Notoriously, some generals have prepared to win the battles fought by the previous generation. British armies from 1939 to 1941 used the tactics of 1918. As a result, UK forces were routed by the Wermacht in the Battle of France. Two years later, General Percival repeated the mistake in Malaya and Singapore. He failed to appreciate the importance of air-power, armour and a lightning advance. 120,000 soldiers surrendered to a much smaller Japanese force; millions of civilians were left defenceless before one of the most brutal and cruel forces unleashed on civilization, the Imperial Japanese Army.
In Ireland it seems as if evangelicals are still fighting the battles of 1859. We preach as if the world understands our subculture and shares our presuppositions. Yet the entertainment industry, the press, and even school curricula preach that facts are the business of science and all else is mere prejudice. Attacking works-righteousness in sermons is redundant when generations have been raised on relativism and nihilism. People won’t see any need for salvation if “stuff happens” is their catchphrase, or if they view all moral judgement as an act of oppression. We can modernise our worship tunes and turn up the volume; but our message will remain incomprehensible.
In this culture apologetics is not merely helpful, but unavoidable. Apologetics simply means “challenging the sceptic’s objections”. Just as theology flows naturally from worship and confession, apologetics is the natural outcome of evangelism. At some point the Christian moves from proclaiming the Gospel to persuading the unbeliever; once this move takes place, the Christian has moved from evangelism to apologetics. Sooner or later, the unbeliever will ask “why should I take anything you say seriously?” The Christian will have to state some reason for the hope that is within him or her; so whatever he or she says next had better make sense.
Some will object that only God can effectively call a person to saving faith. Well, amen and hallelujah. But how does God call us? Typically through his word; and it is astonishing how often God’s word reasons with unbelief. For example, Paul opens his chief theological statement, the book of Romans, with a critique of idolatry and polytheism. He makes a similar argument to the Athenians in Acts 17. The ‘world and everything in it’ reflects the power of one creator. If everything in this world depends on a creator, then it follows that the creator cannot depend on anything in nature. These arguments would have been familiar to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of Athens. They might even have been sympathetic to Paul’s argument that everyone searches for one thing because there is one God. Creation, after all, testifies to one design and one providential plan
The enemy is massing at our borders and we are retreating inside a cosy subculture. We are digging trenches when we should be preparing to meet a blitzkrieg. A glance at the latest editorials, or a brief conversation with an unconverted friend, will reveal how post-Christian Ireland has become. Christianity is accepted as a pleasant and comforting pass-time; it is not viewed as a claim to absolute truth, a call to know Christ, or a command to obey the living God. We need to prepare to meet and engage a culture which can no longer comprehend the basic terms of the Gospel. We must follow Paul’s example: challenge the arrogance of unbelief, put God at the centre of human thought and prepare hearts for the gospel.
Graham Veale is a theology graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and has taught Religious Education for 16 years. He jointly runs the Saints and Sceptics website http://www.saintsandsceptics.org and is the author of New Atheism: A Survival Guide (Christian Focus Publications).