In my first blog on this, I said this at the beginning:

Whether you sometimes have problems sharing your faith with others or you excel at it, I would recommend the book Tactics: a Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason ministries.

Note: This post is based on Chapter 3: Getting in the Drivers Seat: The Columbo Tactic from Greg Koukl’s book, as well as these study materials put together by Owning Your Worldview (which was in turn based on Greg Koukl’s book.)

The first question of the Columbo Tactic is “What do you mean by that?” I’d like to continue looking at 2 more questions of the Columbo Tactic:

To make them defend their own views ask: “How did you come to that conclusion”?

Who has the burden of proof?

The burden of proof is the responsibility someone has to defend of give evidence for his view.

Many challenges to Christianity thrive on vague generalizations and forceful but vacuous slogans.

The key here is not to allow yourself to be thrust into a defensive position when the other person is making the claim.


Arguments vs. Assertions

Argument: A conclusion with supporting ideas or evidence.

Assertion: A belief, opinion, or statement presented without supporting ideas or evidence.

An argument can be thought of like a house. The conclusion is the roof and the ideas and evidences are the individual walls that support and hold up the conclusion.

Assertion: An assertion can be thought of as a roof laying directly on the ground. There are no walls supporting it.

So when someone makes a claim or a statement, as them “What do you mean by that?” Other variations of this question are:

  • “How did you come to that conclusion?”
  • “Why do you say that?”
  • “What are your reasons for holding that view?”
  • “What makes you think that’s the right way to see it?”
  • “Why would that idea be compelling to you?”

Key Points:

  • Making others support their conclusions forces the other person make an account of their beliefs.
  • You need to reject the impulse to counter assertions or objections.
  • Never accept an alternative explanation as a refutation.
  • An alternative explanation is not proof of anything.

Three questions when dealing with alternate explanations.

  1. Is it possible?: If something isn’t possible then there is no further discussion needed.
  2. Is it plausible?: Is it reasonable to believe this may be true, in light of the available evidence?
  3. Is it probable?: Is it the most likely scenario based upon the available evidence?

An important thing to remember is that we don’t need any possible doubt. It’s a reasonable doubt. You can “What if” something to death.

Also use Columbo to stay out of the “hot seat”

  • Shift from argument mode to fact-finding mode
  • Take the pressure off by using the first two Columbo questions
  • Close with “Let me think about,” and then research the issue at your leisure

Staying off of the hot seat:

  • “Don’t feel pressure to immediately answer every question asked or every point made.”
  • Defer the conversation until you are more comfortable. “Let me think about that.” or “I will get back to you.”
  • Follow-up with the person after you have done some research, taken time to think about it, or asked others.

Remember: No need for home runs. You can be effective even if you know very little when you ask the right questions. Questions:

  • Clarifies the reasons for the person’s ideas
  • Tells how the person thinks
  • Makes him bear the “burden of proof” of defending his own claim


To explain a flaw, being your question with: “Can you clear this up for me?”

Bringing Down the House.

  • If an argument was like a house, the walls are the supporting ideas.
  • Your leading questions should be framed in a way that shows the shortcomings of each supporting idea.
  • Once the other person questions their own arguments they may be more likely to be persuaded to give your argument a fair assessment.

Columbo Step Three – Lead the Way Leading Questions:

  • These questions allow us to move from purely passive questions (steps 1 & 2), to a position of actively directing the conversation.
  • Leading questions allow us to: Inform, Pursued, & Refute


The following are case studies from Greg’s book:

Inform Case Study #1: The Question

As you step out as an ambassador for Christ, inevitably you will be asked what I call “the question.” It’s one of the most important questions anyone can ask, but it’s also one of the most difficult because the correct answer — a simple “yes” — would be wildly misleading.

The leading New Age author Deepak Chopra put the question to me this way in a national TV debate: “You’re saying that people who don’t believe just like you are going to Hell?” Someone once said if you word the question right, you can win any debate. Dr. Chopra’s was a classic case in point. A simple “yes” would be the correct answer, but it actually would distort the truth.

Dr. Chopra’s question was not meant to clarify a theological point. Instead, in the gamesmanship of the moment, his challenge was intended to discredit me with the audience. If I answered directly — “Yes, people who do not believe in Jesus are going to Hell” — the debate would be over. Chopra’s query would have succeeded in painting me with an ugly stereotype. Viewers would not hear Jesus offering reprieve and rescue from a judgment they each will face. Instead, they would hear conceit and condescension from a “fundamentalist” wishing Hell on anyone who doesn’t see things his way.

The third use of the Columbo tactic helps us out of this dilemma, but there’s a hitch. Remember from chapter 1 that the first responsibility of an ambassador is knowledge — an accurately informed mind. Knowing that people need to trust in Jesus or face judgment, though, is not enough. Since this truth does not give an accurate sense of why Jesus matters, God seems petty, pitching people into Hell because of some inconsequential detail of Christian theology.

