Tactics and Tools

Take a Tip from Lt. Columbo

Author Greg Koukl Published on 11/01/1999

Have you ever taken a verbal beating when trying to talk about Jesus? If so, I’ve got a tip for you. It’s the simplest tactic imaginable to help stop a challenger in his tracks, turn the tables, and put you back in the driver’s seat. And it can be done almost effortlessly. Here’s an example.

Once in a restaurant in Seattle, I got into a chat about religion with the waitress. My comments were all met with an approving nod until I said, “When it comes to religion, people believe a lot of very foolish things.” Then a shadow of disapproval crossed her face.

“That’s an oppressive view, not letting people believe what they want to believe.”

Now, much can be said about this simple remark. For example, did you notice how just challenging a view was seen as a threat to personal liberty, a “forcing” of my beliefs on others? I ignored that problem, though, and zeroed in on a more fundamental flaw. I asked a simple question.

“So you’re saying I’m wrong then?”

She balked. “No...uh, I’m...uh...I’m just trying to understand your view.”

I chuckled. “Be honest; admit it. You think I’m wrong, oppressive. If I’m not wrong, then why are you correcting me?”

It was clear that even she believed some people were wrong (me, in this case). Like many who espouse this confused sense of tolerance, though, the waitress couldn’t play by her own rules. I tried to clarify.

“Listen, either Jesus is the Messiah or He isn’t, right?” I asked. She nodded agreement. So far, so good. “If He isn’t the Messiah, then the Christians are wrong. If He is the Messiah, then the Jews are wrong. So one way or another somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong. Right? Everyone can’t be right at the same time, can they?”

It was a simple question that gently boxed her in. Her only response: “All religions are basically the same, after all.” This comment was a direct contradiction to what she had just agreed to. I suspect it was a stock retort.

In response, I asked another question, “Oh? In what way?”

Those four words had a remarkable effect on her. Her jaw fell slack and her face went blank. She didn’t know what to say. She had obviously never looked closely at other religions. If she had, she’d have known they were worlds apart. Why did she say all religions were the same, then? I suspect she’d gotten away with it many times before.

After stumbling around a bit, she offered up a diversion: “Well, no one can ever know the truth about religion.”

This is another assertion that should never go unchallenged, so I calmly asked, “Why would you believe a thing like that?”

The turn-about caught her by surprise. The waitress was used to asking this question, not answering it. I was violating the rules and she wasn’t prepared for the change in roles. I waited patiently, not breaking the silence, not letting her off the hook.

Finally she ventured an odd response, considering my question. “The Bible’s been changed and re-translated so many times over the centuries.”

This was another dodge, having nothing to do with the issue. Even if the Bible vanished from the face of the earth, some knowledge of God would still be possible, in principle.

But I chose a different tack. “Oh? Have you actually studied the transmission of the text the Bible?”

Once again, the question stalled her for a moment. “No, I’ve never studied it.” It was a remarkable admission, given her confident assertion just moments before, but she didn’t seem the least bit bothered.

I didn’t have the heart to say what I might have in a case like this: “Then what you’re saying is you’re sure about something you really know nothing about.” Instead, I simply said I’d studied Bible transmission extensively, assured her that the academic results were in, and the biblical manuscripts had not been corrupted over time...

One by one her options evaporated and she began to get uncomfortable. “I feel like you’re backing me into a corner,” she complained.

I wasn’t trying to bully her intellectually, but rather challenge her politely with fair questions. She was beginning to feel trapped because that’s what careful questioning does: It boxes you in by eliminating foolish options.

A Tip from Lt. Columbo

This was the tactic of Lieutenant Columbo, the bumbling and seemingly inept TV detective whose remarkable success was based on an innocent query: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

The key to this tactic is to go on the offensive by dismantling another person’s viewpoint with carefully selected questions. The tactic can be played out Columbo style—halting, head-scratching, and apparently harmless—or pursued more aggressively, like a lawyer in a courtroom.

“Columbo” is most powerful if you have a plan of attack. Generally when I ask a question I have a goal in mind. I’m alerted to some weakness, flaw, or contradiction in another’s view that I want to expose in a disarming way.

There are literally hundreds of fun ways to do this, and it offers tremendous advantages. For one, it’s interactive, inviting the other person to participate in dialogue. It’s a good tactic to use at work, too, because no “preaching” is involved. The Columbo tactic allows you to make good headway without actually stating your case. More importantly, a carefully placed question shifts the burden of proof to the other person where it often belongs.

Burden of Proof

Christians should get out of the habit of trying to refute every fantasy a nonbeliever imagines or every claim he manufactures out of thin air. Don’t take up the defense when the other person is the one making the claim. Why let him off so easily?

For example, I was on a popular secular talk radio program in Los Angeles making a case for intelligent design over evolution. When a caller used the Big Bang theory to argue against a Creator, I said the Big Bang worked in my favor. It seems to me, any Big Bang needs a Big “Banger.”

