Christian Apologetics: Who Needs It?
William Lane Craig speaks at the California Christian Apologetics Conference
California Christian Apologetics Conference, California, United States – September 7, 2007
William Lane Craig speaks at the California Christian Apologetics Conference. Dr. Craig speaks on the importance of Christian apologetics and the defense of the faith.
Well thank you very much, it has just been a delight to be with you at this conference. It has been all that I had hoped it will be, it certainly fulfilled me expectations. I just salute you Shawn and Sedora for what you’ve done, and the vision and leadership that you provided in putting together these sorts of conferences, I am so encouraged by what I’ve seen this weekend.
In December of 1985, my wife Jan and I returned from Paris where we were on sabbatical to find that the dean of the seminary at which I taught had decided that the philosophy of religion program was no longer worth the expenditure and so had decided to shut down the philosophy of religion department. More than that he was also proposing to eliminate apologetics as a core required course in the Master of Divinity program. When I protested that training in apologetics is vital for the training of our future ministers his reply stunned me, “Oh, I think that apologetics was a useful discipline back in the 40’s and 50’s but it is no longer necessary today.” That such a negative attitude toward apologetics could be ensconced even at the highest administrative levels at one of our evangelical seminaries, I think makes all the more pressing the question . . . as to the necessity and the usefulness of Christian apologetics.
Now, notice that I speak of apologetics’ necessity and usefulness – the distinction is important. Even if apologetics isn’t absolutely necessary, it doesn’t follow that therefore it is useless. For example, you don’t need to know how to type in order to use a computer, you can hunt and peck the way I do, but nevertheless it is useful to have typing skills if you are using a computer. Or again, it is not absolutely necessary that you maintain your bicycle if you want to go cycling, but on the other hand it can be useful and beneficial to maintain a well-oiled machine. And in exactly the same way, even if Christian apologetics isn’t absolutely necessary, that doesn’t follow that it is still not of tremendous benefit. So we need to ask, concerning Christian apologetics, not only “Who needs it?” but also, “What is it good for?”
Now, as Sedora reminded us last night, Christian apologetics is the branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide a rational justification for Christian truth claims. So the first question that I would like to look at with you this afternoon is whether or not apologetics is necessary in order for us to know rationally the truth claims of the Christian faith. And I want to say that I agree with contemporary thinkers like Alvin Plantinga and others that apologetics is not in fact necessary in order for us to know rationally that Christianity is true.
The contention of theological rationalists, as I call them, or as they are sometimes called in our day, “evidentialists,” that faith is irrational unless it has a foundation in evidence and arguments is a view I think that is very difficult to square with the teachings of Scripture. The Scripture teaches that faith in Christ can be justified or grounded immediately by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart. In Romans 8:14-16 Paul says that when we cry, Abba, Father, the Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. And in 1 John 2:27 and 1 John 5:6-10, John says that we have all been anointed by the Holy One and we all know; he says, you have no need that anyone should teach you as the anointing that you have received from Him teaches you about all things. He says the Spirit bears witness because the Spirit is the truth. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater. He who believes in the Son of God has thee testimony in himself. So fundamentally the way in which we know Christianity is true, is not through arguments and evidence, but through the indwelling witness of the Holy Spirit within us.
Elsewhere, I have characterized this witness of the Holy Spirit as self-authenticating; what do I mean by that? Well, I mean:
1. That the experience of the Holy Spirit is a reliable guide to truth and is unmistakable for the one who really has it and attends to it, even though it may not be irresistible or indubitable; it can be resisted, it can be doubted, but nevertheless it is reliable as a guide to truth and unmistakable to him who has it and attends to it.
2. I mean that a person who has the witness of the Holy Spirit does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know, and know with confidence, that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God.
3. That such experience does not function in this case as a premise in an argument from religious experience. It is not as though someone has some religious experience and then you infer that the best explanation of that experience is that there must be a God. Rather, the witness of the Holy Spirit is the immediate experiencing of God Himself.
4. In certain contexts, the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the grasping of certain truths of the Christian faith such as, God exists, I am redeemed by God, Christ lives within me, and so fourth.
5. That such an experience provides one with not only a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but also with objective knowledge of that truth (and you remember the subjective-objective distinction that Shawn drew for us) and I am suggesting that the witness of the Holy Spirit is a source of objective knowledge about God and the Christian faith.
