A number of years ago I received an email from Justin Bosch who was sponsoring a screening of the film, The God Who Wasn’t There at the historic Oriental Theater in Northwest Denver. Mr. Bosch screens films related to media reform and social ethics, but on this occasion, he was venturing into the religious deep. Since the film is very critical of Christianity—claiming that Jesus never existed and that Christians are dangerous simpletons—he wanted to give some response time to a Christian as well as to an atheist. So, at the last minute it was arranged that Will Providence, a local atheist of the Objectivist stripe (a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophy), and I would make some brief comments after the film and then answer questions.

The God Who Wasn't There Movie Art

Although I seldom participate in highly-charged public forums with little notice, I was interested in doing this because, without me. there would have been no Christian response. Further, I was familiar with the basic arguments of the film and was able to mine quite a bit of material on it and the producer online prior to the event.

The event nearly filled the theater. The first half hour or so was taken up by an audio presentation of a comedian who recounted her loss of Catholic faith and her turn to atheism. It was the most uncharitable presentation of the teaching of the Bible I had ever heard in one sitting. The Old Testament is nothing more than a moral mess. Jesus isn’t as nice as she thought. After all, he was impatient with his disciples, and so on. The Catholic priest who taught her the Bible was a fideist who said she had to have faith and that he would pray she had faith. That was not good enough, and eventually, “God disappeared” for this poor soul.

A 62-Minute Affront to Honesty in Documentaries

The best thing about The God Who Wasn’t There is that it was mercifully short: sixty-two minutes. The film advances the solidly refuted claim that Christianity was started by Paul who invented a Jesus out of whole cloth—the cloth of mystery religions. There are so many inaccuracies that I don’t know where to begin, so I won’t. However, Mike Licona has written a long and thorough piece on the movie. Christians were presented as rapture-bedazzled nincompoops who wanted to take over America and persecute as many infidels as possible.

A Christian and Atheist Respond

After this torment was over, Will and I took the stage before about 125 people. I made an opening statement that focused on the films three basic arguments (if I can so dignify such propaganda):

  1. The claim that mystery religions influenced our understanding of Jesus
  2. The claim that Christianity leads to persecution
  3. The claim that Christianity is intrinsically irrational

Will spoke for just a few minutes on what atheism meant to him. It wasn’t much of an argument for a debate, however. He did not address the film at all. We then took questions from the audience for about 45 minutes. Most of the questions were aimed at me.

The audience was largely made up atheists, it seemed, although a few Christian friends attended. I infer this because when Will or a questioner made a point against Christianity or God, people tended to applaud.

I would sometimes interact directly with Will—a young and presentable Iranian man in law school—but he didn’t have much of substance to say except that he based his philosophy on reason and not faith. He also made positive allusions to Saint Ayn Rand.

The questions—or sometimes just accusations against Christianity—related to issues such as the concept of truth, the supposed sexism of the Bible, hell, and so on. They really started piling on about hell at the end. In some cases, people would yell things from the audience instead of going to the microphone. When I presented an egalitarian account of gender relations (with ample reference to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s books), someone yelled, “Read Paul!” I have, amazingly enough, and he was no sexist.

Presenting Christianity with Confidence

This was easily the most hostile group (of Atheists) I have ever addressed in thirty-six years of public speaking.

This was easily the most hostile group I have ever addressed in thirty-six years of public speaking. I spoke after an hour and half of anti-Christian propaganda and was on stage with an atheist before an audience of many atheists. Nevertheless, I think my opening comments refuted important claims in the film—I needed several hours to respond to all the errors, many of which were absolute howlers—and I attempted to fairly and calmly respond to all the questioners. I was not stumped by any of the questions or comments, but I always wanted to say more; I am a professor, after all. I tried to give Will ample time to respond, but he often wanted to move on to the next questioner. He seemed quite nervous. At several points, I was able to present the essential gospel message, once in response to a question on hell: Jesus came to save us from that fate.

I hope that people who attended this event will post comments. You are better judges of me than I am, and you may be able to add your own observations of the event as a whole.

