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How can we engage in apologetics with gentleness and respect?

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March 4, 2020

On Jan. 9, 2019, Christianity Today published my review of Peter Williams’ excellent new book, Can we trust the Gospels? Williams makes a compelling case for the trustworthiness of the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, and I was eager to commend the book. But when CT posted the review on Twitter, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science took aim, and fired: 

“You cannot trust the gospels about anything factual. Just like how we don’t use Harry Potter books to teach physics we don’t need the Bible for morality (or anything else). It’s a quaint, ancient book displaying the (understandable) ignorance of our ancestors.”

The comment was a charged grenade, thrown over the Christian/atheist fence. In such a situation, our instincts shout, “Fight back!” We feel the illegitimacy of the comparison and the insult to our sacred text. We want to honor Christ and defend his name. And, if we’re honest, we feel the insult to ourselves: we are not dumb, clinging to quaint fictions. But following Jesus means curbing our instincts. 

What does the Bible say about how we should engage with our opponents?

Love 

First, we must listen to Jesus’ unsettling words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43). Before we open our mouths to defend our faith, we must ask ourselves, “Am I loving my enemy here? Or am I just seeking to slap them down?” If we think our aggression is justified because it’s in Jesus’ defense, let’s remember how Jesus responded when Peter drew a sword to protect him. 

The King of the universe wondrously calls us to speak for him. If we keep silent, the stones will cry out. But he does not need us to protect him from opponents any more than a lion needs protection from the claws of a mouse.

Gentleness and Respect

Second, we see in Scripture that honoring Jesus in apologetics is tied to two qualities for which apologists are sadly seldom known. “In your hearts,” writes Peter (having learned much since the sword-drawing incident), “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).  

Honoring Jesus before those who disbelieve in him is a vital task to which we are all called. We must give reasons for the hope we have, and not wallow in intellectual laziness. But those reasons must be given with gentleness and respect.

What does that look like when someone is comparing the Bible to Harry Potter? Truth be told, I felt the temptation to go in guns blazing. I can often feel frustrated in conversations with people who hold beliefs that I know to be indefensible—especially if they are claiming an intellectual high-ground. There’s a piece of me that wants to take them down, to feel the satisfaction of conquest. Too many times, I’ve let that instinct lead. But I know how little anyone is persuaded by attack, and that love is both the scriptural response to our enemies and the best way to win them for Christ. 

A loving attempt at online civility

My best attempt at love on Jan. 9 was to affirm what I could of my opponent’s jibe, sidestep the name-calling, and return to the main point of the book: 

“The Gospels are certainly ancient! But @DrPJWilliams point is that if you subject them to the same kind of analysis as you would other historical documents from the ancient world, they actually stand up remarkably well—better, indeed, than many texts we take to be authoritative.”

Of course, the Dawkins-fan responder disagreed, and we went back and forth. At every stage, I tried to see the best in his or her comment, while also offering a counter case. My interlocutor claimed that Jesus never actually existed: a claim that most dyed-in-the-wool atheist historians would laugh at. But mocking and shaming them wouldn’t be loving my enemy. Nor would failing to tell them the truth. So, gently, I noted that few atheist historians would take that view and said (sincerely): “I’d be very interested to read a careful, skeptical review of @DrPJWilliams book that took time to evaluate the evidence he presents.” 

 Love is both the scriptural response to our enemies and the best way to win them for Christ. 

He or she responded, “Secular scholarship already exists in this matter. Don’t need review of a book. You need data and analysis. You can find all the info online. Acedemic [sic] journals are superior to book since the formal [sic] attempts to eliminate bias—books do not or at least aren’t required to.”

I replied, “Agreed! Can you point me to the academic journal articles you have in mind? If they are recent and published in leading journals, I’d be quite curious to read the best skeptical scholarship on this question.”

I could have added the sarcastic phrase, “I’ll wait.” But I didn’t. I wasn’t there to own this person, but to win them.

Meanwhile, other Christians had started weighing in, like spectators at a boxing match, cheering their champion, and adding their own punches to the fight. In the end, the Dawkins-fan retreated from the field. This person had no answer to my gentle question. But I fear the Christian pile-on had also not left him or her feeling loved.

In an increasingly aggressive public square, it’s easy to think that what we need is more attack. And in one sense we do. If we Christians do our homework, we’ll find we hold the cards of reason in our hands, and we must be prepared to play them. We need more scholarly, rigorous, accessible books—like Peter Williams’—to train our team. We need to raise our intellectual game. And we need to find the thousands of Christian professors whom God has raised up in the secular academy and learn from them, so that our arguments are drawing from the best of Christian thought, and we’re not guilty of recycling half-truths and indefensible claims—like the atheist claiming Jesus never existed. 

But when we go on the offense with our apologetics, it must have love at its heart, and gentleness and respect on either hand. People like me, who are prone to intellectual point-scoring, must fight this temptation just as we would fight lust or laziness. 

This does not mean we should not clearly disagree and marshal every neuron to the fight. We must. Indeed, Christ’s love compels us. But if we are truly seeking to draw people to Christ, our gentleness must be evident to all (Phil. 4:5). And if we are truly following Jesus, we’ll seek to win non-Christians, not to own them.

Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion, will be published by Crossway in April 2019. You can follow her on Twitter or at www.rebeccamclaughlin.org.   Read More