Apologetics cannot replace the gospel message. In fact, sometimes this can be a distraction during conversation if we’re not careful. We need to remember that apologetics remove barriers to the gospel (2 Cor. 10:3-5), but they can never replace the gospel. The gospel is the “power of God” (Rom. 1:16), but apologetics are not.
That being said, apologetics are directly commanded for us to use in sharing our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). But how should we integrate apologetics into our efforts to talk about Christ? Here are several wisdom principles in utilizing apologetics in evangelism.
Before you can engage in a dialogue, discussion, or debate, you need to know what you’re engaging. Many challenges to Christianity are complex or confusing. Often the challenger is confused with her own view!
We want to show love for the individual by making them feel understood—never misrepresenting, misinterpreting, or caricaturing his view. Can you represent the person’s view as good as or even better than they can? If so, you will gain credibility with your friend.
We want to avoid “talking past each other.” This occurs when we argue for a while only to discover that we’re talking about two different things.
Here are a number of good questions to consider using to help you toward this goal:
“What do you mean by that?”
“How would you define that term?”
“I don’t understand that… can you help me understand what you meant by __________?”
“Could you explain more what you mean when you say ________?”
Find something to AFFIRM
Consider Paul at Mars Hill. When Paul came to Athens, we read “his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). The Greek term is paroxynō (“paroxysm”); in other words, he was angry by their idolatry. Additionally, the people insulted him calling him a “babbler” (v.18).
Even though Paul was feeling angry and insulted, he still found a way to affirm an aspect of their false beliefs. He told them, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23). Even though he was “provoked” by their idolatry, he could still speak generously and patiently to them.
What in their view is similar to Christianity?
What can I sincerely agree with?
What is most important to discuss with them? (Avoid arguing over every moral or theological issue)
Avoid interrogating the person with questions
Asking question after question can feel less like a conversation and more like an interrogation! Allow time to share your experiences or thoughts before casting the conversation back. This is a good time to gain common ground and connect with the person, breaking stereotypes.
Once we’ve understood the person’s view, we need to ask why they believe it. Is it just blind faith, or do they have reasons for believing it? Koukl writes, “At times they seem to think that all they have to do is tell a really good story and they have done their job. You might call this a ‘bedtime story.’ They conjure up a tale meant to put your view or your argument to rest. But this will not do. They might just as well have started with ‘Once upon a time.’”
Ask yourself: Have they made an argument or merely an assertion? Have they given evidence or just an explanation? Koukl writes, “It’s not your job to defeat their claim. It’s their job to defend it.” They can give various explanations, but “an alternate explanation is not a refutation.” Here we need to distinguish between possibility and probability.
“How did you come to that conclusion?”
“How do you know that?”
“What led you to find that view persuasive?”
“Do you think that view is only possible or is it the most likely view?”
Don’t be pigeon-holed
Sometimes people will ask you a question with the purpose of getting a simple answer without any explanation behind it. They want a simple “sound bite” to reaffirm their skepticism, rather than a robust explanation. Resist doing this. Instead of telling them what is true, it’s better to share why it’s true.
“I don’t like it when Christians give simple answers to such complex questions… Can I try to give you more of a thoughtful answer to that question?”
Make sure to clarify the gospel BEFORE making your case
If we don’t explain what we are arguing for, a person might believe that we’re trying to argue them into a bad conclusion. When we begin with grace, they are most often more interested in our conclusion.
Speak in such a way that your conclusion is not only TRUE, but BEAUTIFUL
Some apologists are so nasty and mean spirited that even I don’t want to agree with them. By contrast, consider the example of C.S. Lewis or John Lennox. They carry themselves in such a way that you hope what they’re saying is true.
Do not let the conversation degrade into ANGER
Greg Koukl writes, “I have a general rule: If anyone in the discussion gets angry, you lose.” Neuroscience demonstrates that when stress confronts us, the limbic system (e.g. the fight or flight area of the brain) takes over and virtually shuts off the prefrontal cortex (e.g. the rational, decision-making portion of the brain). In other words, once someone is angry or threatened, they can’t think clearly over whether what you’re saying is reasonable. Koukl adds, “Make sure it’s your ideas that offend and not you, that your beliefs cause the dispute and not your behavior.”
If someone loses their temper, this most likely means that you have raised the tension in the conversation to an inappropriate level. Learn to relieve tension with a smile, a joke, or change the subject.
Follow the one-and-done rule
If your friend allows you to win one of the arguments, don’t push your luck and go for two. This stops your friend from being overwhelmed or stampeded.
Learn short responses to difficult questions
In a conversation, a person won’t listen for longer than a few minutes before losing interest or feeling frustrated. Learn to make your points quickly and give opportunity for a back-and-forth, if possible.
We should move from giving presentations of the gospel—to having conversations with it. That is, we should try to move from declaring to sharing our faith. Apologists often become so concerned with getting their facts right that they can stampede their friend with information and facts in the process. This isn’t helpful in evangelism. Thus, for each of these objections, these are some suggested questions or comments that can quickly respond, but also further the conversation in the process.
“I can’t believe that God would send people to hell.”
Discern if there is an emotional reason for raising this objection. Do they have a family member who died recently? What could have happened in this person’s past for them to ask this question? Did they grow up in a church that preached hellfire and brimstone every week?
Do you believe in hell? What do you believe that hell is? Who do you believe should go to hell, if there is one?
