They May Ask Questions I Can’t Answer.
This series of posts is based on God’s will for us to speak to others about Christ. We’ve been examining barriers that may hinder us from doing so (series begins here). Recently the emphasis has been on remembering that it is Christ we want to speak about, as opposed to unimportant matters or even matters of secondary importance. Specifically, we are hoping to do what the first Christians did—tell the good news that Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection show him to be the Anointed King (Christ) that God sent to deliver us from the trouble in the world and in our own lives because of sin (see post).
Another matter that may hinder us as we think about or begin to actually speak to others is our concern that people may ask us questions we cannot answer. I’ll comment briefly on some common questions below, but our general way of handling any such question is as important as knowing what to say about specific questions. Remember, our commission is not to answer all of everyone’s questions. Rather, we are to be ready to explain the reason for the hope we have, which is Christ (1 Peter 3:15), and this does not include the need to be experts in apologetics (see third to the last paragraph in this post).
Actually, I haven’t been asked as many hard questions as I have feared I would be. Sometimes people don’t have questions at all, and sometimes people’s questions are not hard. Other times, though, there will be difficult questions. We should seek to have discussions about these, not arguments, and remember the need to be gentle and respectful (see 1 Peter 3:16 and this post).
As always, we need to be honest. Sometimes this will mean empathizing with difficult questions people ask, if you do indeed empathize with them. For example, if someone asks why there is so much evil in the world, I think it’s good to say, “Yes, there is and that bothers me sometimes too.” Not only is that honest, but people will probably respect you more for being thoughtful and genuine than they would if you had some snappy answer for any question they asked. Other times, honesty may entail saying something like, “That’s never really bothered me” or “I’ve never really thought about that,” if that is indeed the case.
Honesty may often include saying, “I don’t know.” Since that is honest, we don’t need to feel bad about saying it. We should avoid tap dancing or fumbling around trying to come up with something to say. I’ve noticed that sometimes, when people in general ask me questions, I can say an awful lot of words before finally concluding “I don’t know.” Since our commission is not to answer all possible questions, we should not feel pressure to do so.
After all, Scripture is clear that God has not revealed everything to us. If you are not familiar with that, please read Deuteronomy 29:29; Psalm 131; Ecclesiastes 11:5; Isaiah 55:8-9. Even on matters where God has given us insight, we still may not have ever read, studied, or thought through the particular question they are asking us. In that case “I don’t know” is both honest and appropriate. We may want to add that we’ll chew on it or look into it. If we do, I would then follow up by reading, studying or talking to other believers whom you think may have some insight. But again, we don’t have to be able to answer all possible questions.
This leads to another point worth pondering and praying about, namely, some questions are sincere and others are smoke screens intended to evade the responsibility of heeding God and his will. We won’t necessarily know whether a person’s questions are smoke screens, but if we are aware they sometimes are, it may help us know how to proceed. For example, it may be good at some point to ask a person directly if they think they are seeking to avoid God. You can also ask people this indirectly, as I have a few times, by saying, “How would your life need to change if the Bible really is true?”
Related to this, some questions are clearly more important than others. If a person is merely curious about something that we don’t know the answer to, I often just say, “I don’t know” and leave it at that. But if a question is more central, like “How can we trust the Bible?” or “Do you think Jesus was really raised from the dead?,” these obviously deserve our time and attention.
It is also important to remember that God is at work on the person we are talking to as well as working through us. We need to remember this, trust him, and not take on more responsibility than we should. I try to remember that anyone I help lead to Christ was positively influenced by God and others previously. That means in some cases I will be one of the “others” with a person, that is, I may be sowing seeds that do not lead to immediate conversion but that others will reap in the future (cf. John 4:37-38). We serve and speak faithfully, in hopes that people will embrace Christ, but without pressuring ourselves or using unholy means to secure a commitment.
Having said all that, I think it is also good to consider how we might respond to specific FAQs. Below is a brief perspective on how I have or would respond to some of them, and you can read whichever ones you are most concerned about. If there are any questions you hear a lot or fear a lot, you can do additional research on them.
1. Questions about the Bible. These usually have to do with accusations about its trustworthiness, alleged contradictions, notions that it is outdated, or that science contradicts it.
If a person mentions contradictions, I usually ask what contradiction they are referring to because this is often something they’ve heard but have no firsthand experience with. Many times the alleged contradictions are due to misunderstandings, especially placing modern norms and expectations about how things should be written back onto the very different first century literary forms of the Bible. As to science, I do not concede that science is king and that everything else is answerable to it. Science doesn’t get to make the rules. A person may say they believe science is king but likely don’t fully believe it. For example, does science explain and account for their love for their family and friends. Overall when people express doubt about the Bible I ask them if they have read it much, because often they haven’t. I then encourage them to do so and even offer to read it with them (so I can guide or coach them). If they accept, I would read through and discuss one of the Gospels with them, pointing them to Christ.
