Why Not Knowing Something is Not the Same as Being Wrong

This a section in a little guide on how to say “I don’t know” in conversations about the gospel. The article this is a part of can be found by clicking here.

If the person treats your ignorance as a victory, remind them that not knowing something is not the same as being wrong. This has always been difficult for me to explain, please so bear with me. Let’s take two scenarios: one in which I see my brother at the movie theater, but I’m not sure what color shirt he is wearing; and one where I think I see my brother in the movie theater, but I’m not sure it was in fact him.

In the first, let’s say I claim to have seen my brother in the movie theater. I try to convince my mom of this. She asks, “if you did, what color shirt was he wearing?” “I’m not sure,” I say, “but I think it was red.” I just remember him walking away with popcorn. I wasn’t paying attention to his shirt. Because of this, I know very little about this aspect of my brother. Was he wearing a shirt to begin with? I think more people than myself would have noticed otherwise. So then we have reduced my understanding of this aspect of him down to “he was wearing a shirt. What color? I don’t know.” Could he be wearing a red shirt, like I think? Yes. Could he be wearing a blue shirt? Of course. Because I thought red, I would imagine he was wearing something warm-colored, but that’s just speculation. I may be right or wrong, but I can’t confirm being one or the other because I’m not familiar with enough evidence. I couldn’t tell you.

Some might argue that for as long as I don’t know, I am wrong, but that’s not the case either. My brother is wearing a shirt of some color whether I noticed him at all or not. I happen to think it’s red, and it may very well be red. I might be right. Might. The shirt might also be blue, in which case I’m wrong. The shirt is obviously a color, I just don’t know which.

Now, you may have realized it’s a little weird to be focused on what my brother was wearing when the important thing is that I saw him in the movie theater. I know I saw him, I’m just not sure about his shirt’s color. I saw his face, and he was carrying a big tub of popcorn like he would be, and he came with us to the movie theaters. It is reasonable for him to be there, and I know he is there by other proofs. His shirt color matters very little. My mom insists I find him again so we can go see the movie, and I see his shirt was orange all along. Big whoop.

Sometimes we don’t know things, but those things are small. You might be wrong about them because you can’t corroborate your information, but if you are, it would make little to no difference. These little things can sidetrack an entire discussion and focus on a less important issue than the pressing matter of the gospel. Which is more important: whether dalmatians really are part of fire rescue teams, or whether I’m in a burning building on the verge of collapse? Which is more important: whether I will have wings in heaven, or whether I will be going to heaven? Each situation requires discernment as the importance of the question really exists on a continuum, but if it seems less important, “keep the main thing the main thing.” Whether you’re right or wrong in the small things doesn’t matter as much as getting to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Moving on to the second scenario, imagine again the same scene, only I think I see my brother; I’m not sure it was him. I thought I saw someone with a similar hairstyle to his rush to the bathroom, but I couldn’t tell you much more than that. I go back to my mom to tell her where I think he went, but she says “go make sure and tell him to come over here.” I don’t know enough to take any kind of action other than investigation. I can’t say “I saw him enter the bathroom” because I don’t know if it was him. Now, could I be right? Like I mentioned in the first scenario, I could be. Or not. I have too little information. The difference here is that it matters much more if it was him or not. First, I should know where important people are. He’s my younger brother and I want to know he’s okay. Secondly, Star Wars is starting in 20 minutes and I will be royally upset if after waiting all this time, I miss the beginning of the movie because he decided to wander off. The same rules of not knowing apply like they did for his shirt in the first scenario, but the stakes are higher (albeit only slightly in this case,) so I react differently. I can’t move forward without knowing where he is.

Now, how do I solve this problem? Well, my mom tells me, “go check again, Star Wars starts in 15 minutes and I want us to get good seats.” Of course. That’s the most logical thing. We would all think that in this situation. I go to wait by the bathroom while I scan the rest of the lobby when I see him sitting on a bench by the arcade watching a video. I grab him, go see the movie, and head home to live happily ever after. Mission accomplished.

When the details we’re missing are very relevant to the gospel, the best we can do is admit we don’t know and go look for the truth. Just investigate. And this is something to be investigated sooner rather than later. Philosophical ideas have practical consequences, and at the end of our lives is heaven or hell, so this matters much more than if believing in Jesus means you have to stop cursing, for example. You may not know everything you need to in order to be sure about some facet of Christianity, but you don’t solve the problem by assuming you’re right and believing blindly anyway (whether you’re the Christian or the unbeliever; we’re both perfectly capable of this fault.) You solve it by finding out. The question still hangs in the air. In cases like these where it’s important to get something right, encourage research both for yourself and the other person, maybe even together if you can, and try moving on to something you understand a little better.

Return to the original guide by clicking here.