Are Apologetics & Evangelism Even Necessary?
The mandate to evangelize and to always be prepared to give a defense for the faith is directly tied to obedience to Christ.
The mandate to evangelize and to always be prepared to give a defense for the faith is directly tied to obedience to Christ. Yet few people engage with an ever increasingly hostile culture for a variety of different reasons. How do we fearlessly engage with the culture when many see our faith as irrelevant and irrational? This week, Vince and Jo discuss how to utilize apologetics in evangelism with love and respect.
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of ask away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. The Christian life is not an easy one. It is not a life that affords the opportunity to remain quiet. Evangelism is not a suggestion, but commanded by Christ himself. The mandate to evangelize and to always be prepared to give a defense for the faith is directly tied to honoring Christ. But few people engage with an ever increasingly hostile culture for a variety of different reasons. How do we fearlessly engage with a culture when many see our faith as irrelevant and irrational? How do we do so in love and in gentleness? But before we get started, Vince, could you tell our listeners about RZIM's small group curriculum, Everyday Questions available through our web store on rzim.org?
Vince Vitale: You bet, Michael. Everyday Questions, it's a new resource from RZIM. It's specifically for small groups and it's really taken off quickly. It's being done all across the country and beyond. It comes with a set of DVDs. And then each of the weeks is based around a fictitious but very realistic discussion between a Christian and a non-Christian. Sometimes someone who is seeking, sometimes someone who is antagonistic. It brings the group into a real life situation, so you can discuss how you would proceed, and I really think that if in the context of you and your friends, or you and your church, you're looking for a resource which will be ideal in terms of giving practical advice and a way forward to being confident in sharing your faith with others, this is an excellent resource.
Michael Davis: Excellent. Well, let's get into the questions. This first question's anonymous. It's very simple, but I think very, very important. “Why is apologetics necessary in the modern church?”
Vince Vitale: I saw Anon there and I was going to thank Anon for their question. So, I'm thankful to you Michael for cluing me in-
Michael Davis: I thought you might be.
Vince Vitale: That this is an anonymous question. That's really, really helpful. This is why teamwork is really good. Apologetics is necessary in the modern church. We think it is. We hope it is. Otherwise, we're out of work. But I really do think it is. I mean, it's necessary in every generation, but this generation, this period of time, it has been called the Great Age of Apologetics, and I think it's partly because technology puts every objection at our doorstep. It's just so easy right now, even as we're giving talks for someone to go on their phone and to look up 10 hardest objections to Christianity, or 10 most problematic verses in the Bible, and all of a sudden those objections are on someone's fingertips literally. And so it's easier than ever in today's day and age to find the objections to Christianity.
The question for the church is, is it easier than ever to find good responses? If it's easier than ever to find the challenges, then we better make sure it's easier than ever to find the responses as well. And we live in an age where people have questions, yes, non-Christians, but also Christians as well. And so apologetics is not only for the non-Christian or the seeker, it's also for the Christian, so that they can get to a point where they not only believe, but that they come to have confidence sharing their faith and delighting in sharing in their faith, and all three of us around this table will attest to the fact that there's just no greater delight than joining in with God's great commission, his great mission, the thing he's most excited about. It's incredibly relationally meaningful and something we would wish for every one of you.
Jo Vitale: I think that sometimes in our culture, we're definitely living in a world where there are so many choices in front of us, and I think that's partly where the confusion comes in and where we need to have some clarity on the answers we want to give. Because the truth is, whether it's in your inbox or questions standing up on your doorstep, they're on your Twitter feed, you can't get away from questions. We're surrounded by them. They are literally everywhere.
I was reminded of this a little while ago when we were visiting the campus of UC Berkeley. Berkeley is such an interesting place that kind of models just the culture of confusion that we're in because you'll be walking down the street and literally tripping over new age shops and psychic readings being offered to you. And at the same time, half the students that I met were there taking science degrees and majoring in artificial intelligence, and so you have the naturalistic world view right alongside the supernatural. It was mixed up in this really fascinating way.
I remember looking around me at that campus and thinking, what do I do here? It felt quite overwhelming, all the different world views offered in this really small space. And then I remember thinking to myself, well actually, I'm not the first Christian to feel this way, to be confronted by this confusion of ideas right in front of me. And actually, I took great comfort from the fact that it was around 2000 years ago that the apostle Paul found himself in a very similar context in the city of Athens.
