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Over many years of doing apologetics, I have had some remarkable apologetic encounters.1 Since converting in 1976 at age nineteen, I have labored to give the reasons for my hope in Christ to as many people as possible in as many formats as possible (1 Peter 3:15). I have written books and given lectures and sermons, of course, but some apologetics happens unexpectedly or in odd circumstances. That is part of the adventure of walking the narrow path of Jesus that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14). These are mostly stories of apologetic encounters, not evangelistic successes. Although I have helped lead some souls to become Christians (one is mentioned below), that has not been my great strength, although I press on, trying to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).2
I offer the following anecdotes of apologetic encounters to encourage you to have fire in your bones, love in your heart, and knowledge in your mind to bring the whole Bible to the whole world for the glory of God, the good of His church, the extension of His Kingdom, and for peace and truth on earth (Jeremiah 20:9; Matthew 28:18–20; 1 Corinthians 10:31). As the apostle Paul said, follow me inasmuch as I follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Apologetic Opportunities. In the spring of 1977, when I was in college, I wrote an apologetic letter to the editor of the University of Oregon newspaper, which responded to a Taoist priest who had given a lecture on campus. I commended the uniqueness of Christ and his grand claims. One of my professors, an embittered New Testament scholar named Jack T. Sanders, wrote a letter in response saying that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I should know since I had taken his class on ancient Mediterranean religions! Christianity, he claimed, was not the true religion, since it merely mixed and matched ideas from its time.3 I then realized that my Christian witness would be contested by people in authority. I was in a genuine spiritual battle for ideas, as was Paul: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3–5).
I wrote another letter responding to my professor’s critique, but the newspaper had ceased publishing for the summer. So, I sent it to the professor directly. That was the end of the exchange, but I learned that taking a public stand for the faith may be publicly contested. It would not be the last time.
We should never discount the significance of prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit in apologetics outreach. I wrote an apologetic flyer to be handed out at a major New Age event in Seattle on New Year’s Eve of 1986. Those of us who were going to distribute the tract met beforehand for prayer and strategy. As we prayed, we all sensed the presence of God and His endorsement of what we were to do that night. We went out with peace and confidence and handed out all the tracts we had brought. Unbeknownst to us, another Christian had also made a flyer for the event (which was good). Between the both of us, everyone who attended the event received an apologetic/evangelistic essay. I was interviewed on the local nightly news about the event as well.
Sometimes, apologetic opportunities come unexpectedly. Thus, we should “always be ready” to defend our faith, as Peter says (1 Peter 3:15). Or as Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). A friend and I attended a meeting in about 1995, which was sponsored by the local Baha’i group, which was held in an old Christian Science church. The topic was near-death experiences. The goal of the Baha’i group was to speak on this topic of current interest and to weave in their perspective. Since I had just written a book about near-death experiences, I was quite interested. About ten minutes into the lecture, the speaker held up a copy of my book, Deceived by the Light, as an example of recent discussion.4 I raised my hand, was called on, and said, “I wrote that book.” I was not trying to intimidate him, but he was a bit flustered, and then said, “Would you like to give the rest of the lecture?” I obliged and had a very fruitful evening of impromptu apologetics.
Christians can also plant apologetic seeds in brief encounters. While in a bookstore, I asked a worker where the philosophy section had been moved, since it was not where it used to be. She replied, “I can show you. Nothing stays the same.” To that, I said, “Except God.” She seemed to ponder that for a moment, and I prayed silently for her.
Earlier in my campus ministry days, I would sometimes write evangelistic–apologetic tracts and distribute them at campus events, usually with another Christian (Luke 10:1). Handing out tracts sparks several kinds of responses. Some simply turn away; others accept the tract gladly; and others are not happy about it. While some tracts are of low quality or are biblically suspect, a Spirit-led Christian handing out solid literature can do God’s will.5
Before becoming a Christian, I was a fan of two guitarists, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, who were followers of an Indian guru named Sri Chinmoy (1931–2007). Santana and McLaughlin placed their guru’s poems and aphorisms in their album covers. After converting, I found them vapid and meaningless, but they intrigued me at the time of my spiritual ignorance. When I found that Chinmoy was speaking at the University of Oregon, where I was a campus minister, I decided to make and distribute copies of the testimony of Rabi Maharaj, who had dramatically come to Christ from being a Hindu guru.6
To prepare, I read and prayed through Paul’s admonition to put on “the full armor” of God in Ephesians 6:10–19. What stood out to me was the three times that Paul says to “stand” against spiritual opposition. “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (6:11; see also vv. 13, 14). I also contacted campus officials to ensure that what I wanted to do was not against the university’s policies. I found it was fine, as long as I did not deter anyone from entering the event. I arranged for a friend to meet me at the event, which was held on campus. He never showed up, so I began handing the tract to those entering.
As soon as I began, someone tried to stop me. I replied that I was within my rights to hand out material if I did not interfere with the event. Then two other people tried to stop me, but I said the same thing and kept handing out tracts. I was fortified by the Word of God, which told me to stand my ground. I was also supported by prayer behind the scenes (Ephesians 6:18–19). I offered a tract to Carlos Santana, who was there to play guitar before his guru’s lecture. He said, “No thanks, man.”
