Exercising the Imagination: Why We Need Imaginative Apologetics
By Justin Ariel Bailey
When I tell people that my research concerns apologetics and the imagination, I often get strange looks. Usually, a person is interested in one or the other. But the Venn diagram of those who are interested in both seems to overlap only a sliver.
Artists, aesthetes, and other creative types are usually ready to hear more about the imagination. But they are allergic to apologetics, which they associate with winning arguments. Artists in particular fear that the rich texture of their imaginative works will be flattened by the heavy handedness of an apologetic agenda.
By contrast, those who value the discipline of apologetics tend to be suspicious of the imagination. They associate the imagination with conjecture (“it was just my imagination”) and escapism. Apologetics is about defending the truth of the Christian faith, and this seems antithetical to the flights of fancy to which the imagination is disposed.
But the reality is that the best sort of apologetics is the sort that engages our full humanity, and the imagination is one of the most basic (and best!) things about being human. The question is not whether we will use our imagination as we navigate the world and negotiate faith and doubt, but whether our imaginative faculty will be properly trained for the task. For when we engage the imagination in apologetics, we are entertaining what is beautiful, extending the boundaries of what is imaginable, and exploring what is possible. Let us take these points one at a time.
First, the imagination is the faculty with which we entertain what is beautiful. Beauty is the most misunderstood of the transcendental trio (truth, goodness, beauty). It defies easy categorization, and we are prone to confuse it. But we use the word beauty to name our experience of something that arrests our attention, marked by excellence, elegance, and electricity. We even may feel that these experiences open us up to a richer dimension of existence. The Christian tradition claims that we have experiences of beauty because beauty is a feature of created reality, a reflection of the beauty of God. The poet Rilke reminds us that when we truly encounter beauty, we feel its claim on us: “you must change your life.”
Yet beauty can also be counterfeited, and so imaginations must be trained to discern a beauty that is grounded in goodness and in truth. We all walk around with an imaginative, felt sense of the world and what things are worthy of our attention. This felt sense might be mistaken, and it might even be pointed in the wrong direction, which is precisely the reason that we need to take the imagination seriously.
In apologetic dialogue this means listening long before leading out with our best arguments. It means asking the questions: “What would be good news to this person?” and “What are the ways that the gospel addresses their vulnerabilities, longings, and desires?” It does not mean changing the good news to tell a person whatever they want to hear, but it does mean drawing out the dimensions of the gospel that connect with where they are. Taking the imagination seriously will mean better storytelling, but first it will mean better story-listening.
Second, imaginative engagement seeks to extend the borders of what is imaginable. One of the central apologetic quandaries is that you can only see so much from the outside, from a position of critical examination. There are some things about the Christian faith that can only be grasped from the inside, from a position of commitment. But imaginative works can help us cross this gap, giving outsiders a glimpse of what it would be like to live with faith.
This was reinforced to me a few years ago when I read a review in The New Yorker of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. The Pulitzer Prize winning book is written from the perspective of an elderly minister living in Iowa. The reviewer, an atheist, marveled at the grandeur of a world seen through aging Calvinist eyes: “She makes an atheist reader like myself capable of identifying with the sense of a fallen world that is filled with pain and sadness but also suffused with divine grace.” What Robinson offered him, he wrote, was a gift, the vicarious experience of a world drenched with grace.
This is why testimonies have so much potency, and why a beautiful life is the most powerful, embodied argument we can make. So too imaginative apologetics seeks to impress on outsiders a sense of what faith feels like from the inside. It invites the skeptic to taste and see what they otherwise might be unable to imagine.
Finally, the imagination is the faculty with which we explore what is possible. What is imaginable and what is possible, after all, are two different things. But although we may sometimes use imaginative works to escape unpleasant realities, most of us are drawn to them because we believe they open up real possibilities in our everyday lives. We believe we are better people for having read this poem, seen this film, lingered in front of this painting. In other words, we use our imagination not to escape from reality but to grasp it more firmly, to get a stronger sense of our place in the world and the possibilities that are open to us.
George MacDonald, whose work Phantastes “baptized” C. S. Lewis’s imagination, offers a pair of illuminating metaphors for construing the relationship of intellect and imagination. The intellect is a laborer who fashions a building, step by step; but the imagination is the architect who sees the blueprint and directs the construction. Or again, the imagination is the visionary guide who “sweeps across the borders” in search of a more spacious place, and intellect is her plodding brother who follows behind.
That’s very different than the way we usually think of the relationship! MacDonald’s point is that the imagination stimulates our intellect by getting us to ask, “What about this? What if this were true? How would the world open up? Let’s try this and see what happens.” Engaging the imagination means seeking to show what new and fruitful possibilities faith could facilitate. It means showing how a life with Christ could offer a better and more beautiful story.
Indeed, the imagination is important because the imagination is the faculty with which we hope. And apologetics is, as Peter reminds us, deeply invested in explaining and exploring the Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15)—a proper confidence grounded in what we cannot physically see (Hebrews 11:1). The Christian hope challenges and expands our hopes, surprising us with what is beyond our wildest imaginings. For none of us would have imagined the Cross, and that the ugliest instrument humans could think up would become—in God’s hands—the most beautiful.
Perhaps, to borrow a line from Lewis, our Lord finds our imaginings not too strong, but too weak. And if the imagination is a muscle, we shall have to exercise it if our work is to bear the weight of glory. Our imaginings must be challenged and changed, transfigured and trained by the Christian story, reshaped according to the cruciform logic of the gospel. But we do this important work by discipling the imagination, not discounting it.
 Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Available at https://poets.org/poem/archaic-torso-apollo.
 Mark O’Connell, “The First Church of Marilynne Robinson,” May 30, 2012, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-first-church-of-marilynne-robinson.