We read about this in Acts chapter 17. We're told that Athens, it was kind of like a cultural powerhouse of the day and the city was dominated by two rival philosophies. Those of the Stoics and the Epicureans. One of whom, the Stoics, really emphasized pantheistic belief and this idea of a world soul and fate and the importance of being in harmony with nature. And then you had the Epicureans who really are focused on chance and the random happenstance of atoms and no idea of survival beyond death. And looking at that text and then comparing it to Berkeley and I thought, wow, how crazy that 2000 years have moved on, and yet we still find the modern descendants of those two philosophies, new age and naturalism still competing today.
An answer to your question, why do we need apologetics in the modern church? I would say, I don't think the world has actually moved on that far from where the early Christians first started out in terms of the apologetics challenges. You might say that just as we're in the grand old age of apologetics today as Os Guinness has said it, so were the first Christians then. But that gives me amazing hope because it can be easy to look around and just feel so overwhelmed by everything that's on offer today.
And yet, the first disciples, the first followers of Jesus, they faced those same challenges and yet within four centuries they were so successful in their apologetics and their evangelism that the majority of the Roman Empire came to adopt Christianity as its official belief. So, if that could happen in that kind of culture of confusion and chaos, then it gives us hope again, I think, for the world that we're in now.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's good. And I think we need to remind ourselves that in an era, in a culture where there are so many different world views on the table, we just can't take as much for granted as Christians when we're talking with people. If someone didn't grow up in the church, if someone's never had a significant relationship with the Christian, things that we take to be very obvious may be very foreign to them. One exercise I do with my students sometimes is just put John 3:16 on the board. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And then I ask them to try to put themselves in the shoes of a nonbeliever and see if they can come up with what in that verse might seem objectionable or might seem foreign. And as you go through it, all of a sudden you start to put on these new glasses and you realize, wow, the concept of God itself, that might be difficult to understand.
For God so loved the world. If he loved the world, why is there so much suffering? He gave his one and only son. What does that mean to give his son? Did he force his son to come, and wait a minute. Why does God have a son at all? If God has a son, does that mean that God has a wife as well? If he's a father, is there a mother? This is confusing to me, and then whoever believes in him, someone might say, well, why is salvation based on belief? Why isn't it based on good works and trying to live a good life? And then, shall not perish but have eternal life. Well, wait. Why would God want anyone to perish? Now, I know some of those questions that I've raised have good answers, but you can see how quickly questions are raised from the verse, which is supposed to be the one verse that we can put up on a billboard and everyone understand it. So, we need to realize that the starting point for some people is pretty far back.
Two very quick analogies that I was thinking of this morning. One is just about translation. Jo's parents just moved to France and they've been doing intensive language study because they need to translate things because they're living in a culture that's not normally speaking their language. And we are living in a culture that's not normally speaking our language. And so one way to understand apologetics is translating the truth of the Gospel for each culture. We're in an era where we need to do a lot of translation.
And the other analogy I was thinking of is bridge building. The longer a bridge is across a chasm, the more supports you need, the more infrastructure you need under it. And again, as we're living in an age where there's quite a distance sometimes between where someone is and the point at which they would come to know Christ, when that bridge is longer than we need more supports under it so we can help people to walk across that bridge.
Michael Davis: Either one of you guys, do you think that this question might be maybe undergirded by a confusion between the difference between evangelism or maybe a belief that there's a difference between evangelism and apologetics?
Jo Vitale: Yeah, that's a great question. I think that's one I run across all the time. I think there's confusion about what apologetics is, and I think people think it's a super intellectual exercise where we all get together in a small room and we just do intellectual gymnastics. And I'll admit, sometimes I've been to apologetics conferences where I'm supposed to be one of the speakers and people come and ask me questions afterwards. I'm like, I have no idea. You clearly have read way more than I have about any of this, but I think the way we at RZIM at least have always traditionally understood apologetics is that it serves evangelism.
I mean, Acts 17 would be a good example. I mean, what is Paul doing? He's giving an apologetic for the Christian faith to a secular audience and we can see that the expectation is that people through this process will have some questions answered as he points towards Christ. And you know, his final point in that whole talk after speaking about some of their beliefs in the culture, some of the gods they're worshiping, and then he points towards the idea of a Christian God and then he ends with a resurrection. He gets to the Gospel clearly in his apologetic, and what is the result of that? It's that people become Christians. Some people become questions then, others continue to dialogue, others walk away uninterested. That's always the reaction. Whenever you're doing evangelism, you see all three of those going on all the time.
