Evil. Slavery. Contradictions in the Bible. How can we best answer the top objections to the Christianity? Greg Koukl has taught numerous people how to defend the Christian faith against the toughest questions. His earlier book, Tactics is a must-read book. In fact, we have Greg teach a full class for our Biola MA apologetics program on that book. He has a new book out called Street Smarts, in which he offers even further strategies for navigating spiritual conversations. Join Scott and Sean for this great conversation with Greg.

Greg Koukl serves as President of Stand to Reason. which he founded in 1993. He has spoken on more than 70 college and university campuses both in the U.S. and abroad and has hosted his own call-in radio show for 27 years, advocating for “Christianity worth thinking about.” An award-winning writer and best-selling author, Greg has written seven books, and has been featured on Focus on the Family radio and has been interviewed for CBN and the BBC. He's been quoted in Christianity Today, the U.S. News & World Report, and the L.A. Times.

Episode Transcript


Sean: How can you use questions to answer the toughest challenges to Christianity? What can we learn from an expert who's been doing this in person and live on radio for decades? That is exactly what we're going to explore with our guest today, Greg Kochel, an author, the president and founder of Stand Reason and a friend of Biola University and the author of a new book called Street Smarts. I'm your host Sean McDowell.

Scott: I'm your co-host Scott Rae.

Sean: This is Think Biblically, a podcast brought to you by Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Greg, it's wonderful to have you back and what I love about your book is that this comes out of your years of experience in dealing with skeptics and non-believers. What have you learned from that experience that shaped this book?

Greg: Well, that is true. It's a lot of mistakes, too, and let me just say it's really sweet to talk to you both again. And Scott, I haven't seen you for ages so it's great to be able to chat with you a little bit. Sean, I keep bumping into here and there.

Sean: Exactly.

Greg: In fact, I'm going to see Sean in a couple of days in Minneapolis. Anyway, it's a treat. And what was the question again? What have I learned? Say again?

Seam: Yeah, no, this is great. The question is about this book is really an extension of the years of your experience in engaging skeptics and non-believers. Tell us about that.

Greg: Yeah, that's right. So in the years of mistakes I've made and that's what I said. You know, sometimes people ask me how long did it take to write this book? And you guys know, sometimes a book that you can knock out in six months really took you many, many years to write it because there's such a back story to it all. And that's the case here. I mean, I made all kinds of mistakes when I was engaging people as a brand new Christian and spreading a lot more heat than light. And I began to, little by little, realize that there are some things I was doing that were not good; and actually a lot of things that are standard in our culture, our Christian culture, and the way we do evangelism.

And I realized we're not really doing evangelism like they did evangelism in the New Testament because there's no altar calls in the New Testament and nobody's being challenged to pray to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. There wasn't a lot of closing moments in the New Testament. You know, get them to sign on the dotted line kind of thing. There wasn't a lot of harvesting. In other words, the harvest wasn't the point. What was going on was a lot of what I call gardening. And that is a little bit here, a little bit there, offering different things at different times to people over time. And of course, we see this in Jesus' ministry, especially we have this itinerant preacher that is talking about all these different things. And all this stuff adds up over a while and people get it. And they are persuaded by the force of his personality and the power of his speaking and also by the miracles he's working. And then they believe, but they believe in a certain sense on their own. Nobody's asking them to pray to receive Christ. And this to me is the power of the gardening concept. Before you can have a harvest, you always have to have a season of gardening. And actually, Jesus talks about this in John chapter 4. He tells the disciples after this conversation with the woman at the well that they are about to reap where they did not sow. Okay, so you got some who sow and some who reap. It turns out that the sowing is the hard part, what I call the gardening. It takes the most time. And that's because, and this is so critical for people to understand, and I'll give you a great example from some polls I've been taking recently, live polls and audiences. That when the fruit is ripe, it falls into the basket. You just give it a bump, or sometimes you don't even have to bump it. Hey, right around now if you go to apple orchards here in Southern California, there's a few of them now in South, in San Diego County, you're going to see apples all over the ground because they were ripe and they fell. And now, in a spiritual sense, we understand it's the Holy Spirit that's actually making that happen.