2. Questions about evil and suffering in the world.
If a person has just suffered some great loss, it is better to empathize and show compassion than to try to answer questions about the evil in the world, even if they are saying, “Why did this happen?” But there is a rational explanation for why bad things happen that may help when the person is not in the height of emotion. The general answer lies in the story of the kingdom. God had compassion and mercy on us because of all the evil and suffering in the world and said he would intervene to help by sending his Anointed Ruler to establish his kingdom. He did this through Christ, showing that Christ has a kingdom that is more powerful than the evil kingdom of the world. Christ has not yet fully established his kingdom, however, so the evil kingdom still exists and exerts power. At the end, Christ will return and fully destroy evil and his kingdom will be supreme over all. In the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) Jesus directly addressed the reality of the kingdom being present currently but not fully in force until the end (for more on this parable see this post). I usually also mention that many Jews in Jesus’ day expected that God should have brought about the kingdom all at once (Luke 19:11) but he didn’t. I also try to bring the discussion back to the core issue by saying we have from now until the King comes back again to decide whether we will embrace him.
3. Questions about Christians’ failure to live well, including them being no better than others or even being worse—hateful, judgmental, homophobic, etc.
I think the best response to this is simply to admit that the accusation is true. I usually say many Christians, including me, fall way short of what God wants us to be. The fault is with us, however, not with Christ. When we represent him badly, we are not representing what he taught and stood for. We might share with them what we personally are doing to become better, which hopefully includes listening to him more humbly and sincerely and utilizing the resources he has given to help us mature. If the conversation stays on the subject of poor Christian examples long enough, we might also carefully mention that there are in fact some very good Christians, although they never make (or seek) the news headlines. Still, none of us is perfect. (question #2 relates to this last point about our imperfection)
4. Questions related to the exclusiveness of Christ. This includes notions that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere, that all religions are good, that Jesus can’t be the only way, or the fate of people who have never heard of Christ.
We would consider such an exclusive claim to be arrogance if it came from human beings, but if Jesus really is the Lord of the universe it makes sense that he is the only way, and we need to know it. Based on what I’ve learned recently, I would now try to include a brief summary of the gospel (see previous post) when I address this question because it leads to the point of the absolute authority and supremacy of Christ. We will leave the matter of judging others up to God, but the Scriptures do clearly say Jesus is the only way (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). If we believe this, we will follow him and do all we can to help others see who he is.
5. Questions about the resurrection of Christ. How can we believe he was raised from the dead?
People may or may not realize this question assumes science is king (cf. #1). If you do not approach the question of resurrection with a science-bias that assumes people cannot be raised from the dead, resurrection is a great explanation for the facts: Jesus was really dead (crucified, spear); he was placed in a tomb secured with a stone, seal, and guards; the tomb was later found empty; his disciples (the only ones with a motive for stealing the body) were not expecting him to be raised and were huddled in fear; and something profound happened that transformed the disciples from fear for their lives into people who risked their lives for the truth of the resurrection of Christ.
6. Questions about human moral limitations. Specifically you sometimes hear the idea that nobody’s perfect so why try, that the person feels they could never measure up, or that they are so bad that God would not accept them.
It’s not about being perfect. God’s solution to the trouble in the world and in our own lives is to give us a King who will be merciful to us, guide us by his wise counsel and empower us with his Spirit. He calls us to a “walk” (see ESV on Ephesians 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15) or journey that will indeed make us better and help us handle life better. In the end he will make us perfect, but that lies in the future (1 John 3:2-3). Those who know they can never be good enough need to understand this journey as well, but they may especially need to hear more about his mercy.
7. Separately or intertwined with some of the above you may hear the idea that truth is relative. This may include the idea that your Christianity is fine for you but that the person has their own truth they live by.
Some matters in life are indeed relative (sort of like opinions), like the best way to dress. Some matters are debated, like whether people can change. Other matters are true even though we may not know about them or want to acknowledge them, like what can be claimed on an income tax return. My first year of receiving a real income, I didn’t realize I was considered self-employed and should have been making quarterly income tax payments. I hate to suggest that God and the IRS are similar, but they are similar in that we are indisputably answerable to both whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not. We can invite “relativist” people to explore Jesus so they can consider whether there may be some important truth they have not yet realized. Because the Scriptures teach so clearly that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, my general approach initially would not be to argue with people about whether there is absolute truth but to seek ways to tell them about Jesus and the gospel or get them to explore it on their own.
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