I have many roles in my life of ministry. I am a guest preacher, a Bible college teacher, an army chaplain and a writer. One of the roles that I really enjoy is that of an apologist.
An apologist? What in the world is that? Does that mean that I spend all my time apologizing for the things I do wrong. I make enough mistakes to do that but that is not what apologetics is. Let me explain with an example from my family. Every once in a while my son will do something to one of our daughters. We will tell him to apologize to his sister. He responds by trying to explain why he slapped them or broke their toy or whatever he did. We will insist that we want an apology and not a reason for his behaviour. What I don’t tell him is that he is actually correct in his understanding of an apology. The literal meaning of the word apology is not a demonstration of sorrow but an offering of a reason. However, we still expect our son to be sorry.
What does this have to do with the Bible? In this passage, we see Peter telling people “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason.” Not to bore you with Greek, but the word reason is logia and the word defense is apologia. This is where we get the word apologetics from. It is a defense of the faith, a giving of reasons for why we believe what we do.
I know that as soon as I mention apologetics, there are two reactions. One is by people who are already into apologetics. They are excited about this and hope that apologetics will be a part of everything. The other group will have a negative reaction to apologetics. Some may have had bad experiences with overly zealous apologists who just love to argue. Or they may feel that Christianity is more of a relationship and therefore does not need the intellectual component. You may be in one of these groups or you may be completely indifferent. I hope to show you that apologetics is much more than internet debates with atheists and that it actually has a value in real life. In essence, I am going to present an apologetic for apologetics and hopefully get us all on the same page.
I firmly believe that we need to start with the Bible. We cannot just pick one word out of 1 Peter and build an entire Christian ministry out of it. Here is the context. Peter is writing a letter to a group of Christians who are facing some sort of persecution. There are bad things happening and Peter guides his readers in how they should respond. Peter is not training a group of apologists to go out and infiltrate pagan strong holds to shove religion down their throat. He is speaking to Christians who are trying to live out their faith but are facing opposition. What many people miss in this passage is that Peter is preparing people to answer after they have been asked.
This is very important. I have had conversations with people that I initiated and that were initiated by them. It is always better when they start with the questions. This indicates that they want to hear what we have to say. I am not suggesting that we should never start the conversation. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament where Jesus or one of his followers starts a conversation. I am only saying that in the context of 1 Peter, it is about Christians responding.
Peter tells us that we should be prepared to give reasons for what we believe.
One of the challenges to understanding this is how apologetics has evolved. Many people think of apologists as being philosophers or Bible scholars that speak way over people’s heads. There is definitely a place for philosophers and Bible scholars today, especially with the internet offering so much good and bad information. But Peter is talking to just normal Christians. The assumption is that every Christian has a reason for putting their faith in Jesus. We have reasons for believing everything else in our life, we should have a reason for our faith.
Notice that Peter does not tell us what that reason is. That is because it is different for everyone. I began believing in God by observing the beauty and complexity of creation. I began to believe in Jesus by reading the Bible. That is my story. It may not be yours.
Finally, Peter tells the readers to do this with gentleness and respect. I understand that people can believe something so deeply that the emotions stay near the surface. It is easy to get either angry or frustrated when people cannot see the evidence. But anger never wins people. In fact, atheists are starting to learn this. Atheism got a lot of attention with angry atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But now many atheists are reacting against them and are distancing themselves. Anger turns people off and does not allow the conversation to keep going. Christians must avoid this mistake.
That is wonderful for Peter and his audience but what about for us? I would like to suggest that what Peter teaches here is very timely for us.
Do we live in an age of persecution? That is the case for many Christians around the world but perhaps not so much in Canada. What we experience in Canada is not true persecution but we do have a culture that is hostile to the Christian message. I did my undergraduate degree in the early 90s and even then there was pushback against faith. That has only grown through the years. This is not something that just happens in universities, it can happen in any context. It happens in workplaces, it happens among neighbours and it happens within families.
Atheism has changed a lot over the past few decades. When I was an atheist, I had no anger toward Christians or the church. I thought Christians were wrong but that is as far as it went. Atheism for me was about sleeping in on Sundays. Some of the new atheists go much farther. Not only do they think that Christianity is wrong, they think it is dangerous. Some are suggesting that the only way our society can move forward is with the end of religion.
This is our world. But what happens when someone asks us why you are a Christian? How can we have a relationship with some strange invisible being? How can we believe that a person rose from the dead? How can we trust in an old book that has been translated so many times?
The first thing you need to do is not be intimidated. You don’t have to have all the answers right away. But you should not back down from such questions. What such critics want is for you to shrink down and feel as if there are no answers to these questions. But the truth is that Christian thinkers have wrestled with all of the hard questions from the problem of suffering to the reliability of the Bible. We have nothing to be embarrassed about.
But what happens if you don’t know the answers to the questions? That is fine. I have studied apologetics for as long as I have been a Christian and there are plenty of areas where I don’t have ready answers. But I know where to find them. There is nothing wrong with calmly telling the person you don’t know the answer but will look into it.
I don’t want you to think that apologetics has to be an overly academic exercise. Do not take lightly your own, personal apologetic. Consider sitting down and writing out your own reasons for being a Christian. Why do you believe that Christianity is true? It is going to be different for every body. For myself, my confidence in Christianity has two parts. One is I believe the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is extremely good. But I also have confidence because of numerous answers to prayer. I have seen over and over again God intervening in our lives. I have even had prayers, where I said to myself, “I know God won’t do anything,” receive dramatic answers.
I understand that technically God answers every prayer with yes, no or not now. But there are times that God intervenes is such a dramatic way that it cannot be a coincidence. That is part of my apologetic.
When we share why we believe, we must be careful how we do it. First Peter 3:15 tells us to do it with gentleness and respect. It can be easy to be so confident in our faith that we look down on others. How can you follow that laughable faith when Christianity makes so much sense? Anyone with half a brain would see that Christianity is true! How we share our faith is as important as what we share.
There is a wonderful story in Acts 17 where Paul finds himself in Athens. He takes a tour of the city and, as someone with a good Jewish upbringing, is offended by the idols. But when it is time for Paul to talk to the people, he puts his feelings aside for the sake of a good conversation. Instead of condemning them for their idolatry, he praises them for their interest in spiritual things. Instead of shoving Scripture down their throats, Paul quotes from their writers and demonstrates how even they point to Christian principles. Paul gives us a very practical example of how to talk about faith.
I don’t expect every Christian to become a professional apologist. You don’t have to study philosophy, theology or biblical studies at a graduate level. You may not be interested in the academic side of Christianity at all. That is fine.
What we do need to know is that we live in a society that is skeptical about Christianity, skeptical about its truth and its value. Non-Christians look to us and want to know why we believe what we believe. Non-Christians want to know if we have wrestled with the hard questions that are making it difficult for them to believe.
My request to you is reflect deeply on why you believe Christianity is true. Learn to articulate those reasons clearly. Find out where the resources are for the questions you don’t have answers to. Be ready to give an answer for the reason of the hope you have within you.