But in my case, 50 years and about two weeks ago, nobody prayed with me to receive Christ. I mean, that wasn't the incentive. My brother came to talk to me again about Christ. And I said, "Look, I already want to become a Christian." And so when I talked to Kirk Cameron a few weeks ago, doing an interview, Kirk said, "That's the same thing that happened to me. Nobody harvested me. I harvested myself." So I've been taking a poll. And now when I have these audiences that I speak to about street smarts, and I'm talking about gardening—the idea is to get them thinking about gardening productively and not thinking about worrying about closing the deal, because that's stressful for Christians. I asked them, "How many people in the audience here are Christians who did not become Christians by coming forward for an altar call or praying with somebody to receive Christ as Lord and Savior?" And fellas, 60 to 70 percent of every audience raises their hands. That means the vast majority didn't come to Christ the way we are kind of being taught or modeled or expected to witness and do evangelism now.

And so, this is one of the biggest things that I learned, and that is to focus on the gardening and give gardening tools, which the “Tactics” book that precedes “Street Smarts” is doing, and, “Street Smarts” which is like a sequel to”Tactics,” that takes it another step. All of these are meant to give gardening tools so Christians could not worry about harvesting—I think that's going to take care of itself. And then think, and by the way, I'm not against altar calls or praying with people to receive Christ. I'm not dissing that. I'm just saying, "Look, it's only 150 years old or so. It's a modern enterprise and a more recent enterprise." And the biblical method wasn't like that. So if I can give them tools to garden, then I think we're going to have a bigger harvest and more gardeners in play, and that's the big part.

Scott: Yeah, I can see where this would be pretty easy to envision how this would be freeing for people because you take the pressure off closing the deal and have people just recognize that they're responsible for planting seeds, for watering, but not necessarily for the harvest—that belongs to the Spirit of God. Now, you admit early on in the book, and something that surprised me, and it may surprise our listeners who know you and know about you, to know that evangelism and these kinds of evangelistic conversations are hard for you.

Darrell: That's right.

Scott: Tell us a little bit more why that is so.

Darrell: Yeah, it's not earlier in the book. It's the first sentence of the book. "I have a confession to make: evangelism is hard for me." [laughs] Which I think is surprising for a lot of people who understand what I have been doing for the bulk of the 50 years that I've been a Christian, and certainly the last 30 years would stand to reason. And the reason is because evangelism is hard for everybody, just about. Now, there are some unique individuals that just have a fire under them, and Sean, your dad, I think, is like this, for example, or Ray Comfort, you know. And sometimes we think that's the way every Christian has to be, and then we feel like we're falling short, because we don't feel comfortable engaging aggressively with people. And this is especially the case in a tougher environment that we're faced with now, with a lot more challenges than we've ever faced before. And also, the point you've made, Sean, many times, that we are not in a, even in a post-Christian culture anymore, we're in an anti-Christian culture, when you consider the ideas that are really upceasing the culture and being promoted by the gatekeepers of culture. So, this then becomes, wow, that's overwhelming. And this is why I talk about ‘street smarts,’ because the street is wherever you feel vulnerable. It's wherever you feel like, man, I don't know if I can handle myself out there. And so, consequently, we don't go out there. We stay where it's safe. But out there is where the darkness is, and out there is where we need to bring the light. And out there doesn't mean just pounding the streets, literally. It means the street here, in my sense, could be even your own family members. It could be friends, it could be students, it could be professors, it could be co-workers, anywhere where you are vulnerable if you are to be visible as a faithful follower of Christ. And I say faithful because people who are not faithful followers, but somehow identify as Christians, but they're not saying the same thing about truth that Jesus said, well, they're not going to get in any trouble, because there's so much like the culture. But if you're faithful, you're going to get into trouble. And so, I think a lot of people are afraid. And I understand that. I want them to understand that I feel uncomfortable, too. But I take another small poll when I give talks here, and I say, how many people here like taking tests? And, you know, no hands go up. Then I say, how many people like taking tests when you know the answers? Oh, well, all the hands go up. And so, that's the issue here, and a lot of what I'm trying to do with “Street Smarts,” I'm revisiting the tactical game plan.