Nevertheless, I offer a few reflections. I solicited widespread prayer for this, which is my custom (and was the apostle Paul’s custom as well). This makes a tremendous difference. Despite the antagonistic crowd, I did not feel threatened or panicked. Several questioners wanted to back me into a fideist corner, but I never said that Christianity was without reason or evidence. I provided arguments and no subjective testimony or “I just know that I know in my knower.” The caricature was applied because most Christians do not give reasons for their faith, even though they are commanded to do so in the Bible (1 Peter 3:15). A philosopher defending Christianity as rational probably blew some of their materialist circuits.

It was heartening to talk with several people afterward who seemed to be genuinely interested in Christianity. One of the co-owners of the theater was very enthusiastic about having me there and complimented me on my ability to respond reasonably to questions. He had probably never seen such a thing before. I hope to follow up with him. I also received an email from a man who is an agnostic who would like to interact with me.

A Call for Thoughtful Christian Engagement

My final blast is this (although I’ve said it a thousand times): We need more thoughtful and well-informed Christians in the marketplace of ideas, even in the hot spots. As Os Guinness has stated, most of American Christian evangelism is aimed at those who are already very interested in Christianity but don’t know how to become Christians. This leaves out a vast number of souls who are hostile to Christianity or have no interest in it at all. We are called by Jesus Christ to engage these people as well.

Many attending that night had never heard a thoughtful defense of Christianity. This is both sad and wrong. Christians should know what they believe and why they believe it. As they grow in their confidence that Christianity is amply supported by reason and evidence, they should likewise grow in their courage for the Christian witness. The stakes are too high to be ignorant or cowardly.

free-28min-video-of-apologetics

 

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Constructive Curmudgeon blog in March of 2006. Permission to reprint with a number of alternations has been provided by the author, Dr. Groothuis.

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    18 replies to "Spending an Evening with Atheists"

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      “When I presented an egalitarian account of gender relations (with ample reference to Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’s books)”

      Hopefully, that was your only flaw in your defense of the hope that you have in Jesus Christ.

      Thanks for sharing your experience that evening.

    • James

      As a relatively new Atheist (who was not at this showing) it is kind of shocking to see the hostility in Atheist groups. It is shocking to me because of the hostility I’ve seen in Christian groups as well and I would have thought people who hated that would try not to be hostile as well.

      I went to a talk one time by Frank Turek where at the Q&A a teenage kid who was an Atheist had a pretty good discussion going with Mr. Turek. But it wasn’t good enough for the Christians in the audience who started yelling things. It was ridiculous. At a kid for crying out loud.

      But I know that the secular group I go to has mentioned that in the past with another group a Christian came and spoke and fielded questions and I guess the arguments got ugly there as well (on the Atheist’s side).

      Since I’ve become an Atheist I have been yelled at and condescended to by Christians. But by far the worst is being ignored by Christian friends who just do not know what to say. So as a member of the Atheist community I thank you for taking the time to speak at this event.

      • a.

        As a relatively new Atheist it is kind of shocking to see the hostility in Atheist groups. It is shocking to me because of the hostility I’ve seen in Christian groups as well

        Agreed James.

        Atheist hostility understandable – because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God Romans 8:7

        Christian hostility not so understandable –for we were formerly alienated and hostile in mind yet He (Jesus) has now reconciled us and having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.—Col 1:21-22; Rom 5:10

        we ambassadors for Christ beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God; there is salvation in no one else (but Jesus) for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. 2 Cor 5:20; Acts 4:12

        • James

          This is an insanely insulting comment. To claim that the default nature of the atheist is hostile and the default nature of the Christian is not.

          Reverse that and how do you feel? If someone were to make the claim that the default nature of Christians is hostility?

          Treat others like you want to be treated for crying out loud!

    • josef

      Haven’t you heard that a Rock can taste like fruit when boiled write type name on it then wait for it.
      A atheist can kill your faith but can’t be resurrected
      A friend

    • Jimmy

      I get the feeling that parchment and pen needed some content so this was dug up from a visit to a showing of the rather odd looking movie from several years back. It seemed thrown together (IMO).

