11/10/16 Eric about 27
A trend I am seeing in my street conversations is more people claiming to be atheists. How can we share the Gospel if they don't even believe God exists in the first place? In a lengthy conversation, I usually see a certain point that seems to "hit home", and it is different with each person. This is the first of a short series focusing on questions atheists ask me and how we might answer them.
Eric, about 27, was on his way home from his engineering job when he good naturedly agreed to a sidewalk conversation about his beliefs. He was raised Catholic but has been an unbeliever as long as he can remember. It is very important to him to see himself as a moral person, only without a belief in God. He simply believes that if he doesn't hurt anyone and treats others as he would treat himself, he is a good person. What seemed to "hit home" with him in our conversation was an explanation that he is morally bankrupt.
Eric pointed to the many social niceties he does and the ways he helps others. However, he agreed that doing them does not make him a good person, because he should simply do good because it is the right thing to do. It should be expected of us. This is an important point because in his view Christianity is just another way to "earn" God's favor and a better afterlife. But the Bible says that "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them." The key word is "ought". We ought to do good and therefore can't use it to "pay" for the bad things we've done. Eric did not disagree with this passage from James because atheists often claim to "just do good for goodness sake" rather than trying to impress a god.
I asked Eric, as an educated person, what he thought was the reason the Bible would say one is condemned to hell. He thought it was because he didn't go to church or believe the right things. But this makes God and Christianity seem unjust and unfair, especially for those who have never heard the Gospel, and it allows Eric to feel justified for refusing to believe in a god like that. But the focus needs to shift from religious belief to moral behavior. Has Eric gone against his God-given conscience and lied, stole, hurt people with angry words, lusted, etc.? He has, and he agreed he ought not do them. And this is where I explained that he is "morally bankrupt". He can't use the good he ought to do to "pay" for the bad he ought not to do. He is morally bankrupt, and so are we.
I asked Eric if his "Plan B" - the plan he would fall back on should God indeed prove to exist - was to rely on his personal goodness when being judged by God. It was. It gave me a chance to speak of God's love in Christ. Near the end of our lengthy conversation he said "maybe I shouldn't be so closed-minded about the possibility that God does exist." It’s a small concession, but I'm praying it could be the start of a new relationship between Eric and God.