Tactics and Tools

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2008

There is an old TV show you may have heard of, but probably have never seen unless you are over fifty or watch reruns that are half a century old. It was an austere LAPD police drama called “Dragnet.”

Though the program has been largely forgotten, two lines from the show have not. The first is, “The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” The second is, “Just the facts, Ma’am,” detective Joe Friday’s trademark request of whomever he questioned as a witness.

Just the Facts, Ma’am is an easy tactic to use. It requires no cleverness or deft maneuvering. Only two things are necessary. First is the awareness that many challenges to Christianity are based on bad information. These objections can be overcome by a simple appeal to the facts.

The second requirement is that you need to know the facts. If you do, you can beat the objection. This is not an absolute requirement for this tactic, though, because sometimes you can spot a wrong answer even though you do not know the right one (I’ll tell you how to do that in a moment). But knowing the right answer is central to using Just the Facts, Ma’am, and often that information is just a few keystrokes away.

Let me give you an example of a popular challenge to Christianity that is not based in fact, though many think it is. The protest goes something like this: “More wars have been fought and more blood has been shed in the name of religion than any other cause. It is the greatest source of evil in the world.”

Now, one might point out that even if this were the case, it is not entirely clear what conclusions about religion are justified from that data. You couldn’t properly conclude, for example, that God does not exist or that Jesus was not the Savior simply by citing acts of violence done in the name of God or Christ. Since oppression and mayhem are neither religious duties for Christians nor logical applications of the teachings of Christ, violence done in the name of Christ cannot be laid at His door. This might tell you something about people. It tells you nothing about God.

So there are logical problems with this complaint. But the bigger problem is that this charge is simply not true. Religion has not caused more wars and bloodshed than anything else.

Though it is easy to characterize religion as a blood-thirsty enterprise replete with witch hunts, crusades, and religious jihad, the fact of history is that the greatest evil has always resulted from denial of God, not pursuit of Him. “In [the 20th] century alone,” Dennis Prager notes, “more innocent people have been murdered, tortured, and enslaved by secular ideologies—Nazism and communism—than by all religions in history.”1

Grab an older copy of the Guinness Book of World Records and turn to the category “Judicial,” sub-heading “Crimes: Mass Killings.” You’ll find that carnage of unimaginable proportions resulted not from religion, but from institutionalized atheism: over 66 million wiped out under Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev2; between 32 and 61 million Chinese killed under communist regimes since 19493; one third of the eight million Khmers—2.7 million people—were killed between 1975 and 1979 under the communist Khmer Rouge.4

The greatest evil has not resulted from people zealous for God. It has resulted when people are convinced there is no God they must answer to.

I want you to notice something about the facts I cited above. They were as precise as I could make them without being cumbersome. I gave you a specific source with exact numbers and precise dates. Exactness is an important element of Just the Facts, Ma’am because of a foundational principle of persuasion: When citing factual information in your defense, precise numbers are always more persuasive than general figures.

Though your memory may not always be up to the task (mine certainly isn’t), always use the specific rather than the general when you can. When you communicate with factual precision, you convince your listeners that you know what you are talking about.

Saying “thousands died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” is not as compelling as saying “2,973 human beings were buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.” Each bit of precision—“2,973,” “September 11, 2001,” the specific locations of the attacks—adds force to your facts. It may take longer to say it, but with proper delivery it is much more compelling.

This kind of exactness can be a powerful persuader. For example, I was once involved in a head-to-head duel, of sorts, with Pulitzer Prize winning historian Garry Wills before San Francisco’s liberal Commonwealth Club, being taped for national broadcast on NPR. In his opening salvo on the topic “Christianity in America,” Professor Wills scorned the idea that the Founding Fathers of our republic were Christians. They were not Christians, he claimed, but deists.

The microphone then passed to me. Fortunately, I had my facts. “The phrase ’Founding Fathers’ is a proper noun,” I explained. “It refers to a specific group: the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. There were other important players not in attendance, but these 55 Founding Fathers made up the core.” I then continued citing from memory, the best I could, the following facts.

The denominational affiliations of these men were a matter of public record. Among the delegates were 28 Episcopalians, 8 Presbyterians, 7 Congregationalists, 2 Lutherans, 2 Dutch Reformed, 2 Methodists, 2 Roman Catholics, 1 unknown, and only 3 deists—Williamson, Wilson, and Franklin—this at a time when church membership usually entailed “sworn adherence to strict doctrinal creeds.”5

This tally proves that 51 of 55—a full 93%—of the members of the Constitutional Convention, the most influential group of men shaping the political underpinnings of our nation, were Christians. Virtually every person involved in the founding enterprise of the United States was a God-fearing Protestant whose theology in today’s terms would be described as Evangelical or “fundamentalist.”

