The Great Challenge
1 Peter 3:15 reads: “..[always be] prepared to give a defense for the reason for the hope that lies within you...” (ESV). The need for Christians to do this is very great. Within an urban context, I encounter these challenges regularly. For in a way unique to others ages, Christianity is in crisis. The level of hostility and aggression towards the gospel is rising. We must, as Peter exhorted, be prepared to speak. But how?
The first time I can remember facing these challenges was when I was a kid. As a boy, I was asked to explain the reason for my faith. I was called upon to rationally state my gospel defense. At the time, I was barely age nine. I felt wholly unable to repel any advance. My questioner, who was roughly the same age as me, asked: “Can God create a rock so large that not even he can lift it?”
At his words, my heart fell absolutely speechless. The inquiry seemed completely unfair. I felt totally ashamed. Was my faith truly this easy to beat? If I answered yes, I’d limit God’s power. But if I answered no, I’d be seen as surrendering to the point. Either way, the solution seemed wrong. It appeared to limit the God to whom I prayed. How then could I answer? I hadn’t a clue. I was utterly silenced, unable to speak.
Sadly, this is where many Christians are today. They are intimidated with questions that they feel unequipped to answer. Not only so, but their responses are being watched by a skeptical world who certainly have the wherewithal to know when they have won an argument. Is there some way to meet these challenges with Christian readiness? The first lesson that we need to learn is that not all questions are equal.
Consider the following illustration...
An Atheist and a Jewish Rabbi are eating in a restaurant. The Atheist is trying to disprove the existence of God. He says to the Rabbi, “Can God create a stone larger than himself? Can he fashion a rock so heavy that not even he can lift it?”
In response, the Jewish Rabbi utterly ignores the Atheist. Instead, he stares at his plate and begins drawing circles in his food. After a few moments of this, the Atheist begins to become impatient. So he once again restates his question with greater importunity.
“Can God create a stone,” he voices again, “so large that even he cannot lift it?!!” The Rabbi, however, continues to roundly ignore him. Instead, he remains childishly fascinated with drawing circles in his food.
In response to being ignored, the Atheist resorts to all out yelling. He now angrily demands that the Rabbi answer his question. “Listen now!! Do you hear me!?!” he indignantly shouts. “Stop ignoring me! Answer my question! Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?!!”
At this, the Rabbi ceremoniously lifts his hand. He clears his throat as he prepares to speak. With a cool and even tone, he says to the Atheist, “Answer my question first and I will answer yours...If today it is zero degrees, and tomorrow it will be twice as cold as today, how cold will it be tomorrow my friend?”
The Atheist pauses. He ponders the Rabbi’s question. “Is this guy serious?” he thinks to himself. “Zero degrees minus zero degrees is zero degrees. There is no answer to this question!” The clock ticks. A few more moments pass. Finally, the Rabbi snorts contemptuously at the Atheist and returns to eating his food.
This in turn infuriates the Atheist. Now, he is not only impatient but altogether provoked. “Ok what’s the big joke here?!!” he shouts at the Rabbi. “I don’t see the point! Your question has no answer!”
Suddenly, the Rabbi burst to his feet. “WHY?!!” he shouts, looming menacingly over the Atheist.
The Rabbi's voice seems to ring like a gun-shot across the restaurant. The Atheist is shocked at the force of the word. He thus quietly responds to the Rabbi. “Because there’s something wrong with the question?”
The Rabbi then points a boney index figure heavenward. With a pleasant smile on his face, he says to the Atheist, “Aaaaakkkhhhaaaahh!”
Getting Behind the Question
The truth is that we need to see behind the question. Often times, our opponents are concealing wounds and hurts. They’re not sincerely concerned about the weight of hypothetical stones. What they are seeking to do is hide from their pain.
Remember. Lost people have no where to turn in life. Paul describes them as “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, without God in the world” (Eph 2:12; ESV). Wow! So God literally says that the lost have no hope! It can’t get much worse, can it?
