Street epistemologists are atheists who try to ‘talk people out of their faith.’ Peter Boghossian in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists described street epistemologists as ‘people equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools who actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community–into any and every place the faith reside–and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.’ (A Manual for Creating Atheists, Peter Boghossian, Pitchstone Publishing, 2013) That’s the reason we recommend Christians be ‘on guard’ and prepare their children and teens to talk with street epistemologists.
We’ve looked at the Five Steps of Faith Defense that come from the world of Self Defense:
Now it’s time to put everything we’ve learned into action.
Responding to Street Epistemologists
We should be ready to respond to street epistemologists and anyone else who wants to talk with us about God, the Bible and Jesus Christ, at any time. Jesus sent His disciples into the world to preach the Gospel to everyone. The Apostle Paul said God has given Christians the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and made us “ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us.” The Apostle Peter said Christians should “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” Every Christians have the obligation and opportunity to talk with people about ’embracing reason and faith.’
With that as our goal, here are 7 Basic Rules for Responding to Street Epistemologists.
#1 – Be in Prayer
Engaging atheists or any non-Christians in a discussion about the supernatural Gospel MUST include engaging in supernatural prayer.
There are at least four prayers Christians should pray as part of talking with non-Christians about the Gospel of Christ.
Prayer 1 – Pray that God will guide you to talk with non-Christians about the Gospel of Christ because He loves them and you love them
Prayer 2 – Pray as you begin talking with non-Christians that God will give you a sharp and nimble mind and the right words to share
Prayer 3 – Pray as you talk with non-Christians that the Holy Spirit does what only He can do in convicting them of sin, righteousness and judgment
Prayer 4 – Pray regularly for the non-Christians after you speak with them that God will draw them to Himself and convince them of His love for them and their need to be reconciled to the God who loves them
“Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving; meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” Colossians 4:2-4
#2 – Be Loving
Jesus placed every encounter between Christians and non-Christians into the proper perspective when He said – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) As ambassadors for Christ we are speaking for Christ and communicating His message to people. Jesus said that message is about God’s love for the world and how He demonstrated His love for the world ‘in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
Love is not an option. If we are going to represent Jesus Christ as ambassadors, we WILL love people because Jesus loves people. What did Jesus mean when He said He loves people? He meant that He loved them so much He would ‘die’ for them–and die He did.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” John 10:11
#3 – Be Confident
We can be confident in the evidence for the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible and that the credibility of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian has nothing to do with closing your eyes and taking some big ‘leap’ of faith. It has everything to do with looking at the substantial amount of historical evidence for Christianity and walking forward boldly in confidence.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
#4 – Be Humble and Kind
You’ve heard the saying, ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ We have every reason to be humbled. Salvation is by grace, not by works. Every Christian is fortunate that God gives us what we do NOT deserve and does not give us what we DO deserve. We who were ‘dead’ in trespasses and sins are now ‘made alive’ in Christ because of God’s love and mercy. Keeping that in mind at all times, we have every reason to be humble and kind as we talk with non-Christians.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” Galatians 5:22
#5 – Be Clear
We need to speak with clarity to people who don’t believe in God. Our speech should be logical, reasonable and rational. Our defense (apologia) should be the best we can present. We are ambassadors for Christ. Our answers and arguments should be clear and concise, leaving no questions unanswered.
“Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Colossians 4:5-6
#6 – Be Patient
Patience is an important aspect of ‘faith defense’. The Apostle Paul said that some people plant and others water, but God gives the increase. The ministry of apologetics is sometimes planting, sometimes watering, but God will bring His Truth to bear on the hearts and minds of unbelievers and lead them to Himself. Trust God, speak the truth in love, and be patient.