      I’m an atheist (6 years or so now) and I do find it sad that the christian at the event was mistreated, there is no excuse for that. Being a non-believer, I certainly think that the statement “Atheist hostility understandable – because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God Romans 8:7 ” is a completely nonsensical and unprovable statement. I don’t feel hostile towards any imaginary beings at all, I do feel rather hostile towards what these beliefs cause to happen and how religion has twisted the minds of otherwise good human beings. That being said, I’ve certainly been treated poorly by Christians, as has my wife and children. I don’t really think I can blame a religion for it though, I can only blame the people that are crappy. I know plenty of nice Christians who are kind and completely understanding that their beliefs are not well supported by evidence so they tend to take a live and let live and “we’ll see in the end” approach. I’m thankful for those people. I do know some atheists that are not very kind as well. I suspect they have anger for what their past beliefs caused them to think and do, I know I was pretty angry for a while and I didn’t give Christians a chance to be kind individuals before I lumped them into hateful believers.

      I have seen this movie show up in the netflix list before, but I didn’t take the time to watch it, maybe I’ll go back and take a look.

    • Glenn Shrom

      One of the problems I have seen with so many debates in general, is the inability to stick to the announced topic. I am glad both of you had the chance to speak your mind on so many things, but it seems to me that order should keep you both on the rails of discussing this one film.

      I’ve been to intelligent design debates, where instead of discussing whether or not there is evidence of intelligent design, they discussed how old the earth is and why God didn’t make things in a way that would remain perfect forever. Never mind that millions of people believe humans use intelligence to design things and we don’t make everything perfect the first time around. It’s a fair question for theology, but not if we simply claim to see signs of intelligence.

      Another debate I saw was about the Catholic Mass, whether or not it is a propitiatory sacrifice. It was very interesting, but they often strayed from the topic to discuss general differences between Catholics and Protestants, differences that were tangential to the question at hand, such as eternal security. There are Christians on both sides of eternal security who don’t see the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice; why are we mixing topics? Just because the same person who likes Ford also likes Starbucks doesn’t mean that a debate about cars should be linked to tastes in coffee.

      Political debates are sometimes the worst, where candidates get up and have an agenda to go through all their talking points for the campaign, regardless of what the questions are.

    • Seth R.

      I’m going to make an observation as a Mormon here.

      I’ve gotten the hatred from both ends. I’ve had hatred from Evangelical counter-cultists telling me I’m going to burn in hell. And I’ve had anger from atheists telling me I’m part of a misogynistic, brainwashed, racist cult (which is basically their way of saying the same thing).

      And I’ve had years of online exposure to both. So I’m sitting in a pretty good place to venture an opinion on which group is the most hateful, the most unreasonable, and the most uncharitable.

      It’s the atheists – hands down.

      At least a Bible-bashing Evangelical usually has limits beyond which he or she will not go. Restrictions on “Christian” behavior that can be appealed to. The atheist online seems to have no such limits. There is no restriction on how nasty, vile, and unfair and atheist will get with you online. I’ve been told to “choke on your own f%&# and die in a fire” and it wasn’t an Evangelical telling me that. It was an atheist. The people calling for my prophet to be dragged out of his office in handcuffs, for my church to have its tax exemptions removed, and calling my raising of my own children in my faith “child abuse” are not Evangelicals. They’re atheists.

      Now, obviously – there are nice Evangelicals online and nice atheists online. That should be obvious without saying. But if you want to know, from a guy who’s been abused by BOTH Christians and atheists, which one is nastier.

      It’s the atheists – by a country mile.

    • Seth R.

      Just to subscribe…

    • Seth R.

      Why isn’t my lengthier comment posting?

      • Jimmy

        The comment system on this blog are notoriously flawed..

        • Seth R.

          Well, I just wanted to say that as a Mormon with extensive experience being treated hostilely by BOTH Evangelicals and atheists online – the atheists are hands-down the more nasty group. It’s not even close.

