The common perception of apologetics is that it largely relates to debating. Some people then object to studying apologetics — on the grounds that the Gospel is apprehended spiritually, and we cannot debate someone into heaven.
While as a younger man I enjoyed debate, I find that I really do not enjoy it any longer. In fact, I personally don’t recommend debating atheists. It is often difficult to keep them on point, unless the point is, in fact, whether you are mentally deficient; whether your parents were related, or if you are just “too emotional”. Proverbs 26:4 tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly; Proverbs 9:7 provides similar warnings when it tells us that he who answers a scoffer invites injury – that is, if you reprove someone who is engaged in mockery, you merely make yourself his next target. While I answer the questions/allegations of atheists when they are not arguing ad hominem, I generally stop pushing the point after the second or third pass, because I question the use of my time.
Why then engage in apologetics? I think, perhaps, a better question would be: what is the appropriate goal of Christian apologetics? After all, being able to answer those who challenge the faith and our hope is a command of the New Testament. When it comes to evangelism, Christian apologetics is about being available for the Holy Spirit to work through you. Therefore, apologetics’ place in the Christian witness is not to “argue atheists into heaven”. Our goal is to “persuade men” as Paul articulated, and that means that we remove obstacles to the faith. And in point of fact, atheists do come to Christ — because they study the basis of the Christian faith. Lee Strobel and Warren Wallace are two of the prime examples in our own day.
The second goal, I believe, is to strengthen other believers. The faith is under fire. Modern atheism has changed; those atheists who, in the past, would have been considered the lunatic fringe (such as Dawkins) are often the major representatives of the movement today. They are aggressive and often insulting, and this type of rhetorical tactic, unfortunately, can be effective. Providing Christian brethren with answers to these questions, providing them with just information about such simple matters strengthens them in the faith.
Finally, apologetics has theological benefits. Theology develops, in large part, as a response to error. As we answer questions involving the faith, we are forced along the way to deepen our understanding of that faith; we begin to understand it better.
Apologetics is not about debate (even though debates happen). It is instead an integral part of the fabric of Christianity.