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How to Love an Atheist

by Skip Heitzig |
No one is born an atheist or agnostic. Both are belief systems a person chooses to believe in, and both require a certain amount of faith, just like Christianity.

John 18 shows us a picture of a politician named Pontius Pilate, a burned-out agnostic for whom there were no absolute truths. As Jesus interacted with him during His trial, He displayed five qualities we should exhibit whenever we encounter an atheist or agnostic.

1. Be confident. It would seem like Pilate had total control over the situation in John 18, but Jesus was really the one calling the shots: "The Jews said to [Pilate], 'It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,' that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which He spoke, signifying by what death He would die" (vv. 31-32)--i.e., a Roman death on a cross. In other words, what Jesus said would come to pass was coming to pass. Whenever you face an atheist or agnostic, be confident that the Lord has sovereignly allowed you the opportunity to talk to them.

2. Be engaging. Pilate didn't believe in the Jewish God, but Jesus engaged him in conversation anyway (see vv. 33-35). Atheists and agnostics have good questions, so make sure you have good answers. "Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). Even if your answer isn't perfect, you might plant a seed, and there's no knowing what that seed will produce in the future.

3. Be respectful. In verse 36, Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here." In other words, "I'm not here to fight you." Some Christians get into full combat assault mode when dealing with unbelievers, but as the rest of 1 Peter 3:15 says, we need to be prepared to give an answer "with gentleness and respect" (NIV). We need to be winsome if we want to win some.

4. Be clear. "Pilate therefore said to Him, 'Are You a king then?' Jesus answered, 'You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth'" (v. 37). Jesus was totally unambiguous about who He was. We need to be just as clear about what we believe and what the gospel calls unbelievers to do.

5. Be ready. Jesus said, "'Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.' Pilate said to Him, 'What is truth?' And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews" (vv. 37-38). Jesus essentially gave Pilate an invitation to know truth, and even though Pilate's response was jaded and negative, it didn't have to turn out that way. On our end, we simply have to give God room to work and be ready for a positive response as well as a negative.

People in our culture have heard about Jesus, and they're always deciding whether to accept Him or reject Him. So be confident in the truth you bear, engage with those who don't believe, be kind and respectful, be clear about what you believe, and then be ready for a response, always remaining open to how God wants to use you.

In His strong love,

Skip Heitzig

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