So, I think we need to ask ourselves, what is the end? What is the goal? If it's thought of just been a little intellectual club, I don't think I want to be in it either, but if the focus is on reaching the lost, believing we don't ourselves have the power to persuade anyone by our intelligence or our eloquence or rhetoric or any of those things, but it's by the power of the Holy Spirit, but perhaps we can help clear some of the confusion and debris along the way.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's great. Let me make one more point about this need for apologetics, and then I want to connect to that point as well, Michael, about the relationship between apologetics and evangelism. Another reason I think we need apologetics today is because we're just so divided as a society. We're so divided as a country. We're stuck in these cultural wars, and the division between left and right and men and women and black and white seems to be just getting wider and wider, and I think so often we're either ignoring each other because we're afraid to engage with those who are different from us or we're yelling at each other and whoever yells the loudest wins.
One way to understand apologetics is conversation committed to love and committed to truth. Committed to both of those things, and I just think we're at a cultural place where we need that so badly. People are sick of fake news and whoever shouts the loudest wins and if our version of faith and apologetics is no different than that, then people are going to say, I'm not interested. I've got enough of that in my day to day life. I've got enough of that on the six o'clock news.
So, I think it's an amazing opportunity to model in apologetics and in evangelism, which is the unity of both love and truth in the way that we engage with people. And when you asked that question about the relationship between apologetics and evangelism, I was just thinking of second Corinthians 10 verses three to five. I've just brought that up and I'll read it. It says, for though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 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.
So yes, we're doing apologetics, we're doing it by demolishing arguments, we're doing it by taking captive every thought, but what's the purpose? Because there's an obstruction that has set itself up against the knowledge of God. That's the point. We try to remove these obstacles so we can get to the knowledge of God. We can lead someone into knowledge of God and we do that in ways that does not use the weapons of the world, but engages with the love and the truth that Jesus modeled that he asks us to always have front and center as we engage with other people.
Michael Davis: Nice. Let's get to the next question. This is from Miguel. In today's culture, there are skeptics who are asking genuine questions and want to learn and understand something about what you believe. However, there's also a group that are really only interested in picking a fight in an effort to tear you down and make themselves heard and a source of intimidation. How should a Christian wanting to bring people to Christ navigate this minefield?
Vince Vitale: That's a great question and we have certainly experienced that in both directions. I think you're being perceptive and noting that people are in different places and have different motivations as they approach you. I'll just make a small point to start us out with. Whenever I'm asking a question, I've found it really helpful to first ask it of myself.
So, if I want to ask this question about people who are looking to pick a fight or in an effort to tear me down, the first thing I need to ask myself is, is that sometimes the case for me? Am I sometimes looking to pick a fight? Am I sometimes looking to tear others down? It's only once I've answered that question honestly that I'm really in position to tackle this question, and it's just a great starting point in conversation. I would say for every one of us, ask yourself, how can I be frustrating in conversation? Because every one of us can, and Michael's kind of saying, well not really him.
Michael Davis: Everyone else.
Vince Vitale: But everyone else can.
Jo Vitale: The rest of us.
Vince Vitale: And when we look to that log in our eye before we look to the speck in others, then we're really in position to approach this question, I think, in a fruitful way.
Jo Vitale: This is an interesting one for me to think about because I actually hate conflict and confrontation to the point where people have encouraged me to go to assertiveness training because I'm just bad at it. It's just so not me at all.
Vince Vitale: And she married into a big Italian American family-
Jo Vitale: I know. Italian American. Oh my goodness.
Vince Vitale: That thinks yelling at each other is normal conversation.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, they think it's a love language and I'm cowering in the corner. Not really, but it is funny. Sometimes I think, “God, why have you called me to be an apologist when I actually hate conflict and I hate arguments,” but I think part of it is actually that there can be a place for those of us who actually really dislike conflict to actually, in some ways you fear conflict. You don't enjoy it at all, because it just means that's not what is motivating you. In fact, what gets me out the door and going out to do these events and into these conversations and welcoming the questions and welcoming the challenges and sometimes the hostility that comes at you is, it's a recognition that actually we're doing this out of love?
I'm sure I've said it before, but I just love that line when it says, “When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” And just praying, whenever I go into these situations, that God would give me the eyes to see people with his own heart, a heart that is actually torn with compassion, which is what the Greek is getting at there, that a heart that is broken with compassion for the people in front of you because then I think that will come across in your tone. If you are genuinely loving to people before you, even when they hate what you're saying and probably hate you because of the message that you're bringing, it just helps to navigate that situation because then you don't respond defensively. You don't start yelling backwards. You just ask God to continue to give you the right emotion towards the people in front of you.
