The Atheist's (Estranged) Relationship With God

    What does it mean when the Bible claims that your non-Christian family members, neighbors, and co-workers know God (Romans 1:21)? Is Paul off his rocker? Certainly Paul could not have been thinking about your uncle who believes the Bible is a fairytale and has lived with his girlfriend for years. Paul’s cultural context must have been a religious monolith, where everybody was a Christian, at least to some degree, right? Certainly not. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! 

    Paul, as a Christian missionary in the first century Roman Empire, regularly confronted systems of belief that were in opposition to his own (Acts 14:10-23; 17:18-34). In the same context where Paul says that non-Christians know the Christian God (Romans 1:21), he speaks about those very same individuals reveling in idolatry (1:23, 25), sexual immorality (26, 27), intellectual folly (21), violence (29), and complicity (32). How could Paul have claimed that those individuals knew God?

    Here is what Paul would say about your (and my) unbelieving family and friends (even those sassy atheists): They stand in genuine relationship to God, but that relationship is one of enmity and strife. This shouldn’t be anything new for biblically-minded Christians. The third chapter of Genesis teaches that all of humanity fell into an estate of sin and misery when Adam broke the initial covenant agreement in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:11-13, 23; 1 Corinthians 15:22).

    After the Garden, did humanity cease to be in relationship to God entirely? Not at all. To say so would be like claiming that a divorced couple, who had lived and raised children together, possesses no remaining relationship. Our society rightly uses the terminology of “ex-husband” or “ex-wife" to describe these kinds of situations. The former spouses still have a relationship, but it is a broken relationship. In the same way, Paul can speak of every human being as one who knows God but who does “not honor him as God” (Romans 1:21; see also Acts 17:27-30). To be a Christian is to be in a restored relationship with God through Christ. Those individuals who abide outside of that restored relationship in Christ, remain covenant breakers in Adam (Romans 5:15-19).

    The idea that individuals are either in a restored or a broken relationship with God provides the context for Paul's claim, "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Rom. 1:21). If this is all true, how does it affect the way that we, as Christians, should do evangelism and apologetics?

Three practical points of application to consider: 

1.) You can have confidence in the relevance of the gospel. The good news that God has brought a way of reconciliation between God and sinful humans (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) applies to all of humanity, without exception (Acts 17:30-31).

2.) Your mission as a messenger of the gospel is not primarily to convince, but to proclaim. We often think that the only route to conversion is through a rational procedure — Step One: be convinced of general theism, Step Two: be convinced of the historicity of the resurrection, Step Three: be convinced of the general trustworthiness of the New Testament, Step Four: fall in love with the resurrected Jesus who inspired the writers of the New Testament, Step Five: become a card carrying Christian who repents and believes on Christ. Now yes, this is occasionally how things progress. But, it is often not the way people come to faith, as is the case in every conversion recorded in the New Testament (example: Acts 16:25-34). Our primary source of confidence as evangelists must be the Word of God, not our rational argumentation (though argument has its place as a handmaiden or servant to Scripture in our evangelism and apologetics).

3.) You can show more compassion (instead of frustration) toward your unbelieving friends and family members if they are simply not convinced by your reasoning and don’t accept the gospel that you proclaim. This compassion should flow from your empathetic understanding that sin deadens the heart and mind to spiritual truth (Romans 1:20-22). This was your situation before you came to know the grace of God in Christ. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4, 5).

Recommended Reading

  1. Why Should I Believe Christianity by James N. Anderson
  2. Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day by John Leonard
  3. Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint 

Pastor Scott