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Learning Outreach from an Agnostic

Free wireless Internet at my favorite local coffee shop had kept me there for hours. Where I should have been word processing, I was instead keeping an eye on my beloved Astros’ pursuit of a late-season playoff run via a live score update. The result was nothing more than a title, where my whole sermon should have been.

And then he spoke up. I had barely noticed him two tables down about a half hour before. No drink in front of him, just his keys and a hardcover book, the title of which was out of view.

“Can I look at your book?” he asked boldly, looking down and pointing at the copy of How Now Shall We Live, by Charles Colson next to me on the booth seat.

I smiled a cautious smile and handed it to him.

“This can’t be the same …”

I cut him off: “Yeah. Watergate Colson.”

He raised his eyebrows, obviously surprised that a man sentenced to federal prison for his role in the most notorious government scandal in American history had authored a book on biblical worldview. I shared with him how Colson had given his life to Christ in prison, and had since founded Prison Fellowship and become a prominent cultural personality for Christianity in the U.S.

He nodded as he scanned the back cover, then responded, “As long as he’s sincere. I guess it’s possible that he’s not just doing it for political influence.”

And thus started the dizzying conversation of politics, philosophy and religion that would span the next 90 minutes; fairly typical-sounding considering the setting … only there would be nothing typical about this conversation.

I pulled up a chair at his table and, without introducing myself, continued to expand on my experience with Colson’s work. We covered a lot of ground: naturalism, the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, the laziness of using one’s faith to side-step real questions posed by science and experience.

It did not take long for the definitive facts to come out: I was a Christian, youth pastor and bible teacher, and he was an incredibly well-read, intellectual agnostic. We were both very civil and polite, even friendly, but the unspoken wall had been erected, and we were on opposite sides whether we liked it or not.

Twenty minutes into our conversation we exchanged names. His was Eddie. He worked at a bookstore, and could quote more C.S. Lewis than I could ever dream to have memorized. He knew the primary apologetic arguments of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and explained the Christian Gospel parallels within The Lord of the Rings Trilogy to me so well that I was tempted to take notes on a napkin under the table. I was impressed … and honestly felt outmatched when he started asking me questions about my job.

“Brian, do you want to know why most agnostics, including myself, are not Christians?” he asked. “We look at the Christians we meet or read about in the paper or see on television and have no desire to spend eternity with them. Heaven comes across as an air-conditioned version of Hell where you’re in terrible company. If our options are to endure ignorant people forever, burn in hell, or just believe that after we die it’s all over, which do you think appeals the most?”

I was speechless. I completely understood his point but had no response, which was just fine, because Eddie was just getting started. He went on to tell me that he had no problem with Jesus Christ. He loved what Christianity was supposed to stand for and supposed to look like; he just had never seen those things in the Christians he had encountered. He shared about the youth group kids that used to make fun of him at in high school. He spoke of the Christian customers at the bookstore who yell at him, accusing him of only displaying liberal books. And he explained in detail his frustrations with the ignorant Bible-thumpers who use blind faith in scripture to justify a closed-minded approach to life’s issues.

I silently drew an alarming conclusion; if it were not for the actions of Christians, Eddie himself would be one. The Church has become the very opposite of what it is supposed to be; a deterrent to faith in Jesus Christ, instead of a testament for it—so much so that people like Eddie choose unbelief over an inescapable association with people like us, even though they agree with the principles and concepts in scripture.

I took advantage of a rare silence and spoke up, “Eddie, is it possible for someone to believe in an ultimate truth, to have faith in Jesus Christ and what He’s done for us on the cross, to whole-heartedly believe those things and not be closed-minded in your eyes?”

“Is it possible? Sure.”

I went on, “I passionately believe those things. Do you think I am closed-minded?”

He paused to think again.

“You know what? The fact that we can even have this conversation lets me know that you aren’t.”

I smiled and continued, “Not all of us dodge the important questions and skirt the tough issues. I want to challenge you; you obviously recognize the importance of decisions involving heaven and hell, or you wouldn’t be as well-read on the topics as you are. Make your decisions regarding Christianity based on Jesus, not on the actions of a group of people who do hypocritical things in his name. Isn’t that how we should draw conclusions about a belief-system? In the same way, we can’t judge Islam as a whole by the actions of a handful of extremists that decided to fly planes into some skyscrapers.”

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He raised his eyebrows again and nodded, “Valid point, Brian. Valid point.”

Our conversation continued until an employee started mopping the floor by our feet, a not-so-subtle indicator that it was time for us to make our way to the exit. We shook hands, exchanged friendly smiles and went our separate ways, thus ending our unexpected encounter.

Eddie did not fall on his face in the middle of the coffee shop in surrender to his savior that evening. He did not ask if he could come to church with me, or request a Bible with his name etched on the cover. However, he did say he looked forward to our next conversation, and that left little doubt in my mind that our talk had been a successful one. Eddie and I together had asked the hard questions and looked for the hard answers, and we honestly admitted when we were still in the process of doing so.

Only then will the truth have the chance to be what it is intended to be; a light in the darkness for those who are earnestly seeking what it real. Then maybe—just maybe—guys like Eddie will be excited to join us in our efforts.

I stepped up into my truck, placed my carrier bag on the passenger seat, and fired up the engine. A few seconds later my stereo turned on, with U2’s Best of 1980-1990 resuming where it had left off when I arrived at the coffee shop nearly 8 hours earlier:

You broke the bonds, and you loosed the chains,

Carried the cross, and all my shame, all my shame,

You know I believe it,

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

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