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People Need Answers, Not Arguments

Many years ago, our daughter Laura, aged two, piped up at the dinner table, “Daddy, does Jesus live in my heart?” Silently thanking God for our little girl’s openness to the Lord, we responded, “Well, why don’t you ask Him to?” Now a married woman, schoolteacher and the children’s worker at her church, Laura is still a keen believer in Jesus. She has helped me see the beauty and power of a truly childlike faith, both from her own life and her ministry to children.

My own journey to faith was completely different. The transition from argumentative atheist to Bible-believing follower of Jesus was often rather rocky. Every time I picked up my Bible, I had an overwhelming number of questions. My faith could hardly be described as childlike.

Much deeper than apologetics

Much as I would like to claim that my conversion from atheism was a battle of the mind, where the unassailable logic of the Christian faith triumphed over intellectually barren atheism, that was not quite how it happened.

Although my doubts and questions about the Bible were genuine, I was first drawn to Christians as friends, simply because they stood out to me as being conspicuously good people to be with. Some were somewhat immature or even annoying (as we all were at that age), but in stark contrast to the adolescent boasting and bullying I had endured at school, these Christians were almost always kind. Truly, they had a quality of life I longed for.

Yet, my questions and doubts were still significant blocks to faith, and I needed some answers. My tone probably still sounded argumentative, but I needed to know, is this real? Thankfully, a local Bible study leader took my questions seriously and helped me through the early stages of following the Lord Jesus.

For thirty-five years now, I have loved listening to people’s questions. For the most part, this takes place in our ministry to students and in the local church, where there seem to be two polar opposite approaches from which people come: The ones who think that they have thought of questions which no-one else has ever asked (as if that were even possible), and the ones who begin apologetically saying, “I’m sorry to ask this stupid question but…”

I love to help people to see that there are always answers. That surprises people. It also surprises them when I am not offended by people’s genuine questions. True, they might not be able to have the comprehensive replies they want, or be entirely happy with the answers that they are given, but despite the popular view of the media (especially here in the West), the Christian faith is reasonable, logical, historical and compelling.

The million-dollar question is, if Christianity is so logical and compelling, why don’t a lot more people become Christians?

So often it comes down to the simple matter of the heart. You can have all the evidence in the world and still not believe, just as you can be a small child with no understanding of history or physics and know in your heart the truth of what you hear. Our approach to evidence is always biased, especially when we have something to lose, whether that is a cherished belief, a faith community or a lifestyle. Not one Pharisee, Sadducee or teacher of the Law questioned the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (as far as we know). Yet in their fear that the Romans might take away their national identity, they simply set aside the evidence of their own eyes and ears and hardened their determination to kill both Jesus and Lazarus (Jn 11:47-48; 12:9-10).

Why do you ask that question?

When someone asks me a question, I always want to understand why they are asking. Is it to catch me out? To test me? Out of bitterness, anger or fear? Simple confusion? Or is it a genuine question from the heart?

In Mark 12, we see Jesus in three debates with three sets of people: the Pharisees and Herodians (v13-17); the Sadducees (v18-27), and a teacher of the Law (v28-34). These three sets of people asked questions for very different reasons, and Jesus answered each of them in three different ways.

The Trap (Mark 12:13-17)

By asking a closed, ‘yes-or-no’ question about paying taxes to a pagan emperor, the Pharisees and Herodians were looking to trap Jesus in His own words (v13, v15). They knew that a ‘yes’ would seriously discredit Him with conservative Jews who saw paying taxes as a compromise with paganism, whereas a ‘no’ would be seen as treason against Caesar and a reason to have Him arrested. Because Jesus was clear about His obedience to His Father, He neither stepped into the trap, nor did He sidestep the question, as we see in v17.

You can have all the evidence in the world and still not believe, just as you can be a small child with no understanding of history or physics and know in your heart the truth of what you hear.