So, people who get “Street Smarts,” it's a standalone publication. You don't require tactics before it, although that's helpful, especially if you've already read tactics. But if you haven't, that's okay. I cover the ground again, and a whole chapter on gardening, a whole chapter on the game plan, a whole chapter on why and how questions keep you safe, because questioning is the foundation of the game plan. And then I have chapters dedicated to all those controversial issues. I have two chapters in atheism, one on the problem of evil, one on can you be good without God? I've got two chapters on abortion. I have two chapters on the Bible, challenges to the Bible in areas like slavery, or a alleged genocide, or a Bible in science and things like that. I have two chapters dealing with challenges or objections about the person of Jesus. I have a challenge, or rather chapters on sex and gender and marriage. So, I'm trying to cover all the issues there to help give the answers to the questions, to the test questions, so to speak.

So, Christians aren't afraid of the street, but I take it a bit further. And as you guys know, and many of your listeners might know, the whole game plan, as I mentioned, is based on using questions. Well, you can use questions to gather information, that's the first few steps of the game plan. But the way “Street Smarts” works is it uses questions to make a point, and in particular here, to parry a challenge to Christianity, or maybe to show a weakness or a flaw in the other person's view. But you have to know what the flaw is, and that's what I teach you in the book for all of those topics, or the flaws in most cases. And you have to know the questions that you can use to exploit the flaws. And I give that in multiple conversations with leading questions all throughout that the Christian can use, so he can navigate those tough conversations in a genial and comfortable way.

Sean: Now, we're going to jump into some of these specifically and have you model for us what this looks like. But I love the title of the book. There's a little alliteration. It's short. It gets to the point. I think about areas in my life that I have street smarts, and I have street smarts, how to navigate a basketball court. I've played overseas. I played in the country. I've played in the mountains. I played in the inner city. I have street smarts there, but I have no street smarts if I was going to go surf at, like, Pipeline or Waimea. I would destroy my life and I would rightly get kicked off a wave because I would hurt people and myself. How does one develop street smarts spiritually and when it comes to sharing their faith? And obviously, that's what you wrote the book for, but maybe walk us through that process and then we'll look at some specific examples of how you do this.

Greg: Sure. Well, it's just like anything else. Let's just say, let's go to the street physically, now, the literal street. All three of us live in Southern California, so we have South Central not too far from us. Well, you don't go to South Central. You don't walk around there. You don't drive around there. You don't even fly over it if you can avoid it. It's dangerous, right? But there's some people for whom it's not dangerous. People are packing heat or maybe people who are like MMA guys, you know, or they just really know how to handle themselves physically. But how did they get that? They had to go through the steps of learning the moves. When this challenge confronts you, here's a way you can disarm an opponent or this is the way you can maneuver it to get out of the circumstance or address the challenge, whatever. I'm just using that as a metaphor because there's a parallel with spiritual things.

When I first started sharing my own faith in 1973 in Westwood Village right after I became a Christian, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just going out there. I knew no answers to anything, but I was trying to talk about Jesus. And consequently, I got beat up quite a bit because I didn't know how to deal with these things. But that was like, okay, lesson one. Okay, onto the books. And there were a number of people like Francis Schaeffer and Josh McDowell and Walter Martin, you know, and John Montgomery. There weren't a lot of people around then. It was those four plus Norm Geisler and that was pretty much it. But I drew from them and I learned more and that gave me a little bit more when I went out in the street. And then I still got beat up, but not quite as badly. And as time went on then too, I learned other techniques or maneuvers. As we talked about earlier, I focused more on gardening than on harvesting. And all of that kind of comes together over time. But you need a tutor for that.

