Apologetics comes from the Greek word for “defense” (apologia) and it means literally “to speak for”. It could be translated as the verb “reason” or “answer”, and was used in Greek law to refer to a forensic defense in court (as, for example, in Plato’s Apology). When it is used in the context of Christianity, it therefore simply means the defense of the Christian truth claims. It has the goal or purpose of increasing or maintaining the intellectual justification of Christianity (J. P. Moreland). We are commanded from Scripture to be gentle with people, to respect their right to believe as they wish, but at the same time to be ready to give a reasoned defense to anyone who asks why we believe what we believe.
Giving a defense can involve three different activities: showing why contrary beliefs are unreasonable, refuting objections raised against one’s position, and finally, offering positive evidence for what one believes. Throughout the history of Christianity, apologetics has been a necessary and essential part of the Christian faith. The Old Testament prophets practiced apologetics, Jesus reasoned with his opponents, as did Paul and the early church. Far from an activity for a select few, the Bible commands all believers, everywhere, to be ready to offer reasons for the hope that they have.
Apologetics involves the task of providing evidence for Christian truth-claims. While evidence can take different forms, a sound argument is a good example of evidence. A well-reasoned argument has true premises (or premises at least more probable that their contradictories), and a conclusion that follows from them. The result is the verdict found in the courtroom: “beyond reasonable doubt”, and this is sufficient to uphold Christianity as rational.
The central truth-claims of Christianity include the existence of God, the deity of Christ and his bodily resurrection, the Bible as the inspired and inerrant word of God, and so on. Truth-claims which surround this central core are too numerous to list, but a good rule of thumb for apologetics is that if the Bible says it, then it can be defended, and it is right to be defended; if the Bible disagrees with it, then it can be pulled down, and it is right to be pulled down.
Sadly, people who set out to burn heretics rather than reflect Christ’s character have marred the image of apologetics. Polemics has a place in apologetics (see 2 Corinthians 10), but the Christian’s task is to persuade people because he loves both them and the truth. He is called to be not only persuasive, but to conduct himself in a manner worthy of Christ. As popular apologist Greg Pritchard says,
Apologetics is explicitly and fundamentally Christian. Apologetics is, or it should be, a form of Christian love […] We need to love them enough to listen to them, to ask them questions, to answer their questions, to challenge them to become genuine seekers of truth, to urge them to examine the claims of Christ […] Apologetics is an application of Christian leadership, which includes a biblical way of life.7
Apologetics is the art and science of Christian persuasion. It is not, itself, evangelism. Whereas apologetics removes intellectual stumbling blocks that prevent a person from accepting the gospel, evangelism makes the call for some kind of faith commitment. Obviously, these are closely related tasks: as all are called to evangelism, all are called to apologetics. Norman Geisler, influential Christian philosopher and prolific author, describes apologetics as pre-evangelism.