Have you ever been in a gospel-oriented conversation with an atheist, perhaps on Facebook or face to face? How about one who uses caustic, even vulgar language? How should you respond as a faithful witness for Christ? We’re tempted to join in a fight rather than seeing them as a soul that needs to be rescued.
Jesus promised, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). He further said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Paul, too, instructs godly Christians to expect persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). So we should not be surprised by hostile opposition to biblical truth and the gospel.
We’re tempted to join in a fight rather than see them as a soul that needs to be rescued.
How we think about others will affect how we talk to them. No matter how aggressive they may be, atheists are descendants of Adam, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, 9:6). They are sinners, just as we were before we trusted in Christ as our Savior; and Jesus loves sinners and died for them (Romans 5:6–8). Atheists, like all other non-Christians, are deceived by the devil, who has blinded their minds (Revelation 12:9; 2 Corinthians 4:4). Despite their protests to the contrary, atheists actually know of God, both from the witness of creation and from their conscience, but are suppressing that truth because of sin (Romans 1:18–20 and 2:14–16).
How then should we talk to an atheist? Conscious of the truths above, we should be respectful (1 Peter 3:15). Regardless of his or her hostility, we should respond with gentle words (Proverbs 15:1–2), seeking a peaceful discussion and not returning evil for evil (Romans 12:14, 12:17–21). Our job is not to kill but throw a life preserver.
Now Elijah mocked the Israelite prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:17–40), and Jesus called the Jewish Pharisees “whitewashed tombs” and a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:1–33). But they were confronting apostate religious leaders who had repeatedly refused to respond to the truth. Further, Jesus knew the Pharisees’ hearts, and Elijah was executing judgment on the false prophets, not offering them hope.
Paul instructed Timothy not to be quarrelsome but to be patient, gentle, and humble (2 Timothy 2:23–26). Nonetheless, he also told him to “rebuke” when necessary “with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1–5). So, even when we have to boldly point out a scoffer’s repeated refusal to hear God’s Word, we should do this with humble, patient teaching, not caustic personal attacks.
Finally, how should we talk about an atheist? We must watch over our hearts, for out of it our mouths speak (Matthew 12:34–37). Be brutally honest with yourself, and if your words are prideful or hateful, leave them unsaid. Remember that except for God’s grace in your life, you could very well be an atheist yourself.
May God help us be humble, loving, bold, winsome, and confident defenders of the Christian faith as we seek to lead atheists (or anyone else) to the Savior.