Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Did Jesus ever meet an atheist?

April 25, 2024

Throughout my pastoral ministry, my colleagues and I often worried about atheists. The Russian cosmonauts who claimed they didn’t find God in space were only the tip of the Communist iceberg. Science types wrote books denouncing belief in the Bible. Atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair widely shared her views that many despised. And polling groups published annual results that concluded belief in God was either ascending or descending.

We responded with Easter sermons proving the resurrection and by giving lessons on C.S. Lewis’ Liar, Lunatic or Lord.[i] We challenged people with copies of Josh McDowell’s book “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.” And we embraced the Intelligent Design arguments for God based on the complexity of creation.

Now I’m wondering about all that. Did Jesus ever meet an atheist? He met doubters, demons, opponents, those with misplaced beliefs, and those feeling disqualified. Even the demons were believers (James 2:19). And if Jesus never met an atheist, was it because he avoided them, or they avoided him, or atheists didn’t exist in his day – or could it be that he never saw people that way? And if that is true, what does it say about how we approach evangelism? Are all those logical arguments for God’s existence missing the point?

People “coming out” as atheists usually challenge the faith from two directions: intellectual integrity and/or the problem of suffering. Atheism movements seem to be attracted to the former, debating science and biblical events as well as issues of church and state. In Christianity Today, Stefani McDade noted that a New Atheism movement emerged in the early 2000s, but some have already announced its death. (Apparently, the “old” atheism was more reasoned, and the new version was mostly just angry). Faith and reason have always danced, but at a distance. Faith has always been “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Reasoning only takes us so far.

On the other hand, conversational atheists usually tend more towards anger, finding a belief in God incompatible with suffering in the world. I was taken back by Tim Keller’s article in The Atlantic on the topic of his suffering. He included Charles Taylor’s comment that “until recently no one had concluded that suffering made the existence of God implausible.”  We know that in Jesus’ day, if you suffered, you often assumed it was something for which you or your family were being punished (John 9:2). Disbelieving in God was not a consideration. Claiming atheism based on the problem of suffering is a relatively new phenomenon.

A third basis for atheism may be the agnostics, claiming to be apathetic about the issue. Agnosticism can become “atheism lite,” so to speak. In some ways, this is the toughest group to come to faith, but in fact they seem to have a mustard seed in there, somewhere, if needed or called upon. Keller wrote: “There is a kind of doubt that really is seeking more information…There’s also a kind of doubt that is looking for a way out.” Self-proclaimed agnostics often seem like the latter.

Maybe evangelism doesn’t need to begin at ground zero with proof and evidence, but rather at the point of belief in God that one finds in the other.

The reason this distinction may matter is because it could shape how we do evangelism. Jesus seems to speak as if everyone believed something about God. He seemed to start his conversations from where they were. Maybe evangelism doesn’t need to begin at ground zero with proof and evidence, but rather at the point of belief in God that one finds in the other. In his book The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God, Justin Brierley cautions about “answering yesterday’s objections, rather than engaging with those who are asking a different set of questions altogether.” A recent Barna study concluded that Christians “should not assume they will be met with combative or even contradictory opinions.” Jesus did not see people as atheists, and neither should we. The Barna study notes “Additionally, Christians should expect that non-Christians take matters of faith seriously and personally. While some of their views may seem blurry or befuddling to someone currently practicing Christianity, these beliefs are revealing of non-Christians’ varied backstories, many of which were connected to the Church at some point.”

To be influencers for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our starting points with people might include:

  • PEOPLE’S HISTORY – Did you ever believe in a God? What was that like? When did it turn for you?

In a recent sermon, Rev. Alan Rudnick told the story of meeting an avowed atheist who poured out a litany of reasons for his disbelief. It went on with such intensity that Rudnick listened until the man ran out of steam, and then responded. “You feel very passionately about something that you don’t believe in. Why do you feel so strongly?” At that point the atheist poured out a life story of pain and hurt. It was not atheism as much as anger towards a God he very much believed in, apparently.[ii]

  • ASK ABOUT THE GOD THEY WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH – Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. If there was a God, what would God be like? We may find we don’t believe in that God either.

Twentieth-century minister Harry Emerson Fosdick noted in his book Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed About Religion, “Theologically, such a [person] may say that he does not believe in God, which generally means that he disbelieves in some particular idea of God, but psychologically, there is no escape from this inward, vertical relationship…You see, while philosophically we may doubt God, psychologically we always have a god…”

  • FIND COMMON GROUND AND COMMON DOUBTS – Even committed Christians have potholes in their faith, but that does not disqualify us from sharing the good news we do have. When we talk about the doubts we have in common, we do not endanger the gospel.


  • BE INFLUENCERS – Jesus called disciples to begin by simply following him. We are just one part of what God is doing in each life. You may be the planter or waterer or… (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

Our calling is to go into all the world, to those crying out, “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired in 2021 from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54-56.

[ii] Rev. Dr. Alan Rudnick, DeWitt Community Church, DeWitt, NY, Fall 2023.

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This