An Apologetic for Apologetics

The following is the Introduction to Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias, author and general editor (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. Click here to order Beyond Opinion.

The word apologetics often creates immediate discussion. To the uninitiated in the discipline, the common line is “What are you apologizing for?” To the one who knows and understands the discipline, simply raising the topic evokes debate.

I remember the first time I laid my hands on a text discussing the role and place of apologetics; I could not put it down. It is hard to pinpoint the exact reason I was engrossed in the subject. Was it because I was the product of my culture? I knew that Christians were in the minority, and on every corner I was asked to defend the “why” of my newfound faith. Was it because I was debating these issues within myself? Was it because God himself planned a path for me that I was to undertake in the years that followed? All of these questions had a place along the lines that converged in my personal makeup and calling.

What I did not anticipate was having to give a defense of why I was defending the faith. “You can’t argue anybody into the kingdom.” “Apologetics only caters to pride, you know.” “Conversion is not about the intellect; it is all about the heart.” As the litany of questions runs for why we should study apologetics, so the reasons run as to why we should stay out of it.

Apologetics is a subject that ends up defending itself. The one who argues against apologetics ends up using argument to denounce argument. 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.

I am convinced, in the words of C. S. Lewis—who in my estimation is probably the greatest Christian apologist in recent memory—that the question of being an apologist is not so much whether you use an apologetic in answering someone’s question, but whether the apologetic you already use is a good one.

When the publisher contacted me to write on this subject, I spent many months thinking about how best to approach something as vast as this. Does any one person really have all the answers to the questions that surface? Some time ago, I recall looking for my gate at an airport. When I arrived there, I rechecked my boarding pass and noticed that the flight number on the marquee at the gate did not match the flight number or the destination that my pass indicated. So I looked at the lady sitting closest to the waiting area and said, “Excuse me, ma’am, but is this the gate for the flight to Atlanta?” She assured me that indeed it was and that they just had not posted the right information yet. I thanked her and started to walk away to find a quiet place to sit. I heard some hurried footsteps behind me and turned to see who it was. It was the lady of whom I had asked the question. She rather shyly asked, “Excuse me, but are you Ravi Zacharias?” “I am,” I answered with a smile. “Oh my!” she gasped. “I hear you on the radio all the time, and I didn’t know you had questions too.” We both chuckled.

I thanked her for the compliment and added, “I have a lot of questions, especially when I’m heading home. I simply cannot afford to miss my flight back to where I belong.”

That answer, though tongue-in-cheek, incidentally buttressed how my life has been encapsulated in this calling as an apologist. We are all longing to not miss a turn on our journey home. And on that journey we are often at the mercy of conflicting indications. How do we get to the right destination and not wander afield in some far-off territories?

Where We Are Heading

The ultimate calling upon the follower of Christ is to live a life reflecting who he is, and in this book we will highlight three components of discipleship. In part 1, we will look at skeptics’—and believers’—difficult questions. We will suggest that we cannot begin to understand these questions until we ourselves have also wrestled with them intellectually and personally. In part 2, we see that our answers must then be internalized—the essential, lifelong process of spiritual transformation—such that, as seen in part 3, these answers may be lived out with compassion for the lost and a passion for the gospel. These are critical issues, for as I have said many times, I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries is dedicated to responding to the questions of our time. Malcolm Muggeridge once said that all new news is old news happening to new people. He was right; even as Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.1:9). All that has happened before so often happens again. But in quoting that verse, we forget something very important. The people to whom it is happening are new, and the answers, however old, must never sound stale.

Those two key realities sum up an effective apologetic: how to relate to the questioner and how to make sure that the answers are couched in a relevant context. If we miss those two converging lines, we miss the moment of opportunity. At the peak of my ministry’s call, I reflected long and hard on how best to combine these two elements in apologetics. The blueprint was not easy to imagine, and the even greater challenge was building according to the vision. For some people, the hard questions never surface. Life is complicated enough—why complicate it in the questioning? But then there are others for whom every issue has to be carefully deliberated.

