The verse that launched a thousand apologetic enterprises
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. -- from 1 Peter 3:15
I’d bet this verse has launched more study programs in defending the Christian faith than any other. "Be prepared" – it evokes pictures of diligent boyscouts, of tireless and extensive preparations. We remember the myriad of trick questions that hostile anti-Christians can throw at us. We may ask ourselves whether we are prepared to answer every trick question in the book. And when we think that way, we’re very wrong about the big picture – mostly because we miss the fact that Peter gave us the answer along with the instruction to be prepared to give that answer. Also because he asks us to prepare for a much simpler task than we have just imagined. We end up thinking the goal that Peter named was beyond the reach of the average Christian; we have missed what Peter said his point was.
A simpler task than we imagine
Look closely at what Peter said; what people are we supposed to be prepared to answer? Peter did not call all people to be ready to give an answer to every heckler who stays up nights twisting words and skewing facts to invent trick questions. Again look closely at what Peter said; what content are we supposed to be prepared to answer? He did not call us to be prepared to defend complicated theories. He told us to be prepared to answer the people who ask us, "Why do you have hope?"
By the time Peter tells us to be prepared to answer the people who ask us, "Why do you have hope?" he has already explained to his readers why we should have hope. He has also explained how we should get people to notice that hope so that they might ask us about it.
Why we should have hope
Peter begins his letter, right after his first greetings, reminding us of one of the main points of his letter: the reason for our hope.
he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. - from 1 Peter 1:3
Because Christ is risen, there is hope. If we have said that much, we have done well. If we have answered a hundred questions but have not managed to work in that much, we have not done well. If we've convinced an atheist that the New Testament is 98% as originally written down, but they are still scared to die because they think it means their own annihilation; if they are still scared to approach God because they still imagine him to be a cosmic bully, then we have not done well. If Christ had not risen, what hope would we have? Would we be sure there will be a resurrection? Would we be sure that God is merciful? Would we be sure that God loves mankind and wants to save us? Peter, who wrote these words, had himself seen Jesus risen from the dead. He knew what he was talking about. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything.
Peter talks further about the hope that we have because of the resurrection:
an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you. – 1 Peter 1:4
You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers. – 1 Peter 1:18
The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. -- 1 Peter 2:6
set your hope fully on the grace being given you as Jesus Christ is revealed. -- 1 Peter 1:13
These are the hope we have: an inheritance that will not fade; a way of life that is not empty; escape from being justly put to shame; God's favor given in Christ. That is our hope.
I'm not criticizing the approach to apologetics that seeks to answer the legitimate questions from honest skeptics. I'm not even criticizing the niche in apologetics that seeks to answer the trick questions from hecklers and harrassers; I do those kinds of things myself as time permits. But it does bear mentioning that that's not directly what Peter was talking about, and we cannot afford to neglect the real heart of our hope: Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
As regards apologetics and the resurrection itself, there's still room for misunderstanding. There is a time and a place to answer questions about the resurrection, whether from honest questioners or from hecklers; but neither of these are what Peter is addressing. Peter is talking about describing how the resurrection is a legitimate cause for hope. Despite nearly two thousand years of assorted opposition, the resurrection is still supported by 100% of the available evidence, so we're genuinely justified in assuming its truth when we discuss why we have hope. We need not always start on the defensive as if we have to get people to acknowledge the truth of the facts before we can mention why the facts matter. Some atheists (for example, Michael Martin) have mentioned not seeing why the resurrection should matter as a reason for rejecting it. If we spend all our time discussing the mere fact that there is plenty of evidence, and none of our time discussing the good that God has done for mankind through the resurrection, then we have not given the reason for our hope as Peter instructs.
How we should get people to notice
Peter knew what it was like to witness to a hostile world. He knew what it was like to have enemies, to be attacked, to be outcast, to have even the leaders against him. He knew what it was to suffer, to be lied about. So he had some very practical advice on how to get people to notice, whether they were enemies, mockers, or just plain indifferent.
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. -- 1 Peter 2: 12
If we’re not living such good lives that even the pagans have to notice, we’re dropping the ball. We’re not dropping the ball when we don’t know the answer to the latest trick question. We’re dropping the ball when we’re leading impure lives, when we're not living proof of God’s compassion, when we’re not a very present help in time of trouble. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty – Christ is our forgiveness. But having forgiveness can shade over to laziness and complacency. We are called to live such good lives among the pagans that they notice.
For one of the toughest situations, a wife trying to witness to an unbelieving husband, Peter has this advice which can help in other tough situations as well:
If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by [your] behavior when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” – from 1 Peter 3:1-2
Peter also said,
It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. -- 1 Peter 2:15.
Are we trying to silence "the ignorant talk of foolish men" by arguing with them? Since when has an argument ever silenced someone who is foolish? How many are actually encouraged by arguments, since that is what they were really looking for? And is it God’s will that we should silence the ignorant talk by more talk? It would be over-hasty to say never; there is a time and a place and a way to answer. But in general, we are to answer useless words with useful actions.
And, finally, when people do ask – even if they are still heckling – when words finally come into the picture, when we give the reason for the hope we have, how do we behave?
But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. -- from 1 Peter 3:15-16
If we haven't answered with gentleness and respect, if we have stooped to heckling or demeaning, it is probable that we haven't kept a clear conscience; God knows our hearts. At any rate, if we are not gentle and respectful, those who speak maliciously against us will feel (reasonably enough) that their slander is justified.
Peter also hints that we’re going to be slandered one way or another: if we do evil, we will be slandered for doing evil. If we do good, we will be slandered for doing good. The temptation to cave in to evil or fit in with the world in order to avoid slander is nothing but wishful thinking. Even if we go along with the world we will still be slandered – and it will be justified.
A reason for the hope
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3
That is the reason for our hope.