How can we engage in apologetics with gentleness and respect?

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?


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 Ph.D. in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is the cofounder of Vocable Communications and the author of Confronting Christianity, named Christianity Today's 2020 Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year, and 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24