The tactical game plan I often speak of is a powerful strategy, but it has a modest liability; there is a speed bump I want to help you navigate.
I outline the plan itself in detail in the book Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions.[i] It’s a formidable tool to keep you in the driver’s seat of otherwise difficult or discomfiting conversations with skeptics and challengers—yet in a safe, genial, and amazingly effective way.
Using tactics has transformed my ability to make a difference for Christ. Simply put, the key to maneuvering effectively in spiritual conversations with others is to use questions. Carefully placed queries are the core of the tactical game plan. I call the plan “Columbo” after the iconic Lt. Columbo of a bygone TV era who was amazingly successful using the same approach.
The final stage of the plan, though, has a limitation.
The first two steps of the 3-step plan are simplicity itself, of course, allowing you to make tremendous headway in a conversation even when you have zero insight into the challenge you’re facing and no skill at verbal maneuvering.
Step one has a single purpose. Your goal is not to preach the gospel or to give evidence for Christianity or even to mention Jesus. All you want to do at this point is get the lay of the land. You need a clear picture of what you’re up against.
To find out what you’re facing, what the other person believes, or what his precise objections are, focus at the outset on one task and one task only: gathering information. Ask clarification questions in a gentle, curious, probing way (“I’m confused a little by what you said. Can you clear this up for me? What did you mean by that?”)
Step two builds on the information you gathered with the first step. Once you have clarity on what a person believes, you then want to know why he believes it. I call this reversing the burden of proof since it’s your friend’s responsibility (“burden”) to provide reasons (“proof”) for the claim he’s just clarified in response to your initial question. It’s not your job to refute it—at least not at first. Initially, it’s his job to defend it.
Notice that at this stage of the game plan you haven’t taken on any risk since you haven’t advanced your own view in any way. You’re simply using questions to ease into the shallow end of the pool, so to speak. No pressure; no worries. So far, so good.
The final step is the trickier one.[ii]
The Speed Bump
The third step of the game plan is a bit more challenging since you will not be using questions passively to gain information of some sort (either your friend’s ideas or his reasons for them). Instead, you will be using questions actively to give information of a specific kind—in this case, to point out a weakness or a flaw in the other person’s view.
Which brings us to the speed bump. The final maneuver of the game plan requires three things you may not have: one, insight into the weakness or flaw; two, insight into what questions to use to exploit the liability; and three, a basic blueprint in your mind of how you will direct the initial moves of the unfolding conversation—your opening query, your friend’s likely response, and your next couple of moves.
This final phase takes you into the deeper end of the pool, and that is what I want to help you with. In the next few issues of Solid Ground, I’m going to give you a primer on what I call “Street Tactics.” I use this phrase because this last step in our strategy is usually where the verbal sparring begins.
First, I will introduce a standard challenge you’re likely to face “on the street.” Then I’ll go into some detail on how the challenge falters. Finally, I will provide mini-dialogues showing the questions I would personally use to initiate and prosecute my critique. I’ll follow up, in some cases, with variations that will help you respond to possible turns the talk might take as the conversation unfolds.
These mini-dialogues are not complete conversations, of course. My goal isn’t to give you a rigid script. Rather, I want to provide ways of getting you started on a specific challenge so you can move forward effectively in a friendly and disarming fashion.
Certain questions (rendered in bold in the dialogues below) are key, though, especially the initial ones, since they provide a launching pad to get you started. I suggest that you memorize them or at least have the gist of their substance clear in your mind. I want you to have these opening moves at the ready so you can immediately take the initiative, going on the offensive yet in an inoffensive way.
Usually, my first questions are designed to give me valuable information that sets the stage for what follows (Columbo #1). Further questions may probe the rationale for a person’s belief (Columbo #2). The key to Street Tactics, though, is using carefully selected queries to expose an objection’s flaws and thus disarm it (Columbo #3).
Let’s tackle our first challenge, arguably one of the toughest a Christian has to face—the problem of evil.
