A plea and proposal for interfaith apologetics

The first letter of Peter calls us to ‘always be ready to make your defence [apologia] to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15, NRSV).

Since the Enlightenment, apologetics in the West has mainly addressed challenges raised by secular modern thinking: Does God exist? Can God speak to us? Is the Christian faith compatible with science?

The first apologists did of course mainly speak in multi-religious environments similar to the Apostle Paul’s audience in Acts 17 on the Areopagus. Paul’s speech is one example of how the biblical authors themselves showed an apologetic interest.

The four gospel writers were not merely repeating what they had received about and from Jesus. They were presenting an accountable witness that intended to bring out the trustworthiness and relevance of this gospel message for their specific audiences.

Luke wants to show Theophilus and his fellow readers that the stories they heard about Jesus were trustworthy. The question of the trustworthiness of the witness is equally central to the Gospel of John. Matthew wants to respond to specific challenges raised by his Jewish readers: could this Jesus indeed be the Messiah expected in the Hebrew Scriptures? And Mark presents ‘an apology for the cross’ – is it conceivable that this crucified criminal is indeed the true king?[1]

Apologetic witness to other religionists

One might suggest that such interreligious apologetic witness is less appropriate today than it was in the times of the early church.

In large cultural sectors religious and cultural relativism has become a dominant trait of how people understand the religious commitment – religion is not about truth, but it is a way we organize our communities, symbolically express shared experiences and values and give meaning to our lives.

This is indeed a crucial contribution of religions to the modern world, but the Christian faith starts elsewhere – not as a human project or construct, but as a response to God, who acted in Christ to save the world and to inaugurate his kingdom.

If we want to counteract the widespread belief that religions are mere human constructs, valuable or not, we need to be willing to give an account of why as Christians we believe our faith is a reflection of what the world really is, a recognition of how we came to know God in Jesus Christ and why this matters to all of us.

In other parts of the world, issues with interfaith apologetic witness may be different.[2]

In India and elsewhere, religion is often mainly understood as a communal identity, and in these societies there is often a precarious balance between the majority and minority religions. Mission is therefore frowned upon as proselytization, an effort to manipulate others to convert so as to grow your own community and power.

The proselytization charge will need to be counteracted by forms of witness that refrain from all manipulation; by our interest not in growing our communities but in presenting the truth. This implies the willingness to be accountable for the trustworthiness of the witness we share.

We also want to share the gospel with those who are deeply invested in their religious communities as imams, priests, monks, sannyasins or committed lay believers. Interreligious apologetic witness would be the best approach.

Too many of our mission efforts are directed to those who are at the margins of their religious communities. If we also have a message for those at the heart of other religious communities, we must be conscious that they often embrace their religions because they believe them to be true and good, highly superior to other religious traditions including Christianity. Are we able to explain why we believe the Christian faith to be true or, as a first step, worth considering?

Christians are not the only ones involved in apologetics. Other religionists committed to their traditions are often exposed to and involved in their own apologetic discourse.

This would include strong strands of anti-Christian apologetic reasoning: Isn’t believing in the Trinity unreasonable? Isn’t believing in karma more just than the idea that sins can be forgiven? Isn’t it self-evident that the divine is unknowable and ineffable and that no religion can claim superiority over another? Isn’t Christianity the white man’s religion of the former colonizers?

Generally, such convictions remain unspoken in the background, but they will need to be addressed before our dialogue partners can start seriously considering the truth and relevance of Jesus Christ.

Inadequacy of Western models

Therefore, there is a need for interfaith apologetics – but existing models of apologetics as developed in the Western world are often inadequate in multireligious contexts.

They mostly respond to questions that people may not ask: Does God exist? Is religion compatible with science?

If the questions have similarities the background to the questions may still differ. The idea that God can be known in history raises very different questions in modernity than it does for Hindus. Other religious contexts not only raise different questions, they also present different ways of reasoning and attributing authority.

Many Western models for apologetic witness are also narrowly rationalistic. They address intellectual issues while neglecting people’s emotional lives, predispositions and loyalties. Exploring how apologetics can become more sensitive to the realities on the ground, thus more relevant to the people in dialogue, can renew apologetic witness both in the non-Western and the Western world.

