Loving Your Atheist Neighbor, Part 4 (Urbana Preview)

Image: “Neighbors,” by PixelPlacebo

In Part 3 I noted that using a “cumulative case” approach is a powerful (but lengthy) way to communicate the claims of the Christian worldview to an atheist friend.

The cumulative case is what an attorney presents in a court of law to build her case—such things as eye-witness testimony plus email records plus motive plus expert opinion plus physical evidence, and so on. Each piece is added to the other pieces, not presented (or considered by a jury) in isolation. It’s the aggregate effect that counts.

Yet, each piece by itself is imperfect. Communication records can be falsified or misinterpreted. Expert opinion is not unanimous, and eye-witnesses often disagree with each other. Physical evidence varies in quality and significance. A committed detractor can provide alternative explanations for almost anything.

And that’s how it is with Christianity. Everything we say about the faith is potentially dismissible. At first this may seem a liability, but I think just the opposite. The dismissibility of the evidence and argumentation for Christianity allows space for skeptics to freely disbelieve.

Proof, on the other hand, would not be dismissible. If an omnipotent, omniscient being proved himself to us, every reasonable person would be forced to believe. A giant elephant would be present in the room and not even a hardened skeptic could ignore it.

But the God of the Bible desires us to come into a familial relationship with him of our own choosing. It’s an invitation to love, and love requires the freedom to accept or decline; it can’t be coerced.

Two Principles

Philosopher Stephan Evans has formalized the potential dismissibility of Christianity into what he calls the “Easy Resistibility Principle.” But he also balances it with the “Wide Accessibility Principle,” which means God’s self-revelation is accessible to anyone with an open mind and heart.

So the case for faith is both accessible and resistible. An ordinary person who’s not a scholar has the opportunity to find God. There is plenty of evidence available. But the evidence can also be reinterpreted and dismissed by a persistent skeptic. Alternative explanations can be given for everything.

What then should we look for in God’s self-revelation, if not proof?

If you read Evans or Timothy Keller or James Sire or N.T. Wright, or, before them, Blaise Pascal (and many others), the answer, to summarize, is this: clues and signs. God has planted clues and signs of his existence and love everywhere. One just needs the eyes to see them. And that requires an essential posture of curiosity and openness.

One sign is the beauty and purposeful order of nature. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist writes, “and the sky proclaims his handiwork.” In the NT, the Apostle Paul points out to the Roman church that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are plain to humankind.

This clue of God’s glory in nature is both widely accessible (plain to all) but easily resistible (explainable in other terms).

A Miracle

Recently my friend Tarah experienced miraculous restoration of hearing in her right ear, after persistent prayer of several months. This is a clue of God’s goodness. Anyone could talk with Tarah or read the chart from the audiologist, so the miracle (and many others like it; just start asking around in churches) is widely accessible. Yet it can be explained away without God as well.

I mentioned Tarah’s miracle to an atheist friend. He countered that it wasn’t proof and that lots of other people don’t experience healing after prayer, and that “studies show . . .” Exactly. It’s not proof. It’s a clue. When you add all the clues together from nature and science and history and philosophy—and every discipline—and confirm it with the experience of knowing and loving Christ, you’ve got excellent reasons to believe. The pieces all fit neatly (if not perfectly) into an enormous jigsaw puzzle, a complete worldview that offers massive explanatory power for all human experience. Personally, I find this very exciting.

Nor is the cumulative case just for believers. Curious nonChristians often come to faith by journeying through various aspects of the case. It’s part of the appeal of joining the family of God.

The Main Clue

We could examine other clues and signs, but I’d like to close this series of posts by mentioning the strongest reason for holding to Christian faith, the reason that sums up all the other reasons, that being Jesus himself.

When I say “Jesus himself” I’m talking about the surprising, ironic, multi-layered revolutionary character of the four Gospel accounts of Mark (likely written first), Matthew, Luke and John (written last). I’m referring to a careful reading of the man who claimed to be the Son of God, who was rejected by many of his own people and at times by his own family, the God-man who extended his personal touch to society’s lower classes—women, Samaritans, tax collectors—and who condemned the ruling religious establishment for its vulnerability to power and pride.

