There you stand, tense and exasperated, with your dizzied mind desperately searching for a rebuttal to a snarky remark about your faith from a particularly contentious atheist. Frustrated, you come up dry. I am sure you’ve been in this situation before; many Christians have.
Yet, because you couldn’t respond to the atheist’s argument—and, admittedly, because the argument made you doubt an aspect of your faith—a spirit of fear and timidity toward atheism grows inside you. So often, Christians forgo opportunities to share the gospel with atheists because of this timidity.
In fact, we often treat atheism like a contagious disease that, once contracted, will require a holy hazmat team to quarantine us and stabilize our faith. However, Peter tells us to “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Anyone includes those uncomfortable, intimidating conversations with atheists. How can we overcome a fear of atheism to engage with this lost religious group?
1. Recognize that atheists, not Christians, are denying the obvious.
The common complaint lobbied by atheists against Christians is that our belief in God (theism) is unwarranted due to the scientific evidence that suggests his non-existence. Yet, according to Paul, God’s existence is “clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).
In other words, good scientific observation, the key witness that atheists call upon to deny God’s existence, is ironically pointing in the opposite direction towards God’s existence. It is atheism, not Christian theism, that must explain how all information came from nothing, why the universe is finely-tuned for our existence, and how multiverse theories are more than mere metaphysical speculation.
Also, as beings created in God’s image to have a relationship with him, atheism is unnatural to the human experience. Contrary to what atheists would like us to believe, we do not begin life born into atheism and work backward to theism; rather, it’s the other way around. Atheism is the deliberate suppression of our natural inclination toward belief in God (Romans 1:18-23).
2. Trust that God gives the right words at the right time.
Concerning public hostility to the gospel, Jesus once commanded his disciples, “do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11-12).
The principle of this promise, while specific to the disciples’ day, certainly extends to us as well. Back then, the popular cultural objection to the gospel was religious in nature (i.e., the messiah does not suffer and die). Today, the popular cultural objections to the gospel are philosophical and scientific in nature (i.e., God doesn’t exist).
In both instances, as instruments in the Redeemer’s hands, God promises to give us the right words to say. Pray about the conversation beforehand, then rest easy in God’s sovereignty. You’re not there to win a debate; you’re there to represent a King.
3. Always glorify God in gentleness and respect.
Some atheists—certainly not all—have a nasty habit of being disrespectful in conversation and dialogue. Their sour attitude stems from a frustration that theism, especially Christian belief, persists despite what they view as scientific evidence that should be propelling humanity into an advanced, god-less, utopian state. The sooner theism is gone, the better. And yet, not only does Christianity refuse to go away, in many parts of the world it’s actually exploding in growth.
Just because some—again, not all—atheists pugnaciously defend their beliefs by offensively putting you on the offense, their actions are no excuse to retaliate in the same manner. Or, as the Bible puts it, “answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4). Instead, follow Peter’s advice to make a defense in gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). In doing so, you will glorify God and highlight your witness of him.
More often than not, it is Christian behavior rather than Christian belief that holds atheists at arms-length from the gospel. Build bridges through a gentle and meek spirit. Never cast your pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6), but neither should you timidly shy away from these intimidating conversations. Jesus never said the Great Commission would be a comfortable endeavor; yet, confidence in the gospel itself will replace a spirit of timidity with one of boldness.
Kyle Beshears is a Ph.D. candidate in World Religions at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a pastor at the People of Mars Hill in Mobile, Alabama, where he lives with his wife.