Surprised by God, Part 3
By Jana Harmon | Plus, Alister McGrath on the Importance of Apologetics
So why is apologetics so important? I propose two main reasons why the study and practice of apologetics matters profoundly. To begin with, it equips both individual Christians and the Christian community to deal with the questions about faith that are being raised by those around them. As the rise of the New Atheism made clear, many Christians and churches were quite unprepared to deal with the aggressive questioning of faith, occasionally amounting to contemptuous vilification, found in the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can now see that the New Atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens was really a very belligerent agnosticism, incapable of proving its own core convictions and relying primarily on ridicule rather than argument to discredit alternative ways of seeing the world. Even atheists sympathetic to this movement—such as the philosopher John Gray—dismiss it as intellectually lightweight, a media phenomenon more concerned with entertaining its readers than dealing with serious questions about life.
The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell showed a refreshing honesty about the intellectual predicament of atheism. Russell was an epistemological agnostic who knew that it was impossible to prove the truth of either atheism or Christianity. For Russell, we have to learn "how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation." He saw his decision to live as an atheist as a contestable lifestyle choice and was clear that other defensible choices were possible.
Yet there is still something to be learned from this encounter with the New Atheism. Perhaps we can now see that the churches ought to have been prepared for such a hostile interrogation of faith. It remains important to develop apologetic ministries within the churches, which can prepare individual believers and congregations for some challenges that might be issued to their faith and help them plan how they might respond to them. It is not too late to learn from this. Including apologetic material in sermons and adult education classes is one important way of preparing Christians to engage such challenges to faith—challenges that actually turn out to be opportunities for dialogue.
But there is a second reason for emphasizing the importance of apologetics. The finest apologetics arises naturally from a deep love of the Christian faith and a strong sense of its relevance to the world. The best forms of apologetics are steeped in Christian theology; they represent attempts to set out the rich vision of reality that lies at the heart of the Christian faith and demonstrate its transformative potential for human existence. Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously suggested that the best apologetics was a good dogmatics. There is enough truth in this overstatement to require us to take it seriously. The difficulty is that many of us have a quite shallow grasp of our faith and fail to develop a deep appreciation of its richness and strengths.
Christian apologetics is a natural outcome of the "discipleship of the mind," which is such an important aspect of our continuing growth in faith. Christian discipleship engages and makes demands of all our faculties. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). We are called to love God with all our minds, to think about our faith, and to respond thoughtfully and helpfully to those who ask us about the hope that lies within us (1 Pet. 3:15). By becoming steeped and saturated in the rich Christian vision of reality, we find we can offer wise and winsome responses to those who want to know more.
— Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith (Baker Books, 2019), 19-21.
Note: This is Part Three of Jana Harmon’s three-part series on atheism. See the previous edition of Useful Things for Part One and Part Two.
Surprised by God: Reaching the Resistant
by Jana Harmon
The resistant person may believe primarily that “God is not relevant”
Someone may provide an intellectual case against Christianity but “real reasons” for disbelief reside much deeper. If belief in God is not attractive, it is not worthy of pursuit. As atheists, most (82%) had not engaged with Christians or Christianity in any personal sense and had formed a distasteful “bumper sticker understanding” from a cultural distance. In such cases, evidence, reason, and argument may merely bounce off of an impenetrable surface without effect.
The distaste for moral authority and accountability may also drive resistance against the goodness of God. Forty-five percent admitted a lack of desire for the truth of Christianity, one-third due to its moral constraints and/or a perceived lack of need. As one person stated, “I had genuine intellectual doubts, but insincere motives” for continuing in his then-current immoral lifestyle. This creaturely rebellion against the Creator is writ large across the story of man in the biblical narrative. In his personal journey, C. S. Lewis described his own pre-conversion struggle against God:
But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word interference. But Christianity placed at the centre what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true then no sort of 'treaty with reality' could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one's soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, 'This is my business and mine only.’
The cruel irony is that life apart from God yields perceived liberation but in reality no free will; perceived dignity but in reality loss of any special status; perceived self-creation but in reality no ultimate purpose, meaning, or hope, ‘nothing but blind pitiless indifference’; perceived rationality but in reality no real ‘mind’ nor any way to trust it; perceived love and virtue but in reality nothing but complex chemical reactions and impulses. The logical endpoint of secular atheism is emptiness and despair. Loss of goodness and truth as we know it and experience it.
