I had a poignant conversation with one of my students the other day, who mused about how studying theology had challenged what she thought she knew before coming to seminary. She lamented that she was required to study enough theology to raise doubts and questions, but not enough to resolve them. And those doubts, unfortunately, were exacerbated by conversations with non-believers, who attempted to dismantle her confidence with questions implying that no intelligent person could believe what she professed to believe.
I’m reminded of a text that I’ve frequently heard quoted as encouraging Christians to be ready at any moment to give a thoughtful and reasoned defense of their faith: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15, NIV). But consider the context:
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Pet 3:13-16, NIV)
Yes, it’s important to be able to answer questions about what we believe and why. Note, however, that the context has less to do with apologetics, and more with encouraging Christians to stay the course in doing good in the face of evil, of continuing to live holy lives because of our future hope, even if it means suffering in the present.
Indeed, Peter seems to suggest that those who ask questions may do so with mixed or malicious motives. Like attorneys leading witnesses with inappropriate questions, some people may ask not because they really want to know the answers, not because they are seeking the truth, but because they want to use our answers to further their own purposes.
And not even Jesus would directly answer questions like that. In three separate incidents near the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was asked insincere questions; in each case, he gave essentially the same ambiguous answer.
During the Last Supper, Jesus declared that he would be betrayed by one of the Twelve. They were deeply grieved. They didn’t seem to imagine the possibility of an intentional betrayal by anyone in their band, so began wondering aloud who the unfortunate traitor would be. Judas, in full hypocrite mode, asked Jesus, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus responded ambiguously, “You have said so” (Matt 26:25, NIV) or “You said it” (CEB).
Later in the same chapter, after his arrest, Jesus was being interrogated by Caiaphas, the high priest. The Sanhedrin wasn’t looking for the truth or for justice: they wanted a quick conviction that would justify a death penalty. Caiaphas, seemingly frustrated by the lack of clear progress in the proceedings, suddenly charged Jesus to testify under oath whether he was the Messiah. Jesus’ initial reply was the same one he gave to Judas: “You have said so” (vs. 64, NIV).
And then Jesus found himself standing before the Roman governor. In all likelihood, Pilate had already made up his mind about Jesus, and saw in him no real terrorist threat to the empire–only a poor but charismatic country preacher whose popularity had evoked the jealousy of the high priests. Given the clamoring of the Jewish leaders, however, the governor was forced to ask, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ reply: “You have said so” (Matt 27:11, NIV; see also Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3).
In each case, Jesus was asked a question that demanded a “yes” or “no” answer, both of which were problematic in their own way. But he refused to play the game. And sometimes, in the midst of a flurry of questions or accusations, he simply chose silence (e.g., Matt 26:63; 27:14).
Yes, we should be ready to give an answer when someone asks why we believe as we do, and the answer should be given gently and respectfully. But we should also recognize that not every question is an honest one; someone may be looking to score another debating triumph, thus to bolster their own sense of superiority, or to gain some other personal advantage.
We should continue to grow in our faith, but we are never commanded to have all the answers. Indeed, there are times in which “I don’t know” may be the best and most honest answer of all. Our anxiety to be more knowledgeable than we really are may spur us to give half-baked answers whose purpose may be more to save face than to witness to the truth (and yes, I speak from experience here).
Maybe we need to humbly admit the things we don’t know to be able to speak with greater confidence about the things we do–and to know when an answer is needed, and when it is not.