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Atheist Encounter: Session One

Noted author and apologetics speaker, Sean McDowell, kicked off our recent Truth Talks Conference in which he donned a pair of “atheist glasses,” and invited questions from the audience. Now, you may be thinking: “Why is this Christian acting like an atheist?” or “What good is a pair of atheist glasses?” Those are good questions, and I will get to both of those—and others—before the end of this post.  But first, I want to address a few basics on atheism. 

 

What Is An Atheist And Atheism?   

The word atheist comes from the combination of two Greek words “a” (without) and “theos” (God).  So, literally speaking, an atheist is someone who is “without God.” The modern day definition is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any god.1 Atheism is a system of belief or “worldview” that rejects God. 

 

Who Is An Atheist?   

No one knows for sure, but two recent studies tell us some interesting facts worth considering.  The Pew Research Center noted in a 2014 study that there were approximately 1.7 million atheists in America,  but this figure was double the 2007 figure.2 A 2015 Barna study noted similar demographics:  atheists tend to be younger males (30’s), highly educated (43% with college degrees),  and white (although gender and racial representation is increasing).3  

 

What Do Atheists Believe?   

As Sean noted in his talk, atheists tend to believe along a spectrum ranging from those who reject “all gods and anything supernatural” to those who only reject the “Christian God of the Bible or some aspect of Christianity.  Indeed, the Pew study found that 8% of atheists say they believe in “god” or a “universal spirit.”  Sixty-five percent of atheists say they never discuss their “religious views” with “religious people.” This range of belief is why Barna has essentially grouped atheists in with “skeptics.”  Skeptics are those who either reject God entirely (atheist) or are not sure about God’s existence, the Bible, etc., yet they are open to discussion and possibilities (agnostic).  Six out of ten skeptics own a Bible!  Both Barna and Pew find that skeptics make up roughly 25% of the population, and they are the fastest growing of the “unchurched” or religiously “unaffiliated.”   

 

A few other characteristics of skeptics is useful to know: (1) they reject the Bible as being supernatural in any way; (2) they do not trust the local church; (3) they are widely exposed to cultural reinforcement of a secular humanism worldview; and (4) they tend to look to “science” to answer questions of right and wrong.  

 

So What?   

Let me answer that by summarizing a story Sean told onstage.  He was at a large Christian conference conducting a similar address and role playing as an atheist.  The predominantly Christian crowd amusingly took him to task, jeered him, and declared debate victory. After the conference, a young lady came to him and thanked him for doing his best to “defend atheism.” Sean was puzzled until he found out that this young lady was also an atheist, and she struggled with her beliefs.   

 

She had grown up in a Christian home, read her Bible, went to church, and was now a youth leader at her church.  But, she had never gotten satisfactory answers to her questions, so she stopped asking them, and essentially became an atheist  

 

She did not want to endure the treatment Sean received by self-identifying as an atheist. Now, it’s probable that this young lady was not a hardened atheist, rather, she just needed someone to provide thoughtful answers and engaging dialogue regarding her questions. The point of this story is that the chances of you running into a skeptic (atheist or agnostic) in either your community or your church are likely, and how you respond can have far reaching and long lasting effects.   

 

Now What?  

At the start of this post, I asked: “Why was a good Christian like Sean acting like an atheist?”  and “What good is a pair of atheist glasses?” Sean had a two-fold point to make.  

First, he wanted to familiarize the audience with how an atheist might respond to Christian questions. True to form, Sean (role playing as an atheist) responded to audience questions with educated answers, big words, changes of subject, sentence parsing, scholarly references, and academic and scientific language.  First point:  Could Christians effectively engage an atheist? That depends.  Is your goal to win an argument or present Christlikeness and the Gospel?   

Secondly, the “glasses” were not only used to represent the atheist’s worldview, they were also for Christians to see the world from the atheist’s perspective. You might call them “mirrored atheist glasses.”  On one hand, the audience sensed the frustration in trying to communicate and handle objections in order to make a coherent point during debate.  Additionally, we sensed the emotion welling up as discussions progressed with someone who—although we vehemently disagreed with themwas educated, reasonably informed, well-spoken and confident.  When Sean stepped out of role-playing and asked how we would “assess” our reception to our atheist “guest,” audience responses were telling: “hostile,” “antagonistic,” “ineffective,” “snarky,” “defensive,” and “trying to trap.” Second point:  How are you communicating?  That depends.  Are you genuinely concerned with the spiritual well-being and eternal destination of the skeptic?   

 

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to opposition, and he spent some serious discipleship time with young Timothy teaching him how to engage.  In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Paul provides some timely instruction that is as true today as it was then: 

 

The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. 

 

Paul’s words are the essence of apologetics, and he practiced what he preached. Just as Paul did at Mars Hill (Acts 17), modern believers are called to do the same. Our goal is not to win arguments.  Our goal is to provide answers for our hope that point to Jesus Christ and to pray that God would draw unbelievers to Himself.  Our most heartfelt prayer for you as you engage these Truth Talks is the same as the one Sean gave to close this session: “May you grow in your own faith, understand others, and guide them to answers.”  


