My wife and I enjoy watching response videos on YouTube. These are videos in which a person plays clips from someone else’s video then offers their own commentary on that clip. I’ve actually thought about doing those myself. If you think I should, comment below (or on one of my videos) and give some examples of ones that you think I should respond to.
Watching them enables us to see what arguments people are making and how effective they are at making those arguments. Having viewed countless videos (thanks in part to the proverbial YouTube black hole), we’ve seen Christian teachers, preachers, and apologists run the gamut from really good to really bad. When it comes to some of the poorer ones, we’ve heard things such as bad or outright erroneous arguments, ad homimens, bad attitudes such as rudeness and condescension, and false theology and heresy.
None of these are conducive to evangelism. In fact, they are antithetical to knowing, showing, and sharing the gospel of Jesus.
We can and should do better.
Here are eight tips to help each of us be able to interact with and evangelize atheists or anybody else for that matter.
1. Don’t presume the other person’s beliefs
Just as no two Christians share identical beliefs on everything, no two atheists have identical beliefs. It’s unfair to treat all atheists the same.
There are many professing Christians on YouTube who advocate for a flat Earth and believe that science is an anti-Christian cult (don’t believe me, just check out SciManDan’s channel to see his responses to many of them). I’m certain most Christians wouldn’t want to be accused of sharing their same strange beliefs. I know I wouldn’t.
Similarly, you shouldn’t impose beliefs upon atheists or other non-Christians. When you impose beliefs upon someone, presume those beliefs, or worse, assume those beliefs, then you’re being dishonest, disrespectful, and unchristian. Also, imposing beliefs on someone results in employing the “straw man” fallacy.
The straw man fallacy, in a nutshell, is when you ignore the other person’s actual statements or beliefs and, instead, create a character or caricature of the beliefs you think they have and argue against those instead. Avoid the straw man fallacy by not presuming (or assuming) the other person’s beliefs.
2. Ask what they believe and why they believe it
As I already stated, not every atheist shares identical beliefs and backgrounds. Rather than imposing a set of predetermined beliefs on the other person, ask them what they believe and why they believe it. As one commenter noted on my video above, “Just because someone isn’t convinced there is a God doesn’t mean they don’t believe in any [sic] else.” When you ask the person what they believe and why, you might discover that they don’t fit into the mold that you created in your mind.
They may have a background, beliefs, and reasons that differ from what you assumed. You might discover they were raised in a home with a different faith. Maybe their parents were atheists or agnostics. It’s possible their parents claimed to be Christian, but it was a very broken and thus difficult home. Rather than assuming their beliefs and background, ask them questions and get to know them.
3. Listen in order to understand
In our zeal to bring the other person to faith in Christ (or our sinful determination to be right), we sometimes listen in order to find things to refute. Doing this can create a hostile environment in which each person becomes defensive, combative, and thus sees the other not as someone to converse with, but as an enemy to be vanquished.
Evangelism isn’t about winning a debate or defeating an opponent. Evangelism is about sharing the gospel with other people. Creating conflict by merely listening for opportunities to hurl counter-arguments doesn’t promote evangelism; it hinders it. Therefore, as the person is sharing their background, beliefs, and why they believe them, listen to what they’re saying and try to understand their viewpoint and reasoning.
This doesn’t mean you have to accept their beliefs (or non-beliefs). Understanding and believing are not the same thing. You can understand a concept and yet not accept as true the teachings or philosophy of that concept. For example:
- I’m a capitalist. I can understand communism, but I reject it.
- I’m a Christian. I can understand Buddhism, but I reject it.
As you can see, it’s possible to understand something and yet not accept that thing as true. So when you’re listening to the person, listen in order to understand them, even though you might not agree with them.
4. Know what you believe and why you believe it
You can’t teach what you don’t know. Yet, it seems this is exactly what many Christians (and preachers) do.
In 2016, LifeWay Research found that many—and in some cases, most—Christians advocate heresy. For example:
- 64% of evangelicals believed that all people go to heaven (which was “higher than Americans in general”)
- 77% of Americans believed people must do good works to be saved
- Evangelicals are more likely (37%) than non-evangelicals (23%) to affirm the prosperity gospel
Things didn’t change much over the next couple of years. In 2018, Barna Research found that 51% of churchgoers had not heard of the Great Commission. Of those who had heard that term, 25% didn’t know what it meant.
Research done that same year by Ligonier Ministries found that many, and sometimes most, Christians continue to believe heresies:
- 52% of evangelicals believed most people “are good by nature”
- 51% of evangelicals believed God accepts worship from multiple religions (up from 49% in 2016)
- 78% of evangelicals agreed that Jesus “is the first and greatest being created by God”
How can Christians share the gospel with others—including atheists—when they don’t know what the Bible actually teaches? If we want to share the gospel of Jesus, we must know the gospel of Jesus. This means learning theology. Jack Lee says it well:
Good theology is not for just for white-haired men in towers with books. It is for all. Perhaps even more so for the youngest and weakest Christian. Theology is the lifeblood of Christianity. You cannot possess one without the other. To know even the smallest truth about Jesus is to be a theologian and this is good! Theology gives us backbones and allows us to stand up when faced with turmoil. When we rightly understand the greatness of Jesus and His extraordinary salvation, the burdens of life become lighter. Theology is a path to all the goodness of heaven because Jesus is the righteous embodiment of theology.
If you’re not sure which ones are good and which are not, I created a list of recommended theological works and commentaries you can check out. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’ll get you started in the right direction.