When I was finished, I set my microphone down and waited, bracing for the rebuttal from my learned opponent. But he said nothing. After a few moments of awkward silence, the moderator moved on to a new topic. Dr. Garry Wills, Pulitzer prize winning emeritus Professor of History at Northwestern University, had his facts wrong. Mine were not only correct, they were precise, adding tremendous persuasive power to my rebuttal.

Following a Plan

Challenges to Christianity that fail due to faulty facts may seem difficult to spot at first, especially if you are not well-versed in the issue in question. But the task becomes much easier if you have a plan, a series of steps to guide your effort.

For Just the Facts, Ma’am, I use the same two-step plan whether I am having a conversation or doing a more detailed analysis of a book or article. Here are the steps.

First ask, “What is the claim?” This may seem like an obvious initial step, but you’ll be surprised how often we charge ahead without having a clear fix on a target. Take a moment to isolate the precise point being made. Write it down in unambiguous terms if you need to.

Sometimes the claim is clear, but not always. Assertions are often implicit or hidden under a layer of rhetoric and linguistic maneuvering. Pay careful attention to get a clear fix on exactly what the person is asserting.

For example, I read a piece in a university newspaper written by a student who claimed that pro-lifers had no right to oppose abortion unless they were willing to care for the children born to mothers in crisis pregnancies. Notice the author was making two assertions here.

The first was the obvious moral point, which was easily dispatched. In my written response to the paper, I pointed out it simply does not follow that because a person objects to killing innocent children, he is obliged to care for those that survive. Imagine how bizarre it would sound to argue, “You have no right to stop me from beating my wife unless you’re willing to marry her.” Clearly, the offender is not off the hook simply because others won’t step in to take his place.

Implicit in the challenge, though, was a second assertion, the claim that pro-lifers were not doing anything for pregnant women carrying to term. The student therefore felt justified criticizing the pro-life movement.

This brings us to the second step of our plan. Once the claim is clear, ask, “Is the claim factually accurate?” Sometimes answering this question takes a little investigation.

A short trip to the internet revealed there were roughly 4,000 national and international pro-life service providers dedicated to the well-being of mothers in crisis pregnancies who choose life for their children. They provide medical aid, housing, baby clothing, cribs, food, adoption services—even post-abortion counseling services—all at no cost. Amazingly, there were more crisis pregnancy centers in the country than abortion clinics. A quick check of the local phone directory showed there were 10 right in the university’s own city. I pointed out each of these facts in my response to show there was no factual basis for the student’s objection.

Cracking the Code

I followed my two-step plan when evaluating the historical claims of a blockbuster novel whose broadside on Christianity and the Bible had created a public sensation, along with tremendous turmoil for Christians. First, I isolated the claims. The author (Dan Brown) made it simple in most cases by stating his contentions clearly. Here are some of them: 6

  • In the first three centuries, the warring between Christians and pagans threatened to rend Rome in two.
  • The doctrine that Jesus was the Son of God was fabricated for political reasons at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and affirmed by a close vote.
  • Constantine arranged for all gospels depicting Jesus as a mere mortal to be gathered up and destroyed.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls found in a cave near Qumran in the 1950s confirm that the modern Bible is a fabrication.
  • Thousands of Christ’s followers wrote accounts of Jesus’ life. These evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version.

Because I now had specific items to assess, my job was much easier. The first challenge was easy. Even a cursory analysis of this period of history reveals there were no wars between pagans and Christians, and for a very good reason. Jesus’ followers had neither armies nor the will to resist. Instead, they were pacifists who considered it a privilege to by martyred for Christ. They wouldn’t fight even tormentors like Diocletian who executed Christians by the thousands just 20 years before Constantine.

The Council of Nicea was not an obscure event in history. We have extensive records of the proceedings written by those who were actually there: Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius, archdeacon of Alexandria. Two things stand out in those accounts in light of Brown’s claims. First, no one at Nicea considered Jesus to be a “mere mortal,” not even Arius, whose errant views made the Council necessary. Second, Christ’s deity was the reason for the council, not merely the result of it.

After a pitched debate, the orthodox party prevailed. The vote wasn’t close at all; it was a landslide. Of 3187 bishops, only the Egyptians Theonas and Secundus refused to sign.8 The council affirmed what had been taught since the beginning. Jesus was not a mere man; He was the God the son.

Regarding the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, Brown might be forgiven for not getting the date right (the first scrolls were discovered in the 1940s, not the ’50s). There is no excuse, however, for another misstep: The Dead Sea Scrolls say nothing of Jesus. There were no gospels in Qumran. Not one shred or shard mention His name. This is a complete fabrication.

As for the rest of the claims, I want to let you in on a little secret. Answering the second question—“Is the claim factually accurate?”—does not always require investigation. I mentioned earlier that sometimes it is possible to spot a wrong answer even when you do not know the right one.