6. That arguments and evidence which are incompatible with the truth that the Spirit brings to us are simply overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for someone who fully attends to that witness in his heart.
Now Christian evidentialists might say, “But even if Christian faith can be justified in the absence of apologetical arguments, still, you need to have at least defensive arguments to ward off the objections and the attacks upon Christianity from unbelievers.” But I think even that more modest claim is hasty. If the witness of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is sufficiently powerful, as it ought to be, if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, then that witness will simply overwhelm any arguments and evidence which are brought against a person’s Christian beliefs, so that you don’t really even need defensive apologetics. A Christian believer who is too uninformed or ill-equipped to refute anti-Christian objections can still be rationally justified in believing on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit even in the face of unrefuted objections. Even a person who is confronted with what are, for him at least, unanswerable objections who feels that spiritual vertigo that Lee described last night, is still justified in believing in Christianity on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, I would say he is obligated to believe in the Christian faith on the basis of the Spirit’s witness. Since beliefs which are grounded in the objective truth reliable witness of the Holy Spirit are part of the deliverances of reason, it is the way God designed our cognitive faculties to function. The believers faith is justified even if he is wholly bereft of apologetic arguments for the truth of the Christian faith, as is the case with the vast majority of Christians not only in the world today but down through history.
Now, by contrast with this, I think that there are powerful arguments against Christian evidentialism – the view that apologetic arguments and evidences are necessary in order for faith to be rational. Let me mentioned four.
1. The Christian evidentialist would deny the right to Christian faith to anyone who lacks the time, the ability, or the resources to understand and assess the arguments and evidence. And this consequence would not doubt consign millions of Christian to unbelief, when you think about it. There are millions of Christians in the world today who are too poor to have access to library or internet facilities, who have no education, who are illiterate, and could not possibly understand the arguments and evidence for the existence of God or the reliability of the Gospels. Or who are laboring 18 hours a day and do not have the leisure time to look into apologetic arguments. And I think it would be unconscionable to consign such people to unbelief simply because they lack the time, ability, or education to explore apologetic arguments and evidence.
2. It would mean that those who have been presented with more cogent arguments against Christian theism would be justified in rejecting God and being atheists. They would have a just excuse before God for their unbelief. But the Scripture clearly says that all men are without excuse because of God’s general revelation in the world (Romans 1:21).
3. This view would create a sort of intellectual elite, a priesthood of philosophers and historians who would dictate to the masses what they ought and ought not to believe about Christian matters. But surely, faith is available to anyone who, in response to the drawing of the Holy Spirit upon his heart, wants to call upon the name of the Lord.
4. On Christian evidentialism, faith is subjected to the vacillations of human reason and the shifting sands of evidence from time to time and from place to place, making faith in Christ rational in one generation and place, and irrational in another generation and place. But through the witness of the Holy Spirit, every generation is contemporaneous with Christ, and thus has a secure and firm basis for faith in Christ.
So I do not in fact think that apologetics is necessary in order for us to believe rationally or even to know that Christianity is true. But it doesn’t follow that therefore apologetics is useless or not beneficial in knowing that Christianity is true. If there are good arguments for the existence of God and if Christian evidences are successful then Christian belief is also warranted by such arguments and evidences for the person who understands them, even if that person would still be warranted if he lacked the arguments an evidence. Such a person would be doubly warranted in his Christian faith, for he would have not only the warrant of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, but he would have the warrant of the apologetic arguments and evidences. And I think we can all imagine great benefits accruing to such a person through having this sort of double warrant for his Christian beliefs. Having sound arguments for the existence of a creator and designer of the universe, or having good evidence for the historical credibility of the Gospels, could increase your confidence in the truth of the Christian faith. Or the availability of independent arguments and evidence for Christian truth claims apart from the witness of the Holy Spirit could prepare the heart of the unbeliever so that when he does hear the Gospel and the Spirit bears witness to its truth, his heart is disposed to believe and respond to the drawing of the Holy Spirit. Or again the argument and evidence could provide support for the believer when he goes through times of spiritual dryness or times and seasons of doubt, when the Spirit’s witness is not as vital and real in his life. And I imagine that we could think of many other ways in which having this sort of dual warrant for our Christian beliefs would be extremely beneficial.
