January 17, 2021

Credible Christianity for the Cultural Atheist

header_3_image_1.jpgLINK: This is a bit of a follow up to last year’s (almost to the day) essay, “Do Chinese Students Need An American Jesus?”

In his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, Alister McGrath discusses the relationship of church architecture and the modernistic sense of the absence of God. In reference to the “whitewashing” of churches following the lead of Geneva, McGrath writes.

“As the English rationalist critic Thomas Hobbes pointed out, this Protestant God might as well not exist, since his supposed existence seems to make very little difference to anything. A permanently absent God is about as much use as a dead God. If the existence of God makes little or no impact upon the experiences of everyday life, the business of living might as well be conducted without reference to him. Hugo Grotius, the great Dutch Protestant lawyer, noted that the end result of all this was a world in which people lived etsi Deus non daretur- “as if God did not exist.”

No one wants to hear that their version of Christianity may leave its followers already fronted loaded to be won over by the “new atheism,” but what about those students who come from many decades of atheistic teaching?

In my own ministry as a campus minister and Bible teacher, I work with many international students. The past two years I’ve been privileged to work with a dozen students from mainland China. Because I teach our school’s required high school Bible course and preach frequently in chapel, I am on the front line of the encounter between their atheistic mindset and our presentation of Christianity.

At first, I was very concerned about the presentation I made of the content of the faith, especially explaining Christian claims for the inspiration of scripture. Now, several months later, I’ve reoriented my approach. Without lessening my interest in content or basic apologetics, I’ve become particularly aware of how closely these atheistic students are watching my life. They are far more interested in whether there is evidence that my God makes an experiential difference in how I live than they are in a presentation of Christian doctrine.

These students come from a culture that has now seen multiple generations of atheism. For them, the “ceiling” ends at the claims of their culture to be superior. Their purpose in life is defined by the state and their duty to their families. Despite western attention to the growth of Christianity in China, most of my Chinese students have never met a Christian, but they are certainly aware that America is a land of Christians and the practice of Christianity.

What do these observant atheistic students seem to most take note of?

Prayer and Personal Devotion– These students assume that Christians will be seriously and intensely prayerful. I’ve noticed that, unlike my western students, these students are reverent during public prayer and participate in the external aspects of prayer. I believe this is because they assume that the basic evidence that God is real begins with frequent and genuine prayer. They respect genuine spirituality, even if they are not believers in the spirit. It is not appropriate to parade a devotional life, but these students are looking to see if God is real enough to bring me to my knees, to the memorization of scripture and to a living and vital faith experience.

The Questions of Origin, Purpose and Significance– It seems that some of these atheistic students are aware of the emptiness and vacuity of their own culture’s answers to ultimate questions. When I speak about the imago dei and the Christian answer to the meaning of life, there is genuine interest and curiosity. These are students who are often pushed to excel and contribute, and many pay the price to do so, but it is evident that they are already experiencing the distress of “Is this all there is?” The Christian answers to such questions fascinate and challenge these students. As Christians demonstrate that we understand what it means to be made and to live in the image and purposes of God, a powerful witness is presented.

The Biblical Teaching on Materialism– My atheistic students are living through a revolution in individual prosperity. Wealth and materialism are norms and ambitions within their atheistic culture. Their families are investing in materialistic achievement. Many of them have strained family relationships because of a desire for materialistic security and achievement. In our particular community, we live in relative poverty and simplicity. As I share Jesus’ words and example regarding money and prosperity, these students see a value system radically different than their own. (I am sure I don’t have to mention the embarrassment of the prosperity Gospel at this point.)

The Witness of Marriage and Family– Though my students are atheists, they are deeply devoted to the ideals of marriage and family. Presenting the Biblical teachings on sexuality, relationships and family will almost certainly meet with a respectful and interested hearing. These students want to find the joy and significance that comes only in family and marriage relationships. I am always eager to point out that Christians come to all of these relationships through an understanding of the Gospel and the love of Christ.