That is why we we must respond to the lost with questions. We must call upon them to answer in the light of their own consciences. As scripture reminds us, “The spirit of a man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts” (Prov 20:27; ESV). Simply put, asking questions can open up minds! It can disarm the strong man and lead them to liberty. For even in exceptionally rare cases, the enemy does not have power to completely disable a man’s free will and keep them from thinking. That is why Jesus asked so often asked questions. He compelled his opponents to think and to ultimately judge for themselves. Let me give you an example from my own personal evangelism archives.
I was recently lifting weights at the gym, reciting scripture, when I was suddenly interrupted. Looking up, I saw a face I recognized. It was a young man who had been prodding me recently. He was interested in hearing about the message of Jesus. “Can you come and talk to me and my buddy?” he asked. “We’re having one of our ‘meaning-of-life-discussions.’” In my heart, I sat up and took note. It’s not every day that the lost ask you to evangelize them! So I crossed the crowded gym and we started our talk.
The two young men were clearly bubbling with questions. They seemed turned off by the narrowness of the Christian faith. So rather than answering their questions directly, I responded by asking a few of my own. I said, "Did you see the article I asked you guys to read? It was the one about the theft of the gates of the Nazi death camp in Auschwitz. The men who perpetrated the crime were pretty messed up. They wanted to harm the legacy and memory of the holocaust. My question for you is, do you think that’s wrong? Does something like that make them no different from the Nazi’s?”
The eyes of the young men clearly contained the obvious answer. They conceded to the point. The thieves were sharing in the atrocities of the holocaust. So with their answer in hand, I raised my next question.
“Ok. But what about the words of Jesus? He claimed to be the sole proprietor of eternal salvation. On the night of his betrayal, he said to his disciples, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' So they put him to death. They did it because he claimed to be God and the only way to God. My question for you is, do you think that’s hate speech? Do you think it’s wrong for Christian’s to talk like that?”
Once again, the young men’s answers was altogether predictable. They thought that Jesus’ words were “intolerant” and “bigoted.” I then launched into my third question.
“But isn’t that a bit of a double standard you guys? You say it’s wrong to remove the evidence of Hitler’s crimes against humanity, yet you believe it’s perfectly OK to remove the evidence of humanity’s crimes against Jesus. Doesn’t that make you a bit of a hypocrite? For by condemning Christ’s words, you’re siding with his killers. You’re proving that you believe it is perfectly OK to justify murder, simply on the grounds of your intolerance to religion.”
My listeners were silenced.
Seven years ago, when I first met my wife, she said something to me I’ll never forget: “The one who asks the questions, leads the discussion!” Ever since my wife said it, I’ve thought about it a lot (Can you see why I married her? Beautiful and smart to boot!). Not only so, but as I’ve applied her advice, I’ve found it to be true. When Christians ask questions, the lost follow. It’s the “Jesus Way” of engaging broken people. As the lost inquired of Jesus, he inquired of their consciences.
So this week, why not put this advice to work? Don’t get so frustrated when you’re attacked by questions in evangelism. Instead, ask God to give you the grace that Jesus walked in. Ask him to help you to be a good good questioner. Let's face it, Bible “answer-men” are not always helpful. (In fact, some times they can be better at ministering to believers). But Christian “question-men” are really helpful. Why?
Because they enable seekers to answer their own inquiries. And that, dear friends, dignifies our audiences. They feel less hustled and manipulated. They feel valued and listened to.
At the end of the day, that’s what evangelism is all about. It’s about helping people to see an accurate image of Jesus so that they can be drawn to Christ in a free and unforced way. For forcing the issues never wins anyone. (In fact, sometimes, the person who wins the argument loses the opponent.) And that is certainly not our aim! Rather, our aim is preach Christ and win the lost. Therefore, may our work become more and more successful as we seek to labor like Jesus.
In his holy name, amen.