Convincing Atheists

This month I had a couple of on-line encounters with atheists, one commenting at a guest post on my blog and later in some comments over at Amy Julia Becker’s place. I should say too that these folks were not at all as nice as the atheists I’ve spoken to face to face over the years.

It isn’t their tone that stayed with me though. It was their expectant demands that I found puzzling. For instance, Amy Julia was talking about how to be respectful in our interactions with those who don’t believe in God and I commented:

People attribute things to God and then say they could never believe in that version of God. I tend to agree with them; I’d never believe in that version of God either. Believing in the one true God is quite another thing entirely.

It was as if I threw down a gauntlet. One commenter in particular demanded that I prove God’s existence. Now come on, who made up the rule that any time a Christian expresses belief in God the Christian is then obligated to prove God’s existence to their satisfaction upon demand?*

For the commenter at the guest post on my own blog, it was even weirder. He essentially demanded proof and when I did not even try he said it just proved his point that Christians cannot back up their beliefs with evidence. He then hijacked the comment section and got so virulent I ended up deleting his comments entirely. (After all, this blog does have some basic standards!)

Apologetics Has Its Place

The verse most people cite on apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15 –

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

I’ll certainly go along with that. But nowhere does it say we must come up with philosophically airtight logic, incontrovertible evidence, or anything else to prove the validity of the hope we have. This verse merely says we should not shy away from talking about our faith. Here are some ways I see it playing out from day to day.

A cashier gives us too much change, and we hand it back. The cashier asks why we would do that and we say, “I’m sure God does not want me to keep money that doesn’t belong to me.”

We park too close to a car and later when pulling out scrape the car’s fender. No one is there to see it, but we leave a note with our name and other information. Someone asks why, and we say, “Well, Jesus did say we should treat others the way we want to be treated.”

At work, a colleague asks if we did anything good over the weekend and we say, “There was a great speaker at the marriage retreat we went on. It was really good to get some new insights on what the Bible says about loving our spouses.”

And if someone asks the big question – why we believe in Jesus – I still don’t think we are obligated to come up with some perfect argument that proves Christianity to be true. I think we are to talk about our faith and what God has done in our lives. We can talk about how Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (John 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 1:15.) We can talk about how we are free from trying to make ourselves good enough because Jesus the perfect One has done it all for us. (Galatians 2:19-20.) We can talk about how Jesus now calls us friend. (John 15:15.) We can talk about so much that gives us hope in the one true and living God.

But, as Laura pointed out at Enough Light last week, we don’t have to prove anything. That’s up to God.

God’s Proof

When it comes to understanding spiritual truths, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says –

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

The atheists with whom I was engaging earlier this month see that verse as a cop-out, but it’s not. In fact, it’s no different than what we see in families every day.

My family does things in certain ways. To a casual observer those ways might seem inexplicable, no matter how much I try to explain. Eventually, I’d probably tell the person that the only way they could understand is if they were a member of our family. No one calls that a cop-out, because the same thing applies to their family dynamics as well. It’s how all families are.

Including the family of God.

Can You Relate?

Leslie Keeney over at The Ruthless Monk posted a set of excerpts from some apologetics sources, and one in particular caught my eye.  Here’s Leslie’s introduction, followed by the excerpt itself –

Holly Ordway is probably the most prominent voice in Literary Apologetics in the United States. Her review of Imaginative Apologetics is a good introduction to some of the core ideas of the new apologetics and is well worth reading:

“When I was firmly in the ‘New Atheist’ mode, I wouldn’t have listened to even the best Christian philosophical and historical arguments. It wasn’t until I had imaginatively engaged with the Christian faith through poetry and literature – when I had a sense of what it was that this ‘faith’ thing might be, even though I didn’t understand it – that I was able to consider the apologetic arguments and ultimately find them convincing.”

Ordway started engaging the faith relationally before getting a glimpse of the truth. That makes sense, since God is relational. And after all, our faith isn’t about convincing atheists of anything; it’s about God.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14.)

I can relate to that.


*I realize that putting the word “atheists” in the title of this post may attract people who aren’t Christians. I’d love to host their comments, and invite constructive and irenic insights from all comers. But this post is not about convincing atheists, whether in the sense of convincing them my beliefs are valid or them convincing me theirs are. This post is about recognizing that not every conversation on belief has to turn into a formal debate.

