Introduction: Hello and welcome to this message from Pastor Skip Heitzig of Calvary Albuquerque. Skip's messages are shared globally and we're thankful to hear how God is using them to restore lives with his love. If this message inspires you to follow Jesus, we'd like to know. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you'd like to support this ministry financially, you can give online securely at calvaryabq.org/giving. Jesus loves people, and that includes those who don't believe in him or who aren't sure what they think about him. In the message "Jesus Loves Atheists," Skip explains how this cynical Roman governor Pontius Pilate represents how Jesus loved and handled atheists. We invite you to turn your Bibles to John, chapter 18, as Skip begins.
Skip Heitzig: It's a joy for me to stand week by week and open God's Word with you and find out what he's telling us and build our faith together. It really is a joy. I was looking at the recap from Easter, just, like, thinking it doesn't get any better than this. And then the next week rolls around and it's better. So I just---I really just love what the Lord enables me to do and I just wanted to let that be known. Would you turn in your Bibles, please, to John, chapter 18; John, chapter 18. No one is born an atheist. That's a choice that a person makes. It is a belief system. It requires a certain amount of faith to be an atheist. Just like no one is born a Christian. We cooperate with God's calling on our lives and we do that by faith. It's a choice that we make. It's a belief system.
But there is a dilemma that the atheists had and has, and it's simple really. When an atheist feels grateful, who do they thank? And I don't say that flippantly, I say it sincerely, because gratitude is a basic human trait. And I found it interesting that Richard Dawkins, who is one of the most recent and very vocal atheists, he says when he looks at the Milky Way galaxy or at the Grand Canyon or even under a microscope, that he is overcome by profound feelings of gratitude. And he said, and I quote, "It's a feeling of sort of an abstract gratitude that I'm alive to appreciate these wonders," close quote. So to whom does Richard Dawkins give thanks? Atheism is not a new concept. It's been around a long time. The Bible speaks about the one who says in his heart there is no God.
You know the text. The writer says, "The fool has said in his heart there is no God." As long as there has been belief, there has been unbelief. As long as there has been theism, there has been atheism. But you'll be interested to know that "atheism" does not appear in the English language until the sixteenth century. The first documented use of the term "atheism" was in the year 1568, and it was a term borrowed from another language by Miles Coverdale. And when it appeared and when it was first in use, it was considered to be a new phenomenon, a rare thing. It wasn't until the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth century that atheism really became an intellectual force. And then by the nineteenth century there was a massive cultural shift in the West.
During that century came four unique gentlemen. We can call them the four horseman of the atheistic apocalypse; they are Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. They brought this massive cultural intellectual shift in Western thought. And it became more or less a part of the cultural landscape of our country and many others in the twentieth century, so that by 1960s even Time magazine ran as a cover article, saying, "Is God Dead?" That was on the front of the cover with a big question mark, "Is God Dead?" Even though a small minority---really it might blow your mind to know that only 2 percent of our population claim to be atheist. Now many more may be, but they're not stepping up to the plate and saying so. Maybe they're in this agnostic camp.
But 2 percent say they are atheist. However, the number is growing, and one of the reasons it's growing is because of the wave of "new atheism," authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others who have made it to the New York Times best-seller list. And many of these are very, very vocal against our faith and for their faith. They basically say that belief in God is nothing more than organized ignorance and that atheism is freedom from such ignorance. Moreover they will say, among other things, that belief is God is one of the chief problems with the earth today: it's the cause of violence, it's the cause of bloodshed, it's the cause of war. They'll look back to the Crusades where people slaughtered in the name of religion.
They'll look to the Middle East where so many atrocities are done by people who claim to believe in God. I've asked you to turn to John, chapter 18, to look at a man named Pontius Pilate who's not an atheist per se. He would probably fall more into the agnostic camp. There was a Roman belief system. They had certain gods. They really deified the Caesars, the emperors of Rome. But it would seem that Pilate only tipped his hat to any worship system, that he was jaded in his response. He's a cynical secularist, I'll call him, a cynical secularist who pines before Jesus by saying, "What is truth?" toward the end of the text we will read. I think Pilate was confused really. I think he was a walking conundrum.
I found it interesting that C. S. Lewis, who was one time an avowed atheist before he came to faith in Christ, C. S. Lewis wrote, "I was living like so many atheist; in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained God did not exist. But also I was very angry with God for not existing." [laughter] It's sort of like the man who when he was asked what he believed in, he said, "I'm an atheist, thank God." [laughter] But in this text Pontius Pilate encounters Jesus Christ. They are face to face. They are eye to eye. There are words and looks that are exchanged. And in looking at this text with you in the eighteenth chapter of John beginning in verse 28, I want to give you five qualities that we should exhibit whenever we encounter an atheist or an agnostic.
