I first worked with middle and high school students nearly three decades ago. Students then didn’t typically struggle with their faith until their first year or two of college. When they did, their questions and doubts had to do with Scripture’s truthfulness or the plausibility of miracles. These youth didn’t always pursue a Christian way of life, but they (and their parents) assumed Christian ethics were good, that the Christian faith makes the world a better place.
In 2019, I returned to student ministry for a few months in an interim role. I discovered a different set of challenges. One young woman confessed she found the historical evidence for the resurrection compelling, but she’d reject Christianity if the faith couldn’t accommodate her understanding of herself as bisexual. In her mind, if Christians aren’t “affirming,” they disregard her dignity and devalue her psychological well-being.
That experience showed me apologetics is no longer a task limited to theologians. In today’s culture, as Os Guinness once wrote, “We’re all apologists now,” because the dominant culture is questioning the moral goodness of the Christian way of life. The scope of our apologetics has extended from miracles and metaphysics to the very morality of Christianity. So we ask, Where can everyday Christians find an approach to apologetics that speaks to a world where the social good of our faith is in doubt?
Better Faith Demonstrated Through a Better Ethic
When we look back to the earliest Christian centuries, we find many faithful models. One of them is The Apology of Aristides of Athens. Aristides argues human beings imitate what they venerate, and as a result, the surpassing beauty of the Christian God is borne out in our superior ethic. Aristides saw this in three ways.
1. Christians practice radical civic good without bowing to civic gods.
Theologian Frances Young once wrote that for people in Aristides’s era, pagan piety was “the cement of society and the foundation of justice.” When Christians rejected the Roman state and religion, they risked provoking the gods and tearing the social order apart (in the minds of their neighbors). In this context, Christian apologists like Aristides sought to prove Christians posed no societal threat. He then went even further and argued that Christians did more to strengthen the social fabric than barbarians, Greeks, or Jews.
We’re all apologists now, because the dominant culture is questioning the moral goodness of the Christian way of life.
According to Aristides, the church’s prayers for God’s mercy kept the cosmos from falling apart. Christians demonstrated care for their neighbors that was so rich and radical it couldn’t fit into Roman categories. According to Aristides, Christians “rescue orphans from those who abuse them, and they give without grudging to the one who has nothing.” In a world where children unacknowledged by a father were thought disposable, such care for the most vulnerable seemed ludicrous.
2. Christians model a consistency between their profession and practice and a coherence in their story of faith.
According to Young, most Romans thought “even if rationality led to skepticism about the nature of traditional gods, the ancient customs [regarding the worship of those gods] should be maintained.” In other words, participating in pagan rituals didn’t require believing the stories of the gods.
Christianity was different. According to Aristides, belief in one God who has “no other god as his companion” compelled Christians neither to reverence “idols made in a human image” nor to consume “food consecrated to idols.” This consistency of profession and practice provided strong evidence for Christianity’s superiority over pagan religion. Aristides went on to argue this external consistency was evidence for Christianity’s internal coherence.
Christians demonstrated care for their neighbors that was so rich and radical it couldn’t fit into Roman categories.
Barbarians, Greeks, and Jews all lived within contradictory narratives. Aristides takes up these competing belief systems one by one, renarrating each system’s story and then pointing out its inconsistencies. The Greeks, for example, made righteous laws but venerated unrighteous gods who contradicted these same laws.
After this careful critique, Aristides showed that in Christianity there’s no contradiction but instead coherence between the truths professed, the liturgies practiced, and the lifestyle required. Aristides was confident any commitment that contradicted the Christian faith would also, in the end, contradict itself. Human religions may include some fragments of truth, goodness, or beauty, but these crumbs ultimately cohere better with the Christian narrative than with any other story.
3. The public practice of Christian faith strengthens the church.
Aristides wrote his apology as an appeal to the emperor, but it most likely never reached any ruler of Rome. He probably didn’t design his apology for that purpose. In my view, documents like this one included the emperor’s name because the mention of an imperial ruler moved these arguments into the public sphere. The apologies were meant for Christians, but addressing the emperor imbued the church’s catechesis with public accountability.
The same should be true for us. What if the church today practiced radical civic good without bowing to civic gods? What if our participation in care for the impoverished, our love for prisoners, and our welcome of children in the foster system were so widespread that these habits were as widely known as our rightful stand against progressive sexual agendas? What if the world mocked not merely our supposedly out-of-date morals but also our inexplicable generosity? That’s what Aristides seems to have been proposing.
If we were to do this, would these actions persuade the world Christians are, in fact, good for the social order? Might they at least provoke the broader culture to embrace our presence in the public square?
Aristides was confident any commitment which contradicted the Christian faith would also, in the end, contradict itself.
No. I have no confidence these arguments will persuade secular progressives en masse. As far as we know, the apologies of Aristides and Justin Martyr and Athenagoras didn’t change imperial perceptions of Christianity. Yet God did use them to form and strengthen his church, to cultivate a community that persevered through every persecution. He uses our apologetics to shape a community that persists in holiness, love, and gospel proclamation. No matter how vast the gap may grow between us and our culture, this gospel remains “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
How We Overcome
This brings me back to the young woman who preferred her bisexual self-conception over compelling evidence for the resurrection. Throughout my stint in youth ministry, her engagement with the church followed a predictable pattern. She’d attend youth group for a short time then declare she’d never return. A few weeks later, she’d be back again. I never asked why, but I think I know.
It was because God’s people loved and cared for her in a way no one in her home or at school did, despite her unwillingness to embrace the gospel. As far as I know, she was never persuaded Christianity is good for the world, but she discovered Christians could be good to her. I pray God will someday, somewhere, work through that knowledge to clear her moral confusion and draw her to himself.
In the meantime, we’re all apologists now.