By Dan DeWitt
The modern apologist stands on the shoulders of faithful Christians from previous generations. That is because apologetics is a basic expectation for every believer in every generation. As one apologist noted, preaching the Gospel is “inseparable from defense [of the Gospel].”(1) Every person whose life has been transformed by Jesus is necessarily an apologist, someone called to proclaim, explain and defend the Good News.
All followers of Jesus are obligated to give a well-reasoned explanation of his or her hope in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). The Apostle Peter says to give a reason for the “hope that is within you.” This calls for, not a presentation of abstract and detached arguments for Christian hope, but a deeply personal account. Every Christian should be able to give a simple explanation of how they first believed the grace of God in Christ: an objective reason for their hope in God.
R.C. Sproul’s definition of faith as well-reasoned trust (2) is helpful to understand what Christians mean when they say they hope in God. The word “trust” implies that faith is not unreasonable, as we usually trust things for which we have good reason. Yet, trust goes beyond reason. Trust communicates that Christian faith is no blind leap, it is not mere existential wishful thinking. Trust is a response to someone who has proven himself or herself to be trustworthy. The Bible is filled with references to the trustworthiness of God and His Word.
THE GENESIS OF APOLOGETICS
The late agnostic scientist Stephen J. Gould thought that religion and science speak of, to and from separate domains. He described religion and science as two ships passing in the night. “Science gets the age of rocks,” he wrote, “and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.” (3) Both skeptics and Bible-believing Christians alike have rejected Gould’s description, as the Christian religion does make claims about the physical world and not merely about
internal human values.
The Bible has plenty to say about the physical world, such as, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth….” The Bible lays claim, not on some part of humanity, but rather, on the entirety of the Cosmos. That is why I believe that all creation passages in the Bible are fundamentally concerned with two things: authorship and ownership. God made it all, and He is the boss.
As Abraham Kuyper reminded us, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”(4) This is of course not a persuasive line of argument for someone who rejects the authority of God and the Bible. But it is indeed the point of the Bible.
The celebrity atheist, Richard Dawkins, glibly responded to Christian apologist John Lennox that the Bible’s accuracy about the origin of the universe was of little importance. (5) The Cosmos either did or did not have a beginning, he reasoned. His point was that the Bible being right was as coincidental as flipping a coin and guessing correctly as to on which side it might land. Lennox, never at a loss for wit, conceded the odds, but reminded Dawkins that it was the Bible, not secular scientists, which was on the right side of the issue, literally, since the beginning of time.
Lennox is right to start with the beginning. If the time, space, matter and energy universe had a beginning that would suggest that something outside of time, space, matter, and energy brought it into being. It is not a leap of logic to suggest that the source of the cosmos is eternal (outside time), omnipresent (outside of spatial constraints), spirit (immaterial), and omnipotent (all powerful).(6) As Edgar Andrews, emeritus professor of materials at the University of London, says, “the hypothesis of God accounts for the world in which we find ourselves as thinking and feeling beings who care both for physical realities that science seeks to explain, and for all the immaterial things like love and justice that are outside the scope of science, but are the very things that make life worth living.” (7)
To be clear, the Bible does not begin with an apologetic for God. It begins with an assertion, “In the beginning God created . . . ” (Gen. 1:1). The Bible operates on the belief that God exists, and that His existence cannot ultimately be denied — though it can be suppressed (Rom. 1). Nonetheless, apologetics is ubiquitous in the Biblical corpus.
For example, the Biblical writers draw upon creation as itself serving an apologetic function. In this way, creation tells a story. It speaks of the glory of God (Psalm 19). Yet it also reveals the wrath of God to those who exchange the glory of the Creator to serve and worship the creation (Rom. 1). The glory and wrath of God are an inescapable message revealed by the heavens.
Even skeptic scientists sometimes concede this cosmic pull towards something outside of nature. Take, for example, the late agnostic scientist Robert Jastrow, who worked for NASA. Jastrow felt that the existence of a finite universe like ours points to something outside of nature, something supernatural. As Jastrow said, the existence of the universe is itself empirical proof of the supernatural.(8) Historically (9), philosophers and scientists who preferred a model of the universe without reference to the supernatural have advanced and defended the eternality of the cosmos.
That is why Carl Sagan’s famous quote, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was or ever will be” (10) should be seen as a declaration of worship. It is clear why many skeptics would prefer this model. If the universe did not have a beginning, if the cosmos is all that ever was, then references to something outside of the natural world would be unnecessary, they reason. However, this interpretation of the cosmos as existing by and for itself is without a scientific basis. Science does not support the idea that the cosmos is all there ever was.
The facts point in the opposite direction. Numerous discoveries have demonstrated that the cosmos had a beginning. Even scientists such as Albert Einstein, who was at first reluctant to accept that the universe was not eternal, was finally convinced. Of course, this is the claim the Bible has made from the very beginning.