The Centrality and Power of Forgiveness– Shame and guilt are concepts my atheistic Chinese students still understand in their culture, so the story of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world echoes with meaning and application for them. No amount of official or cultural atheism eradicates the longing of those made in God’s image to know that they have been restored, made right and made whole in the eyes of righteous love. The cross is a scandal, but it remains the power of God in presenting the Gospel. Nothing more powerfully speaks of the God who is there than what his Son did while here.

These atheistic students have experienced the influence of a culture that has totally abandoned all ideas of God, but they are surprisingly open to seeing the implications of the true God in the lives and ministry of Christians who publicly and privately live their faith.


  1. Since I do not believe that even Americans need the American Jesus, who I equate with the Jesus of Suburbia as sung about by Green Day in a song of the same name, I certainly believe that Chinese Christians, already living in a society being increasingly torn asunder by Western-style consumerism, do NOT need the American Jesus, who is “just a lie.”

  2. Justin Lewis-Anthony says

    Dear Michael,

    Reading this post chimed with something I was reading in the library today. Michael Cartwright (University of Indianapolis) said this in a chapter on Stanley Hauerwas’s work on Christian witness:

    “the primary problem confronting the Christian Church in a post-modern world is not whether Christian claims about God can be debated in credible ways with alternating accounts (logos) of abstract reasoning. Rather, the challenge is about ethos of Christian witness. Can particular Christian communities produce and sustain the kind of witness to God in which their practices of discipleship can serve as credible signs of God’s reconciling work in the world?”

    Isn’t that what your Chinese students are doing when they “watch your life”?

    (Keep up the good work, BTW)

  3. Yes…right on target.

  4. Uncle Mikey says

    Michael I agree with your notes on observing these international students. I just graduate from a Christian University and had many encounters with the international students, from my interaction with them is not so much on the knowlege of knowledge, but the knowing of the One who we claim to live for makes the impact come alive. It is like reading a novel, but not just reading it but reading it outloud with expressions of anger, laughter, sadness, hurmor and etc. it is then does the reader begin to see the picture come into a fuller scope of what ought to be seen. Well that is the hope.

    I have question in regards to this form of evangelism, how you encounter with people at this level of exporsure to God and the Gospel is discipleship in pre-conversion stage? What are your thoughts?

  5. Tom Huguenot says


    Youseem to imply in your post that atheists are necessarly materialistic and that christians are not.

    I have to disagree with you, especillay concerning the second part of the statement.

    Another question I would like to ask, having alos done some work among international students, including Chinese ones: how do your students, coming from a thousands years old civilzation consider evangelicalism, a form of christianity born yesterday?

  6. My students have no understanding of the branches of Christianity, and they assume that Christianity is ancient. They see Americanism as being more dominant than actual spirituality.

    I don’t see any meaningful difference between evangelism and pre-evangelism.

  7. Probably the best thing you could do for these students is introduce them to Doc!

    Peace and blessings

  8. I probably said this last year, but Chinese ‘atheists’ have typically not developed a strong stance that God does not exist within a context of believers, and so I find they are quite open to hearing the Gospel.

    While many have some sense of the emptiness of materialism, in my experience is that many young Chinese are curious about Christianity because they associate it with Western wealth and success, and with modernity.

    In the book “Americans and Chinese” Francis Hsu notes that Chinese take a very practical view of religion. If praying to a particular Taoist god (yes, there are Taoist gods) might result in higher test scores, so be it. If joining the Communist party will open the door to opportunities, then join. If being Christian will win favors with your teachers, then convert. Why not?

    This isn’t to say it is necessarily a ‘fake’ conversion, but rather that Chinese are inclined to go with the flow. It could be superficial, but at the same time also means that they are willing to explore Christianity and may well truly receive Christ.

  9. The highest compliment my father received in all his years of ministry amongst college-aged international students was from an Italian gentleman:

    “You have been a Living Bible to me.”

  10. Presenting the Biblical teachings on sexuality, relationships and family will almost certainly meet with a respectful and interested hearing.

