Ask Before You Answer

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

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