Author Greg Koukl
Published on 01/24/2022
Tactics and Tools

Tactics for Conversations with Agnostics

Greg explains how to use the Columbo tactic with agnostics and gives an example of directing the conversation toward a specific topic.


Caller: My question comes from some conversations I’ve had with a family member, and this family member comes off a lot as agnostic. When talking to someone about the Bible or Christianity in general, how do you argue the credibility or accuracy of the topic? And how do you argue against an agnostic?

Greg: There are two things here. One has to do with the integrity of the text, and the other one has to do with agnosticism. Let me address agnosticism first because it’s the least complicated.

There are two types of agnosticism. One type of agnostic is somebody who says, “I don’t know one way or another.” Another type of agnostic says, “I don’t know the answer regarding this issue [say, God] and no one can know.” The latter is a much stronger claim. When you say, “I don’t know; I’m not convinced one way or another,” that’s one thing, but it’s another thing to say, “But no one can know. This is not possible to know.” If they tell me, “This is not possible to know,” I want to know why they think it’s not possible to know some detail of spiritual truth. “It’s not possible to know whether God exists or not? Why is that?” And I’d want them to answer that. I think that’s a very strong claim.

If the person says, “I’m agnostic—that means I don’t know,” then the question is, “What is it that’s keeping you on the fence?” The person is on the fence. They might go one way. It’s possible that, let’s say, Christianity is true or God exists, and it’s possible God doesn’t exist. “I’m not sure.” “Well, what’s keeping you on the fence?” So, at least that kind of agnostic is open to the possibility that knowledge in this area is possible.

If you have a hard agnostic, then the question is going to be, “Why is it that no one can know? Maybe there’s some form of empiricism they’re going to offer, because God is not anything you could see with your eyes, and therefore you can only believe things that you could see with your eyes or with your five senses, and there are different ways to deal with that, but that might be one way they answer. But if they answer, “It certainly is possible; I just don’t know,” ask, “What kind of evidence would make a difference for you? What’s keeping you on the fence as opposed to saying, no, there is no God at all?” Something gives them pause. I wonder what that is.

So, that’s the issue of agnosticism. The other issue, though, is a little more complex, and it depends on what the actual concern is. It has to do with the integrity of the biblical text.

Caller: Part of it is dealing with essential text versus important text, and I’ve made the claim that essential text is anything that has to do with salvation, and he seems to chalk that up to just interpretation.

Greg: This is this distinction you’re making: essential or important. Though it may be completely valid when you’re discussing theological issues, for example, with other Christians, people might say, “Well this one detail has some value, but it isn’t an essential.” Those are distinctions that shouldn’t matter to a non-Christian. When your friend says whether a thing is essential or merely important, now he’s entering into a theological discussion that’s kind of an in-house discussion. I don’t know if making that distinction is going to be helpful, but I think there are certain details that seem to be critical, and that is the person and work of Christ, and if he’s dismissive about those really critical things because it’s a matter of interpretation, this is where a question is in order: “When you say it’s a matter of interpretation or that’s just your interpretation, what do you mean? What is it you’re getting at there?”

Now, I know the point that is being made, but I think there’s a mistake that people make when they make a statement like this, and I think that drawing them out a little bit will help them to see this mistake. So, maybe we can role-play this a moment. You be your friend, and I’ll say something like, “There are parts in Scripture that are really more vital than others. Jesus was God. The fact that Jesus was God is really vital.” Being the naysayer in this case like your friend, what would you say to that? Something about interpretation, right?

Caller: I’d say, “You claim that this is truth, but how do you really know that? Can you really know that? How do you know that is true?”

Greg: When you say, “How do I know it’s true?” I’m not sure what you’re referring to. Do you mean, “How do I know that the Bible, the text itself, claims that Jesus is God?” Or, “How do I know that he actually is God?

Caller: If the text says that Jesus is God, how do we really know that to be true?

Greg: How do we know what to be true? That he is God?

Let’s just take an example. There’s a passage where Jesus is being opposed by the leadership, and they want to kill him, and he says, “For what good work are you killing me?” And they say, “We’re not killing you for any good work, but you, being a man, claim to be God.” See there where it says that here in the text? So, would you say that it is fair to conclude, based on what these men said, that Jesus’ claims were claims to divinity?