So the question then is, do the arguments and evidence of apologetics provide sufficient warrant to rationally justify Christian faith? Well I think that they do. In my published work I have defended versions of the cosmological, the teleological, the moral, and the ontological arguments for God’s existence. I have also defended theism against the principle attacks of atheism such as the problem of suffering and evil, the hiddenness of God, or the incoherence of theism. Moreover I have argued for the authenticity of the radical personal claims of the historical Jesus whereby he put himself in the place of God. And I have argued for the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb, his postmortem appearances after his crucifixion, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus resurrection. And I have argued, using the standard criteria for assessing historical hypotheses, that the best explanation of these facts is that the disciples were right, God raised Jesus from the dead. So if these arguments and evidences are sound then belief in Christianity is doubly warranted both by apologetical arguments and evidences as well as by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
So, while apologetical arguments and evidences are not necessary in order for us to know that Christianity is true, still I think they are sufficient for us to know that Christianity is true, and having the dual warrant for our Christian beliefs can be tremendously beneficial. And so the fact that Christian apologetics may not be necessary in order to know that Christianity is true does nothing to show that apologetics is therefore useless or unimportant.
But more than that, even if Christian apologetics is not necessary with regard to knowing that Christianity is true, still apologetics may be very useful, and I think even crucial, with respect to achieving certain other ends. So let me talk about three ends with respect to which I think Christian apologetics plays a vital, indeed a crucial role.
1. Shaping culture. Apologetics is useful, and may well be necessary, in order for the Gospel to be effectively heard in Western society today. In general, Western society is deeply post-Christian. It is the product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was the age of reason during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The Enlightenment introduced into Western society the leaven of secularism which has now permeated the whole of Western culture. The hallmark of the Enlightenment was free thought, that is to say, the pursuit of knowledge by means of human reason alone uninhibited by any sort of authority, particularly from the state or the church. Now it is by no means inevitable that free thought is going to have to lead to atheistic conclusions. In fact most of the Enlightenment thinkers were in fact believers in the existence of God, and in our day a person like Antony Flew, for example, by following the prescriptions of free thought, himself came to believe in God near the end of his life. But still it has been the overwhelming impact of the enlightenment upon Western society that Western intellectuals do not consider theological knowledge to be possible. They do not consider theological knowledge to be possible. Theology is not a source of genuine knowledge and therefore it is not a science. Reason and religion are thus at odds with each other. The deliverances of the physical sciences alone are taken as reliable guides to truth and to our understanding of the way the world is, and the confident assumption is that an unbridled, unfettered approach to the truth will issue in a purely naturalistic picture of the world. The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly to its end will either be an atheist or, at best, an agnostic.
Now, why are these considerations of culture important? Well, very simply, because the Gospel is never heard in isolation. The Gospel is always heard against the backdrop of the culture in which one lives. A person who is raised in a cultural milieu which is still open to Christianity will see Christianity as an intellectually viable option in a way that a person who is thoroughly secularized will not. For the thoroughly secularized person you may as well tell him to believe in fairies or leprechauns, as in Jesus Christ. Or to give a more realistic example, it is like your being approached at the airport by some devotee of the Hari Krishna movement, who hands you a flower and invites you to believe in Krishna. Now such an invitation would likely strike you as bizarre, freakish, maybe even funny, but, for someone in Delhi, in India, such an invitation would probably be serious cause for reflection and give him serious pause, because his cultural milieu is so different than ours. And my fear is that evangelical Christians may appear just as weird to nonbelievers on the streets of Bonn, Stockholm, and Toronto, as do the devotees of the Hari Krishna movement.
What awaits us here in North America if our slide into secularism goes unchecked is already evident in Europe. Although the majority of Europeans maintain a nominal affiliation with Christianity, only about 10% of the population are actually practicing Christians, and only about half of those would be born again Bible believing Christians. The most significant trend in European religious life has been the growth of that segment of the population which is classed as nonreligious. This segment of the population grew from effectively 0% of the population in 1900 to over 22% of the population by the year 2000. And as a result evangelism is immeasurably more difficult in Europe than here in the United States. Missionaries must labor for years and years to win just a handful of converts. Having lived for 13 years in Europe where I spoke evangelistically on university campuses across the continent, I can personally testify to how hard the ground is. It is difficult for the Gospel even to get a hearing, they can’t even be open to a presentation of the Gospel. I vividly recall, for example, that when I spoke at the University of Porto in Portugal, the students at the university actually suspected that I was an impostor, that I was a fraud, they could not believe that here was a person who had doctorates from two European universities and yet was a Christian believer. And they even telephoned the University of Luvan in Belgium where I was working in order to check out my affiliation with the university, that is how skeptical they were that there could even be such a thing as a Christian intellectual.
