Q&A: Ministering to Atheists


Back in January, I received an email during a time wherein I was moving back to St. Louis from Lincoln, NE. The email was from a younger college man who wanted a bit of guidance, but I did not answer. In fact, I did not even see the email until last night. Upon thinking about my response, nearly six months past the original receipt, I realized that he may not have the ability to receive it. Ryan, if you are reading this, this is for you.

Phillip,

I am a student at T**** *** University, and I believe that God has recently lit a passion in me to minister to atheists. As a 19-year-old kid, I understand the possible dangers of subjecting myself to their arguments, although I am firm in my faith. I do not know exactly how God will use me or when, but I would appreciate any advice you have as well as any books on the subject you might recommend. I have been immersing myself in the Word and I am almost finished with The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. Also, please pray for me to be unwavering in my faith and for God to move mountains through me. 1 Timothy 4:12.

Thanks,

Ryan

————————

Hey Ryan,

I hope I can still reach you at this address. In going through my emails, I saw that this one had escaped me and wanted to apologize. Please forgive me for the lengthy delay and what may prove to be a slightly lengthy email.

I’m glad you have a heart for reaching out to atheists. That type of interaction can be rough and it takes a person endowed specially by our Lord to be able to handle the force with which they argue their points. The good part is that people who do not have that initial desire are usually not endowed for that particular avenue of evangelism. I would be more than pleased to offer guidance if it would be helpful in your own pursuits.

First, I’ll give you a little perspective regarding some things that taught me immensely. Shortly after I heard the call to surrender my life to Jesus, I began engaging in religious discussions online through various “intellectual” forums before doing so in person. Among the fair number of “armchair” intellectuals, who would participate in the discussions, I came across an atheist who worked as a mathematician. This gentleman stressed the substantiation of facts and called me out numerous times to do just that, which encouraged me to emphasize a single point in future discussions: deliberation. Think of it like the old carpenter’s maxim “measure twice, cut once.” We demolish arguments and every arrogant opinion raised against the knowledge of God, as Paul wrote (2Co 10:5), and deliberation is to measure the argument [twice] and then cut into it. It seems simple, but not every person has the ability to think rationally or deliberately enough to argue this way. Nevertheless, this series of discussions led to a deep interaction about the nature of revelation instead of blind faith with the atheists that have partnered with the “Rational Response Squad”. It feels, at times, that the Lord as taken me on the scenic route to where I am supposed to be and, in it, He has been faithful and strong.

There are a ton of things to discuss and, if you ever have an interest, please ask. I would enjoy the opportunity to delve deeper. For now, my advice is as follows: remember the foolishness of God (1Co 1:18-31). The Jewish people were expecting a wartime messiah and sign after sign, whereas the Greeks seek wisdom [human intellectuality]. Just as Paul wrote, to the Jewish people Christ crucified is a stumbling block and, to the Greeks, it is foolishness. In other words, of the latter, the idea of suppressing human reason to accept that which cannot be conclusively proven through human reason is foolishness. It is reasonable to accept that there was a man by the name of Jesus, but human reason is not enough to believe that Jesus is God or, more specifically, that Jesus is the incarnate Word or eternal Son made flesh. The very heart of the faith is dependent upon revelation and no man will ever be reasoned into heaven. No matter how many philosophical arguments there are to prove God to be a necessary being (the Ontological is still my favorite), there is still the intellectually repulsive matter of suppressing the intellect. Aquinas wrote in book one of his classic, Summa Contra Gentiles, that acquiring the knowledge of God’s existence is hindered by human indolence, temporal needs, physical incapability, and our inherent desire to group falsity with the truth and if such knowledge were solely dependent upon human intellect, we would be locked in the darkest depths of ignorance. He concludes this thought that God gave man faith so that all may partake in the knowledge of God.

For a people who laud human reason or, better still, their supposed monopoly on reasoning skills, the very biblical idea that human reason is not enough often cuts them to the quick, because it confronts them with the possibility that their ability is not enough. For us, we must remember that if it is only through faith [in God’s work and promises, not in His existence] that one can be saved and not according to their ability, then we must continue to argue as if human reason is ineffective to bring one to the cross; this is important in a Christ-centered apologetics. While a firm ability to reason is good for addressing textual arguments against the Scripture or even general concepts of God’s existence, keeping this perspective will allow all discussions to move back to being discussed on your ground or from the point of Christian faith, instead of arguing on their ground. Finally, always remember that it should be done with “gentleness and respect”, that you would first lead by example that others would not have just reason to be offended in you. Peter wrote it far better, though:

“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but 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, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:14-17

I know this was lengthy and I do apologize. All in all, I hope that this has been helpful and I will pray for you. Never forget, though, that your first witness is how you live. We are all in a fish bowl and everyone is watching to see if we are going to justify their nonsense against us – here I too minister to myself. Lead by example! As for books or general writings I can recommend, I can name dozens, but I will give you the ones that have made the biggest impact to me in no particular order (Edit: in alphabetical order!):

Augustine of Hippo:

City of God (one of the most influential books in Western society after the Bible)

Charles Spurgeon:

Lectures to my Students (written for people going into leadership in the church)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Ethics (Christian life in this world)

The Cost of Discipleship (written about what it means to follow Christ)

Soren Kierkegaard:

The Sickness Unto Death (a work on despair)

Fear and Trembling (a work on faith)

The Crowd is Untruth (addresses the concept of popularity leading to truth)

Training in Christianity (the second-most impacting writing in my life outside of the Bible)

 

Blessings to you in the Lord. Most sincerely,

Phillip Nicewaner

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