A record attendance with church and college groups coming from as far away as Oregon and Canada marked this year’s Defend 2023 apologetics conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College, Jan. 2-6.
The week-long event featured top Christian apologists as plenary speakers and 50 breakout speakers in more than 100 breakout sessions, including an in-person conversation between an apologist and an atheist, a first for the conference. Registration topped 430.
“We are living in a post-Christian culture that is rapidly becoming an anti-Christian culture,” said Robert Stewart, director of the NOBTS apologetics program. “People are still fascinated with Jesus but are biblically illiterate, and thus are easily led astray without knowing it.
“Often American Christians are not only unable to defend the Christian faith from skeptical challenges, but even unable to articulate their faith. Therefore, we desperately need training in Christian apologetics.”
Plenary speakers included: Jamie Dew, NOBTS president, Paul Copan, Palm Beach Atlantic philosophy professor and author of 40 books; Gary Habermas, top resurrection scholar and NOBTS visiting professor; Douglas Groothuis, author and Denver Seminary philosopher; David Calhoun, Gonzaga University philosophy professor; Craig Hazen, Biola University professor of comparative religion and Christian apologetics, and others.
Providing believers with clear answers on questions of faith is as crucial as defending the faith to non-believers, many noted.
Travis Dickinson, Dallas Baptist University professor and author of “Wandering Toward God,” told of his experience with doubt while in seminary and noted the unsettling trend of 60-80 percent of Christian youth walking away from church and the faith during college.
Many who walk away say they could not find a safe place to ask questions or had not found adequate answers, Dickinson explained, but added that doubt can be an opportunity to find truth and to grow in faith.
“Asking deep and difficult questions is indeed a crucial part of Christian discipleship,” Dickinson said.
While apologetics explains the hope believers have (1 Peter 3:15), the truth of the gospel does not depend on the believer’s ability to answer every question, Stewart said.
“Our success in ministry will be determined by the degree to which we have been faithful to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts, and to love others the way Christ loves them,” Stewart said. “If we get those two things right, then we will share and defend our faith, and we will do so well.”
NO ROOM FOR RACISM
Tom Tarrants, president emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute in Washington D.C., came to faith after months alone in a 6 x 9 prison cell as he served out a sentence for involvement in KKK terrorist activities as a young man in the 1960s.
“Hate really is the cancer of the soul,” Tarrants said in his plenary address. “If you take hate into your heart, you’re getting a transplant, like a transplanted tumor that will metastasize and it will eat you up.”
Tarrants told of sitting in solitary confinement after his escape from prison and recapture. With nothing to do but read, Tarrants immersed himself in classic texts, philosophy and thought and found himself on a journey for truth. Then he picked up a Bible.
“I was reading the gospels and something started happening to me,” Tarrants said. “I began to see. It’s like I had been blind all my life and I was beginning to see what I’d not seen before.”
The gospel is “diametrically opposed” to racism, Tarrants said, and racism in a believer’s life is a symptom of a deeper problem.
“And that problem is the failure to live as Jesus calls us to live under his total lordship over our lives,” Tarrants said.
Recovering the church’s credibility on racism will require whole-hearted love and obedience to Christ, and love for neighbor, Tarrants said, pointing to Matthew 22:37.
“The final apologetic is love,” Tarrants said, referencing the words of apologist Francis Schaeffer. “If we don’t love, we can’t expect the world to take us seriously.”
ENGAGING ATHEISTS AS FRIENDS
James Walker, president of Watchman Fellowship, a ministry to other belief systems and worldviews, and Bill Kluck, an affirming atheist, sat down for a conversation about belief in a breakout session.
Walker and Kluck are the co-founders of the Atheist-Christian Book Club, a group meeting in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with the goal of open discussions on God and religion.
As Walker reached out to engage and befriend a local group of atheists, the idea for the book club came together, he said. Though they hold opposing views, they all recognize that the question of whether God exists is an important question, Walker said.
“They agree this question changes your life,” Walker said. “Everything changes on that question, ‘Does God exist?’”
Topics during the conversation included cosmology, the problem of evil and suffering, and other points of disagreement.
In conclusion, Walker and Kluck offered four principles for keeping conversations open and fruitful: be respectful and friendly; be aware of confirmation bias and its impact; be sure to state the other person’s beliefs accurately; and find areas of agreement.
“You’ve got to have a relationship so you earn the right to ask the questions,” Walker said.
Walker spoke on “What the Qur’an Really Teaches About Jesus” in a plenary session and on Mormonism in a breakout session. Walker is a former fourth-generation Mormon.
APOLOGETIC HEROES FROM THE PAST
Tim McGrew, Western Michigan University philosophy professor, posed a question to the audience in his plenary address.
“Do you think it would be sad if your children or your grandchildren grew up and never heard [C.S.] Lewis’ name?” McGrew asked. “There have been defenders of the faith of that stature in every generation and we have forgotten almost all of them.”
“Let’s fix that,” McGrew said.
McGrew pointed to 18th and 19th century works by Nathaniel Lardner, George Campbell, Thomas Cooper, John William McGarvey, and others, on topics from the historical reliability of the gospels, miracles, to the resurrection that answered critics of their day.
As project director of the online Library of Historical Apologetics, McGrew and his team have made available digital copies of works from past Christian apologetics. The free copies and other resources are available at historicalapologetics.org.