Think about Matthew chapter 10. Jesus is sending the disciples out in their first missionary journey and he warns them. And he actually tells them, "Do not fear," three different times inside of seven sentences there in that chapter. And that's because there's something to be afraid of, you know. In, I think it's Acts 18, Paul was so scared to speak he had to have Jesus show up at a vision and encourage him, you know, "Get out there, Paul. There's many people in this city that are mine." So we can understand the fear. But one of the things Jesus said is, he said in Matthew 10, he said, "You have a Holy Spirit that's going to help you." Okay, that's great. But I think a lot of people don't understand something else that was going on there. And that is Jesus didn't tell them about the helper, the Holy Spirit in that circumstance, sharing your convictions and facing opposition, at the beginning of his work with those disciples. This was well into it. This may be a year, year and a half into it. Instead at the beginning, he said, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." So there is the Holy Spirit. We have an ally in that regard, but there's still training that Jesus even did with his own people to, in a certain sense, make them ready for the street. And see, this is the purpose of “Street Smarts.” This is what I say in the beginning, I'm trying to do the same thing after a fashion that Jesus did with his own disciples. And that is, give them the training and then get them out a little bit, usually get a little bit, then come back and get some more. And that's kind of the way to do it. It's actually true about anything, fellas, you know, everybody starts at the beginning and you got to start venturing out a little bit here, a little bit there. And the better instruction that you have to venture out with, the easier it's going to be. And this is one of the key values, I think, to the game plan that I advance in both books. It's the same game plan that is based on questions. Because as I hinted at earlier, questions keep you safe. It allows people to get involved and play and learn in the process and still stay safe.

Scott: Alright. So, let's take on some of these subjects that create these potentially uncomfortable conversations. And I think our listeners, you know, buckle up here because you're going to get some insight when you watch Greg model how he uses questions and uses what he's calling ‘street smarts’ in these situations. So, what if the first one on my list, at least, is the notion that evil explains away any need for God?

Greg: Wait, say that again, Scott, the question.

Scott: Evil explains away any need for God. How would you approach that?

Greg: Yeah, I got it. So, okay, I'm just going to kind of play this out a little bit. I'm going to say, so, Scott, what kind of modest role play here. So, obviously, you believe in evil then, right?

Scott: Of course.

Greg: Okay. So, what are some examples of that might be what? What do you have in mind when you say evil?

Scott: Hamas murdering innocent people in Israel.

Greg: Yeah, in the headlines, right? Yeah, I get that. Okay, and a whole bunch of other things like genocide and rape and torture, murder and all that. Okay, I get that. So, in your mind, how is that an argument against God? How does that eliminate?

Scott: Yeah, but if God were both loving and good, he would prevent these kinds of tragedies from taking place. And the fact that he doesn't prevent those tells me that he's neither loving nor good.

Greg: Yeah, okay, I get that. Now, let me pause for a moment and narrate just a little bit for the audience. Okay, so, if people have read the material, the background is here, we know this, but we haven't gotten into that. Here's the way I deal with the problem of evil. What you offered was called the deductive problem and then there's our ways to kind of unwrap that and show that there is no contradiction. I actually do that in another book I wrote called “The Story of Reality.” But that's a little more complicated, alright? And so, I'm actually, in this book, taking a different direction, okay? And this is based on the understanding that the problem of evil is not simply a problem for theists, it's a problem for human beings. Because the fact is, it doesn't matter where you live or when you lived, everybody knows there's something wrong with the world. So, Christians are not the only person who has to answer that question. A little insight here, by the way, evil is part of our story. It's the reason we have a story. It starts in chapter 3 and doesn't get resolved until 66 books later. So, it isn't like this is some kind of odd thing for us and our story is not over yet. But I'll tell you what story the problem of evil does not fit into and that is the atheist story. So, at this point, my tactical maneuver to try to keep things simple is to turn this back on the atheist, okay? And make him see that he has a bigger problem than I do, alright? So, now, this brings us back to this conversation. I think the last thing I asked you about is examples of these things that are evil, okay? And then the rationale and you offered your version of the deductive argument against God based on evil.