Years ago, there was a popular book intriguingly titled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Without going into the details of the story line, the backdrop to the narrative is two different types of riders: the classicist for whom the nuts and bolts of the motorcycle mattered as he journeyed, and the romanticist for whom the enchantment of the journey was all-engrossing—never mind how the motorcycle worked, so long as it did. Ah! But there was the rub. Journeying together, the two could have a wonderful complementariness. Life has both sides. When the machine broke down, the romance of the ride didn’t fix the machine. How to put it back together was critical if one were to move on. At the same time, life is not just a how-to manual; there is an instinct and intuitiveness to living.

We at RZIM have found this to be true as we have journeyed across the globe. Not everything is argued. Some realities are felt deeply in a “soulish” sense. Apologetics should therefore respect those elements without violating the absoluteness of God’s person and his revealed Word in the Holy Scriptures, and consummately in his Son, Jesus Christ.

There is no greater example in apologetics than the apostle Paul speaking at Mars Hill. The irony of the talk Paul gave is in the difference in reaction the Easterner has when reading Paul’s address to that of a Westerner. The Easterner is thrilled at how the apostle wove the message starting from where the listeners were to bring them to where he was in his thinking. The average Westerner is quick to point out that few of his hearers responded. Such an attitude says volumes about why the church in the West has been so intellectually weak. To those in the West, the bigger the number of respondents, the more replicated the technique. The bigger the statistic, the greater the success. Westerners are enamored by size, largesse, number of hands raised, and so on. When the sun has set on these reports, we seem rather dismayed when statistics show the quality of the life of the believer is no different from that of the unbeliever.

As harsh as it sounds, I doubt Jesus’ method of apologetics would have appealed to many of us living in the West. I mean, just think of the opportunity Jesus lost when he was asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). Is there an evangelist we know of who would have questioned the question, rather than sit down to the task of “closing the deal” with the questioner? We are so eager to pull in the net that we have failed to understand why we are pulling it and for whom!

Sometime in the 1980s, Christians in the West began to label evangelistic techniques and reconfigure church services to reduce the message to the lowest level of cognition in the audience. As nobly intentioned as that was, the end result was the lowest level of writing and gospel preaching one could imagine. Mass media was brought to aid this purpose, and before long evangelicals were seen to be masters in entertainment and minimalists in thought. As this was happening, the intellectual arenas were being plundered and young minds gradually driven away from their “faith” in the gospel message. Christians are paying our dues today and likely will pay for an entire generation.

My intention in describing this is not to be critical, because many of us were enamored by huge churches and left the ranks of our youth unprepared for what rabid intellectualism and hedonism were doing at the same time, harnessing the same media for their own purposes.

Let’s be candid. In terms of the imagination, the spiritual world cannot match the sensual world because gratification in the sensual is immediate; in the spiritual, it is delayed. A Christian who takes the intellectual track is often rebuked with this verse in 1 Corinthians: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (2:4). Some people take that to infer that Paul made a mistake in coming to the Athenians in Acts 17 with a philosophical bent. However, this verse to the church at Corinth implies nothing of the kind. In fact, Paul reminds us to become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22), meaning that you start with where the audience is. If there is an intellectual barrier, you start there. If there is a sensory barrier, you start there. If anything, Paul had to spend so much time writing an apologetic to the Corinthian church, arguing about all the problems that had arisen, because they had mindless commitments that harnessed their senses without harnessing their rationality.

Is it not amazing to us that two of the chief defenders of the faith in the Old Testament and in the New—Moses and Paul—were both well-versed in the language, the thinking, and the philosophy of their cultures? Is it at all accidental that when the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, wanted to reshape the thinking of the Jewish exiles, he selected the best of their young men to educate in the language, the literature, and the philosophy of the Babylonians, and then used them to reach their own? He knew what it would take to reach the foreigners in his midst.

We are fashioned by God to be thinking and emotional creatures. The emotions should follow reason, and not the other way around.

