“I invited my neighbor to church yesterday but got the Heisman, again”, Bill said extending his hand like a running back giving a stiff-arm to a would-be tackler. “Andrew claims to be an atheist but seems interested in spiritual topics. He brings up those same questions we’ve all heard before – you know, how can a good God send anyone to hell and how can someone who never heard about Jesus be condemned for eternity? Not sure I’m the best person to give the answers he needs. You’re certainly more qualified than me, Pastor. So hope you don’t mind but I volunteered you to grab lunch with us. To my surprise, Andrew was willing if you are. But be warned, I think he’s approaching this like that running back and you’re the next defender between him and the endzone.”
Next Sunday, Bill and his pastor met Andrew at a restaurant after church.
“Nice to meet you, Andrew. I admire you for being willing to get together – many folks these days aren’t open to discussing matters of faith. I’m curious to hear what you have to say. Hopefully something I share will be helpful.” Bill’s cautions prompted the pastor’s preemptive pleasantries, a bit anxious at the prospect of getting into a heated debate in a public setting.
“I may not have a tremendous amount to add to the conversation so at least let me pick up the tab! I’m just glad to introduce the two of you.” Bill was excited to watch the tennis match – wondering whether Andrew would hold his ground as the verbal volleys crossed the net.
“With all due respect, pastor, I’m not all that interested in religion per se except for how it has harmed people throughout history – and in our world today. Not just the wars over different views of God, which really aren’t that different, but the psychological impact of holding sin and superiority over the heads of good people.” Andrew wasn’t one to mince words.
“Hey, I don’t like religion either – but I do love God. Religion is man-made but Jesus wasn’t just a man. You can dig up the bones of the founders of every religion except for Christianity. Not all faiths are the same. Only Christians believe God had to come down to us because we couldn’t possibly reach up to Him. We see His goodness and power in His creation, realize our relative limitations, and know we’ll never be good enough and spiritual enough to force our way into heaven. I know it’s not a great sales pitch to say we’re sinners in need of a Savior, but there’s a huge gap between God and mankind – which Jesus came to earth to bridge.” As a pastor, he rarely missed a chance to inject a Gospel presentation when the opportunity arose.
“Seems a little arrogant to say your religion is the only way – and to call people sinners. You’re making my earlier point – telling me I’m not a good person. Frankly, it all comes across as an attempt to control and oppress to keep pews and coffers filled. I work hard to provide for my family, don’t commit crimes, give to charity, and mind my own business – how am I not good?” Bill couldn’t wait to see how his pastor would handle that grenade.
“Actually, what I think is more arrogant is telling God we didn’t need Jesus to suffer and die for us – that we had it covered, rejecting the most expensive gift ever given. The fact is, if we all care to admit it, is that we can’t even trust our own motives. People hardly ever act out of genuine concern for the welfare of others. Besides, who hasn’t lied, cheated or stolen something? Where is the line drawn on ‘good’?”
“What’s wrong with looking out for myself, even if that involves cutting a corner every once in a while? If it doesn’t hurt anyone, why should I worry about a cosmic scoreboard kept by an imaginary god? That’s the thing about Christians, always heaping guilt on unsuspecting, otherwise happy people.” Andrew was digging in his heels, confident in his long-held positions.
“I assure you Jesus isn’t about keeping score but giving people a chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in a game they could never win. Hoping your good outweighs the bad is the opposite of Christianity. Picture a courtroom where the judge has to do his job, but in this case it’s his son who’s facing the death penalty. So the judge steps down, takes off his robe, asks to be handcuffed, and accepts the penalty you and I should have paid. That’s Christianity.”
“Well, I don’t buy any of it. I’m fine the way I am and know when this life is over, it’s over. But in the meantime, I’m enjoying every day to the fullest. Of course, that’s not always easy when this God you say is good allows natural disasters, mass murders, and children to be born with birth defects.”
“If you’re asking, ‘how can a good God let bad things happen to good people?’, first of all like I said no one is truly good. Second, most problems are caused by mankind, not God, but despite that the Lord can use bad for good. Imagine if no one had any issues – would there be any need for compassion or charity?”