For that reason, people who depreciate the value of apologetics because “nobody comes to Christ through arguments” are so short sighted in their thinking. The value of apologetics extends far beyond your immediate evangelistic contact. It is the broader task of apologetics to help to shape a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women. In his article “Christianity and Culture,” the great Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen, on the eve of the fundamentalist controversy in 1913, wrote these prophetic words, he said
False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.
Unfortunately, Machen’s warning when unheeded and Christianity retreated into the intellectual closets of fundamentalism from which we have only recently now begun to reemerge. But now huge doors of opportunity stand open before us. We are living at a time where Christian philosophy is experiencing a veritable renaissance, revitalizing arguments for the existence of God, at a time when science is open to the existence of a creator and designer of the universe more so than it has been at any time in recent memory. And at a time when biblical criticism had embarked upon a renewed quest of the historical Jesus which treats the Gospels seriously as valuable historical sources for Jesus and has confirmed the broad outlines of the portrait of Jesus painted in the Gospels. What an exciting time to be alive and to be working in the field of Christian apologetics. I am so glad to be alive now, rather than say back in the 30’s and 40’s during those dark days of intellectual eclipse of Christianity in our culture. We are well poised, brothers and sisters, to help to retake lost ground and to reshape our culture in such a way that the Gospel can once again be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking people in American society.
Now, I imagine some of you are thinking, but don’t we live in a postmodern society, in which these rational apologetic arguments and evidences are no longer effective? Since postmodernists deny the canons of traditional logic and rationally and truth, these apologetic arguments are worthless. All we can do is simply share our narrative in today’s culture and invite people to participate in it. Well, in my opinion, this type of thinking could not be more mistaken. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth; the idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth which I think is perpetuated by youth ministers and seminarians. In fact a postmodern culture is an impossibility, it would be utterly unlivable. Nobody is a postmodernist when it comes to reading the labels on a bottle of aspirin or a bottle of rat poison – if you have a headache, you better believe that texts have objective meaning. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of engineering, science, and technology. Rather, as Shawn so beautifully displayed for us, people are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But you see that is not postmodernism, that is modernism. That’s just old line verificationism and positivism, which says that if you can’t verify it with your five senses then it is just a matter of personal preference or emotive expression. We live in a cultural milieu which remains deeply modernist. In fact, I think that postmodernism is one of the craftiest deceptions that Satan has yet devised. “Modernism is dead,” he tells us, “don’t worry about it, you don’t need to fear it any longer, forget about it, it’s dead and buried.” Meanwhile modernism, pretending to be dead, comes back around in the fancy new dress of postmodernism, pretending to be a new challenger. Your old arguments and evidences are no longer effective against this new opponent, you had better simply get rid of them, lay them down, instead just share your narrative. And so Satan deceives us into voluntarily laying down our best weapons of logic and rationality and as a result ensuring modernism's triumph over us. If we follow this suicidal course of action, then the consequences for the church in the next generation will be catastrophic. Christianity will be reduced to just one more voice in a cacophony of competing voices, each sharing his narrative, and none of them commending itself as the objective truth about reality, while scientific naturalism continues to shape our view of how the world really is.
Now, of course, it goes without saying, that in doing apologetics we should be humble, and relational, and invitational, that is hardly an original insight of postmodernism. From the very beginning, Christian apologists have known that we should present the reasons for our hope with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). You don’t need to abandon the canons of logic, rationality, and truth in order to exemplify these biblical virtues.
