Advice for Atheists Who Want to Engage Theists

Atheists recognize that taking a strong position--absolutely, positively, there is no god--comes across as dogmatic and intolerant.  Although many atheists espouse the strong position, the leaders of the atheism movement prefer the weak definition--there is no credible evidence showing that God exists--not only  because the strong position appears intolerant, but also because "it does sound rather untenable."  They acknowledge that the most persistent objection to the strong position of atheism is that it sounds dogmatic and unscientific.  Advancing the strong position in public debate forces all atheists (both strong-position and weak-position) to prove the nonexistence of God, invoking the burden of proof. 

Atheists are quick to acknowledge that the strong position has disadvantages in public discussions at the popular level because it is easy to portray as dogmatic, unreasonable, and thus unscientific. To avoid public relations and marketing embarrassments, the atheism movement tries to show that the strong position of atheism, far from being the only form of atheism, is the rarest among atheistic positions.  Instead, they advance the weak position of atheism.  From this perspective, they shift the burden of proof to the theists.  Here is how Positive Atheism magazine describes the ideal sequence when an atheist talks to a theist about the existence of God.

  • It must be realized that we are dealing entirely with claims -- claims that various deities exist.
  • In discussing such claims, it is always the person making the claim [the theist] who is responsible for providing evidence and strong argument. 
  • The person listening to the claim [the atheist] need not make any argument at all. 
  • The listener [the atheist] does not need to disprove a claim in order to reject it. 
  • If the person making the claim [the theist] fails to make a convincing case, the listener rightly rejects the claim as falsehood (or suspends judgment, based upon the strength of the claim).   In either event, the listener ends up lacking a belief in the object of the claim.
  • It is never the negative [weak-position] atheist's responsibility to prove or disprove anything. That job belongs to the person making the claim, which is the theist.
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Does the Theist or Atheist Have the Burden of Proof?

No doubt you are already familiar with the concept of the "burden of proof."  (Unless you have already had some unfortunate personal experience with the criminal justice system, just think about the O.J. Simpson trial or any television drama involving the criminal courts.)  The "burden of proof" is on the prosecutor (the D.A.) to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty.  If the prosecutor doesn't present enough convincing evidence, then the defendant is declared "not guilty."

It is the declared intention of atheists to put the burden of proof for the existence of God on the theists.  They don't want to be put in the position of having to prove the non-existence of God.  They know it can't be done.  As was stated in Positive Atheism magazine:  "one cannot prove a negative existential claim (that is, a claim that a thing does not exist)."  For this reason, the distinction between the weak position and the strong position of atheism becomes very important.  With weak-position atheism, the burden of proof falls on the theist.  With strong-position atheism, however, it is the atheist that carries the burden of proof.  Here is how it breaks down:

  • The weak-position atheist says:  "I don't believe in God because no one has provided me with any credible evidence that God exists."  This position puts the theist on the defensive.  The theist must present evidence to persuade the weak-position atheist.  
  • The strong-position atheist says:  "Absolutely, positively, there is no god."  In response to this dogmatic position, the theistic can say:  "So prove it."  This means that the strong-position atheist must go on the defensive.
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An Atheism Primer

A recent op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen in the Los Angeles Times, "Atheists: No God, No Reason, Just Whining," prompted a flurry of reactions from the atheist community.  The most clever response came from Hermant Mehta, who basically said that atheists should be protected from outrageous claims such as those made by Allen (that atheists are basically boring).  Mehta even compared atheists to Jews, perhaps implying that such claims are tantamount to hate speech.

Exhanges like these, especially in the blogosphere, don't really serve much of a purpose, except to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes.  We need more productive conversations, such as the debate that occurred between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens on the campus of Biola University.