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68 Responses to Convincing Atheists

  1. lckeeney says:

    Tim, from what I’ve been hearing in my Philosophy classes (as well as what I intuitively suspect), the idea that anyone can “prove” anything beyond a shadow of a doubt is effectively dead. While I have a lot of sympathy for atheists (If my life had been different, I can easily see myself being one), anyone who demands “proof” has been hanging out with the wrong crowd. The best we can do is demonstrate that Christianity is as reasonable as any other worldview (which we can do) and let God do the rest. Great post!

    • Tim says:

      I’d even say that the best we can do is let God do it all, whether through us and what we say or by the Holy Spirit directly interacting with the person. I know in my own delivery into God’s kingdom it was certainly a combination of both.

      And on proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, we don’t even require that in a courtroom. What’s required there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt; it’s a high standard, but not an impossible one to meet.

  2. nmcdonal says:

    Lots of thoughts. First, I’ve always thought it strange that 1 Peter 3:15 is used as the “apologetics” verse. We’re not called to give the reason for our FAITH – we’re called to give the reason for our HOPE which IS our faith! All Peter’s saying here is that we ought to be ready to explain the gospel; not why we believe it…

    Secondly, great analogy about family and understanding.

    Third, I like the idea of “imaginative apologetics”, but I would take it one step further. The reason imaginative aplogetics work is because you’re essentially showing before telling; letting someone taste Christian community before intellectually accepting it. I’d propose that bringing an unbeliever along on a trip to serve the homeless in the city, out to dinner with a group of close Christian friends or even letting them join your small group as you tour a monthly art gallery downtown could have the same effect.

    Finally, I think listening to Tim Keller’s sermons has taught me the most about effective apologetics. I’ve been learning more about the theory by the madness here at GCTS, as one of my profs was a student of Alvin Plantinga. The idea is, rather than listing formal arguments for God to an unbeliever, you listen deeply to their objections, verify them, then explain that their objections are really expressions of value, and that they’re inconsistent with a godless worldview. Essentially it pre-supposes that everyone believes in God, and that all our search for happiness (including our denial of God to find happiness) is really like an ancient rune of faith left in our heart, straight from the common grace of God. You start where they are, and go where Jesus is.

    • Tim says:

      On your examples of imaginative apologetics, I remember something similar in Lifestyle Evangelism by Joe Aldrich. He mentioned one way to reach out to a neighbor who is always working on handy man projects around the home would be to invite the neighbor along to a church workday. and ask him or her to bring along their tool belt.

      I like your last point too. Objections to Christianity are value-driven.

  3. Jeannie says:

    This is great stuff. (I read some of both of the argument threads you refer to, but bailed out very early!) I really like your family analogy; I’ve never thought of it that way before but it makes perfect sense. And I do think that if we dialed back on the idea that every person we meet is perched precariously on the edge of a pit and our airtight arguments are all that will keep him/her from falling in, we might be able to present the Christian life, and Jesus Himself, in a way that’s really loving, real, and lifegiving.

    I also LOVE nmcdonal’s sentence above: “You start where they are, and go where Jesus is.” Thanks for that!

    • Tim says:

      That thing about being on the edge off the pit? The Bible says that without Jesus we are already in that pit and only God – not compelling or high sounding arguments – can lift us out of it. An older man at church once learned that his new young neighbor was a friend of ours, and when he was in high school had been in the Young Life club my wife led.

      This older man asked if the young guy was a Christian, and when I said no he seriously asked, “Why haven’t you converted him yet?”

      I said, “Because I don’t do the Holy Spirit’s job for him.”

  4. ““When I was firmly in the ‘New Atheist’ mode, I wouldn’t have listened to even the best Christian philosophical and historical arguments.”

    Then she was bad as a ‘new atheist’. The rest of us do listen to those arguments. We don’t find them the least bit convincing, but we do listen.

    • Tim says:

      If you have a brief workable definition of “New Atheist”, I’d really appreciate it if you post it for us, NAS. Thanks for coming by.


      • As I understand it, a New Atheist is an atheist who regularly engages in debate, research and discussion about religion and apologetics.

        That’s how I’ve heard it used, at any rate. I generally don’t use the term, but figured I would respond to your use of it there.

  5. Lyndsay says:

    As a former member (strongly) of the New Atheist group, I can identify with the quote that was placed into your article. I viewed any assent to “belief” as proof of idiocy, uninformed decision making, and ultimately profoundly weak. A minor in philosophy didn’t help. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, and I don’t live in any bible belt area. I did ultimately engage in the philosophical, and more importantly, the very valid archaeological and historical arguments however it was only because of stubbornness that I did so (I set out to prove someone very wrong). What is the most interesting to me is how my self identity and need to be seen as “smart, bright, ‘going somewhere’, were wrapped up in the ideology of the new atheist movement. I was somehow a “better person than you” if I believed in scientific conclusions on matters of faith. I never stopped to consider the artificial dichotomy between those two points, I never looked at why I needed my beliefs so badly, and more importantly I was deathly afraid of vulnerability. When confronted with aggressive or rabid Atheists (I did read your deleted comments), I don’t get defensive about my beliefs at all. I don’t defend them at all. I do however ask them why they need to be right, and why both positions are not equally valid (because as strong as science is, it is not possible to disprove a creator). That typically starts a much more interesting conversation (best held in the context of a relationship).