“Well, if you watch the news and read social media it seems Christians are the ones causing many of the problems these days. How do you reconcile the hypocrisy of all the church scandals with judging homosexuals for getting married and women for doing what they want with their own bodies?” Andrew clearly had an axe to grind, possibly explaining why he agreed to meet.
“What are your thoughts, Bill?” As a pastor whose vision was to make disciples, he was disappointed that a long-time member like Bill apparently was not prepared to respond to these meat-and-potatoes objections to Christianity.
“Thanks a lot, passing that one to me!” Bill was stalling, buying time to think. “I’ve always heard, ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’.”
“True, but I doubt our friend here sees gay marriage or abortion as sinful. You mentioned pastors who fall from grace – it happens too often but don’t blame God for man’s mistakes. When imperfect people are held to perfect ideals, any failure says more about the person than it does about Jesus – who’s still worth pursuing. As for what we do with our bodies, your assumption is that you own yours. However, if God created us, then we’re His property. Bill is right that no one is passing judgment. But the Lord intentionally designed the anatomies of men and women to be complimentary and orchestrated the miraculous conception and development of infants in the womb (who also belong to Him) for a reason.”
Andrew sat up and leaned forward, having just heard what he needed to launch his primary weapon. “What’s miraculous about a baby being born? Science and evolution accounts for everything that Christians default to belief in a God to try to explain. If they understood the complex processes that give and sustain life, then proven facts would supplant blind faith.”
Ironically, the pastor saw atheism as a religion, defaulting to belief in science to account for what only God could have done. “So are you saying something came from nothing and order from disorder? Even the world’s leading scientists can’t create matter without matter. In the beginning, something outside space and time – an uncaused first cause – had to introduce substance into what was entirely void. And entropy should have resulted in chaos, but God’s design brought order to solar systems and ecosystems.”
“Why do Christians always fall back on that crutch as an excuse to stick their heads in the sand rather than learning and trusting in science?”
Bill started losing hope, anticipating an impasse.
“We value science but see discoveries as uncovering God’s design. There are still so many mysteries and failed experiments because our brains are finite. Yet despite those limitations, some people think whatever they can’t see or wrap their minds around cannot exist. We can’t dismiss God and miracles just because they don’t fit into our mental file cabinets. With so much scientists still don’t know, how can you bet your life on science? Christians bet on God’s omniscience because we can’t know everything, and therefore are ok believing some things exist that aren’t visible.” The pastor appeared to be transitioning from defense to offense.
“’See it to believe it’ seems more rational. In my mind, the burden of proof lies with Christians. We have the facts on our side. The evidence speaks for evolution, not for any God or gods.”
As a pastor, he tried to avoid the hint of sarcasm inherent in his reply. “Applying reason, facts and evidence to prove anything is presumptuous if there is no God. Authentic atheism, carried to its logical extreme, contends that there is no logic. If our brains were formed by accident without planning, then our thoughts are random and our conclusions untrustworthy. But more to your point, I’m not sure we need more proof of who Jesus was than His 12 disciples who went from cowering in fear at his death to shouting His praise in the streets (at the risk of being killed) after his resurrection.”
Unfamiliar with the reference, Andrew shifted to another patented argument. “I don’t know much about stories like that, but the Bible is a fairy tale with tons of errors written by a bunch of men over hundreds of years. So it’s not reliable – and yet Christians do whatever it says.”
The pastor wondered to himself how few Americans have any scriptural foundation in this post-Christian society. “It doesn’t sound like you’ve studied the Bible, and yet you accuse Christians of not doing their homework on your positions. The Bible is the most scrutinized book in history with skeptics trying to punch holes in it for thousands of years, but none have succeeded.”
Bill needed to get back to work and had an idea. “Pastor, would you be willing to read a book Andrew recommends about the science behind earth’s origins? I’ll agree to read it too. And Andrew, would you mind reading a few chapters in the Bible that he recommends? Maybe we could meet again to discuss what we’ve all learned.”
It’s Your Turn
Why haven’t churches trained members to respond to the same objections “atheists” always raise? As the ground in America becomes less fertile soil for the Gospel – with fewer biblically literate and more “anti-theists” (i.e. professed atheists) – can pastors remain the only ones with solid answers?