Shaping interfaith apologetic dialogue

  • Firstly, interfaith apologetics should be holistic.

It should address people as integrated human beings with not only ideas, but also desires, commitments, loyalties and emotional baggage. This does not make the intellectual dimension of the exchange unimportant. If the Christian witness only appeals to people’s needs, emotions and desires, evangelism becomes propaganda or even manipulative.

We should take these dimensions with utter seriousness, and help people to critically consider their felt needs, their gut reactions, their loyalties. The aim is to discover what is true, good, and truly beneficial to them in this web of often conflicting influences on their lives.

  • Secondly, interfaith apologetics should be contextual.

We should not look for arguments that are generally valid and convincing (if such arguments even exist) but should seek out the main obstacles and possible bridges in particular persons, communities and contexts.

Apologetics therefore needs to be dialogical. The apologists should be attentive listeners with an authentic interest in people, in their deeper motivations, hidden presuppositions and personal histories before they speak.

They are not to become agile debaters presenting quick answers and are not afraid to acknowledge new wisdom they may encounter and difficult questions that they cannot directly answer. Such apologetic witness may well become more convincing.

  • Thirdly, interfaith apologetic witness should be embodied.

It should be embodied in the lifestyle of the witness that reflects God’s love and deep interest in every human being, but also demonstrates the courage Jesus and his apostles showed in unmasking idolatry and hypocrisy. It should be embodied in the life of a community that is ‘the hermeneutic of the Gospel,’ as expressed by Lesslie Newbigin. [3] 

Religions do not only represent worldviews, but also ways of living and values. In considering the truth of the Christian message and worldview, our conversation partners will also be examining whether following Jesus represents attractive and robust ways of living; whether its values are worth pursuing. Seeing this embodied in a contextually relevant manner is far more convincing than hearing a mere set of ideas.

  • Finally, interfaith apologetics should always be triangular.

It is not merely a two-way conversation in which we try to persuade others of the value of our own way of life and worldview as we listen to them. It is a three-way conversation in which we point to a reality that is bigger than ourselves and our community, to the God whom we have met in Jesus Christ and personally encountered through the Holy Spirit.

We are not selling ourselves or our views but pointing to a gift that we have received. As we point others to Christ, we may discover new understanding of him for others and for ourselves. Through apologetic dialogue we desire to make Christ known, but our lives will also be enriched.

Humble confidence

We are therefore called to engage in such interfaith apologetics with both humility and confidence. We engage in it with humility because we do not share a collection of clever insights or deep spiritual experiences, but we share a gift that we ourselves have also received by grace.

Where spiritual depth is concerned, we may well encounter adherents of other religions who have pursued the spiritual path much more diligently and can share more lofty spiritual experiences. The ground of our faith is not in spiritual experiences but in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics is therefore not only dialogue, but always also witness. We can only give an account of the reasons for our hope by pointing to the love and power of the God we have encountered in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

We can testify to Jesus with courage and confidence. This confidence is not based on our personal ability to master every criticism or answer every question. Many witnesses have come before us and testify alongside us who have thought through those questions and confirmed the trustworthiness and relevance of the biblical witness to him.

We should always return to the basis of our confidence. As the evangelist Stanley Jones said about the interreligious roundtables he organized in India:

In every situation the trump card was Jesus Christ. He made the difference. The people who followed him might be spotty and inadequate, but they had hold of the spotless and adequate or better Christ had hold of them![4]


  1. Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000).Endnotes 
  2. Editor’s note: See article entitled ‘Delivering the Good News to Hindus,’ by Rabbi Jayakaran, Lausanne Global Analysis, July 2014. 
  3. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids; Geneva: Eerdmans; WCC Publications, 1989), 222–33. 
  4. E. Stanley Jones, A Song of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), 239-40. 

Benno van den Toren is professor of intercultural theology at the Protestant Theological University, Groningen, the Netherlands. With Kang-San Tan, he recently wrote Humble Confidence: A Model for Interfaith Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022).

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at www.lausanne.org/analysis.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *