POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Practice of Apologetics - A Football Metaphor

…Continued from Part 3

In every era we must actually put into practice what the apostle Paul called the defense and proclamation of the gospel.  Apologetics is an interesting area of study and way of life and there are several different approaches to the task.[1]  To introduce the practice of apologetics let me use an analogy from American Football. Any good football team will have several different facets to it. There is a defense that keeps the other team from advancing the ball and scoring. There is also an offense which seeks to overcome the defense of the other team.  There are also special teams which focus on important transition plays and can be incredibly important to a game. Special teams can actually tilt the outcome of a game with a punt return or a blocked kick turning the tide of momentum in mere seconds. Each team also has a culture and manner in which it plays the game so we must say a quick word about the flow we have in doing apologetics as well. The following sketch of the apologetic task using these categories: team culture, defense, offense and special teams. Each is necessary and requires a certain type of skill. [2]

Team Culture

On the one hand it is incredibly helpful in traveling with people over time and answering their objections, providing reasons for faith and helping others come to a place of openness to give the gospel a hearing. On the other hand, I have seen Christians get really into apologetics and become bull dogs for the faith just wanting to battle everyone and smash their arguments into oblivion. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias has quoted an apropos Indian proverb on numerous occasions which simply states “Once you’ve cut off a person’s nose, there’s no point giving them a rose to smell.”[3]  The meaning is clear. If we want people to hear and understand the beauty of the gospel we must carry ourselves in a way that does not alienate and unnecessarily offend.  Of course the gospel itself will be offensive and foolish to some people. [4]  Above I am speaking about Christians being jerks as they attempt to share the gospel of the grace of God with others. The message of the gospel should be the offensive piece, not our treatment of others. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

In the realm of apologetics we need to realize our aim in defending the gospel is so that we gain a hearing and not so we turn people off with arrogant answers to questions they may or may not be asking. Giving a reason for our hope should not simply devolve into a food fight of intellectual arguments but rather serve as an invitation to a meal and a persuasion that the meal is indeed worth showing up for. Gentleness and respect should be the flow and culture of our team in giving our answers.

Apologetics on Defense

As mentioned above the basic focus of apologetics is defending the truth claims of the gospel.  Christian scholars William Dembski and Jay Richards summarize the defensive nature of apologetics well: To sum up, the task of the apologist is to find counterarguments to the arguments being used to attack the faith…Apologetics is defending the “core” of the Christian Faith.[5] This defensive posture of answering objections to Christian doctrine has also been called “negative” apologetics by some philosophers. It is showing that the reasons against belief are not so strong after all. [6]  An example would be if someone were to say “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead because we’ve never seen a dead person rise.” At this point, the Christian would want to defend the gospel claim of Jesus’ resurrection with some sort of historical and theological argument. In summary, apologetics as defense will respond when someone objects to some core Christian teaching and explain why this doctrine stands as true against the objection.  

Apologetics on Offense

Though certainly necessary, the Christian seeking to provide a reason for the hope that she has is not limited to bunkering down in defense. Apologetics may also go on the offense and offer “positive” reasons why people should believe. In this case we are actually seeking to show that our faith is actually true by providing positive reasons to believe.  Some see this project as too difficult or too ambitious as no one will ever become a Christian by getting argued into the kingdom.  I fully agree. Yet this does not mean that certain apologetic arguments for the existence of God, the deity of Jesus and other truth claims cannot be helpful in the process.

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig acknowledges a similar idea in his treatment of faith and reason. Craig differentiates between the certain knowledge of the truth of the gospel which is the privilege of the believer and the task of rationally demonstrating the truth of the gospel to others.   Knowing Christianity to be true, according to Craig, only comes by the inner witness and confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Such knowledge is true and certain and is properly available only to the soul that has been converted and is alive to God in Christ.  Showing Christianity to be true, however, requires demonstrating its truths to others in a reasonable, comprehensible fashion with the intention to persuade.[7] As long as we understand that it is the gospel that is the power of God to save people, we can be free to use positive arguments for various Christian teachings as a means. Let me explain further.