    I assume you don’t mean the New Testament teaching that singleness is to be preferred to marriage and children?

    These students want to find the joy and significance that comes only in family and marriage relationships.

    Seeking joy and significance are very American pastimes. How about introducing them to true Jesus values, like suffering and self-denial? Is it our goal to remake the Christian life into something appealing? Or have we been fooling ourselves into thinking God blesses our self-satisfying ways of life for so long that we can now start counting collateral damage of our denial?

    I’d hate to see us refuse to take up the challenge presented to us by Christ just so that we can make more converts.

  11. Good, good stuff. Thanks for thinking through this.

  12. I have to wonder if looking back, we would agree with Hobbes that Christianity had no impact on the culture of his time (1588-1679). I think rather that we can probably see evidence that it did have an impact, by comparison with our own time. People were surely Bible-saturated back then as they have not been since.

    “They are far more interested in whether there is evidence that my God makes an experiential difference in how I live than they are in a presentation of Christian doctrine.” The attractiveness of an ark may have a lot to do with whether or not people think there is a flood coming. I’m not sure whether being on the ark made Noah a happier, more radiant man or not. This may be different from what you’re talking about, Michael. I think you may have a very Scriptural point (e.g. “Let your light so shine before men…”). This is just a reminder not to put TOO much weight on that side.

  13. Michael,

    Thank you for your ministry with the International students especially those from Mainland Chinese. It is usually those who are away from home that is most receptive to the claims of the gospel.

    I have also been following your deconstruction of American evangelicalism with interest. Your last year’s post,Do Chinese Students Need an American Jesus? is on the ball.

    I am curious as to whether you find your Chinese students understand the concept of ‘sin’ especially ‘original sin’. In the Confucian ethos, there is no sin, only shame if one fails to fulfil one’s obligation.

  14. Michael –

    At the risk of opening an enormous can of worms, i don’t think that classical Protestant cessationism has been a disaster for the Church. It creates a world in which everything is sealed off behind the Kantian bulkhead except for a tiny little aperture opened by the Scriptures. All Satan had to do after this was to seal off that one remaining little aperture, which he has been eminently successful in doing.

    The world the Scriptures depicts is not a cessationist world, however, and this leads to a degree of cognitive dissonance. “Why could we not cast him out?” The cessationist answer is far less satisfying in terms of honesty to the Scriptures than Christ’s own.

  15. Sorry, that should be “I think” not “I don’t think” in reference to cessationism.

  16. Jeremiah says

    MuleChewingBriars, I used to tease cessationist friends by pointing out that the view often looks like trinitarian deism. You have to believe all the miracles in the Bible happened but also doubt that any can happen today. On the other hand, having seen the excesses of the spiritual warfare/recovered memory movement up close and personal I honestly can’t blame the cessationists if they got there by responding to deliverance sessions and the like.

    DunkerEric, associating Christianity with Western wealth and prosperity is a fascinating observation and it is one that Christian apologists invoke when responding to atheists about the charge that religion is a net negative in influencing humanity. Perhaps one of the more hyperbolic examples of this kind of apologetic from advanced culture of late might be statements like that when you have dinner in the West you have chicken and not human because of the influence of Christianity. Doesn’t it seem as though with regard to materialism we in the West want to have it both ways, to credit Christianity with the parts we like (or dislike) and ignore the rest?

  17. Jeremiah –

    I think the woo-woo brigade associated with the Spiritual Warfare/Power Encounter group is the ultimate expression of the democratization of Christianity. There is no spiritual elite, no fathers-in-the-faith. “I’ve AcceptedJesusChristAsMyPersonalLordAndSavior, therefore, I should be able to do all the things I’ve read about in the Bible, without undertaking any particular ascetic struggle.

    The first couple of generations of Pentecostals/Charismatics seemed to understand this instinctively: spiritual power comes from self-denial, a crucified life, prayer and fasting. Now, that’s pretty Orthodox. But this latest group seems to have thrown all that out the window.

