AND THEN THE ATHEIST ASKED, “ARE YOU A CHRISTIAN?”

Steve Dresselhaus, March 2021

My seatmate on the flight from New York to Chicago was a “science mathematician.” His job is to help scientists develop the mathematical formulae for their research projects.  I struggle with numbers beyond those  I  can calculate on my fingers.  To me, this guy’s ability with numbers places him within the ranks of those super heroes possessing super powers.

My seatmate’s chosen faith and hope for his future was atheism.   But he was not one of those angry, arrogant, scorn-filled preachy atheists, competing with God for supremacy, nor was he opposed to  Jesus or even to those people of faith gifted with the freedom and ability to grasp and experience the  reality of God. However, early on in the conversation he did express his disgust towards those Christians who wear more than one face, depending on the group in which they find themselves at the moment. I had to agree with him on that point and can only hope that I am not one of them.   As someone who did not get drunk,  watch porn, or do drugs or tobacco,  and who did not cheat on his wife,  he was more than a little disgusted with the Christians on his campus who invite him to their Friday evening activities and their Sunday church services but who the rest of the week secretly engage in the very same practices they publicly condemn in others.

He asked me if I was a Christian.  I didn’t want to deny that I am one, but somehow the word Christian, in the context of that moment, seemed a bit dirty.  It had become something I had to describe more in terms of what I am  not than what I am.  Something is out of whack if I have to spend more time dispelling the false negatives associated with who I am than I do  extolling the positives of what I am striving to become.  So, to his question “Are you a Christian?” I responded with, “I am a follower of Jesus.”    Very few people, even devout and practicing  atheists firm in their faith, are opposed to the real Jesus and his real teachings.  People’s  ire is justifiably directed at those Christians whose life is intentionally  inconsistent with the behavior taught and modeled by Jesus. So, rather than explaining away a negative,  by simply  declaring myself to be a follower of Jesus,  I get to build on a positive – I get to say what I am becoming , not what I am not.  This also takes the focus off of me because to see where I am going one has to look at whom I am following. By declaring myself a follower of Jesus I am admitting that I am still on a journey and that I have not yet gotten to where I hope to be someday.

The conversation continued throughout the flight.  “Why do some Christians still believe in a 6,000-year-old world when we can prove through direct, observable, measurable evidence that the earth is billions of years old?  How can you be so sure of things when other religions,  using the same Bible, come up with totally different interpretations?  Why don’t Christians care about habitat loss and the extinction of species?  What convinced you to believe this Christian stuff?  Religion doesn’t even begin to relate to all the issues young people face today.”  Whew, a book could be written in answering each of his questions and comments.

At one point in the flight the young atheist (whose wife had become a churchgoer) asked me, “If I were to go to a church, how would I know which one to choose?”  Was this a test?  Was he trying to determine if I am an honest Christian or a proselytizer for my brand?  I could have spouted off the answers I have memorized over the years; but instead, the words which seemed to flow from nowhere were, “Easy, go to a church that is living in accordance with those things for which Jesus will hold it accountable. Jesus will hold his followers accountable for at least four things, so these are the things to look for when searching for a church.”

First, Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in Heaven.”  “So,” I told him, “Look for a get-together of Jesus followers that  unpretentiously  does good things for people in its own community.   If you can see it, they are doing it.  If there is nothing to see,  move on – you don´t want to associate with that group of people.” 

Secondly, quoting Jesus, I said,  “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  “This means,” I told him, “that you need to find a church where they love each other.”  He needed to know that if the program of the church was more important than the people who made up the church he should run away fast without looking back, because if there was anything that made Jesus angry it was when religious activity replaced knowing God and hindered access to him.   My new friend  had to know that any obligatory religious traditions added to what the Bible teaches are not anything with which he would want to be involved.

Next, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”   I encouraged him to find a get- together which intentionally seeks to comply with all that Jesus instructs his followers to do – no doctrinal cherry picking.  This, of course, indicates a practical and ever-growing knowledge of the Bible.

And lastly, I told him, “One of the very last things Jesus did, just before he died in our place,  was to pray that we would be one, just as he and the Father are one.”  I urged my new friend to seek out a gathering of Jesus followers where synergy, birthed in unity,  was the visible norm, an evident value.

I did not tell him that if a gathering of Jesus followers  is living in obedience to Jesus  its people will be learning about the holiness of God, our sin nature, the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus and his pending return as King of Kings. My new friend will discover these truths and he will be convinced of them by observing their effect in the lives of those who sincerely follow Jesus the King.

The pleasant conversation flowed uninterrupted, covering a whole variety of topics till the flight ended.  A Christian  Jesus follower and an atheist, enjoying each other’s company, learning from each other, each being made a bit better by the experience.

———-

Along with three young couples,  my wife and I are working to form  a “walk-to” gathering in our poor neighborhood of Esterito in the city of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico–the kind of gathering I hope my atheist friend can find.  Our desire is that those of us who gather together in this front yard “church” will visibly comply with the metrics established by Jesus. We look forward to the day when there will be so many of our neighbors following Jesus that people will notice there are fewer substance abusers, less violence, fewer suffering single moms, cleaner yards, better kept houses, less trash, less discrimination of all kinds, better attendance in school,  and, in general, a better way of life than there used to be.   

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