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How to Ask Questions part 3

Who has the burden of proof? The burden of proof simply means the person who expressed his opinion must justify or explain the reasons for holding that belief.  It is a vital skill to establish in a conversation who has the burden of proof.  The pressure is always on the one who has to justify his or her opinion. When you are in a discussion an important listening skill is to evaluate whether the person you are talking with puts forth an argument or an opinion.  If it is an opinion you don’t have the burden of proof.  Some examples of assertions:

  • You believe Christianity because you need a crutch.
  • Everyone knows the Bible is full of good stories and myths that teach moral truths.
  • Believing your religion is the only one that can get you into heaven is false.
  • The supernatural doesn’t exist.
  • It is a myth that Jesus rose physically from the dead.
  • All religions worship the same God.
  • All roads lead to heaven.
  • Morality is determined by cultural norms.

Many times as Christians as soon as we hear opinions, such as those above, we jump immediately into defensive mode and begin to fashion an answer.  Tactically, this is the wrong approach.  All they have done is give their opinion.  Instead of answering an opinion we need to ask them to provide support for their conclusion.  They bear the burden of proof. My own children would argue which rock band was the best.  One would say “Pearl Jam” is the best band and the other would immediately say “No way Nirvana is far better.”  I would repeatedly tell them not to argue against opinions.  Make the other person justify his opinion by asking, why do you believe that?  Today all my adult children are excellent at presenting compelling arguments.  All three will ask, “Why should I believe that,” when confronted with an opinion.  They don’t unnecessarily take the burden of proof.

Here are two excellent questions to ask when a person gives his opinion.  Memorize both of them and use them the next time you are in a conversation.  

1.   What do you mean by that? –      This is a clarifying question.  It helps with making sure you are working with the same definitions.  For example someone says “All roads lead to heaven.”  I would ask, when you say “all roads” what do you mean by that?  This question will help make sure you don’t misrepresent what the person believes.  You don’t want to respond unless you are clear about the question or comment. –      This also gives you more time to think about what the person asked.  Sometimes I ask what seems like an obvious question, simply to stall and give me more time to process the information.

2.   Why should I or anyone else believe that? –      Once you have clarity of the person’s opinion then you move to the second question.    Remember you don’t argue or try to answer opinions or assertions.  Make the person give support or evidence for his opinion.  He bears the burden of proof.

Example:  I had a person recently assert the Bible is full of contradictions.  I asked him, what do you mean by a contradiction?  Can you show me a contradiction in the Bible?  When I asked the second question he couldn’t show me one single contradiction.  He had heard that objection from someone else and hadn’t researched it to see if it was true.  He had successfully used that line on other Christians because he wasn’t challenged.  Now he was in trouble and he had to work hard to try to save face. However, others might be able to show an apparent contradiction.  You can then ask, in those verses you showed me, why do you think it is a contradiction? 

Once they have done that we need to have an answer.  This will take study.  We need to be prepared to answer through studying the Bible, knowing theology, and ongoing study of apologetics.  Many contradictions can be cleared up by reading the paragraphs above and below the problem passage.  I also recommend having one or more books on apparent contradictions[1]. If you don’t have an answer it is acceptable to say I can’t answer that objection but I’ll get back to you.  Then make sure you set-up a time and place to meet in the near future.  Then study the passages in context, find a good commentary, or research the internet for answers.  You could also use one of the recommended books listed below.   If you still don’t have an answer you can admit it and move on.  The person will respect your efforts and simply because you couldn’t find an answer doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

When in a discussion always keep in mind who has the burden of proof.  Don’t answer an opinion or assertion.  Make them give reasons for why their statement has merit.  Understanding and applying these questions in spiritual conversations will vastly improve your ability to make your case for Christianity.  The “what and why” questions will many times expose the fact the person actually holds weak beliefs.  Once you clear away the objections you can then move towards sharing the truth of Christianity.

Go to part 4 here



[1] Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible by John W. Haley; When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe; Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer.
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