How to Talk to Atheists and Skeptics about Jesus

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Chances are, at least one of your friends or family members doesn’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. Here are some suggestions for communicating the most central Christian claim to others—and not only at Easter dinner!

1. The gospel’s effects are deep and wide, so you can start anywhere in the argument.

For example, in the philosophers’ forum in Athens, Paul began by telling his Epicurean and Stoic audience that they misunderstood who God is and how he relates to the world. God is neither irrelevant and aloof from the world (contra the Epicureans) nor part of the world (contra the Stoics). Though he doesn’t depend on the world, the world depends on him and God is concerned and involved with the world he has created, governs, and saves. It’s an argument for Christian theism, showing unbelievers how they cannot even live consistently with their own assumptions unless the Triune God known in Scripture is the source of all reality.

You can also begin the conversation by sharing your own experience—the difference Christ has made in your life, as long as you realize that this isn’t the gospel itself. Or you can go straight to the resurrection and work more inductively, from the most particular claim to its broader implications.

2. On one hand, don’t assume that you and your conversation partner share the same assumptions. On the other hand, don’t assume that you don’t share any common ground.

Especially to the extent that one has been shaped by the naturalistic presuppositions that dominate academic culture in our day, a claim like the resurrection will be ruled impossible at the start. Miracles do not happen because they cannot happen: that’s the a priori assumption of the deistic/atheistic worldview of today’s Epicureans. If you’re reasoning with modern “Stoics”—basically, a pantheistic worldview, the assumption will be that everything is divine and miraculous; so the idea of special divine interventions like the resurrection will seem just as foreign to New Agers as to New Atheists. Again, you can begin by exposing the irrationality and inconsistency of these worldviews and then discuss the resurrection within the context of a biblical worldview or begin with the resurrection claim.

One strength of the latter approach is that the resurrection, as a historical event, disproves their worldview. Here is an event that actually happened, which their worldview cannot account for. Even if they do not accept the argument, much less trust in Christ, this can at least help to weaken their excuse that the biblical claim is nothing more than private assertion or experience, unaccountable to public debate. It can help to expose to our friend the fact that he or she is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”—that is, no longer rejecting the claim because of reason but because of the same irrational act of mere will that he or she had attributed to believers.

3. Remind yourself that the Spirit alone can give people faith through the gospel.

As in the account of his raising of Lazarus (John 11), Jesus may ask us to roll away stones, but only he can raise the dead. The apostles not only testified to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus but reasoned with Jews and Greeks. They gave arguments and evidence. At the same time, the gospel itself is “the power of God unto salvation…” (Rom. 1:16), and it has to be proclaimed.

 

Adapted from Michael Horton, “Communicating the Claims of Easter,” White Horse Inn blog post, April 6, 2012.


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is the author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven LifeChristless ChristianityPutting Amazing Back Into GraceThe Christian Faith, and Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story.

 

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