Tactics and Tools

In the Presence of Hostile Witnesses

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2001

I had every reason to be confident going into the debate. How could I lose? I was defending an irrefutable proposition: Objective truth can be known.

My debate opponent had happily agreed to defend the opposite view: objective truth can’t be known. He would be forced to explain how he knows that nothing can be known, how he’s absolutely sure there’s nothing absolutely certain.

As you can see, I couldn’t lose. Or could I?

What was I missing? My opponent was too smart to make such an obvious blunder. He was no fool. In fact, he was a brilliant man. He held a Ph.D. in philosophy, was a member of the Jesus Seminar, and had even translated the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

Worse for me (in a way), he was an affable, winsome, and engaging personality. And he was making his case on his home turf.1 Many of the young adults packed into the student union lounge were his own students.

It seemed a little too easy and that made me nervous. I must be missing something. What did he know that I didn’t know? What flaw in my ideas had alluded me?

I was about to find out. And that’s a good thing.

Peer Review

None of us wants his views proven wrong, especially his most cherished ones, regardless of which side of the fence we’re on. But if we want to cultivate a sensible faith, we need to be aware of our own powerful instincts for theological self-preservation.

This instinct is so strong, in fact, that sometimes we are tempted to intellectually circle the wagons and guard against the slightest challenge to our beliefs. This strategy, however, provides a false sense of security. The opposite approach actually provides much more safety.

In Medieval times when a knight threw his gauntlet—an armored glove—into the arena, it was a challenge to fight. This was his signal to the world he was willing to take on a challenger. He was in the game.

In the same way, Christians need to throw down the gauntlet. Instead of digging in behind the trenches to defend against attackers, we should tear down our defenses. We should throw our ideas into the arena and invite attack by hostile witnesses.

In academic circles this is called “peer review.” Philosophers, scientists, and theologians present their ideas in professional forums and solicit critique. They test the merit of their thoughts by offering them to people who are inclined to disagree.

Last year I attended a three-day conference entitled “Design and Its Critics.” Here the best minds in the Intelligent Design movement—Behe, Dembski, Meyer, Nelson, to name a few—assembled to make their case. But they weren’t alone. They’d invited the top Darwinian thinkers in the country to listen to their ideas and take their best shots. It was one of the most invigorating and intellectually honest encounters I’d ever witnessed.

The idea of peer review is based on a very sound notion. If our ideas are easily destroyed by those acquainted with the facts, they ought to be discarded. But if our ideas are good, they will not be upended so easily. In the process, we’ll learn what the other side knows, and may be surprised at how weak their resistance really is.

This lesson was driven home to me quite unexpectedly one day while sitting in my own library minding my own business.

A Knock on the Door

While preparing for a radio show one Sunday afternoon, I heard a knock on my front door. When I answered, two middle-aged women smiled at me pleasantly, bundles of apocalyptic literature in hand. Would I like to see their material?

I mentioned there were two at the door, but only the one in front—the one who’d knocked—spoke. The second stood quietly in the back, watching. Jehovah’s Witnesses go out in pairs, one experienced Witness and one new disciple. The neophyte makes the initial contact, while the mentor waits protectively in the background, ready for a flanking maneuver should the young cadet get into trouble.

I knew I had very little time to make an impact. For one, I was preparing a commentary for radio and was running against the clock. Still, I didn’t want to send my visitors away empty-handed.

Second, door-to-door cult missionaries usually have little time for anyone who is biblically literate. Once I showed my hand, I knew they’d disappear quickly looking for an easier mark.

“I’m a Christian,” I began. I directed my comments to the younger convert, the one less influenced by the Watchtower organization and hopefully more open to another viewpoint.

“It’s clear we have some differences, including the vital issue of the identity of Jesus. I believe what John teaches in John 1:3, that Jesus is the uncreated Creator. This makes Him God.”2

Mention of the deity of Christ was all that was needed to bring the rear guard into action. The person in the shadows spoke up for the first time. I honestly wasn’t prepared for her response.

“You’re entitled to your opinion and we’re entitled to ours,” was all she said. No question, no challenge, no theological rebuttal. This was a dismissal, not a response. She turned on her heel and started for the next house, young cadet in tow, in search of more vulnerable game.

I cast about for something to say that might slow their retreat. “You’re also entitled to be wrong in your opinion,” I blurted out, but the retort had no effect.

I admit it wasn’t a devastating rejoinder, but it was all I could think of in the moment. “Clearly we both can’t be right,” I added, “even though we’re both entitled to our opinions.” I was hoping for some kind of reaction, some kind of engagement, but my challenge went unanswered.

As they marched down the walkway I fired my final salvo, vainly hoping for a response: “Obviously, you’re not interested in hearing any other point of view than your own.” Then they were gone.

Gun Shy

In the moments that followed a host of questions flooded my mind. Did I use the right tactic? Would a different approach have been more effective? Did anything I say leave a good impression? Did I plant even a seed of doubt in their minds?

