Co-Author: E.J. Johnston
Christian apologetics is pointless unless we know who needs to know the gospel and what they are like. All humans need to come to Christ through the reception of the Gospel message, since Jesus alone is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As we persuade sinners that they need the Savior, we need to answer the Bible’s own question:
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:5)
Those we invite to name Christ as Lord are, first, made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27-28). Thus, humans are “finite replicas of God,” in Cornelius Van Til’s phrase. As such, we are personal, relational, rational, emotional, and volitional. We represent God on earth as does nothing else and are called to cultivate and develop nature (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8). We mortals are finite and personal; the immortal God is infinite and personal. Since we are finite, we need an infinite reference point in order to find our purpose and the meaning of life and of death. We are not sufficient unto ourselves. We were created to look up to God before we look down at ourselves and the rest of creation.
Since we bear the divine image, it is not strange that God would relate to us rationally and propositionally. Our Creator spoke to the first couple in the garden and they understood him. They did not deny their divinely-given intellect to know God. Their problem was not that God had left them in the dark, but that they chose darkness over light and sided with the lies of the serpent.
Yet even after the fall, God continued to speak to his creatures, and they understood him. Using their capacity for language received from the Almighty, they responded. Equipped with language, humanity could communicate with God and each other; thus, they could establish their dominion over creation for God’s purposes. Otherwise, we would not find Paul arguing with the philosophers of Athens as recorded in Acts 17. The Apostle explains the character of God and appeals to Greek thinkers to establish common ground with his audience. He knows that Spirit-led rational argument was apropos for the non-Christian interested in his teaching. Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that Paul was a success, even though this was an unplanned mission trip which he took on alone (Acts 17:1-9).
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others (Acts 17:32-34).
The Greeks did not respect the Hebrew Bible; they were not people of the covenant that God made with the Jews. Nonetheless, they could receive the proclamation and defense of the Gospel because they were still rational and moral creatures. On this basis, Peter exhorts Christians to defend their beliefs:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).
This answer is an apologetic, a reasoned case for one’s belief given to unbelievers who have no sufficient hope to cope with the suffering of life.
Nevertheless, some argue that man’s fall into sin disables his intellect from following arguments for Christian truths. Sin affects every aspect of our being, including the intellect. Therefore, arguments for Christianity (apologetics) are futile at best and harmful to the Christian cause at worst. Scripture tells us that the fall was no small injury to human beings: As Paul writes:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3).
The divine image remains, however, and part of that image is rationality, the ability of God’s creatures to fathom concepts (such as the Gospel itself) and to follow and give arguments. Jesus conversed philosophically with the best minds of his day, as I argue in On Jesus (Wadsworth, 2003). Surely, he did not deem such discourse pointless or harmful to the knowledge of God!
Nonetheless, our sinfulness makes doing apologetics more difficult, since we and our hearers are often slow to warm to the truth, given self-centeredness. But we should not speculate concerning the implications of the fall apart from what the Bible tells us about human nature and the commendation of the gospel to unbelievers.
Moreover, the Holy Spirit, who Jesus calls the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17, 16:13), can open people’s minds through argumentation or by any other means he so choses. No less a luminary than C.S. Lewis was drawn to God partially through rational arguments, as he discussed in his book, Surprised by Joy. More recently, Lee Strobel had the same experience, which is what sparked the writing of his best-selling books, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. While so much more should be said, a vital lesson must be learned—no Christian should denounce or even shy away from marshalling good arguments for the truth of Christianity (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Mindful of this, let us engage others in reasonable, rational conversation on matters of eternal import. Let us encourage them to seek truth through their God-given reason articulated through human language. And let us entreat our Lord on their behalf, because without the Holy Spirit’s work (and regardless of how brilliant any apologist or audience may be), embracing divine revelation cannot occur by unaided human reason. It is the work of God.