First of all, be confident. Be confident. In verse 28, let's begin. "Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover. Pilate then went out to them and said, 'What accusation do you bring against this Man?' They answered and said to him, 'If he were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered him up to you.' Then Pilate said to them, 'You take and judge him according to your law.' Therefore the Jews said to him, 'It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,' that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spoke, signifying by what death he would die."
Now wouldn't you agree that it would be awfully intimating to stand before Roman justice, before a man who has the power of life or death with the flick of a wrist? Pontius Pilate, let me give you a thumbnail sketch: He was the fifth governor of Judea. He was appointed to the post in AD 26 by Tiberius Caesar. He maintained that post for ten years. Pontius Pilate was not a Roman. Did you know that? He didn't come from Rome. He was Spanish. He was from Seville, Spain. He became part of the Roman army. He was enamored with it and eventually he lucked out; he married the right gal. He married the granddaughter of Augustus Caesar named Claudia Procula. And basically she got him the job of governor over a province, and this was the province of Judea.
Now he appears in the Bible about twenty-one times, but secular historians---other historians like Tacitus the Roman historian, Josephus the Jewish historian, Philo from Alexandria---all paint a picture of Pontius Pilate as being oppressive and cruel, stubborn, greedy. And I think the text that we have before us gives us a hint as to why. In verse 38 when Jesus talks about the truth, it is Pilate who says in disgust, seemingly, "What is truth?" What is truth? We are dealing with a burned-out cynic. For Pilate, life has no answers. For Pilate, there are no absolute truths. History tells us he hated being in Judea. He hated the Jewish religion. And this is the one standing before Jesus Christ. As we read the story it would seem like Pilate has total control, he's in charge, he's calling the shots, until . . . until we get to verse 31 and verse 32.
These are the verses we just sort of read over and don't really analyze like we should. But I want you to notice what it says. Pilate said, "You take him and judge him according to your law." He's saying that to the Jewish leaders. "Therefore the Jews said to him, 'It's not lawful for us to put anyone to death,' that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spoke signifying by what death he would die." Do you remember that Jesus Christ, not only did he predict that he would die, but he predicted precisely what kind of death he would die. In Mark, chapter 10, he said to his followers, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests, and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles."
Other translations say "the Romans," "who will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him." "I'm going to die when the Jewish leaders deliver me over to the Romans." Ah, but he was more specific. He said, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man must be lifted up." John, chapter 12, he's even more specific. He said, "If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself." John gives us a footnote: "This he spoke, signifying by what death he would die." You see, if he was delivered over to the Jews for them to kill him, he wouldn't be lifted up, he would be thrown down. He would be stoned to death. To be lifted up on a cross was a distinctly Roman form of execution.
So here's my point, this is what I don't want you to miss: Pilate wasn't in control---Jesus Christ was calling all the shots. He was firmly in control. Remember, just hours before he had told his disciples before the Passover, he said: "You're going to go into the city. You're going to meet a man carrying a pitcher of water. He's going to lead you to a house. You're going to talk to the owner of the house. The owner of the house is going to show you a large, furnished upper room." That's a lot of details. "Make ready there the Passover. They went, they had the Passover." Afterwards Jesus said, "Arise, let us be going," and led them to the Kidron Valley where he was arrested. And now this. And "signifying by what death he would die," the Romans get involved.
No wonder Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, not like a shaking leaf, not like the cowardly lion before the Wizard of Oz, but with poise, with confidence, with assurance. He was in absolute and total control of the situation. Now you need the same kind of confidence whenever you are face to face with an atheist or an agnostic, because such conversations can seem to you very intimidating. I know, some of you have told me. You need to be confident, confident that God has allowed you this opportunity, this conversation, this interaction, and confident that God is in control. When you feel intimidated by an unbeliever, you need to recognize three things: recognize your inadequacy, recognize God's sovereignty, and recognize their necessity. They need this. They need this.
