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Advice on Talking to an Atheist

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Over the years I've had many conversations with atheists about various topics. I used to be on a Bible forum in the Quiz Up game app for years and for some reason the atheists liked to go there and argue with Christians. One time I remember asking an atheist why he cared what I believed. He went on a rant about Christians are influencing law and policy. I don't feel like I have much influence over law and policy.


As the years progressed I started learning how to reply in these conversations. I could tell I was improving. I think I gave some of them something to think about. I think I planted some seeds.


In the beginning I noticed some tendencies with the atheists on Quiz Up. They were arrogant. They immediately attacked your intelligence. They would tell Christians we were deceived, we were ignorant, and resort to name calling pretty quickly - you idiot, you moron. This I think upset me the most. First of all I probably have decades of age on many I was talking to and I was always taught to treat and speak to elders kindly. But with internet discussions, manners have gone out the door. Granted they couldn't tell how old I was because I didn't have a picture up of myself on the forum. I think I had my dog. They also thought I was a male and would often call me dude. This amused me. I guess I write like a guy.


Attacking my intelligence is a trigger for me. I guess I think because I was a Professional Structural Engineer that proves I have some level of intelligence - like it proves me as a worthy opponent or something. Anyways, calling me an idiot or deceived pisses me off. And that is when my snarkiness kicks in. Christians aren't supposed to be snarky. I tell you these things so you know to expect it. Once I knew they would go to name calling and attacking intelligence, I learned not to react to it.


Anyways, in the beginning atheists really would upset me. I immediately would go into argumentative mode and become defensive. Here's the truth. Acting that way accomplishes nothing and actually hurts your witness. Jesus does not need our defense. Once I understood that - you know the honey gets more flies/ kill them with kindness thing - I changed my approach to how I talk to atheists and how I actually think of atheists.


The atheists I've interacted with appear to have intelligence and some level of training. There are actually many atheist websites (and they even had their own forum on Quiz Up) and they were prepared to do battle. They will help each other and feed information to each other. They have the same old arguments over and over. Don't be intimidated because we have a great cloud of witnesses behind us. For two thousand years mankind has been studying the Bible. There isn't a question or an argument out there that we can't find the answer for. Every word in the Bible has been studied. Every concept discussed. Therefore, go into the conversation feeling confident on the foundation you stand on.


I had a long email correspondence with an atheist at the beginning of this year. I was actually pretty proud of how I handled myself and I thought I'd share some pointers with you.


Before I get to the discussion between Fred and me, here are a few things I keep in the forefront of my mind.


As a Christian, I represent Christ to others.

  • I must be kind and gentle with them.

  • I must never resort to slander or name-calling.

  • What I say must be the truth. This involves time to look Scripture and information up. Verify the facts. This is absolutely critical because if you would lie or exaggerate, you have lost all credibility with the person. You must be a truth teller. Impeccable honesty. No half-truths.

  • Should I make a mistake or error in what I say, I immediately own it and apologize. This keeps my credibility.

  • Should I not know the answer to what they are asking, I admit that. I tell them I will look into it and get back to them. And then I do it.

  • I remember that who I am talking to matters to God and therefore I treat them with respect.

  • I pray before I interact with an atheist and I ask for help at being a good witness of Christ.


Here are some excerpts from Fred the Atheist and my conversation.

I don't know how Fred found Passion to Know More. I don't know what article he read of mine but it had to do with the birth accounts of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. He said:

I am curious to know why people choose Matthew's version of the birth of Jesus. It is clear the dates given in Luke are more historical. In Luke Jesus was born in 6 CE when Herod Archelaus was in power. He would have been baptized by John the Baptist in 35 CE when he "began to be about thirty years of age." John was beheaded by Herod Antipas a little later in 35 CE, a year after Antipas married Herodias. Jesus preached for one year and was crucified in 36 CE at the age of thirty.

Please let me know your reasoning on this subject.


First of all, I did not know at this point that Fred was an atheist. I was confused why he would say people choose Matthew's version over Luke. And say Luke's account was "more historical." Both things aren't true. The Gospels are read together. Each of the Gospels are equally historical. I want you to note in this email that Fred sounds like he knows what he is talking about, but he is actually way off on several points. His dates are way wrong. The Jesus preached "one year" is wrong. An atheist will do this. They will throw things out sounding like they have sufficiently studied this, but you have to check them carefully.


I replied to Fred:

I didn’t know people chose Matthew’s version over Luke’s version. If you notice in Matthew’s version Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are in a “house” at this point when the magi visited. So it was some time later than Luke’s account. Most scholars accept 5 B.C. as the year Jesus was born because we now know when Herod the Great ruled and have a good guess when he died. So best scholarship puts Christ’s birth at 6-4 B.C. If Jesus started His ministry at the age of 30 (Luke 3:23) that would put it around A.D. 24-26 and if He ministered for about three years (the third reference to Passover in the Gospel of John suggests that Jesus’s ministry was about three years) that would mean He was crucified about A.D. 27-30. The calendar as we know it didn’t exist back then.


Fred replies with a bunch of dates for John the Baptist, Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, Herodias; and still insists Jesus ministered for only a year. The dates are way off and I am very confused. But he says, "Apparently you misunderstood 6 CE for 6 BC." Ah ha! I just suspected Fred is an atheist.


Fred is saying Jesus was born in 6 CE which is the equivalent of A.D. 6. First of all that isn't true. No scholar thinks this. But him using the secular version of measuring years clues me in, hey - I'm probably dealing with an atheist.


BCE stands for "Before the Common Era" and CE stands for "Common Era." This is something atheists will use and yes, I hadn't caught that in his first email.

B.C. stands for "Before Christ." A.D. stands for Anno Domini which means "in the year of our Lord."