The caller disagreed. The Big Bang doesn’t need God, he claimed. Then leading off with the phrase “One could say...,” he spun a lengthy science fiction tale for the audience on how everything came from nothing.

“You’re right,” I responded. “‘One could say’ anything he wants. But giving good reasons why we should believe the story you just told is another thing altogether.” It wasn’t my job to disprove his fairy tale. It was his job to demonstrate why anyone should take his musings seriously.

The waitress in Seattle is another good example. Each time she offered a foolish religious challenge of her own, I asked a simple question. She was speechless not because I was clever, but because, I suspect, she’d never before been challenged to defend her own claims.

Remember, the one making the claim shoulders the burden of proof. For far too long we’ve let non-Christians contrive fanciful challenges, then sit back and watch us squirm. If they tell the story, it’s their job to defend it. It’s not our job to refute it.

Three Key Questions

Sometimes I design questions to trap a person in his own bad thinking. Other times I’m after more information so I can know how to proceed further, so my questions are more open-ended.

The most effective question you can ask in most circumstances is some variation of “How do you know?” or “Why should I believe what you believe?” Kevin Bywater of Summit Ministries has offered a three-step formulation of this approach that can tame the most belligerent critic.

The first is a clarification question: “What do you mean by that?” It’s delivered in a mild, genuinely inquisitive fashion.

This question accomplishes a couple of things. First, it immediately engages the non-believer (or the believer, if the difference of opinion is an in-house, theological point) in an interactive way. Second, it’s flattering because you’ve expressed a genuine interest in knowing more about the other’s view. Third, it forces him to think more carefully—maybe for the first time—about exactly what he does mean. Fourth, it gives you valuable information, so be sure to pay attention to the response.

Here’s the second question: “Now, how did you come to that conclusion?” This is a gentler variation of “Where did you get your facts?” Though it’s similar in content, it has a nicer tone, graciously assuming the non-Christian has actually thought through the issue carefully instead of just making an assertion.

The additional information he gives you puts you in a better position to assess his view. You now know what he thinks, but you also know how he thinks. In addition, he’s also tipped you off about the way he reasons, giving you valuable information on how to proceed if you choose to.

I say, “If you choose to...” because you may not want to move forward just then, nor are you obliged to. You don’t always have to hit a home run. Sometimes just getting on base will do, and the first two questions accomplish that.

If you want to proceed, your third question suggests an alternative. Ask, “Have you ever considered...,” and then finish the sentence in a way appropriate to the issue. Offer an alternative view that gently challenges his beliefs, possibly exploiting a point of weakness you uncovered in the answers to your first two questions.

Of course, this last step requires you to have an option you can explain clearly that gives him reason to abandon his view for a better answer.

Reflect for a moment on the tone of these three questions. They are very probing, but still quite amicable. They also employ the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You don’t have to worry about “turnabout” with these questions, because you wouldn’t mind (I hope) having that person ask them of you.

The Professor’s Ploy

The Columbo tactic is a good one to use in the classroom. Some professors are fond of taking pot shots at Christianity with remarks like “The Bible is just a bunch of fables.” Well-meaning believers sometimes take up the challenge and duel with the professor. This rarely works. The Christian can’t win this power struggle. The “man with the microphone” always has a massive advantage.

There’s a better way. Instead, simply ask, “Professor, how did you come to your conclusion?” (our second question). Make him shoulder the burden of proof. After all, he’s the teacher. The question offers an adequate challenge, but deftly sidesteps the power struggle.

At this point professors have a ploy. Sensing your offensive they ask, “Oh, you must think the Bible is inspired by God. Why don’t you prove that to the rest of the class, then?” In one quick move they cleverly switched the burden of proof back on you.

Don’t take the bait. Falling into this trap is fatal. Instead, shift the burden back on the professor where it belongs. After all, he made the claim.

Respond this way. “Frankly, Professor, it doesn’t matter what I believe. My views aren’t the issue; yours are. I’m the student, not the teacher. I’m here to learn, and you’ve just made a claim. I simply want to know your reasons, if you have any. That’s all.”

You might be tempted to add, “Or should I just take your belief on blind faith?” Don’t. It’s a fair rejoinder, but then you’d be back in the power struggle again.

Don’t miss this point: The Christian doesn’t have to be the expert in everything. If we keep the burden on the other side when they’re making the claim, we don’t have to know it all. In fact, we can be effective knowing very little if we ask the right questions. After all, everyone in the discussion has a point of view. There’s no reason to let the other side have a free ride.

When someone says to you, “The Bible’s been changed so many times,” or “No one can know the truth about religion,” or “All religions are basically the same,” don’t retreat in silence. Instead, simply raise your eyebrows and say, “Oh? What do you mean by that?” and, “How did you come to that conclusion?”

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that most critics, when asked some very basic questions, aren’t prepared to defend their faith. As with the emperor and his new clothes, all it takes is one person to calmly say, “You’re naked,” and the game is up.