It happened on a flight from São Paulo to Chicago. It did not take long for my seat neighbor to ask the typical question: “What do you do for a living?”
“I am a pastor,” I proudly answered.
“Oh, reeeaally?” he interjected, then immediately added: “I am an agnostic.” I had no idea what would come next. A full flight; an 11-hour trip; no place to hide! The “perfect” situation for two people willing to do whatever was necessary to demonstrate what was wrong with the other’s viewpoint.
For hours the conversation went from one issue to another as he tried to convince me of the shortcomings of a religious worldview, mainly Christianity. I, in turn, tried hard to share my faith in a convincing way. He was an agricultural engineer from Brazil coming to the United States for a conference. I was a church planter who had just started a church plant focusing on people who did not have God as a priority in their lives. I had everything under control. I could do it. At least that’s what I thought.
What a mistake! That night, as we crossed the Americas, I learned a vital lesson: the importance of being intentional and sensitive about how to share my faith with people who do not have the same beliefs and worldview I have.
Unfortunately, too many times apologetics has been used in hurtful ways.
After all, no one is born a skeptic. Atheism comes out of a belief system that involves a decision. Christians have to make a similar kind of choice: to live by faith. To some extent, atheism requires “faith” that God does not exist. But how can we share our belief in the living God with nonbelievers in order to crack open a door instead of building a taller wall? How can we Seventh-day Adventists have a normal conversation about Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century without accidentally (or unconsciously) sounding aggressive, narrow-minded, or intolerant? Here are some suggestions:
The number-one step as we engage in conversations with unbelievers is to keep a humble, prayerful, and loving attitude. It’s not our role to change worldviews. Actually, we can’t do this! This is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). So we must not be self-assured in our own wisdom (Prov. 3:5). As disciples of Christ we have been called to share with people around us the reasons for our faith (1 Peter 3:15). But, we may ask, how can we do it effectively?
We speak truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We pray for them. During my conversation at 31,000 feet there came a moment where I had to say a silent prayer: “Lord, help me share in love what You want me to present to this man. Please, give me wisdom. Use me.” When we have opportunities to share our own walk with God with other people, especially nonbelievers, we do not try to win debates. It doesn’t work like this. We are called to sow the seed of possibility, the possibility of God’s existence and His personal care for all, including the person we interact with. We treat them with respect and kindness, trying to lead them to Christ, not to our own expertise, or to make them feel bad by losing an argument.
Even though most skeptics will affirm that they decided not to believe by using logic and reason after evaluating evidence (or the lack thereof, as they often say), many of them decided to reject religion because of bad past experiences involving family, friends, church members, or personal expectations about God. Often there is a reason behind the “disbelief” they embrace. Some saw suffering loved ones who did not recover. Others felt the pain of a failing marriage or a broken home, in spite of their prayers. Many felt treated badly by the church. We simply cannot ignore their pain or dismiss it as unimportant.
A major cause of unbelief, however, is the lack of understanding about the Word of God, the true meaning of Christianity, and the knowledge of God’s purposes with humanity. Most skeptics do not know who Christ is, or what He has taught and done. They don’t get His grace, mercy, and justice. But “how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” (Rom. 10:14, NLT).1 So, as we share our beliefs with nonbelievers, we should never underestimate the need to understand what they think and value, and how they feel and respond to our arguments.
Following hours of intense discussion, when I asked my flight companion about his past experiences with Christianity, he told me that his mother was a negative and judgmental churchgoer and that the only things he remembered of his childhood were the things he could not do in order to please her religious views.
The art of persuasion—through the use of knowledge and reason—plays an important role in Christian apologetics. The English word “apology” comes from a Greek term that basically means “to give a defense.” Thus, asking honest questions with wisdom and prudence is crucial in this process, especially taking into consideration that there are different types of unbelievers. Some are curious, others indifferent. Eventually we will come across those who are hostile, but many are sincere in their doubts and questions. Each requires a different approach and response.
against unbelief are to some extent arguments for God, some classic arguments may be helpful in sharing our faith with skeptics.2 Undoubtedly the use of Christian apologetics gives us a tremendous opportunity to share our faith in Christ with nonbelievers. We should not, however, forget the second part of 1 Peter 3:15: “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Unfortunately, too many times apologetics has been used in hurtful ways.
Defending our faith should always be done in a Christlike manner, being sensitive to those who disagree with our perspective (2 Tim. 2:23-26). If an argument is won but, because of our attitude, the final result is pushing someone even further away from Christ, we have lost the real reason for Christian apologetics. Besides, we should not attempt to prove the reality of God’s existence beyond all reasonable doubt. It is much more prudent and productive to argue that theism (the belief in God) is more reasonable than atheism (the rejection of belief in God), or agnosticism (the belief that is impossible to know anything about God).
Skeptics are normal people with ordinary feelings and struggles. They talk, cry, laugh, worry, and interact like everybody else. The problem arises when we treat them as trophies to be conquered rather than people to be appreciated and loved. So whenever possible, invite them to your home first, rather than to your church; it’s more effective. Our personal life story is one of the most powerful evidences of God’s existence because of the real and lasting transformation that Jesus Christ has brought to our lives.
Building trust with those we want to share our beliefs with has solid biblical support. In his efforts to communicate the gospel effectively, Paul identified himself with very diverse groups of people (1 Cor. 9:19-22). By intentionally connecting with them, he developed the amazing ability to reduce the gap between himself and those he wanted to reach. Besides, to simply plant the seeds of belief, we must stay in touch with our unbeliever friends. They will probably be more open to accept our views after we establish friendships and demonstrate real interest in them and their families. This may open the door for us to explain the “proofs” of our faith, leading them to accept Jesus as their personal Savior.
Toward the end of our conversation I told my newly found engineer friend that beyond all the evidences for my faith and Christian beliefs I had, one of the most precious things in my relationship with God is the hope He had brought to my heart. Then I gently asked him: “What kind of hope do you have?”
He slowly turned his head to look through the small airplane window, where we both could see a beautiful and bright full moon outside. Then he said sadly: “I have no hope.” After a few seconds he repeated, “I have no hope.”
I often remember this conversation, and pray that somehow what we spoke about will bring hope to the heart of a hopeless man. Nonbelievers around us do not look only for knowledge or arguments; as we engage intentionally with them we realize that they really long for a personal experience with Jesus Christ, the real source of love, grace, and hope.
Kleber D. Gonçalves serves as the director of the Center for Secular and Postmodern Studies at the General Conference. He is also an associate professor in the Department of World Mission in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University and directs the Doctor of Ministry program.