Conversation with a friend who doesn’t believe in God

While meeting with a senior business executive in San Francisco, I got into a discussion with him about the current political atmosphere in our nation. He was especially concerned about the progressive vs. conservative differences but went on to include other categories. Eventually, the discussion turned to the general topic of freedom and democracy, and our views were pretty much in sync. So I asked him who he thought had made the greatest contribution to freedom worldwide? He thought that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher should be considered because of their roles in the breakup of the Soviet Union. That event led to the overthrow of several dictators in Eastern Europe, giving millions their freedom. I agreed with him and added Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. But then I said, “I was thinking on a grander scale, in which case my choice would be Jesus.” When he didn’t verbally object, I continued.

I said, “An honest review of history will show that with very few exceptions, human freedom has flourished where Jesus is honored. The reverse is also true; wherever the gospel of Jesus has been prohibited, people have been enslaved, and millions have died. Prime examples are the atheistic nations of Russia, China, and North Korea. However, even in those countries and others around the globe, Jesus motivates His followers to establish hospitals, orphanages, schools, agricultural and clean water projects, etc.” I went on to say, that in my opinion if Jesus were only human, He would deserve more attention than any other person who ever lived. 

When he said, “That’s probably true,” I responded, “Then why don’t you become a follower of Jesus?” He seemed a little shocked by the question and said, “That’s impossible! You know I don’t believe in God.”

I replied, “Most Christians would agree with you that it’s impossible to follow Jesus without believing in God. But since I personally know a number of non-believers who are following Jesus, I wouldn’t let that stop you.” He, like many who will read this, was very skeptical. Therefore, I will try to explain why I have this kind of interaction with agnostics and atheists.

I told him about the huge crowds that followed Jesus, sometimes numbering into the thousands. When Jesus moved from place to place, they followed Him. When He got into a boat and crossed the lake, they followed Him. Then I asked, “Using Biblical terms, do you think they were all born again believers”? The obvious answer is no, and the Bible confirms that when it describes numerous scenarios of His interaction with individual followers.

But the definitive answer comes from the Apostle Mark (Mk 2:15): “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” Let me restate that, many tax collectors and sinners were followers of Jesus. Most Christians think that only born-again believers can be followers of Jesus. So how can we reconcile this dilemma? The answer is that there are actually two ways to follow Jesus.

The first is an external following like the crowds that followed Jesus. Some wanted to be healed; some liked His teaching. But others were merely curious and stayed in the back of the crowd, hoping no one would recognize them. However, it’s obvious that everyone following Him had some level of interest, however small.

Therefore, when I’m meeting with a person who has a negative view of Jesus as the Son of God, my approach is to encourage them to develop some level of interest about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. There was much more to the conversation with my atheist friend mentioned in the first paragraph, but he did say, “I agree that I probably should know a little more about the historical Jesus.” So, because he seemed open to that idea, I told him that Jesus had a best friend who wrote a book about Him, and suggested that reading that book would be a good place to start. When he asked for the name of His best friend, I told him it was John, and he knew immediately who I was talking about, but he was still non-committal. In a subsequent conversation, he raised the subject and said, “I’ve been reading a bit about the life of Jesus.” This is often the way people become external followers of Jesus.

The second way to follow Jesus is an internal following. People who follow Jesus externally for some period of time usually are given an opportunity to respond to the invitation of Jesus to exchange their life for His life. If they decide to receive his life, and therefore salvation, the following verse becomes a reality for them, “The one, who has been with you, shall be in you.” (Jn 14:17 NIV) The Bible says that person is Born Again, Saved, Regenerate, In Christ and becomes a New Creation. Each person has his or her own unique experience with Jesus because He was personal with every individual during His days on earth. It’s still the same today.

I wish this were true for all my friends, but there are many who freely express their disbelief in God. So I try to relate to them in the same way that Philip responded to his friend when he didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. Phillip was one of the first disciples of Jesus and wanted his friend Nathaniel to become one as well. However, when he had a negative attitude about Jesus of Nazareth, Phillip didn’t try to use logic to convince him. He simply said, “Come and see for yourself.” (John 1:46 NLT) You know the rest of the story. Nathanael went to see for himself and ended up becoming a disciple of Jesus. In that same spirit, I encourage nonbelievers to “come and see” by following the historical Jesus. While He had unwavering requirements for His disciples, (Luke 14:25-27, 33), He had no preconditions for followers.

Even among those who do believe there is a God, I find this approach useful at times, because most are not followers of Jesus. As we spend time together, I usually learn their view about issues of faith. While many have a negative view of churches or overly zealous Christians, most have quite a positive opinion of Jesus. That’s my experience while meeting with numerous people of the Islamic faith in the Middle East. They claim that Jesus was a great prophet, “but not the son of God.” Rather than debating His divinity, I agree with them that He was a great prophet and simply ask, “What are some of His prophesies that you like?” They usually don’t know any. So I tell them it would be consistent with their belief to know more about what He said.

When meeting with Jewish friends or others who think He was a good teacher (Rabbi) I ask, “What are your favorite things he taught?” Surprisingly, they normally can’t think of anything. So since they already think he was a teacher, I start there and try to encourage a curiosity about what he taught. Only the Holy Spirit can open a person’s eyes anyway, and I’m convinced that if they genuinely follow the historical Jesus, they will eventually encounter the same Jesus I know. Actually, the only Jesus, anyone, can follow is the one in whom they currently believe. Even the most mature believer is following the Jesus in whom they currently believe. I know that I have a more definitive picture of Jesus now than when I started following Him fifty-three years ago.

When I’m prompted by the Holy Spirit, I always make it clear to external followers of Jesus that it’s a pre-salvation journey. Eventually, and at just the right time, God will lead them to the cross; He always does. The cross is an instrument of death, so He will make it clear to them that He is inviting them to die to self and receive His eternal life. If they decide to do that, they then become followers of an internal Jesus.

You might ask, “Is there is a place for preaching about sin, judgment, heaven, and hell?” My answer is a definite yes. However, recognize that when people respond, it’s because they have been external followers of Jesus for some time. This is what I am trying to get believers to understand and to encourage in their unbelieving friends. Paul was actively against Jesus but had a sudden miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus. We must recognize that he is the exception, not the norm because the majority of individuals have a much less dramatic conversion.

Peter is the example for the majority of us. When Jesus asked Peter to follow Him, did He say, “Now before you park your boat, do you believe that I was virgin born and that I’m the Messiah?” The answer is no; He just said to Peter, “Follow me.” And Peter did, but this teacher was much more than he knew at the time. Eventually, Jesus asked him, “Who do you say I am?” While Peter was following Jesus externally, God opened his eyes, and he could answer, “You are the Christ (Messiah).” In response, Jesus told him, “My Father in Heaven revealed that to you.” (Mat. 16:15-17 NIV)

It’s the same for people today. We can encourage them to follow the historical Jesus, but only God the Father can open their eyes to the true nature of Jesus. Why do we insist that people believe what we believe before they can start following Jesus? Jesus didn’t.