Stubborn unbelief, the work of the Holy Spirit, and why do we do apologetics anyway?
So, why do we do apologetics?
“So why do we do apologetics?” I asked the university student in front of me, a second-year student from Algeria in Management and Economy that I’m hoping will be the seed of a Ratio Christi group in Aix-en-Provence.
“It’s not enough just to claim that we have the truth, we need to give people convincing reasons to believe in Christianity. Especially here where Reason is king, we have to have something to say when they ask why they should believe.”
“I agree with all that,” I said, “and there’s a reason even more basic behind what you’re saying. The reason we need to do apologetics is because not everybody believes in Jesus yet.”
The reason we need to do apologetics is because not everybody believes in Jesus yet.
That is to say, the starting point for the need for apologetics is the fact that so many people are estranged from the God who made them and who is the only source of life and love and every good thing. To understand why we do apologetics (and how!), we have to start with a clear understanding of what the problem is. At the most basic level, the problem is that people don’t know God.
So, why don’t people know God?
Paul explains it this way:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The reason people don’t know God is because they don’t want to. All of us by nature suppress the truth, the knowledge of God that we have, to shield ourselves from having to confront our own sin and rebellion (cf. John 3:19-20). The result is that while we’re congratulating ourselves on how wise we are, the fact is that we become fools trying to construct our own reality without reference the God who “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). This foolishness leads to idolatry which in turn leads into every kind of immorality.
The problem goes beyond ignorance. People already “know God” in one sense (v. 21), but they suppress that knowledge and try to hide it from their consciousness. This is not a case where simply providing the right information will correct a misunderstanding; as long as the heart of a person continues in rebellion against God, no amount of clear, convincing truth will be able to change their mind1. But if that's the case, we might well ask how anybody gets converted.
So, how do people come to know God?
Paul describes it this way:
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 4:4-6
Luke describes the conversion of Lydia this way:
The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
And Jesus explains it this way:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Apart from Christ, every one of us is spiritually blind (Luke 11:34) and spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), and the only remedy for our condition is miraculous healing, a resurrection, an act of God. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. He alone can correct the rebellious bent in our hearts that causes us to twist and suppress the truth about God, so that we can be restored to fellowship with him.
Of course that leads to the question, if rational arguments are useless and only the Holy Spirit can convert people, what’s the use of apologetics?
So, why do we do apologetics again?
Return to the example of Lydia from Acts 16. When the Holy Spirit “opened her heart” it was to “pay attention to what was said by Paul.” The Holy Spirit didn’t change her heart at some random moment while she walking down the street so that she was suddenly able to love God without ever having heard the Gospel. God uses human servants to spread the message of reconciliation to God through the sacrifice of Christ, and it’s (normally) in the context of this presentation of the Gospel that he opens peoples’ eyes and ears to understand and believe the message being proclaimed. Besides that, we have a clear command from Christ to be busy evangelizing the nations and not idly waiting for God to go convert all the elect.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That said, it may not be clear why evangelism (proclaiming the message) implies apologetics (making a case for the truth of the message). Some might even say, “We know that people aren’t converted by human reasoning, so we should just tell people the Gospel, and leave it to God to open their eyes.” This however, was not the practice of Paul:
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus.
And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
Acts 17:2, 17:17, 18:4, 18:19, 19:8-9, 24:25
And lest we think that reasoning with unbelievers was just Paul’s personal approach, we have the command from Peter to “always be ready to provide a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15). Apologetics is necessary because, just as God works through human speech, human hearing, and human comprehension of language in the ordinary proclamation of the Gospel, so he also works through human reason when that Gospel is argued for and defended. God made us as rational creatures, and he redeems us as rational creatures. As the farmer works the soil and plants the seed in hope that God will give growth (Mt 4:26-29), so also, we labor over arguments and evidences, planting the seeds of the Gospel and giving them every advantage we can, depending finally on God to produce fruit from our efforts.
Practical implications for apologetics
Exploring these foundational questions of the theological basis for apologetics leads to practical consequences for our real-world practice of apologetics.
1. As witnesses to Christ, the way we respond to questions and objections is at least as important as the answers we give.
That is to say, it’s more important to provide a living, breathing demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit than it is to “win the debate.” We want to be persuasive and to present a compelling case for Christian truth, but we can’t let that desire lead us to use the world’s tactics in advocating for truth. Remembering that reason and logic alone are powerless to transform people helps us keep our priorities in order.
2. We recognize that there are spiritual factors at work which the non-Christians we deal with are blind to.
For atheists, the debate about God may be nothing more than a question of evidence and logic, but we cannot lose sight of the spiritual and moral factors that lie behind the debate. This means that we depend on God to intervene and pray for that intervention. We also have to be patient with stubborn unbelief, knowing that our spiritual sight is a gift which we didn’t earn. If not for God’s grace toward us, we would think the same way as the person we’re talking to.
3. We can’t pretend that our reasons for Christian belief are purely intellectual.
“Follow the evidence wherever it leads” is an oft-repeated slogan, but it’s not the best description for how we became believers in Christ. Of course Christian belief is where the evidence leads, but in our fallen reason we were unable to reach that conclusion on our own. We became believers when the Holy Spirit opened our eyes to the truth, and we understand that there’s no way to lead another person by the same path unless the Spirit intervenes in their heart as well.
4. We can’t be pragmatists.
As servants of Christ, we are not called to figure out what “works” and then do that. There is no human method that “works” to bring about the miracle of salvation in a person’s life. What we are called to is faithfulness - to speak the truth to the best of our ability in every situation with gentleness and respect. How God chooses to use our faithful witness is up to him.
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
2 Corinthians 4:2
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
2 Timothy 2:24–26
Side question: does this mean that atheists are lying when they claim not believe in God’s existence, although Paul teaches that all people “know God”? My answer is no, the atheist isn’t lying because he earnestly thinks that he doesn’t believe in God, although deep down there is a part of him that actually knows God is there. The human capacity for self-deception is very highly developed, and something that we all need to be aware of in our own hearts.