Apologetics as a Martial Art?

Posted by Clark Bates
March 12, 2018


When I was a teenager I used to study martial arts.  A long tradition of self-defense training ran in my family.  My parents are both black belts in the martial art known as Tang Soo Do and actually first met in a martial arts class that my dad was instructing.  Through the years I’ve studied many different styles but none were so impactful to me, or as effective for me, then the martial art known as Aikido.  If you’ve ever seen a Steven Seagal movie, you’ve seen Aikido.  While it’s portrayed in film as a very violent martial art, it is, in fact, very fluid.  Where Aikido finds its effectiveness is in the irimi tenkan motions, which take the momentum of the opponent and use it against them.  Being that I am now, and always was, smaller than average this was very useful.  I’ve always loved Aikido and consider my time studying it to be the most formative of my youth.

An apologetics discussion, if done right, should be like Aikido wherein we use the momentum of the other person.  Unfortunately, for many, it becomes more like power lifting.  In power lifting, the object is to lift the most weight possible, no matter the strain it places on your body.  When engaging with a non-Christian, the common approach is to hear an objection and immediately file through our mental catalog of memorized responses and immediately go on the offense.  The problem with this approach is that it turns the engagement into a power lifting competition.  You, the apologist, are doing all the heavy lifting, and you’re causing unnecessary strain on yourself.

Never Make a Statement When a Question Will Suffice

Apologist Greg Koukl very astutely recognizes and teaches that any conversation with a non-Christian should involve a lot of questions.  One of the simplest being, “What do you mean by that?” or “How do you come to that conclusion?”[1]  The reason this is a better approach than the power lifting is two-fold:  1.  It creates an environment in which you are more willing to actually listen to the person you’re conversing with, and 2.  It requires them to do the “heavy lifting” of explaining their position.  The simple truth is, they may be only repeating something they heard, but have never thought through.  It may also be that the defense you memorized may not actually be answering their particular objection and until you ask them to be clear about it, you won’t know the best response.  It may even be that if you do answer it, they can simply change the point and you won’t notice because they never explained it the first time.  When we ask questions, we force the non-Christian to do their share of the heavy lifting, and once we know which direction their momentum is going, we can use it to turn the argument around, like Aikido.

An example will probably help at this point.  Let me use a claim that most of us who engage either online or in person regularly will have heard:

Them: “If God asked you to kill your son, would you do it?”

Now, there’s a lot of ways we can respond at this point.  Every one of us knows exactly what they’re talking about.  In your head you’re probably already thinking of Abraham and Isaac, and the child of promise; you’re thinking about explaining the imagery in the OT that points to the sacrifice of Jesus; you’re thinking of reminding them that there was a ram provided so he didn’t have to sacrifice Isaac; you may even be thinking of responding that this was in the OT and it’s not indicative of NT Christianity.  In addition, you’re probably thinking of the dilemma the question puts you in.  If you answer “yes” because you believe in God’s sovereignty and divine mandate, then you appear to be just like religious fanatics and terrorists who sacrifice people every day because they believe God tells them to.  But, if you say “no” then you don’t believe God is always right, or you’re unwilling to obey Him, in which case any point you want to make about Christianity being true and right is pointless.

It’s amazing how twelve words framed in the right way can cause so much trouble, isn’t it?

So, what do you do?

If your mind started racing to all those points I just made, then you’ve already started power lifting.  Now put the bar down!  You might be able to predict where this person is going in their head, but that doesn’t mean you have to get there first.  Start with a question:

Them: “If God asked you to kill your son, would you do it?”

You: “Why do you think that God, as Christianity understands Him, would ask that?”

This is just a different form of Koukl’s “What do you mean by that?” question.  But notice the particular detail, “…God, as Christianity understand Him…”  If I just say God in general there are various beliefs in God that might come to this conclusion, but I’m not arguing for those beliefs.  I’m a Christian and I’m only defending the Christian belief in God, so I want to force the discussion to remain in that category.  From here on, I’ll write out a potential direction this discussion could go, by using a few questions that develop a better response:

Them: “If God asked you to kill your son, would you do it?”

You: “Why do you think that God, as Christianity understands Him, would ask that?”

Them: “Well, he’s done it before.”

You: “Where?” (I know that you know where, but you want to make sure they know, otherwise the objection is already over.)

Them: “In Genesis, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  He’s no different than any other god that demands human sacrifice.”

