“But in your hearts honour 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” (1 Peter 3:15). You’ve probably heard the verse before. There is perhaps no clearer, more succinct description of apologetics in the Bible. Whenever we are asked to explain our hope in Christ, we are called to give an “apology”, a Greek term for “defense” or “answer”.

But while many of us know that quotation by heart, few of us seem to realize that the sentence doesn’t end there. “Yet do it with gentleness and respect,” Peter continues. Gentleness and respect: two words seldom associated with Christian apologetics in our day and age. For too many of us, the major concern seems to be on winning the argument rather than winning (by God’s grace) the person for Christ.

Back at the beginning of 2010, I led a weekly study group on apologetics for the local Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship chapter at the University of Regina. In my preparations for the series, I came across John G. Stackhouse’s 2006 work Humble Apologetics. In the introduction to the work, Stackhouse tells the true story of a Christian attending a public apologetics event at his university. The story was so compelling, I made sure to read it at the introductory meeting of the apologetics study group at the UofR. It’s worth sharing with you here as well.

Stackhouse recounts how the Christian,  a student named Bob, entered the auditorium that night with great fears as to how well the apologist (his name is changed to “Dr. Ward” in the text) would do. But his fears were alleviated as, through the course of the talk, it became clear that Dr. Ward was was an excellent rhetorician, well-capable of making a case for the existence of God.

At the end of the talk, students had the opportunity to pose questions to the speakers. When the very last speaker rose to talk… well, it’s best to just let Dr. Stackhouse tell the story.

His question went on and on, and the student’s voice rose higher and higher as he began to rail against the Bible, Christianity, and finally Dr. Ward himself. Bob stared at Dr. Ward to see if he could possibly endure such an onslaught, and indeed Dr. Ward’s smile had become somewhat tight. At last, however, the student concluded his tirade, and Dr. Ward began to answer.

He replied by asking the student… if he would first make clear whether he meant option A or option B of the two possibilities Dr. Ward suggested were implied by his question. The student, a bit nonplussed by this distinction that obviously hadn’t occurred to him, hesitantly replied, “Option A.”

“Well, then,” Dr. Ward continued, do you then mean either option A1 or option A2?”

The student was now evidently a bit distressed, and a murmur swept the hall. “Uh, I guess I mean option A2.”

“Fine,” replied Dr. Ward. “Then do you mean option A2-alpha or A2-beta?”

The student suddenly realized, as the entire audience realized simultaneously, that Dr. Ward had set up these three pairs of distinctions to box the student in. He now could select no option without contradicting his own case. He stood helplessly for another moment at the microphone while Dr. Ward’s smile looked bigger than ever. Finally, the student said, “I don’t know.”

“Quite,” said Dr. Ward, and turned magnificently to the student emcee, who was patently in awe of what he had witnessed.

Bob felt a serge of triumph. God’s chosen messenger had, it seemed, done what Paul described of himself: “destroy[ed] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). But then – and there must always be a “but then” – as Bob began to leave the auditorium, he found himself behind two women trying to exit as well. And he heard words which crushed all his previous joy: “I don’t care if the son of a bitch is right,” said the one, “I still hate his guts.”

Apologetics is not just about making compelling arguments because, frankly, people are never reasoned into the kingdom of God. Dr. Ward might have successfuly countered the “argument” of the student questioner – but what he had not done was treat the man with gentleness and respect; had instead completely humiliated him. Moreover, he had reacted solely to a symptom while completely ignoring the underlying problem. The student’s vitriolic attack was clearly not a well-reasoned argument; what it showed instead was a broken man, angry at God. And what he needed was not shaming; he needed to hear the Gospel.

When Peter writes that we are called to give a “reason for the hope” that is in us, we are not being called to simply refute arguments; instead, we are being called to share with the questioner the reason for our faith that she or he might come to have the same hope we have. When we are challenged, we must remember that we are not called to do battle with our “opponents”; we are called to share with them the Gospel.

In the weeks following the introductory session of the apologetics group at the UofR, we critically engaged with many of the major areas of apologetics: classical (and contemporary) arguments for the existence of God, the subject of creation/evolution, the problem of evil, the historicity of Scripture (especially regarding the person of Christ and his life, death and resurrection), and so forth. But through it all, there was an overarching recognition that, when it comes down to it, apologetics is about much more than being able to debate the logical merits of this or that argument. It’s about sharing hope. It’s about encouraging faith. It’s about the Gospel.