A. W. Tozer wrote, "Were every man on earth to become an atheist, it would not affect God in any way. He is what he is in himself without regard to any other. To believe in him adds nothing to his perfections; to doubt him takes nothing away." So, first quality to exhibit, be confident; second, be engaging. Atheists don't have the plague. You don't have to run away or avoid them. Here is a cynical man, a cynical secularist who doesn't believe in the Jewish God who was standing before the Son of God, and Jesus engages him a bit. Notice verse 33, "Pilate entered the Praetorium again, and called Jesus, and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus answered him, 'Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning me?' "
Now, think of the question that Pilate asked Jesus: "Are you the King of the Jews?" In other words, "Do you plead guilty or non-guilty to this charge of insurrection?" It's a-it's a perfectly standard question. Pilate is simply trying to determine the threat level of the prisoner. "Are you a threat to Roman rule? Are you claiming to be a king?" That would be in contradistinction to Caesar who is the king of the empire. It's a simple, straightforward question. But then Jesus engages him and he asks a question: "Are you asking this because you think I'm a political threat, or are you asking this because you're just parroting what you have heard others say about me?" It actually reminds me about what it says in Isaiah chapter 1 verse 18, " 'Come now, let us reason together,' says the Lord."
Let's sit down. Let's talk this over. Let's reason this out. Let's think it through. "Though your sins are as scarlet, I'll make them as white as snow." To engage an unbeliever means you listen to them. When they ask you a question, you listen, you respond. You talk back in a nice way. You listen again. You engage them. Now, some atheists are very intelligent and they have thought through their position and they have come to their conclusion. And, honestly, I admire anybody who thinks through their position and has thought critically and has come to a settled position based upon a critical thought. However, other atheists want to be seen as intelligent. And for them in their minds to be seen as intelligent, for that to happen they think that they must tell people they're atheist.
Because people will look at them and go, "Ah, you're so enlightened. You have shed the skin of superstitious religions of the past. You're a free thinker." So they sort of take pride and they want to be thought as intellectual, so they'll say, "Well, I'm an atheist." And then there's another category. There's some people who have chosen atheism as a moral convenience. It's simple really, if you can dismiss God, you can do anything you want. There's no ultimate accountability, there's no moral judge, there's no absolute, so you can live any way you want. There is no morality, so just get rid of God. So people will conveniently, for moral reasons, proclaim to be atheist. But here's the hitch---you don't know which is which. That's why you engage them. That's why you ask them.
And when you have a conversation with them, talk with them, don't talk at them. The other night I was downtown with my wife. We were walking down the street and there was a huge line of people waiting to get into a concert. Across the street were a few people who had set up a megaphone, and I think they thought they were witnessing to them. And they were broadcasting from one side of the street really loudly on the other side of the street things like, "You're going to hell!" You need God." And one even said, "You need to hug the Bible." I don't know what that's all about. [laughter] But I was looking at the side of the street where the concert crowd was and just seeing their response. Not one of them was on their knees in repentance. Most of them paid no attention to it at all.
Engage them, talk with them, talk to them, don't speak at them. Actually, First Peter chapter 3 verse 15, Peter talks about how to engage unbelievers. He said, "Always be people prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." Be ready to engage. You see, the world is like a living, dynamic courtroom. People are always on a daily basis deciding to receive Christ, to inquire about Christ, to move a little closer to that position, or to reject him. People in our culture have heard about Jesus. They know about Christianity. They know about those who claim to be Christians. And they're always deciding. So this is what I've discovered: atheist have good questions; make sure that you have good answers for them.
Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote a book called What's So Great About Christianity, said, "It's precisely because the Christian will usually duck and run that the atheists have had it too easy. Their arguments have gone largely unanswered. They have been flogging this carcass of 'fundamentalism' without having to encounter the horse kick of a vigorous traditional Christianity." Listen, we need to engage their minds while praying for their souls. We need to employ what William Lane Craig calls "reasonable faith." "Come, let us reason together." We're dealing with smart people who have deceived souls. Yes, even very smart people can be deceived. Now, I know some of you are thinking, "Ahh, I don't really like to engage these people who have these arguments. And last time I tried that it went south really quick."
And you're afraid that you won't have the perfectly articulated answer. Please know that that's okay. Even if your answer isn't perfect, you might be planting a seed. And you might think you did a poor job, but you don't know what that seed will produce in time to come. Here's an example: I was reading a book of a one-time atheist and he was talking about his journey. He was a very famous---still is---a very famous research scientist. He was a doctor, a research scientist in the DNA. And he said he was an agnostic and then he became an avowed atheist. As a doctor he was treating patients down in the south, Southern part of the United States, and he said, "A lot of my patients were pretty uneducated people, but I noticed that they had a faith in Christ, a peace, a calm, and an assurance.