The hitch is this: You have to know why Jesus is the only way before it is helpful to tell people that he is the only way. Without that knowledge, the third step of Columbo will not help you on this issue.

In Chopra’s case, I decided to sidestep his challenge rather than try to resolve such a delicate issue with a sound byte. Instead, I used his question as a springboard to make a different point, one I thought was strategic to my own purposes.

Case Study #2: The Lawyer

I addressed the issue of why Jesus is the only way again when the question came up during a book promotion at a local Barnes & Noble store. I met an attorney there who didn’t understand why he, a Jew, needed Jesus. He believed in God, and he was doing his best to live a moral life. It seemed to him that those were the important things — how he lived, not what he believed. Here is how I used Columbo questions to lead him to a proper understanding of the cross.

“Let me ask you a question,” I began. “Do you think people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished?”

“Well, since I’m a prosecuting attorney,” he chuckled, “I guess I do.”

“Good. So do I. Now, a second question: Have you ever committed any moral crimes?”

He paused for a moment. This was getting personal. “Yes,” he nodded, “I guess I have.”

“So have I,” I offered candidly, agreeing with him again. “But that puts us both in a tight spot, doesn’t it? We both believe people who do bad things should be punished, and we both believe we’re guilty on that score.” I waited a moment for the significance to sink in. “Do you know what I call that?” I asked. “I call that bad news.”

In less than 60 seconds I had accomplished a remarkable thing with my two questions. I didn’t have to convince this man he was a sinner. He was telling me. I didn’t have to convince him he deserved to be punished. He was telling me.

I was tapping into a deep intuition every person shares: knowledge of his own guilt and a realization that his guilt should be punished. And I didn’t do it arrogantly or in an obnoxious, condescending way. I freely admitted I was in the same trouble he was.

Now that we agreed on the problem, it was time to give the solution. (This is where the “knowledge” part of the ambassador equation is so vital.)

“This is where Jesus comes in,” I explained. “We both know we’re guilty. That’s the problem. So God offers a solution: a pardon, free of charge. But clemency is on his terms, not ours. Jesus is God’s means of pardon. He personally paid the penalty in our place. He took the rap for our crimes. No one else did that. Only Jesus. Now we have a choice to make. Either we take the pardon and go free, or we turn it down and pay for our crimes ourselves.”

In this conversation I handled an awkward question by combining two things: my knowledge of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and the Columbo tactic. My questions led the attorney, step-by-step, to an answer to his question

Refute Case Study #3: The Tolerance Trick

The most powerful questions — and the most persuasive — are the ones that help people recall what they already know. In the case of the attorney, I asked key questions to cause his own intuitions about guilt and punishment to rise to the surface. The approach was powerful because I didn’t have to persuade him of some foreign idea. I merely connected the dots.

This was true of Shannon, an American college student living in Germany whom I met on a train from Normandy to Paris. Shannon had been raised in a Christian home. She’d been educated at a Christian college and had what she described as a “strong relationship with the Lord.” Still, like the attorney, she was perplexed by the idea that others were lost apart from trust in Christ.

“What about someone who believes in God?” she asked. “What about the person who is sincerely following his own religion and trying to be the best person he can be?” I hear these kinds of questions from non-Chris tians all the time. But I also hear them with surprising frequency from believers. I suspected Shannon already knew enough to answer her own question. She simply had not pieced it together.

“Why should anyone become a Christian in the first place?” I asked. “You and I are Christians. What benefit does putting our trust in Jesus give us?”

“Jesus saves us,” she answered.

“From what?”

“He saves us from our sins.”

“Right. You might say we have a spiritual disease called sin, and Jesus did something on the cross that healed the disease.” She nodded.

“Can simply believing in God heal that disease?”

“No,” she said after thinking a moment.

“Can trying our best to be a good person heal it, or being really religious, or even being completely sincere? Can any of those things forgive our sin?” She shook her head. No, none of those things in themselves could take away our guilt. “We’d still be dying from our spiritual disease, wouldn’t we?” I said. She agreed.

Then I simply connected the dots for her. “If religion, or sincerity, or ‘doing our best’ cannot save you and me, then how can any of those things save someone else? Either Jesus rescues us by taking the punishment for our sin on himself, or we are not saved and we have to pay for our own crimes. It’s no more complicated than that.”

Notice two things about this conversation. First, I gave Shannon no new information. I just reminded her of things she already knew, but had not related to her own concern. Second, I did it almost entirely with questions.

The most demanding Columbo step.

  • You are leaving the protection of passivity.
  • You must understand what you believe.
  • You must understand what the other person is saying.
  • You must also see the flaws in their position.
  • You must assume an offensive position without becoming offensive in the conversation.
  • Used when reasons don’t properly support claims
  • Challenges a weakness or contradiction
  • Exploits a flaw with a question rather than a statement

Perfecting this takes time and practice.