    As a side note, and slightly off topic, I think that engaging with any atheist regarding Christian beliefs and values usually ends up in something like “I think all those values are great, but why do you need the belief?” That is usually where things get sticky. I believe that engaging people in the values end of Christianity (aka the ‘deeds’ end) and living a life that honors those values (with as little hypocritical behaviour as you are capable of), is mission critical. Let your life speak to God’s truth, be authentic in your doubts and your hardships, and be open to God working on the beliefs of others. I truly believe that when non-Christians are engaged in missional activities, their actions begin resonating at a heart level. Anything that operates on the heart has the potential to open someone up to belief.

    Just my 2 cents from both sides of the coin.

    • Tim says:

      Excellent, Lyndsay. I’m with you on that bit about defending my beliefs. I shy away from it as being unhelpful to the conversation. My faith is based on the finished work of Jesus and the grace of God, not the ability to convince someone else that they are valid. God is who he is, as he said to Moses, “I Am.”

      And on living in a way that honors and glorifies God, Jesus told us clearly that it is the way we love each other that will show people whether we belong to him or not. Our actions really do speak loudly, when sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

    • Doug says:

      Excellent, Lyndsay – thanks for that… here’s my (modest)…

      Advice to the Christian who would like to interact with New Atheists — be the counter-example to the New Atheist’s deeply cherished beliefs about Christians:
      1. Be educated. More educated than them helps.
      2. Be smart. No, not stuck up; not pretentious — really smart.
      3. Be humble. Real scientists know how much they don’t know. New Atheists like to suppress this truth, but they know it instinctively.
      4. Be real. Acknowledge the weaknesses in your position.
      5. Be funny. New Atheists are often humor-challenged (they seem to think that “humor” means insulting theists)
      6. Be the evidence for God the New Atheists want so desperately to pretend doesn’t exist. It isn’t hard — after all, you’ve been made in His image.

  6. I’m just taking all this in today. I have a friend who is atheist. We have great superficial relationship. (As far as such a thing is possible!) I always feel like I must tiptoe through our conversations. It’s helpful to read comments from ex-atheists who have made the leap of faith as well as from those who have chosen to stay away from the edge of the chasm.

    • Tim says:

      Adriana, I’m with you about soaking up all that is getting talked about in these comments. Lots of good stuff. On getting deeper into the relationship with your friend, one thing I’ve noticed is that people seem to take an interest in what I’m doing when I’ve taken an interest in them. Then again, I’ve also ended up on a lot of one-way streets with this, but that’s not just with non-believers but with Christians too, sadly.

  7. Aimee Byrd says:

    Great article, provoking a wonderful comments thread. I have to say that I agree with R.C. Sproul that there are no such thing as atheists. It’s not that they don’t believe in God, it’s that they hate him, “because the carnal mind is enmity against God…” And that is very humbling, because it is God who gives us the faith to see his abounding grace in Christ.

  8. Aimee Byrd says:

    NAS, I don’t want to come off smarmy, sorry for that. I was trying to point out that Christians shouldn’t believe that they are Christian’s because they are smarter then their unbelieving neighbor, have all the answers,or some better quality/morality. We should be humbled by our faith, because God’s Word tells us that general revelation gives everyone ample evidence in the existence of God, but we suppress the truth in unrighteousness. I actually believe that we are all liars, and that is why we need a Savior.

  9. “I’ll certainly go along with that. But nowhere does it say we must come up with philosophically airtight logic, incontrovertible evidence, or anything else to prove the validity of the hope we have.”

    You know, I wish that someone would have told me that when I was growing up. Every time I read the verse, my inward panic would start. I tried devouring apologetic books, only to forget what I read pretty soon afterwards. Some people are great at arguments and philosophy, others of us can’t really hold on to the ideas for very long (that’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading apologists and philosophers — I do; I just can’t contain the ideas in my brain for very long).

