In Defense of Apologetics

Apologetics is an answer to the “why” question after you’ve already answered the “what” question. The what question, of course, is, “What is the gospel?” But when you call people to believe in the gospel and they ask, “Why should I believe that?”—then you need apologetics.

I’ve heard plenty of Christians try to answer the why question by going back to the what. “You have to believe because Jesus is the Son of God.” But that’s answering the why with more what. Increasingly we live in a time when you can’t avoid the why question. Just giving the what (for example, a vivid gospel presentation) worked in the days when the cultural institutions created an environment in which Christianity just felt true or at least honorable. But in a post-Christendom society, in the marketplace of ideas, you have to explain why this is true, or people will just dismiss it.

Is Apologetics Biblical?

There are plenty of Christians today who nevertheless say: “Don’t do apologetics, just expound the Word of God—preach and the power of the Word will strike people.” Others argue that “belonging comes before believing.” They say apologetics is a rational, Enlightenment approach, not a biblical one. People need to be brought into a community where they can see our love and our deeds, experience worship, have their imaginations captured, and faith will become credible to them.

There is a certain merit to these arguments. It would indeed be overly rationalistic to say that we can prove Christianity so that any rational person would have to believe it. In fact, this approach dishonors the sovereignty of God by bowing to our autonomous human reason. Community and worship are important, because people come to conviction through a combination of heart and mind, a sense of need, thinking things out intellectually, and seeing it in community. But I have also seen many skeptics brought into a warm Christian community and still ask, “But why should I believe you and not an atheist or a Muslim?”

We need to be careful of saying, “Just believe,” because what we’re really saying is, “Believe because I say so.” That sounds like a Nietzschean power play. That’s very different from Paul, who reasoned, argued, and proved in the Book of Acts, and from Peter, who called us to give the reason for our hope in 2 Peter 3:15. If our response is, “Our beliefs may seem utterly irrational to you, but if you see how much we love one another then you’ll want to believe too,” then we’ll sound like a cult. So we do need to do apologetics and answer the why question.

No Neutral Ground

However, the trouble with an exclusively rationalistic apologetic (“I’m going to prove to you that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Bible is true,” etc.) is that it does, in a sense, put God on trial before supposedly neutral, perfectly rational people sitting objectively on the throne of Reason. That doesn’t fit with what the Bible says about the reality of sin and the always prejudiced, distorted thinking produced by unbelief. On the other hand, an exclusively subjectivist apologetic (“Invite Jesus into your life and he’ll solve all your problems, but I can’t give you any good reasons, just trust with your heart”) also fails to bring conviction of real sin or of need.

There will be no joy in the grace of Jesus unless people see they’re lost. Thus a gospel-shaped apologetic must not simply present Christianity, it must also challenge the non-believer’s worldview and show where it, and they, have a real problem.

Editors’ NoteThis is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.

  • Sterling Archer

    I appreciate your thoughts on engaging the skeptic with the gospel through the context of apologetics. My only question is: where would we draw the line in reasoning out our faith when the world counts our faith as absolute foolishness? If the basis of our reason is the constant truth we find in God based on His essence and personhood, and if His personhood is seen and displayed the greatest through the person and work of Jesus Christ, wouldn’t the most rationalistic thing be to point to God who gives faith? All of our reasoning ends in the inexplicable and at some point we must shrug our shoulders and say, “I don’t know, trust God who does.” I’m not arguing against apologetics but am sincerely wanting to know where we should draw the line in calling people to faith through reason.

  • Dave H.

    Thank you for recognizing that apologetics can only bring an unbeliever to a limited knowledge of Christ. 2Peter 3:15 forward is avery good reference toward apologetics. 1 Peter 3:15 forward gives clear direction to Christians regarding their responsibliliy to spread the Gospel. Apologetics and reason are important in that they relate to the human mind. But one who accepts Christ as Savior does not have a chance to live the faith without the presence of the Holy Spirit because times of doubt will come when only faith can keep the Christian strong in his faith.

    • simon

      Would you say the responsibility to spread the gospel in 1Pet. 3:15 is still more responsive than pro-active?

      Also just wondering what the context in 1 Pet. 3:15 suggests is the reason someone might ask us why we have the hope that we do? Although if it specifically relates to our joy/perseverance in persecution/suffering, I guess there are other situations we might be quizzed about or hope

      • Dave H.