How, then, can this autonomous fire be quenched? How can a false dictatorial vision of God be transformed into one of good, loving protection and direction towards human flourishing?
It may be that someone has never been exposed to authentic Christianity but rather only an unattractive, culturally created caricature. Or, personal experience with a negative, hypocritical form of Christianity may have informed their impression of Christians and belief in God. Christians were viewed as intolerant, delusional, hypocritical, and uneducated. This generalized negative stereotyping of belief in God and Christianity begs the question, how can the repugnant caricatures be countered? How do we counter negative caricatures of Christians as uneducated, superstitious, defensive, fearful, and uncaring?
“Show and tell” of the truth, goodness, and relevance of God
Listen. In reaching those who are resistant to God, we experientially affirm both the truth and goodness of God. Our primary focus should be first to listen, to seek to understand not only what they believe but who they are. We value them through taking time to learn about them through our respectful words and tone. We show them that we are interested in their lives and desire the best for them, and that we are trustworthy and careful with what they share. We seriously consider their intellectual doubts and resistance, but also intentionally learn more about how and why those beliefs were formed. We should follow the model of Francis Schaeffer, who said
If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last 5 minutes I will share something of the truth.
We discover their intellectual and personal barriers towards belief. Ask them to “tell their story.” This authentic, interested engagement values what they think and who they are and begins to soften hard edges and breach resistant walls.
Approach each person and each conversation with compassion, gentleness, and respect. Tone and posture are of critical importance. People often remember more about how you made them feel than what you said. Create a safe space for authenticity and honesty through your humility, care, and integrity. Be open to learning from them just as much as you want them to learn from you. This attitude fosters mutual willingness, respect, and open dialogue. Also, listen to the Spirit of God for His promptings in order to make the most of every opportunity. Remember, the resistant person’s heart is ultimately opened through the kindness and mercy of God. We are all utterly dependent upon Him.
Live. In this postmodern, post-truth, post-Christian age, truth is often displayed in the form of authentic, meaningful, joyful living. Our lives are put on display more than ever in a culture in which visible images more than words or propositional truths are considered. However, our lives can detract from or magnetize towards the gospel based upon how we live. As one former atheist put it, “The city on a hill analogy goes both ways.” The question for us is, what message are we radiating?
We should live out the truth and goodness of God. When we consider what truth is, we typically think of it as verifiable intellectual concepts that once demonstrated are sufficient for belief. However, we know that truth is also a person. Truth is personified in Jesus Christ. To the God-resistant people around Him, Jesus not only demonstrated “true truth” through His teaching but also experientially through His virtuous, surrendered, grace-filled, other-centered life. The resistant were attracted to Jesus and wanted to eat with Him, listen to Him, and be with Him. Their experience with Him verified His words, His claims about Himself, and His value of and love for them. As human beings longing for acceptance and love, they were drawn to the abundant life of which He lived and spoke.
As His followers, we should take our cue from Jesus. Our words should match our lives. The truths and promises of God should be shown not only in our proclamation of truth claims but also demonstrated in and through us. Yes, Peter urges us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” to know and proclaim what is conceptually true. That is our mandated responsibility.
Notice, though, what he says just before that: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.” “Christ-living” often precedes openness towards “Christ-telling.” The unbeliever should not be given reason to malign or dismiss Christ out of hand because of seeing and experiencing our lives. We represent the person of Jesus and the message of the gospel. A joy-filled life of integrity, surrender and love opens the door to grant a hearing of His truth. One former atheist summed up that the best way to open a resistant mind and heart is to “live an available life” – generously giving of ourselves to others. Our openness towards them leads them to openness towards us, towards Jesus and the gospel.
Today, many unbelievers are far removed from living, embodied Christianity, and their understanding of Christians is distorted. The corrective for this is to live out the gospel in relationship with an unbeliever. Allow them to see up close that Christianity is relevant and meaningful in life, that there is a qualitative difference in the way you live and love.