          • Jimmy

            Agreed, all Christians shouldn’t be judged by the actions of some and all Atheist shouldn’t be judged by the actions of some either. Can’t we all just get along :>

    • Jason

      I suppose that the biggest problem with that is that if atheism is true there’s no standard by which to judge anyone’s behaviour. If someone wants to be polite and civil great but if they don’t there’s nothing you can hold them too.
      If a Christian is behaving badly you can at least hold up admonitions to be gracious from Paul and others whereupon the offender has to explain themselves. The atheist? Not so much.

      • James

        so what you are saying is that when Jesus said “Judge not…” He meant “Believe in me so that you can judge all you want”?

        I have found this type of Christianity gives morality a bad name. It treats morality as existing solely to judge others based on your own standards and interpretations.

        I can be frustrated with someone else’s behavior not because it is “morally wrong” and thus making me feel “righteous” (which accomplishes nothing). I can be frustrated because those people are behaving in such a way that they would not want someone else treating them. Or I can be frustrated because it prevents the conversation from moving forward.

        But if Chrisitianity is shown to be true because it allows its members to judge others…. There is a disconnect there.

        • Jeff

          James,

          I don’t think that is what Jason is saying. Since a Christian claims to adhere to an absolute standard, you can point out to the rude Christian that his/her behavior is incompatible with the Christian faith. Atheism, on the other hand, has no absolute standard. Each atheist can decide his/her own standard of morality so you can’t point to a rude atheist and say, “You are failing to live up to the atheist standard.” Rudeness may be perfectly acceptable to that particular atheist.

          To further illustrate, you state that you can be frustrated because people aren’t behaving in a way that they would want others to behave toward them. That is based on your own moral view that people *ought* to treat others the way they want to be treated (I happen to completely agree with you). However, you have no real reason to expect others to have the same value system as you. With no absolute standard, “treat others however you want” and “treat others as you want to be treated” are equally valid moral frameworks.

          From a purely naturalistic perspective, “treat others however you want” probably makes more sense. Why should I care about others if I’m only going to be on this earth for 80 years or so? I may as well make my life as pleasurable as possible while I’m around. If the whole thing falls apart after I’m gone, it won’t impact me one way or the other.

          Of course, none of this is to say that atheists are inherently immoral because they don’t believe in an absolute standard. I know many moral atheists and immoral theists.

          • James

            Jeff,

            I 100% appreciate your response and for acknowledging that there is no “atheist” standard or dogma when it comes to morality and that this does not necessarily make them immoral. Thank you.

            I want to hit on a couple things you said
            “you have no real reason to expect others to have the same value system as you”
            I think this is very telling of a Christian perspective and falls completely in line with what I was saying above. Do you feel you have a reason to expect others to have the same value system as you? Why? What is the difference between your reaction to someone who has a different value system as you and “judgement”?

            “From a purely naturalistic perspective, “treat others however you want” probably makes more sense. Why should I care about others if I’m only going to be on this earth for 80 years or so? I may as well make my life as pleasurable as possible while I’m around. If the whole thing falls apart after I’m gone, it won’t impact me one way or the other.”
            From a purely naturalistic perspective “treat others however you want” makes zero sense and has been written about extensively by biologists and zoologists. Species who work together tend to thrive. But here is a simplistic example. Say I do whatever I want to who ever I want when ever I want. And the guy next door to me gets that 80 inch TV I’ve been wanting, so I go over there and take it. But if I live my life that way, why should I not expect him to do the same thing to me? So he comes after me to take my stuff as well. We just descend into anarchy. Instead he and I come together and agree not to steal each other’s stuff and work to protect one another’s. Not because some deity said so but because we recognize that we’ll both live easier lives for it. So then some cheat comes along and disrupts our happy lives by trying to steal our stuff. But because we have convinced others in our community to protect each other’s stuff they have a much harder time of it.

