How should you react to someone who no longer believes in God and has become an atheist?
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit these days, especially as I’ve been thinking about the story of Ryan Bell. As you may have heard, after a year of study and much thought, he has decided that there is no God.
So how should a Christian react to this announcement?
There seem to be 3 different kinds of reactions that he’s received and that I’ve noticed others in similar circumstances often receive:
- They are now an enemy. A traitor, and therefore a non-person; someone who is not worthy of decency or kindness.
- They are intellectually deficient and should be engaged through apologetics. “If only they could really reason and think,” the idea goes “then the Bible and religion would make sense to them.”
- They are intellectually proficient, have made a reasoned decision to leave, and should therefore be ignored. Friends or relationships that they used to have are gone. Those that knew them before now turn their back.
Notice this recent interchange that happened on Twitter:
— NPR News (@nprnews) December 28, 2014
— Jim West (@drjewest) December 28, 2014
— Jesse Dollemore (@Dollemore) December 28, 2014
How do those words strike you? How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of them? These kinds of words are just the tip of the iceberg of what has come his way. Check out this listing of how Christians have been responding to him.
So back to the original question: how should one react to someone who no longer believes in God? Allow me to expand this question even further: if you’re reading this and are a Christian, how do you believe someone is brought to belief in God in the first place?
Are people won to God through attack and being treated as an enemy? I’ve been deeply saddened and hurt by how Ryan Bell has been treated by other Christians. It’s so difficult for me to fathom what is inside of Christians that react in this way. What response do they believe this will elicit from someone?
What about apologetics? Do apologetics work? They help to convince some people. I’ve found they mostly help with someone who is already fairly close to your own position. But the problem with apologetics is that it assumes an adversarial posture; someone has to win and someone will lose. I know what it’s like to be on the losing end of an argument or philosophical idea and it never feels good. It begins with the presupposition that you are deficient in your way of thinking, that you’re not bright enough, and that you must be educated. Of course, it’s much worse if the person is coming at you in a smug way.
So what’s the answer? I’m sure there are many different facets to this, but I know that at least part of the answer is to love. And not just the kind of love that presupposes that you will respond in a positive way. Not the kind of love that continues as long as the person converts or begins to believe. But love that is given without condition.
Remember the example of Jesus and the 10 lepers in Luke 17? How many did Jesus heal? All 10 of them. Yet how many returned to give him thanks? Only 1, and a foreigner at that. Jesus healed even though He knew He would receive no thanks. He healed because He is love.
As a Christian, my responsibility is not to love based upon a condition, but because it is the central tenet of being a Christian. Those that have been transformed by love give love in return.
Remember the words of Jesus: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
I really love this quote from Madeleine L’Engle:
We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
I love that quote because I’ve found it to be so true. It’s also the example that we find in the early Christian church. The actions of the early Christians–the way they loved, healed, and served others–gave credence to the words that Jesus is Lord. And so people came. And joined into this rag-tag group of social rebels and misfits. I know of no great power than love.
I encourage you to love him and others who no longer believe in God. Could it be that by doing so they may come to believe in God once again–by sensing this counter cultural love that demands a gospel explanation–once more? Could be. But he, and others, deserve love even if they do not.
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[image by Yen Nguyen]