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Know Hope

The death of Jesus on the cross is central to the Christian life, but it is also part of a larger story, one that includes the resurrection. Without the resurrection of Jesus, the cross would be meaningless, because without the resurrection, there would be:

No Messiah. The true Messiah must fulfill the Messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the world (Isaiah 53:7,8), and that God would raise Him from the dead (Psalm 16:9,10). If Jesus did not come back to life after dying, then He wasn’t the Messiah. And if Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, then both Jews and Gentiles alike are still waiting for salvation.

No Eternal Life. Jesus didn’t just say that He would be resurrected. He also said that He would be a resurrection for us:  I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish (John 11:25,26).  If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then Jesus was a big fat liar, and there’s no hope for us to have eternal life.

No Heaven. Do you think about heaven? There’s no loftier thought we human beings can have. Now think about this: Without the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we’ll never get there. Jesus made it very clear that He is our connection to heaven. Not only is He designing and building a place in heaven for all who believe in Him, but He has also promised to take us there personally (John 14:1-4). As wonderful and amazing as heaven sounds, it doesn’t mean a thing if Jesus is still dead.

No Hope. The bottom line is that without the resurrection, we’re sunk. Oh yeah, we can appreciate the teachings of Jesus, we can do our best to imitate the life of Jesus, and we can feel good about living good lives here on earth. But what good is that if there’s no hope of a life with Jesus beyond this one? If Christians are merely putting their faith in a dead guy, they are just what Ted Turner once called them—a bunch of losers. Or as the apostle Paul put it, we are to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

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Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

The reason Christ had to die was to earn our salvation. As sinners, we deserve the penalty for sin, which is death (Romans 6:23). Because God is holy and just, He demands a punishment for sin. A penalty must be paid, and we aren’t capable of paying the penalty because we are sinners. The only one who can offer an acceptable payment is Jesus, because only He is without sin. The Bible clearly tells us it was love that caused God to send Jesus to pay the penalty for our sin (1 John 4:10).

The work that Christ did in his life and in his death to earn our salvation is called the atonement. The death of Jesus by crucifixion was the pivotal event that allowed sinful humankind to get back into a right relationship with the holy, almighty God. The crucifixion of Christ wasn’t a tragedy. It wasn’t a series of events gone out of control. It was the divinely designed plan of God. Here is a list of some of the fundamental accomplishments achieved by Christ’s death on the cross. Each one is a vital part of God’s plan of salvation for humankind:

  • Substitution.  Christ died so that we don’t have to. This is what Christianity is all about, and it required the death of Christ on the cross (Romans 8:3-4).
  • Propitiation.  Christ’s death on the cross turned God’s wrath away from us. Because God is so holy, He hates sin and is radically opposed to it. As sinful beings, that would place us as the objects of God’s wrath. But Christ’s death on the cross appeased God’s wrath (Romans 3:25).
  • Reconciliation.  God was alienated from humankind because of sin. That alienation was removed when Christ died on the cross. Reconciliation between God and humanity was made possible (Romans 5:10-11).
  • Redemption.  Before Christ died on the cross, we were slaves to sin. We were in bondage. We couldn’t escape sin’s snare. Think of it as if Satan had kidnapped you and was holding you as a hostage. Your release was dependent upon someone paying a ransom. That’s exactly what Christ did on the cross. He paid the ransom to redeem you (literally, to purchase you back) from slave market of sin. The ransom price was high. It cost Christ His life (1 Peter 1:18-19).
  • Destruction.  Satan was behind all of this sin stuff from the beginning. (Remember the serpent in the Garden of Eden?) Not only did Christ’s death on the cross free us from Satan’s bondage, it also demolished Satan in the process (Hebrews 2:14-15).
  • Perfection.  In the Old Testament times, the priest had to offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people each year (in a ceremony referred to as “the Day of Atonement”). When Christ died on the cross, His sacrifice was enough to cover the sins of all people—past, present, and future (Hebrews 9:26-28).
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What the Hell?

