Some confusion persists with the terms “apologetics” and “evidence”— particularly because those concepts are expected to be culturally relevant. Throughout typical criminal investigation TV shows, evidence is gathered from the tiny pieces of materials and partial fingerprints to the most speculative circumstantial deductions of the brilliant detectives. Likewise, docudramas often “interpret” historical data and build a case (an apologetic) for the particular viewpoint favored by the filmmaker—this is especially true in religious presentations.
The misunderstanding of these terms is quite baffling within evangelical circles. Some churches and seminaries offer training in apologetics, recognizing the need to respond to the craftiness of the enemy, whose aim is to corrupt the minds of believers (2 Corinthians 11:3). The majority of churches, however, have become wary of long-term discipleship responsibility, preferring to focus their efforts on evangelism models and programs that make the gospel culturally relevant.
The combined power of the secular misuse of evidence and the increasing drift of churches to concentrate on relevant methodologies has had a negative impact on ministry. These approaches have devalued the need for a cogent understanding of foundational doctrines and have blurred the distinctions of and the applications for important disciplines.
1 Peter 3:15 provides the biblical format for apologetics. We are told to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.”
The English word “defense” is translated from the Greek word apologian, from which we render the descriptive term “apologetics.” The basic meaning is a response to an external request, clearly emphasized by Peter’s admonition to “be ready” to give the answer when someone asks you.
Furthermore, the answer is to be given in “meekness [mildness of disposition, gentleness of spirit] and fear.” That answer is also to be given with a “reason.” The Greek term from which “reason” is translated is logon (word, speech). Paul often spoke of his preaching in such a way that it is clear he was well-prepared with logic, since he was “appointed for the defense [apologia] of the gospel” (Philippians 1:17).
If we are to follow the biblical model for apologetics, we will first sanctify our hearts and then become ready to respond with an answer to all who ask us about our hope (the gospel—our salvation) with a sound reason given in a gentle and respectful manner.
The only biblical reference to “relevance” indicates that believers should apply the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom of the Scriptures to themselves (Proverbs 2:2; 22:17; 23:12). Nothing in the Bible suggests churches should accommodate the world’s behavior or standards to the ministry of the Kingdom. However, Paul’s comment that “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22) seems to endorse the type of broad accommodation seen among seeker-friendly church programs.
But the context of that passage severely limits what Paul is suggesting. He is under constraint to preach the gospel, is a servant of the gospel, and is willing to forgo his right to live—get paid—from the gospel. Paul’s personal limitations are self-imposed to enable him to enter in to every cultural situation and “by all means” (whatever gives him the most freedom) to preach the gospel and to “save some.” That is a very different purpose from slipping a gospel message into a crowd after drawing them with methods and processes that blur the lines between holiness and worldliness.
Yes, we must be aware of the needs of our audience. Paul was quite versatile in his approach. He began with the Bible when he spoke to the Jews—they knew the Scriptures. He started with creation with the pagans and the sophisticated. He used his political, social, and academic stature in other situations. He quoted Scripture in every case. His focus was getting truth out—not being “related” to the population. Truth-driven prophets and preachers did not try to please or appease the population. “We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now” (1 Corinthians 4:13).
The current use of relevance often bends the truth of the biblical message to make it acceptable and/or easy to swallow. While we must make sure the truth is heard, we must never leave out or gloss over parts of the truth that may be uncomfortable for the audience. The power to change lives does not come through the messenger or the method but through the written Word of God (Romans 10:17).
The Bible contains two distinct applications of evidence. The Old Testament emphasizes the physical evidence that documents the proof of something. The Hebrew word cepher is always used to describe hard evidence. Moses used Adam’s book (Genesis 5:1) to document early history. Jeremiah had a deed and associated papers (Jeremiah 32:11-16) to prove his purchase of property. We often apply this concept with historical or scientific evidence.
The New Testament emphasizes a conviction about an idea or belief. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The Greek words elegchos and elegcho (verb form) are always used to mean “convince.” Faith is based on evidence that is unseen. The eternal truths that bring one to salvation cannot be seen (in contrast to the physical evidence emphasized in the Old Testament), but they are presented in such a way that one becomes convinced about those truths.
There are three fundamental unseen principles upon which our faith rests. The creation by our Creator-Savior took place when no one was around to witness it happening. The substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross involved eternal transactions in the bowels of Earth and in the courts of heaven—far outside of the visual verification of any human. And the promises of eternal redemption in the new heavens and new earth are just that—promises! Yet all of those fundamental doctrines are part and parcel to the gospel that we are required to accept by faith.
Only the Creator has the infinite power and authority to save “to the uttermost” (Hebrews 7:25). God Himself recorded the creation week. Jesus demonstrated ex nihilo creation works when He was on Earth that we might have evidence of who He is (John 14:11; 20:31). The very foundation of faith is belief that the creation of the universe was accomplished “by the word of God” (Hebrews 11:3).
Only the God-man, the co-equal incarnated Son of God, could be both the satisfactory and sufficient Lamb of God. His sinless substitution for our death sentence (Romans 6:23) made “propitiation for our sins, and…for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The resurrection was the evidence provided for us that proved God’s requirement of holiness was satisfied (Acts 17:31).
Only the Creator-Savior-King can fulfill the promises of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). Our hope can be defended with evidence because of the One upon whom and by whom the promises are given.
We are to use apologetics to defend our hope by a reason given in gentle respect to those who ask us for the evidence. The unseen truths of Scripture for God’s existence will be clearly seen (Roman 1:20), and the speech and knowledge of everyday reality (Psalm 19:1-4) can be used to exhort and to convict (Titus 1:9) those who are otherwise-minded (Philippians 3:15).
Evidence must be the foundation for apologetics. The absolute purpose for relevance is to “declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples” (1 Chronicles 16:24). The abundant evidence God provides—both seen and unseen—is and will always be relevant.
Adapted from Dr. Morris’ article “Examining Evidence” in the September 2012 edition of Acts & Facts.
* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.