On another occasion, Peter Caddy (1917–1994), the co-founder of the New Age Findhorn Foundation in northern Scotland, came to the University of Oregon to lecture while I was doing campus ministry there. Since I was knowledgeable about Findhorn — a New Age mecca that sponsored mystics such as David Spangler — I decided to write a tract and distribute it at Caddy’s lecture. The leafletting went smoothly, and I attended the lecture. I had put my name and phone number on the tract. Although I had not handed Caddy a copy, he later called me. He reported that he was happy to get my essay and that he agreed with it! He told me that he had experienced all the key events of the life of Jesus Christ himself: the fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit, the crucifixion of his lower self, and the resurrection to Christ consciousness. Sadly, Mr. Caddy, despite reading my apologetic essay, had radically misinterpreted Christianity according to a pantheistic/gnostic worldview (see 2 Peter 3:16).7 Instead of falling in repentant faith before the one and only Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Caddy thought he had found the Christ consciousness within himself. I was not able to get very far with him over the phone, but I later prayed that the gospel might penetrate through his false philosophy (Colossians 2:8).8
From 1986 to 1989, I was a campus minister at the University of Washington in Seattle for Probe Ministries during a time when the New Age movement was exploding around the country, especially on the West coast. This afforded many apologetic ministry opportunities, since I had recently published Unmasking the New Age.9 A local TV news program asked me to appear live for a few minutes along with the editor of a New Age magazine out of Seattle. We were each given a scant one minute to present our views. Live interviews give the benefit of not being edited, but they have an absolute time limit (unlike podcasts today). The New Age editor spoke in generalities about love, nature, and higher consciousness. Empowered by an afflatus, I replied, “The New Age talks a lot about love, but the God of the New Age is impersonal. The wind cannot love you. The ocean waves cannot love you. Jesus showed the personal love of God by dying on a cross to save us. That is real love, that is bloody love, and the New Age knows nothing of it.” By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, I finished exactly on time and said exactly what needed to be said. Some Christian friends who watched this told me that they literally cheered after my response.
As a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, I require the students in my Religious Pluralism class to attend a non-Christian religious service and to interview a member of that religion. A few years ago, two of my students attended a Hindu service and interviewed a woman who led the ceremonies. I will call her Jane. They both told her that she would enjoy talking to me. One of the students and I set up a meeting with this woman and her son, both of whom practiced Hindu meditation. Interestingly, the woman considered herself a Christian, although she had a pantheistic worldview. The four of us had a very profitable discussion in which I explained and defended the gospel, and my student, who is from India, gave his testimony. The son asked, “My guru says Jesus was the ultimate guru, but I really don’t know what he taught. Can you tell me?” I told him! As the conversation wound down, Jane asked me to pray for all of us. I was delighted to do so. I later sent her a copy of my book, Jesus in an Age of Controversy, and have prayed for her.10
Apologists need to respond to real questions people are asking about Christianity, and sometimes these questions are not covered by standard apologetics books. This means the Christian needs to do new research and take these questions seriously (if they are serious questions). I got involved in an email exchange with someone I didn’t know very well. His obstacle to becoming a Christian related to the crucifixion of Jesus. He did not see how Jesus could have atoned for the sins of the world when He suffered for only a few hours on the cross. That, he thought, would not be sufficient to atone for our sins, which deserve an endless hell. I had never thought much about this. But as we interacted, I convinced him that while the quantity of Jesus suffering was not eternal, the quality of His suffering was sufficient, since He was the sinless Son of God who represented sinful humanity.11 He later told me that he became a Christian, but I was not able to follow up with him much. I prayed for him.
Tell Others the Good News. Of course, not all my apologetic encounters have gone well. I have sometimes said the wrong thing or said nothing when I should have said something. Nevertheless, I hope these anecdotes of my apologetic encounters will inspire you to serve God faithfully and hopefully in apologetic witness. They inspire me to keep explaining, defending, and commending the Christian worldview in order to make the gospel known to as many people as possible as long as God gives me breath. As you desire to know Christ and make Him known, you will experience your own apologetic encounters, which will in turn encourage others to follow your lead (1 Corinthians 11:1). May we all have the apologetic and evangelistic zeal of the apostle Paul: “My life means nothing to me. My only goal is to finish the race. I want to complete the work the Lord Jesus has given me. He wants me to tell others about the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIRV).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 15 books, including Fire in the Streets (Salem, 2022) and Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (InterVarsity Academic, 2022).
- “Apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia, meaning defense or vindication (see, e.g., 1 Peter 3:15). Christian apologetics is the rational defense of the Christian worldview as objectively true, rationally compelling, and existentially engaging. See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2022).
- Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV, unless noted otherwise.
- This claim is refuted in Ronald N. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R: 2003).
- Doug Groothuis, Deceived by the Light (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995). For an explanation and defense of the biblical view of the afterlife, see Lee Strobel, The Case for Heaven (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).
- See Douglas Groothuis, “Event-Specific Evangelism,” Confronting the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
- See Rabi Maharaj, Death of a Guru (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1984). A short version of his testimony can be found here: http://www.leaderu.com/wri/pages/maharaj.html.
- See James Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980).
- See Douglas Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996). This is an updated and revised version of Revealing the New Age Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).
- Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).
- See Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy.
- I did not know it at the time, but he was giving a version of an objection originally stated by the Italian heretic, Faustus Socinus (1539–1604), who denied Jesus’ atonement. See Douglas Groothuis, “The Atonement: Explaining It Properly” and “The Atonement: Defending It Against Objections,” Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2022).