Was Jesus an Apologist?

A few years ago, I had a discussion with an influential theologian who claimed that Jesus was not an apologist. He pointed out that, except for 1 Peter 3:15, the New Testament appearances of apologia (“defense”) all come from the writing or ministry of Paul. Does this mean Jesus was not an apologist? Was Jesus more interested in proclaiming and illustrating the faith than defending it?

Jesus was certainly a master story-teller. And his teachings have shaped the world (arguably) more than any other teacher. But, when we consider the entirety of his ministry, it is clear that he was also an apologist for the faith, even if he didn’t use the word apologia. Two examples make this clear:

Jesus Uses Logic

First, Jesus used sophisticated argumentation to advance his claim to be the Messiah. For instance, in Matthew 22:41-45, Jesus uses the form of argumentation called reduction ad absurdum, which is a strategy that aims to advance the truth of an idea by demonstrating the absurdity of its denial.

In this passage, Jesus asks the Pharisees, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They respond, “The son of David.” But then Jesus asks how David, in the Spirit, could call the Messiah Lord: “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” Jesus is showing that their views that the Messiah is merely the son of David lead to absurdity. In other words, while the Messiah is the son of David, he is also much more.

Jesus Offers Evidence for His Identity

Second, Jesus not only used reason to show the inconsistency of the Pharisees, he also put forth positive evidence for his Messianic identity. In John chapter 5, Jesus offers fivelines of evidence that validate his testimony. He appeals to John the Baptist (5:33-35), his teaching and miracles (5:36), the Father (5:37), the Scriptures (5:39), and Moses (5:46).

In this example, Jesus gave positive reasons for his identity that his critics should have accepted. Of course, these two examples need to be explained further (as my father and I do in the updated and revised Evidence that Demands a Verdict). But the point here is simply: While Jesus was much more than an apologist, he was no less.

Jesus the Brilliant Thinker

Philosopher Douglas Groothuis has carefully studied the question of whether Jesus was a philosopher or an apologist. After giving many examples of how Jesus rationally defended the crucial claims of Christianity, Groothuis concludes:

Contrary to the views of critics, Jesus Christ was a brilliant thinker, who used logical arguments to refute His critics and establish the truth of His views. When Jesus praised the faith of children, He was encouraging humility as a virtue, not irrational religious trust or a blind leap of faith in the dark. Jesus deftly employed a variety of reasoning strategies in His debates on various topics. These include escaping the horns of a dilemma, a fortiori arguments, appeals to evidence, and reductio ad absurdumarguments.

Jesus’ use of persuasive arguments demonstrates that He was both a philosopher and an apologist who rationally defended His worldview in discussions with some of the best thinkers of His day. This intellectual approach does not detract from His divine authority but enhances it. Jesus’ high estimation of rationality and His own application ofarguments indicates that Christianity is not an anti-intellectual faith. Followers of Jesus today, therefore, should emulate His intellectual zeal, using the same kinds or arguments He Himself used. Jesus’ argumentative strategies have applications to four contemporary debates: the relationship between God and morality, the reliability of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, and ethical relativism.[1]


[1] Douglas Groothuis, “Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist,” in Christian Research Journal25, no. 2 (2002).

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.


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