Why Apologetics Has a Bad Name

In the updated Evidence that Demands a Verdict, my father and I lay out some of the most recent and compelling historical evidence for the Christian faith. And yet before we present the evidence, we offer some reasons why many Christians dismiss apologetics entirely. The goal of this post is to show that while some people have certainly misusedapologetics, there is still a vital need for its proper use today.

There are a number of reasons why people dismiss apologetics. Some comes from a lack of understanding the nature, role, and importance of apologetics. Others lie at the hands of apologists themselves.

Apologists often overstate their case. There is a huge temptation to overstate the evidence for the Bible, intelligent design, the resurrection of Jesus or any other apologetic issue. I have succumbed to this myself. In our eagerness to convince non-believers, or our desire to strengthen fellow Christians, we can all fall prey to the temptation to state things more certainly than they may be. In our information age, people have access to counterarguments and perspectives at the tip of their fingers. We also live in a skeptical age where people who say things with dogmatism are often considered suspect. This does not mean the evidence for Christianity is not compelling. It is. But there are smart, thoughtful people that disagree. And we must acknowledge this, or we’ll set up people—especially young people—for failure.

Apologists often do not speak with gentleness, love and respect. A few years ago, I had a public debate with a skeptic on the question of God and morality. As part of my preparation, I listened to many debates from Christians. Although I won’t mention any names, there were a handful of Christian debaters that honestly made me cringe at how they treated their opponents. One debater (the head of a well-known apologetics ministry that will remain anonymous) demeaned and personally attacked his opponent. I even showed the video to my wife and she was appalled at his antics and behavior. But it’s not just public figures that act this way. We probably all have an example of some overly eager apologist who was unnecessarily argumentative rather than loving. If this is you, PLEASE STOP because you are giving Christianity and apologetics an unnecessarily bad name. I often tell my students that if they can’t speak the truth in love, then don’t even bother to speak truth.

Apologists are often not emotionally healthy. Youth expert Mark Matlock wrote a compelling essay about apologetics and emotional development for my book Apologetics for a New Generation. In it, he argued that apologetics often attracts people who have been emotionally hurt, and in turn, who use apologetics to hurt other people. He’s absolutely right. As Rick Warren has said, “Hurt people, hurt people.” There is power in knowledge. And many people seek power by gaining more information so they can control and even humiliate other people. If you are an apologist, I encourage you to ask yourself some deep questions: Why (honestly) are you an apologist? Is your heart genuinely broken for non-Christians? Do you pray for humility and guidance in your research and conversations with both Christians and non-Christians? I hope so.

Apologetics is often done in a cold, mechanical and rationalistic manner. Many of us think of apologetics as the impersonal deliverance of facts meant to convince people rationally that Christianity is true—as if people are simply robots that conform to whatever is most reasonable! Apologetics is often void of emotion, passion, and good old-fashioned storytelling. Apologetics is often seen as a narrow discipline for lawyers and doctors. But this is not apologetics. It does (or should) engage the mind but through the heart, passions, and emotions. C.S. Lewis beautifully modeled this approach with his use of fiction. Insofar as apologetics is viewed as simply rationalistic, it will fail to captivate people.

The issue is not really apologists versus non-apologists. C.S. Lewis was right that we are all apologists. The question is just how effective of an apologist we are. So, besides these four points, what other reasons are there for why apologetics has a bad name in some circles of Christianity? I’d love to know your thoughts. And more importantly, what can we do about it?

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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