Explain the alternative of if God doesn’t judge. An illustration is often helpful, such as a judge that doesn’t convict criminals. There was a recent case of a woman who was raped by her husband. The woman had telephone recordings, and it was clearly rape. But the judge didn’t convict the man. He told the woman that she needed to forgive him instead. (Would you want to have a judge like this if you were the victim? Would you respect a judge like this?)
I’ve heard Christians say that people actually send themselves to hell. Have you ever considered it that way before?
God hates to see people go to hell. In fact, he paid for the punishment of hell, so that you’d never need to go there.
Jesus spoke about hell more than any other person in the Bible. Do you think he was delusional in thinking that?
“What about the person who has never heard about Christ?”
God hasn’t revealed himself equally to everyone, but he has revealed himself enough, and to those who seek him, he reveals himself extra.
Do you think that God would send someone to hell if they were truly seeking him? I don’t think the Bible teaches that. Jesus said, “Seek and you will find” (Mt. 7:7).
“There is no scientific evidence for God’s existence.”
What do you think of atheists who came to faith in God on the basis of scientific evidence (e.g. Antony Flew)?
What do you think of the scientific discovery that the universe had a space-time beginning at the Big Bang? Atheists believed that the universe was eternal for centuries, while Christians believed that it had a beginning (Gen. 1:1; Jn. 1:1).
How do you explain the incredible fine-tuning within our universe that makes it life-permitting, rather than life-prohibiting?
“You believe in the God of the gaps.”
As Christians, we shouldn’t disagree with scientific data, but we will disagree on how to interpret the data from time to time. Naturalism rules out supernatural causes, but Christians are open to both. If supernatural causes are ruled out before even looking at the evidence (a priori), then we are not looking for the most reasonable explanation. Instead, we are looking for the most reasonable naturalistic explanation. However, if this assumed criterion is false, then it could easily lead to false conclusions. Put another way, by stating, “Science only measures natural causes,” we are eliminating theism by definition—not by the evidence. This is special pleading.
Consider if a Police commissioner told a detective to solve a murder case. As they observe the evidence, he tells the detective, “Let’s go out and find the murderer.” But as the detective turns to leave, the commissioner winks and says, “One more thing… Let’s make sure that the killer is black.” Of course, this racial bias would affect the way the detective would perform his forensic investigation. Of course, it’s easy to see the problem here: What if this assumption isn’t true? What if the criminal isn’t black? The detective and commissioner would be forcing the evidence to fit a person that wasn’t responsible for the crime.
Similarly, when naturalists do not allow for supernatural causes, they will force the evidence to fit a naturalistic cause. If we assume design is impossible, then it wouldn’t matter how much evidence supports design; we will always assume that natural causes are responsible. Thus by assuming naturalism, this would surely give us the best naturalistic explanation, but it might not be the most plausible one. In the same way, if we just assume that nothing in our world can be intelligently caused, then we might neglect the most plausible explanation based on our previously ingrained assumptions, rather than the evidence itself.
When investigating our world, our primary question should not be, “Is this the best naturalistic explanation?” Instead, our central question should be, “Is this the true explanation?” Put another way, how do we know that we aren’t excluding the true explanation, simply because of a naturalistic bias? If science has limits in its understanding, which theism can explain, then why wouldn’t we be open to this as a possible explanation?
Finally, imagine if a Christian said, “We’re going to discover scientific evidence for theism in the future, but this just hasn’t been discovered yet.” Atheists would (rightly) scoff at us. Similarly, we cannot base our rational convictions on what might be discovered, but what has been discovered.
“Why do the innocent suffer? Why would God allow that to happen?”
Discern why the person is asking this question. Have they experienced suffering? Have they seen a loved one suffer?
How has rejecting God’s existence made it easier for you to deal with the suffering and pain in your life?
What is your explanation for all of the suffering in the world?
If God doesn’t exist, then how do we really define evil? Wouldn’t it just be survival of the fittest? How can a naturalist (who believes only in nature and nothing beyond it) ever look at suffering and call it unnatural?
When someone drives drunk in a car and kills someone, they can never sue the car company. It wasn’t the fault of the car company for selling them the car; it was the driver’s fault for misusing it. Similarly, God gave us freewill, but we misuse it. We are guilty for this—not him.
“I don’t believe that we can know truth.”
How do you know that? (Or more aggressively, in case they miss your point, “Is that statement that you just made true or false?” or “Do you know if your statement is true or false?”)
“I believe there are multiple paths to God.”
How did you come to that conclusion?
Religions often do have a lot in common. What do you think are the major differences that you see between various religions?
Imagine if you were asking for directions to New York City, and a bystander told you, “All paths lead to New York City… You can go north or south on the highway… It doesn’t matter.”
“I think morality is relative.”
Would you want a moral relativist to be on the jury of a murder case?
Would you take a moral relativist’s marriage vows seriously?
Are moral discussions worth having? If moral relativism is true, what is there to talk about?
Do you think my view is wrong? If you are a moral relativist, what do you mean by “wrong”?
What do you think about events like the tortures of the Spanish Inquisition, or the raping and pillaging of the Crusades? Even though these cultures believed that this was morally right, do you agree?
Should Western culture be tolerant to the rampant sex trade in Southeast Asia? Should Southeast Asians be tolerant of Western materialism and greed?
Take your time and explain your points so I can understand better. Then, “Let me think about it.”
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 58.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 61.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 62.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 62.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 63-64.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 30.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 31.
 I am indebted to Greg Koukl for this helpful illustration.
 Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 68.