“But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” 1 Timothy 6:11-12
#7 – Be Available
One of the things you’ll notice about many of the testimonies of atheists who have become Christians is that someone was ‘available’ to them. Most atheists I know who became followers of Jesus Christ were influenced by one or more people who were loving, kind, knowledgable, patient and available. I remember with great appreciation the availability of Christian apologists in my life as I was investigating the truth claims of the Bible and Christianity. No matter what was going on in their lives, they were always available to spend time with me and answer the hundreds of arguments and questions I threw at them. Be available to your children and teach them the importance of being available to unbelievers, even when it’s not the convenient thing to do.
Communicating with Street Epistemologists
Communication occurs when all parties involved have heard each other, understood each other, and can respond to each other in ways that are both heard and understood. That’s easy to say, but how do we know when we’ve arrived at true communication with another human being? Is it when I say something to someone? Is it when I say something to someone and they say something back to me that sounds like we’re talking about the same thing? Or is it something else entirely?
Christians are called to do many things: love, serve, confess, forgive, pray, submit, speak, represent, preach, teach, admonish, persuade. Our goal is more than someone hearing what we’re saying. Our goal is even more than being heard and understood. Our goal is to represent God and persuade people about God’s message to them (2 Corinthians 5). Persuasion leads to a ‘decision point’ where the person with whom we are communicating makes a decision about what we are saying. Their decision may be to agree with God about their sinfulness before Him and welcome His forgiveness through Christ. Their decision may be to disagree about their sinfulness before God and walk away from His offer of forgiveness through Christ. Their decision may also be to ‘think about it.’
Not everyone we talk to about the Christian worldview is going to agree with us. Jesus explained that beautifully when He explained to His disciples about the parable of the sower. Jesus said that a sower went out to sow see and it fell in four locations: by the wayside, on stony places, among thorns, and on good ground. The Lord told His disciples that some people will hear the ‘word of the kingdom’ and not understand it. Some people will hear the word and immediately receive it with joy, but endure for only a while. Some people will hear the word, but become unfruitful because of the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. Some people will hear the word, understand it, and bear fruit. While Jesus is the original Sower of the Word, we are involved in a similar ministry as His representatives in this world.
In each of those four examples of ‘sowing’ the Gospel, only one group of people heard the ‘word’ and understood it, and those were the people who bore spiritual fruit. However, that’s not the end of the story. Jesus told His disciples another parable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'” Matthew 13:24-30
This reminds us that we have an enemy who is actively involved in opposing our ministry of preaching the Gospel and persuading people to hear, understand and bear fruit. Satan is involved in sabotaging the good work of Christ in the world and will oppose us as well. God allows both wheat and tares to grow up together until the harvest. It is at the great future harvest when God will divide the wheat from the tares: the tares burned and the wheat gathered into ‘my barn.’
Responding to street epistemologists is more than just interesting conversations with people who think differently than us. This is truly a life-and-death matter of eternal significance. We should do our best to represent God in a way that demonstrates the ‘power’ of the Gospel.
“Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are well known to God, and I also trust are well known in your consciences.” 2 Corinthians 5:9-11
With these important aspects of ministry in mind, I’d like to share 4 Basic Methods of Responding to Street Epistemologists based on this idea of communicating with the objective of hearing, understanding and persuading.
# 1 – Ask Questions
When someone says something to you, or in response to something you say to them, it’s natural to want to ‘speak declaratively.’ That’s the process of making a claim or assertion. However, that’s often not the best method for ‘communicating for understanding.’ Asking questions helps bridge the gap between ‘hearing’ and ‘understanding.’
“I heard you say you don’t believe God exists. Why not?”
“I heard you say there’s no evidence for Jesus being a real historical person. Why do you say that?”
“I heard you say that the disciples of Christ were hallucinating when they claimed they all saw Jesus alive after His crucifixion. Why do you say that?”
“I heard you say that you are a Mormon. What does a Mormon believe?”
“I heard you say you believe in ‘karma.’ What is karma?”
Telling a person what you heard them say is an assurance to them that you heard them correctly or is a cue that you misheard them. If they think you misheard them, they can restate their point and you can repeat it to assure that your question is appropriate to the context and meaning of their statement. Based on how they respond to your question, you may have comments or follow-up questions.
