A starter to engaging atheists with the gospel
Get out of the ring
A few months ago, Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov were in the ring for a huge fight in the UFC (Mixed Martial Arts, for those of you who aren’t regular viewers). The fight had gotten quite a bit of publicity beforehand, and so I watched the highlights the following day – it was brutal; two guys in a cage, throwing punches and kicks and wrestling one another, with the fight even continuing long after the ref had called time.
I think sometimes, when we think about engaging atheists with the gospel, we can think it’s a bit like this. We walk nervously into the ring, fully expecting to get a pummelling. If we can survive, great; maybe even throw a few counter-punches. But really, it’s all about survival. Defence, defence, defence – and hoping to get away unscathed.
And so how do we engage with people who say, or live like, there is no God without just getting in a boxing match over science and genomes and the history of the cosmos, which, unless you’re a molecular scientist yourself, you’re likely to just keep getting knocked back over?
Of course, we don’t want to shy away from answering those questions like ‘Hasn’t science disproved God?’, or be afraid of them. We can point people in the direction of great books to read. But it’s a bit…defensive.
What I’d love us to consider is a new game-plan.
It’s time to get on the front foot! Let’s turn the tables.
Let’s ask them to defend their position.
Because actually, if you’re a Christian, then you’re coming from the strongest possible standing point – we stand on the living word of God; it doesn’t get any more solid than that. And so we can have confidence to get on the front foot, and in particular, to help our atheist friends to see that the Christian faith is the only way to make sense of the world we live in.
A (very brief) introduction to atheism
I wonder what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘atheist’?
For many of us, I’d imagine, it’s Richard Dawkins – he’s the figurehead of the New Atheist movement, one of the self-proclaimed ‘four horseman of atheism’, along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
To generalise, their rhetoric is normally pretty straightforward – there is no God, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool. They went through a phase of being hugely popular in the mainstream – The God Delusion sold millions when it was released 12 years ago – but it’s fair to say that they’ve lost a bit of traction recently. It’s come to be seen by many, including lots of professing atheists, to be militant and somewhat fundamentalist – which is easy to see why: Dawkins and others like him, guys like Ricky Gervais, are prolific on social media platforms – taking every and any opportunity to take a shot at religion in whatever form.
But there seems to have been something of a revolution in atheist circles, and in recent years, there’s been the advent of the creatively labelled Atheism 2.0, spearheaded by guys like Alain de Botton. These guys are less Rottweiler, more Labrador, and their intention is to try and make atheism an attractive way of viewing the world – as opposed to what’s perceived about the New Atheist camp. Atheism 2.0 includes things like ‘Atheist Church’ – more on that later. In a TED talk I listened to recently, de Botton was quite unashamed in saying that what he wanted to do was to have religion, just without the god-bit. So take a high view of art and institution and education and sermons and community – much like church – but just strip God out of it.
But there’s another class of atheist that I want to introduce into the mix – the functional atheist. Take ‘Dave’, from work, for instance. He doesn’t really ever spend a moment thinking about the existence of God – he just lives as if there isn’t one. He can’t really be bothered to think about such big, overarching questions. He might not label himself as ‘atheist’ on the census, but everything about him communicates that that’s how he functions. And actually, I’d suggest that is where most people are at. A small percentage of the people we know will be avid followers of Dawkins and be able to quote the God Delusion off by heart. Probably an even smaller percentage will talk about Atheism 2.0 and be members of an atheist church, but most will just be living as functional atheists.
This growing percentage of the population who find they have less need for God and faith in their lives – which is only reinforced by surrounding culture. Think about it – media, film, art, music, politics, history, commerce, industry, science – it’s all just carried on as if there is no God. And so consequently your mate Dave just cracks on with life. He doesn’t lie in bed worried about whether or not there’s a God. He lies in bed worried about the terrible Spurs result in the Champions League, about whether he remembered to lock the front door, about what the doctor will say at the appointment tomorrow. He’s a functional atheist.
And so the question is – how do we engage with our friends, neighbours and colleagues who live as new, 2.0 or functional atheists?
How do we communicate the good news about the Son of God to those who do not live as if, or fundamentally believe that, there even is a God?
How do we get on the front foot?
“In Him we live and move and have our being”
Firstly – here’s where we have to start, as Christians, in thinking about engaging with atheists. Before we get to the point of engagement, we have to go back to the Bible, and remind ourselves what’s true about all of humanity.
In Acts 17, Paul is in the Areopagus in Athens, which is basically a public square where people come and share ideas. And he stands in front of these philosophers and says this:
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Can you see what he’s saying?
God made everything, and gives everyone life and breath.
