Ask Before You Answer

How to talk to skeptics, unbelievers, and mule-headed friends and family about God.
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I like answering questions with questions. Maybe it's because I'm Jewish. I grew up with dialogues that went like this:

Me: How's the weather down there?

Granny Belle: How else could the weather be in Florida in the middle of July?

As long as we are on the defensive, the questioners are not really wrestling with issues. They're just watching us squirm.

Me: So, how have you been?

Uncle Nat: Why do you ask?

Me: How's your family?

Aunt Vivian: Compared to whom?

I'd like to think I answer questions with questions because I'm trying to follow the example of Jesus. Isn't it uncanny how often our Lord answered a question with a question?

When a rich man asked Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responded, "Why do you call me good?" (Mark 10:17-18). When religious leaders asked him if it was right to pay taxes, he asked whose portrait was on the coin (Matt. 22:17-20). When the Pharisees were "looking for a reason to accuse him" and asked him "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" Jesus' response was a question, "If any of you has a sheep, and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not lift it out?" (Matt. 12:9-12).

But the most likely reason for my use of questions instead of answers is that I'm tired. After years of answering questions that non-believers posed to me, I'm simply tired of seeing that an answer is not really what they want.

There have been times (far too many of them, I'm afraid) when I have answered a question with what I knew was a biblically accurate, logically sound answer, only to see the questioner shrug his shoulders. It was as if he now had more confirmation that Christians really are simpletons.

Instead of my answer moving him closer to salvation, it pushed him further away. Rather than engaging his mind or urging him to consider an alternate perspective, my answer gave him ammunition for future attacks against the gospel. So, I've started answering questions with questions and have gotten far better results.

Role reversal

As a staff member for Campus Crusade for Christ in Washington, D.C., I've had many opportunities to practice what I'm preaching here. There was the time that a team of skeptics in a student's dorm room confronted me. It was at our weekly Bible study for freshmen guys. The host of the study, in whose room we were meeting, had been telling us for weeks of his roommate's antagonistic questions. This week, the roommate showed up—along with a handful of likeminded friends.

The inevitable question arose, more as an attack than a sincere inquiry. "So, I suppose you think that people who don't agree with you, like all those sincere followers of other religions, are going to hell!"

"Do you believe in hell?" I responded.

My antagonist had probably never seriously considered the possibility of hell. He looked puzzled, perhaps because he was being challenged when he thought he was the one doing the challenging. Finally, after a long silence, he said, "No, I don't believe in hell. I think it's ridiculous." I chose to echo his word choice. "Then why are you asking me such a ridiculous question?"

I wasn't trying to be a wise guy. I simply wanted him to honestly face up to the assumptions behind his own question. His expression seemed to indicate that I had a good point.

Another questioner broke the silence: "Well, I do believe in hell. Do you think everyone who disagrees with you is going there?"

Again I questioned. "Do you think anyone goes there? Is Hitler in hell?" (Hitler has turned out to be quite a helpful, even if unlikely, ally in these kinds of discussions.)

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