One of the most frustrating things for any Christian is dealing with that particular brand of atheism that is slanderous and hateful.
On the one hand, we often feel a sense of obligation to defend our Lord and levy a response to every objection.
On the other, we recognize that part of our command is to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16) and be responsible with the precious resources God has given us.
Navigating these waters has been a challenge for me over the years, and I am very much still a work in progress on this point.
There is a particular brand of anti-God slander that has the potential to lead Christians astray, and I think there’s fruitfulness in taking time to respond to some of these charges.
That is when atheists take the Bible out of context in an effort to claim it teaches something it does not.
We often see a statement like this: “Reading the Bible is what made me an atheist.” Or, “Want to become an atheist? Just read this book!” (Insert picture of the Bible.)
What they are trying to say is, “I read something in the Bible that was horrific and/or does not seem to make logical sense, so the reading of the Bible made me ultimately reject it.”
And to be clear, that is not impossible, for two reasons:
- The Word of God divides. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It is no surprise to me that reading the Bible makes some people Christians and some people atheists.
- There are legitimate critiques. While the Word of God is perfect, it is not as though there are no hard questions. There are very brilliant atheists who reject the Bible, and their answers deserve a response.
Overwhelmingly, at least in my experience, “Internet Atheists” don’t have either of these in mind.
Sure, they may be convinced that their concerns fall into category #2, but often they are little more than a result of the same trap well-meaning Christians can fall into: Context violations.
As Christians, we are to be above reproach in our conduct. These words are a bit outdated, so if I could clarify what this means in plain terms:
To be above reproach simply means that even if someone disagrees with you at the deepest level, they shouldn’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to your character or the way you conduct yourself.
I would suggest, then, that you proceed with patience and grace in every conversation.
That doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be talked down to or rolled over like a steamroller.
What it does mean is that we should respond with the accurate assumption that God can change even this person’s heart if it is his perfect will.
And he wants your help to do it.
Be a Detective
Tactics by Greg Koukl should be required reading for Christians.
He explains how to approach conversations by being inquisitive and asking lots of questions for clarification. Please read his book; it is worth whatever time you invest (I’ve read it three times so far).
In a case where you recognize the Bible is being taken out of context by an atheist, and you have been given the opportunity to confront the context violation in gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), approach with genuine curiosity.
An Example: Isaiah 45:7
In the KJV, this verse reads:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
A typical deduction you might see an atheist make from this verse is something like this:
“Well, that makes it pretty plain, right? God created evil. That means God is responsible for evil. That means God is evil.
Since God is supposed to be the ground for moral perfection, and he is evil, he cannot be the ground of moral perfection. Therefore, God doesn’t exist and the Bible was written by mere humans.”
The Opposite Response
The response to this by most Christians, at least those with knowledge of apologetics and the skill to take a defensive posture, would begin addressing the context violation head-on and point out why the atheist has the verse wrong.
I’m suggesting you take a slower approach.
Well, for one, the approach I am going to suggest is an approach we see Jesus taking all of the time when he dealt with opposition.
His opposition was primarily the “religious establishment” if you will rather than atheism, but the principles still apply.
Secondly, we learn from the study of God’s world that human behavior is transformed primarily when someone comes to a realization for themself rather than having been “given” the realization by someone else.
Have you ever known someone who did not think an idea was good or actionable unless it was theirs? Those around people like that often get good at convincing them “it was their idea.”
By moving slower and asking questions that provoke thought, you just may be able to, as Greg says, “put a stone in their shoe.” That is, to make them start thinking.
You might ask a question like, “Do you know what the word “evil” means in this passage?”
And then, hush.
Let them explain how they came to their conclusions.
If they object to your question and point out how the word is simply “evil” and that it is “plain as day,” then ask them if they think it is possible for the meaning of a word to be obscured in translation when moving from one language to another.
If they answer “yes,” (and they should) then they’ve just admitted it is possible that a particular English translation of a word may not be able to fully communicate the idea in its original language.
Then, ask if that is possible in this instance.
If they say “no,” they are special pleading. That is, they are pining for an exception to the rule they just agreed to because it is inconvenient in this case.
Ask them to explain why that rule does apply in this case!
If they say “yes,” ask if they’ve taken time to see if that was the case in Isaiah 45:7.
Assessing the Conversation
You might wonder about a different scenario in which the person was able to answer your question with the correct interpretation of the verse.
In that case, the atheist would have arrived at the answer a Christian would give, and they would need to concede their point.
To be specific, the answer is:
- The Hebrew word translated “evil” has the same meaning as the idea of “calamity.” The opposite of “peace.”
- The context indicates the Lord’s point is that he is the creator of all and none stand beside him.
Note the fuller context by including verse 6:
so that all may know from the rising of the sun to its setting that there is no one but me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I am the LORD, who does all these things.
So the verse is not saying that God is the creator of moral good and evil. It is saying that God is the creator and Lord of everything.
But “goodness” is not something he creates. If that were true, the goodness of God would fall on the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma. He cannot “create” good, nor can he “create” evil.
God is good. He himself is the ground for moral goodness. Evil is anything that does not measure up to that standard of goodness. The antithesis.
Out of his love and compassion, God redeems us and legally reckons our sinful, evil hearts as righteous, and commits to the long game by transforming us from the inside out.
Shouldn’t YOU Know the Answer?
I hope you didn’t miss this point: It is certainly helpful that I used an example where I knew and had a good answer.
That sort of knowledge will help you have more productive spiritual conversations because it will boost your confidence.
However, you don’t have to be knowledgeable at all to “get into the game.” You will find that people often don’t have good reasons to believe what they do, and your task is to do little more than expose that and then offer them the gospel.
Sometimes, you may not even be able to get to the gospel, and that is okay.
So yes, you should know the answer. It will help. But you can begin having great conversations with a “detective” posture right now and having an impact for the Kingdom.