And as for the idea that people in our culture are no longer interested or responsive to rational argumentation and evidence for Christianity, well nothing could be farther from the truth. If I may speak from my own experience, for over 20 years I have been engaged in speaking evangelistically on university campuses in North American and Europe and I share the Gospel in the context of presenting an intellectual defense of Christian truth claims. And I always close my talks with a long period of Q & A with the audience. During all those years, virtually no one has ever stood up and said something like, “Your argument is based on Western chauvinistic standards of rationality and truth” or expressed some other sort of postmodern sentiment; this virtually never happens. If you approach the questions rationally, then people respond in a rational manner. If you present scientific and historical evidence for a Christian truth claim, unbelieving students may argue with you about the evidence, which is exactly what you want, but they don’t attack the objectivity of science or history itself. If you present a deductive argument for Christianity’s truth, unbelieving students might question your premises or raise objections to your conclusion, which is again exactly where the discussion should lie, but they don’t dispute the use of logic itself. Now I do find that unbelieving students can be very suspicious of a Christian speaker, and so they like to have both sides of the issue presented, and for that reason I have found debates to be an especially effective forum for evangelism on university campuses. I competed for eight years in high school and intercollegiate debate activities, debating topics on public policy, like the military assistance program, wage and price controls, and so forth. I never dreamt it would be a ministry someday; for me it was just an intellectual sport, a way that I could compete for my school. But shortly after finishing my doctorate in theology, I began to receive invitations from Christian student groups in Canada to participate in debates on campuses on topics like does God exist, or who was Jesus, or Humanism vs. Christianity, and so forth. And what I began to discover is that while maybe a few score or a couple hundred might come out to hear me give a talk, several hundred or even thousands of students would come out to hear a debate between me and a non-Christian professor.
So, for example, 2,200 student showed up at the University of California, Riverside to hear my debate with Greg Cavin on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. At the University of Wisconsin in Madison 4,000 students came out, on the night of a basketball game no less, to hear Antony Flew and me debate the existence of God. 3,000 students at the University of Iowa braved a snowstorm which dumped seven inches of snow on the campus that night to come out and hear a debate with one of the religious studies professors there who has a vendetta against Christianity. Later in the same year 3,000 students at Purdue University came to hear my debate with the young humanist philosopher Austin Dacey on the question “Does God exist?” Just this past spring I had a two week speaking and debating tour of the United Kingdom in which I participated in four debates. The first night I was there was a debate in Central Hall in London, downtown London, right across the street from Westminster Abbey. The intervarsity people who arranged the debate said we don’t know if even 200 people are going to show up to this thing tonight. Well 2,000 plus people packed Central Hall, London that night to hear my debate with Lewis Wolpert on the question “Is God a Delusion?” And John Humphrys, the BBC personality and journalist who was the moderator for the debate, was absolutely stunned at the turnout and he remarked about the sea of young faces he saw starring back at him as he introduced the speakers to the debate. He said, “Clearly something is going on here in Britain that people are interested in this sort of thing.” And that experience was repeated at every one of the other debates I had during those two weeks – every venue was packed. And the non-Christian moderators were in every case just stunned, saying something is going on in British society that people would be this interested in hearing a debate on a religious topic. The approach in all of these debates is rational argumentation and evidence. I find that there is tremendous interest among students in hearing a balanced discussion of the reasons for and against the Christian faith.
So don’t be deceived into thinking that people in our culture are no longer interested in the evidence for Christianity, precisely the opposite is true. It is vitally important that we preserve a culture in which the Gospel can be heard as a living option for thinking people and apologetics will be front and center in helping to bring about that result.
2. Strengthening believers. Not only is apologetics vital in helping to shaping our culture but it also plays a vital role in the lives of individual people, and one of those roles will be strengthening believers. Jan and I spent the summer of 1982 living in an apartment in Berlin, Germany preparing for my doctoral exams in theology at the University of Munich. Now I had been preparing for these critical exams for over a year and I had a stack of notes about a foot high which I had virtually memorized and reviewed every day that we were there in preparation for the exam. Well, during our time in Berlin we had the pleasure of entertaining Ann Kiemel and he new husband Will as they passed through Berlin. Now Ann at that time was one of the most popular Christian women speakers in America, and God broke the mold when he made Ann Kiemel. She was a unique individual. She would meet total strangers and she would begin to encourage them by singing to them little improvised ditties that she would make up and share them along with her faith in Jesus. She was extremely sentimental and emotional. She would tell stories – some of them fictional, some of them true – which would reduce a whole audience of women to tears in minutes.
Well, while we were sitting around the table in our apartment one day, I thought I’d try to learn some lessons based on her experience as a Christian speaker. “Ann,” I asked, “How do you prepare for your messages?”
“Oh, I don’t prepare,” she said.
I was absolutely aghast. “You don’t prepare? ” I said.
“No,” she answered.
“Well, then, what do you do?” I asked.
“Oh, I just share my struggles.”
