Does Apologetics Have a Role in Postmodern Culture?

Primary Audience – My post-evangelical friends who have abandoned apologetics.
Secondary Audience – Those who have no idea what I mean by post-evangelical and perhaps place too high of an emphasis on apologetics.

Like many Christians, I went through an apologetic phase. I got excited about people like Lee Strobel, handed out Case for Christ, the sequel Case for Faith, and the lesser known but probably his best work Case for the Yankees to everyone I knew. I also had a life-size poster of Ravi Zacharias wearing a No. 23 jersey dunking over Nietzsche. It was pretty cool.

What I liked about apologetics is that it allowed a place for philosophy and the sciences. For me, it encouraged thinking, logic and dialogue. Further I found the proclamations and defenses helpful in understanding and sharing my Christian faith.

But over the years, my appreciation for apologetics lessened because I found that at times, it was actually a counter-productive way of sharing the Christian faith. Further, it often led to unhelpful arguments, and frankly many times, most people didn’t really care about it. I hated the endless debating, the “us versus them”, the posturing, etc. I remember hearing things like, “When an atheist says this, counter with this …” Later I found it to be objectifying of people and it dehumanized those Jesus called me to love.

Over the years, I have met many different types of atheists/agnostics/skeptics. Most of them are hurting people and I believe many of them, despite what they say, are searching. I often wonder if sometimes our arguments actually have an adverse effect and push them further away from God. Now certainly, I don’t think skeptics are going to be nearer to God if we answer questions with blank stares and shrugged shoulders and this among the reasons why I have not given up on the discipline of apologetics.

I sometimes feel surrounded by people (physically and online) who perhaps over-emphasize the importance of apologetics and those who have dismissed it entirely. To the former it seems we may have to reconsider the importance, the practice and the ethic that it should be complimented by. To the latter, I wonder if it’s because we have been beat over the head so many times with it that we are simply too turned off to appreciate it’s helpfulness.

It’s important to remember that there is a lot of goodness in discussions that place a Christ-like value on the person you are discussing such matters with. Conversation is essential and the “us dialoging with others” and others with us, and the positioning of being in a time/place where we can share our hearts.

I think it’s important that believers have an understanding of what we believe and be able to articulate why we believe. It’s something that we try to do in our student ministry. We say regularly, “Don’t inherit your parents’ faith, it will fail you. Faith must be owned by you …”. Apologetics, theology, social justice practices, corporate worship, spiritual formation are all necessary in the nurturing of young disciples.

From where I sit, there is a another population in the Church that could really benefit from refuting things like the “Swoon Theory” and “The Legend Theory” or understanding the critiques and responses to the new atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. Throughout the centuries, there has always been an intentional undermining of the resurrection of Jesus, and while we cannot ever prove that Jesus rose from the dead, I think in this postmodern era, it is beneficial to present a case that says at the very least, “It could have happened and in faith I choose to believe it did.”

Everything has a context and I think apologetics has a place too. No one can prove “faith”. That’s exactly what faith is. In fact, “proving faith” is an oxymoron. The moment you prove faith you contradict Hebrews 11:1 – one of the most quoted passages of Scripture.

I think some of my fellow seminary-trained, well-read, post-evangelicals get frustrated with apologetics because too much stock has been placed on it. I submit that we are tired of it because we have gotten so much of it. Could it be that we are suffering from an apologetics hangover? I think it’s time we consider its benefits and perhaps invest energies in reframing this discipline of study in our postmodern culture.

As always feel free to disagree/pushback/etc. What do you think – is there a place for apologetics today?


  1. Hey Bro,

    I loved this post. This may be one of my favorites from you in a long while (not saying anything else was not well-written or thought out but this one just hit a chord).

    I feel having the knowledge to answer questions is important; especially when deconstructing and reconstructing faith. I feel that the problem is when we use that knowledge in the public arena of apologetics or debating, there is a massive issue.

    The whole idea of apologetics as Christians use it most commonly (debating) is to win. It’s basically making sure you are better than your opponent. Since when has Jesus’ message been about looking good while your opponents look bad?

    Most often when Jesus was confronted, He did something extraordinary. Instead of answering the question that was directly opposed to Him, He simply changed the conversation! He sometimes changed it to speak about repentance. He sometimes changed it to speak straight to a person’s heart. What He never did was speak in the prideful, arrogant tone that most of us take when we engage in these types of conversations!

    I could write so much more…but back to work!


  2. I’ve been known to say that apologetics is atheism. I’m not a fan.

  3. From your post I wonder if you’re really more leery of ways of ‘doing’ apologetics than you are of apologetics itself. I teach Christian Apologetics at university and firmly believe that it is even more useful in today’s society than ever before. It seems to me that we don’t actually live in a postmodern society but instead a highly modern one. The only things that people actually behave ‘postmodern’ about are religion and morality-but that of course is just modernism running its course. Postmodernism is highly critical of the sciences, but most people today act like science is the only avenue to truth (why else does the late-night infomercial have a guy pitching pots and pans in a white lab coat?). When we watch how people behave, as opposed to what they say, they’re not genuine postmodernists. They trust in the sciences too much for that.

    Even with this strong commitment to apologetics I can still agree with most of what you say because apologetics itself doesn’t commit one to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality or necessitate that dialogue with skeptics will push them away from God. What you seem to be advocating is a general attitude, but one can have that attitude without being postmodern.

    On a separate note, why do you think we “can’t ever prove that Jesus rose from the dead”? I suspect your definition of ‘prove’ is actually one that is more in line with scientism than either Christianity or post-modernism.

