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In His Image and Likeness: How I Evangelize Atheists

In my April 6 post, “The Clothes Have No Emperor,"I offered one illustration of how I evangelize those who doubt or deny the existence of God.

In upcoming posts I want to expand on this with further illustrations. But first, given that the approach I take is quite different from the classic “proofs for the existence of God" approach, I’d like to take a step back and explain my rationale for evangelizing in this manner.

The question: When we engage in reasoning about God, when we share our faith with someone who doesn’t believe, who are we talking to?

I don’t mean who specifically are we talking to—i.e., is it Fred or is it Ethel? And I don’t mean who do Fred or Ethel believe themselves to be. My good friend Fred may have no clue: “What are you talking about? I’m a husband and father. I do my best to be a good person. What else do you want to know?" If my good friend Ethel is a thoughtful atheist, she may respond, “Well, essentially I’m a product of nature. I’m a highly evolved biochemical machine, the result of impersonal physical laws operating over time in an impersonal material universe.”

The question I’m asking here is different than that. What I’m asking is: who do we as Christians believe Fred and Ethel to be?

When you or I sit down over a cup of coffee to discuss the truth of God’s existence and the Christian worldview, what sort of being are we talking to? What does Scripture teach us about the answer to this question?

1. We’re talking to someone who is the image and likeness of God, a mirror of God’s being.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’" (Gen. 1:26).

What does it mean to be in the image and likeness of God? Is it that in our ability to reason we reflect the rational nature of God? Is it that in our moral sense we mirror the moral character of God? Is it our desire and capacity to create? Our free will? Our self-consciousness? All of the above?

I believe a key to understanding the meaning of Genesis 1:26 can be found a mere four chapters later, where we read of Adam becoming “the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3).

Interesting. Our children bear our image and likeness. They’re like us. In their being and nature they are reflections of what we are in our being and nature. What can our creation in the image and likeness of God mean, then, but that we are, by creation, sons and daughters of God?

Jesus the eternal Son of God, Scripture tells us, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). In him we have the image and likeness of God to perfection. This is what we’re created to be and need to become in Christ. It’s our destiny as believers to be remolded by the Holy Spirit into the perfect image of Christ.

Now, hold your breath, and compare this to the description of the human person given by atheist biologist Francis Crick in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis:

[Y]ou, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Here’s where evangelism starts. Whatever the person we’re talking to believes about himself or herself, what we believe is that we’re not talking to a mere biochemical machine—we’re talking to someone who is the very image and likeness of God, a son or daughter of God by creation.

2. We’re talking to someone who lives in a world that in a million ways evidences God’s existence and nature.

Again, this is the clear and consistent teaching of Scripture.

We see this in Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. / Day to day pours forth speech, / and night to night declares knowledge. / There is no speech, nor are there words; / their voice is not heard; / yet their voice goes out through all the earth, / and their words to the end of the world.

Of course, those who doubt or deny the existence of God will dispute this. Richard Dawkins will talk his Blink Watcher and how the universe doesn’t in any way give evidence of a Creator. Fine.

At this point my concern is not about what atheists believe but about what we as Christians believe: that creation speaks of God’s existence and nature (“The heavens are telling the glory of God; / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork”), that it speaks of God continually (“Day to day pours forth speech, / and night to night declares knowledge”), and that the message reaches every person (“There is no speech, nor are there words; / their voice is not heard; / yet their voice goes out through all the earth, / and their words to the end of the world”).

And whether or not one accepts this as true—certainly the atheist doesn’t—everyone ought to agree that the idea is internally coherent.

Even as it makes basic intuitive sense to think that a building evidences the existence of its designer, a piece of music its composer, a painting its painter, a book its author, so it makes basic intuitive sense to think that if God exists, and if he created, as Nehemiah said, “heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them” (9:6)—well, it makes basic sense that creation would evidence his existence.

And because God does exist and did create, and creation does evidence this, when we share our faith in God—and this is profoundly important to understand:

3. We’re talking to someone who in his or her heart of hearts already knows Who we’re talking—someone who really cannot escape knowing God.

As St. Paul writes in Romans 1:19-20:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

In other words, according to Scripture, here’s the situation of the one who doubts or denies the existence of God: if he looks at the created order, he’s confronted by the awesome complexity and majesty and beauty of all that has been made. If he looks in the mirror, he sees God’s reflection, because he is himself the image and likeness of God. If he interacts with others—his wife, children, friends, strangers—there again, he meets the face of God. Everywhere he looks “what can be known about God is plain to him.”

In other words, what we believe is that human beings really cannot escape knowing God. It is a knowledge that is etched into our very being.

4. We’re talking to someone who already desires relationship with God, someone who’s been looking for God all of his or her life.

This is one of the first truths elaborated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and I think one of the most important we can ever come to understand about ourselves and others:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for (CCC 27).

St. Augustine said it like this: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."

Jesus said it like this: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me” (John 7:37).

