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Elgin L. Hushbeck, Jr: The Dark Side of Apologetics

by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, Christian apologist, and author of Christianity and SecularismEvidence for the Bible, Preserving Democracy, and What is Wrong with Social Justice?.
One of the earliest verses I learned as a basis for Christian Apologetics was 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have.”(ISV) As with most verses presented in a standalone fashion, the interpretation is open to a much wider range of understanding than was intended by the author.
In the case of apologetics, this is seen as a justification for a wide range of actions and beliefs. For some this means metaphorically becoming a shining Knight for the Gospel, armed with a wide arrange of arguments and debating tactics, ready at a moment’s notice to counter and defend against any challenge to the faith.
I would submit that this is not only a misunderstanding of the verse, it is one that has several dangers lurking within it. Perhaps the most dangerous is that it can lead one to see those who are raising objections more as opponents that need to be defeated, than souls that need to be saved.
This view is akin to the Dark Side of apologetics, a road that tempts us with the promises of an easier victory, but one whose end is not good. This is not to say that those we are reaching out to are not at times making the choice easier for us. While I have had many good and earnest discussions with those having different beliefs, I have also had many where those I was discussing with made it very easy to see them as “opponents to be defeated.” After all, when someone threatens to kill you, I know from personal experience that it takes some effort to keep them in the “souls that need to be saved” category.
In the end, the dark side leads to a focus on winning debates more than winning souls. In addition, the more we demonize our counterparts, the easier it becomes to justify bad behavior on our part. Even lying or worse can be justified “for the greater good.” After all, as long as we are not as bad as they are, it’s still OK, isn’t it?
The another problem with this can be seen throughout history, and sadly at times on the nightly news. From the early killing of those considered heretical, to the Inquisition, up to the Westboro Baptist church, to name just a few of the far too many examples, as an apologist at times is seems that most of what I do is try and account for the actions of Christians who thought they are defending the faith.
The struggle we are in is very real, and darkness will seize on any advantage it can. As a result, it is just a fact that the more Christians act badly, the more they will be presented as the “true face” of Christianity. Thus, not only is it wrong, it is, at the end of the road, counter-productive and harmful.
But if this is true, then why did Peter say this? The simple answer is that he didn’t, for when put into context, a different picture emerges. Even a little more context helps, for the next verse begins, “But do this gently and respectfully.” It is very difficult, if not impossible to go to the dark side of apologetics “gently and respectfully.” Thus, when I hear 1 Peter 3:15 quoted, I always listen to see if these words are included and thankfully I am hearing them a bit more often, though I would like to hear them even more. When we look at even more context, this removes completely the possibility of the dark side.
Who will harm you if you are devoted to doing what is good? But even if you should suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. “Never be afraid of their threats, and never get upset. Instead, exalt the Messiah” as Lord in your lives. Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have. But do this gently and respectfully, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak evil of your good conduct in the Messiah will be ashamed of slandering you. After all, if it is the will of God, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong. (1 Peter 3:13-17 ISV)
In context (and I highly recommend that you read 1 Peter from the beginning to get the full context) this passage is saying that whatever our circumstances, we should live our lives in such a way as Christ shines through us. In that way people will be drawn to us, not because of us, but because Christ is shining through us. When they ask how we are able to live and act as we do, then we should “always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have. But do this gently and respectfully.” This is the apologetics that Peter calls us to. Not a life of debates and arguments, but a life of service and example, where people can see Christ working through us.
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  1. Athanasius Contra Mundum. An oversimplified history of Athanasius could describe him as a cantankerous old man that defended the Faith. His chief opponent was Arius a nice “christian” church elder. Arius’ very successful movement came up with the popular slogan “There was a time when the Son was not.” In defending the Faith, the truth of Christ’s deity and the Trinity, Athanasius faced the scorn and wrath of the church and the “Christian” Roman Empire who just wanted unity (can’t we all just get along.)
    The Gospel, the factual news that the LORD suffered crucifixion for my sins and the sins of everyone else, died, resurrected and ascended, is a scandal. Basically “good” people have no use for this message and the implication they have a problem is insulting. As a result, in our current sinful world this message will never be popular. It is why popular movements and people don’t include this message. Those that do will always be labeled divisive, backward, uneducated, bigoted and archaic. Those people at the forefront defending the Gospel (Athanasius) will suffer scorn, ridicule, exile and while not in Athanasius’ case the possibility of an early death.
    I assert we are wrong when we fail to stand up and defend the Faith for fear of strife, schism and the appearance of being “unchristian”. I agree that looking for fights rarely ends well. Language and tactics that detract from the Gospel are counterproductive. We must try to not defeat ourselves.
    I would also assert that “defending the Faith” wasn’t the problem with the Crusades, the Inquisition or the other terrible things done in the name of Church. I believe the same to be true with respect to the people of Westboro Baptist Church. The question I ask is this, “Are they defending the Faith?” Is it possible that humankind is more interested in its own arbitrary notion of a “moral society”? Is humanity at their core interested in their own prestige and power? The problem may lie more with the “faith” espoused than its defense.
    The LORD willing, I will live a quiet life and when the time comes I will faithfully defend the Truth with the grace, love and mercy that the LORD has and continues to give to me.
    Athanasius Contra Mundum.

    1. Anthony,
      We do not really disagree. My article should not be taken to imply we should not defend the faith, or even that we should not defend what we believe to be true. My comments were aimed more at tactics, tone and motivations of that defense, rather than the defense itself. After all, I have been an apologist for several decades, written two books and numerous articles defending the faith. I also have two more books coming out this year, one waiting to be published is on the key beliefs that have defined what it means to be a Christian and the other in process on what is apologetics. I do believe we should stand up and defend the faith.
      While the examples I used were on the extreme side, there are plenty of less extreme examples. Church history has far too much division among Christians. While, with the current non-denominational movement things are better at the moment even today there is the strong division between liberal Christianity and the more Conservative Churches. Then there are the divisions over old-earth/young earth, charismatic vs non-charismatic, and even those who claim the only real word of God is the KJV.
      To be clear I am not claiming there is a problem with the disagreement, in fact that is, I believe, the point of Roman 14. Disagreement is ok. I am solidly on the evangelical side of the spectrum and a believer in inerrancy. Yet I have Christian brothers and sisters whom I work with and have worshiped with who are more moderate and even liberal in their outlook. The disagreement is fine and I have, and will, when appropriate defend my beliefs when we differ.
      What I do not do is make our differences a point of division. I do not make it a point that must be overcome before we can do anything else. When we do discuss these differences, I strive to do so with “gentleness and respect.” These discussions on a whole move us close together rather than push us apart, even though we do not reach any agreement on the particular points.
      So, my article was aimed at our interactions with fellow believers more than the world at large. The body of Christ is to seek unity so that it does not interfere with standing for the Gospel. That is the message of letter of Philippians. It is not always easy, as the differences can be significant. But we must remember that what unites us, i.e., the belief in our Lord Jesus Christ, is greater than anything that divides us.

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