To understand God’s world, we must begin with God’s Word. We cannot understand who we are until we first understand who God is (Psalm 8). We cannot understand who God is until we understand Scripture (Romans 10). Every thinking person must come to terms with the God of creation as revealed in the Bible. Our relationship to the Creator is the most important thing about us.
REDEMPTIVE HISTORY AS APOLOGETICS
After explaining the origin of the universe, humanity, and sin, the Bible provides an account of God’s redemptive work through the choosing of a people, the nation of Israel. Like the creation of the world, the chronology of the nation of Israel is presented as an historical account of God’s activity in the world. As Timothy Paul Jones explains, “The first report we have of God calling a human being to write was when God commanded Moses to write what he heard (Exodus 17:14, 24:4-7). And so, Moses recounted the story of God’s work with humanity all the way from the beginning of time up to the people’s entrance into the Promised Land.” (11) This true story of a nation in the Arab world, chosen by God, provides invaluable apologetic resources to us today.
This Bible explains that the account of the nation of Israel is documented so that future generations might know the words and works of God (Psalm 78:6). The Biblical apologist is able to use redemptive history in the very way Scripture does, to point future generations to the faithful Creator who offers salvation to all who believe, who fulfills His promises and who sustains His people.
In addition to the history of Israel recorded in Scripture, the historical evidence left in the nation’s wake, accessible through archeology and extra-Biblical literature, is extremely helpful for apologetics. Like other extra-Biblical evidence, archeology is not fundamental to Biblical apologetics, but should not be ignored or neglected. Why would we refuse to search for buried treasures when we have been given a reliable map?
God’s real work in the real world left the very kind of evidence you would expect of any civilization that takes up real estate, makes military conquests and builds stuff. Israel left a trail of breadcrumbs: towns, villages, battlefields, tombs, temples, and cities. Figuratively speaking, God left footprints in Palestine. As the Nobel Prize-winning archeologist Nelson Glueck makes plain, “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries.” (12)
THE SOUNDTRACK OF THE BIBLE: THE PSALMS AS APOLOGETICS
This story of redemptive history is captured poetically in the Psalms. These songs are a microcosm of the entire Bible. In this way, the Psalms function like the Soundtrack of the Bible. They unpack God’s role in creation and redemption. The five books of Psalms are organized to tell the story of God and man. These “holy songs,” as Jonathan Edwards described them, are “nothing else but the expressions and breathings of devout and holy affections.” (13)
The Psalms speak our language. They describe the longing for the holy in the midst of the unholy. In these 150 songs, we find every human experience. These are the sorts of themes often referenced in cultural and literary apologetics. The apologist is able to show how the Bible explains what it feels like to be human, in a manner far superior to alternative worldviews. C.S. Lewis often appealed to the explanatory power of the Gospel as an apologetic, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (14)
The Psalms do not sugarcoat what authentic faith looks like in a cursed world. Consider the Biblical depiction of suffering. Between one-third to one-half of the Psalms are songs of lament, songs of suffering. But these inspired songs also speak of hope. In “Israel’s hymn book,” we find an apt description of what it means to be human while living in a fallen world and yearning for our coming King.
The Psalms speak of a Kingly Deliverer who will suffer, but, in the end, gain victory over the enemies of God and offer salvation to the people of God. Though the primary goal of the Psalms is the glory of God, these songs also provide an apologetic function of outlining Israel’s history, explaining the human experience and providing prophetic details regarding the fulfillment of God’s promised Messiah King.
The New Testament authors regularly point back to the Psalms, showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of this expectation. In this way, the New Testament demonstrates an apologetic use of the Psalms of speaking to and defending the person of Jesus as the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. Brian Morely makes this point in his book “Mapping Apologetics: Comparing Contemporary Approaches,”
“The New Testament reflects important apologetic themes found in the Old. For example, Christ clearly and repeatedly appeals to prophecy to show that he represents the true God.” (15)
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS: THE PROPHETS AS APOLOGISTS
The Old Testament prophets served to warn the nation of Israel of God’s judgment and to encourage them with a vision of God’s promises. The New Testament writers apply many of these Old Testaments prophecies to Jesus. The apostles understood and preached that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of the old covenant. That is why the Apostle Paul calls Jesus the “final Adam” – the promised child in Genesis 3:15; the son of Eve, who came to crush the serpent’s head. The trajectory of the Old Testament is the cross, the resurrection and the appointment of the rightful King. The law, the wisdom literature, and the prophets all point to and are fulfilled in God’s chosen Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Numerous apologetics resources outline the Old Testament prophecies and assign probability for them all being fulfilled in one person. For example, Peter Stoner, former Professor of Science at Westmont College, catalogued the Old Testament prophecies and suggested the probability of one person fulfilling just eight of the major prophecies as one chance in one hundred quadrillion. (16)
Probability theories can be confusing and contested and should be used with caution. However, they do illustrate the miraculous nature of Jesus as the Messiah. The Biblical apologist should use the fulfilled prophecies as the apostles did, in preaching the Gospel with the force of God’s word revealed to the prophets, and in these last days, in the person of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:2).