Many of the questions I used to get from my atheist friends were similar, in that they were trying to find ways to prove me wrong or catch me out. For example, if they said, “Do you believe in Evolution?” and I answered ‘yes’, they thought it would discredit me with some of my Christian friends who might interpret that as me not believing the Bible as inerrant. If I answered ‘no’, then I was dismissed out of hand by them as being unscientific and anti-intellectual. Likewise, questions like, “All religions lead to God, don’t they?” or, “Are you saying that if I don’t believe in Jesus I will go to hell?”, demand a yes-or-no response where it is hard to both tell the truth and keep the conversation open.

The ‘trap’ questions differ in their content, but they all have the same aim, and it is not to find the Truth. There usually is a right answer (either yes or no), but we do not need to feel forced by their line of questioning to express it in such stark terms. The way out of the trap is to do as Jesus did: He refocused the question on the real issue of obedience to God. Likewise, we can refocus the above examples by saying, “However God made the universe, do you really think this world is all there is?”, or “Yes, many people ask about other religions, but I suppose the bigger question is: can we know God personally, or just know about Him?”

Pressure to take sides (Mark 12:18-27)

The second question was an attempt by the Sadducees to get Jesus to side with them in a well-worn debate with the Pharisees about resurrection and life after death. Like the first example (v13-17), some people who ask questions are not interested in answers, but only want to argue. Although Jesus and the Pharisees hardly saw eye to eye on many subjects, the Sadducees were mistaken if they thought that Jesus would subscribe to their views on the afterlife.

The Sadducees famously denied the possibility of resurrection and used a hypothetical example from the somewhat obscure law of levirate marriage from Deuteronomy1 to ‘prove’ that life after death makes no sense. They saw this as ‘clinching proof’ that they were right, and the Pharisees were wrong.

They also largely regarded only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) as having divine authority. So, although Jesus saw all the Old Testament (which they called the Law, the Prophets and the Writings) as authoritative Scripture, He used solely the Pentateuch to prove His point: the Sadducees were dead wrong on all counts because they did “not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (v24 NIV).

I was once invited to a formal dinner at a college in Oxford University (think Hogwarts dining room without the floating candles!). When the students around me learned I was there as a guest speaker on the Christian faith, they automatically went into ‘attack mode’, and for the next twenty minutes hit me with every atheistic argument they could come up with. They were clearly trying to show off their Oxford University intellectual prowess and show me up as a religious idiot. But when they realised that I was able to answer their questions, and they would not get a ‘quick win’, they conspicuously lost interest in my existence and turned to talk to other people.

I hasten to add that I was able to answer their questions because I had asked myself most or all of those same questions myself many times, and because I knew from experience that what I was talking about was true. I would also point out that my ability to defend myself did not result in anyone (as far as I could tell) showing any real interest in the Gospel. I felt a little smug for holding my ground, but that’s hardly evangelism.

The Real Deal (Mark 12:28-34)

It is only in this third instance that one man, a teacher of the Law, asked a real question and truly wanted to know what Jesus thought. Although the question was one that Jesus was probably asked several times, Jesus again did not evade it, but answered clearly and simply.

Like the other two above, this was a well-worn, ‘standard’ question. As many evangelists and apologists have found, there is usually a limited range of questions that people ask. Part of the challenge for us, whether in a public setting or a private chat with a friend, is to spot the question behind the question. For example, although there are a thousand ways to ask them, the majority of questions people have asked me have come down to one of the following: “How can a good God allow suffering?”; “Don’t all religions lead to God?”; “Can’t a good person go to heaven without believing in Jesus?”, “Hasn’t science disproved the Bible?” and, “Isn’t Christianity a western religion (i.e. not relevant to my culture)?”

The Jews followed 613 laws from the Old Testament, plus a whole host of written and spoken traditions. A popular question for debate was, of all of these, which is the most important?

Jesus had been asked this one before, and on one occasion He followed up the answer with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that case (Lk 10:25ff), the questioner was not so spiritually open, but here, the man was commended for being “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34).

Notice that here Jesus agreed with the generally accepted answer, that the most important law is actually a combination of (a) the starting point of the Shema, the declaration that Yahweh is God; (b) to love the Lord (Yahweh) with everything we are and have, and (c) to love others as much as we love ourselves. As I often point out, the death and resurrection of Jesus was necessary because we all fail daily to abide by these simple rules.

