Rabbinic Questioning: A Better Way to Evangelize

Randy Newman

From: Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did. © 2002 Kregel Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Some people have told me that my lack of evangelistic fruit results from lack of prayer. I certainly don’t pray enough, but I wonder if that’s all there is to it. Other people have told me that I don’t push hard enough in “closing the sale.” I don’t know how to respond to that; the gospel isn’t a product that we sell. On introspection, I’ve wondered what I haven’t said to work the same magic as so many others.

And I’m not alone in my frustration. In fact, frustration might be the most common emotion that Christians associate with evangelism (followed closely by guilt, confusion and despair). Our frustration is multifaceted. We’re frustrated that our message doesn’t yield more decisions, genuine fruit, cultural impact, or advancing of God’s kingdom in the way about which Jesus talked. There are three fairly common reasons for our frustration and intimidation. They’ve led to a condition that borders on evangelistic paralysis””what one speaker has referred to as “spiritual lockjaw.”

First, we believers just don’t engage in as many evangelistic conversations as we know we should. The message that has gripped our hearts and forms the centerpiece of our lives remains unspoken, unshared, and unproclaimed. Our culture’s secularism has silenced us when we should be sharing, and we wonder why the topic so often on our minds is so seldom on our lips.

Second, we’re frustrated by the lack of lasting fruit. If you’ve ever led someone to Christ, and later found that person totally uninterested in spiritual growth, you know the pain to which I’m referring. True, not all the seeds in Jesus’ parable landed on good soil. Still, we wonder why some plants spring up and then wither in the sun, or on the rocky soil, or under the distractions of this world. We wonder why, for all of our evangelistic efforts, the percentage of born-again Christians in our country has remained stagnant for more than thirty years while the percentage of Mormons, Muslims, and purchasers of New Age crystals has grown.

Third, most of us don’t hold a candle to people who are gifted by God as evangelists. And when we actually do step out in faith and share Christ, not as many people as we’d like bow their heads and pray “the sinner’s prayer.” Hearing about the successes of a Billy Graham only adds to our frustration. Instead of motivating us to be bold, the success stories discourage us. That’s not an excuse, though. Paul told Timothy, who was a timid non-evangelist, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). So we find ourselves clinging to the promise that God forgives even the greatest of sinners””assuming that sinners means those who are evangelistic failures””and hoping for a method of evangelism for non-evangelists.


A Better Way to Evangelize

A better way than the traditional fire-on-all-cylinders sales pitch approach does exist. And, it looks, sounds, and feels more like Jesus the rabbi, than Murray, the used car salesman. It involves more listening than speaking, inviting rather than demanding “a decision.” Perhaps the most important component to this kind of evangelism is answering questions with questions rather than giving answers. It’s uncanny how often our Lord answered a question with a question.

A rich man asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That question was a great set up for a clear, concise gospel presentation. I can almost hear a disciple whispering in Jesus’ ear, “Take out the tract.” But how did Jesus respond? He posed a question, “Why do you call me good?” (Mark 10:17-18).

When religious leaders asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes, Jesus referred to a coin and asked, “Whose portrait is this?” (Matt. 22:17-20). When the Pharisees asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus’ response was a question: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matt. 12:9-12).

At times (far too many, I’m afraid), I’ve answered questions with biblically accurate, logically sound, epistemologically watertight answers, only to see questioners shrug their shoulders. My answers, it seemed, only further confirmed their opinion that Christians are simpletons. So I started answering questions with questions, and have gained far better results.

Once a team of skeptics confronted me. It was during a weekly Bible study for first year college men in a dorm room. The host, in whose room we met, had been telling us for weeks of his roommate’s antagonistic questions. This week, the roommate showed up””along with a handful of likeminded friends. The question of the gospel’s exclusivity arose, more as an attack than a sincere question.

“So, I suppose you think all those sincere followers of other religions are going to hell!”

“Do you believe in hell?” I responded.

He appeared as if he’d never seriously considered the possibility. He looked so puzzled, perhaps because he was being challenged when he thought that he was doing the challenging. After a long silence, he said, “No. I don’t believe in hell. I think it is ridiculous.”

Echoing his word choice, I said, “Well, then why are you asking such a ridiculous question?” I wasn’t trying to be a wise guy. I simply wanted him to honestly examine the assumptions behind his own question.

The silence was broken my another questioner, who chimed in, “Well, I do believe in hell. Do you think everyone who disagrees with you is going there?”

I asked, “Do you think anyone goes there? Is Hitler in hell?”

“Of course Hitler is in hell.”

“How do you think God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Does He grade on a curve?”

From there, the discussion became civil for the first time, and serious interaction about God’s holiness, people’s sinfulness, and Jesus’ atoning work ensued. Answering questions with questions turned out to be a more effective, albeit indirect, way to share the gospel.


Rabbinic Evangelism

Answering a question with a question is part of a style of sharing the Good News, one that I like to call rabbinic evangelism. Using this style of debate, rabbis train their disciples to think about God and life. The method was used in Jesus’ day and is similar to what happens today in training schools called “yeshivas.” This method is sometimes called “Pilpul.”

Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus, encourages this style of dialogue in his book, Share the New Life with a Jew. Rosen shows how seeing both sides of a question can help people think, which is a necessary, but often neglected component in the evangelism process. Consider an illustration from his book.

A rabbi posed a question to a Gentile inquirer, trying to illustrate this different style of thought. I will ask you some questions,” he said, “to see if you can logically come to the right answers. Two men fell down a chimney. One was dirty, and the other was clean. Which one washed?”

“The dirty one, of course,” replied Gentile.

“Wrong!” exclaimed the rabbi. “The dirty one looked at the clean one and thought Amazing! We just fell down a chimney but we didn’t get dirty. But the clean man saw the dirty man, presumed that they were both dirty, and immediately went to wash up.”

The Gentile smiled. “Oh, I see.”

“No, you don’t,” said the rabbi. “Let me ask you the second question: Two men fell down a chimney; one was clean and the other”””

The Gentile was puzzled. “You already asked me that question,” he said.

“No,” contended the rabbi, “””the other one was dirty. Which one washed?”

“The clean one,” said the Gentile.

“Wrong again,” said the rabbi. “It was the dirty one. He looked at the clean man and thought, it’s amazing that he should fall down the chimney and remain clean, whereupon he looked at his own hands and realized that he was dirty, and went and washed. And now for my third question. Two men fell down a chimney; one was dirty and the other was clean. Which one went and washed?”

The perplexed Gentile shrugged. “I don’t know whether to say it was the dirty one or the clean one.”

“Neither!” said the rabbi. “The whole question is ridiculous! How can two men fall down a chimney together, and one come out dirty and the other come out clean?”1

Although this illustration has elements of absurdity, such an exercise teaches people to think critically. This kind of rabbinic reasoning is needed and should be used today in evangelism as we engage the hearts and minds of non-Christians.

I believe that Paul used such a style of evangelism in his synagogue preaching, which is mentioned many times in the book of Acts. In Acts 17:2-3, for example, we read, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. “˜This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said.” (Emphasis added; similar statements are found in Acts. 17:17; 18:4, 19; and 24:25.)

Responding to a question with a question paves the way for a concept that the questioner might not have otherwise considered. When I asked my dormitory interrogators if they believed in hell, I paved the way for the concept of divine judgment. Many ideas that are central to our gospel message””God’s holiness, people’s sinfulness, Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and people’s responsibility””are alien today for many people. Questions bring these concepts into clearer focus for consideration and even acceptance.

And practically speaking, answering a question with a question might alleviate hostility. When people ask questions that are really attacks in disguise, responding with a question reflects the heat. People don’t usually like the temperature and tend to adjust the thermostat accordingly, which helps create a more productive conversation.

To be sure, at times, a direct answer is preferable. On quite a few occasions, Jesus didn’t beat around the bush. Consider, for example, His direct answer to the teacher of the law who asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28-31). When questioners are sincerely asking, they will benefit most from a clear, concise statement of what the Bible says.


Plausibility Structures and How Questions Pave the Way for Answers

Not many people have heard of the “Plug Theory.” Even fewer people believe it. Nevertheless, my son, Dan proclaims it with boldness. He sounds convinced that it holds the keys to understanding international politics, world history, and military strategy.

The Plug Theory contends that every country has a plug located somewhere near its geographical center that prevents the country from sinking. Thus, keeping its plug location a secret remains a top priority for a nation’s military, intelligence and political forces. Pull the plug and any other concern becomes meaningless. According to Dan, America’s plug sits somewhere in Kansas and his theory has some intriguing implications: Atlantis didn’t protect its plug very well; Holland had its plug pulled but rescued its land from submersion by reinserting the plug and building dikes; Vatican City is itself a plug; Lesotho is the plug for South Africa.

Dan’s theory amuses but never persuades.

For many, believing in Jesus is as likely as believing in the Plug Theory. For anyone to believe Dan’s notions, Dan would need to demonstrate support from, and correlation to, other things that people already accept. Supporting facts and ideas build “plausibility structures,” making belief in something more plausible. For many in today’s post-modern culture where truth is relative, the propositions that there is a God, He is personal and knowable, He hates sin, and His son’s death gives us freedom from guilt and gets us into heaven, are not plausible. Using questions to evangelize paves the way for hearts ready to listen. They help us to introduce plausibility structures. In order to use questions to do this, though, we must embrace five principles.

Reveille precedes revelation. People have been lulled into believing the illogical, and we must arouse them from sleep before presenting the gospel. A good way to do this is to ask a one-word question”””Really?”

