Bumper Stickers, athiests, and little old ladies
by Keith Bassham
God said it. I believe it. That settles it.
Nice sentiment, no? Not exactly a Hallmark moment, but I’ve heard it quoted (both in and out of the pulpit) and I’ve seen it on enough car bumpers. Someone must have thought it was finally worth answering, because the atheist equivalent showed up on buses in England earlier this year (“There’s probably no God,” the advertisements say. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”), and in Seattle this past month (“Yes, Virginia, there is no God.”).
And that is what passes for defending the faith, or defending the non-faith in the first decade of the 21st century. Somehow, I don’t think this graffiti-like repartee is the serious mental and spiritual engagement Paul had in mind in Acts 17:16-18:
Now while Paul waited for them [friends Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
Nor does it look like Peter’s optimistic vision in 1 Peter 3:15:
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
In one sense, the bus signage is a brilliant comeback. For instance, the bumper sticker begins with, “God said it,” and the bus sign says, “You can stop reading there. There is no God to say anything,” so the rest is pretty much moot. But the atheists have at least done me one favor — they have shown me where to start a series of essays on apologetics, defending the Christian faith.
What is apologetics?
The word apologetics comes from the Greek word apologia, used by Peter and translated by the word “answer” in the passage quoted above, and also used by Paul in Acts 22:1 (“hear ye my defence”) and Philippians 1:17 (“I am set for the defence of the gospel”).
A simple definition is the one alluded to. The dictionary definition will use formal language, of course, but it boils down to some type of defense of what you and I believe about God and Christianity. A shorter description is, in Peter’s language, giving a reason for your (and our) hope. John M. Frame expands on that a bit and says apologetics has three divisions:
Proof – giving a rational basis for faith.
Defense – answering the objections of unbelievers.
Offense – exposing the foolishness of unbelieving thought.
Frame also says that these divisions are so interrelated that to do one completely, you have to be doing the other two as well. But we are still not to the “how-to” stage, so I will leave the statement on the shelf and come back to it later.
What is apologetics not?
A couple of other things have to be taken care of here. For instance, what is apologetics not? It goes without saying that it is not apologizing for the faith. We are not sorry for believing in God, or Jesus, or eternity. We defend these beliefs, along with others, and we are not willing to give them up, let alone apologize for them. That is unfortunately not true for some in Christendom who have given up defending the faith in favor of making it more tolerable.
You may be familiar with Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007). Known several years ago as a columnist and news commentator, he is better known now as a representative of aggressive atheism, and in that role he frequently debates representatives of Christianity. In an October column for Slate.com, Hitchens describes some things he has observed on the debate circuit. Read his comments about an opponent he simply calls Wilson.
“Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just ‘metaphors.’ He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering — of course he ‘allows’ it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.” (Faith No More, October 26, 2009, www.slate.com)
Even Hitchens knows the difference between apologetics and apologizing, and he respects a firm defense.
Apologetics is also not just adopting a crafty debating style. The goal of apologetics is not winning debate points. I admire great debaters, and I sometimes wish I had their skills; apologetics is not just about winning arguments. There is a relational component. Peter’s quoted phrase begins with, “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.” The American Standard Version translates the phrase, “sanctify in your hearts Christ as Lord.” There is the starting point for apologetics rightly done. My goal is not to prove I am a skilled debater or that I have many facts at my fingertips, but to demonstrate that Christ is Lord.
Nor does apologetics replace faith with proof. Rather it is more about removing roadblocks to faith so that the unbeliever may respond to the gospel. One who comes to God must believe that He is (Hebrews 11:6).
Let me show you a Bible example of how faith and facts can work together. In the Christmas nativity story, we read in Luke 2 of the birth of Jesus Christ. Sprinkled throughout the story are various facts (it is interesting that Luke takes pains at the beginning of his Gospel to tell us how he gathered these facts) about the community and politics of the time. We read of the decree of Caesar Augustus, the administration of a man named Cyrenius, and some calendar information. However, merely believing Jesus was born at a place and time in history is not enough for salvation to occur. John tells us God became flesh (John 1:1, 14), and Luke tells us when and where. Thus we have secular truth and spiritual truth working as partners, and that is a form of apologetics.
Near the end of the Gospels, you are also presented with similar “secular” markers placed in the resurrection stories. What the Bible is saying to us by including this information is that Christianity is not like some mysterious, esoteric cult with made up “facts” only the initiated insiders fully understand (the Roman world had plenty of those, by the way), but Christian and non-Christian alike can check out the story, and an honest person will have enough information to judge its credibility.
Who needs Apologetics?
Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary says at least three kinds of people need apologetics: anyone who is concerned about evangelizing the lost, anyone who is concerned that professing Christians not abandon faith, and anyone who is concerned about growing spiritually. He is right.
Apologetics and evangelism go hand in hand. In one sense, apologetics is not optional, or just for scholars, theologians, preachers, or evangelists, or the advanced Christian. For Paul in Athens (Acts 17, one of the most important sections of the New Testament concerning apologetics) apologetics is simply teaching about God the Creator and the resurrected Christ. These concepts are essential to Christian knowledge, but they are not complicated. Granted, people sometimes throw up artificial roadblocks that the ordinary Christian may not have solutions for (spurious questions about supposed contradictions in the Bible or “what ifs”), but many do have serious questions about Christian beliefs that don’t sound quite right to them. They deserve serious responses. That is part of what Peter has in mind when he urges us to have a good answer when people ask about our hope. A testimony of a life changed or of a need met, coupled with an intelligent answer to a question, is a powerful witness.
For instance, Christians are sometimes stymied when someone asserts there is no universal moral law. This type of objection is more common these days with the prominence of the debates about abortion and homosexuality. The argument goes, “Who is to say something is right or wrong? What is wrong for you may be right for someone else.” And if there is no universal moral law, then there cannot be only one “right” God or only one “right” way to believe.
The truth is, everyone believes in some universal moral law. Chuck Colson, I believe, used to use an example about coming upon a little old lady crossing a street. The question is, “Do you help her across the street, or do you push her out in front of a bus?” If only one of the options is correct, why is that so? How did that “truth” get into us?
Keep in mind, this example makes a point, but it doesn’t lead a person to faith. Apologetics is best used like a recipe, with the ingredients gathered in advance, and then mixed together gradually. And do not believe you are under pressure to make a convert. God’s Spirit and God’s Word does that (Romans 1:16). However, your sensible and logical response to a question may be all that is necessary for a person to become open to the Lord. Blomberg reminds us that “God’s Spirit does not work in a vacuum,” and God uses people to bring people to Himself.
Apologetics is also part of the solution to people abandoning faith, an especially acute situation among our youth. Steve Wright, in ReThink, speaks of students who, “when they graduate, they graduate from God,… We have more workers, more activities, larger budgets, more staff, larger buildings, and still more students leaving the church and abandoning their faith.”
Blomberg asserts, “In adolescence, many fall away from the faith of their parents because no one is able to give convincing answers to their hard questions. Students go off to universities and discover a whole new world in the academic study of religion. When their churches back home show no interest in this world or are unable to reply, many give up on the church.” Liberals and atheists often start out in conservative or fundamentalist churches, where “God said it, and I believe it,” is the beginning and ending of settled truth.
What could happen if students in our churches were exposed to smart, thoughtful defenders of the faith from our colleges and seminaries, ready to answer the hard questions? Or think of the difference a pastor could make with a few sermons a year addressing the same issues. Replace the bumper sticker theological slogans with well-thought-out responses our youth can use in the lunchroom and on the sports field. Don’t allow the teachers in the classroom to become the sole authority on origins and philosophy of life — give the kids a viable alternative so their minds are guarded beforehand.
And those concerned with their own spirituality need apologetics. Blomberg says, “Tragedies in the present have a way of obliterating good feelings about God’s presence in the past. Unless we have logical, rational arguments for the truth of our faith on which we can fall back when our emotions betray us, we too will be tempted to ‘hang it all up.’ Or at best, we will backslide rather than grow in our walk with God.”
Apologetics is a way of telling the truth about God. The dark prognosis, the emergency call in the middle of the night, the death of a child, or a community-wide disaster could happen to any or all of us, and in the presence of such a formidable rock-face, bumper-sticker thinking is no comfort. In a foreshadow of the text from 1 Peter, Isaiah 8:13 speaks to us, “Sanctify the LORD of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread,” that is, with an accurate view of God, He seems very big, and everything else seems very small. People armed ahead of time with a large view of God, along with a sense of His plan and purpose, and filled with the hope of glory placed in the heart, will be more ready to stand in the face of personal tragedy. Apologetics, centered as it is on the truth of God, creation, and resurrection, allows people to declare, “We have not followed cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:16).
So what is apologetics? It is an answer to a question and a defense of your faith. And who needs apologetics? We all do, to be effective in evangelism, to prevent our youth and others from abandoning the faith, and to face bad times with confidence in the one true God.
This is the first article in the Tribune series, “With Good Reason”, essays on the subject of apologetics. Topics will help answer questions about God, Jesus, science, Truth, other religions, suffering, and other subjects.