When asked difficult or controversial questions about faith, it’s important to consider the wider context of the question before offering an answer. Most people only have fragmentary knowledge about the Bible — usually mixed with misguided cultural assumptions.
So, if someone asks, “How could 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?”– avoid offering answers to these kinds of questions without the larger context needed to understand them.
The bits of knowledge people possess tend to circulate as bullet points for skeptics and late night comedians whose aim is often to dismiss Christianity as either simplistically implausible or ridiculously offensive. This is why I believe that bearing witness to the message of the gospel must be done with greater wisdom and restraint.
Five point plan for answering difficult questions
The reality I am describing is what leads me to suggest five considerations for Christian witness. I also believe that the challenges of postmodernity call for renewed reflection, discussion and application of the truths in 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 4:5-6).
“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).
When asked hard questions:
1. Don’t react defensively.
Aim to engage not ignite. Answer people not questions. Respond to God; Don’t react to man. Some believers feel a need to defend the truth with a polemical tone no matter how it’s understood. Only speak with the compassion of the gospel, as one who found an undeserving place in God’s mercy (see: Titus 3:1-5).
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.
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. When asked tough questions, always ask yourself what kind of assumptions the person is making about God, morality, life and sin.
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 (see: II Corinthians 5:17-21).
5. Provide the context before answering the question.
The answer will not help the man who doesn’t really understand 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.