A New Kind of Apologetics

Apologetics has changed. What has changed is the substance of what matters. Apologists used to focus on the evidence — think here of the wildly popular book of Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict — or on the logic of Christianity — and here one can mention C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, or the more forceful apologetics of  Edward J. Carnell or Cornelius van Til. This sort of apologetics remains viable and useful for some.

But for some an argument for the resurrection doesn’t do it or historical arguments about the Bible’s pages can’t get to the issue, while others think Lewis’ moral argument can be explained better in other ways. Perhaps it is wise to remember that apologetics tell us about the Age in which we live as much as they provide a coherent reason for the faith.

New age, new topics. In some ways the old apologetics are found in Jeffrey Burton Russell’s new book, Exposing Myths about Christianity: A Guide to Answering 145 Viral Lies and Legends, but in other ways Russell is offering one of the most interesting and (I predict) useful apologetics books I’ve seen in a long while. His topics, so I would argue, are closer to our Age and deal with issues I heard in classrooms and my office for seventeen years.

What are the big apologetic issues you hear about today? Which ones are page-turners, head-turners, or “solve this one for me”?

Russell is famous for his medieval histories, and also for his multi-volume study of Satan/the devil. He was a professor at UC Santa Barbara, and it would not be unfair to put him in the circle of some of America’s best-known historians. As a historian, he plies his trade to commonly heard accusations against Christianity by exposing them to the evidence. His topics, though, are not the norm and that is why I think this book belongs on the shelf of pastors and in church libraries, and I can’t imagine a youth pastor or college pastor/chaplain who wouldn’t find immediate value in this book.

The book is a short study of 145 different topics! That means it cannot be a complete answers, and it also means I can’t summarize it all or much of it, but it has collected the problems into a few major categories:

1. Christianity is dying out (1-9)
2. Christianity is destructive (10-43)
3. Christianity is stupid (44-62)
4. Jesus and the Bible have been shown to be false (63-83)
5. Christian beliefs have been shown to be wrong (84-121)
6. Miracles are impossible (122-125)
7. Worldviews can’t be evaluated (126-134)
8. What’s new is true (135-145)

Each topic is treated briefly; his approach is sane and reasonable and cautious and not predictable. He doesn’t have to answer to a church board or a creed, though what I have seen in this book is reasonably orthodox on the major issues. His responses are to the point, brief, and he moves on. (145 topics make one do that.)

As a sample: the first section deals with Christianity being uncool and old-fashioned (but it is true, he asks); it is outdated and dying out (neither is demonstrable); it is boring (he says it isn’t boring); a fairy tale (it is open for evaluation, so to the evidence we must go); confusing (properly understood, it is not confusing); a superstition (it is coherent); a myth (too complex and historical for that term); magic (it seeks not to control so much as to be in harmony with nature); antiscientific (issue is two metaphysical worldviews). I am being brief on someone who is being brief, and so these are not even adequate summaries … but you can get what he’s doing in this book by seeing these responses).

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  • John Nes

    As a youth leader the most common question i get from a young person is why is there suffering and evil? most other questions are a tangent from that question. i have found an honest apologetic is the most effective, i tell them what i know and i tell them what i don’t know

  • Scot:

    So, any chance you will do some commentary on the chapters of Russell’s book?

  • I’m finding that the best apologetic is a humble conversation that seeks only to understand and not to convince. If you can truly understand why a person does not believe (instead of assuming its just because they are corrupt and depraved) more often than not I think you’ll end up discovering that neither of you actually believes what the other thinks you do. Love springs out of humble understanding and is the only apologetic that brings life.

  • John – good call. I don’t think that the problem of evil is meant to be solved. To one who doesn’t know God intimately no clinical understanding will be convincing. I think what you’ve also discovered is that the best apologetic is to humbly and lovingly enter with an other into their very real experience of pain, doubt, and God forsakeness (“My God…why have you forsaken me?!) understanding and admitting that the experiential loss of God is the binding force between all humans. To admit that you too feel that loss and to choose to feel and experience an other’s pain with them (rather then arguing that their pain is irrational) is to literally BE the incarnation of Christ to them. That’s apologetics!

  • [edit] I meant to say that the problem of evil is not meant to be solved by rational reasoning and apologetics. Without first entering into unity with Christ in suffering with another it is impossible to convince someone that their experience of evil is not a “problem.” To try is not only fruitless, but also calloused, judgemental, and unloving.

    The only argument for Christ is to die alongside him in front of others!

  • I would also recommend Ravi Zacharias’s book “Why Jesus, Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality”. Great book that nails the prevailing cultural views of spirituality and Christianity. Truth has been neutered in our culture. It is not important because it has so many versions today. This is primarily a Western thought problem. There are places around the world where the Truth of Christianity is being welcomed because the people there had been denied God for decades.