This is the astonishingly subtle Messiah who is symbolized by manger, donkey and cross rather than the ostentatious displays of military/political glory that were available to him as the most powerful force on earth.

The incarnate Christ is widely accessible and yet resistible. Anyone can read the accounts for themselves and find answers to their questions with the help of professional commentators. But Christ can also be dismissed, explained away, rejected. Even when he visited the earth in person, his own “cumulative case” of fulfilling prophecy, of radical teaching and acts of compassion, of miracles and resurrection were not enough to overcome the skepticism of some. They saw and yet disbelieved.

But the case for Christ is compelling, and many will come to know him, even if that process takes time.

An Atheist Finds God

My friend Tom grew up Catholic but abandoned the faith for atheism by the time he entered Notre Dame. There he wrestled with the great questions of philosophy and theology, and maintained a strong skepticism going forward into law school and professional practice for twenty years.

One day I visited Tom’s law office and asked him how the spiritual journey was going.

“Well,” he replied, “I’ve been praying on my way to work every day.”

Did I hear this right?

“Rick, Christianity is true. I’ve become a believer.”

I learned that he’d read a case for the historical Jesus and found it convincing. Just as important as this research, however, was its context: a Lutheran church he’d begun attending with his wife Kathe. The quality of the people there impressed Tom deeply.

The final clincher in his turn to faith was a giant mural of Jesus that hung on a wall in the church. Every time Tom passed the mural in the hallway he pondered the arresting caption underneath: “Who do you say that I am?” He knew it was the pivotal issue of his life, which he finally answered in the affirmative: You are the Christ, the Son of God.

In closing, I ask you: Who is your atheist neighbor?

Further Resources

Entry level resource

  • Letters from a Skeptic by Greg Boyd

Mid-level resources

  • Echoes of a Voice: We are not Alone, by James Sire
  • Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee, by Mark Strauss
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N. T. Wright
  • The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
  • Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense by C. Stephen Evans

Advanced resources

  • Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, by Douglas Groothuis
  • Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig
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Rick Mattson

Rick Mattson is a national evangelist and apologist for InterVarsity, speaking at over fifty campuses the past few years. He lives in St. Paul, MN with his family. As part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Rick Mattson's call is to strengthen and encourage Christian students and faculty in their faith, and invite seekers and skeptics to consider Christ for their lives. He studied at Bethel Seminary of St. Paul, MN, where he received his masters in the philosophy of religion. Rick's committed to compassion, reason, and respect in his interactions with both "friend and foe" on campus. He's also highly committed to InterVarsity's value of multiethnicity. Rick loves talking with students and faculty about the great questions of life! What could be more fun??? At home, Rick's a committed family man, serious golfer, and plays e-guitar in the band at his church. . . . And of course he spends a lot of time reading theology and philosophy 🙂

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  • meredith_beveridge@yahoo.com'
    M commented on November 9, 2015 Reply

    I agree that when you look at the world through a particular lens, you see how the pieces fit into the puzzle that you’re trying to build. We all find what we’re looking for. The atheists see how things “perfectly” fit an atheist worldview, the Muslims see confirmation of their worldview, the Christians think everything fits perfectly into their worldview. We are all susceptible to confirmation bias. We all think we see the pieces fitting neatly into our own “complete worldview that offers massive explanatory power for all human experience.”

    P.S. I think this series was mis-titled – it should be “convincing your atheist neighbor” or “debating your atheist neighbor” (or, more likely, “responding to your atheist neighbor”, since the things you’ve argued are only likely to reassure yourself, not convince the atheist). I know evangelicals think proselytizing IS “loving” because you’re trying to save the targeted soul from hell, but I assure you that the targeted soul does not experience proselytizing as “loving,” and in fact finds your use of the term almost blasphemous (how can you call condemnation “loving”?).

    Thanks for the series, it was interesting to read your perspective.

