Ask Before You Answer

How to talk to skeptics, unbelievers, and mule-headed friends and family about God.

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.)

"Of course Hitler's in hell."

"How do you think God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Does he grade on a curve?"

From there, the discussion became civil for the first time, and serious interaction about God's holiness, humanity's sinfulness, and Jesus' atoning work ensued. Answering with questions turned out to be an effective, albeit indirect, way to share the gospel.

Another time questioning worked better than answering was a lunchtime conversation with a philosophy professor who was an atheist. He served as the faculty advisor for the campus philosophy club; I was a campus minister for Campus Crusade for Christ. We had cosponsored a debate about the problem of evil and were meeting to evaluate how the event had gone. After discussing how we could have publicized the event better and what topics we could address in future forums, I asked his opinion about the content of the debate.

He told me he still thought Christians failed to present a decent answer for the problem of evil. So, I posed the question to him, "So, what is your explanation?"

He paused and then said softly, "I don't have one."

I asked him if there was an atheistic way to make sense of such things as the Nazis' slaughter of 6 million innocent people.

Again, his answer was a nonanswer.

I told him that the Christian answer to the problem of evil may have its shortcomings, but my incomplete answer was better than no answer at all. The rest of our lunchtime was a good, respectful conversation that moved us closer to each other and—I hope—moved him closer to seeing some of the flaws in his worldview.

Good questions

Answering a question with a question has some significant advantages over the use of direct answers. It brings to the surface the questioner's assumptions. It also takes the pressure off you, the one being asked, and puts the pressure on the one doing the asking. This is important because as long as we are on the defensive, the questioners are not really wrestling with issues. They're just watching us squirm.

For example, the chief priests and the teachers of the law challenged Jesus with this inquiry: "Tell us by what authority you are doing these things. Who gave you this authority?" His response was a question: "Tell me, John's baptism—was it from heaven, or from men?" After a short retreat for time to maneuver, they told him they didn't know the answer. Jesus showed them that their insincere question deserved a nonanswer by declaring, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things" (Luke 20:1-8).

In reality, the teachers' question was simply an attack posing as a question. Answering these attacks with questions not only takes the heat off us and deflects it to the other person, it also tones down hostility. People usually don't like such temperature changes and will adjust the thermostat accordingly.

Answering a question with a question also paves the way for an answer that may not otherwise be received. Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well fits this pattern (John 4:1-26). The woman's notions of righteousness, sin, and worship needed to be challenged before she would accept Jesus' way of seeing those topics. Without his questions, it is doubtful if she ever would have gotten to the point of saving faith.

To be sure, there are times when a direct answer is preferable, particularly when the questioner is sincere and would benefit from a clear, concise statement of what the Bible says. There were times when Jesus didn't beat around the bush. His direct answer to the teacher of the law who wanted to know which was the most important commandment is an example (Mark 12:28-31).

Yet often we need to hold back our answer and initiate genuine dialogue with a question. When your coworker asks you—with an accusatory tone—why you still believe in God in light of all the people dying of AIDS, ask him how he explains such a horrible tragedy.

When your neighbor asks you why you think Jesus is anything more than just a good moral teacher, ask him why he thinks Jesus was a good teacher. Has he read a lot of Jesus' teachings? What would he say was the main message Jesus taught?

Our message is too important for it to continue to fall upon deaf ears. Our answers really are what people need to hear if we could just get them to listen. The apostle Peter was surely right in imploring us to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you" (1 Pet. 3:15). But we can follow Jesus' method of doing so by answering a question with a question.

Adapted from Discipleship Journal (Jan./Feb. 2002), 2002 Randy Newman. Used by permission. A version of this article also appears in Newman's book, Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Kregel).

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