i can’t save you so i’m not going to try :: conversation with atheists

July 12, 2010


Over the last three days I’ve been engaged in a fascinating and heart-churning discussion with an old friend.  We use to lead worship together.  Now, he’s abandoned faith for reason, and considers God worse than a fairy tale.  I’m deeply glad we’ve connected again.

And here’s the deal… I’m not responsible for his relationship to God.

Christians reading this, I’ve reaffirmed some truths about evangelism and the process of the gospel over the last few days.  Namely, I can’t save anybody.  And neither can you.  I’m not trying to throw cold water on your zeal for Jesus or the good news.  But unless your first name is “Holy” and your last name is “Spirit,” your job isn’t to actually do any saving.

Jesus saves.  We communicate.  We listen.  We build friendships.  But JESUS saves.

Now the atheists among us *I hope* can breathe a sigh of relief.  And to my Christian friends, I want to tell some of you to back off.

[This is the point where some of my believing friends are starting to question my spiritual maturity.  Good times… keep your wheels turning.  Keep reading.]

Why are so many Christians convinced that since they have been enlightened to the truth they have a license to become judgmental jerks?  Where is that in the Bible?  And how, for the love of God (literally), are we ever going to have meaningful conversation with the atheists we rub shoulders with if we start by swinging the judgement stick?  Didn’t God give us common sense for a reason?  This blindness to the sin of pride has cost the Kingdom souls, I’m convinced.  It breaks me.

So what should we do?  Atheists have taken that next step.  Past agnosticism (which is simply an apathetic or “I don’t know either way” attitude toward God) to the “God is a reckless fantasy” position.  It is often accompanied with a strong sense that theism of any kind does far more harm than good.  My atheist friend fully believes that the fruit of Christianity has been ignorance, bigotry, hate, superstition, violence, tyrany, and a stubborn refusal to examine reality through a rational grid.

To put it plainly, he is an enemy of God.  And I’m pretty sure he would agree (although he would qualify that statement with “your idea of God”).

So again, what should we do?  What should I do?  Because yes, I believe that hell is real.  A real place where souls will spend eternity in agony without any hope.  How can I deal with that… if I really believe it?

And I really do believe it.  I believe my atheist friend is headed there unless he surrenders his heart to Jesus.  And he knows I think that.  I’ve asked him to help me – as my atheist buddy sounding board – to figure out how to maintain connection with him, and people like him, and be alive in my faith without… being a jerk.  Consistent, but not pushy.  Honest, but not annoying.

There’s something I’ve always wondered about Jesus.  How could he possible walk through the streets of Jerusalem, Capernum, anywhere, and not weep for the fate of so many lost souls around him?  And then I think about myself.  Why can I get through a day, with joy of any kind, believing that unrepentant sinners like my friend (and since he’ll surely be reading this, I say that knowing he thinks I’m full of bologna) surround me all the time?

The answer isn’t apathy, if that’s what you’re thinking.  I’m not advocating a stony disregard of your atheist co-worker.  Let yourself feel deeply, and allow your discomfort to motivate you to pray and build relationships.  But brothers and sisters, do not think you are the answer.  That is a burden too heavy to bear.  And it’s not yours to carry.

We get ourselves into all kinds of trouble emotionally, and relationally, when we wrongly assume that anyone’s eternal destiny rests in our hands.  As I said in my last post, you can’t argue anyone into -or out of – faith.  You do not have the right words.  You have not studied enough to win them over with your logic.  Faith is a choice that you cannot make for anyone else.

So let yourselves off the hook.  If you don’t live under the self-induced pressure of trying to do Jesus’ job, building an actual relationship that matters might stand a chance.  You’ll be free to apologize more often.  Admit you’re wrong on occasion.  Like, every time you’re wrong.  Be willing to say “I don’t know,” or even “I think you’re right.”  You know, the way normal friends would talk to each other.  With honesty and respect.

My dialog with my atheist buddy continues.  I expect it will for a long time.  That’s good.  I can’t save him, so I’m not going to try.  The power of the Holy Spirit, and the truth of the Word that pierces the heart and does not return void… THAT is a basket I can put my eggs in.  So I’ll stand for what I believe, with humility and confidence and good humor, share scripture when it seems appropriate, and I’ll peruse his endless links and videos from other people hostile to the idea that God may actually be real and may actually love them.  But I’m not going to beat him up for his choices.  He’s a grown up.  He’s responsible.

Christians would do well, I think, to stop trying to save people.  Yes!  Share the gospel with passion, when you have permission and freedom to do so!  But build a bridge first, and earn the right to have that conversation.  Then let the One who does the saving carry the burden. 

When God said His name was “I AM,” it was also a reminder to me that “I AM NOT.”


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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

3 responses to i can’t save you so i’m not going to try :: conversation with atheists

  1. Brother Josh, this was POWERFUL. THANK YOU.

    I have an atheist neighbor, who interestingly thinks that I’m an idiot because I’m a Christian. He’s a lot like my husband was, thinking that the answers of life can be found in science, and ONLY in science… and he has quit talking to me. Since I’ve not been overbearing or pushy on ANY level, there is obviously something about ME that simply pushes his buttons. And, that’s ok – although he’s a neighbor and I’d rather be on good terms with him!

    Thankfully, I know he has other Christian friends who are able to not only dialogue with, but CHALLENGE him on his beliefs. He has taken on reading materials they have supplied, and they are in conversation. I thank God for that, because it obviously is not “my” job, given his irrational reactions to me. I’m also grateful that my husband his a Believer – so I know that atheists CAN get past the Science vs. God issue, and come to a solid faith.

    This post also reminded me of the Lifestyle Evangelism that was a really big deal in the late 80’s – a la, Rebecca Manley Pippert’s “Out of the Salt Shaker & Into the World.” A former Bethel student of mine is currently doing this type of work in West Africa, and I have missionary friends who have been in Japan since 1987 who have made a HUGE impact on their entire island, because of lifestyle evangelism. THIS is the type of evangelism I am comfortable with. It is what enables me to be respectful of so many of my friends who hold different beliefs – and to learn equally from each other.

    Thanks, as always, for being REAL. You’re a gem, Josh!

    • Hey Gretchen. Thanks for the feedback and for adding your insight to the discussion, friend. Much appreciated.

      When it comes to life-style evangelism, I see the obvious parallel here. Not every believer has the gift of evangelism, but all of us should be able to use our God-given common sense when we build relationships with the atheists around us.

      My good friends have permission to get in my face. They have earned my respect and my trust. I don’t let strangers get in my face. They have not yet earned my trust. Why do we think it should be any different when we try to discuss faith with our atheist friends and neighbors?

      If you don’t build a relational platform first, you have no place to stand on for a discussion about the deep things in life. So we should build a relationship (with prayer), and then when the time is right, with premission (and prayer) we can ask the deeper questions. And then (in prayer) we can let God do the God part, and we can rest easy. (Did I mention prayer? Oh yeah…)

      Gretch, I value your input here so much. Thanks again, and God bless. I don’t know why your neighbor can’t connect with you. Maybe he’s just wary of your carzy leftist politics. I don’t know, I’m just saying… (You’re smiling right now. You know you are.)


      • Yeah, I’m smilin’!! Irony is, he’s more leftist than I!! HA! (and now you’re smiling… and shaking your head…)

        SO valuing your presence in my life, Josh. 🙂