In him we live and move and have our being. This is a really important place for us to start as we think about engaging with atheists – because this, the Bible says, is the situation of everyone on this planet.
Created by God, and made to be in relationship with him.
“In him we live and move and have our being.”
In him Dawkins, De Botton and Dave live and move and have their being.
In fact, the only reason those guys are breathing is because God made them and is sustaining their breath, right now. And so, actually, when they say, “There is no God” – they’re being foolish. In fact, the Bible says exactly that:
Psalm 14:1 – “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’”
And so here’s the rub.
How do we show Dawkins & De Botton that actually, for all their intellect, they’re fools? How do we show ‘Dave’ that he is being deluded by fools? That he’s buying a lie about how to view the world?
A 3-Step Strategy
I want to suggest a 3-Step Strategy which I hope might help us in our conversations, and which we’ll work through for the remainder of this article. This is adapted from a section of Trevin Wax’s highly-recommended book “This Is Our Time”.
In it, Trevin suggests a 3-step approach to getting on the front foot when engaging people with the gospel.1
Firstly – we identify people’s longings. We work out what it is that people are longing for in life.
Secondly – we work to expose the lies that they’re believing about those longings. We help them to see where their search for what they are longing for is coming up short, because they’re looking in the wrong places.
Thirdly – we hold out the light of the gospel. We were made for something better. We were made for relationship with God. The atheist way of viewing the world – saying “There is no God” – it’s always going to come up short, because Acts 17 is true! And so we hold out the gospel and show them that Christianity makes sense of their longings in a way that nothing else does.
1. Identify the LONGING
22 … “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
Can you see what Paul has done before he starts speaking?
Prior to engaging with them, he has taken time to identify the Athenian longings. He’s spent time getting to know the people around him. And so he’s able to say: “I see that in every way you are very religious”. He has, v23, “walked around and looked carefully at their objects of worship”. He’s taken time to figure out the people whom he’s wanting to engage. He’s seen a city full of idols, and a people who seem very religious – and so he is then able to speak into that, by denouncing their idolatry as foolish and warning them of God’s coming judgment.
What does this look like for us?
It looks like considering the longings of those we’re speaking to. What are people building their lives around?
Now – they’re atheists, so they haven’t got physical idols that they’re bowing down to. But, much like the Athenians in Paul’s day, they will have things in their life where they look to place all their hope and satisfaction and purpose.
It might be health & well-being – spending hours in the gym, or drinking kale smoothies, or eating copious amounts of quinoa. Or career success – just dedicated to climbing higher and higher up the greasy pole; building a name for themselves in their field of work. Or family – getting the perfect spouse, settling into the perfect home in the home counties, raising the perfect 2.4 kids, sending them to the perfect school and them then getting the perfect grades and the perfect sporting prowess. Or community – finding friendships which last and endure, people who accept you, warts & all, a place of acceptance and love.
Whatever it is – everyone has things where they look for hope and satisfaction and meaning; which they shape their lives around.
And so – the next time you’re in a conversation with someone, or as you get to know someone – do what Paul does in Athens.
Spend time identifying their longings; or, more simply, get to know them.
It’s really not rocket science – you can usually work it out by seeing where they spend their time and their money; what’s are the things which they are longing for.
2. Expose the LIE
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2“Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 3I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
4I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. 9I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
The writer is looking for something – hope; satisfaction; meaning. He’s trying to scratch an itch, and he looks in all the places he can think of.
In pleasure – unbridled hedonism.In laughter – just having a good time with his mates. In great projects – new business ventures, a loft conversion, an extension on the back of the house. In buildings – the holiday home on the coast.
In slaves & flocks & herds – material stuff, the house filled with all the latest gadgets. In money – a flourishing investment portfolio, savings for the kids, cash to burn on the weekend. In sex – a wife, then another, younger wife, then another, younger wife. In power – finally reaching the dizzying heights of being CEO at the company; all the time, desperately searching.
But he works through all of those and then you get to v11.
He can’t shake the fact that it just seems…meaningless.
It’s no different today, is it? Tim Keller helpfully captures it when he writes – “We go through houses and spouses and jobs and the constant reinvention of our lives, assuring ourselves that at the next level ‘IT’ is going to be there”.2 But the thing is, IT never arrives. For the one who says “There is no God”, ‘It’ always seems out of reach. We can have everything, and keep wanting more, and nothing scratches where we itch; nothing satiates our hunger, our appetite – for it. For meaning, purpose, satisfaction, happiness, hope, contentment – whatever ‘It’ is. And it’s at this point that the lies of atheism start to be exposed – it’s shown to be foolish – because there’s no getting away from the fact that we seem to be hard-wired for something that is out of reach.
