"Although They Knew God ... They Suppressed the Truth..."
The opportunities are wide open for Christians to speak with secular people these days, especially if you live in a metropolitan area. The average hipster you may meet in the medium to big sized city is a secularist who may listen to NPR, has a liberal, ecological, and/or anti-capitalist political ideology ... wears vintage clothing from a thrift store and consumes ethically. He or she often either rides a bike, uses public transportation or even may be driving a hybrid or bio-diesel vehicle. This person is deeply concerned with the ethical treatment of animals, is strongly against slavery, torture, racism and political oppression against women. In other words, he takes morality very seriously. Another characteristic of this individual is that he/she thinks Christianity is irrelevant at best.
Since we deeply care about the eternal destinies of such individuals how should we go about reaching such a person with the gospel? Where would you start?
Once of the more effective ways, I have found, is to remember that that your secular friend already knows God exists. He/she knows God exists and lives as if He does. In Romans chapter 1 Paul clearly teaches this about all people when he says, "For although they knew God" (verse 21) "...by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (verse 18).
But how can we demonstrate to your friends that they already believe in God, when intellectually they deny His existence?
While there are many ways this could be done, I would like to suggest one way that I have found to be quite persuasive: The knowledge of God through their own morality.
Some of the more traditional or conservative radio personalities often make the claim that our secular and relativistic young people are not concerned with morality. But as I pointed out in my opening description of the hipster, this is clearly not the case. In fact, most of my young secular friends tend to have VERY strong convictions about what is wrong in the world and want to do something about it. One of my friends who went to Columbia University would often remind me how much he is against racism and oppression. This is facinating to me because there is a deep inconsistency here and that is why this may be a great place to begin a dialogue with our secular friends. Remember, the area that they passionately care about most is often a great place to start. Here's why:
A friend of mine who is an convinced secularist and has little interest in Christianity would often challenge me by bringing up the various current events and asked what I thought of them in light of my Christian convictions. He would raise the gay marriage issue, torture, racism and the like. But instead of nerely explaining whether I thought these things were right or wrong, I turned the questions back to him by asking if he thought there was anything going on in today's world that really bothered him, something that was wrong....including the issues he asked me about. Without hesitation he focused in on torture and the oppression of women. I had to agree with him that both of these were deep problems and morally wrong, especially in light of the fact that every person is made in God's image and has intrinsic value. But puzzled, I asked him, in light of his secularist convictions, how he could intelligibly explain that these practices were wrong. He responded that over time his community had developed the belief in human rights and that all violation of these rights were unacceptable. The majority has accepted the knowledge that these are just wrong. But my response was to say that, this is not a persuasive argument, since it was only the preference of he and friends in his New York community. The vast majority of people in the world do not necessarily hold to these convictions, and I persuaded him that his view was one simply formed by his own subculture, one he apparently believes is better than other non-Western views of morality. That human beings hold such prominent dignity seems like an odd conclusion, I added, given that if his views were true, we are merely matter and biochemical reactions that have no more meaning than swamp gas. While he recognized the inconsistency of his answers, he still did not want to give in, but could see where I was going with this and wanted to discuss it more.
The fact is, he had very firm convictions about what is right and wrong, but contrary to people in most of our world's history, he did not really have any foundational reason why the things he felt strongly about were actually wrong. Because of what Paul says in Romans, people will always believe in some kind of right and wrong even if they deny God and the reason is that this is the way God created us. It is impossible to avoid because they suppress the knowledge of God that is clearly evident in and around them. They have to borrow many Christian ideas without acknowledging them as such in order for their own view to have a semblance of holding together. So while they may intellectually reject God but their inconsistency is that they live as if God were true and this shows that deep down they know they are wrong and that God exists.
You will often hear secular folk say, "you Christiasn have no right to impose your morality on the rest of us." But they cannot live consistently with this standard since they must apply it to themselves. Why? Because they are convinced that there is wrong somewhere in the world, things most of them are on a passionate crusade to stop. If they were merely to believe that morality is relative then, to be consistent, everyone else could choose to live any way they wanted no matter what they personally thought of it. But no one can live this way. They want to (rightly) stop racism, bigotry, oppression etc., so, in fact, they do believe there are moral standards that all should abide by even if the perpetrators of the crimes disagree. Secularists and Christians all believe that there is a way human beings "ought" to behave. We unavoidable have a conscience which forces us to believe there are moral standards that exist in reality apart from our own preferences. But only one of those views is living consistently with that reality. For example, according to my friend, genocide and oppression of women is always wrong and persons should refrain from this no matter what country or culture they are from.
If all is relative, as my friend is intellectually convinced of, then how can we ever impose our beliefs on others? We have no right to. The same people who claim that putting people in a meat grinder is wrong scoff at the idea of God. Their moral outrage is not simply because it is inconvenient that some are tortured in such ways but because they believe it is quite wrong. Those who use such methods of torture may not feel what they are doing is wrong but often think they are getting rid of undesirables, yet my secular friend would fight with all his might to put an end to such practices. Why? Because we live in a world where morality is unavoidable. This brings up the uncomfortable position of my secular friend in admitting that his own western values are better than some non-western values. As they see their view begin to unravel many of our friends may begin to doubt their own worldview. And it is in this unraveling that they may begin to be open to the gospel. The majority does not decide human rights, for what if, as in the case of WWI Germany that the majority decide to slaughter a minority. So human rights are not something human beings create. Rather they are intrinsic to reality. There is no secular foundation for human rights. None. That is why our current legal system is an a shambles. Who determines if one action is right and another wrong?
Now, after using such arguments that hit at the core of our friends' presuppoitions, the collapse of the secularist view enables the conversation to finally go to the Text of Scripture and offer some answers that friends may not have otherwise been open to. The fact that torture and slavery are wrong makes the existence of God all the more likely. It fits with the data in creation. The Christian worldview most consistently makes sense of the data we have to work with in the world. The secular person must live in a deep inconsistency with the world he lives in. So the kindest thing you can do for your friends is to point our this inconsistency. If someone you know is an atheist believes that genocide is not culturally relative then he/she should reconsider whether atheism is an intelligible response. His original proposition that there is no God must be in error given he believes that genocide is never ok for anyone. The fact is, none of us can consistently live our lives as if our choices were not meaningful.