The reason Jesus commended the man asking the question was not simply that he and Jesus agreed on the answer, but because he went further and showed he understood the heart behind the law itself – to love God, and to show it by loving others, is more important than anything we can give or do for God to earn His good favour.

It is always a precious moment when a question shows that the person asking can see their need for Jesus. As one friend said, she kept trying to improve herself and make herself a better person but realised she couldn’t do so by her own power. Another admitted that she prayed to God, but didn’t know who she was praying to. One good friend of mine was so struck at how Jesus’ death on the cross was immediately followed by the Temple curtain being torn in two from top to bottom, allowing us to access God directly, that the curtain in his own heart was suddenly taken away (Mt 27:51 and 2 Cor 3:6).

Like Jesus, we need to gently affirm the heart behind people’s questions, without bending over backwards to agree with everything they say, especially if it does not line up with the Truth.

The Place of Apologetics

Christian apologetics is a very important discipline and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to thinkers and evangelists such as C S Lewis, Professor Francis Collins, Professor John Lennox, Josh McDowell, Amy Orr-Ewing, Michael Ramsden and many others. Their books and lectures have laid a strong intellectual foundation in my faith.

But I would go as far as to say that apologetics has been primarily for my own use; to strengthen my faith. The use of apologetics as ammunition to undermine or erode someone else’s views in the hope they will turn to Christ rarely works. Almost without exception, the natural human response to attack is defence. If we use apologetics in attack mode, all we will succeed in doing is causing people to retreat even further behind their defensive lines. Worse, they will see us as smug and condescending, even judgemental.

That is not to say that apologetics are for Christians only. Some people are drawn to the Christian faith because it is intellectually defensible, and anyone in whose heart the Lord is working will need real answers to their questions if they are to accept the Gospel. In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus did not waffle or evade the question, but answered it simply and truthfully. As a seeker after truth, Jesus’ answer resonated with this man, and he was drawn a stage further towards the Kingdom (see v34).

The above examples and illustrations all point to the fact that our ability to answer people’s questions and point them to the truth does not lie in our ability to argue. Nor does it depend on whether we have lined up all the best arguments from the latest Christian authors (most of whom, by the way, are Westerners answering questions mainly from a western perspective).

We, of course, do not have Jesus’ consummate skill and divine knowledge, but in each of the above situations, notice that Jesus did not avoid the question, nor did He play their games. He stuck to the truth. Each answer came straight from Scripture and showed that Jesus knew the Old Testament intimately. Indeed, I have found that the best way to answer any question is to know the Bible well, quite simply because, if we do not know what the Truth is, we cannot lead people clearly to it. Instead, we end up defending beliefs that come more out of a general Christian ‘culture’ rather than actually what the Bible says.

Most questions and objections come from not knowing the Truth. Someone who asks how a God of love can allow suffering, is someone who does not realise that ours is the God who suffers Himself on the cross. Someone who says that all religions lead to God likely has not read the Bible’s description of God and what salvation really means. Even as Christians, the answers to our own doubts are found in the Bible, but when we only dip into the Bible here and there, instead of reading and knowing it thoroughly, we only end up with more questions. And unless we grow in our faith through active, daily reading of the Bible, we end up as the Sadducees did, where Jesus told them, “You do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”

As Jesus Himself said, “You will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.”


1 Levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5ff) required a man to marry his brother’s widow if he had died without children. The law aimed at preserving family inheritance and protecting widows from the risk of starvation and humiliation. The hypothetical scenario in Mark 12:18-27 was ridiculous, but asked: if there is life after death, and a widow can remarry each time her husband dies, who will she belong to in the Resurrection?

About the author: Peter Teagle trained for ministry at DTC in Singapore, where his classmates from all over Asia shaped his understanding of how Jesus is the answer to the questions and longings of people from every nation and culture. He is an evangelist and Bible teacher for Friends International, a ministry to international students based in the UK, and a missionary associate of St John’s-St Margaret’s Church, Dover Road.

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