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was killing myself in years of preparation for ministry – and she doesn’t prepare! Yet there was no doubting the effectiveness of her minstry. She reached thousands of people with the Gospel. She would tell stories of how even hard-boiled academics were melted by her little ditties and stories and come to Christ. And I thought, “What am I doing wrong here, am I barking up the wrong tree, is all thus study just a waste of time, why am I doing all this when all you have to do is just to share your struggles?”
Well, we returned to the States that fall to start doing a sabbatical at the University of Arizona at Tuscan where a former classmate lived, and I shared with him one day about my conversation with Ann and how it had rather taken the wind out of my sails. And he said something to me that was very encouraging. He told me, “Bill, someday those people that Ann Kiemel has brought to the Lord are going to need what you have to offer.”
He was right. Emotions can only take you so far, and then you are going to need something more substantive. And apologetics can help to provide some of that substance. As I speak in churches around the country I frequently meet parents who approach me after the service and say something like this, “Oh! If only you had been here two or three years ago, our son (or our daughter) had questions about the faith which no one in the church could answer and now they are far away from the Lord.”
It just breaks my heart to meet parents like this. As I travel, I also meet other people who have told me about how they were prevented from falling away from their faith because of an apologetic book or video that they had seen. In their case, apologetics has been the means by which God has brought about their perseverance in the faith. Now, of course, apologetics cannot guarantee perseverance in the faith; indeed some of the most effective anti-Christian thinkers today are ex-apologists who are out there all over the pace on the internet. But, nevertheless, I think that Christian apologetics can help and in some cases, in the providence of God, may even be necessary in order to ensure perseverance.
I had the privilege of speaking some time ago at Princeton University on arguments for the existence of God. And after the lecture I was approached by a young man who wanted to talk with me. His face was just quivering as he was obviously trying to hold back the tears, and he told me of how just a couple of years earlier he had been struggling with severe doubts and he was just on the brink of abandoning his faith. Then somebody gave him a video of one of my debates, and he said, “It saved me from losing my faith, I cannot thank you enough.”
And I said to him, “It was the Lord who saved you from falling.”
He said, “Yes, but he used you. I can’t thank you too much.” And I told him how thrilled I was to hear this and for him, and I asked him about his future plans. And he said, “I am graduating this year, and I plan to go to seminary. I am going into the pastorate.” Praise God for the victory in this young man’s life.
Other students that I met at Princeton were enrolled in a class taught by the New Testament critic Elaine Pagels that Lee told us about Friday night. This class was nicknamed the “Faithbusters Class” by students because of the destructive effect that it had had upon the faith of so many Christian students. They had no way of knowing how far out of the mainstream Professor Pagels is in her views on the Gnostic Gospels, and it was a privilege to share with them grounds for the credibility of the New Testament witness to Jesus.
The experience of these students isn’t unusual. In high school and college, Christian teenagers are intellectually assaulted with every manner of non-Christian worldview coupled with an overwhelming relativism. If parents are not intellectually engaged with their faith, and do not have sound arguments for the truth of Christian theism and good answers to their children’s questions, then brothers and sisters we are endanger of losing our youth. It is no longer enough to simply teach our children Bible stories, they need doctrine and Christian apologetics. I’ll be honest with you, I find it hard, frankly, to understand how parents can risk parenthood these days without studying Christian apologetics.
Unfortunately, our churches have largely dropped the ball in this area. It is insufficient for youth groups and Sunday school classes to simply focus on entertainment and worship experiences and simpering devotional thoughts, we have got to train our kids for war. How dare we, how dare we, send them out to public high school and university armed with nothing more than rubber swords and plastic armor. The time for playing games is past.
But Christian apologetics does much more than safeguard against lapses. The positive, upbuilding effects of Christian apologetics are even more evident. I see this all the time on the university campuses where I debate. John Stackhouse who is a professor of religious studies at the University of Manitoba told me that in his view these debates are really what missionaries call a “power encounter.” On the mission field, the God of the Bible will confront the gods of a local people group in a sort of contest, a power encounter, to see who is the true God. And Stackhouse says that these debates are a kind of Westernized power encounter on university campuses. I think that is a perceptive analysis. As the Christian faith emerges victorious in these encounters, Christian students come away with a renewed confidence in their faith, with their heads held high, proud to be Christians and eager to be a witness for Christ on their campus. Sometimes after a debate students will say to me, “I can’t wait to go out and share my faith in Christ.”