Visit here for the audio from Session One.

 

Resources: 

Sean McDowell:www.seanmcdowell.org 

Summit Ministrieswww.summit.org 

Colson Centerwww.colsoncenter.org 

Apologetics 315www.apologetics315.com 

 

 

 

 

Truth Talks Resource: The Shack Movie

When I first saw the trailer for the movie The Shack, I rolled my eyes and muttered under my breath, “Oh brother. Not again.” For those who aren’t familiar, this movie is based on the 2007 best-selling book by William P. Young. The Shack is a theodicy: Through a fictional story, the book attempts to answer the question that if God is good, loving and all-powerful, why do pain and suffering exist?

 

At first glance, The Shack sounds like a good book. But the book has been controversial since its release, largely centered around whether it presents a heretical view of the Trinity and salvation. As expected, several people began blasting the new movie for promoting false doctrine, and rightly so. There are MANY theological problems that come out of the story. But this is not the focus of this post.[1]

 

The focus lies in the shift of my attitude. I began to reflect on the implications of this book becoming a movie and God worked on my heart. Rather than purely discarding it as heresy, I began to see it as a potential opportunity. So, a few weeks ago, I went to a pre-screening of the movie.

 

I want to submit to you a few reasons why and how believers should see The Shack:

  •  Why should you see The Shack? It opens the conversation.

 

1 Corinthians 9:22b-23, I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

 

Whether we want to admit it or not, this movie will be seen by millions of people. These millions of people will see a fictional representation of God interact with a man who is questioning God’s existence/purpose/goodness during unspeakable tragedy. The goal of this movie is to give God credence, not to discredit Him.

 

God is depicted as love. He is caring for and pursuing Mack (the main character) after his daughter was murdered. God is relentless, persistent, forgiving, and relational. From man’s perspective, Mack walks through the stages of intense grief with God’s help.

 

These are “broad brush stroke” themes, but they are present. In the book, I was quicker to downplay these broader themes because of the various problems in the details. But as a movie, the potential audience has grown and the opportunity to “open the conversation” has expanded.

 

What I mean by “opening the conversation” is that The Shack opens the door for gospel conversations. Many people will watch this movie and resonate with Mack. Maybe they have experienced a tragedy or have gone through a season of pain and suffering. We can all identify with a broken world. Why? Because we have ALL been created in the image of God and sin distorted that image. We are always wanting to get back to God’s design.

 

I believe that we can use what Hollywood has put together as an open door to share The Good News of Jesus.   

  •  How should you see The Shack? We should build the conversation.

 

1 Corinthians 2:2-5, For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

 

We should watch this movie critically. This is not critical in the sense of only negative, this is critical in the sense of analyzing and processing various themes as they interact with Scripture. We must see The Shack as the open door, not the path to our destination.

 

There are many problematic statements from the characters that are more aligned with sentiment than Biblical truth. Let me give you a few critical questions you need to ask as you watch the movie:

 

What does the movie communicate versus what does Scripture say about…

  • The depictions of God and the Trinity?
  • God’s presence in the midst of tragedy?
  • God’s wrath, judgement, and hell?
  • Redemption, reconciliation, and salvation?
  • Love, joy and fulfillment?

 

There are many more questions that need to be addressed, but this will hopefully direct you on the path of critical engagement. This process should lead you to hold onto the truth that is found in the movie and use that as a spring board into the full truth of the gospel through God’s Word. The Shack opens the conversation, and critical engagement lets us build the conversation around Scripture and not the movie.

  •  What should you do after you see The Shack? Engage in the Conversation.

 

1 Corinthians 9:16-17, For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship.

 

I can remember the first time I played softball. Up until that point, I had only played baseball, so I was accustomed to a faster pitch. My first swing at my first at bat, I swung almost two seconds early and completely missed the ball. After that, I realized that I was making this game too hard. I slowed down and adjusted.

 

This is the way I feel about The Shack. It is a lobbed softball coming down the plate and we have an opportunity to hit the ball. If we try too hard, we’ll miss the opportunity. We’ll either completely embrace the story and miss the true gospel, or we will completely discredit the story and miss the opportunity to share the gospel. We can’t overthink it. My prayer is that we use this story to stir up meaningful questions and address them with Biblical truth.

 

At the end of the prescreening I attended, Brad Cummings came out and addressed our theatre. Cummings is one of the producers for the movie and worked with Young on the book. He told the story of shooting this movie in the Hollywood setting. He said he was amazed by how many non-believers would work on such an explicitly “religious” movie trying to answer the question: “What if there is a God who loves you?”

 

Then, in his last few comments he said, “Over our 38 days of shooting, we led six people to the Lord… Pray for this movie.” I think there is an appropriate way to approach this movie. May we use it to open conversations that would allow for the Biblical truth of the gospel.     

 

[1] You can find a list of articles that address many of the theological problems here:

The Shack: Helpful or Heretical, by Norman Geisler and Bill Roach

The Shack – The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment, by Albert Mohler

“The Shack” Review, by Tim Challies

The Shack – Impressions, by Tim Keller

 

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