5 point plan for answering hard questions

 

I don’t think it’s wise to offer answers to difficult questions about the gospel without the contexts provided for them in Scripture. We can no longer assume a background of biblical knowledge with most Americans. We must assume (at best) that they have fragmentary pieces of knowledge mingled with cultural assumptions that generally oppose anything that sounds like an exclusive truth claim.

Sadly the bits of distorted knowledge people possess tend to circulate as bullet points for skeptics and late night comedians whose aim is to dismiss Christianity as either simplistically implausible or ridiculously offensive. This is why I believe that bearing witness to the great message of the gospel must be done with much more wisdom.

A five point plan for answering difficult questions.

The reality I am describing is what leads me to propose five considerations for Christian witness.  I believe we need renewed reflection, discussion and application of the truths in these Scriptures:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 3:5-6).

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).

If someone asks, “How can you believe the Bible is really the word of God?” or “Do you really think that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus goes to hell?” or “How could a loving God who is all powerful let so much evil happen without doing anything about it?”– we should avoid offering answers without the larger contexts for them.

When asked hard questions:

1. Don’t react in a defensive way.

Some believers feel a need to defend the truth by announcing it directly no matter how it’s understood. But this approach often lacks the compassion of the gospel. Aim to engage not ignite. Answer people not questions.

2. Acknowledge the importance and difficulty of the question.

When asked about hell or the exclusive truth claims of Jesus, for example, acknowledge that you understand that these are difficult matters and that you affirm the importance of the question. An honest acknowledgment like this can help reduce the antagonism often associated with loaded questions.

3. Explore the context of the question.

What kind of assumptions is the person holding about God and sin? When we answer questions in isolation, we risk further confusion and alienation. It’s helpful to respond with questions to help you know the level of understanding behind the matter. This can also help defuse the tension that often accompanies hard questions. Our desire should be to open sincere dialogue not angry debate.

4. Start with plausibility points.

When someone says, “I just can’t accept that everyone has to come to God through Jesus.” — you can usually assume that he doesn’t understand the narrative of salvation. So I recommended starting with a plausibility point by saying, “If the way the way the Bible describes God’s provision of salvation in Christ is true, exclusivity of salvation through Jesus (John 14:6) makes sense and inclusivity (salvation through other ways) sounds anywhere from superficial to offensive.” Taking this approach will often require extended discussion about the unfolding story of the gospel.

5. Provide the context before answering the question.

The answer will not help the man who doesn’t get the question. The solution will not help the one who doesn’t understand the problem. And the answer and solution of the gospel do not exist as isolated truths from a larger narrative. We need to become better at telling the whole story and helping people see it as the human story not just the Christian story.

A test case: Questions about Hell

An important example of the need for context is the unfortunate focus on the subject of hell generated by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. I appreciate many of the questions raised by Bell (hundreds of them in his book). They’re not new but many of them are being asked by skeptics. I also like that Bell acknowledges misunderstandings based on context. His point about people rejecting inaccurate versions of Jesus is helpful. This is a context question. Yet I wish Rob had offered consistent answers that led to truth.

Last week, our Sunday News contacted me for an interview about Bell’s book. I told them that I have become increasingly uncomfortable answering difficult questions isolated from the important context surrounding them. For example, if sin is no big deal and God is all love and no judgment, hell will be misunderstood, sneered or flatly rejected. Larger questions about evil, human culpability and justice must be discussed before talking about final judgment and hell.

The four quotes below from four men who have taught me a lot. They provide indispensable contextual considerations for discussing final judgment. Note the variety of themes they interface with related to final judgment.

D. A. Carson:

“The Bible does not present us with a God who chances upon neutral men and women and arbitrarily consigns some to heaven and some to hell. He takes guilty men and women, all of whom deserve his wrath, and in his great mercy and love he saves vast numbers of them. Had he saved only one, it would have been an act of grace; that he saves a vast host affirms still more unmistakably the uncharted reaches of that grace. Hell stands as a horrible witness to human defiance in the face of great grace” (How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, p. 92).

R.C. Sproul:

“All things being equal, God does desire that no one perishes, but all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin go unpunished. He desires as well that His holiness be vindicated. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the personal application of it” (Following Christ, pp. 217-18).

J. I. Packer:

“The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty . . . what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He visits have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow” (Knowing God, p. 139).

John R. W. Stott:

“Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this “cannot” and “will not” lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But however we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (The Cross of Christ, pp. 95-96).

Memorize and discuss the following Scriptures:

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 3:5-6).

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15).

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Afterlife, Final judgment, Hell, Rob Bell, Salvation. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to 5 point plan for answering hard questions

  1. Paul Bishop says:

    Good points! I wish more Christians followed guidelines like this. When they’re asked questions, they range from kind-hearted non-answers (“Don’t worry about that, just have faith”) to bashing the other person and being generally abrasive.

    Paul’s statement on “speaking the truth in love” is profound when applied to hard questions from nonbelievers.

  2. Pingback: Top 5 Fridays! 5 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Regularly – Betty Roche

  3. Pingback: Top 5 Fridays! 5 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Regularly | Jerome Perkins Blog

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