I actually love him. Proverbs 26 which says, do not answer a fool according to his folly or you yourself will be like him. And then the next verse says, answer a fool according to his folly, lest he becomes wise in his own eyes. And I find comfort in that verse in a strange way. Some people will look at that and say it's contradicting itself. The first one says, don't answer a fool. The second one says, do answer a fool. But in some ways this one helps me when I'm thinking about, how do you respond to people who actually...
When it's talking about fool here, it doesn't mean someone who's stupid or they're not intelligent. But when you're set in your ways, you're not willing to change or to listen. And I like this verse because on the one hand, it kind of reminds us, don't get dragged down to that level where you wind up slinging insults or mud at people. That's not going to help anyone. But there is also a place to answer people, and even when they're sort of stuck in a mindset where they're not open to hearing from you. And because whether or not they can hear the truth from you, it doesn't mean you shouldn't put it in front of them, because even if they're not willing to hear it, then it doesn't mean in 10 years' time God won't bring it back to mind in a way that may help them.
And it's also recognizing who are the people around who are listening, because you're never just talking to the person in front of you unless it's a one-on-one conversation. Often there are others listening as well. So, you're both thinking, okay, what about the person in front of me, but also what about the wider audience of people who are listening, not just to the content of our disagreement, but also to the way that we're disagreeing? Are we showing love and kindness in the way that we're responding? Because I actually think they'll remember that much more than they even remember the facts and figures that you're passing between yourselves.
Vince Vitale: That's really good. And the Bible says that if you seek him, if you seek God with your whole heart, you'll find him, Jeremiah 29. So, it's not with the whole intellect, it's with the whole heart, and I think when you're engaging with someone and you're sensing that perhaps they're not really genuine in their search, you need to figure out, are they searching with their heart or are they just playing intellectual games? And it's okay to try to figure that out.
I often, if somebody asks me a hard question about Christianity, I don't answer it immediately. I start asking questions about their question. I start asking questions about their life. I don't just want to know the question. I want to know who I'm answering. And sometimes if you can get someone to tell you their story, you'll know very quickly by whether or not they're vulnerable and honest and humble in the way they share that story or whether they really just want to get back to the question and try to trap you with the question whether or not they're seeking with their heart, because it's really only going to be when someone seeks with their heart that they're in position to find Christ.
And so one thing I think is really important is that if someone is genuinely wanting to figure out if Jesus is who he claimed to be, then because the faith is a personal interrelational faith, if they want to consider all of the evidence, they're going to have to be willing to consider not only theoretical, abstract, philosophical, scientific evidence, they're also going to have to be willing to consider personal evidence, relational evidence, experiential evidence. And so one thing that I often say to people if they come in a very strongly intellectual way, is to remind them that what I'm claiming is true, yes, it's an intellectual faith, but it's also a personal and relational faith. And just like with any person, and just like with any relationship, if you really want to test it, you have to consider not only the theoretical evidence, but also you have to take that step of relational trust towards the person and consider that evidence as well.
So, I'm very likely in that sort of conversation to say to someone, yeah, I'd love to talk about this. I'd also love for you to join me for church because that's one of the ways that you're going to experience what it's like to be in the presence of God in the context of community. I'd also love for you to read the book of John with me, the gospel of John, and we can discuss that together. You'll see by the way someone reacts to that, whether they're approaching this search in a full and wholehearted way and really seeking truth.
One example you might use is that you can't be an art critic without actually being willing to go and see the art, and you can't be a food critic without actually being willing to go and taste the food. And Jesus says taste and you will see. And so if somebody wants to come with intellectual objections, that's okay, but it's fair of you to challenge them to be open to the experiential, the personal and the relational as well.
Jo Vitale: Wouldn't that be a great job to be a food critic?
Vince Vitale: Yeah, it would be a great job.
Jo Vitale: If this thing doesn't work out, I think we should do that. I used to joke with Vince, there was this cake shop in a market near where we lived and I thought, wow, I would just love to be a cake decorator. So, watch the space. Maybe in years to come.
Michael Davis: That's awesome.
Jo Vitale: But one final thought on that conversation. I just encourage you to read Luke chapter 10 where it just talks about seeking out the people of peace, is how it's referred to, the people of peace. And when Jesus sends out the disciples in pairs, and I love that he sends them together, because it's much easier doing it as a team than own your own. But you go into the house and the people you meet with and as long as they welcome you there and they're engaged and interested, you stay with them.
But if they're not interested, then Jesus talks about shaking the dust off your feet and you carry on. And I think there's a point sometimes in conversation, we want to keep pushing hard because we feel like we failed if we don't keep plowing into a conversation when actually someone isn't open, they're not interested, they're not a person of peace in that moment. But actually it's not...Don't beat yourself up. It's not wrong in those moments sometimes to shake the dust off your feet and move on, because right now they are not in the place where they have ears to hear it.