The Problem with the Problem of Evil
Answering the challenge of suffering and evil is a constant task for Christians, and understandably so. There is one thing every person knows, no matter where he lives or when he lives. Everyone knows the world is broken. Things are not the way they’re supposed to be. That’s the complaint. But there’s a problem with this protest most critics don’t consider.
Contrary to popular belief, the problem of evil is not a good argument against God. It’s actually one of the best arguments for God. The “problem” with the problem of evil is that if God does not exist, there can be no real evil to object to. Here’s why.
Put most simply, in order for the world not to be the way it’s supposed to be (the problem of evil), there needs to be a way the world is supposed to be (perfectly good). Pretty basic.
Three significant concerns undercut the atheist’s challenge at this point.
Here is the first. In a strange way, the atheist is skewered by his own objection. The problem of evil—the challenge of one’s worldview accounting for the existence of staggering human misery and stunning moral depravity—is not merely a Christian problem; it is a human problem. Getting rid of God doesn’t get rid of the perplexing complaint. Everyone has to grapple with it—even atheists.
So how do atheists answer their own protest—the charge of an incurable worldview contradiction—when it’s turned back on them? They can’t. What could it possibly mean for them to say that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be? Their materialist worldview provides no resources to account for the existence of genuine evil.
It gets worse for the atheist, though, since he faces a second hurdle.
When someone protests that bad things happen, there are two ways to understand this complaint that need to be distinguished from each other but rarely are: a relativist’s way or an objectivist’s way. Here’s what I mean.
On the one hand, those who have a relativistic impulse are quick to describe moral judgments as mere personal matters. That’s the “don’t push your morality on me” crowd. “I have my morality; you have yours,” they say.
Here’s the rub. If they stick to their relativism, then the problem of evil vanishes since the word “bad” simply refers to an event or an action the relativist doesn’t happen to like. Good and evil are reduced to personal preference. Who’s to judge? One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.
This is not what the objector has in mind, of course, when he raises his grievance against Christianity. He means something else. In that moment, his complaint is about real, objective evil—evil “out there, in the world”—ergo his challenge.
So which is it? Does he mean things happen he doesn’t like (relativism), or does he mean things happen that are actually bad (objectivism) regardless if people like them or not? He can’t have it both ways—both his convenient relativism and his favorite objectivist complaint against God—since they conflict. Most skeptics, though, have never considered this clash within their own worldview. [iii]
If the atheist surrenders his relativism to rescue his protest, though, a final obstacle assails him, arguably the most daunting.
As we’ve seen, the complaint about evil itself requires transcendent, universal laws that govern the world—objective morality—in order for real evil to exist as a violation of those laws. Transcendent moral laws require a transcendent lawmaker—God. Saying the world is “supposed” to be a certain way requires a “sposer,” so to speak—someone who intended the world to be much better than it is.
Think about this comment: “I read in the newspaper that writers don’t exist. The article seemed convincing. What’s your opinion?”
You see the problem immediately, of course. Without writers, there would be no articles in newspapers to deny the existence of writers in the first place. The second—the newspaper article—depends on the first—the writer. The claim self-destructs.[iv]
In a similar way, if there is no God, then there is no transcendent moral lawmaker. If no lawmaker, then no universal moral laws we’re all obligated to obey. If no moral laws, then no broken laws. If no broken laws, then no problem of evil. Simply put, then, if there is no God, there can be no evil (or good, for that matter).
Yet there is a problem of evil (we all know this), so there must be broken laws, so there must be laws, so there must be a transcendent law maker, so there must be a God.
Now that the problems with the atheist’s challenge are clear in our minds, here is the strategic thinking that will guide our tactical response: Before we answer the atheist’s concern about God and evil, he needs to show that the challenge itself is coherent—that the very concept of evil is intelligible in a world without God.
Philosophers call this the “grounding problem,” the difficulty of asserting morality when there is no basis for (“grounding”) or source of morality to account for it. As I have written elsewhere, “Atheism cannot even make sense of the notion of a ‘broken’ world to begin with, so the problem of evil turns out to be just as lethal for atheists as it appears to be for theism.”[v]
In sum, then, there are three hurdles for the atheist who raises the problem of evil against theism:
- A worldview problem: Making sense of evil in the world is a problem that plagues atheists, too, yet their materialism provides no way to resolve the difficulty since they cannot explain the existence of evil from within their worldview.