The majority of the world uses A.D. and B.C. because they are the more common and understandable abbreviations.


At some point in our conversation I googled this guy. I found out he had written an atheist book! And I found out he was considerably older than me - probably nearing the end of his life.

Because I am dealing with an atheist I switch to the secular way of measuring years. I reply: "All sources say Herod the Great died 4 BCE." (Normally I would say 4 B.C.) And then I give him three secular sources for dates - Brittanica and the Smithsonian. Why do I keep it secular and not quote from Christian resources? Because he is an atheist. I ask him for his sources for his dates. From this point on he never gives me a source. He refers several times to Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, and even references his Antiquities of the Jews book. He says, "I trust you have at least read Luke." (Smile. Is it a coincidence I am immersed in studying the Gospel of Luke right now? Nope.) He goes into a long paragraph about dates of different events (all of which are wrong dates.) And, "You can read about Herod Antipas and his marriage to Herodias in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews Book 18, Chapter 10, Sections 1-3." Which I went to do and he gave me the wrong reference! Josephus/ Antiquities Book 18 only had 9 chapters and the original Antiquities wouldn't have dates in it because it was written before our calendar years were even invented! They marked time off of historical reigns and historical events.


Fred corrected his reference. It should have been Book 18, Chapter 5, Sections 1-3. And sure enough if you go to Antiquities, someone has put some dates in brackets. Apparently they were added by a professor of mathematics at Cambridge (masters degree) in 1737. No date was added for the death of Herod the Great, so apparently Fred was taking the date of Herod Antipas and Herodias and working backwards to disprove the Gospel of Matthew and Herod the Great ordering the death of all males in Bethlehem under the age of two. I finally figured out why Fred couldn't give me other sources. He was taking one date added to a document in 1737 and working backwards to try to make the dates fit his narrative. The dates added to Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews don't correlate with modern Christian and secular scholars. I suspect it has to do with now being able to nail down some of the dates with more advanced information. For instance they know Herod the Great's death by connecting it with a lunar eclipse. That is kind of a more recent thing I think. More recent than 1737 anyways. And also no secular source (and pick whichever you want) does not list an exact date for the John the Baptist/ Herod Antipas/ Herodias thing. They would have no way of knowing with accuracy. So the Gospels of Matthew and Luke definitely jive. But I don't know how that guy in 1737 came up with that date of [A.D. 36] in Antiquities and it is way above my pay grade of free to try to figure it out. Ha.


I reply correcting his dates using secular reputable sources that he shouldn't have an issue with and why we believe Jesus ministered for about three years. Ending with:


But here is the bigger question. What is your purpose in this discussion? You are an atheist. I am a believer. I am not uninformed, ignorant, or deceived. I love the Lord. I believe to my core the Bible is the holy inspired word of God. You don’t have a question for me. You believe Jesus was born in 6 CE. I believe He was born around 5 BCE. That’s why our dates don’t jive.


Fred the Atheist: Yes, I am an Atheist, after having been a Christian for over 30 years. I understand that you are a Christian and I have no problem with that. I would assume you believe that miracles were performed by Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, Peter. and Paul. You probably believe the story of the Flood and that Noah built an Ark. You may even believe the story that Joshua was instrumental in causing the sun and moon to stand still for almost a whole day. Do you also believe that a serpent had a conversation with Eve, and a donkey spoke with Baalam; well, I used to believe in these stories too. ...

As I have changed my mind before, I am willing to change it again.


I suddenly felt the weight of the situation. Here was a man nearing the end of his life. He had at one time been a believer. He turned from God and invested his efforts into writing about God did not exist.


I believe in the virgin birth because since I believe in God as the Creator, would it really be so hard for an Almighty God to put His Son in a woman’s uterus? I believe God created the Red Sea, thus I do not have a hard time believing He parted it although at this time in history there is no scientific proof He did.


What you are asking for is proof similar to you asking me, “How do you know your husband loves you?” I could list he says he loves me or he does certain things for me. But you would say that “proof” would be of no consequence. You would say those things do not prove anything since they can’t be scientifically measured that my husband loves me.

[I told him my very personal story of coming to faith.]


I have experienced God working in my life in real tangible ways. My faith has settled down into my inner being. It brings me great joy and great comfort. I know WHAT I believe and WHY I believe it.


Whatever it was Fred that made you turn from God, I hope you reexamine it now. Could you have been wrong in your interpretation of 1 Corinthians? Could you be wrong about God? What is your heart and mind telling you about God? You have exhausted a great amount of time to “prove” He doesn’t exist. Perhaps dig deep and figure out why that matters to you.


God is still pursuing you. He is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish. Reference 2 Peter 3:9.


May the Lord speak to you on this as the time is urgent. He is the God of second and third and a million chances.


Yours truly,

Carolyn


And Fred replied:

Since faith is more important to you than facts, I won't bother you anymore. I wish you well.


And I wished Fred well back.


During this conversation with Fred, I took my time. He would email me. I would pray over my response. I would write a draft, hold it for some time, re-read it, and check my facts and sources before I sent it. The whole thing took quite a bit of time and honestly, I did not really want to spend that amount of time on this. But God had put Fred in my path for a reason. Fred's mission, as is any atheist, was to challenge me, a believer. God's mission is to redeem Fred. I can't redeem Fred and I'm not called to do that. God simply asks me to be His witness of what He has done. I keep in mind it is not my job description to convert anyone. I don't have that power.



I don't think Fred thought he was asking me for an account for the hope in me. But in reality, that is exactly what he was asking. And I think I answered him with gentleness and reverence. I hope I represented Christ well. I tried very hard to do that.


If God brings an atheist in your path, pray, be gentle and kind and truthful.

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