You: “That’s true, God does ask Abraham to do that.  Can you give me any other example aside from Abraham where God asks someone to sacrifice their child?”

Them: “……no.” (They might try to come up with one, but check your OT, there are none)

You: “Okay, so if I were just looking at the Bible objectively I would definitely be bothered by Abraham being asked to offer Isaac, because, just like you, I would think this is awful and offensive and this God is just like all the others.  But if I were really curious to know if the god of the Bible were actually like all the others, I’d want to look for other times where He has demanding human sacrifice from his people.  Does that seem reasonable?”

Them: “Yeah, sure.”

You: “Now, you mentioned that you couldn’t think of any other examples in the Bible like Abraham and Isaac, and I can’t either.  The reason is that there aren’t any.  So, if what God asked Abraham to do with Isaac is the only place in all the Bible where this happens, it tells me that there must have been something special about this story, and I should read more about this story to find out what that was.”

Them: “Ok, but even asking for one human sacrifice is wrong.”

You: “I might agree with you, if that’s actually what God was asking.  But if you read more about the story it actually tells us a lot about this.  For instance, it states at the very beginning of the story that God doesn’t ask Abraham to do this because He wants a human sacrifice but because He wants to ‘test’ Abraham.”[2]

“Plus, there are many reasons given for us as readers to think that God didn’t want this and that Abraham wouldn’t have expected to have to do this either.  He was promised to have Isaac miraculously and that it would be through Isaac that Abraham would be the father of the nation of Israel.[3]  And, if we read into the NT we actually read that Abraham trusted God’s promise so much that he expected Isaac to be raised from the dead if necessary.”[4]

Them: “So, Abraham was willing to kill his son, though, which means you have to be willing to do it too.”

You: “He was willing, yes.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Christians should expect God to do that to them today.  Remember, God didn’t even ask that from anyone in the Bible, ever again after this.  Abraham’s experience was very particular to him and to serve a purpose both for his relationship with God, but also to become an example of the sacrifice God would be willing to make in Jesus for all the world.  Nothing about Abraham’s experience is similar to our own.  To be honest it’s not similar to anyone else in all of history, so the truth is that, according to the Christian understanding of God, we wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect God to ask for human sacrifice.  It’s not in His nature, and thus would be impossible for Him to demand.”


Now, I know that there are dozens of different directions this conversation could go, and ultimately the discussion does cover all those areas that ran through your mind when the first question is asked.  However, with a few questions, you are now able to know exactly what they were referring to in their objection and establish how much they understand about the Bible and Christian teaching.  If you do this, you don’t need to lift nearly as much and you are ready for some irimi tenkan (Enter and Turn).  With the added information you can take their momentum toward the objection that the Christian God expects human sacrifice and turn it around to point directly to the uniqueness of the Christian God in that the only human sacrifice ever actually demanded was from Himself and satisfied by Himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

As apologists, it’s easy to want to jump into the driver’s seat of any conversation and lead with what we know.  I still struggle with this at times.  But we become much better ambassadors of the Gospel if we are characterized by our willingness to ask questions of others and let them tell us more about themselves.  We become much better at thinking critically and relating to others in every walk of life if we’re more apt to listen than to talk.  And approaching every conversation with questions and a listening ear takes most of the heavy lifting off our shoulders.

What experiences have you had like this?  Did you develop any of your own techniques?  Please share in the comments below!

[1] Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), chs. 3-6.

[2] Gen. 22:1

[3] Gen. 17:15-21

[4] Heb. 11:17-19

7 thoughts on “Apologetics as a Martial Art?”

  1. God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but, wanted to test his faith, apparently. But, what is strange is, God “looks upon the heart”, so, it must have been more than just a test.

      1. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac because he knew if Isaac died, God would resurrect Isaac from the dead. That is why it is so powerful that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Abraham thought God was going to do that for Isaac, when in fact it was meant for Jesus.

  2. I agree that the aikido approach is a good way to win an argument. But isn’t the best approach to a discussion to come in with an open mind an genuinely try to understand the other person’s point of view?

    1. Rick,

      Thanks for the comment! Yes I definitely agree that we need to understand the point of view of the other person, but this isn’t mutually exclusive from the analogy in the article either.

      Asking questions is how we learn there perspective and how we determine the best response. It’s never about winning an argument but about sharing the Christian faith in a way that speaks to their challenge or curiosity.

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