Why inter-religious dialogue needs apologetics

Intrinsic to bearing witness to Christ is making truth claims

Benno van den Toren

Christians engage in dialogue with their religious and non-religious neighbors for a variety of reasons. They might want to get to know them better, or they might want to draw from the wisdom that their neighbors have acquired in the course of their lives. They might want to work out how to live together when their communities are in tension, or they might want to discuss projects of joint interest for the benefit of our communities. One of the principal reasons for engaging in such attentive dialogue is the desire to share our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in whom we find the fullness of life (John 10:10) in the hope they will joyfully embrace this precious gift.

Such inter-religious witness should be holistic. It can never be merely intellectual, and it should always reach out to the entire person. In this article, I will discuss why an integral Christian witness involves giving reasons for our faith. I will express why Christian witness needs to have an apologetic component, a component that at times needs to be at the forefront of our attention.

Why do people from other religions embrace Christ?

When we reflect on the role of apologetic witness in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, we are aware that many factors play a role when people from radically different religious or ideological backgrounds come to faith in Christ. For example, Rahil Patel, born in a Hindu family in East Africa, became a leading figure in the European branch of a worldwide Gujarati Hindu movement. He tells his story of leaving all to become a swami. He became gradually dissatisfied with the movement, particularly with the lack of room to ask critical questions and with the impossibility of finding the spiritual freedom and satisfaction that his guru promised. Still, the decisive event that brought him to faith in Christ after leaving and being cut off from his former spiritual home was an overwhelming experience of the presence and love of God in Christian worship.[1]

In other stories, different aspects move to the forefront. Sometimes, the welcome and care provided by the Christian community plays a major role, as in the conversion of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Steven Masood and the English Buddhist nun Esther Baker.[2] The Chinese Christian artist He Qi shared in a personal testimony that during the Cultural Revolution, he secretly copied a picture of a mother and child by the Italian Renaissance painter Rafael. This became a major factor in his conversion. Only much later, he discovered that it was a picture of Mary and Jesus. For him, this picture really was an icon conveying a peace and divine presence that guided him on his way to faith.

These stories should not merely be read at a human level. They point to the importance of bringing God into the picture if we want to understand such conversion stories. Sometimes this is very explicit, as when Muslims testify to appearances of Christ. There are other stories of conversion instigated by experiences of healing and deliverance through the power of the Holy Spirit like in Buddhist communities in Sri Lanka. Of course, God can also be present in the ordinary. Such is the case in the conversion story of the Oxford zoologist Andy Gosler, who came to Christ from a secular background, meeting God through apparently coincidental encounters and receiving the right messages at the right time.[3] God often works indirectly, through events, experiences, people, and communities. This is why recognizing the decisive role of the Holy Spirit in the conversion process does not make other more human factors redundant.

Among these different factors, an intellectual search for truth can play a crucial role. The Egyptian Muslim Mark Gabriel tells the story of how the Quran itself motivated him to search for truth, but he became deeply dissatisfied with his religious community. This community was willing to use pressure, violence, and even threats of death to discourage an open quest. In the end, this search for truth, combined with his community’s suppression of his quest, led him to Christ.[4] Jean-Marie Gaudeul’s study of Muslims who convert to Christ points out that Gabriel’s story is not an isolated case. The discovery of the reasonableness and truthfulness of the Christian faith is one of the five recurring motifs Gaudeul detects in these conversion stories.[5]

Given the small number of conversion stories in which the search for truth was the main trigger to embrace Christ, apologetic witness to members of other religious communities may not seem all that important. A closer look at such stories shows, however, that in many of them, questions of truth play a decisive role though sometimes they remain in the background. Indeed, there are a number of ways that Christian witness to other religions requires giving and receiving reasons, ways that inter-religious dialogue needs apologetics.

