Whatever Happened to Apologetics?

May 1995By Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Clark University.

Handbook of Christian Apologetics.  By Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. InterVarsity Press. 399 pages. $16.99.

There is only one important question to ask about Christianity: Is it true? It is simply not acceptable to be a Christian merely because one's parents were, or because it brings one some sort of satisfaction, or because one hasn't thought one's way through to believing something else.

Imagine a course on Christian doctrine, taught at a leading university such as Harvard, with no holds barred -- with all of the arguments marshaled in its favor, and all of the objections stated and (with the use of the substantial Christian heritage) nicely answered by a true master of the subject. No student enrolled in such a course would find it easy to conclude that Christianity is not true and this not because of some mind trick or indoctrination.

"Ah," you say, "this is fantasy, or an impossible dream! There can be no such course at Harvard. And certainly no one would be hired to teach it." Indeed not. But there once was such a course at Harvard. And why can there not be such courses, now, at Georgetown or Notre Dame? In fact, why isn't such a course required at every Catholic college or university? For surely a good understanding of the reasons for Christian belief and morals (the subject which is traditionally called "apologetics," from the Greek apologia, meaning "a defense") is essential equipment today for any Catholic who needs to play his Part in the conversion of our society to Christ. What would we think of an engineering school that didn't require its students to study calculus or a medical school that made anatomy an option?

And I know of no Catholic professor today who has not had to work carefully, on his own, through the arguments that would be presented in such a course. But why should professors think that what is necessary for them, if they are to have faith, is not necessary for their students? Even more fundamentally: If Christianity is not true, then Catholic colleges and universities simply should not exist, since they would be deceptions. But if Christianity is true, then if any subject is to be required at a Catholic college, surely apologetics must be -- indeed, it would explain why such an institution exists in the first place. However, a course on apologetics is not even an option at most Catholic colleges. This is a recent development; such courses began to disappear in the 1960s. It is furthermore devilishly perverse, since this century has witnessed a great blossoming of creative apologetics by the likes of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and Frank Sheed. Of course the monumental writings of Newman still tower over us, awaiting, it seems, a Catholic laity intelligent enough to assimilate them. There is plenty for any degree of seriousness: If Lewis is too popular and insufficiently rigorous, then let them turn to Newman'sGrammar of Assent. But how strange that apologetics disappeared from Catholic academia during this rich revival.

Peter Kreeft is probably the leading Catholic apologist in the English-speaking world today. Many claim he wears the mantle of Lewis. Ronald Tacelli, his colleague at Boston College, is also skilled in classical and Thomistic philosophy, in addition to apologetics. They have produced what must be considered one of the best textbooks on apologetics in half a century, which taps precisely into this great revival. We can hope that the text leads to a corresponding revival of courses on apologetics, based on the text.

The Handbook of Christian Apologetics covers the existence and attributes of God, the problem of evil, the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, the reliability of the New Testament, Heaven and Hell, and the challenge posed by other religions. In style, it combines the upbeat freshness of a Lewis with the measured argumentation of an Aquinas. Furthermore, although classic works in apologetics typically develop a single line of argument (e.g., Knox's The Belief of Catholics), the Handbook is eclectic and draws together batteries of arguments on each controverted question.

The Handbook is also meant to bring together evangelical and Catholic Christianity, and thus to serve as an ecumenical instrument in the culture wars. A feisty passage from the Introduction shows the authors scrapping for a fight they trust they can win: "Western civilization is for the first time in its history in danger of dying. The reason is spiritual. It is losing its life, its soul; that soul was the Christian faith. The infection killing it is not multiculturalism -- other faiths -- but the monoculturalism of secularism -- no faith, no soul. Our century has been marked by genocide, sexual chaos, and money-worship. Unless all the prophets are liars, we are doomed unless we repent…. We do apologetics not to save the church but to save the world."

Unfortunately, the authors' aim of combining evangelical and Catholic spirituality (both Kreeft and Tacelli are Catholic, but the book is published by a leading evangelical press) gives rise to the book's few flaws. One of these is that it is presented as an apologetics textbook for "mere Christianity," yet this notion, despite C.S. Lewis's authority, is of doubtful coherence and bound to mislead.

Kreeft and Tacelli explain that "mere Christianity" consists of "the essential doctrines" of Christianity, of the sort found in the Apostles' Creed. Surely the Trinity and the Real Presence must be included; however, both doctrines are omitted in the Handbook. Alternatively, the authors describe "mere Christianity" as "the fundamental doctrines" of Christianity -- presumably, those on which other doctrines are based. Thus, the reliability of Scripture would be "fundamental" since, once this is accepted, Scripture becomes the gateway for entering into the fullness of Christian doctrine. But surely if the reliability of Scripture is fundamental, then so is the apostolic authority of the Church, for the Catholic Church assembled and authenticated the Bible. (And the "Holy Catholic Church" is indeed a point of the Apostles' Creed.) Yet this is not explored, presumably because doing so would estrange evangelicals.