I’ll probably never know the answer to those questions, but the meeting was still educational. Notice a couple of things about this short exchange.

What did these two missionaries do when they encountered someone who was biblically literate? What was their first response when I mentioned my background and then gave a thumbnail sketch of an argument striking right at the heart of their most cherished doctrine?

They backed off. They bailed out. They ran away.

What’s wrong with this picture? If you were convinced that the medicine you held in your hand would save the life of a dying patient, would you turn on your heel, letting him perish just because he didn’t like the taste of the treatment? In the same way, isn’t it strange that a door-to-door evangelist out to save the world would take flight at the first sign of any of opposition?

These Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries were in a battle for human souls, yet they fled at the first sound of gunfire.

Three Revelations

This encounter taught me three things about these missionaries.

First, they weren’t very confident in their message. Why should I take a single moment to consider an alleged message from God that God’s messenger herself wouldn’t lift one finger to defend? Why should I respect the cause of a soldier who retreats at the first sign of resistance?

Second, these missionaries could not have been very interested in my salvation. If they were genuinely concerned about rescuing my lost soul, their first impulse should have been to find out what I believed and why, then correct my errant theology. Isn’t that why they go door to door, to witness to the lost, to give them the truth about Jehovah God and invite them to join the Watchtower organization?

But they didn’t even listen to my point of view, much less try to correct my error. Do you know what that tells me? They didn’t care much about my eternal destiny.

Third, I learned they didn’t take the issue of truth very seriously, either. Religious evangelism is a persuasive enterprise. The evangelist thinks his view is true and opposing views are false. He also thinks the difference matters, which is why he’s trying to change people’s minds. Follow the truth, you win. Follow a lie, you lose—big time.

A commitment to truth (as opposed to a commitment to an organization) means an openness to refining one’s own views. It means increasing the accuracy of one's understanding and being open to correction in thinking.

A challenger might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, an ally instead of an enemy. An evangelist who’s convinced of his view should want to hear the very best arguments against it.

One of two things would then happen. He may discover that some objections to his view are good ones. The rebuttal helps him make adjustments and corrections in his thinking, refining his knowledge of the truth. Or it may turn out he’s on solid ground after all. Developing answers to the toughest arguments against him strengthens both his witness and his confidence in his religion.

A Lesson Learned

There’s a lesson here for Christians: Don’t be too quick to back down from opposition.

First, as intelligent or aggressive as your opponent might seem, he still is, in fact, perishing without Christ. You don’t know what internal struggles he’s facing that don’t show through his confident or gruff exterior. You don’t know but that God will use your simple, gracious, but direct challenge to his beliefs and begin to melt his rebellious heart. It happens.

Second, you might learn something yourself. Maybe you’re the one mistaken, at least in part. Or maybe your view is right, but the way you defend it is flawed. If your bad arguments are refuted, ditch them. The case for Christianity is too good to be compromised by faulty defenses.

Third, maybe you’re not mistaken. If so, you want to be certain your convictions can stand up to the most rigorous analysis. When it does, the confidence you gain will be worth its weight in gold.

Not Quick on Your Feet?

This does not mean you must charge headlong into every skirmish that comes your way. Maybe you don’t consider yourself fast enough on your feet to keep up with someone who’s quicker than you in an intense discussion. No problem. Don’t feel under pressure to immediately answer every question asked or every point made.

For tactical reasons you may want to adopt the posture of a neutral observer. Shift from argument mode to fact-finding mode.

Try this. Say something like, “Interesting point. I’d like to hear more. Let me ask some questions about your view and your reasons for it so I understand it. Then let me think about it. We can talk more later.” This shows you take the other person’s view seriously and also buys you valuable time.

Ask probing questions (Columbo tactic), but don’t try to win your case just then. Take notes if you need to. Make sure you understand the challenge or the objection clearly. Then do some work on your own—maybe even enlisting others in the process—and come back prepared.

If your discussion was just part of a chance meeting, you may not be able to revisit the topic with the same person, but you’ll be prepared next time the issue comes up.

This is a wonderful way to completely take the pressure off you. It’s not a retreat, just a different type of engagement. It greatly reduces your anxiety level, strengthens your own confidence, and prepares you to be more effective next time around.

Courage Under Fire

My debate with the learned professor went remarkably smoothly. I wasn’t blind-sided or buffaloed. Instead, I learned through experience what I had expected was true, but wasn’t completely sure of. The other side was advanced with empty, self-refuting slogans and post-modern platitudes. My own argument was on solid ground.

This taught me a powerful lesson. Don’t retreat in the face of opposition. Too much is at stake. Be the kind of soldier that instills respect in others because of your courage under fire.

Make your case in the presence of hostile witnesses. Throw your gauntlet into the arena and see what the other side has to say. It’s one of the most effective ways to establish your case and help you cultivate sensible faith over time.