1. Avoiding manipulation

Firstly, inter-religious dialogue needs apologetics because otherwise evangelism is reduced to proselytizing in the negative sense. Evangelism can never limit itself to an emotional appeal or play on the immediate needs of the hearers. The gospel is, of course, the answer to our deepest needs, but if it is to be accepted as such it should be accepted because we believe it to be true. Christian mission is radically different from propaganda and averse to all forms of manipulation. If missions in the past have sometimes used power and manipulation, thus producing so-called ‘rice Christians’, we should repent of it. We should repent of it because God himself never forces himself on people but always offers himself freely, allowing for rejection. Prophets could be rejected; the Son of God himself accepted rejection to the point of going to the cross. God wants people to freely embrace his free gift of love. He might be able to force us to be his slaves or manipulate us to embrace his grace, but he wants us to be his children, his friends, and even his bride. These gifts can only be accepted freely. The father of the prodigal son was a parable of God himself: the father did not force his son to stay with him, but allowed him to move to a far land, all the while eagerly awaiting his return. In the same way, the apostles and evangelists of the New Testament used nothing but an appeal to the truth and goodness of the message of Jesus to bring people to conversion, trusting in the power of the Spirit rather than on clever manipulation.

This appeal to a free acceptance of the truth and goodness and the gospel reflects the nature of the gospel and the relationship God intends with us. It has particular importance today. In a time in which religions are so easily associated with the abuse of power, we need to stress that we invite others to believe this message because of its truth and goodness, not because we want to enlarge our community, gain greater political influence, or benefit in some other way. We should avoid all manipulation. Apologetic witness is therefore crucial in order to show that evangelism is different from proselytization in the negative sense. This is also important in countries where different religious communities live together in tension and where conversions are seen as threats to the social equilibrium.

It must be clear first that our evangelistic efforts are not about growing the political influence of our community, but about God and salvation. Secondly, it must be clear that conversion is not primarily a change of political stance (though it may include this), but primarily a change of allegiance to Christ as Lord and Savior. Thirdly, it must be clear that when other religious communities use political power and other manipulative means to induce conversions, this doesn’t do justice to what religion should be, at least not as we have come to know God in Christ. Those outside the faith may not be convinced because the power interests at stake are too great. But Christians will at least have good reasons to keep challenging others and to do so with integrity.

2. Responding to relativism

Secondly, inter-religious dialogue needs apologetics because without it we do not have a response to religious relativism.

Religious relativism is a variety of cultural relativism and believes that religious convictions can have nothing to do with a universal and objective reality. In this view, religious beliefs are no more than the projections or constructions of the religious believers themselves. People embrace cultural and religious relativism for a variety of reasons. It may be because it allows them to live comfortably in the immediate without considering any questions about the ultimate meaning of life. It may be because they have political interests in pushing religious convictions to the private sphere. It may be that they have given up on ever finding the truth about God, salvation, or ultimate meaning because of the ‘vertigo of relativity’ [6] induced by the many options. In all cases, a simple claim that Christianity is different will not provide an answer. We will need to argue that real issues are at stake in what religion or worldview we embrace. Religious practices are not just an epiphenomenon of other realities such as economics, politics or social or psychological well-being. Relativism is paralyzing, making all exchange of religious ideas a harmless game rather than a deeply serious affair addressing questions of ultimate truth, significance, and salvation. In a relativistic culture, if we do not explain why we believe our convictions are equally true and good for others as they are for Christians, we will have no answer to relativism.

3. Reaching those who are deeply invested in their religious traditions

Thirdly, inter-religious evangelism needs apologetics because otherwise we will have no message for those who are deeply invested in other religions.[7] Christian mission often invests most in the disenfranchised of other religious communities, those who are marginalized or left out. It is obvious that those who are well-rooted in their own religious traditions may have less openness to consider alternatives. If Jesus Christ is only an answer to poverty and injustice or the end of a search for community or identity, then Christian evangelists will not have something to say to those who are invested in their religious traditions. But if Christians believe that Jesus is the answer to our deepest need for salvation and our longing for God, then we should have a message for those who are deeply embedded in their communities. We can only reach them if we start to dialogue with openness and integrity about what people believe. We need to talk about how their beliefs respond to their deepest needs and higher desires, asking what beliefs are justified and where real salvation can be found.