    Through the years, I stopped trying to be something I’m not and defend my faith through logical arguments. At the end of the day, you could have the most logical argument out there, but if God is not opening the person’s eyes at the time you’re talking to them, it wouldn’t be effective. My approach has been to share my faith — which means doubts, confessions, and awe-inspiring moments (hence my blog, which started partly because I wanted to share my faith with my non-Christian friends who thought I was brainwashed).

    • Tim says:

      Your way of living out 1 Peter 3:15 sounds like it would resonate with a lot of people, Rachel. It’s amazing how many people are interested in knowing what others believe, and will give a fair hearing to it if for no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity. And when it comes to our friends, they might just be interested if for no other reason than it being an extension of their interest in us. God can certainly use all of that to build his kingdom.

      And I really like the way you put this: “At the end of the day, you could have the most logical argument out there, but if God is not opening the person’s eyes at the time you’re talking to them, it wouldn’t be effective.” That about sums up my whole post here!

  10. Laura says:

    I can’t really think of anything to add to the conversation, but wanted you to know that I appreciated this post (and the comments too) Tim! Thanks.

  11. Nancy Van Wyck says:

    This was like a breath of fresh air to me. I have a nephew and a neice who both are athesist. They know how I stand with the Lord yet they write things on facebook about our precious Saviour and put jokes making fun of him, I delete it as fast as I can. I have been thinking of taking them off but have the opportunity to share nice things about our Lord. I pray my words ,my walk and my life will touch them in a special way really soon. Thanks to everyone who wrote to you on your great post. I feel encouraged tonight.

    • Tim says:

      I am so glad to be an encouragement, Nancy. I am sure God is blessing your relationship with your niece and nephew, even if they don’t realize it! Praying for you and for them.

  12. Beth M says:

    Tim, I like what you had to say, and in particular the practical examples of how *exactly* to insert references to your faith in very simple everyday actions.

    At my church on Sunday the pastor preached on “Blessed are the meek” and used 2 Timothy 2:24-26 as a supporting verse – I think there is great balance in it by admonishing “gentle (or meek) instruction” for the unbeliever by the believer, and then God’s role as the granter of repentance and truth.

    • Tim says:

      Beth, that sounds like a wonderful message you heard last Sunday. The passage in timothy should be required reading for anyone who thinks they want to be an apologist, let alone the rest of us who just want to know how to love people in the name of Christ.

      On the examples I gave above, I didn’t want them to sound unrealistic so I chose some out of my own experience. I can’t say that I always respond to such opportunities that way, but God has led me to where I do so a lot more often than I used to!

  13. Ramya says:

    Hi Tim! Been reading and enjoying your posts on and off, but commenting here for the first time. I like your insightful comments on this topic, and this is something close to what I wrestle with a lot–being the only Christian in a family of a different religious belief. Ultimately, I too have come to the realization that I cannot convince my family of the reason behind my choices because until the Spirit reveals the Truth to them, it will only look like foolishness to them! It is actually a little bit of pride that I have to give up and not look for everyone to understand and accept my choices. Our pastor’s message this week was on 1 Pet. 5:6-7: I need to humble myself before God that He may exalt me in due time… 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Ramya, I am struck by how that passage says that God may lift us up “in due time” rather than promise us immediate raising up. I’m praying for you and your family and the discussions you all have together to be God-honoring and a blessing to all.


    • “It is actually a little bit of pride that I have to give up and not look for everyone to understand and accept my choices.”

      Ramya, I struggle with this too in my Christian walk — not as much with unbelievers, but certainly with other Christians who don’t share my views about how Christianity should be lived out. I’ve never thought of it pride, but I believe you’re right — it is. This pricks my heart. I’m so glad you shared your experience. I’m heading over to I Peter now!

  14. Ramya says:

    Thanks, Tim! Its waiting period that tests us sometimes!

  15. sarahtun says:

    I’ve followed this lengthy trail… very life-giving. It seems to me the over-riding message is that we walk in the light of absolute wisdom from God but ‘knowing’ nothing but Christ. Intelligent discussion is fun and fascinating but rarely is significant. So, rather than take the bait that often is put before us, we need to discern how to engage with the person offering the bait. Tricky. I see the issue; I can’t necessarily solve it. Blessings!

    • Tim says:

      “… rather than take the bait that often is put before us, we need to discern how to engage with the person offering the bait.”

      Well put, Sarah. I think that’s some of the best advice possible for those who want to know how to share the hope they have in Jesus.

  16. Srirup Chatterjee says:

    A priest told me in high school (I am paraphrasing here): “If you have to ask someone else to prove the existence of God then you are wasting your time. You have to know/experience God. “

    My personal take:
    When even the definition of the word “God” is a bone of contention I personally think the question, “Can you prove the existence of God?” has absolutely no meaning, and I stay well clear of any discussion on that topic.