5. Recognize you don’t have all the answers
There are arrogant atheists out there, but there are also arrogant Christians. I’ve seen many Christians behave as if they had all the answers to every question when, in fact, they didn’t. I’ve heard many Christians open their mouths and insert their foot (and, yes, I’m guilty).
It’s the height of hubris for any person to believe or act like they have all the answers to every question. It’s arrogant to think that we possess enough knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of the universe and all it’s various facets to address any argument on any single topic (least of all every topic).
Yet, I’ve come across people of various beliefs and backgrounds who are prideful know-it-alls. I’m confident that most of us, at one time in our lives, thought more highly of our abilities, intelligence, and skills than we should have.
As Christians (and people for that matter), we must recognize that there is infinitely more to discover, learn, and understand than what we already know. We used to think cells were the smallest thing to exist until someone discovered atoms. Then someone discovered the parts of atoms, and then the parts of those atomic parts were discovered. Admittedly, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the point remains: the more we discovered, the more we learned there was even more to discover.
Scientists have discovered that cells are comprised of multiple smaller parts, each with a role in one or more processes. Researchers in various sciences—astronomy, biology, anthropology, you name it—continue to make new discoveries that impact what we know about the universe.
Scripture tells us that the mind of God infinitely transcends our own (Isa 55:8-9; Rom 11:33). While we have much to learn about the universe and our own planet Earth, God, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge, created it all from the largest space phenomena to the tiniest part of the atom (Gen 1-2; Prov 3:19-20; John 1:1-3; Heb 2:20). Therefore, he completely understands the entire creation while we’re have only started to scratch the surface of our own solar system.
When it comes to evangelizing an atheist or anyone else, we should never claim to or act as if we know more than we really do. It’s perfectly acceptable to plead ignorance on something. It’s much wiser to say, “I don’t know right now, but I’d like to look into it more fully and get back with you.” It’s better to admit ignorance and a desire to learn than it is to open our mouths, think we have all the answers, and be proven a fool.
And by the way, just because someone possess less knowledge than us, and therefore isn’t able to give an answer, does not mean that we are correct. It only means they don’t yet have enough knowledge.
6. Share the biblical gospel
I almost didn’t include this one in the list because it should be obvious. However, with the plethora of false teachers and heretics spewing the lies of the Word of Faith theology and prosperity gospel, I felt it necessary to include this one. Also, many thanks to Fighting for the Faith, BezelT3, and Justin Peters Ministries for holding false teachers and heretics accountable.
Share. The biblical. Gospel.
If you’re not sure what the biblical gospel is—and research seems to indicate many Christians don’t—then I recommended you read Ephesians 2:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. In these, the Apostle Paul beautifully outlines the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ.
If you’re looking for a shorter version to start with (and I emphasize, to start with), then here’s the gospel in a nutshell:
You and I are sinners condemned to death. Jesus came and shed his blood on the cross to pay for sin, and on the third day, he physically rose again. He is going to return, and all those who repent and put their faith in Jesus are forgiven and saved.
That is the biblical gospel in a nutshell, and hopefully, it’s even short enough to present to anyone is almost any situation.
7. Share the gospel with confidence and compassion, not condescension
Remember what I said about arrogance? It applies here.
Scripture tells us to share the gospel boldly and with confidence. It also teaches us to share it with grace and compassion.
There are two things you must always keep in mind when talking to atheists:
- While he or she may not be a believer in Jesus, at one time you weren’t a believer in Jesus (even if you weren’t an atheist).
- It’s true that the person you’re talking to is a sinner, but so are you and I.
God loves that person. God made that person in his image, and he wants to save that person. If God loves someone and desires that they hear the gospel of Jesus, then we must also love that person and share the gospel with them.
Jesus’ approach to interacting with people is a perfect model for us. Jesus was only critical and aggressive in two instances: when interacting with the religious leaders (the pastors and religious academics of his day) and when he overturned the tables in the temple (which, again, was directed at the religious leaders).
However, when Jesus interacted with the everyday person, he showed love, compassion, and care. He did not belittle, condescend, or condemn people. He did not look down his nose at them. He did speak the truth without apology or waiver, but he did so with compassion and grace.
That is how we must interact with atheists and other non-Christians. We must share the gospel with confidence, but never with condescension and arrogance.
8. Show them God’s love
This is where the show aspect comes into play.
As you converse with others, let your actions and your interactions with them show them God’s love. Let them see love in how you respond to them and how you treat them. Allow the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s love through your words, tone, and body language. Let genuine care and grace emanate through your behaviors and attitude.
This isn’t merely a good tip, however. It’s divine law. Jesus emphasized that there are two divine laws we must obey: love God (Deut 6:5; Matt 22:37-38) and love our neighbor (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39). One of the ways we love God is by loving our neighbor, including atheists and other non-believers. One way to love our neighbors is by showing them that love through our actions.
One of the most common criticisms atheists have of Christians is our hypocrisy when it comes to love. We often speak of God’s command to love, yet we attack, condemn, criticize, berate, and back-stab at the drop of a hat. John reminds us in his first letter that if we claim to love God, yet do not love our neighbor, then we are hypocrites and liars (1 John 4:7-8, 20).
Before we can effectively share the gospel of Jesus, we must learn to show the gospel of Jesus. To do this, we must truly start knowing the gospel of Jesus, which means having a growing, personal relationship with the risen Savior.
I hope these eight tips will help you as you interact with and evangelize atheists (or anybody else for that matter). Whether you do it face-to-face, on social media, or through a YouTube video, implement these tips. Even if others attack, criticize, and demean, don’t sink to their level. Instead, keep knowing, showing, and sharing the gospel of Jesus.