Heaven is a wonderful place to think about.  Hell, not so much.  Few people talk about hell these days.  Even fewer take it seriously.  But hell is real.  In his parables, Jesus uses various terms to describe what seems to be hell:  a place of outer darkness (Matt. 8:12); a fiery furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:41); and eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).

And then you have these graphic descriptions  by John in Revelation:  the bottomless pit (9:1); a huge furnace (9:2); fire and burning sulfur (14:10); no relief day or night (14:11); the fiery lake of burning sulfur (21:8); and the second death (21:8).

Sounds pretty grim.  Can you blame people for shying away from the topic of hell, especially people who struggle with a God who seems to allow suffering and evil in this life?  That's bad enough, but it pales in comparison to a God who is evidently (if we take this stuff literally) going to torture people in hell forever in the next life.

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What the Nativity Really Means...For You

The nativity is one of the best-known, most often told stories in history.  Asked to describe the events surrounding Jesus' birth, most people could probably give the basic components of the story:  An angel tells a young virgin she's going to give birth to the Savior of the world...Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, but there's no room in the inn...They find shelter in a stable where Jesus is born...Angels announce the good news to a bunch of shepherds, who run to see the baby Jesus...Some wise men drop by to pay their respects and leave some gifts.

That's the nativity story in a nutshell--at least the one you'll see depicted in your church's Christmas pageant, featuring amateur actors in bathrobes and fake beards.

As much as we all enjoy those charming (if a little kitschy) pageants, such annual presentations sell the Christmas story short. 

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Heaven: Our Greatest Hope

In certain circles—including some religious ones—people deny that a real heaven exists in a real place. Instead, they say heaven is a state of mind—it if exists at all. Other people criticize thoughts about heaven as wishful thinking. To believe in heaven is to believe in fairy tales. Don’t be fooled. Heaven is not an alternative to reality. Heaven is reality. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

If Heaven is not real, every honest person will disbelieve it simply for that reason, however desirable it is, and if it is real, every honest man, woman, child, scientist, theologian, saint, and sinner will want to believe in it simply because it is real, not just because it is desirable.

Heaven is a real place, created by God, that will exist forever. Heaven is where Jesus lives now (Acts 3:21) and where those who have trusted Jesus by faith will live in the future (John 14:2). Gary Habermas writes, “the life of heaven is eternal life.” And it isn’t merely a continuation of our life now. There will be no sorrow, crying, or pain in heaven, and the inhabitants of heaven will never again experience death (Revelation 21:4).

Having God's Heart - Part 3

Sharing Your Faith

Immediately before Jesus left earth and ascended into Heaven, He gave this final instruction to His followers:

But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power and will tell people about me everywhere . . . (Acts 1:8).

Jesus said that we are supposed to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8). That means we should tell people what we know about Him. Plain and simple.

Sharing your faith should be the most natural thing in the world because it’s really nothing more than telling someone else the story of what God has done for you personally. It doesn’t have to be in a fancy speech or in a well-crafted presentation; in fact, it is better if it isn’t. Since the essence of Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus, you’re better off by simply sharing your personal story of what Christ means to you (it is called your “testimony”).

Having God's Heart - Part 2


In the New Testament the word “disciple” was used to describe the relationship between Jesus and His followers. Jesus was often referred to as “Rabbi” (which means teacher), and anyone who followed Him was called a “disciple” (which means learner). A disciple was anyone who believed in Jesus (John 8:31) and who learned from Him (Matthew 5:1). The same is true today. A disciple of Jesus is one who has trusted Jesus as Savior and Lord, and who desires to learn from Him and follow Him fully.

Become a Disciple

Jesus is the one who calls us to be His disciples (Matthew 4:19). And He doesn’t just ask us to learn from Him. Jesus wants us to follow Him in everything we do. Discipleship means that we commit to the person of Christ as well as the teachings of Christ.

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Christianity 101 is a collection of books and digital resources by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz that talk about God in a way that encourages people to grow in their faith.

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