Many of us who study apologetics, philosophy, and theology do it out of sheer enjoyment. Ahh! The thrill of learning something new, of making a connection between ideas, of being struck by a novel thought! Because of this enjoyment sometimes I admit that I prefer the writing of a dead philosopher to the company of a live human. Over time, however, if you’re like me, you start noticing in the back of your mind a nagging sense – apologetics is meant to be shared. Christ has called us outward.
After wrestling with this tension for several years following my discovery of apologetics, I finally made a leap. I found a group of atheists and freethinkers in my area and joined them for their monthly discussion. This experience has been enormously beneficial, and I am convinced that more apologists should consider doing something similar. Let me share a few reasons why you also might consider taking such a leap.
- First, an encouragement: you are never going to know enough to be able to answer every question thrown at you. This worry kept me out of action for longer than it should have. Accept that you are a limited creature, and give yourself permission to continue to grow as you move outward. Commit what you’ve been studying to the Lord and go for it!
- Sharpen your sword. Defending the faith in this environment will force you to become sharper. At first you don’t even have to speak – you can just listen and learn. By following their conversation, I can discover what is important to them and how they argue their case. I then go home, study up, and am ready next time. Sometimes they challenge me on a topic. If I don’t like how I answered them, then again I go home and study. If you consistently do this, you will grow in confidence. By focusing your study on their perennial topics, you will sharpen your apologetics sword.
- Discover that atheists are all bark and no bite. As a young Christian I had an unformed suspicion in the back of my mind that atheists had some secret argument or insight which was superior to mine. What did they know that I didn’t? After having met their arguments head-on now for almost two years I realize that the informed Christian does not have anything to worry about. Putting this charitably, the reasons they give for rejecting Christianity are usually historically and philosophically uninformed. I have yet to encounter an atheistic argument that doesn’t have a reasonable response by a Christian philosopher or apologist. You will gain confidence in the truth of the Christian worldview when you see the weakness of theirs. By learning their arguments, you will discover that they don’t have any.
- Build relationships. By meeting month-in and month-out you get to foster genuine relationships with unbelievers. In my experience atheists are quite friendly and willing to engage in conversation. On the other hand they get to meet a thoughtful Christian, which, as you will quickly learn, they might think of like a unicorn – a fanciful creature that they never expected to meet. Even if none of them ever comes to Christ, you will have represented the Christian worldview to them in a thoughtful, meaningful, and (for them) surprising way. Just don’t be a know-it-all or a jerk (loose application of 1 Peter 3:15)! Who knows how the Lord will use these relationships over time?
- Infiltrate! As William Lane Craig describes in his Reasonable Faith, apologetics creates intellectual space for Christianity to be considered as a legitimate option in our culture. If we the apologetics community can make a focused effort to infiltrate (in a friendly way!) as many community- and university-based groups of atheists as we can, we can begin to clear away obstacles and give intellectual permission to consider the claims of Christ. Strategically, we can have a broader cultural effect because atheists and freethinkers tend to be stridently vocal in their opposition to Christianity and to religious belief in general. By focusing our attention here, our thoughtful Christianity can have a salutary effect, and in God’s providence, may blunt the influence of atheism in our culture.
So I encourage you to go find your own local atheist discussion group. Listen bountifully, challenge them gently, ask good questions, and have authentic conversation. I have been told more than once by the leader of my group that he’s glad that I come, because (in his words) I bring the best of Christian thinking to the table. This ensures that they are not fighting strawmen. You’re study has given you a sword and shield – it’s time to pick them up, gird your loins, and rush the field. May God be with you!