Can We Evangelize Atheists?
Eric Newton, BJU Seminary Faculty
Several years ago, I had the privilege of taking a mission trip to Singapore and Indonesia. On the 12-hour flight from Detroit to Tokyo I sat next to a quiet Filipino who was returning from an international psychiatry conference in Toronto. With her occupation in mind, I explained that I mentored students, attempting to steer the conversation to the true needs of every human heart and the centrality of Jesus Christ. She politely dialogued for a while then found the first of several movies to watch during the long journey across North America and the Pacific Ocean. I confess, our interaction didn’t seem to amount to much. Unlike on some other flights, this seatmate and I didn’t share much in common.
For us who follow Jesus Christ, the term atheist provokes a range of thought and feeling. Contemporary atheism may frustrate us, because it won’t go away and sometimes swallows up those whom we know and love. Perhaps it intimidates us with its seemingly sophisticated arguments. Hopefully atheism stirs up our zeal. As Romans 1 clearly teaches, the glory of God is at stake in every individual’s acceptance or rejection of God’s self-revelation. But I wonder if, more often than not, atheism numbs us. We don’t share in common the most basic of beliefs, that there is a God. And therefore, conversation with an atheist seems senseless.
But that would be to discount God ourselves. Recently I attended a seminar presented by an atheist-turned-Christian. His personal story was sobering, instructive, but ultimately thrilling. He grew up in a Christian home, had doubts about the goodness of God, attended a Christian university, started reading unbelieving philosophers, and became an avowed atheist. He plunged himself into liberal social causes, seeking to fill the void in his soul by helping change the planet. But he found the lives of his cohorts to be in disarray and the purposes for which he lived dissatisfying. Then his seemingly hopeless journey took a significant turn when he attended a Bible-believing church with a relative and was confronted by genuine Christian love and, subsequently, earnest prayer on his behalf. Eventually, this intelligent prodigal came to the end of himself and was graciously rescued by the Lover of souls.
So, if we’re asking the question of whether we should have a conversation with an atheist about Jesus Christ, the answer is yes. But how? Like anything else, we have to start by adopting God’s revealed perspective. Scripture speaks straightforwardly about atheists. God calls them fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Ps. 53:1). The designation fool isn’t referring to someone’s intelligence. It’s a moral description. It focuses on the inclination of a person’s soul. In other words, the heart of atheism isn’t heady arguments but an emotional commitment.
That means that conversations with atheists rarely succeed through intricate debate. Yes, there are good explanations for why we believe and what we do. And yes, we should always be ready to commend and defend our faith (1 Pet. 3:15). Yet, an atheist isn’t lacking a good reason to believe in God’s existence. Like all of us who were once outside of Christ, he needs a new heart and eyes to understand that true freedom is confessing Jesus as Lord. Peace is found, not in skepticism awaiting satisfactory proof but believing in order that we may know (as Augustine put it).
An atheist may initially frustrate or confuse or intimidate us, but we can be confident that he has an innate knowledge of God, the true God of the Bible whose very nature is mercy. And we should remember that, like in the example above, love often cuts a path for truth. It may not be a theistic proof but rather otherworldly kindness and intercessory prayer that set the table for our gospel conversation to begin or continue.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.