How to Persuade an Atheist to Become Christian

This post is motivated by a discussion we’ve had at the Secular Alliance about Christian evangelism in general. The truth is that a lot of it is so bad and ineffective that it often has the opposite effect: it shows that religious people take silly arguments seriously. A lot of the dialogue isn’t very good because the other side doesn’t take enough care to test or even think about their answers beforehand. The following video illustrates my point:

Also take for example the Street Evangelism project that the UChicago Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is participating in this weekend. These are some excerpts from their “training materials.” How can we make this better? I offer my own honest suggestions.

Q: If God is good, why does He allow suffering?

A: We need to understand several issues to address this concern.  First of all, we do know that God sometimes uses sufferings (that he does not actively create) for the furthering of His kingdom.  However, to generalize this to all suffering is probably oversimplifying the issue.  We need to realize that the world and humanity are broken. We are put under a curse of sin that was instituted by our own free will.  While the world continues to be broken, we will suffer from calamities and disasters.  Our physical and emotional suffering is a symptom of the more important fact- that mankind as a whole continues to be bound by sin.  The fundamental question remains- does God save us from our own sin that causes suffering? And the answer is a resounding YES!  However, we must accept this gift that God has given us.  He cannot save us if we do not allow Him to.  God’s promise to us is this: that one day we will be reunited with him and there will be no suffering.  However, until that day, we must live in the broken world, hoping and waiting.  As an intimate God, God feels all of our sufferings.  what we must understand is that Jesus went through the same things as us.  He feels our pain and empathizes with it.  We also need to know that God’s timing is never our timing.  As much as we want God to intervene, He is always waiting for the perfect time.

Comment: The problem of evil is much deeper than that, and superficial answers like the one above won’t cut it. First of all, there is an obvious difference between natural suffering and man-made suffering. The answer does not address how sin causes natural events earthquakes and hurricanes, which, unless you have another supernatural theory about how this works, are not affected by human thought or actions (mostly).

More important is the timing problem. It is a moral fallacy that an infinite amount of time in the future compensates for a finite amount of suffering in the past. What if you were told that you were to suffer for 10 seconds of excruciating pain, and then told that everything will be set right? That might be acceptable because 10 seconds is nothing to infinity. But if you were told that you had to go through it for 10 years, or 100 years, or 1 trillion years, the moral fallacy is clear. We are sentient creatures, and each finite moment of conscious experience is real and substantial, and it’s not something to be trivialized by an infinite timeline. A concrete, real world example of this point is brilliantly illustrated here.

How to do better: The fact of the matter is that you’ll probably meet people who will see through the superficial answer above. After all, there is an incredible amount of suffering in the world. The first thing you should do is not to mention that Jesus also suffered, because it is a non-sequitur that doesn’t address why there is still suffering. The better way to handle questions like these is first to be honest and admit ignorance. We as human beings do not know the mysterious ways of God and his purposes, and why some things, good or bad, happen.

The best way to engage is to ask, “what is evil, and why is suffering objectively bad?” The atheist then has to give an account of evil and suffering as an objectively bad thing (one that is not merely bad because a person says so). This is not easy. Conclude by saying that without God, there is no objective criticism of evil and/or suffering, so the question does not make sense.

Q: How do you know that the Bible is real and accurate?  (Understand more on the resurrection of Jesus, why we believe in Jesus’ resurrection.

A: The foundation of all our beliefs is not the Bible, but that Jesus was raised from the dead.  Without assuming that the Bible is totally accurate, for the moment, we may reason as follows. If Jesus was raised from the dead, then what he taught must have been correct.  Whether we believe that the Bible is completely true or not, it does preserve the earliest record of Jesus’ life and work.  It is clear from the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that Jesus taught that he was the only way to God.  It is also clear from Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament that he believed the writings that now compose the Bible were God’s word.  He often cites it and expects people to believe and obey it.  So either Jesus, who was raised from the dead, was wrong, or the Bible is true.  Also, if the Bible is from God (2 Tim 3:16-17), it must be true, unless you want to say that God would lie.

Comment: “If Jesus was raised from the dead, then what he taught must have been correct.” This commits the same blatant fallacy about “Resurrection implies Infallibility” that has already been covered on this blog, and is also the subject of many of Christopher Hitchen’s talking points. The latter half of the answer also is a condensed/simplified version of C.S. Lewis’s Trilemma, which has been discredited again and again, even by Christian theologians like William Lane Craig.

How to do better: Drop the fallacies, and learn a bit more about early Christian history. One can make the argument that the Old Testament has consistently been accepted by Jewish historians/scholars of all ages to be authoritative and accurate (and there was little controversy about this, aside from maybe the Apocrypha). Also, the Dead Sea Scrolls show that modern Old Testament texts are word-for-word accurate with ancient ones. Discussion of New Testament authenticity would be a little more tricky, but appeal should be made to the large number of manuscripts and the general consistency of the canon since at the very least, the creation of the Muratorian Fragment. It would also be a good idea to study up on the status of extra-Biblical texts in case objections are made.

Do not make the circular argument that the Bible is true because it says it is the Word of God, which must be true.

Q: Creation or Evolution?  (micro- and macro-evolution; these are big topics we need more studies)

A: There are Christians who believe in creation, and Christians who believe in evolution.  The important thing is that God is the mastermind of everything.  Nothing happens without Him knowing beforehand and allowing it to happen.  God created.

Comment: Wait. Really? A nonbeliever asks you a very important question about the origin and development of life, and you dodge the question? Yes, there are Christians who believe in creationism, and there are Christians who believe in evolution. There are also Christians who believe in astrology, and there are Christians who believe in astronomy. Answer the question. Either evolution is true, or it is not.

How to do better: Accept evolution. And no, you do not “need more studies” to have a firm position on the side of truth. You are not going to get any real respect by refusing to answer questions about scientific truth; it shows either a lack of intellectual courage, or an ignorance of the enormous body of evidence that supports the most fundamental theory about life and human origins. Be a good witness to God’s truth, and don’t embarrass yourself.

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Posted on January 19, 2012, in Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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