It’s where this atheist Harvard professor got to – this is in an article in the New Yorker in 2011. She writes, “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental Big Bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life – beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward – is cosmically irrelevant?”.3
See what’s happening? She’s beginning to see that her atheist way of viewing the world doesn’t have the answers for the longings she has. She wants her life and the lives of those she loves to mean something, but with an atheist framework – the answer comes back to haunt her, “None of it means anything”.
Because ultimately, this is where atheism takes you, and that’s why the Bible says it is foolish to say ‘There is no God!’ – because we were made for something better!
The Bible says you’re a fool if you think that you can shut God out of the picture and think that life will stack up; Acts 17 – ‘In him we live and move and have our being!’. That’s the only way life is going to make sense: through being in relationship with the one who made us.
So – having identified his longings, help your friend ‘Dave’ to see how he’s being duped by believing the lies of atheism to look to those things to provide the big answers in life. Help him to get to an Ecclesiastes 2 moment. Help him to see that his search for meaning, for satisfaction, for hope – whatever it is – will never be fulfilled when he says or lives like “There is no God”, because when he gets to that point…now you’re ready to show him something better. Now you’re ready to take him to Jesus. You want him to get to this point. You want him to get to the point as Jamie Smith writes, where you can say to him: “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you have those moments of either foreboding or on-the-cusp elation where you can’t shake the sense that there must be something more?”.4
3. Hold out the LIGHT (John 10:10)
This is the most important component in our conversation. We identify their longing, we expose the lie, but then we hold out the light, by showing them Jesus as something better.
David Robertson writes:
“Our goal is not to defeat atheists in a debate, but to show them the glory and beauty of Christ in the hope that some may be saved. We argue with atheists not to win the argument, but to have Christ win them”.5
So in the back of our minds, whenever we’re engaging with atheists of whatever form, we want to take them to Christ. Because the wonderful message of the Bible is that God sends his Son – the Lord Jesus – to rescue fools who say “there is no God”, and restore them back to life with the God who made them.
In John’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus says: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”. That was Jesus’ purpose in coming, that those who believe in him might find life, and that by turning to him, people – even people like Dawkins, De Botton & Dave – can find the answers to which they are longing for. Satisfaction, hope, meaning – all of these things that they are looking for in all these different places – Jesus comes and he says: you find life, you find rich, satisfying, suffering-enduring, lasting-hope, meaning-giving life, by coming to me.
But how is Jesus the answer to your atheist friend’s deepest longings for life, where everything else falls short? Matthew 27:46 holds the key, where Jesus goes to the cross and cries out “My God, my God – why have you forsaken me?”.
Jesus goes to the cross and dies in our place, to take the penalty for our sin – for our foolishness of saying ‘There is no God’. He swaps places with us, and experiences the utter horror of what “There is no God” really looks like, which is what we deserve. He is forsaken by his Father. And he endures that at the cross so that whoever believes in him can be restored to relationship with God, and know and enjoy life as it was made to be – restored to the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
And that should be your prayer for your atheist friend – that they would get to the point of seeing that the only way to make sense of life and the only way to find lasting meaning and hope and satisfaction in this world is by turning to Jesus, who came to bring us life restored to relationship with the One who made us.
I’ve found that a helpful way to ground this is to share your own story of what it has meant to find life which makes sense of our longings, through faith in Christ.
The great thing about that is they can’t really argue with it; they can’t argue with personal experience, which you then ground in truth. And so show them how liberating it is. Show that being a Christian makes sense of your deepest longings in a way that being an atheist never will. Share your story.
Bring people to Jesus!
This is by no means an exhaustive summary of how to engage with atheists – clearly that isn’t the case. But if you take one thing from this, let it be this: bring people to Jesus.
This really isn’t an exact science or elaborate process that has to be worked through to the letter. We work hard to identify people’s deepest longings, we seek to expose the lies of where they think they can find the answer to those longings, but then we just hold out the light of life that is Jesus Christ.
We show people that Jesus is better.
As David Robertson writes, “You do not counter atheism with theism. You counter atheism with Christ. No one who meets with the Risen Christ remains an atheist”.6
1Trevin Wax, “This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel”, 10-11.
2Timothy Keller, “Making Sense of God”, 84.
4James K.A. Smith, “How (Not) To Be Secular”, 137.
5David Robertson, ‘Four Ways to Witness to Atheists’, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/fourways-to-witness-to-atheists. [Accessed 23.11.18]
5David Robertson, “Engaging with Atheists”, 105-106.