  • I wonder if we sometimes underestimate the genius of C.S. Lewis by pigeon-holing him as an “apologist.” He certainly provided lots of logical argument in defence of the faith (The Problem of Pain, Miracles, the first part of Mere Christianity).

    But it took me a while to realise that the parts of Lewis I found most helpful and confidence-building for my faith are of a different kind – more like spiritual wisdom than apologetics, a beautiful blend of head and heart, deep thinking and deep feeling, giving a whole and healthy account of Christian life. I’m thinking here of the later three-quarters of Mere Christianity, and books like Reflections of the Psalms, Prayer (Letter to Malcolm), essays like The Weight of Glory, and of course fiction like Screwtape, The Great Divorce and Narnia.

    So I’m starting a campaign to honour Lewis as much more than a “mere apologist”!

  • Joe Canner

    My youngest daughter recently asked why Christianity is the only way to God. Three of her closest friends are Chinese, Burmese, and Turkish-Chinese (we are in the suburbs of a large mid-Atlantic city). As our country becomes more and more diverse and pluralistic, this question is going to become increasingly of concern to young Christians.

    My wife had a ready answer for her from a standard orthodox perspective, but I found myself hesitating somewhat. Based on discussions here and elsewhere about de-emphasizing the soterian gospel and about universalism, I think the answer is not nearly as clear as it once was.

  • Tim

    I think the main challenge in modern Apologists is not whether or not you can establish that Christian beliefs can have underlying “warrant”, or that intelligent, thoughtful persons can with intellectual and moral integrity accept the Christian faith. Rather, I think the challenge comes from addressing the reality that we live in a world of religions each competing for our consideration and acceptance. Rather than simply comparing Christianity to “unbelief”, one could ask of the apologist to explain why Christianity is more likely to be true than, say, Buddhism. I think that’s something that ought be addressed.

  • DRT

    I for one felt Christianity lacked coherence and was rooted in magical thought, but as I learned more and there has been better scholarship (or good scholarship that I have now read), I have come to be impressed with the cohesiveness and resilience of the faith. I found that more study of good scholars, not more brainwashing, leads to better understanding.

  • MattR

    As I am privileged to minister with mostly young people in their 20s and early 30s, there are some who might question ‘is there a god?’ But more and more, the big three questions I hear are:

    1. Is God good? If so, why is there pain/evil in the world?
    2. Is God/Christianity coherent? This can be from; why is there so much anti-intellectualism in popular faith? To, how do science and faith co-exist? Or even, why do Christians often seem to do the opposite of what Jesus said in the Gospels (thinking of popular political discussions, hypocrisy, etc.)?
    3. The plurality question… Why JUST Christianity when there a so many good people who practice other faiths… is it all or nothing?

  • NW


    I’ll take you up on that challenge. On the one hand, I would say that to the extent Buddhism is understood as being merely an approach to living life (i.e. ascetic and/or monastic) then it is not necessarily in conflict with Christian faith. On the other hand, to the extent Buddhism is understood to be a religion possessing specific doctrines that try to answer the big questions of life then it becomes hopelessly incoherent and therefore inferior to Christianity, which is not so hopelessly incoherent at the level of its doctrine.

    To give another example of how these sorts of arguments might go, consider the case of Islam and its American equivalent, Mormonism. In those religions there is a recognition that God originally revealed himself and his divine purposes to the ancient Hebrews and/or Christians but that the latter groups corrupted and/or misinterpreted both the deposit of revelation they were given as well as their sacred texts to the point where God had to reveal himself afresh and anew and apart from these earlier traditions to a particular prophet (Muhammad in the case of Islam and Joseph Smith in the case of Mormonism). However, the problem with the whole religious metanarrative upon which the credibility of Islam and Mormonism depend is the rather dubious assertion that God’s original purposes in revealing himself to the ancient Hebrews and Christians were so frustrated by the latter groups that it demanded a religious “reboot” of sorts. Islam and Mormonism would have us believe that when the God who created us acts in human history that his purposes can be frustrated by his creation, as if he were a member of the Greek pantheon, but surely the existence of this sort of creator God is high unlikely therefore rendering one of the core features of the religious metanarrative of Islam and Mormonism as being highly unlikely.

  • Thanks for the review. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if my comment is correct here as it relates to the book, but it doesn’t sound like this is a new kind of apologetics.

    To clarify, addressing new questions that relate to today’s cultural issues is still addressing questions via use of reason to persuade (evidential). If I provide reasons for God in a postmodern context, I am still providing reasons for God using the same persuasive manner (same approach – same model – different questions).

    It seems to me like a new kind of apologetics would be more holistic. Show me the answer rather then tell me the answer is more akin to a postmodern skeptic, kind of what Nate W was alluding to. In a world of information overload, evidentialism is everywhere for all sorts of worldviews, and I fear ‘reasonable responses’ is not enough anymore.

    Note, I am not negating reason, I am just stating it is no longer sufficient to persuade in our culture.