        I believe it was St. Augustine who said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and, when necessary, speak.”. Our best testimony for Christ is to live the Christian life the best we can. I do believe the Christian’s primary evangelizing tool is to live the life that Christ has deposited in us via the Holy Spirit. When we do that, people will see a difference and often ask questions. By being seen participating in charity work, attending church, reading Christian works, etc. people sometimes are prompted to ask questions. That gives the perfect opportunity to witness as described in 1Pet.3:15. I believe the Apostle Peter was challenging us to be ready when the opportunity comes to speak of Christ and his work in us. There are those who are called to speak out un-asked, and there are other scriptures that back that up. The admonition from Jesus in Matthew 28:19 was to go into all the world and make disciples. Some go as preachers, teachers, missionaries, etc., but all can go as directed in 1Pet. 3:15.

        • paul Cummings

          @Dave, can I gently say that: 1st- Augustine never said that and 2nd- Words are absolutely necessary. If you had a Muslim, Hindu and Christian all living in front of people and they couldn’t use words, how would you tell them apart in their good deeds? It’s Words used properly that testify…which is certainly reflected in the life of Christ, Paul, Peter etc.

          I know where you might be coming from…I’ve seen Apologists and Evangelists who turned me off as a Believer by their words…but bad examples shouldn’t deter us from it.
          God bless.

          • Dave H.

            Thanks, Paul… You’re right… the quote is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, and some dispute he said it. The primary point though is that it is not only good deeds, but also the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian believer that will draw the questions. Words are necessary, but expecting to convince unbelievers with words alone can be a futile exercise.

            • paul Cummings

              Wholeheartedly agreed…the Holy Spirit opens the heart first. God bless.

  • Tyler Helfers

    Do you have any resources, or suggestions, with regard to challenging non-believers’ worldviews? I think this is an important facet of apologetics that isn’t much discussed. Thanks.

    • Sam

      Francis Schaeffer’s approach is highly instructive. His main objective in dialoguing with unbelievers was to pull the rug out from their worldview and expose either 1) the logical inconsistency inherent in the unbeliever’s worldview, 2) the abhorrent moral conclusions that follow if the worldview is taken to its logical end, or 3) the inherent un-livability of the worldview narrative (this was especially helpful with New Age and spiritualist students he had).

      As far as resources go, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is still a classic, especially with atheists/naturalists. Also, Ravi Zacharias’s “Jesus Among Other Gods” is a forceful comparison of Christianity with world religions.

    • Brandon

      Cornelius Van Til was largely accredited with this form of apologetics, called Presuppositional Apologetics. Greg Bahnsen, an understudy of Van Til, wrote extensively on the subject in his book Pushing The Antithesis. The next book one should read after this is Bahnsen’s further treatise, Van Til’s Apologetic.

      They are excellent reads and have changed my methodology forever.

      Presuppositional Apologetics:
      Pushing The Antithesis:
      Van Til’s Apologetic:

      Good luck!


      I would second what Brandon has to say here, especially concerning Bahnsen’s “Pushing the Antithesis.” Greg Bahnsen’s famous debate that model this can be heard here:

    • stevew

      Read Greg Koukl’s book “Tactics”. His Colombo tactic is exactly what you’re looking for.

  • Adam O

    This is certainly a good point, and this kind of thought has helped me on a journey over the past few years toward embracing some limited but important role for apologetics in the church.
    Additionally, while I understand your point about the cultishness of that response, it does seem problematic to me that many church communities simply cannot truthfully say, “if you see how much we love one another then you’ll want to believe too.” I do hope and pray that we grow together in love.

  • paul cummings

    This still really goes hand in hand with Acts 17, of Paul engaging the Athenians with not only the Gospel but a culturally relevant, logical question/application wrapped around it.
    So much of what is considered “modern apologetics” is more shouting at the darkness rather than shining Christ into it.
    thanks Tim.

    • simon

      But do you think the apologetics by Paul in Acts 17 is really the same emphasis as modern day apologetics (not that I’m against apologetics)?

      • paul Cummings

        I think in some strains it truly is… But it’s also good that there are different facets of apologetics that reach different minds, specific to their demographic (much like the Athenians)
        The Ratio Christi folks are highly intellectual and focus on that crowd…the “Kellers” of the world hit up the college educated, but practical…and for heaven’s sake…folks like Josh McDowell hit up the average joe with some great questions and answers…
        I don’t mean that in any kind of hierarchical way in terms of intellect but it’s good that the spectrum we do have seeks to reach all for Christ.

    • Dave H.