"Even when I delivered to them the worst possible news, like, 'You're going to die,' or 'You have this lingering disease, and here's the course of it,' and just the kind of peace and calmness in how they would turn it and they would share with me the gospel." And he said, "Honestly, I left those encounters very uneasy about what I believed in. I had gone in so sure about my position, but I left very unsure." That planted a seed in him that eventually sprouted. So, be confident. Be engaging. Here's a third: Be respectful. Now, I've been guilty of taking potshots at atheists before, as you have. We need to be respectful. Some Christians get into full combat assault mode when it comes to dealing with unbelievers. Don't attack them. You're not God's guard dog.
You're not a card-carrying member of the God squad. Respect them. Don't berate them. Now, do what J. I. Packer tells us to do: learn "to out-think them," but don't put them down. Look at verse 36. Jesus answered Pilate. He said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight so that I should not be delivered to the Jews, but now my kingdom is not from here." "Pilate, I'm not a threat to you. I'm not here to fight you. I don't have a bunch of soldiers with me to overthrow your kingdom. I'm not a threat. I have a different kind of a kingdom." Now to Pilate's secular ears, he's thinking, "Yeah, wha-whatever." He didn't quite pick up on this. It sounded ridiculous. Now, we know what Jesus meant by this.
We understand that his kingdom right now is a spiritual kingdom. He's not here to take over land and subjugate people. One day he will set up his kingdom on the earth. I believe that. We I believe that. But right now his kingdom is internal. It's an inside job. It's a spiritual kingdom as he calls men and women to himself. But he was there to announce to Pilate he's not there to fight him, he's not to threaten him, he's not a threat to them. No wonder Pilate at the end of this encounter will step out and announce to the people, "I find no fault in him at all," and sought to release Jesus. You see, you can win the argument and lose the soul, and then you've lost it all. I know some Christians who sort of take pride in the fact, "Oh, I shut him down. He just walked away."
Really, you're proud of that? He walked away?" "Yeah, but I won that argument." "Yeah, but he walked away." Be respectful. I just quoted to you First Peter, chapter 3. I didn't quote it all to you and I must now at this point: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do it with gentleness and respect." That's the qualifier. "Do it with gentleness and respect." Paul in Ephesians 4 said, "speaking the truth in love." I've had many a conversation over the years with atheists, some very long and very detailed. I've reasoned with them, and I've always tried to be kind and fair and respectful. I remember one particular guy. He was a Brit, and he had very colorful language in our conversation.
And he just thought it was grand for him to mock me in every one of our conversations; mock how stupid I was in my primitive belief system, and try to shoot holes in it. But then he called me one time and he said, "I've given my life to Christ." I paused. I honestly did not believe it. I said, "Is this Tony?" He said, "Yeah, man, it is Tony." He's Brit; did I mention that? [laughter] And he said, "I want to thank you because you always treated me with respect. In all the conversations that we had, you didn't seek to put me down." We need to be winsome if we want to win some. Right? It's all about winning souls. If we want to win some, let's be winsome in order to do it. So be confident, be engaging, be respectful---fourth quality, be clear. Be clear.
Verse 37, "Pilate therefore said to him, 'Are you a king then?' Jesus answered, 'You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.' " Notice how clear and unambiguous Jesus is: "You're absolutely right, Pilate, I am a king." And then to further the clarity, notice how clear Jesus is about his own nature. Again, these are verses a lot of us just sort of skip over, because "Oh, it's just sort of written in Bible talk." But look at the Bible talk: "For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world." Why didn't he just say the first part and end it? "This is the reason I was born," period.
He says, "For this cause I was born," that's his humanity; "and for this cause I have come into world," that's his divinity. It implies, "I have come from another realm into this world." Now, again, we're dealing with Pontius Pilate, so these secular ears, he probably thought, "Oh, whatever." He marginalized it. He shrugged it off. But here's my point: just as Jesus was clear, we need to be clear about what we believe and what we expect unbelievers to do. This is one of my great concerns. I'm concerned that a large majority of Christians don't actually know what they believe. They're not precise enough about what they believe or why they believe what they believe.
John MacArthur wrote, "Any Christian who cannot present a biblically clear explanation of their faith will be insecure when strongly challenged by unbelievers. In some cases that insecurity can undermine their own assurance of salvation. The world's attacks can overwhelm [them]." Do you know what you believe? It would be very helpful to just spend a little bit of time clarifying. It'll be helpful to you personally and it will be helpful to your testimony publicly. And here's the fifth and final quality to exhibit: Be ready. Be ready for the outcome. It could be negative; it could be positive. Now let's see what happens. Jesus said, " 'Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.' Pilate said to him, 'What is truth?' And when he had said this, he went out."
