I have recently made several atheist friends both in my neighborhood and online; and we have been having conversations that I can only describe as enlightening and quite insightful. It is these personal lessons that I’ve decided to share with fellow Christians who may find themselves engaging an atheist on questions regarding our faith. These are not arguments for theism, but helpful reminders to help us keep the main thing as the main thing and not major in minors. I have to admit that I have learnt most of these lessons the hard way – let’s just say that experience is not the kindest of teachers, even though it happens to be the among the best.
I have also deliberately included the word “friend” in the title because this post presumes friendly and respectful conversations between the Christian and the atheist. The numerous exchanges between theists and atheists in public arenas such as social media and online forums is often a disgrace to both parties involved. Such conversations often tend to be confrontational, hateful, self-defensive, and often subliminally spiteful (from both sides). I will not be addressing conversations of such nature, even though I have (unfortunately) succumbed to them quite a few times. Now, the reminders;
1. You are a Christian.
Let’s just say that it is quite tempting to put your faith on the shelf when engaging atheists. This is especially when facing questions that begin with, “apart from faith…?” Or “Assuming you were not a Christian…?” You do not have to submit to every demand of the atheist. If you believe that all grounds are under God’s sovereignty, then there really is no neutral ground upon which you can rightly stand while discussing God. Since almost all conversations with atheists are “apologetic” in nature, it helps to remember that your responsibility to God is to show the reason-ability of your faith, not to speak as if it would be possible to be a Christian irrespective of your faith in God. Remember, Christianity is more than a point of view, it is the point of you. You are no longer speaking as a Christian if your faith is out of the picture.
This reminder ought to be the constant attitude in every believer, not just those engaging atheists. Your conversations are most probably going to be highly intellectual and philosophical. They may mainly depend on how much you’ve read philosophical books, but this does not make prayer irrelevant. Prayer puts us in our place. The temptation to grow a big head in such conversations is high. Pray for sobriety and humility of mind. Pray for discernment. Pray for humility of mind. Pray for boldness. And most importantly, pray for your opponent.
3. “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer.
Sometimes the case may be that you’ve never really studied on a particular subject. Don’t embarrass yourself by trying to give a “spiritualized” response. Just say that you don’t know. For example, do you know how Einstein’s theory of relativity invalidates Newton’s laws of motion? If you don’t, just say so. The question may even be a biblical one. For instance, do you know why God would choose to give eternal punishment for sins only committed in a few years of our lifetime? If you don’t, say you don’t. Your ignorance does not prove that God is ignorant. Jesus is the Truth, not you.
4. Do not give into the temptation of explaining away the atonement.
Instead of giving into this temptation. Take this as an opportunity to share the Gospel message. The problem with trying to explain away the atonement is often that you end up changing and “wising” up the Gospel. In the few times I have found myself inadvertently explaining away the atonement, I have noticed that the conversation often ends up making universalism the logical conclusion of the atonement. Of course, universalism means that the atheist does not have any justifiable reason to abandon his unbelief. Universalism means that we will all end up in heaven eventually, belief in God is inconsequential. We don’t want that now, do we? Stick to the Gospel, let God reveal Himself… or not.
5. Know your Bible.
Most of the questions that the atheist will ask regarding bible verses are usually highly de-contextualized and cherry-picked. Do not merely accept their interpretation of the verse. This means that you must be an avid reader and a faithful student of the Bible that you have set out to defend. It is simply embarrassing when the atheist seems to know and read the Bible more than you do. Read your Bible, pray everyday, if you want to grow.
6. Your inability to respond does not mean a response doesn’t exist.
Your responses are only as good as your knowledge on a given subject. Just because you do not have an answer or an explanation for a given phenomenon, does not mean that one doesn’t exist. The atheist may end up winning the battle, but it is the war that we are more concerned about. And for the Christian, that is already won on the Cross. Remember, God understands you better than you understand Him.
7. Apologetics is not evangelism
We are required to show that our faith is not logically self-contradictory. To “give a reason for the hope that we have” (1 Peter 3:15). Often-times, I have found myself slipping into the folly of thinking that all I need to do is show the atheist that my faith makes sense, and that’s all it will take to win them over. When it comes to the Gospel, we evangelize, we don’t rationalize. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) …and the atheist is left wondering, “How can this be?” (John 3:9).
Never ever substitute evangelism with apologetics. Salvation is a supernatural act of God. It is better to let it remain as such. Your ultimate goal is to win the soul, not the debate.
It is my sincere desire and hope that these tips and reminders will be helpful in your apologetic discourses with the skeptic, agnostic and atheist friends. I will add more to this list – more practical and spiritual concerns and reminders – in the future. This list is in no way exhaustive. Neither is it arranged in any particular order of priority. Feel free to add in the comment section below, some of the tips that you have found helpful in your own experience.
Lastly, “In your hearts, honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” [1 Peter 3:15]
Please check out this link for more helpful pointers on how to argue honorably as a Christian: Christian Character and Good Arguments.
In His service and for His glory,
2 thoughts on “Engaging the Atheist Friend: A Few Helpful Reminders”
“Most of the questions that the atheist will ask regarding bible verses are usually highly de-contextualized and cherry-picked.”
It’s funny you say that, as it seems exactly the same from the atheist perspective. Most questions or statements that the Christian will give an atheist regarding the bible are usually highly de-contextualized and cherry-picked.
“Just because you do not have an answer or an explanation for a given phenomenon, does not mean that one doesn’t exist.”
Correct. And just because an atheist does not have an answer or explanation, or because science might not have one, does not mean that your religion automatically wins.
Cornell if any of your friends followed this advice they would be roasting themselves. I think the best advice you ought to have given them is don’t dare unless you are ready for some whipping 🙂