Yes, Jesus loves people who don't believe in Him or who aren't sure what they think about Him. Pontius Pilate was the cynical Roman governor of the district of Judea. He was unsympathetic to religious Jews and religion itself. He had no room for the superstitious claims of prophets, priests, or would-be messiahs. He was a secular pragmatist concerned about Roman order and personal advancement. Pilate also represents how Jesus loved and handled atheists—and how we should.
No one is born an atheist; people choose to become atheists just as some choose to become Christians. Atheism is not a new concept; David wrote of the person who says in his heart that "there is no God" (Psalm 14:1). As long as there has been faith, there has been unbelief. Even though so-called New Atheism has a lot of spokespeople, only 2 percent of the general population claims to be atheists. The numbers are growing, though, so it's worth looking at how Jesus dealt with someone who was operating outside of God's truth: Pontius Pilate.
Although Pontius Pilate was not an atheist per se, he was a secular man in a religious world functioning as if God did not exist. We see him interact with Jesus as a cynical secularist who opined, "What is truth?" Pilate was confused and self-contradictory—traits he shares with modern atheists—and we learn from Jesus five qualities to exhibit when encountering someone like Pilate, whether they're atheistic or agnostic.
First, be confident (see John 18:28-32). To stand before Roman justice was intimidating. Furthermore, the historians Tacitus, Josephus, and Philo tell us that Pilate was oppressive, greedy, stubborn, and cruel. It would seem that Pilate was in total control of Jesus' prosecution, yet Jesus was the one in complete control, for He had predicted all that was unfolding (see John 18:31-32). That's why Jesus was not intimidated, but rather calm and confident. We need to have the same confidence if we are going to share Jesus with atheists, and we can have that confidence by trusting that God is in control; He allowed you to have that encounter. You should recognize your inadequacy, God's sovereignty, and their necessity—they need this. And remember: God is perfect. Belief in Him adds nothing to His qualities, and lack of belief takes nothing away. You do not need to know everything, but it is helpful to know the answers to the top questions atheists have so that you can be ready with a reasoned response. Ask your local Christian bookseller for a reliable recommendation, and inform yourself.
Next, be engaging (see John 18:33-35). Atheists don't have the plague; there is no need to avoid them! Pilate was a cynical man who did not believe in the Jewish God, and yet he came face to face with Him. And when he asked questions, Jesus engaged him. Some atheists are very intelligent. Other atheists just want to be seen as intelligent. Others have chosen atheism as a moral convenience, thinking that if they dismiss God, they can do as they want. Always try to find out why someone is an atheist by talking with them, not at them. Beyond listening, the Bible tells us to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). The world is a dynamic courtroom where people are always deciding on the evidence for belief in God. They have good questions about faith; let's make sure we have good answers. We need to appeal to their intellect while praying for their souls. You may not have the perfect answers, but you can plant a seed. Instead of getting bogged down with minutia, challenge an atheist to read a chapter of the gospel of John for ten minutes a day for three weeks and ask the following questions: Who is Jesus Christ? Who does Jesus say He is? Who does John say He is?
Third, be respectful (see John 18:36). Some Christians go into full combat assault mode with atheists. Don't attack them. We can do better; as J.I. Packer said, we can out-think them. Jesus respectfully interacted with Pilate, succinctly describing His mission and purpose to the point where Pilate's conclusion was to release Him, declaring, "I find no fault in Him at all" (John 18:38). Remember that we can win an argument but lose a soul. Peter's advice to be prepared ends with him telling us to give an answer "with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15, ESV). The apostle Paul told us that we are to "[speak] the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). We must be winsome—kind, fair, and respectful—if we want to win some to Jesus. Discuss what challenges and obstacles you have experienced in sharing your faith with atheists.
Fourth, be clear (see John 18:37). Jesus clearly and unambiguously told Pilate, "You're absolutely right—I am a King." Jesus also clearly described His nature—both His humanity ("I was born") and His divinity ("I have come into the world"). Although Pilate shrugged it off, Jesus was clear. We must be clear about what we believe and clear about what God requires of all people. Being able to succinctly describe what you believe is helpful for both your walk and your witness.
Lastly, be ready (see John 18:37b-38). The outcome of an encounter with an atheist could be positive or negative. Jesus gave an implied invitation to Pilate to hear and know the truth. This shows Jesus' love: He left the door of salvation open even to this hardened, secular Roman politician. Pilate's response up to this point had been negative and dismissive. Yet Jesus left room for the truth to work in his mind and heart—and we should too. What people do with the gospel message will determine their destiny, so give God room to work. This week, pray for an atheist you know, asking God to open a door for you to reach them and then give God room to work through you.
Adapted from Pastor Skip’s teaching
The BIG Idea
Pilate died hopeless, even though he stared hope in the face. Be faithful to give atheists every reason to know Jesus as their Savior and Lord through your words and actions, entrusting their response to God.
Figures referenced: Miles Coverdale, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, C.S. Lewis, Tiberius Caesar, Augustus Caesar, Claudia Procula, Tacitus, Josephus, Philo, A.W. Tozer, Dinesh D'Souza, William Lane Craig, J.I. Packer, John MacArthur, Eusebius
Cross references: Psalm 14:1; Isaiah 1:18; Mark 10:33-34; Luke 22:10-13; John 3:14; 12:32-33; 18:28-38; Ephesians 4:15; 1 Peter 3:15
Keywords: atheists, atheism, New Atheism, unbelief, unbelievers, belief, love, agnostic, witnessing, sharing faith, confidence, respect, arguments, truth