- A relativism problem: If there is a genuine problem of evil, then moral relativism is false because objective evil exists.
- A grounding problem: Atheism cannot explain the source of the very moral obligations that are necessary for there to be a problem of evil in the first place.
Our strategy on the street will be to exploit these problems using questions. Note, though, that in this case we will not be answering the atheist’s challenge directly by showing how evil is compatible with a good, powerful God. That more complex issue is difficult to untangle quickly, so we will sidestep it for the moment.[vi]
Instead, our strategy will be to press the skeptic on the incoherence and inconsistency of his challenge.
Evil in the Street
Now that we know the flaws in this objection, we can look at the best tactical ways to expose them when someone raises the problem of evil against theism in conversation.
I find it’s always best if I’m prepared with a move to get me going right out of the gate. Here’s my standard opening question regarding the challenge of evil: “What, exactly, is the problem?” [Columbo 1] The query may seem like an empty one (the problem seems obvious), but it accomplishes two tactically significant objectives.
First, this question immediately buys me time—if only a moment or two—so I can collect my thoughts and strategize my next moves. Second, it’s always to my advantage to have a challenger spell out his concern in precise terms since it removes ambiguities for both of us by pressing for precision about an objection.
Here’s my second move: “So you believe in evil then?” [Columbo 1][vii]
Again, this seems like a restatement of the obvious, but it confirms an important detail in the conversation, plus it provides a smooth bridge to any of the dialogue strategies below.
The Worldview Problem
“So you believe in evil then?”
“Yes, of course I do. That’s my objection.”
“So as an atheist, how does your worldview account for the existence of evil? How would you answer your own question, given the concern you pose?” [Columbo 3]
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s evil in the world, right?”
“As a theist, I think evil happens when someone violates a perfect standard of good, when things deviate from how they’re supposed to be. That makes complete sense to most people, and it fits my own worldview perfectly. But how does atheism make sense of that?” [Columbo 3]
“I don’t get what you mean.”
“Well, the rules have to be real before they can be violated to cause the evil you’re objecting to, right? And, on your view, they’d have to be physical to be real. But moral rules aren’t physical. So how do you solve that problem?”
* * * *
“So you believe some standard of good has been violated, resulting in evil.”
“Well, you’re an atheist, right?”
“And you don’t believe in God or in anything outside the physical world. Is that right?”
“Are the moral laws you’re talking about physical or nonphysical?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Well, on your view, if the broken moral rules causing evil are not physical, then they don’t exist and there can’t be a problem of evil. But if they do exist, they must be physical—have physical shape and weight, extend in space, be governed by the laws of chemistry and physics, etc. So which is it?” [Columbo 3]
The Relativism Problem
“So you do believe in evil then?”
“Yes, of course. That’s my objection.”
“What do you mean by ‘evil’? How would you define it?” [Columbo 1]
“Well, I think it’s a matter of opinion.”
“So there are no universal rules governing all people at all times in all places?”
“Of course not. It’s all relative.”
“Now I’m confused. It sounds like you’re asking how God could allow so much evil in the world when there is no real evil. How would you fix that?” [Columbo 3]
“But I do believe in evil. That’s my complaint.”
“But you just told me everything’s relative, that there’s no absolute standard. So then evil would just be a violation of your personal opinions.”
“Right. It’s what I personally believe is wrong.”
“So you’re asking me how can there be a God who allows things to happen that you don’t like? Why is that a good objection against God? What am I missing here?” [Columbo 3]
* * * *
“When you object to evil, are you saying that certain things bother you emotionally? Or are you saying that certain actions are wrong in themselves regardless of how you feel, and that’s what makes God’s existence unlikely?”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“Let me put it another way. Is rape wrong?” [Columbo 3]
“Of course it is.”
“Now, do you mean it’s wrong regardless of what a person or a society thinks, or is it only wrong from your perspective?”