Love. The vast majority of former atheists in my research, 80%, were first drawn to the goodness of Christianity, that it was worth pursuing in the first place before they were willing to seriously consider whether or not it was true. And similarly, 82% were introduced to the goodness of God through meeting an authentic Christ follower. This is an extraordinary finding! Oftentimes we present information first and wonder why it falls flat. Perhaps we need to reconsider the context in which they hear it. Perhaps the stage hasn’t been set. Perhaps the intellectual truth has not yet been made “attractive.”
Love authenticates the reality of God, invites curiosity and enjoins the desire of unbelievers to become interested in knowing more about the source of abundant life and true truth. The resistant see and feel God through the witness of the Spirit in us, His hands and feet, and stony hearts begin to melt towards flesh. Be willing to actively and patiently engage in the lives and pain of others. Relational investment goes a very long way. They begin to see that God is good and experientially true. He meets their deepest needs for love, acceptance, value, belonging, and forgiveness.
The former atheist Matt who lost his brothers and his childhood faith in a house fire found Jesus through the love of a Christian couple. After his wife became a Christian, his anger exploded. In confronting the couple who led her to Christ, he was disarmed by their unexpected hospitality, warmth, and personal interest in him. Through ongoing relational investment, his resistance softened over time. His personal and intellectual barriers against God broke down in the face of ongoing demonstrated love combined with substantial responses to his questions.
Learn. However, even if negative stereotypes begin to dissolve, the resistant typically do not want to change their life perspective, particularly on a religious view, unless they believe it to be intellectually true and worth the change. And, there are those who are intent on finding truth, regardless of the perceived negative cost. Approximately one of every five began their pursuit of Christianity through an intellectual means. What this means as ambassadors of Christ is that we must learn well our own biblical worldview but also the worldview perspective of the one who is resistant. The grand story of God is evident in all we know and experience in the universe and in our humanity. Let us be diligent to demonstrate the undeniable greatness and presence of God in and through all of reality!
Further, a humble attitude also goes a long way towards sparking openness in another. We need to be willing to learn from each other. One former atheist, a PhD biologist, affirmed that her willingness to investigate Christianity was modeled by the Christian with whom she interacted. She stated candidly, “If he would not have been open towards learning from me in the process of journeying towards truth, I would not have been open towards learning from him.”
Resistance to God is not new. But, no one is outside of God’s reach
Seventeenth-century polymath Blaise Pascal once said, “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it might be true... To cure that we have to begin by showing that religion is not contrary to reason. That it is worthy of veneration and should be given respect. Next it should be made lovable, should make the good wish it were true. Then show that it is indeed true. 
C. S. Lewis proves a pivotal exemplar. His resistance to God was certainly grounded in intellectual doubts for which he required a robust response, but those objective questions were accompanied by moral resistance as well as a reality of personal pain experienced through unanswered childhood prayer (with his mother’s death) and sobering exposure to evil (through war). Yet, joy haunted his spirit as something good and experientially real, something undeniable yet unexplainable within his reductionistic atheism. Something good. Something true. Someone real. Eventually he found the “eternal source of all life, love, truth, and well-being.”
We believe, love, and worship a God who sees us all, who reveals Himself in very particular ways to each individual. No conversion story is the same. In his infinite grace and mercy, He reaches down to those who look up towards him, sometimes with the smallest prayer, “God, if you are real…”. Then, they are surprised not only to find God, but to be found by Him in extraordinary and very personal ways.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1955.
 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 1996.
 I Peter 3. Peter’s letters to persecuted Christians living among unbelievers are of great value as wise counsel to us within an increasingly secularized culture.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1670.
 What has not been included in this article are the many personal accounts of religious experiences, dreams, visions, and encounters with God which were not only surprising but utterly convincing as well!
— Jana Harmon is an Adjunct Professor of Cultural Apologetics at Biola University and a Teaching Fellow for the C. S. Lewis Institute of Atlanta. She holds an M.S. in Communication Disorders from University of Texas at Dallas, an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and a Ph.D. in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her doctoral research studied the religious conversion of educated atheists to Christianity, looking at the perspectives and stories of 50 former atheists. She views apologetics through a practical, evangelistic lens.
Image by Mihai Paraschiv from Pixabay
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