    Slightly off topic: the same priest also said “A happy person is a holy person and vice versa”.

    Decades after this interaction between a worldly-wise priest and an argumentative student the now elderly priest came to get a coronary bypass surgery performed on him by the student! Imagine his surprise when these two statements were thrown back at him while he was recovering from the operation!

    • Tim says:

      Great priest story, including the epilog, Srirup!

      And I completely agree about how defining what one means by God can be a bone of contention. I recall recently having an atheist tell me that he’d disprove God’s existence as soon as I told him what I meant by God. I didn’t take him up on his offer.

  17. Josh says:

    Just read this, Tim. It serves as a nice response to the question I just asked you over at Contact (or don’t)

  18. sarahtun says:

    Personally, I believe unless our comments are sprinkled with the Holy Spirit there isn’t a lot we can say to bring life to those who do not want it. I agree with your reference points entirely, but for me, the aim is not to enter the game. The matter is far too serious.

  19. Josh says:

    I involved myself in a few rather lengthy debates over at the Finding Truth blog. While trying to defend the evidence and logic I felt a lot of anxiety and need to prove that I was right. After awhile I felt compelled to just state my beliefs as succinctly as I could and leave it at that. That, of course, led to some responses indicating that I was insulting intelligence and avoiding reason. But, it was much more freeing and felt so much more honest than trying to take on the burden of proving my beliefs are right.

    • Tim says:

      It sounds like you are doing fine trusting God to make something out of your efforts, Josh!

    • sarahtun says:

      The irony of course is that none of us can ‘prove’ any theory or faith. Evolution is more disproved than proved, but still people cling to the notion. Tragic how those with faith in God are put on the defensive… but that of course is more about the antagonist’s pain and rejection of God than anything else. Being true to ourselves is the aspect God encourages. Sounds like Josh found the practicality of that!

  20. Josh says:

    Good perspective, sarahtun.

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  22. esbee says:

    I find it interesting how many atheists point out they cannot believe in a god who condones killing- they cite OT verses and of course, the ever popular excuse, the Crusades. I also find it interesting that they take no truck against the many atheistic leaders of the 20th century killing tens of millions of innocents for no reason at all. If I was looking for an excuse against being atheist I would certainly point that reason out as topmost.

    Also, many atheists claim there is no afterlife. So if they are correct, what does it matter what we do or how we live if we just go to nothingness? Hitler and all his 12 millions victims went to nothingness, never even knowing they lived. If the atheist is right and Christians are wrong, then they cannot even say “I told ya so!” after death. But there is a God, heaven and hell, and the christian will get no joy in telling an atheist “I told ya so!” after death.

    I found a blog by a man who was a preacher for 25 years. He preached and lived it deeply but chunked it all and became atheist because following all those man-made rules about religion did not work for him, only brought him anger, misery and pain. I feel for him that he was hurt so bad that his faith was destroyed. His anger is apparent in when he comments about a whole family killed in a trailer fire at Christmas time (except the mom who was at work) that God is cruel. Why do atheists say there is no God, yet argue like God is real, even to the point of deep anger against something they do not believe in? It is like being angry at elves in Ireland because of any bad stuff that happens there.

    • Tim says:

      Interesting that you bring up the issue of whether belief has an effect on existence, because I’m working on a post now on how one’s unbelief is not necessarily an indicator of reality.

  23. Josh says:

    Hey Tim-
    I just wanted you to know that I keep coming back to this post time and again. I really enjoy talking with atheists about what I believe, but I too often find myself in debates demanding that I provide unassailable reasoning for my belief in Jesus. I sometimes can’t help getting caught up in the argument, and often find I’m getting attacked because my “faith” isn’t based on anything logical/rational/evidence-based. I’m considering just giving up the whole discussion altogether because it always seems to devolve into that, even if I just make one comment about one statement. Anyway, thanks for your blog. I find a lot of solace here 🙂

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Josh. The thing I try to remember is that if someone is truly interested in what I believe, then they ought to be interested in me generally. If the latter is missing, then the former is not true interest but merely idle curiosity. God can use conversations in either context but this distinction keeps me from getting wigged out because someone is making demands on how I am supposed to answer their questions.

    • My thoughts are these: good for hanging in, debating and trying. Problem is these situations are usually bait to see if we’ll fall into the trap of discussion. It’s all ‘flesh’ as opposed to ‘spirit’. Thing is, if an atheist had an encounter with the Holy Spirit, the presence of God might be the proof he desires/seeks. God bless.

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