Answering Skeptics: 4 Simple Strategies

December 18, 2012 — 9 Comments

Do you have to believe in miracles in order to be a Christian? Can you be a follower of Jesus without believing that he literally rose from the dead?

Woman-with-doubtful-expression-question mark

As the cultural influence of Christianity continues to wane, people are more often skeptical of the Christian story.

If you haven’t encountered a skeptic lately, you will soon. And there’s a lot riding on your response to their questions.

“Jennifer” was an intelligent successful professional, and my coworker at a large corporation a number of years ago. She was also a skeptical inquirer into Christianity.

Knowing I was a Christian, she drew me aside to ask a question. “Do you have to believe that Jesus is God in order to be a Christian? The whole thing makes sense to me except that part—the supernatural thing.”

How would you have answered?

After more than a decade of dealing with similar questions, I’ve learned these strategies for responding to honest questioners about the Christian faith.

Take Doubts Seriously

Let’s acknowledge that the Christian story is incredible. We believe in an unseen God who frequently breaks into the natural world. The very fact of the incarnation is unbelievable—let alone the resurrection.

Minimizing questions or offering trite answers only drives honest seekers away from belief. Acknowledging that the facts of our story are, well, unbelievable is a first step toward having real faith—which is, by definition, belief in the unproven.

Admit that doubt is an okay thing, and that many Christians experience it.

Don’t Waver on the Facts

From the beginning some Christians have been squeamish about the facts of our story—especially the resurrection. But it is true, literally true—including the virgin birth, the miracle stories, and the resurrection. God really did this.

Our story claims to bring the supernatural world into our world through the birth of Jesus. And it claims to take us into the enteral world through resurrection.

So if the Jesus story isn’t factual, then we have believed an entirely misguided storyline for the universe—and for our own future. Don’t waver on the facts of the case. They are accurate.

Present Faith as a Choice

Many people would like religion to be like arithmetic or engineering, something you simply draw out on paper for any rational person to see and accept.

But faith isn’t like that. It is a choice to believe without proof. It involves personal judgment, personal commitment, and risk. Call others to make the choice to believe.

Invite Them to Follow First

I recall reading in No Compromisethe life story Keith Green, that the late Christian songwriter struggled with this very issue—the deity of Christ. Green called it “the God question.” While he reluctant to walk away from the beauty of Jesus’ teaching, he faced serious doubts about the central facts of the Christian message.

His solution was to follow first, and let faith come later. And it did.

We do not calling people to accept a set of ideas, a list of principles, or even the historical facts of the Christian story. We invite them to follow a person, Jesus of Nazareth. Where the heart goes, the head will follow.

Credulity is the first level of faith. We believe that this story is factually accurate—it is true. Christians are called believers for a reason. We choose to believe that this story is true.

How would you define skeptic?

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I'm lead pastor at Fall Creek Wesleyan Church and the author of a few books including A Different Kind of Crazy and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering. When I have ideas that might help you transform your life and community, I post them here.
  • Eric Dingler

    I’m the director of a Christian summer camp. In training our 18 to 22ish aged staff to be in ministry for the summer, we have to stress they don’t make up answers. A lot of Christians feel if they don’t know an answer to a question asked by a skeptic, that somehow their personal faith isn’t sufficient.

    It’s powerful to say to a skeptic, “I don’t know.” It opens the door to explain that a relationship with Jesus isn’t based on knowledge of everything. It leads into sharing the idea of follow first as you point out, which is a great suggestion. I often encourage skeptics, if they are willing, to begin to pray “God, let it be me important for me to know you, than to know the answers to my questions.”

    • Lawrence W. Wilson

      I like that, Eric. Saying “I don’t know” also introduces the idea of mystery, a huge part of faith. Do you think your younger staffers are more–or less–comfortable with the idea of mystery than older generations have been?

      • Eric Dingler

        They would say more…but it’s less. The answer…”we may never know” used to be acceptable. Now, “someone has to know” is leading a younger generation into dangerous beliefs. They want answers. In the lack of true answers and wisdom, they will grab hold of any thing that sounds like it is truth. It’s understandable. Google works for finding answers to everything else, so they’ll just Google a question and believe the first website they open and read. We encourage them to God-Google…aka, look it up in the Bible.

        • Lawrence W. Wilson

          I see this in adults too–iCloud theology. Pulling bits of data from a variety of places to construct their personal God view.

          • Eric Dingler

            iCloud theology…love that. FYI, I plan to use that.

      • Ralphie Nader

        To provide a skeptics point of view, I don’t think the “I don’t know” response is very attractive to a non-believer. I find many Christians simply don’t know much about the Bible, despite saying it is the most important book in their lives. I ask about several parts of scripture that don’t add up to me, and usually my question can’t be answered because they’ve never heard of the passage I’m speaking of. (I’m often drawn to Jesus killing the fig tree, women being silent in churches, the passages on slavery, the part which says you can’t enter heaven if you say wicked things about Jesus, etc)

        A friend told me he believed “God was love”, and I asked, if that’s true, then why does the bible condone slavery and why did god kill all but two people in a flood? He said he didn’t know. I also get this answer a lot when people confront theodicy- why does evil exist? Is god unwilling or unable to stop evil?

        I’ve read many thoughtful responses to those questions, but most people I meet say “I don’t know” because they have not thought much about it (not surprisingly since many don’t read the entire bible, much less question it or understand it’s historical context). I can’t help but assume they are not very passionate or devoted to their faith since they have not spent much time looking into it. It seems more likely they grew up with Christianity, most likely since their parents were Christian, and they have not bothered to critically examine it. So the “I don’t know” typically signals to me laziness, apathy, and inherited beliefs rather than mystery or powerful devotion.

        I was indoctrinated as a child (albeit very gently in an affluent Episcopalian way) to believe in Jesus, and as I started finally challenging what I was told about how the world works, I realized the answers were incredibly underwhelming, and there was compelling evidence to believe in other things. I found that very refreshing, and I still enjoy critically examining my beliefs and changing them based on what I learn, so I genuinely enjoy talking to people with different beliefs than me. And often I find “I don’t know” a very satisfactory and appropriate answer- that’s actually my answer to whether a god exists!- but when it shows that someone has not really looked at a belief they profess, it’s not very impressive.

        • Lawrence W. Wilson

          That’s an importnat distinction. In my experience, the more people explore their faith the more they are willing to admit ignorance. Of course, it can be a lazy answer as well.

  • Ralphie Nader

    You say everything in the bible is literally true. How do you explain when the bible implies that Pi = 3 in 1 Kings, 7:23? Even non-Christians during that time knew that Pi was not 3. If you take it literally, how do you deal with the many contradictions? (God appeared vs. god is never seen, Isaac has one son vs. multiple sons).

    • Lawrence W. Wilson

      I believe that the Christian story is factual, which is to say that I believe in miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. However, I don’t believe that all parts of the Bible are intended to be taken literally. Also, in my opinion, the apparent contradictions in the Bible do not invalidate its overall witness.