When a friend at work says for instance, “I think all religions are the same,” try responding with “Really?” Then, after the friend begins to awaken, elaborate by saying “How about that religion that lead people to kill themselves when they saw the Hale-Bop comet? They though that it was going to take them to heaven. Do you really think that their religion is the same as yours?

Some things can’t be true. To overcome resistance, we must soften hearts. This can be done by asking “Can you explain that [your statement] to me?” Asking this question demonstrates a genuine desire to hear their points of view and shows an unwillingness to be put on the defensive. In fact, it has a certain amount of offense to its posture.

Our message is coherent, plausible and beneficial. Other people should defend their messages. In so doing, the foolishness or impossibility of their belief system comes into question. We can take an offensive posture without being mean spirited or insulting by simply asking, “Can you please explain what you just said?”

Some things can be partially true. Far too often as Christians, we try to show all the flaws in other religions. We don’t need to do that. Nothing is wrong with admitting that other religions get some things right. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity

If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth “¦ Being a Christian does mean that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong.2

When conceding that another religion contains some truth, we can add the single-word question, So?

Someone may tell you, for example, that Buddhists are right about the reality of a spiritual realm and that we should be more aware of the unseen universe. You can say, “I agree,” and then add lovingly, not sarcastically, “So?”

Surprised that you didn’t attack Buddhism defensively, she might or might not see your point. You can clarify by adding, “Buddhism is right that there’s a spiritual realm. But there’s a whole lot more to finding faith. We need one that meets all our needs. We can almost expect every religion to contain some truth; the question is to find the one that gets it all right. I have a lot of unanswered questions about Buddhism. Have you studied it much?” From there, the conversation can progress past the level of cliché and into substance.

Some things might be true. “Isn’t it possible?” may be one of the most important ways to begin a question. It helps people consider that something might be true so that eventually they can accept it as truth. Some of the applications of this phrase might sound like:

Isn’t it possible that there is a god who exists somewhere but he’s beyond your level of knowledge right now? You wouldn’t say that you’ve got all knowledge, right? Isn’t it possible that you could find out something tomorrow that would make a belief in God at least worth considering?

Isn’t it possible that Jesus did rise from the dead?

Isn’t it possible that there really is only one right way to get to God?

We can know the truth. One of the most powerful questions for unearthing non-believers’ underlying assumptions is “How do you know that?” Philosophers call this aspect of truth””how we know what we know”””epistemology.” Asking people “How do you know that?” might get you a blank stare or a dirty look in response. Few people have ever thought on this level. Getting them to realize they don’t know why they believe what they do is in itself a victory.


The Importance of Really Listening to Their Answers

My dentist drives me crazy. He asks the most thought-provoking, debate-inducing questions right as he puts sharp, pointed objects into my mouth. “So, what’s the real solution for the Palestinian problem?” Or, “Aren’t all religions basically the same?”

I want to respond every time. But my attempts have always been muffled by his hands in my mouth and that noisy suction thing he uses to remove excess saliva. The sign in his waiting room serves as his motto, as well as a warning: “Blessed are those who engage in lively conversation with the helplessly mute, for they shall be called dentists.”

If we don’t really listen to people’s answers, the questioning form of evangelism can quickly come to resemble interactions between my dentist and me. One side posits a question, not really expecting an answer or listening for a response. The other side sits frustrated, not really getting to answer or expecting to be heard. Perhaps we don’t listen because we don’t think we must. After all, we have the truth! What can some unsaved, unregenerate, unenlightened target for conversion have to say?

Gracious listening flows from a heart that has been humbled, stilled and transformed by the power of grace. Listening is simply a form of serving, of putting the other person first, as Philippians 2 implores us. It requires an inner concern for the person more than on outward practice of techniques. Responding in a knee-jerk reaction to what the other person says, being too quick to refute, or showing dissatisfaction through facial expressions and body language shows lack of concern for what a non-believer is trying is trying to say. It’s incredible that so many Christians think that such behavior actually pleases God and wins disciples.

The next time a you and a coworker, family member, or friend talk about God and spiritual issues, try using a method Jesus had mastered and used so effectively””rabbinic questioning. Answering a question with a question has significant advantages over using direct answers. It brings to the surface the questioner’s assumptions. It also takes the pressure off you””the one being asked””and puts the pressure on the one doing the asking. Shifting the burden of the response is important because as long as we remain on the defensive, the questioners are not really wrestling with issues. They’re just watching us squirm. And that hasn’t ever made converts.



1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 35.

2. Moishe Rosen, Share the New Life with a Jew (Chicago: Moody, 1976), 47.

Adapted from Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Kregel Publishers). © 2002 Randy Newman. Used by permission.

Randy Newman is a full time staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ, where he has worked for more than twenty years, teaching seminars at a variety of locations from college campuses to the Pentagon.