Pop Atheism and the Power of the Gospel

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Meanwhile, I am left with the Atheist on my hands,” Dorothy Sayers once penned to C.S. Lewis in a letter in which she sought some practical advice from the popular Oxford apologist. She went on to write, “I do not want him. I have no use for him. I have no missionary zeal at all.”

While many Christians likely attempt to project a little more enthusiasm for evangelism, I’m not sure they do not, deep down, resonate with Sayers’ sentiment.

With the relentless barrage of new atheist bravado over the last decade, believers are liable to grow weary in well-doing. Much of the contemporary anti-God campaign now serves as a mirror image of religious fundamentalism, with iconic leaders such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris standing guard as dogmatic defenders of a secular orthodoxy. Many students have imbibed their sacrilegious sound bites, adopting a brand of pop atheism that makes rational discussion seem virtually impossible.

But, as one theologian recently quipped, “It’s easy to hate atheists until you find one to love.” And we can be certain that in an increasingly secular society, they will be much easier to find. Our real challenge will be to find pathways into charitable conversations.

As conservative Christian convictions continue to be marginalized, I fear the evangelical response might be something other than courageous love. We could be tempted to shrink back in fear if we aren’t properly propelled by the power of the gospel. Like Sayers, we may wish they all would just leave us alone.

This is a good reminder that apologetics is simple and uncomplicated until you actually try it. It’s much easier to caricature skeptics and write them off as unreachable than it is to nurture a mutually respectful dialogue. We can find more intellectual affirmation if we hunker down in our Christian echo chambers and delight ourselves in hypothetical conversations that always end in conversions.

But if we want to be faithful to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, we will be motivated by love to step across the threshold of our security and enter into a meaningful relationship with someone who might think our deeply held beliefs are delusional. Love for God and neighbor compels us to sit down with those who are far from grace. I think Jesus did something very similar. And He bids us to do the same.

Following in the footsteps of Jesus to befriend sinners and skeptics will require the utmost trust in the gospel, understanding that it is neither overshadowed nor intimidated by rival truth claims. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation—of this we need not be ashamed (Rom. 1:16). But we do need to be prepared to offer careful and winsome answers for the questions we will face (1 Peter 3:15).

The starting point for cultivating an effective witness is to become better students of the very Bibles we dust off every Sunday morning as we head out the door for corporate worship.

If this sounds counterintuitive to the American church, somewhere along the way we have bought into a defective view of apologetics. As Francis Schaeffer once said,

God’s Word has many times been allowed to be bent, to conform to the surrounding, passing, changing culture of that moment rather than to stand as the inerrant Word of God judging the form of the world spirit and the surrounding culture of that moment.

Some well-intentioned Christian leaders are quick to jettison biblical inerrancy in order to placate the objections of skeptics. This is a tactical error. It reminds me of the person who decided to move out of state after learning that most automobile accidents happen within thirty miles of home.

In the same way, some apologists think it is possible to avoid conflict by acquiescing to naturalistic critiques of Scripture. In reality, they are only setting themselves up for failure. We are to build our witness on the unassailable substratum of Scripture. The erosive act of relegating God’s Word will not be satisfied with the small plot of biblical ground that is surrendered to navigate the debate of the day. More will be demanded tomorrow.

That’s why we must remember that our arguments are at their very best only temporary; only the Word of the Lord will endure forever.

The best terrain for evangelism with skeptics is found in the overlap of revelation, reason, and rhetoric. When our witness is motivated by love, our arguments rooted in Scripture, and our words seasoned with salt, we will have discovered optimal ground for sharing the gospel with the college student in the coffee shop who is sipping a latte while reading the latest anti-God best seller.

When Dorothy Sayers joked with C.S. Lewis that she didn’t possess any missionary zeal for her atheist correspondent, Lewis responded by confirming that the letters would inevitably continue. He spoke from experience. And as a former atheist himself, Lewis could relate. He modeled a sincere love for skeptics coupled with an unshakable trust in the power of the gospel. May the same be true for you and me.

Who knows? Maybe that atheist kid in the cafe will be the next great apologist for Christianity for a generation bombarded by doubt.

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