Apologetics Is about Seeing Things God’s Way

The apologetic approach we present to you in this book pays very close attention not just to the question but to the questioner. That, in turn, leads to the relevance of the answer. I take Jesus’ walk on the Emmaus road as the classic example of his apologetic approach to the times. His disciples have absolutely no idea that they are walking with the Lord himself. The disciples state rather ironically to their traveling companion that he must be the only one who was not aware of all that had happened in the last few days, when, in fact, he was the only one who did.

To the Jewish mind, then and now, history formed a key component of understanding. They saw in history the unfolding drama of redemption. Granted, they misconstrued it in terms of the immediate breaking off from Rome. In that light, the most important deliverance to the Jews was political. Their hopes of political deliverance were dashed when they saw Jesus’ rather ignominious death. To this day, the crucifixion is a stumbling block to the Jew, even as it is to the Muslim.

What is Jesus’ response to their mood and their question? Follow the story carefully. These two men are very sincere, I presume, and their hopes are dashed. Why? Was it for the lack of miracle or the lack of presence? Not at all. In fact, they described Jesus to their traveling companion, not knowing it was he: “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see” (Luke 24:19–24).

The irony of this passage is immense. The disciples were actually telling this story to the one whom, they assert, his disciples went to the tomb and “did not see”—while they themselves were not seeing who it was they were talking to! To make this even more incredible, the Scriptures tell us that the disciples on the Emmaus Road “were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).

In this shrouded mystery, Jesus said to them, “‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (vv. 25–27).

Those of us who like quick-fix, romantic answers find this response a bit extreme. Would it not have been simpler for Jesus to just extend his arms and say, “It is I”? Jesus did that at other times and at appropriate moments (see, for example, John 4:26). But this was not one of them. Instead, Jesus did what was needed in this moment: he pointed out to these two disciples a vast context of fifteen hundred years to show why the event on Calvary had to take place. You see, the gospel is a story, a story that needs to be argued. Sometimes the very presence of God is barred by our presuppositions and our intense and constant desire for triumph. We think if we can only see, all will be well. God even allowed Job all the perils and pitfalls of argument before he could “see.”

Apologetics is all about seeing. But it is seeing things God’s way. So as you enter into this study, you will at times be journeying through the struggles of our culture. At other times you will be in the intense interaction between Islam and Christianity. You will be refreshed by the thrill of why God has revealed himself as a Holy Trinity: one essence in three persons. You will be introduced to the struggles of responding to the hard question of explaining God’s power and sovereignty when life is immersed in grief and pain. You will hear God’s voice in understanding the power and reliability of his Word. You will be blessed by seeing his handiwork in the sciences and recognize the continuity of his revelation. You will be exposed to some of the brightest minds presenting a defense of the faith and to articulate voices who have taken on the greatest challenges of our time.

Apologetics Is Not Just for Experts

As we begin, I say this to you as a reader: do not underestimate the role you may play in clearing the obstacles in someone’s spiritual journey. A seed sown here, a light shone there may be all that is needed to move someone one step further. The truth is that sometimes the more sophisticated we get in our study and understanding of apologetics, the more often we miss the moment and the impact.

I present two illustrations of my own failings, one in the early days of my ministry and the other when I should have known better. I was asked to come and answer the hard questions of a very successful businessman in Dallas, Texas. The gentleman who flew me in said, “I don’t know how to answer this employer of mine, but I believe he is very sincere. Please give me an afternoon, and we will cover the cost.” So I undertook the journey and anticipated all the hardball attacks that would be empowered further by the fame and success of this nationally known figure in the business world.

We were into the dialogue but a few minutes when he went into a tirade on all the injustices and evils in the world. I could tell that his passion would intensify whenever that became the point of his question. I carefully answered as best as I could from the self-defeating nature of the question to the classical approaches used in responding to the problem, and even the experiential side of it. I shared logic, Scriptures, personal stories, poetry, yes, to use the metaphor— the whole nine yards.

My friend who had brought us together sat quietly and watched for a couple of hours as we went at the issues back and forth. When there was an obvious moment of silence, as the questioner was sort of replenishing his arsenal, this common friend said in a soft voice, calling his boss by his first name, “As I have listened and watched, I have one question for you. Evidently all the aggregate of human evil in this world is very disturbing to you. Yet are you as disturbed by the evil that you see inside of you?”