“It’s wrong for me.” [relativism]
“Then I don’t understand your complaint. You don’t think God exists because some things happen that are wrong for you? How is that a problem?”
The Grounding Problem
“So you believe in evil then?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You’re an atheist, though, so I don’t understand your question.”
“What do you mean?”
“If there is no God, how can there be any evil in the world?” [Columbo 3]
“I don’t get your point.” [Be prepared for people to be confused about the grounding concern.]
“Well, when you talk about evil, you’re basically saying some kind of moral rule has been broken, that the person doing evil has broken that rule. Right?”
“I guess so.”
“Then who made those moral rules?” [Columbo 3]
* * * *
“What exactly is the problem?”
“It’s obvious. Bad things happen. If there really was a good God, like you say, then He wouldn’t allow all that bad stuff.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘bad.’ Can you help me out?” [Columbo 1]
“You know, things like rape, torture, murder—that sort of thing.”
“You just gave me examples of evil. But why would you label those things evil and not call, say, kindness or heroism evil? You must have some standard in mind. Where do you get the standard that distinguishes good from evil?” [Columbo 3]
* * * *
“Is there a speed limit on the street by your house?” [This question is meant to set up Columbo 3, below.]
“If you exceeded the speed limit, would you be breaking the law?”
“Where did that law come from?” [Columbo 3]
“The sign is right there. It’s obvious. Anyone can read it.” [Here he’s confused how he knows the law with the source of the law itself—a common mistake. Your question is about the second, not the first.]
“Sorry. I’m not asking if you can see the sign. I’m asking you where the sign came from. What if I made the sign? [relativism] Would you be obligated to obey that sign?”
“Of course not. Individual people don’t set the speed limits. The government does.”
“I agree completely. So what governing authority makes the laws of the universe that are violated when people do evil things?” [Columbo 3]
“I’m not following you.” [This confusion is common.]
“Well, you’re saying that people are breaking the speed limit of the universe, so to speak—the problem of evil. If there are no real speed limits, then there is no real evil. I’m just asking where the speed limits come from. Any idea?” [Columbo 3]
That’s Street Tactics—maneuvering in tough conversations by using a plan with specific questions meant to expose a weakness or a flaw in someone’s view. It’s easier than you think if you follow the steps.
First, get a clear take on your friend’s view. Make sure you understand it. If there are any ambiguities, use your first Columbo question, “What do you mean by that?” (or some variation), to clear them up.
Second, reflect on the challenge or do some research to zero in on its weaknesses or its failings. Most of the maneuvers in Part 2 of the Tactics book are meant to help you find flaws and exploit them.
Third, chart a course for your conversation—as I have done for you in the examples above—using a mixture of questions (especially clarification questions) to keep your friend engaged while you move forward to expose the liabilities you’ve discovered. Be sure to have the first couple of moves clear in your mind—even memorized—so when the challenge comes up, you’ll have your first question at the ready. This single bit of prep will save you lots of stress.
At first you’ll need to plan ahead and practice a bit by doing a conversation dry run, of sorts. As you employ these principles, though, the process will become almost second nature—a kind of mental “muscle memory.” You’ll be able to move ahead easily in conversations that used to be daunting and discomfiting, staying securely in the driver’s seat on a productive route—all without speed bumps.
[i] See Gregory Koukl, Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
[ii] If you’re not familiar with the basic game plan, the first five chapters of Tactics will get you completely up to speed. It’s good to have that foundation in place before you attempt the slightly more advanced step, Street Tactics. Be sure to get the expanded 2nd edition of Tactics, though.
[iii] In Tactics, I call this particular version of self-refutation “Sibling Rivalry Suicide.” Keep in mind that not all atheists are relativists, or materialists, for that matter. The vast majority are, though.
[iv] In Tactics, I call this error “Infanticide Suicide.”
[v] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 87. I go on to explain why the problem is not lethal for theists at all, since there are additional factors that decisively nullify the objection.
[vi] I engage that question thoroughly in The Story of Reality, chapter 14.
[vii] Notice, by the way, the persistent use of clarification questions (Columbo 1) both to confirm important information and to keep the conversation moving forward in a friendly, interactive way.