    • rcm06f@my.fsu.edu'
      lirantha commented on November 10, 2015 Reply

      The idea that faith might be a result of confirmation bias bothered me the first time I learned about the phenomenon. Wouldn’t that make it somehow lesser – somehow illegitimate, somehow wrong? (And somehow unbiblical?) It sounds much better, after all, to say you reasoned your way into faith from some kind of objective starting point, rather than that you began with a theory and found evidence that confirmed it.

      But really, there’s no other way for theories – religious or not – to work. What else does it mean to say “seek and you shall find – knock and the door will be opened”? We all start with theories, and we all place different evidential value on the facts, depending on which theory we’re interested in confirming. The question is not really what better suits the facts, but what aspects of human experience we’re willing to comparatively devalue or reinterpret in order to maintain our working thesis.

      Personally, that is why – although I am ever conscious of how contingent my beliefs are – I haven’t abandoned my faith. I find that a purely naturalistic view of the world would require me to adopt a position of intellectual superiority towards not only many of the people around me, but people throughout the history of our species. And it would require me to sacrifice a certain view of the enchantment of creation, my faith in the final victory of goodness and justice despite all present evidence to the contrary, and the promise that all our suffering will ultimately be redeemed. If the price of retaining those things is that I get teased about Russell’s teapot from time to time, I’ve decided can live with that. 😛 I can sympathize with your comments about how the ‘targeted soul’ feels; so often we frame the question of faith as matter of being right or wrong, rather than as a question about the things in which we place our love, our trust, and our hope.

    • rick.mattson@studentjourney.org'
      Rick Mattson commented on November 16, 2015 Reply

      M, Regarding confirmation bias: I myself do not claim pure objectivity in examining the great questions. And if I am to believe the postmodern thinkers, none of us can claim such objectivity. So in that sense I am in partial agreement with you: it is easy to see only what we want to see.

      Yet, I wonder about the value of chalking up all case-making to confirmation bias. Can’t a person simply say, “This worldview makes more sense to me than the others; I will argue for it in a respectful manner,” and not be guilty of confirmation bias? I suppose if a person never bothered to interact with the best arguments of her opponents, and only read material from her own side, the charge would make more sense. But to be aware of the other side and to make your case against it (and/or a case for your own worldview) is surely more than mere confirmation bias.

      On saving the “targeted soul from hell”: Again, I am in partial agreement with you. If a Christian (or anyone else) goes around “targeting” others and making them into projects, the value of love might be missing. But in fact I DO love my atheist neighbors, and meaningful dialogue is part of that love. What we enjoy about each other is our mutual willingness to wade into these matters without reservation, to speak our mind honestly because we all think something important is at stake in the conversation. It seems odd to me that you would speak for my atheist neighbors when, in fact, they have already spoken for themselves in more affirming terms.

      If your experience has been more negative; if you have been targeted and condemned by Christians, then I am sorry, and I wish to apologize for my brothers and sisters who acted inappropriately.

      • meredith_beveridge@yahoo.com'
        M commented on November 16, 2015 Reply

        Agreed, none of us can claim we’ve arrived at any conclusion completely rationally. If we accept that reality, we must exhibit humility in expressing our viewpoint, so we cannot say something like “any open-minded, clear-thinking person can see that my argument is sound.” We have to acknowledge that our case is not any more convincing than anyone else’s, and therefore it’s very likely that someone from a different upbringing and culture will reject it for good reasons (the same kind of reasons why we accept it). They are not rejecting the message because they’re “not willing to listen,” close-minded, arrogant, “just want to keep sinning” or any of the other reasons I’ve heard from evangelicals who can’t understand why others don’t buy their arguments.

        I am not speaking for your atheist neighbors, I’m just commenting on the title of this series. The title “loving your neighbor” suggests the content will suggest actions that will be objectively perceived by all as ‘loving.’ Instead, the content is debate points on why the neighbor is wrong. Having held an evangelical viewpoint for decades, I understand that this looks like “loving” from your PoV, but now that I’m on the other side of that equation, I realize it is not experienced as “loving.” So while I enjoyed your posts and the engagement in the comment section, I object to the title as a profane twist on a beautiful concept.

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