There was a deafening silence. We could all sense it was a “checkmate” move done with perfect timing and genuineness. The businessman sat back in his chair. He was speechless for a few obviously convicting moments, and all but asked, “How do I get out of this one?” In a sense, the apologetic reasoning had only drawn the man’s pride more and more into the foreground. Yet his colleague’s simple, self-indicting question prepared the way for the gospel. I learned early that sometimes the arguments can be a long road to setting up the question, but if they fail to bring it home, they can only serve to evade the proximity of the problem.

The second instance was at the Lenin Military Academy in Moscow, where I was speaking to officers and leaders. I was asked to speak on the existence of God. I used all the approaches that I felt I could connect with through an interpreter. Throughout my talk the audience wore a visibly hostile expression. In fact, one man kept giving me the choke sign through my talk. I kept going because I had been invited to speak by the general and so felt secure in my platform. No sooner had I finished than the man giving me the choke sign stood to his feet and rather rudely sputtered out a series of sentences. I could wait to get the interpretation, but the interpreter interrupted him to give him a chance to catch up. Basically his outrage boiled down to one question: “You’ve been using the word God repeatedly. What on earth are you talking about?”

Was I ever in a state of shock! I had made the fallacious assumption that the idea of a first cause automatically meant a “creator” to the audience. In my defense, I was not able to bring an overtly Christian message, but then again I had missed something very basic. Of course, the obvious answer to cause the questioner to stumble was to ask him, “Are you an atheist?” which, of course, he was. So I asked him, “What, then, are you denying?” Fascinating isn’t it, how we all define our own terms but wish to deny the other the privilege of questioning those definitions.

These two illustrations clearly point out that if apologetics is to be done effectively, we do not necessarily need the experts doing it; rather, we need to connect with the questioner at a personal level. Jesus consistently drove this home. His one-on-one conversations were remarkably personal and left the other looking into his or her own heart and spiritual condition.

That is what we hope we have accomplished in this volume. We would be in error if we think this will make for a sophisticated apologetics handbook. It is not intended to be that. It is intended to encourage and challenge the nonexpert to feel comfortable talking about the gospel without feeling the burden of needing a high level of philosophical training.

Apologetics Goes Beyond Opinion to Conviction

May I add one final word? Our team at RZIM functions at multiple levels. Sometimes we are in overtly hostile environments of intellectual resistance, other times in the deeply suspicious world of interreligious dialogue. Sometimes we are in arenas where the very idea of God is in need of explanation. We function as a team and with numerous adjunct and affiliated faculty brought in from around the globe. Every contributor to this volume is either a full-time apologist with RZIM or an adjunct member of our team. Frankly, I am humbled to be working with such a team. I have learned much from them. Some are veterans who have covered this globe for decades. Others were not even born when some of us began. Yes, we have a few team members still in their twenties, who have amazing depth at such an early age with a deep passion for God’s truth and calling.

My prayer is that you will be blessed and equipped as you study these pages. This may not be a “read-through” book that can be absorbed in a single sitting. But I suggest to you that it is a “must-read” book for our times. I say this at the risk of being audacious. The world is in some very precarious times. The volatility of the issues that divide us has reached a crisis point. Young men and women are willing to throw their lives away for ideologies. At the same time, a seeking mind wants desperately to find answers. We in this ministry are committed to being present in such settings, and we have addressed these themes in numerous ways. If we don’t come to terms with the crisis times in which we live by presenting the beauty and the distinctive message of Jesus Christ, we will fail our time.

The title is well stated: Beyond Opinion. Opinions are preferences amid options. Convictions are woven into one’s conscience. This book responds to the opinions of people with the convictions that the gospel and its imperatives commend. May God be pleased with this effort and every reader blessed by its message.

Ravi Zacharias is founder and president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

The following is the Introduction to Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias, author and general editor (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007). Copyright © 2007 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. Click here to order Beyond Opinion.

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