THE NEW TESTAMENT CRIME SCENE: THE APOSTLES AS EARLY APOLOGISTS
The Gospels present clear historical information in their accounts for the purpose of teaching and persuasion. Luke, for example, even states his methodology in his prologue, like a modern-day research paper might, as to explain the sort of account he is delivering. The Gospels are clearly more than apologetic in nature, but they are not less. As Avery Dulles summarizes: “While none of the New Testament writings is directly and professedly apologetical, nearly all of them contain reflections of the Church’s efforts to exhibit the credibility of its message and to answer the obvious objections that would have arisen in the minds of adversaries, prospective converts, and candid believers. Parts of the New Testament — such as the major Pauline Letters, Hebrews, the four Gospels and Acts — reveal an apologetical preoccupation in the minds of the authors themselves.” (17)
The apostles, chosen by the resurrected Christ, writing by the power of the Holy Spirit, still include evidences in their appeals. While the New Testament does not read like an apologetics manual, there are clear traces of apologetics concerns inherent within multiple passages, accounts, and sermons, or as Dulles says, “the apologetically significant themes that are present, in a diffused way, throughout the New Testament.” (18)
The apostles were not reticent to use reasoned arguments or even tangible historical evidences in presenting and defending the Gospel, as Dulles explains, “apologetics was intrinsic to the presentation of the kerygma.” (19) Paul’s sermons in Acts 14 and 17 are helpful examples. Paul sites the harvest as “witnesses” of God’s provision (Acts 14), and the resurrection as “evidence” that God will judge the world (Acts 17). The result: some of his audience scoffed, others inquired but some believed. Contemporary apologists should expect nothing less in the response to their own presentations of the Gospel.
The primary focus of the early church was the fulfillment of Christ’s commission (Matt 28:19-20). This often included apologetics, but was not focused exclusively on arguments or evidences. It was focused on presenting the Gospel. Even the sign gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing, served the purpose of demonstrating the authenticity of the Gospel message. To put it plainly: we must not conflate the message with external evidences for the message.
One thing upon which apologists of all methodologies should agree is the centrality of the Gospel message in the work of the early church. Though times and challenges change, this remains the central task for apologists. This is as true today as it has been throughout the history of the church. Our methods might change, our message never will.
Thus, our apologetic should begin and end with the Gospel, according to the Scriptures. This is because the Gospel is our first, our final and our only lasting apologetic. The Great Commission will not be fulfilled merely through a demonstration of philosophical syllogisms and historical evidences but through the proclamation and power of the Gospel. And of this Gospel: may we never be ashamed.
Dan DeWitt, Ph.D. is the director of the Center for Biblical Apologetics and Public Christianity, and an Associate Professor of Applied Theology and Apologetics
1. Greg Bahnsen, “The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens” (http:// www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa045.htm)
2R.C. Sproul speaks to this definition in many places including his article “Faith and Reason” available online here: https://www.ligonier.org/learn/ articles/faith-and-reason/ and in his book What Is Faith? Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Trust, 2010.
3See Stephen Jay Gould. Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in Fullness of Life. Reprint Edition. New York: Ballantine Books. Reprint edition, 2002.
4Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998, 488.
5From the October 21, 2008, debate “Has Science Buried God” between John Lennox and Richard Dawkins, hosted by the Fixed Point Foundation at the Oxford Museum of Natural History in Oxford, England.
6I first heard this argument framed this way from a presentation by William Lane Craig. Since then, I have seen it used in a number of apologetics presentations.
7Andrews, Edgar, Who Made God? Hertfordshire, Enlgand: Evangelical Press, 2012.
8 Jastrow, Robert, God and the Astronomers. New York: Norton, 1978, 16.
9See A.D. Chernin, V. Ya. Frenkel, and E.A. Tropp, Alexander Friedmann: The Man Who Made the Universe Expand. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 175.
10See the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan or documentary “Cosmos” featuring Carl Sagan.
11See Timothy Paul Jones’ chapter “The Bible: How We Got It” in Standing for Truth, Louisville, KY: Crossings Press, 2018, 24.
12Glueck, Nelson. Rivers in the Desert. New York: Farrar, Srous and Cudahy, 1959. 136.
13Barshinger, David P. Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-historical Vision of Scripture. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, 1.
14See C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in They Asked for a Paper. London: Geoffrey Bless, 1962, 165.
16McDowell, Sean. The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009, 744.