Many Christians do not share their faith with unbelievers simply out of fear. They are afraid that the non-Christian might ask them a question, or raise an objection that they cannot answer, and so they chose to remain silent and hide their light under a bushel in disobedience to Christ’s command. Apologetics is a tremendous boost to evangelism, for nothing inspires confidence more than knowing that you have good reasons for what you believe and good answers to any objections that nonbelievers might bring up. Sound training in apologetics is one of the keys, I believe, to fearless evangelism.
So in this and many other ways, apologetics helps to build up the body of Christ by strengthening believers.
3. Evangelizing unbelievers. Few people would disagree with me when I say that apologetics is useful for strengthening believers. But many will say that apologetics is not very useful in evangelism. “Nobody comes to Christ through arguments,” they’ll tell you. I don’t know how many times I have heard this said. Now, this dismissive attitude toward the role of apologetics in evangelism is certainly not the biblical view. As you read the Acts of the Apostles it is evident that it was the apostles’ standard procedure to argue for the truth of the Christian view, both with Jews and with Pagans. In dealing with Jewish audiences, the apostles appealed to fulfilled prophesy, Jesus’ miracles, and especially Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that he was the Messiah. When they confronted Gentile audiences who didn’t accept the Hebrew Scriptures, then the apostles would appeal to God’s handiwork in nature as evidence for the existence of a creator, and then appeal was made to the eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus in order to show that this creator had revealed himself specially in Jesus Christ.
Frankly, I think that those who believe that apologetics is futile in evangelism just don’t do enough evangelism. I suspect that they have tried to use apologetic arguments on occasion and found that the unbeliever was unconvinced and then they draw the general conclusion that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism. Now to a certain extent such folks are just victims of false expectations. When you reflect that only a minority of people who hear the Gospel with accept it, and only a minority of those who accept it will do so for intellectual reasons, we shouldn’t be surprised if the number of people with whom apologetics is effective is relatively small. By the very nature of the case we should expect that most unbelievers will remain unconvinced by our apologetic arguments, just as most remain unmoved by the preaching of the cross.
Well, then, why bother, you might say, with that minority of a minority with whom apologetics is effective? Well, first, because every person is precious in God’s sight, a person for whom Christ dies. Like a missionary who feels called to some obscure people group, the Christian apologist feels called and is burdened to reach that minority of persons who will respond to rational argumentation and evidence. As the apostle Paul said, I have become all things to all men that I might by all means win some.
But secondly – and here the case differs significantly from the case of the obscure people group – this people group, through relatively small in number, is huge in influence. One of those persons, for example, was C. S. Lewis, and just think of the impact that one man’s conversion has had, and continues to have. I find that the people who resonate the most with my apologetic work are engineers, lawyers, and people in medicine, and such people are some of the most influential people in our culture today. So reaching this minority of people with the Gospel will yield a tremendous harvest for the Kingdom of God.
And in any case, I think the general conclusion that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism is just overdrawn. Lee Strobel has remarked to me that he has lost count of the people who have come to Christ through his books, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. Nor, if I can speak personally, has it been my experience that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism. After a talk on arguments for God’s existence or the evidence for the resurrection, I will often give an invitational prayer to commit one’s life to Christ and then people will indicate on their comment cards if they’ve made decisions for Christ and we are continually thrilled to see people coming to make commitments of their lives to Christ through apologetically oriented presentations of the Gospel. I have even seen people come to Christ through hearing the kalam cosmological argument!
Indeed, one of the most exciting cases occurred early on in the case of a Polish physicist named Eva Dresher whom Jan and I met when we were in Germany completing my philosophical doctorate.
As Jan and I chatted with Eva she mentioned that physics had destroyed her belief in God and that life had become meaningless to her. “When I look out at the universe all I see is blackness,” she explained, “and when I look in myself all I see is blackness within.” (What a poignant description of the modern predicament! Blackness without and blackness within.) Well, at that point Jan volunteered, “Oh, you should read Bill’s doctoral dissertation! He uses physics to prove the existence of God.” So we lent her my dissertation to read. Over the next few days she became increasingly excited as she read this dissertation. When she finally got to the section on astronomy and astrophysics, she was positively elated. “I know these men that you are quoting!” she said. By the time she reached the end of the dissertation, her faith in God had been restored. She said, “Thank you so much for helping me to believe that God exists.”