  • AHH

    Issues and obstacles I see at the front these days (in no particular order):
    1) The problem of evil.
    2) Does God really torture nice Buddhists in Hell forever?
    3) The Bible not being the magically perfect book that many Christians insist that it has to be.
    4) The behavior of Christians, some real and some stereotyped and exaggerated. Creationism and anti-intellectualism more generally, gay-bashing, right-wing politics, anti-environment, anti-woman, clergy abuse, televangelist hypocrisy, having an obnoxious judgmental Christian as a classmate or coworker. As a teenager my wife stopped going to church (it took her almost 20 years to go back) upon seeing the disconnect between what was said on Sunday and how the churchgoers behaved during the week.

  • John Mark Mullan #7:

    I absolutely agree about Lewis. He was far more than a rationalist explainer of logical proofs! His notions of joy, love, mystery, wonder count every bit as much as his philosophical discourses on this or that. The medieval mind (which he demonstrated to be far from darkness) permeated his writing. (I am no Lewis scholar, just an avid reader and fan, so a Lewis scholar could possibly blow a hole through what I just said about his thought).

  • Joe Canner

    NW #12: I can’t speak for Tim, but I will respond anyway since I raised the same issue. Your analysis of Buddhism, Islam, and Mormonism may well be spot on, but I think it misses the point. If Christianity is simply about having correct beliefs about certain intellectual propositions, then I would agree that logical arguments about which religion is more coherent or likely are useful. However, if Christianity is more than that, and includes actions as well as beliefs, then there is more overlap between different religions and the logical arguments become less relevant. This issue is well expressed by MattR’s 3rd point in #11: “Why JUST Christianity when there a so many good people who practice other faiths?”

  • Jeremy

    Paul nailed it. If you’re trying to argue from modernity’s logic and reason, you’ve already lost. The questions being asked are ultimately emotional in nature as reason has proven entirely too faulty. Why does God allow suffering? Does God really torture good people forever because they’re not “in the club”? Why are the loudest voices in Christianity so hateful/hypocritical/selfish?

    The science vs. faith argument isn’t helping much either…too many voices saying you can’t disagree with literalistic thinking and remain faithful.

  • NW


    Of course there is overlap between Christianity and other religious traditions, in some cases the overlap is quite considerable both in doctrine and praxis (i.e. Mormonism); however, that doesn’t mean that we can’t profitably engage in a project of religious criticism that seeks to assess the plausibility of the theological metanarratives that are at the heart of the different religious traditions found in the world.

    With respect to the question, “Why just Christianity?” The obvious answer is that either one of the theological metanarratives found in the different religious traditions is correct or they are all wrong as they all contradict each at important points. Hence, if the core theological metanarrative of Christianity is true then it can be the only one that is so by the law of non-contradiction.

    “But what about all the other good non-Christian people?” you might ask. Here I think the correct answer for the Christian is some form of Christian universalism that allows the non-evangelized to be evangelized after their deaths (cf. 1 Pet 4:5-6). Christian orthodoxy will almost certainly undergo some development in this area as part of a larger response to the ever shrinking nature of our world in the 21st century.

  • Win

    There are a few things I keep in mind with regards to apologetics.

    1. No one cares what you have to say until they know you care about them.
    2. Judgement is reserved for discipline among believers. Judging non-believers only ticks them off.
    3. A corollary to #2 – Grace first, holiness second.
    4. If there is a problem of evil, there is also a problem of good. Why do humans do good things if original sin is true?
    5. For every complaint there is a story. Do I understand their underlying story that their point is masking? (corollary to #1)
    6. A non-believer has already made a decision. Decisions are rarely made based on facts. People who dispute that are right there demonstrating my assertion. 🙂 Decisions are made out of emotion and the facts are made to justify the decision to protect self-honor. Therefore facts and evidence will rarely change an already made decision. This is a truism of sales, actually. I must understand the emotion behind the decision, build trust to gain credibility, and show grace and caring before I can ever get to the point of changing that decision.
    7. Ask lots of questions.

  • DRT

    Win, your comment about people justifying their decisions with facts is similar to Haidt’s conclusions and seems to be gaining popularity.

    However, I wonder if there is a more constructive way to look at this because that perspective seems to miss the boat. I am thinking that it may be more like humans are natural born scientists. They make an hypothesis then gather facts to figure out if it is true. The naturally are more drawn to the facts supporting their hypothesis and rarely get past their own hypothesis to examine others. Certainly there is a great deal of intuition involved in the process of hypothesis determination.

    Or perhaps my emotions just don’t like the idea of me making all my decision based on emotion.

  • Julian Hardyman

    Scot, Thanks for the recommendation. I have the book and think it will be helpful. I wonder if it is helpful to note that the author appears to be a Roman Catholic or at least to be favourable to aspects of RC teaching – eg. his defence of relics, the veneration of Mary, and other examples.