The key in asking questions is to understand what the person you are speaking with means by what they said. If they mean one thing and you think they mean another, your conversation will probably go in a bad direction. Asking questions will help you know that you are responding to what someone really believes. The love of God will guide you in asking the right questions.
Another reason for asking questions is to get to the root of why people say what they do. Here are examples of some common objections. Think about what questions you might ask in each situation. Keep in mind that the purpose of asking questions is to deepen the communication.
Atheist – “Christians are just stupid to believe the Bible.”
Christian – “Why do you believe that?”
Atheist – “Because they are.”
Christian – “I understand that you think Christians are stupid to believe the Bible, but what brought you to that conclusion?”
Atheist – “A loving God would never let people suffer.”
Christian – “Why not?”
Atheist – “Suffering is bad, so anyone who would allow suffering is bad.”
Christian – “How do you define ‘love’ and suffering’?”
Atheist – “Christians are judgmental?”
Christian – “Is that your judgment of Christians?”
Atheist – “I’m not judging anybody. Christians are the ones who judge.”
Christian – “How do you define judging?”
Atheist – “There is no absolute truth.”
Christian – “Is that true?”
Atheist – “Of course it’s true!”
Christian – “If, as you say, there is no absolute truth, how can you support the truthfulness of your statement?
Atheist – “Christians are intolerant people and they frustrate me.”
Christian – “Are you being tolerant of Christians?”
Atheist – “Of course I am! It’s Christians who are intolerant.”
Christian – “How do you define tolerance?”
Atheist – “Jesus never existed. He’s a myth.”
Christian – “How do you know that?”
Atheist – “Everybody knows that! Christians made up Jesus.”
Christian – “Do you have evidence that Christians ‘made up’ Jesus?”
Atheist – “I do.”
Christian – “I’d love to go through the evidence with you.”
The purpose of asking the questions in these scenarios is to find out why the atheist believes what he believes and move from confrontation to communication. Asking the right questions at the right time in a discussion can lead to deep communication that results in people realizing the powerful evidences for believing in God and the Christian worldview.
# 2 – Answer Questions
A good conversation will include questions from everyone involved. It is a demonstration of true engagement in a discussion and helps ensure a fair exchange of ideas. If you are talking with someone about spiritual matters for several minutes and notice that the person has not asked you any questions, stop for a moment and see what questions they may have for you.
“Thank you for answering my questions. Do you have any questions for me?”
If the person has no questions for you, it may be because they are not engaged in the discussion, think they understand what you mean, or that their opposition to your position is so intense they do not want to know what you mean. Ask them a question to find out what questions they may have for you.
“I’m curious what questions you have for me.”
The goal is to build the best communication possible with people. Each party asking and answering questions for understanding is an excellent way of doing that.
It almost goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), answer the questions asked of you to the best of your ability. If you are not sure of how to answer someone’s question, be honest and let them know you will think about it and get back with them. Christians should be interested in knowing and speaking truth, so there’s no reason fudging an answer when you’re not sure.
# 3 – Speak Truth
Christians believe they know the truth. Jesus said He is the Truth, so anything a Christian believes must be the truth since all Christians know Jesus. Right? That wasn’t even true during the early years of Christianity, so we know it’s probably as bad or worse today.
Something I hear a lot when talking with atheists about Christianity is how can they believe anything we say when we don’t even agree with each other (Christians with Christians). Good point. If we’re going to be involved in representing God on earth, we need to know what’s true about Christianity.
Speaking the truth means we have to ‘know’ the truth before we speak it. I recommend that Christians who want to be involved in an apologetics/evangelism/discipleship ministry should have a good understanding of the truth from ‘primary’ texts. That includes the writings of the prophets and apostles and people who trained with the apostles. The idea of a ‘primary’ text is that it was written during the time under study. If you want to know what Christians believed and practiced during the 1st century AD, read the writings of Christians who lived during the 1st century AD (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James, Paul, Clement of Rome). I’ve also found it helpful to read the writings of Christians who lived during the 2nd century AD to see what they believed and practiced as well (e.g. Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr).