So, then I'm going to say, okay, so let's just say you're right. Let's just say there is no God, okay? And by the way, I'm sympathetic to your concern. I see a lot of people that don't believe in God because of the problem of evil, so I get that. But let's just say you're right, there is no God. Let me ask you, do those things like you mentioned Hamas and the torture and the genocide and the rape and murder and, you know, whatever else, do those things still happen? And the answer, of course, is yes. And are those things still evil? Yeah, of course they're evil. That's why you don't believe in God, okay? Notice how I'm asking a couple of simple questions here just to move forward and I'm getting very clear, solid affirmations of these things from the atheist. And what he doesn't realize is I'm using the questions to build a case against him. And this is my final question. Okay, then tell me, if all those things still are evil, how do you as an atheist, a materialistic atheist, and I might have determined that earlier by another question that he's just a materialist, which most atheists are, how do you as an atheist explain all that evil in the world? Okay, now I've turned the question back on him, haven't I? Same question he asked of me. And I know that it fits in my worldview and actually there's some solutions to it, the way God is working in the world. But in the atheistic worldview, it doesn't even make sense. There's no coherence to this at all, because basically saying that there are some things that happen are not the way that it's not the way it's supposed to be. But there is no way it's supposed to be in an atheistic world. So, how can there be things that are not the way it's supposed to be? Right? And this trades on the understanding that the problem of evil requires objective, external to us, transcendent morality in order to be meaningful or coherent, because that's what we're complaining about, how about all the evil in the world?

And so then I asked these questions, and then I bring them to a point where you might call it a mic drop moment, but I'm not trying to embarrass him. I'm trying to have him slam into the solid wall of the conclusion of his own worldview. Here's the irony of this, fellas. And I've talked to people about this, and what they'll say oftentimes, they get stuck here, because there is no morality that's inherent to atheism. There's only subjective relativistic morality. People can make it up on their own, or maybe evolution tricked us into believing or whatever, but that's all subjectivism. There's no objective morality that's adequate to ground the problem of evil. And I go into a lot of detail on this concept in the book, so people can grasp it. It's a little bit of a complex notion in some ways, but I think they'll get it in the book. But when we put it back on the atheist, it just, you have this dead air moment. And what ends up happening with a lot of atheists is they say, well, atheism, I mean, rather, good and evil is just an illusion. It doesn't exist. And this is what Richard Dawkins says in that one famous quote where he says, "There's no good, there's no evil, nothing but blind, pitiless and difference." But of course, that's consistent with atheism, right? But here's the weird thing. And this is what I'll say. Wait a minute, I'm really confused now. Why? Because first you say you can't believe in God, because there's all this evil in the world. And so you adopt a worldview then without God, that forces you to say that the evil in the world and the good in the world, for that matter, is just an illusion. How do you make sense of that? Now, notice I finished with a question. How do you make sense of that? So there's an example. And I'm not trying to, okay, do you want to pray to receive Jesus? No, not at all. This is just, as I put it, a stone in his shoe, trying to annoy him in a good way, in a constructive way, by helping to see that in my story, at least, the problem of evil makes sense. And I have some resources to answer the challenges, which I didn't get into in this thing. But I just want him to see that I don't even know how he has a right to raise the issue from an atheistic point of view. And all of that dialogue is in "Street Smarts."

Scott: That's really helpful, thank you. I appreciate that.

Sean: Greg, you walk through the claim that the Bible endorses slavery. God is a science stopper. The Trinity is an incoherent contradiction. So, you walk through these very, very practical for people to kind of practice. So, we're not going to walk through all those right now. But essentially, is the methodology to just listen and understand what somebody believes, get clarity on that, and then ask questions to bring up tensions and contradictions and put the burden of proof upon the other person rather than carrying it yourself? Is that essentially what it is?

Greg: Yes, that's pretty much it is. And sometimes there's a burden of proof. Sometimes there's just the attempt to give them the realization of the massive flaw in their own view. And some people think, "Why do you want me to ask more questions about what their view is and why they hold the view? That's the first two steps of the game plan. Use those two questions. What do you mean by that? And how did you come to that conclusion? And ‘what do you mean by that?’ was a couple of questions I used here in the roleplay I did with Scott a few moments ago. And I'm asking them to tell them more about why they're complaining about Christianity. I said, "Absolutely." Well, why? Because if our view is true, that's our conviction. We have reasons for that. Then their contrary view is false. And the more they talk about it, likely the bigger the hole is that they'll be digging. And you'll be hearing things that are actually pieces of the flaw that you recognize because of the teaching I gave in the book “Street Smarts.” And then you'll be able to ask questions, not always to shift the burden of proof on them, but to get them to reveal the weaknesses in their own view without realizing it. Because notice what I did in that dialogue. I didn't just make my case by putting point after point after point out there and then the conclusion. Because then they'll fight every point that I'm putting out there. Instead, I ask questions of them so that they put the point on the table. And if they put it on the table, they're not going to take it off, right? And so when they put all these pieces on the table, then I get to my so-called mic drop moment. There's no place for them to go, except for take a hard look at the conclusion that all these different points lead to. And that's the real big thing I'm trying to, that's the stone in the shoe moment to get them thinking.