Here is how I do that. Before beginning any research, I ask, “Does anything about the assertion seem suspicious or unlikely on its face?”

For example, early in the book, Brown claims that over a period of 300 years the Catholic Church burned five million witches at the stake in Europe around the 15th century.9 I was immediately suspicious of this “fact.” I quickly took out my calculator and did the math. Rome would have to burn 45 women a day, every single day, non-stop for three hundred years. That’s a lot of firewood.

Further, a quick internet search revealed that the population for Europe at the time was about 50 million. If half were female (25 million) and half of those were adults (12.5 million), then something like 40% of the entire adult female population perished at the hand of the Vatican. That’s more carnage than the black plague of 1347, which killed only one third. Let’s just say, this seems highly unlikely.

Many of Dan Brown’s other claims can be quickly dispatched using the same technique:

  • If the deity of Christ was an idea invented by Constantine and completely foreign to Christ’s followers who viewed Him as a mere mortal, what explains the “relatively close vote” at Nicea?
  • If the early records of Jesus’ life are so corrupted and compromised with “countless translations, additions, and revisions,” and if “history has never had a definitive version of the book,” from where does Brown derive his reliable, authentic, unimpeachable biographical information about Jesus?
  • How does Brown know that thousands of Jesus’ followers wrote accounts of His life if the great bulk of these records were destroyed? This is the classic problem for conspiracy theorists: If all evidence was eradicated, how do they know it was there in the first place?
  • How is it physically possible for Constantine to gather up and burn10 all of the handwritten copies from every nook and cranny of the Roman empire by the 4th century and destroy the vast majority of them?

Each of these difficulties becomes obvious when you take a moment to ask if anything about the claim seems suspicious or implausible on its face. Granted, sometimes unlikely things turn out to be true, but when that’s the case, the evidence has to be very precise and convincing. Usually, this question can save you some sleuthing.

Abortion and Homicide

Here’s another challenge that can be overcome by a simple appeal to facts. Some denounce the use of the word “murder” to describe abortion. Yet this “rhetoric” is completely consistent with the laws in nearly two thirds of the Union, at least in one regard.

In the California statutes, for example, under the category “Crimes against the Person,” §187, murder is defined this way: “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought” [emphasis mine]. After the definition, we find among the exceptions: “This section shall not apply to any person who commits an act which results in the death of a fetus if...the act was solicited, aided, abetted, or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”

This exception in the California statute is troubling. The moral principle underlying all homicide statues is that human beings have innate worth. Value is not derived from something outside of the person; it is intrinsic. That’s why destroying a human being is the most serious of crimes.

Fetal homicide statutes like California’s are odd because the only difference between legal abortion and punishable homicide is the consent of the mother. If the intrinsic value of unborn human beings qualify them for protection under homicide statutes, why is something extrinsic, like the mother’s choice, relevant? How does the mere consent of the mother change the innate value of the little human being inside her?

However one answers this question, two facts remain. One, abortion is legal in states like California. Two, apart from the stipulated exceptions, killing the unborn is homicide. Those who do so are prosecuted for murder.

On the use of the word “murder,” then, pro-lifers are not extreme. They agree with the statutes of the majority of states in this country: Unborn children are valuable human beings due the same protection as the rest of us. The problem is not with pro-life “extremists,” but with inconsistent laws.

Just the Context, Ma’am

Resolving a challenge by appealing to the facts works with scriptural issues, too. Here’s a quick example. I have been asked why God prohibits killing in the Ten Commandments, but then commands killing when the Jews take the land. That’s a contradiction, they say.

It would be, if not for a simple fact. The Ten Commandments don’t say, “Do not kill,” but rather, “Do not murder” (Exodus 20:13). There are different words for each in Hebrew just as in English, for a good reason. There is a moral distinction between justified killing (killing in self defense, for example) and unjustified killing (murder). God prohibits the second, not the first. The facts show there is no contradiction.

Here’s another example of applying Just the Facts, Ma’am to a passage that is almost universally misunderstood: “Do not judge, lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1). This is a verse everybody knows and quotes when convenient, even if they do not usually like the Bible. Jesus qualified this command, though, in a way that most do not:

And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? ....You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye (Matthew 7:3, 5).

A closer look at the facts of the context shows that Jesus did not condemn all judgments, only hypocritical ones—arrogant condemnations characterized by disdain and condescension. Not all judgments are of this sort, so not all judgments are condemned. In fact, even in this passage Jesus actually encourages a different sort of judgment once the hypocrisy has been dealt with (“first take the log out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”).

As you can see, many who challenge Christianity have based their case on ignorance or error. When that happens, objections can be overcome by a straightforward appeal to the facts. Always ask, “Does anything about the claim seem unlikely on its face?” Then do a little sleuthing and verify the details.

Like detective Joe Friday, simply say, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Read critically. Reflect on the claims. Check the background information. Find the truth.