At which point we said, “Well, would you like to know him in a personal way?” And we made an appointment to meet her that night at a restaurant in town. Meanwhile that afternoon Jan and I prepared from memory a hand printed version of the Four Spiritual Laws. And after supper we opened the booklet, laid it out before Eva, and began, “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws that govern your relationship with God.” And she said, “Why, physical laws! Spiritual laws! This is just for me!” And when we finally reached the end of the booklet where the two circles representing the lives are represented and asked her which circle best represented her life, she clapped her hand over the diagram and said, “Oh, this is so personal! I cannot answer now.” And so we encouraged her to take the booklet home and give her life to Christ.
Well, when he saw her the next day, her face was radiant with joy and she told us of how she had gone home that night and in the privacy of her room prayed to give her life to Christ. She then flushed all of the wine and tranquilizers she was on down the toilet and she was a truly transformed person. Jan and I gave her a Good News Bible and explained to her the importance of maintaining a daily devotional life with God and then our paths departed for several months. We saw her again several months later at a congress in Germany and I am pleased to say that she was still enthusiastic about her faith, and she told us that he most precious possessions in all the world were her Good News Bible and her hand-made Four Spiritual Laws. It was one of the most vivid illustrations that I have ever seen of how the Holy Spirit can use arguments and evidence to draw people into a saving knowledge of God.
And it has been thrilling, too, to hear stories of how people have come to Christ through reading something in apologetics that I have written. For example, I was speaking in Moscow a few years ago and I met a man from Minsk in Bellow, Russia, and he told me of how, after the fall of communism, he had heard my book, The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe, being read in Russian over the radio. By the time they got to the end of the book, he said he was convinced that God exists and he prayed to give his life to Christ. He said today he is an elder serving at his Baptist church in Minsk. Praise God.
I also had a wonderful experience at Texas A&M University recently where a women attending one of my talks came up to me and with tears running down her face told me how for 27 years she had been away from God and was feeling hopeless and meaningless. And she said she went to the Borders bookstore and began to browse the religion section and she found my book Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? which is a debate with John Dominic Crossan from the Jesus Seminar. She said that as she began to read it, it was as though the light just came on and she gave her life to Christ. When I asked her what she does now she told me that she is a psychologist who works in a Texas prison for women. Now just think of the light for Christ that she can be in such a dark and desperate environment as that.
And if I may be permitted, just one last story. During the last few years I have had the privilege of debating Muslim apologists in the United States and Canada on the truth of Christianity and Islam. And I got a phone call one Saturday morning. A voice on the other end, a foreign sounding voice, announced, “Hello! This is Sayd al-Islam calling from Oman!” I thought, “Oh, no! They found me!” But he went on to explain that he had secretly lost his Muslim faith and had become an atheist, but through reading books in Christian apologetics that he was ordering through amazon.com on the internet, he had come to believe in God, and was now on the verge of making a commitment to Christ. And he was impressed with the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection but still had a few questions that he needed to settle. And so we talked for about an hour on the phone, and I sensed that in his heart he had already come to believe, but that he just needed to get all the ducks in a row before he could consciously take that step to follow Christ. He explained to me,, “You understand that I cannot tell you my real name. In my country I must lead a sort of double-life because otherwise I would be killed.” And I prayed with him that God would continue to guide him into truth and lead him to himself, and then we said goodbye. And you can imagine how full of praise my heart was. I was walking on air after that phone call, thanking God for using these books and the internet for bringing the Gospel into contact with a person with whom I will probably never have personal contact. And stories like these can, of course, be multiplied and we never hear most of them.
So those who say that apologetics is not effective in evangelism, I think, must be speaking out of their limited experience. Apologetics, when it is persuasively presented and sensitively combined with a Gospel presentation and a personal testimony, is such that the Spirit of God condescends to use it in drawing people to himself.
So, in conclusion then, Christian apologetics is, I believe, a vital part of Christian discipleship. While it is not necessary for knowing that Christianity is true, nevertheless having a dual warrant for one’s Christian beliefs can be tremendously beneficial. Moreover, apologetics plays a vital, and I think indeed, a crucial role in shaping culture, strengthening believers, and in evangelizing unbelievers. And it is for all of these reasons I am unapologetically enthusiastic about Christian apologetics.
 J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913): p. 7.
 Total Running Time: 58:17 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2007)