And he just said it. It's a question. Left it hanging. It's really a statement. "And then he went out again to the Jews, and he said, 'I find no fault in him at all.' " Here's what I don't want you to miss: Jesus said, "I've come into this world, I've been born to bear witness of the truth. And everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." That's an implied invitation to Pilate. "Pilate, you can know truth. You can do truth. You can hear what I have to say." This is the love of Jesus. We say "Jesus Loves Atheists." This is the love of Jesus shown to Pilate that even to this hardened, cynical politician Jesus leaves the door open. "Everyone who hears the truth hears my voice---Everyone who is of the truth will hear my voice." Now, Pilate's response was negative. He said, "What is truth?" and he stormed out.
But his response has been negative all along, right? Verse 35, he says, "Am I a Jew?" In the original it's, "I'm not a Jew, am I?" Remember, he hated Jews. He hated Judaism. He hated his post in Judea. So he's very soured. He's very negative. He's very cynical. He began that way and he ended this conversation the same way. However, it didn't have to turn out this way. And all I'm saying is give God room to work and be ready for a positive response as well as a negative. I was surprised when I got that phone call from Tony who said, "I believe in Jesus." I gotta tell you, I was shocked. I was a bit surprised when after a Wednesday night, a girl who was very skeptical toward Christianity at all, but she did her own research afterwards, she came up to me sometime later and she said, "I am now a firm believer in the Lord Jesus Christ."
There may be a negative response, but there may be a positive response. Now let me just close with what Pilate said, because there's a lot of people who feel exactly the same way: "Ah, what is truth?" In other words, if there is truth, nobody can be absolutely sure what that is, because truth is on a sliding scale determined by a number of contingent factors, including what most people will say today: "Well, how to you feel about the truth?" Because how you feel about it will make it true for you or not true for you. Now, I just gotta tell you, logically that's absolutely ridiculous. I can't decide what truth is any more than I can decide to have a million dollars in my wallet right now, or you can decide to be the world's best golfer.
You can have a belief about the truth, but you can't decide what truth is. You can't choose it. Here's what's ironic: this cynic who says, "What is truth?" is standing right before incarnate truth, the very one who said, "I am the way, the truth, the life." Jesus left that door open. "Whoever is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate, "What is truth?" Would you like to know how Pilate died? The truth is we don't exactly know. But do you want to know what became of him? Because he walks off the pages of Scripture. We don't hear anything about him. Secular history tells us that Pilate was deposed, recalled back to Rome. He had one infraction too many, so they recalled him. He felt very shameful, very angry because of that.
And though we're not exactly sure how he died, there is a fourth century historian by the name of Eusebius who said this: ". . . finally he fell into such [calamity] . . . that he was forced to become his own murderer." And so many scholars believe he actually committed suicide. What a tragic waste. A man so hopeless staring hope in the face, looking at incarnate truth. Could have been different. It can be different, so we always want to be open to what God will do and be ready.
Father in heaven, we consider this man Pontius Pilate just briefly, a cynic, a secularist, one who didn't believe in the Jewish God, didn't believe in the Jewish Scripture, didn't believe in the Jewish Messiah, didn't believe in absolute truth, who was standing in the presence of the one who claimed to be the Truth to set people free because of the truth. And I think of all of the people I have known who had one time claimed to be atheist, or whom I have read who made that assertion and then became strong followers in Christ because of the evidence they were presented with.
Lord, help us to be confident as children of God, confident in the truth we bear, to engage with those who disbelief what we believe, to be kind, respectful, to be very clear about who we are and what we believe and what is expected of them. And then to be ready, because, Lord, just like I have been surprised on a number of occasions throughout my life, would you surprise more of us by bringing those that we know, who either don't know about God or who say they absolutely know there is not one. Would you use our lives, Lord, to make a different outcome. You can do that. You can do anything. Nothing shall be impossible with God. So, Lord, we pray you would use our lives to love the atheist and the agnostic, in Jesus' name, amen.
Closing: We're told in Scripture to be ready to give a defense for our faith. And one way we do that is by sharing how God has worked in our lives. We'd love to hear your story about when God became real to you. Email email@example.com. And just a reminder, you can give financially to this work at calvaryabq.org/giving. Thank you for joining us for this teaching from Skip Heitzig of Calvary Albuquerque.