      An interesting note about Acts 17, specifically in Athens (Vv 16 forward)is that only a few men believed. There was no church established in Athens as there was in Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and other places. My opinion is that Paul was not able to get beyond the apologetics phase to a point where the Holy Spirit became evident. Apologetics is important, but it is seldom the dynamic that changes lives.

  • Sam

    Love this post. A lot of my fellow Reformed apologists live in fear that their apologetic method betrays a distrust in the sufficiency of Scripture or the depravity of man (note that a lot of negativity towards apologetics comes from the biblical counseling wing). In reality, the task of apologetics is to work unbelievers beyond their logical objections and to the Gospel that demands to be believed. This is what Paul did at Athens.

    • simon

      I’m still unsure of whether I would build much of a theology about apologetics on Acts 17, but I agree with you that apologetics can play a real role in leading people to Christ. I see it as removing obstacles to people believing the gospel.

  • ariel

    very very well written. good insight.

  • nive

    I wasn’t brought up in Christianity and now i am,the only person in my entire Hindu family.”Why” is SO STRONG of a question that it crushes the ‘WHAT’ before it has a chance to stand.I love Ravi Z. book “Jesus Among Other God’,”New Birth or Rebirth”(Jesus Talks To Krishna” to those who have Hindu background.Lee Strobel’s(Case for Christ) book has also helped.
    I agree that it feels wrong to defend Christ and our faith by the reasoning within human mind capacity,I pray about it but it is INCREDIBLY hard to explain to those in my family why i believe what i believe and i have been very rational and reasoning person and still am,i am constantly in a look out to answer all the ‘why’s but never have enough answer.In the end i leave it on holy spirit and prayers,where i began.

  • simon

    If the Spirit does not open their eyes, no amount of reasoning will work, no matter how logical. But if the Spirit is too open the eyes of the blind, then apologetics can be a real tool He uses to do so I think.

  • Adam Cummings

    I appreciate Keller’s thoughts here, and it really makes me recall the funny college days of being the only presuppositionalist in an Apologetics class (even the teacher wasn’t on my side; shucks). And, I’m certainly not opposed to apologetics. But, I’m honestly wishing someone would explain why 1 Peter 3:15 is so often used for apologetics (James White uses this reference for apologetics as well, and I love James). What I see largely in the NT are miracles coming after faith, not before (also the parable indicating that even dead men rising from the dead will not convince people to faith in Christ). What I see in 1 Peter 3:15 is a context of suffering and pain, and the “answer” we are to give is the hope of Christ. It has nothing to do, from what I can tell, with examining other religions to offer a reasonably thought out argument to dismantle them. So, in my mind, 1 Peter 3:15 says the answer is “Christ”; it seems to say the opposite of what Keller is indicating here.

    Just some random thoughts from your local presuppositionalist. ;) Again, I am very reformed in my soteriology and love guys like RC and, if I ever find the time of day to read him, Keller (i.e. I have a gazillion books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to, yet… some day). But, I am not convinced of classical or reformed apologetics. I tell people to repent and believe not because “I said so”, but because God says so in His Word. Actually, it seems that to say you should believe because my apologetic is more reasoned than yours would be the way to say, “Because I said so.” I can answer, “Because God says to in His Word.” It’s like one my favorite pastors, Rick Holland, once said (the former college pastor for John MacArthur), “Everyone draws a circle; we just draw ours in Scripture.”


  • Pingback: Is Apologetics Biblical? | For Christ and Culture()

  • Phil Long

    So many bones to pick…

    Explaining “why”, clearly, isn’t for everyone. Particularly those who have zero understanding of its place and power and prefer instead to attempt to discredit whatever they do not personally value. Dr Keller’s essay presents the case for a witness to the “why” clearly and compellingly and with much grace and intellectual rigor. Thank you Dr Keller!

    And to all who must insist on a rational explanation for why rational explanations are of little value…oh, never mind. Perhaps those who prefer to just plainly “herald the truth” and just “let the Holy Spirit work” are just too lazy or ill-equipped to articulate a coherent “why” for their beliefs. Perhaps that needs some attention rather than diversionary excuses or hiding behind misunderstood or misapplied theology. The scriptures are loaded with “whys”.

  • Pingback: Saturday Post :: 8/11/12 « In Christ Alone()

  • Pingback: Friday’s 5 to Live By—The TGC Edition | Biblical Counseling Coalition Blogs()

  • Pingback: Tim Keller on why apologetics is essential « Theo-sophical Ruminations()

  • Pingback: In Defense of Apologetics | Rédime Vocātiō()

  • Pingback: 5 Ways to Make the Message Stick When Speaking to Young People |