Over years of doing apologetics, I have experienced some remarkable apologetics encounters. I offer the following six to encourage you to have fire in your bones, love in your heart, and knowledge in your mind to bring the whole Bible to the whole world for the glory of God, the good of his church, the extension of his Kingdom, and for peace and truth on earth.
In the spring of 1977, when I was in college, I wrote an apologetic letter to the editor of the University of Oregon newspaper. One of my professors, an embittered religious studies scholar, wrote a letter in response saying I didn’t know what I was talking about. I then realized that my Christian witness would be contested by people in authority. I was in a battle for ideas (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). I wrote another letter responding to my professors critique.
We should never discount the significance of prayer and the work of Holy Spirit in apologetics outreach. I wrote an apologetic flyer to be handed out at a major New Age event in Seattle on New Year’s Eve of 1986. Those of us who were going to distribute the tract meet beforehand for prayer and strategy. As we prayed, we all sense the presence of God and his endorsement of what we were to do that night. We went out with peace and confidence and handed out all the tracks we had brought. Unbeknownst to us, another Christian had also made a flyer for the event (which was good) and between the both of us, everyone who attended the event receive an apologetic/evangelistic essay. I was interviewed the local nightly news about the event as well.
Sometimes, apologetic opportunities come unexpectedly. Thus, we should “always be ready” to defend our faith, as Peter says (1 Peter 3:15). Or as Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). A friend and I attended a meeting in about 1995 sponsored by the local Bahai group, which was held in an old Christians Science church. The topic was near-death experiences. The goal of the Bahais was to speak on this topic of interest and to weave in their perspective. Since I had just written a book about the topic, I was quite interested. About ten minutes into the lecture, the speaker held up a copy of my book, Deceived by the Light, as an example of a recent discussion.[i] I raised my hand, was called on, and said, “I wrote that book.” I was not trying to intimidate him, but he was a bit flustered, and then said, “Would you like to give the rest of the lecture?” I obliged and had a very fruitful evening of impromptu apologetics.
Christians can also plant apologetic seeds in brief encounters. While in a bookstore, I asked a worker where the philosophy section had been moved, since it was not where it used to be. She replied, “I can show you. Nothing stays the same.” To that, I said, “Except God.” She seemed to ponder that for a moment and I prayed silently for her.
As a professor at Denver Seminary, I require the students in my Religious Pluralism class to attend a non-Christian religious service and to interview a member of that religion. A few years ago, two of my students attended a Hindu service and interviewed a women who led the ceremonies. I will call her Jane. They both told her that she would enjoy talking to me. One of the students and I set up a meeting with this woman and her son, both of whom practiced Hindu meditation. Interestingly, the woman considered herself a Christian, although she had a pantheistic worldview. The four of us had a very profitable discussion in which I explained and defended the gospel and my student, who is from India, gave his testimony. The son asked, “My guru says Jesus was the ultimate guru, but I really don’t know what he taught. Can you tell me?” I told him! As the conversation wound down, Jane asked me to pray for all of us. I was delighted to do so. I later sent her a copy of my book, Jesus in an Age of Controversy, and have prayed for her.[ii]
Apologists need to respond to real questions people are asking about Christianity, and sometimes these questions are not covered by standard apologetics books. This means the Christian needs to do new research and take these questions seriously (if they are serious questions). I got involved in an email exchange with someone I didn’t know very well. His obstacle to becoming a Christian related to the crucifixion of Jesus. He did not see how Jesus could have atoned for the sins of the world when he only suffered for a few hours on the cross. That, he thought, would not be sufficient to atone for our sins, which deserve an endless hell. I had never thought much about this. But as we interacted, I convinced him that while the quantity of Jesus suffering was not eternal, the quality of his suffering was sufficient, since he was the sinless Son of God who represented sinful humanity.[iii] He told me that he became a Christian, but I was not able to follow up with him much. Of course, I prayed for him.Let these experiences inspire you to serve God in apologetic endeavors.
[i] Douglas Groothuis, Deceived by the Light (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995).
[ii] Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996). This is an updated and revised version of Revealing the New Age Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
[iii] I did not know it at the time, but he was giving an objection originally stated by the Italian heretic, Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), who denied Jesus’s atonement. See Douglas Groothuis, “The Atonement: Explaining it Properly” and “The Atonement: Defending It Against Objections,” Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2n ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).