  4. I think the hangover thing is right. I have benefited from knowing that there are legit explanations of in the faith, but I think those explanations were applied in some unhelpful ways. Great post and great thoughts Tim.

  5. @Jim, thanks bro – yeah Jesus’ responses were unpredictable, wise and have given me a lot to think about, including more questions. Dare I say, in some sense, Jesus was a poor apologist? Hmmm …

    @Matt, I haven’t actually heard you say that but as soon as I saw your name, I had a feeling how you would feel. Seriously, I get what you and many of my friends are saying – hence the post.

    @Paul, thanks for reading, I appreciate you. To clarify what I mean, I am talking more about the postmodern age than the philosophy of postmodernism. From my vantage point, the pomo age is combining the virtues of modernity (empiricism, medicine, technology, enlightenment ideas) with the virtues of the pre-modern age (mystery, humility, transcendence). Could this be why you see hyper-modernity in people like say the new atheists?

    To answer your question regarding the resurrection, though I went to Liberty University and received many blessings from Gary Habermas’s Historical Jesus, I do not feel that it can be “proven” in the empirical sense. There is great evidence, logic, etc. and I love and appreciate all that – hence why I teach our students support for the resurrection. But ultimately I believe we must believe in the resurrection of Jesus by faith (like Kierekgaard’s leap of faith).

  6. The resurrection is my typical case-in-point against apologetics. If we have to (or try to) prove the resurrection by using some other means–historical, logical, archeological, etc.–then the truth of the resurrection is dependent upon our ability to do history, logic, archeology, etc. Which means doing the work of the science is more important than the resurrection, because without the science the resurrection is null and void.

    There is nothing more true than that Jesus rose from the dead–it is the most true thing in the world. You cannot subordinate it’s truthfulness to another discipline without diminishing it’s proper place of primacy.

    That’s why I’m not much of a fan of apologetics.

  7. By the way, I did my undergrad at John Brown University, home of Ron Habermas, Gary’s brother.

  8. I get the feeling that I’m in the minority here, but I’ll throw a few more cents in anyway!

    @Tim, Thanks for the response. I was confused by your use of ‘postmodern’, but I think I now have a better understanding of what you mean. I’m still curious with how you would define ‘prove’ or ’empirical’. It just seems obvious to me that we can prove some historical events occurred (that the Civil War occurred, that Nero existed, etc.). Now, of course, we can’t prove those things occurred like we can prove that the water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen but it would be crazy to expect the same level of evidence for historical events as scientific ones. If we have good reasons to think that Jesus’ resurrection actually occurred (as you seem to agree) then why not tell people about those reasons? In many cases that won’t “convert” them to Christianity, but it may open up enough space in their worldview that they more seriously consider the truth of Christianity.

    @Matt, I think you’re confusing the reality of an event with our ability to establish that the event happened. Even if it turns out our apologetics regarding the resurrection is woefully inadequate and unable to even come close to doing what they’re intended to do the only thing that would follow is that our apologetics is shoddy. The event either happened or it didn’t and our apologetic efforts are independent of that. When we engage in apologetics we’re not subordinating the event to anything else at all. The only thing we’re doing is sharing reasons we have to think that the event occurred.

    As I mentioned in my previous comment, I think sometimes people are more put off by how some people do apologetics than apologetics itself. There are certainly some that think apologetics can do more than it can, but I really think those people are in the minority. For example, William Lane Craig (who some consider to be the poster-boy for apologetics) argues that there is a difference between knowing Christianity is true and showing it to be true. The Christian can know it to be true without engaging in apologetics at all, but that doesn’t mean apologetics is entirely useless. In fact, Craig thinks it ‘can’ (but doesn’t have to) be a way through which the Holy Spirit works in conversion which is why he has spent his life debating atheists, agnostics, and skeptics. Here’s a guy that has dedicated his whole life and ministry to apologetics but is still willing to say that one need not come to Christ through apologetics!

    [Wow, that summary thought got much longer than intended. Sorry about that.]

  9. @Paul, thanks for responding. I hear what you’re saying regarding expecting the same type of “proof” for historical certainties as scientific ones. I wished we lived closer because this could lead to some long rabbit trails which I’m going to avoid right now. (More out of fear of failing to articulate adequately in this time/space).

    I will say that in my ministry, I do use apologetics to some degree (even centered a winter retreat on responding to Bill Maher’s Religulous which went well). That said, I just don’t find for example, the Josh McDowell type of apologetics that helpful. Most students hear that and just say, “Yeah, I get your argument, I just don’t care because you can create and prove just about anything.” So when I talk about the Resurrection, I’m just as interested in why it’s important as I am if it happened (which I use to not see before).

  10. @Matt, You bring up the points of why I am not sold out to apologetics. But I would also say that in the same line of thought as you, that the truth of the resurrection is dependent on our ability to articulate through language, action, and conviction of belief. So in some sense, the greatest truth we can know is always contingent on something weaker.

    I think the sciences, logic, even archaeology have a place because they are tools of discovery. Obviously we as humans tend to over-rely on some of our tools and exalt them over the object/truth/belief of what we are trying to discover. I think sometimes our apologetics gets the best of some of us and we become guilty of substituting logic, evidence, argument for the Holy Spirit. I know Christian apologists would never want that – I’m only insisting that it happens more than we’d care to think. That said, I don’t dismiss the need for these tools of discovery, just want to use them wisely.

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