Caller: I would concede that they’re claims to divinity, but how do we know that his claims are evidentially backed up?

Greg: That’s good. Now, we’ve made the first step. Now, there’s no confusion about what the claim actually is. Now, the question is whether he’s right. So, there’s a number of ways I could pursue this, and one of them is asking, “What if this person who claimed to be God was actually executed and then raised himself from the dead three days later? Would that, if it happened, give credibility to the claim?”

Caller: Yes, it would.

Greg: Okay. Good. This is more progress. Now, the issue, then, is, do we have good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? This is the next step. If I could show you good reason to be convinced that Jesus actually rose from the dead, then that would be one way—it sounds like you’re agreeing with me—of demonstrating that Jesus’ claim to be God was actually true.

Now we’re down to the question of the resurrection.

I’m done with the role-play, but notice how I stepped through that in a couple of careful steps to lay a foundation that is completely reasonable. One could say, “Oh, that’s just your interpretation.” Well, wait a minute. This is what it says. It says, “You, being a man, make yourself out to be God.” How else are you going to interpret that? “I guess they did think he was God, and I guess they did think that he was claiming to be God.” Okay. Good. Now we both agree on that. Now, what if he rose from the dead? Would that confirm the claim? “Well, if he did, then it would.” Okay. Great. Let’s see if he rose from the dead. Do we have any good evidence that he rose from the dead? So, this would be the next step, making the case for the resurrection.

Notice how what I’ve done here—this is really important in terms of the process—is, I had to get really crystal clear on the nature of the claim and keep refining to get to the very specific thing that gives me one specific thing to deal with, not a big kind of ambiguous thing to deal with. “How do you know what’s true?” “How can you trust the Bible?” It’s all very general. Well, let’s start with something specific. What is it? Oh, the deity of Christ, because maybe I brought that up. The deity of Christ is really important. “Yeah, well, how could I believe that?” “Believe that he claimed it? Or believed that he proved it?”Let’s show that he claimed it. Here’s the text. “What do you think?” “Oh, well, it looks pretty clear that he claimed it.” Okay. Great. “How did he prove it? What about this?” And we just take it piece by piece by piece instead of letting these general challenges fog the matter.

These things take time. You take little bitty steps at a time with people, and the goal in those little bitty steps is to help them to see that your convictions about these things are reasonable—they have foundation in facts or evidence.

Some people toss out objections or challenges, and what they’re thinking in their mind is, “There’s no possible way that this could ever be resolved. I got all these objections. Who knows? Nobody can know.” And this is where the agnosticism comes in. Nobody can know. But the fact is, of course, you can know. There are all kinds of things we know about ancient history, and we have every reason to believe we know them. They’re well justified. There are all kinds of evidences that verify things, and these same approaches can be applied to Scripture and to the claims of Jesus, but a lot of folks have never been exposed to that. It never even occurred to them that there could be an answer to this, or a reason, or a rationale, or something like that, and if you can step them through a little bit to help them to see how these things might be verified so it’s not just a big giant question mark, then maybe they might be willing to surrender some of their agnosticism.

Caller: One thing that comes to mind is a question you ask a lot: How did you come to that conclusion that you can’t know?

Greg: That’s a very important question to ask of a hardcore agnostic. Why would they say that? Even going back to the cosmological argument. The universe had a beginning. Either something started it or nothing started it. It’s either one or the other. Nothing caused the big bang or something caused the big bang. There’s no other alternative. What makes the most sense? It certainly isn’t nothing that caused the big bang. That isn’t the odds-on favorite. The odds-on favorite is that something caused the big bang. Something outside the material universe caused the universe. That becomes a very simple, straightforward argument for having confidence that God exists. No need for agnosticism. It’s not justified. And we could be mistaken, but there’s no reason for us to say there’s no possible way anybody can know. Of course you could know. My daughter once slammed her hand on the table and said, “If I bang my hand to the table, then I’m the one who banged it. So, who banged the big bang? That’s a great question. Who banged the big bang? And I’m only offering this example of an argument for God’s existence—a cosmological argument in this case—as a way of demonstrating that radical agnosticism is not justified to say no one could possibly know. That is a radical claim that is not justified. Why would somebody say no one could possibly know? I’d want an accounting of that.