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. If the atheist is correct that nothing exists but the natural order (no God or gods, no human soul, no spirits of any kind) and that you and I are in every aspect of our being the products of nature—evolved within nature and utterly one with nature—why have the vast majority of people throughout history believed in God and desired to know him?

If there is no God, it would be “natural" to not believe in God and to not care one bit about the subject. Imagine a fish, evolved in water, its entire existence lived within a universe of water, possessing a deep desire to fly in a sky it knows not of.

In the same way, if we human beings are as “one with nature” as an apple hanging on a tree, or a fish swimming through the sea, or a bird soaring through the sky, why (and how) would we evolve a belief in God? Why (and how) would we evolve the desire for heaven? Why do we seem so entirely not one with nature?

Actually, it seems that what is “natural" is belief in God. What seems “natural" is to believe that we’ve come from somewhere, not from nowhere.

Conclusion

To sum up then: with whom are we dealing when we sit down to discuss the existence of God? We’re dealing with someone who lives in world that cries out God’s existence, someone who in every aspect of his or her being is a living, breathing advertisement for God and who at some level already knows the God we’re talking about. We’re dealing with someone who was created for a loving relationship with this God and who is looking for that relationship, regardless of whether he or she is conscious of the fact.

As Chesterton (or someone like him) is famously said to have said, “The man who knocks at the door of a brothel is looking for God.” On the deepest level, this is what your friend wants.

So what does this have to do with evangelism?

For me, remembering whom I’m talking to helps me be conscious of the spirit with which the talking ought to be done. But it also guides me in the very approach I take with those who doubt or deny the existence of God.

Since I believe my friend knows he’s more than a mere biological machine who has come from nowhere and is going nowhere, what I do is attempt to remind him of this—gently, respectfully—by leading him to think about what would be true if he really was nothing more than a biological machine.

For instance, what if the universe really was what Richard Dawkins insists it is—a universe in which there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference?” What would the implication be for the meaning of life? What would the implication be for morality, for human worth and dignity, for human rights, for our sense of ourselves as persons, for free will, for the possibility of knowledge? What would the implications be?

As I raise these questions and draw out the answers in living color, my hope is that the image my atheist friend sees before him will be of a universe he doesn’t want and realizes he doesn’t truly believe in.

My hope is that the logical implications of what he says he believes as an atheist will so contradict what he as the image and likeness of God knows to be true, it will cause him to think again.

In my next post, I’ll illustrate what I’m talking about.

Written By Kenneth Hensley









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2 comments

  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    As an agnostic, I assume most of this applies to me as well. Let’s see, I’m a being created similar to God in being and nature – actually no; I wouldn’t kick the kids out for listening to a snake, I wouldn’t drown the entire world, I wouldn’t order genocide, I wouldn’t command the killing of thousands of innocents, I wouldn’t condone slavery, racism, sexism and homophobia – no… I am not in the image and likeness of God. Thank God for that! (That was a joke).
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    I live in a world that evidences God’s existence and nature – but I have no objective evidence for this God. All that evidence is subjective and most of it originates with so-called holy men living celibate, virgin lives while hiding in robes. The author speaks of the need for a designer for music, buildings, paintings, etc. but this begs the question – if complex things need a designer, who designed the designer?
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    I part slightly from atheists perhaps as I certainly doubt the existence of God, given the total lack of objective evidence, but I don’t deny it. I don’t know. Neither, as best I can tell, does anyone else. Certainly nobody else can prove it, and if they can, they’re keeping it to themselves.
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    The author says, “For instance, what if the universe really was what Richard Dawkins insists it is—a universe in which there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference?" What would the implication be for the meaning of life? What would the implication be for morality, for human worth and dignity, for human rights, for our sense of ourselves as persons, for free will, for the possibility of knowledge? What would the implications be?”
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    Those are excellent questions, and the answer is that we have to determine the answers ourselves without relying on primitive campfire stories, myths and legends. Our lives have whatever meaning we give them. If we knew that this was all we got, would we live life more fully knowing there are no second chances? If we knew we were never going to see our loved ones again, would we be more drawn to having closer relationships with them in this life? Would we establish moral codes that promote fairness and justice, rather than inequality, prejudice and discrimination and hostility to the other, which are the earmarks of religion? Yes, these are great questions, and atheists and agnostics think about them too. The real question is – can we face the truth? The one truth, that supersedes every other truth is this: When it comes to gods and afterlives, We Do Not Know. That should be our starting point.

  2. Tom Rafferty Reply

    You said, “We’re dealing with someone who lives in world that cries out God’s existence, someone who in every aspect of his or her being is a living, breathing advertisement for God and who at some level already knows the God we’re talking about. We’re dealing with someone who was created for a loving relationship with this God and who is looking for that relationship, regardless of whether he or she is conscious of the fact.”

    If you think our world cries out God’s existence, you had best be ready to defend that position. Also, if THIS is your basic assumption about atheists, you are going to approach “us” from a very ignorant, ill-informed position.

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