 George MacDonald, A Dish of Orts (Whitethorn, CA: Johannesen, 1996), 11, 14.
— Justin Ariel Bailey (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of theology at Dordt University. He works at the intersection of theology, culture, and ministry, and is the author of Reimagining Apologetics (IVP Academic, 2020). He is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church, and he has served as a pastor in Filipino-American, Korean-American, and Caucasian-American settings.
One of the key pillars of the Christian worldview is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. As the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor. 15:14). Thus, defending the resurrection has always been one of the chief tasks of apologetics, and one that requires ongoing development as new evidence, fields of study, and objections emerge.
Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus brings together some of the most notable Christian scholars who have defended the resurrection, including J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Craig Evans, and Darrell Bock. The essays are written in honor of Gary Habermas, one of the foremost defenders of the resurrection in our generation. With chapters on the minimal-facts argument, near-death experiences, the uniqueness of Christianity, historical epistemology, and lessons for apologists from Habermas’s ministry, these essays provide a snapshot of some of the best available scholarship on the resurrection.
The excerpt below is taken from Alex McFarland’s chapter “What Aspiring (and Veteran) Apologists May Learn from Gary Habermas.”
What Aspiring (and Veteran) Apologists May Learn from Gary Habermas
To be sure, Gary Habermas has shaped the lives of countless people, my own included. Habermas’s accomplishments as an academic, an apologist, and as a Christian public figure are notable. His scholarship about ancient evidence for the life of Christ, near-death experiences, dealing with doubt, or his “minimal facts” defense of the gospel are all significant. Equally compelling has been the Christ-honoring way in which he processed the loss of his wife, Debbie.
As pop-level atheism became a cottage industry in the early 2000s, the skeptic’s world was rocked when news broke that one of their champions, Antony Flew, affirmed theism. Habermas’s lengthy friendship and dialogues with Flew decisively contributed to this. And how many apologists get written into the scripts of theatrically released feature films? Factor in the significant role he has played in Lee Strobel’s journey, and it becomes clear that Habermas is one of the persons most used by God to raise awareness for apologetics over the last two decades.
But what I’ve learned about apologetics from Gary Habermas goes well beyond refutations of naturalistic theories about the resurrection.
So often, apologetics is assumed to be a pastime of intellectual jousting that takes place among bookish believers. Even many pastors and Christian educators (who would, presumably, be favorable toward apologetics) can be dismissive of this realm of study. “You will never need that C. S. Lewis stuff,” a senior denominational leader once said to me, “unless you are on the campus of Yale University. Islam, atheism, trying to prove the Bible—those issues the average believer will never deal with.”
That person’s low view of apologetics was especially ironic in light of the fact that issues he referenced (Islam, atheism, the authority of Scripture) are, in fact, exactly the topics Christians in the Western world must know how to address. Some complain, “You can’t argue someone into the kingdom of God,” or, “Apologetics may help reassure believers, but it doesn’t win the lost to Christ.” I am mindful of the fact that some in the church have not had unfavorable experiences with apologetics, but rather negative encounters with apologists.
Once, while encouraging a group of ministers to bring more apologetics and biblical worldview content before their people, one pastor shared a story that broke my heart. The pastor explained that a two-person apologetics team had come to the church to speak to their youth. During the Q&A time, a teen girl innocently asked a question about Jehovah’s Witness literature that had been coming to her house. She said she had been reading their Awake magazine, and to her it seemed to make sense. “What do you guys think?” she asked.
The two young men (perhaps well-meaning but misguided) launched into a rapid-fire rebuttal of everything related to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As her youth group friends watched, the speakers did a five-minute “data dump” on the girl, critiquing both the publications and her for having read them. The pastor grew fairly emotional as he ended the story: “Alex, that teen girl was so embarrassed that she left the room crying. The worst part is that the two apologists seemed to show no concern, and they high-fived each other at the end of their talk.”
That encounter illustrates how the apologetics and life of Gary Habermas remains so exemplary. The pastor’s experience still makes me cringe whenever I think back on it. I agreed with him that the behavior described typifies a sort of apologetics that should never be encouraged. But Christian friend and ideological foe alike will agree that Gary Habermas, the man, is undeniably a credit to the worldview he represents. Habermas proclaims truth; better still, he lives it.
I am reminded of a time that Habermas presented his “minimal facts” argument before hundreds of students at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.
The standing-room-only crowd listened intently as a long line formed for the Q&A period. In characteristic fashion, Habermas fielded comments, objections, and helped more than a few students who did not quite know how to frame their question. One young man came to the mic and made it clear that he did not like the conclusions Habermas drew from the implications of Christ’s physical resurrection.
“If I’m understanding you,” the student reasoned, “the resurrection would mean that Jesus is God, and the way of salvation.” The young man’s tone grew belligerent: “Is that what you’re saying?”
“You got it,” said Habermas. “You are tracking with me, yes.”
The college student appeared more and more agitated as it sunk in that the resurrection would, indeed, validate Christ’s messiahship. His volume rising, the student said, “I don’t like this! I don’t like this!” Half the audience seemed to want the aggrieved student to step aside, and half seemed bemused to watch the meltdown in process. Habermas offered, “I get it, you’re not comfortable with where this is going. But just to say that you don’t like it, well, that’s not an argument.”
Amazingly, the student waved his hands, as if to say, “Be gone!” to both Habermas and his content. Storming away, the young man growled into the mic, “AARRRGGHHH!” Some snickered at the exchange, and the program concluded. But I watched Gary Habermas seek out the young man, who clearly had no idea he was trying to argue the resurrection with the topic’s most astute scholar. It was a powerful sight to watch Habermas, like a gentle big brother, listen to the student, diffuse the young man’s anger, and minister the gospel. Apologetics comprises both scholarship and shepherding.
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