            “Treat others how you want to be treated” and “treat others how ever you want” are Not equally valid and produce extremely different results. Societies of people who act in the latter do not grow or thrive and eventually die out. Societies of people who do the former end up working together and grow and spread.

            Again, these types of altruistic behaviors in nature have been written and talked about Extensively. I would really encourage you to look into it.

            From a purely naturalistic perspective “treat others how you want to be treated” makes perfect sense for humanity. That’s why people before Jesus and after Jesus have been saying it

            • Jeff

              James,

              I’m very sorry for the long delay in responding. I was out of town and, frankly, enjoyed time away from the computer!

              A few responses to your responses:

              “Do you feel you have a reason to expect others to have the same value system as you? Why? ”
              This is not a simple yes/no answer. I do not *expect* others to have the same value system in the sense that I think the values I adhere to ought to be intuitively followed by all mankind. My value system is rooted in my beliefs and, even within the religion that has developed around following Christ, there are variations in belief. People with different belief structures have different value systems. For this reason, I do not expect people to have the same value system.

              However, that is not the same as saying that there is *no such thing* as a single, objective, ultimate, value system. If God exists in the classical Christian sense, God is the ultimate authority, regardless of whether or not we choose to follow his decrees or even agree with them. Further, the Christian belief is that God has revealed his value system to us and desires for us to follow it. Even in this sense, God doesn’t expect (in the sense that he believes it will happen) us to adhere to the value system or there would be no need of forgiveness/salvation.

              In the absence of God, there is no possibility of a single, objective, ultimate, value system. There is only a collective agreement that the majority imposes on society.

              “What is the difference between your reaction to someone who has a different value system as you and ‘judgement’?”
              Can you restate the question? I’m not sure I get what you are asking. Also, can you clarify what you mean by judgement in this context? Do you mean discerning right and wrong or do you mean having a judgmental/condemning attitude?

              “Say I do whatever I want to who ever I want when ever I want. And the guy next door to me gets that 80 inch TV I’ve been wanting, so I go over there and take it. But if I live my life that way, why should I not expect him to do the same thing to me? So he comes after me to take my stuff as well. We just descend into anarchy.”
              This seems to work rather well for lions. Most (if not all) societies have dominance hierarchies built around competition for resources. Why do you expect the human animal to be any different? Look at any human area where law and order falls apart and what do you find – an immediate return to dominance hierarchies based on might-makes-right (vs. the dominance hierarchies we have in the “civilized world” based on money and social status).

              “So then some cheat comes along and disrupts our happy lives by trying to steal our stuff. But because we have convinced others in our community to protect each other’s stuff they have a much harder time of it.”
              This only works while there is a governmental system in place to enforce it or through mob justice – I’ve seen a dead body on the side of the road where a suspected thief was beaten to death. The fact that it must be enforced means that it is not the default behavior for many. The default behavior is “get as much for myself as I can to ensure my survival/comfort”.

              “‘Treat others how you want to be treated’ and ‘treat others how ever you want’ are Not equally valid and produce extremely different results.”
              I agree with “produce extremely different results”. By what standard did you determine that they are not equally valid, though?

              Regarding altruistic behavior, I agree – it is (arguably*) beneficial to societies of all sorts. However, you are talking on a macro scale. On an individual level, why should I, Jeff, care about you, James? Why should I care about what makes sense for humanity or whether the human species continues to prosper? So long as I have a reasonable expectation that civilization won’t collapse as a direct result of my personal behavior, why shouldn’t I maximize my comfort even at the expense of another? Again, I’ll only be on this earth for 80 years or so. Once I die, I won’t know what happens to any of my descendants or the rest of the planet. Why should I have such a sentimental concern for what happens after I die? As a thinking creature, I have the ability to ignore my biological instinct for species propagation in favor of personal satisfaction during my short time on this planet. Given a belief that “this is all there is”, why shouldn’t I ignore those instincts?

              * I say arguably because you could make the argument that the success of the human animal is ultimately detrimental to the ecosystem of the planet as a whole, in which case that success is only temporarily and selectively beneficial.

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