So, as they go and look for the people of peace, it doesn't mean in years to come, there won't be another open door there, an opportunity with that person, but sometimes it's not the right time. And I think we beat ourselves up and we feel like we have failed. But Vince will often say, we're not responsible for the outcome of our conversations. Actually, that isn't within our power. That's not up to us. But what we are responsible for is whether we have the conversations in the first place or not. So, focus on having the conversations and then you can leave the rest up to God.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, and there are two other passages just very quickly that I also thought were really relevant to this question. And one is when the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and says, good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus responds not with an answer, but a question, why do you call me good? And then a bit later he says, you still lack one thing, sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me. It's quite a challenging response to his initial question and in some ways Jesus is saying to him, would you really be willing to follow God at all costs? He's asking that question of him because he knows that's going to be the condition of the possibility of him really stepping into a full relationship with God and he wants to make sure that's the starting point of the conversation.
And then very relevant to this question is the passage about paying taxes to Caesar because it says right at the beginning, the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Jesus in his words. So, that's what they're trying to do is trap him. And then when they ask him about whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not, this controversial question, Jesus says, you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax. They brought him a Denarius and he asked them, whose image is this and whose inscription? And they were replied Caesars and he said, so give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's? But another example.
I think this is the rarity, but there are times where actually a strong word of actually keeping someone accountable to their motives can actually be loving to them and can be biblical. And we see Jesus do that here. He gives them a creative response that makes them think and he also calls into question their motives. Not in a mean way, but in a strong way that allows them perhaps to go home and think more seriously about why they were trying to trap him in the first place.
Always check your heart and make sure that you have love for the person in front of you. If you're not in a place where you have love for the person in front of you, just ask questions and just listen to them and just pray until you find that love in your heart for them before you say anything. That's always a good principal, I think.
Michael Davis: Vince, you mentioned in the question about how there's polarization. What do you think relationship and relationship building, how do you think that plays into this?
Vince Vitale: Yeah, I think that's incredibly significant. I like how our colleague Abdu says it. People will not care how much you know until they know how much you care. Simple, but I think that's just so true. And sometimes we think we need to be so quick to get to the Gospel, to already assume someone has the level of trust in us that they would even receive truth coming from our lips. Sometimes we need to earn that trust. And it's interesting that Jesus began by washing the feet. He didn't begin at the head when he was serving. He began at the feet. And so sometimes the most powerful thing is to find a practical way to serve someone, to be a good friend, to love someone in a sacrificial way. And you start at the feet and earn some trust there. And then before you know it, you can get up to the head and have those intellectual conversations as well.
Michael Davis: Excellent. Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well, we've had a couple of great questions today and I really like in this last question that it says, how should a Christian wanting to bring people to Christ navigate this minefield? And Miguel just really appreciate that heart of wanting to bring people to Christ. And as Michael said as we started, that is what we're commanded to do, but not for it to be a burden for us, but because it's a great delight. And I came across this quotation by atheist Penn Jillette and he said, I've always said that I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all. If you believe that there's a heaven and a hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life and you think that it's not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and to not tell them that?
Now, I know that word proselytizing comes with a lot of baggage. I'm thinking more in terms of evangelism and sharing our faith in a way that has gentleness, has respect and is loving, but I still take the point. If we believe what we say we believe as Christians, there is every reason for us to be sharing that with other people. John Piper has often said that his dad is the happiest man he's ever known and apparently one time he said to his father, he said, dad, what would you say in a word is a key to a lifetime of happiness? And he didn't hesitate apparently, and he said, tell somebody about Jesus. And I think there's such truth in that simple statement. It's the paradoxical thing about our Christian faith. You don't have it in its fullest sense until you're giving it away.
So, we appreciate the questions today. Appreciate they're from people who are wanting to bring people to Christ and that would be our prayer to you, that you would have that privilege of maybe just a simple question to someone, maybe just a simple invitation to someone to join you at church and you'd begin to see that light go on in their eyes as they come to see Jesus for who he is and for what he's done and that they would know a life transformation. Maybe it would start with changing someone's oil on the driveway next to you, but if it's done in prayer and it's done in trust and done in a willingness to be used by God, you will see the miraculous. In fact, the greatest of all miracles are happening to your left and to your right as you trust God to use you to be part of his mission of bringing life transformation and new life to many people around the world.
Michael Davis: Well, Vince and Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we'll catch you next week.
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