The issue of addressing those who are at the heart of other religious communities is compounded by the fact that other religious traditions have their own apologetic discourse, both in favor of their own beliefs and against the Christian tradition. Many Muslims, for example, are convinced that Islam is a much more rational religion than Christianity with its irrational beliefs in the Trinity and the atonement and its corrupted scriptures and morals. These views have such a strong warrant in these communities that many of its members will rarely consider the Christian faith as a serious alternative even if they are searching spiritually and aware of the Christian message. Many Hindus would not consider conversion because their apologetic for their religious tradition tells them that everyone should experience spiritual growth within the religious tradition in which they are born.[8]

Joyful confidence

Some skeptical onlookers would argue that these apologies for Hinduism, Islam, or other religions show precisely why inter-religious apologetics does not make sense: doesn’t this prove that the truth cannot be known? However, the fact that there is a diversity of opinion does not show that truth cannot be ascertained, even when those opinions are well thought through. Consider a parallel case: People can come up with contrasting economic policies about how to lower the rate of unemployment in the country. The debate would be complex and multi-layered, considering ideological biases and personal interests and historical loyalties that may be at stake. Yet the complexity of the issue in no way means that the debate isn’t worth having. Despite this complexity, one side might be justified in its belief that it holds the key to the problem.

Christians believe that we are not merely stuck with a set of incompatible stories about God amongst which we will need to make the best possible guess on the limited evidence available. We believe that amidst all human conversations about God, God himself has appeared on the scene. As Lesslie Newbigin says, when a person we have been talking about appears herself amidst the conversation partners, the nature of the conversation changes, or at least it should. We are invited to enter into a conversation with the person we have so far been talking about.[9] Christians witness to Christ among the religions, because we believe that He has entirely changed the nature of the conversation and we want to invite others to join us in our grateful recognition of this Savior and Lord of all.

Discussion questions

Read Benno van den Toren, “Why inter-religious dialogue needs apologetics,” and John 10:1–21.

  1. What does Jesus mean in John 10:10 when he says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (NIV)?
  2. Did reasoning about truth play a role in your conversion or the conversion of someone you know?
  3. What makes the difference between manipulation and freely offering God’s gift of love?
  4. How do you respond to religious relativism, the idea that religious convictions can have nothing to do with a universal and objective reality
  5. What might you say to a member of another religion who thinks their religion is true and good?

Suggested reading

  • Gabriel, Mark A. Jesus and Muhammad: Profound Differences and Surprising Similarities. Lake Mary, Fla: Charisma House, 2004.
  • Guinness, Os. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2015.
  • Netland, Harold A. Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001.
  • Patel, Rahil. Found by Love: A Hindu Priest Encounters Jesus Christ. Watford: Instant Apostle, 2016.
  • Toren, Benno van den. Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue. London; New York: T. &T. Clark, 2011.
  • Williams, Paul. The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism. Edinburgh; New York: T & T Clark, 2002.


  1. Rahil Patel, Found by Love: A Hindu Priest Encounters Jesus Christ (Watford: Instant Apostle, 2016), 194ff.
  2. Steven Masood, Into the Light: A Young Muslim’s Search for Truth (Carlisle: OM, 1997), 194ff; Esther Baker, I Once Was a Buddhist Nun (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009).
  3. Andrew G. Gosler, “Surprise and the Value of Life,” in True Scientists, True Faith: Some of the World’s Leading Scientists Reveal the Harmony Between Their Science and Their Faith, ed. R. J. Berry (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2014), 176–95.
  4. Mark A. Gabriel, Jesus and Muhammad: Profound Differences and Surprising Similarities (Lake Mary, Fla: Charisma House, 2004).
  5. Jean-Marie Gaudeul, Called from Islam to Christ: Why Muslims Become Christian (Crowborough: Monarch, 1999).
  6. Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980), 9.
  7. Harold A. Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith & Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press; Leicester: Apollos, 2001), 247.
  8. Ibid., 256–59.
  9. Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1995), 11.

Quotations marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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