When the gospel is shared with others, we admit that we are sharing with individuals who have certain presuppositions, life experiences, relationships, intellectual background and perhaps professional training. This forms what we may call their evangelistic environment, or the historical situation of their soul. Some of the environment of the person may prove to be fertile ground and open windows to the gospel while some may not be so useful soil. With Scripture and the scriptural viewpoint as our foundation, we may properly use positive apologetic arguments when the situation calls for it. The discerning witness should be equipped with many tools at his disposal as he proclaims the gospel. One could easily see how an understanding of cosmology would be of use if proclaiming Christ with a person with scientific interests, or how an historical argument for the resurrection might be of interest to a history teacher. Just as God may use a tragedy in one’s life to bring them to a readiness to hear, it also seems quite plausible that God may use good reasons and argument as well. If God wants to open a heart to hear his Word through pre-evangelistic engagement by the use of positive apologetic discussion, he certainly may do so.[8]

Apologetics on Special Teams

One of the fun things to see in a football game is the block of a kick and the quick turnaround touchdown that makes the whole crowd go crazy. The kick blocking team goes after things with some focused aggression.  You must break through the walls the kick team has put up to keep you away from the ball.  Many times people put up walls, cling to false belief systems and put obstacles in the way that make it hard for them to hear the gospel message.

As one matures in the faith I believe it is helpful to be able to ask questions, create doubt in unbelieving worldviews and point to the absurdity of life without God. You could call this way of doing apologetics many things: questioning the questioner, tearing down strongholds, positive deconstruction[9], challenging presuppositions, etc.

Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, asks those skeptical of Christianity to look deeper at the basis for their objections to faith and see whether these are well-founded. In short he asks them to doubt their doubts.[10] He writes as follows:

My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.

Other apologists have also used similar indirect methods to help unbelievers to seriously examine the implications of their disbelief or apathy towards God. One prominent 20th century proponent was Francis Schaeffer, who vigorously worked to ask people to see all the absurdity and meaninglessness that arose from western worldviews that declared God dead or irrelevant.[11] If there is no God then the implications are staggering and have led many philosophers to nihilistic despair. Fredriech Nietzsche was perhaps one of the more honest atheists in history in that he saw clearly the implications of unbelief and wrote about this eloquently in his parable entitled The Madman[12]. In it he describes the implications of loss of belief in God. Many today are not so awake and remain apathetic about life’s ultimate questions:

  • Where did we come from?
  • Is there any overarching purpose to life? To our lives?
  • Do we have the wisdom to harness technology that could destroy us and the environment?
  • What happens when my loved ones die? When I die?
  • Where may I ground my hope? Why not despair?

The apologetics special teams challenge the beliefs of the day, question the intellectual assumptions upon which they are based and deconstruct ideologies so that people might say: Well, why do you believe in God? What is the reason for the hope that you have?

Our society today is steeped in moral and epistemological relativism. It is swarming with hostility and lacking civility in our discourse with one another. It is drowning in abusive sexual perversions. It shouts for universal human rights without giving any intellectual grounds for why such rights are inalienable without a creator and intrinsic dignity of human beings. It preaches a gospel that money and fame are all that matters and chews up human beings in the jaws of greed. The special teams of apologetics should rightly cause these ideas to teeter and fall as they actually are a house of cards. Sadly, it is precisely upon these shaky foundations that many in modern society build their lives. It is a loving friend who will bring into question such unstable commitments and foundations for life.

Continued in Part 5 - Interacting with Wisdom


[1] See Appendix 1 at the conclusion of this essay on Apologetic Schools and Methodologies.

[2] The football analogy is used by the late Ron Nash in Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason - Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 16.

[3] This proverb has been quoted in numerous places by Dr. Zacharias, even in describing the manner and essence of their ministry – see http://www.rzim.org/aboutus.aspx

[4] See 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, 2 Corinthians 2:12-16, Galatians 5:11

[5] William Dempski and Jay Wesley Richards, Unapologetic Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 42.

[6] Nash, 14, 15.  Nash follows philosopher George Mavrodes in his use of “negative” and “positive” apologetics when approaching this subject.

[7] Craig, 43-60.

[8] The Apostle Paul’s interactions with gentile farmers and philosophers in the book of Acts (Acts 14 and 17 respectively) seem to illustrate this as part of his practice when preaching the gospel.

[9] I first read this term being used by a British evangelist named Nick Pollard.  See Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult - How to Interest the Uninterested (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997).

[10] Timothy J. Keller, The Reason for God : Belief in an Age of Skepticism, 1st Riverhead trade pbk. ed. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), xviii.

[11] See “The Absurdity of Life without God” in Craig, 65-90.

[12] For a dramatic reading of Nietzsche’s Madman see the following reading by Ravi Zacharias set to images on YouTube.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO5MytakLy8