics is not to impress the world with our knowledge.

When all is said and done, we must view apologetics as a crucial part of fulfilling Christ’s command to go and make disciples of all  nations and we must engage in apologetics with the heart of Christ–as an act of love.  We defend the faith in order to lead the lost to Christ and to strengthen the faith of struggling believers–not to show off.

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4 thoughts on “Heartless Apologetics or How NOT to Defend the Faith

  1. The problem with our reading of 1 Peter 3:15 is our misplaced emphasis on the word ‘defense’. If one were to read the passage in its context , one would discover that Peter is basically showing the irrationality of the Christian faith with statements like: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” Apologetics (in the most base and even vulgar sense) is an activity for the naive. (1) Does God need us to defend him? Can’t he defend himself? If God is God then we need him to defend us not the other way around. (2) If God is the true absolute transcendent perfect being then he is bound to defy our earthly categories. Although we have some glimpses of eternal truth our understanding is bound to fail because if we could understand him in his fullness, he is not God, we are. Why then spend time figuring him out. Why not develop a relationship with him? Peter’s emphasis in this passage is “the hope that we have.” We spend a lot of time bickering about the minutiae of argumentation when Paul’s admonition was “tell em’ why you have hope.” If you’re a Christian the answer to this question is simple: “Because Jesus is alive and you can talk to him if you want.” That’s what Peter himself did in Acts 4. Apologetics is the game pretentious Christians play to make Christianity sound quasi intellectual. That which sounds stupid is not necessarily stupid.

    1. Doesn’t developing a relationship with God entail also a seeking of knowledge of Him? You don’t have an impersonal personal relationship. You must have knowledge of an individual and who they are to seek to know and mimic. We can know God truly but will never know Him exhaustively. Can we “figure out” God? No, for the finite can not nor ever will understand the infinite. Just like I will never truly understand my wife fully, because I am not a woman, but yet we can have a relationship of mutual friendship based upon time spent communicating.

      In regards to being a recovering radical apologist, I will say as my good buddy Benny Hinn once said “I apologize for being an apologist.” As Paul told the Corinthian Church though, in your thinking don’t be childish but be mature, but in evil be infants. We are told also to take every thought captive to the will of God. Unfortunately the modern Church has forgotten how to think and we just go about mindless being blown around by every wind of doctrine. In MY opinion I think apologetics is more for the beliver and the Church to grow in their faith amidst doctrinal error and New York Times superstars writing historical nonsense. Will they indeed be like the wind someday and be no more, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes? Yes. But at the same time as leaders in our local congregations we/the elders are to train up the Sheep and protect them from the wolves and the lion that seeks to devour by pointing out the danger and leaven of the Pharisee’s … also being aware of our own leaven we are producing. It all comes down to the title of the post I think, not being heartless in our discussion, but allowing and striving for the goal of our instruction be love from a pure heart and living our apologetic.

    2. “The problem with our reading of 1 Peter 3:15 is our misplaced emphasis on the word ‘defense’. If one were to read the passage in its context , one would discover that Peter is basically showing the irrationality of the Christian faith with statements like: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.””

      The ‘irrationality’ of the Christian faith – I have understand ‘irrational’ in the traditional meaning; illogical, absurd, etc. – seems to be quite the topic these days (cf. John Wilkinson’s “No Argument for God”), but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how these admonitions demonstrate irrationality. To be sure, Peter requires of his hearers – and Christ of all of us – responses which go against worldly wisdom and expectation. I’m just not sure I would call that irrational, as much as I would consider it a demonstration of God’s love. I mean, it’s irrational to disobey God, and rational to obey Him (understand what I’m saying?). We certainly don’t go around calling Jesus irrational… Or at least I don’t, because he wasn’t.

      “Apologetics (in the most base and even vulgar sense) is an activity for the naive. (1) Does God need us to defend him? Can’t he defend himself? If God is God then we need him to defend us not the other way around. (2) If God is the true absolute transcendent perfect being then he is bound to defy our earthly categories. Although we have some glimpses of eternal truth our understanding is bound to fail because if we could understand him in his fullness, he is not God, we are. Why then spend time figuring him out. Why not develop a relationship with him?”

      That’s the thing, though; apologetics isn’t so much about defending God as it is about ‘defending’ the intellectual and existential viability of the Christian faith. Where arguments do address the existence of God, those to me seem to work accordingly with what God has revealed of Himself to us.There is no danger of ‘failing to understand God’ so long as boundaries are respected and overzealous ‘apologetics’ don’t get ahead of themselves. Keeping in mind that no apologist ought to claim they have completely figured God out, and to level this charge against apologetics is to only level a charge against a caricature.

      “Peter’s emphasis in this passage is “the hope that we have.” We spend a lot of time bickering about the minutiae of argumentation when Paul’s admonition was “tell em’ why you have hope.” If you’re a Christian the answer to this question is simple: “Because Jesus is alive and you can talk to him if you want.” That’s what Peter himself did in Acts 4. Apologetics is the game pretentious Christians play to make Christianity sound quasi intellectual. That which sounds stupid is not necessarily stupid.”

      An anti-apologetic apologetic, go figure.

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