Apologetics Should Speak to the Heart


I’d like to make apologetics my next major intellectual project. This is what I want to give my thoughts and spare reading to during my late 30’s.

It’s been brewing in me for a while. Part of it is my innate love of philosophy, which I haven’t formally studied since college, and which feels refreshing and fun to go back to. The greater reason, though, is that it seems like we are at a fascinating cultural moment in which fresh work in apologetics is needed.

I thought about this recently while reading my latest book in this personal project, Tim Keller’s Making Sense of God. Its a great book, and I won’t give a review of it here. What is most interesting to me is the way this book advances further than The Reason for God, Keller’s earlier (2008) apologetics book. Keller explains that he wrote Making Sense of God because The Reason for God does not start far back enough for a lot of people. Many people are simply apathetic about the topic of religion. It does not seem relevant. Related to this, Keller sees a need to explain why Christianity makes emotional and cultural sense, which he does by addressing topics like justice, meaning, happiness, identity, etc. This is the core of the book, while the final section, which provides the rational case for Christianity, is relatively brief.

This approach resonates with me, and coincides with my own interest: to explore the emotions of arguments for Christianity. I’m interested in an approach to apologetics that utilizes beauty, tells a better story than its rivals, appeals more comprehensively to human experience, and relies on abductive more than strictly deductive arguments. Of course, there are all kinds of different ways to do apologetics, and different approaches work for different people. But for a variety of reasons, it seems like this approach resonates with a lot of people in our culture right now. As Sarah Zylstra put it, “even as our neighbors lose belief in the truth of the gospel, they’re still, on a gut level, looking for its goodness and beauty.”

I believe that when the gospel is understood, in contract to secular worldviews, it will often feel like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. The Empty Tomb means supreme happiness. If you get a whiff of it, you think, “can it really be that good?” It’s like waking up as a little boy on Christmas morning—times a billion. I want to help people feel that.

I learned a lot from Keller’s book, which is very well-researched and well-presented. Here is one insight in particular that struck me, and relates to all this, from the chapter on happiness:

We have a much thinner life satisfaction than we want to admit to researchers or even to ourselves. On the whole, we are in denial about the depth and magnitude or our discontent. The artists and thinkers who talk about it most poignantly are seen as morbid outliers, but actually they are prophetic voices. It usually takes years to break though and dispel the denial in order to see the magnitude and dimension of our dissatisfaction in life (80).

When I read that paragraph, I thought wow! To think that human beings are so unhappy that it takes years to fully realize it! Amazing.

All the more reason, I think, for apologetics that emphasizes the gospel’s beauty, and its tug on the human heart.

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  1. Well articulated, as usual, Gavin, and I appreciated your letting us know about the extension of Keller’s The Reason for God. I always respect what he has to say. Beyond making a credible apologetic “argument” for God in our witnessing, how important do you feel it is for us consistently to live out our Christian principles in light of our witness? I’m having a real struggle, as an example, for understanding many Evangelicals’, championing our President sans nary a moral criticism of his words and actions. I would think that any part our behavior that seems contradictory to biblical values, plays a large role in our sharing the Gospel with our neighbors. I’d love to hear your take on this.

    1. Hi Lynn! Good to hear from you, please say hi to Sheridan for me! I share your concern. I think if people see us calling out one political party but not the other, rather than consistently applying biblical ethics, we lose credibility. These are tough times we live in.

  2. I think David Brooks is using some of that new approach you are talking about when he describes the “Second Mountain.” If his new book of the same title were more directly apologetic for Christianity (it is apologetic, but more for striking out on A journey, not THE journey we know as Christianity, in my opinion) it might have fit into the new apologetic that you describe. It is winsome.
    Two other books that I am reading now are almost certainly already on your radar, but I’ll mention then briefly: Marks of the Messenger (Mack Stiles) reminds us before we ask “what should I do” in terms of evangelism, remember to ask “who should I be” first. I know you know that. The book is excellent. Lastly, I’ll mention Plugged In by Daniel Strange as one I am very excited to read on this topic. I’ll join you in my “fifties” studying what you are in your “late thirties.” I’ll be praying that God give us, His church, new and fresh narratives to describe his unfathomable beauty.

  3. Really good stuff as usual, Gavin. The “late 30s” thing threw me for a second before I remembered that it really has been almost 6 years since I got the pleasure of calling you my youth pastor! What a blessing to still get some words of wisdom from you after all these years.

  4. “I believe that when the gospel is understood, in contract to secular worldviews, it will often feel like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia.” Wow, this speaks to me. Thank you. I love the topic and the way you write about it.