Apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that deals with the rational justification and defense of the Christian faith. It seeks to give a reasoned argument for Christ within the marketplace of ideas. The ultimate goal of apologetics is to share the gospel. It doesn’t seek to merely demonstrate the existence of God or the historicity of the resurrection, but strives to correct misunderstandings and provide others with the confidence that Christ is who He claims to be. In other words, its goal is to help others take their next step toward Christ.
These efforts can be frustrated in a culture that is skeptical, indifferent, and sometimes even hostile to Christianity. The distance between our convictions and the unbeliever sometimes seems unbridgeable. These distances can be bridged, however, if we keep in mind that we always have more in common with others than we have differences.
Common Ground in a Diverse Landscape
In the second chapter of Romans, Paul references the Mosaic Law, which served as a dividing wall between the Jews and Gentiles. He writes that those “who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law…They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15). Even though Gentiles did not have the law to protect and preserve the line through which Christ would be born, they received the law that God had written upon their conscience. They still lived under a moral law because they existed in the world created by the moral Lawgiver.
Our shared nature always allows common ground to be found with a non-believer. This isn’t because our network of beliefs happens to intersect with another’s at certain random points. All people are created in God’s image. All people struggle with the reality of sin and cry out for a Savior. All people see injustice in the world and yearn for someone or something to set it right. And all people long for truth, significance, meaning, and eternity. These are not trivial matters. These are fundamental truths and meaningful starting points that we can use to lead people to Christ.
I often hear people say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” People recognize that there is more to them than their physical constituents and long for something beyond the earthly horizon. Or consider the claim, “All religions are true.” We can agree with others that some aspects of the world’s religions are true. Islam, like Christianity, is theistic. Buddhism promotes the notion of dying to oneself. Secular humanism recognizes our common welfare and human dignity. Finding these commonalities with others will make them more open-minded to hearing what we have to say.
Unearthing Truths Long Buried
Paul makes clear in the previous chapter of Romans that all people have knowledge of certain truths of Christianity. For example, God has made the world and humanity in such a way that His existence is clearly known. It doesn’t take a genius or specialized knowledge to come to this conclusion. This truth, however, is suppressed (Romans 1:18).
Paul uses this buried awareness as a launching point in his own ministry. In Acts 17:16-34, Paul becomes angry when he sees the level of idolatry taking place in Athens. Yet he doesn’t approach the Athenians in anger, but commends them for how religious they are. He goes on to forge a path from where they are to gospel truth. He does this by finding common ground not only in their religious devotion, but in their culture. Paul goes so far as to quote non-Christian poets that he knew would be familiar to his audience. Tactically, Paul knows they can’t disagree with him because he’s quoting their own sources. Relationally, he’s connecting before showing them that Christianity is the better way.
We can follow in Paul’s footsteps. Muslims believe in a god, but their god is utterly transcendent. Allah does not reveal himself as a loving father, but as an ever-distant master. We can show them how Christianity answers their longing for relationship with their Creator. Certain schools of Buddhism believe that self-denial is necessary because our ultimate existence is an illusion. Death is a dissolution of our wrongly assumed existence. We can show them how Christianity also teaches self-denial, but it is a death to our sinful self, which gives birth to an eternal life of freedom in Christ. Lastly, for the secular humanist, we can agree that humanity has an inherent worth and dignity. Christianity makes sense of this because we have been created in the image of an infinitely valuable God. In Christianity, each person is more valuable than the sum-total of the entire physical universe.
Excavating with the Holy Spirit
We can feel, at times, that we’re not gifted in the art of apologetics or navigating tough conversations with others. The task can sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. We are not alone, and the Holy Spirit works with us to reach others. Paul was an effective speaker (Acts 14:1), but he relied upon the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:4). This isn’t an excuse to avoid putting in the hard work necessary to understand objections and how to respond to them. Indeed, the Bible commands it (1 Peter 3:15), and Paul modeled this in his encounters with the intellectuals of his day (2 Corinthians 10:5). Listen well, ask questions, understand others, research answers, and communicate the truth of Christianity in a coherent, compelling, and winsome manner.