Listening to Young Atheists: A Christian Response — St. Peter's Fireside | Vancouver, B.C. 

by Alastair Sterne
June 12, 2013
9 min read

The Atlantic recently published a great read called Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity. Take the time to read it, it’s worth it. As usual, an article of this calibre is making its way around the social media sphere. There is one sentence that seems to have caught everybody’s attention:

“I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”

Gut-wrenching. Soul-checking. It makes my insides twinge a little.

Could it really be? Am I immoral if I’m not avidly trying to convert people?

What is challenging about this is how it stands in contrast to other messages that float around in our culture. Think about this widely held notion: it’s immoral to share your faith because such activity is “intolerant” of other belief systems. “If it makes your life better, then good for you” is often the subtly condescending sentiment. And in many ways, Christians blindly adhere to this creed. It lets us off the hook! “Believe what you want, but keep it to yourself.” But this sort of sentiment, despite how palatable it may be, is dangerous and misleading.

The message of Christianity is not just about our lives being made better. Christianity at its core is making claims about how things really are. If we are wrong, we are deluded. At least, that’s how Paul feels. He says if the physical resurrection isn’t true, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:12-19). Really, of all people? Pitied more than orphans, widows, those suffering from hunger and diseases, the war ravaged? To Paul, there is nothing more pitiable than being utterly deceived and wrong. If the message of Christianity is not true, if it is not historical, if the resurrection is not physical, then it is a religion of deception, misinformation, and at its heart immoral as well. I would suggest that it is even immoral to encourage people to continue in a delusion. While I adamantly disagree with many friends who are atheists, I respect that they feel a sense of conviction when it comes to truth, and a sense of necessity in helping people come to a better sense of what is true. Despite our differences, there is one thing Christians and atheists agree upon: morality and truth share a bed together.

It’s immoral not to tell someone the truth, because in simple terms: it’s lying.

It’s immoral not to tell someone the truth, because in simple terms: it’s lying. So, why is it so necessary to share the Christian message? Because we are not solely declaring how people can live better lives in their own little bubbles, but we are proclaiming facts about how the universe actually operates. Penn Jillette, a comedian and atheist, expands “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward … how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

Well put, Penn. But why is it that so many Christians would rather remain quiet than pipe up and talk about Jesus?

A part of the problem is that historical (and orthodox) doctrines have been abandoned, particularly the doctrine of hell. Hell is not something Christians agree over anymore, nor is it something that very many want to use as a “motivator” to manipulate people into belief. But if you believe in the traditional doctrine of hell, how can you not tell someone about the very real eternal consequences that await them? Even if you don’t believe in hell as a literal place, or the images of hell as metaphorical realities, say you believe that hell is annihilation — I still say, how could you not want to warn people that they will cease to exist and that there’s the possibility of eternal life? And this is where Penn’s point is apt, if there is even the remote possibility of eternal life, how could you not let people know?

Even if you don’t believe in hell (which personally, I do not think is an option for any serious student of the Scriptures), how can you not share the message of Jesus that not only has eternal ramifications, but also massive implications for how we live here and now? If you really believe that God is love, and that the human soul will not be truly satisfied until it knows and rejoices in the love God, how could you not share that message? Once again, Paul is very clear, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Sometimes I worry that in our reemphasis on the here-and-now of the Christian message that we have lost its eternal significance. What is amazing about Jesus, is that we gain eternal life which is both quality here and now and quantity here and after. It’s not just hope in this life only, which really matters.

But what’s at the heart of us not talking about Jesus? I think the most import issue is disbelief

. But what’s at the heart of us not talking about Jesus? I think the most import issue is disbelief. When you don’t share the gospel it is because you believe other things that trump the necessity of speaking up. While you may believe in Jesus, deep down you really think “They won’t listen to me” or “How can my truth be better than their’s?” or “God wouldn’t show up in this random conversation” or “They are too far from God” or “Maybe they are okay with God, or maybe God is okay with them” which is really “it will all work out in the end.” At the end of the day, you’re holding another belief more tightly than the gospel and its implications. Whatever it is for you, when you trace it, the end is that you doubt God, you don’t fully believe, and it leads to inactivity.

Another problem that keeps us silent is fear. As Penn notes, we are afraid to create socially awkward situations. We don’t want to rock the boat. Sometimes, at the root of it, there is a fear of rejection, a fear of being ridiculed, a fear of being de-friended (heaven forbid!). This sort of fear is ultimately self-serving. A cool, calm and collected “keep it to yourself” Christianity is not the faith described in the New Testament. Yet part of the fear is that we don’t want to be belligerent, street preaching, relationship-trampling evangelists who treat people more like numbers than persons. And this fear, in my opinion, is legitimate. A friend of mine once said that sharing the gospel is an issue of emergency that its like screaming “Get out!” to people in a burning building. My response was, “At times, yes. But it is also like a child who is born who needs to be immediately rushed to surgery. It’s urgent, it’s an emergency, but great care, gentleness and delicacy is taken in the handling of the infant.” When Jesus shares the truth, even when its an unpopular truth, he more often than not speaks with gentleness, compassion, mercy, creativity and most of all with adept timing. Sharing the gospel doesn’t mean treating people poorly or being a bully. You can be a normal, caring, listening, emphatic, gentle and understanding person while talking about Jesus. In fact, you should be. But you should also be honest, you should tell the truth and not water it down to make it safer and tailored to your preferences.

I agree with the Atlantic article, it is immoral to not share the gospel. We have received a message that reveals every square inch of the universe being renewed by God, that every fracture of your heart and soul is being mended by Jesus, and a message that sets you right with God. Regardless if people recognize it, this is what they need, not solely because it will improve their lives but because it is truth. And to not share the truth, and to present its implications and eternal significance, is immoral.

If trees clap their hands, if the moon and stars shine to his glory, if sea creatures and the depths of the ocean, and lightning, hail, snow, clouds and mountains praise God, and wild animals, cattle, small creatures worship Him — then how much more are we as imager bearers of God’s love and grace meant to proclaim him? Ultimately, it is our belief in Jesus that overcomes our fear to talk about him, and if you are not finding that sort of confidence then you may want to reevaluate your belief. More importantly, you need to ask Jesus to reveal a love so deep and grand that it would be crucified on your behalf. You may need to know just how much God loves you (and the world), so much so that you can’t stop talking about it. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:8).[vc_row][vc_column][vc_cta h2=”What do you think?” txt_align=”center” style=”flat” color=”white” add_button=”bottom” btn_title=”Let’s Talk!” btn_style=”outline” btn_color=”black” btn_align=”center” css_animation=”top-to-bottom” btn_link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fwww.stpf.ca%2Freachout||” css=”.vc_custom_1457225348447{margin-top: 15px !important;margin-right: 0px !important;margin-bottom: 15px !important;margin-left: 0px !important;border-top-width: 0px !important;border-right-width: 0px !important;border-bottom-width: 0px !important;border-left-width: 0px !important;background-color: #00cce6 !important;border-left-color: #ffffff !important;border-right-color: #ffffff !important;border-top-color: #ffffff !important;border-bottom-color: #ffffff !important;}”]

Are you immoral if you don’t share your faith? Or have we missed the point? Whatever you think, we want to know.

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about the author
Alastair is the lead pastor at St. Peter’s Fireside. Once upon a time he was a touring musician of a forgettable indie band, and a Creative Director at a few design agencies. He is the husband of Julia, the father of Ansley and Maggie, and quite skilled with "the photoshop." If you're feeling up for it, you can follow him on Instagram.

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