Sean: Okay, Greg, so last question for you. I can imagine somebody saying that we asked you about evil and that was a lengthy response, which is helpful because you walk through the details in the book on how to do this. But I can imagine some people could be like, oh my goodness, I'm a little bit overwhelmed with how much is there. Greg's been doing this for 30 years. So, what would you say to someone like if somebody told me, Sean, I'm going to make you a good cook, and I'm not a good cook, by the way, it's going to feel really overwhelming to me on one level. But my advice would just be start where you are and just get better step by step. Don't compare yourself to anybody else.

Greg: Yeah, yeah.

Sean: That's the challenge of this book. So, walk us through what you would say that person is like, I'm just intimidated to even start.

Greg: Yeah, it's like for you, crack an egg, make an omelet. That's a place to start, right? Easy. Okay. And this is, even though I spent a lot of time explaining for you. on the evil thing, that dialogue was actually rather short. So, it's not hard to get that basic dialogue. I had somebody at an event last weekend though that says, when somebody talks to me about Jesus, I just freeze up to the challenger. And I said, the first thing, the best thing to do is just ask a question. So the first steps of the game plan are, what do you mean by that? And how did you come to that conclusion? What is your view? Give me more clarity. And why do you believe it? Give me more clarity on your rationale. Notice those are very simple. And that will engage you in conversation with no risk to you at all. All right, because you're not advancing your own view. You're not trying to make a point. That's the third step. That's the “Street Smarts” step. But if you're just getting rolling, just be a student of other people's views. You don't have to advance your view right away. Get used to getting in the pool in the shallow end. I'm just telling you, and I have examples for this in the book fellows, man, there is so much power in what do you mean by that? And how did you come to that conclusion? To make the other person think more critically about their own view. And even though you're not criticizing them, they start to see that their view isn't as smart as they thought it was. So, it's very powerful. Everybody starts at the beginning, Sean, in anything it is that you're pursuing. And what I suggest then, in the circumstance that you just described, start at the beginning of the game plan, the first two steps, gathering information, what do you mean by that? And keep doing that until you get a full understanding. And then the second question, how did you come to that conclusion? And then see what happens. You're going to find it's a lot easier than you think.

Sean: I think you're right about that. And one of the things I've so appreciated about you, Greg, is you said on the radio over and over again, it's hard for you to share your faith. This doesn't come naturally. You're learning, still making mistakes. That is true for me. And that, like, shocks people when I tell them that I'm like, I'm human. I still have fears and I still have concerns. But the more I've learned the very tactics and tools that you talk about, like you mentioned in your book, “Tactics” and “Street Smarts,” it just motivates me, it equips me. And it's made a huge difference in my life. I've told you this and I'll say it again here, but you are up there on people that have shaped my thinking and my apologetics in so many ways. So, we've been looking forward to this interview, nailed it in the book, especially it's red, white and black, just for Biola colors. And that one additionally.

Greg: We'd be happy to know I got a larger format red, white and black study guide that just came out.

Sean: There you go. Good, good. Well, I hope folks will pick that up. Again, we want to recommend the book by, it says, Gregory Kochel on the cover, “Street Smarts: Using Questions to Answer Christianity's Toughest Challenges" is up there on my list of must read books for apologetics. Greg, appreciate you, my friend, and thanks so much for coming on.

Greg: Gentlemen, it was a great chat with you again. Thank you. Anytime.

Sean: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically conversations on faith and culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We offer programs in Southern California and totally online, including our masters in Christian Apologetics, where both Greg and I teach classes, which are offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. To submit comments, ask questions, or make suggestions on issues you'd like us to cover or guests to consider please email us at thinkbiblically@biola.edu. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, Think Biblically about everything.