And this is all the more odd, given that at various points the authors appeal to the authority of "the church" (as indeed any orthodox Christian must), without explaining what this amounts to. But this constitutes a major flaw in a book that purports to set before its readers all of the bases of the conclusions it argues for. For example, we are told that ‘to believe there is no hell presupposes that both Scripture and the church lie, for both clearly teach the reality of hell." But which church? Some churches deny or ignore the reality of Hell, as the authors are well aware. And the authors clearly would concede that not all churches have authority on all matters, since they summarily dismiss the Calvinist account of predestination, and Luther's view of human reason, as obviously contrary to Christianity.

The only serious argumentative weakness in the book is in its treatment of punishment and Hell. Kreeft and Tacelli argue that Hell is a necessary consequence of God's creating a universe with free beings such as ourselves, whose task is to choose Him: If we are truly free, it must be possible that we not choose Him; and failing to choose God, which implies a life without God, would be Hell. Yet, after having argued that Hell must exist, the authors employ various stratagems designed, it seems, to empty this conclusion of its content.

For example, they seriously entertain Lewis's view that a person consigned to Hell is, as it were, the cinders or refuse of a human being, but no longer an actual human being: "If souls can be destroyed," Lewis wrote, "must there not be a state of having been a human soul?…What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man; it is ‘remains.'" This is not the orthodox Christian view, as Kreeft and Tacelli are aware, but this troubles them, since they regard Lewis as "that paragon of orthodoxy."

Later, Kreeft and Tacelli try to minimize Hell by saying that it is "not in time" -- this in response to the objection that, if there is an eternal Hell, then good would not be entirely victorious over evil in the end. The obvious reply would be that good is indeed victorious over evil, precisely through conquering and punishing it. But this reply is not open to the authors, because of their odd theory of divine punishment (more about that later). So they say, instead, that "neither heaven nor hell are in time, in history. They are at the end of history…. Whatever eternity is, it is not time, not even endless time." This sort of obscure language is uncharacteristic of the book. But in any case, note that if this response does indeed remove the "defeat" of goodness which would be posed by an eternal Hell, it equally removes the "victory" presented by an eternal Heaven.

Then the authors are intent on arguing that there is no bodily pain in Hell. They say that "the internal pain would be far worse than the external pain…. Therefore the old question of whether there is physical fire in hell is a moot and pointless point." The conclusion does not follow; and besides, the authors do not handle the standard view that the loss of God's presence might not be particularly unwelcome to a sensual man, who therefore needs to be punished in ways he would regard as punishment.

The authors' difficulties over Hell seem to derive from their view of divine punishment. Hell is not simply the immediate result of our not choosing God; it is also a punishment directly applied by God. But this the authors deny. For them, Hell or any other manifestation of divine punishment is simply an unintended consequence of our having departed from some regularity established by God. "The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law," they say. "Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable punishment." They liken this to someone's jumping off a cliff and, as a result, hitting the ground. On this point they cite Lewis: "Though Our Lord often speaks of hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, he also says elsewhere that the judgment consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not he, but his ‘word' judges men (Jn. 3:19, 12:48). We are therefore at liberty -- since the conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing -- to think of this bad man's perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being himself." But the conceptions do not mean the same thing; and all evidence and reasoning point in the direction of an actual, intended judgment of human works by God. God is "beyond personality," as Lewis argued, not by being impersonal, but by being supra-personal. So if human beings judge and punish particular actions, God cannot do less. Also Christ always uses language that suggests that damnation is an action upon the damned -- who are "harvested" or "sorted out" by angels, and "thrown" into a fire or pit. But the view proposed by this book reduces God's punishment to a force of nature.

I have focused my criticisms on "mere Christianity," and the Lewisian doctrines of Hell and punishment, for a reason. There is the danger, in the laudable enterprise of writing an apologetics book for both Catholics and evangelicals, of being drawn into some of the deficiencies of evangelical Christianity. The view of Christianity given us by Lewis does have some faults. Lewis sets himself up as a kind of authority, first of all, because he never addresses the question of authority in the Church. This sort of mistake underlies his notion of "mere Christianity."

And then there is a certain superficiality in Lewis. It seems to be derived from Protestantism's rejection of mortification and penance generally. Lewis's views on punishment and Hell are of a piece with this, and it is unfortunate that Kreeft and Tacelli here give such disproportionate weight to Lewis.

In general, the book would have been better had their use of authorities been broader -- they hardly rely on Newman, for instance, who was indeed a "paragon of orthodoxy," and who thought much more deeply about everything discussed by Lewis. Yet the achievement of the Handbook far outweighs its flaws, and given the present need for such a book, criticism must quickly give way to praise.

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