# 4 – Reason with Logic
Christians are often accused of being ‘unreasonable’ and ‘illogical’ in the way they think and the way they speak. Unfortunately, those accusations are sometimes true. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Jesus is called the ‘logos’ (word, reason) of God (John 1:1). The idea of the Greek word logos is of a collecting or collection of thoughts in the mind that are expressed in words. It’s the process of reasoning in the mind first, followed by speech.
The Apostle Paul was said to have ‘reasoned’ with people as he shared the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ. Using logic and reason was one of Paul’s primary methods for ‘persuading’ people in many contexts about the Gospel of Christ.
“Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” Acts 17:2-3
“And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks.” Acts 18:4
“And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.” Acts 19:8-10
“And after some days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, “Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.” Acts 24:24-25
“Now as he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!’ But he said, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason. For the king, before whom I also speak freely, knows these things; for I am convinced that none of these things escapes his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner. Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian.’ And Paul said, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains.” Acts 26:24-29
Study the words of Jesus Christ and His apostles to see how they used logic and reason as they talked with people, especially people who opposed them. Also study the writings of Christian apologists during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD when Christians were undergoing extreme persecution and the writings of current Christian apologists and those from the past 100 years. Watch how they build logical arguments for the Christian worldview and reason with non-Christians.
# 5 – Finish with Hope
The Gospel of Christ is a message of ‘hope.’ The early Christians included that message in their communication with non-Christians. The Apostle Paul told Governor Felix that he had ‘hope in God’ that there will be a ‘resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.’ (Acts 24:15). Paul told Christians that the ‘riches of glory’ of the Gospel message was “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27) ‘Paul referred to ‘hope’ more than 40 times in his letters to churches and Christian leaders. It was a primary theme for the apostle.
The Apostle Peter spoke of the ‘living hope’ Christians have ‘through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ Peter called that hope ‘an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5). Peter also told Christians to be ready to give a defense (apologia – reasoned answer) “to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15) The context of the ‘hope’ Christians have to give a reasoned defense is because of the ‘resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’
The Apostle John, writing in the context of the future resurrection of Christians because of the past resurrection of Christ, wrote that “everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)
Christians are a ‘people of hope’ and should therefore be hopeful. Demonstrating that hope should always be an important part of our sharing the Gospel message with non-believers. The hope that we experience now ‘can be’ their hope as well.
Keep in mind that good communication involves much more than following a formula or format. You are doing far more than just (1) asking a question, (2) answering a question, (3) speaking truth, (4) reasoning with logic, and (5) finishing with hope. You are ‘communicating’ at the deepest level possible .. mind to mind, heart to heart, soul to soul, life to life. There is no more important communication than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is truly ‘life changing.’
Putting It All Together
7 Basic Rules for Responding to Street Epistemologists
#1 – Be in Prayer
#2 – Be Loving
#3 – Be Confident
#4 – Be Humble and Kind
#5 – Be Clear
#6 – Be Patient
#7 – Be Available
5 Basic Methods for Responding to Street Epistemologists
# 1 – Ask Questions
# 2 – Answer Questions
# 3 – Speak Truth
# 4 – Reason with Logic
# 5 – Finish with Hope
Completing the Circle
Let me complete the circle we began several months ago. We responded initially to comments by Peter Boghossian and other street epistemologists about the goal of street epistemology being to ‘talk people out of their faith.’ Dr. Boghossian tweeted about our article (Breaking Down Street Epistemology) and we heard from many street epistemologists who questioned us about our thoughts concerning defending the Christian worldview. That led to this special series about understanding what street epistemologists are doing, why they are doing it and how Christian parents can prepare their children and teens to talk with atheists about Christianity. Bottom line: be on guard.
[Click here to download a 145-page FREE Ebook of the completed series about Street Epistemologists .. useful for families, small group studies, churches and schools]
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.