  18. IM, Some of your statements rang true for me, others I’m not so sure about.

    I have also found that most of my Chinese university students are very interested in economic success–a primary motivator for coming to the US in the first place. Most are also very nationalistic (although they don’t often express this very openly). When I ask them why they are so proud of their country these students almost invariably point to China’s recent economic success; a good country is to be equated with a successful country.

    I haven’t observed the sense of emptiness that you describe–just the opposite, actually. But many students, not just Chinese atheists, are in college for future economic success, so this isn’t really a useful distinction.

    What I understand to be their biggest disconnect is comparing Christian themes of giving and self-sacrifice to our economic values as practiced. (Maybe we are saying the same thing here.) In this respect, their understanding is almost Nietzschean: professed Christian values of humility, weakness, and self-sacrifice in their view can’t possibly lead to the aforementioned “success” and thus must be rejected as impractical or unrealistic. They also don’t really see these values operating to any great extent in our own culture, so most end up equating Christianity to some sort of “folklore”–nice traditional stories that no one takes too seriously.

    As for your observations about sin, guilt and the importance of family and ancestry–very, very much so. I’d think something like the LDS would be very attractive to them, actually.

  19. OK–went back and read the original essay. I think our observations mesh well.

  20. My students are interested in success. Some in economic success on its own terms, all for family/cultural honor. But I would hesitate to call them greedy.

    BTW, I work with high school students.

  21. I think some of what you’re seeing comes from the cultural milieu – of Confucianist and Taoist thought and ethic, *not* from “atheism.” Your students aren’t growing up in a vacuum – or in a society that really is “atheist.”

    I think the distinctions are very important here, and in all other cross-cultural interactions.

  22. Further, both Confucianism and Taoism show great reverence and respect for scholars and teachers. My guess is that your students might also see you as self-sacrificing, and perhaps as someone with a lot of filial piety… all very highly valued in Chinese culture; something that even the Cultural Revolution failed to wipe out.

  23. No, I would agree that “greedy” doesn’t fit. It’s about reinforcing honor for the sake of country/culture and family.

    Actually the scarier part for me is that sometimes their ideas seem very similar to those expressed by 19th cen. Western anthropologists–that certain cultures are somehow inherently superior.

  24. Yes. I guess what I was inferring was that this type of thinking had disastrous consequences for the world in the 20th cen.

  25. The Asian view of god(s) is that they are unable to make promises or covenants because of conflicting gods’ interests and because of a god’s inability to overcome fate. I speak now of daily practice, not philosophy or theology from Asian religious leaders. (by the way, despite their words, even the religious leaders live their faith in the following way) As I see people here in Taiwan Bie-Bie to idols, what they are asking for from the gods is “Luck” – imagine a liquid that you could fill into a container. They are asking to receive more of this luck. The more they have, the more likely it is that good things (like money) will happen. In order to gain this luck, they will worship many gods over many elements of life to cover all bases. As dramas in the west are all about the hard working hero overcomes hardship, the dramas here are all about the low guy who lucks out by meeting the rich man or finding the pot of gold. Money, wealth, health and power are the signs of luck. Every temple here has the “Fates” on top and over the idol inside. Those fates are loosely translated Health, Longevity, Wisdom, Wealth, and so on. It is not greed, initially, that causes the Asian to focus on money as the symbol of god(s) favor. But it certainly leads to a materialism that is almost more destructive than that found in the west. Here in Taiwan where people lead a more consumer driven life of freedom and capitalism than in China, that “faith” has definitely turned to greed. My college students are claiming they will NEVER get married as that would take money and power away from their life. Indeed, the current birth and marriage rates indicate they are dedicated to that pledge. So, as my wife and I lead a humble life not concerned with money, but concerned with friendship, forgiveness, nurturing and commitment, we draw amazing interest in Christ as He has called is to a life that is truly alien to their view of god(s). The mainland Chinese may be atheists, but they have this same 3000 year old philosophy just jaded by communist poverty.

  26. I would love to hear some comments from members of China’s underground Christian community. What elements of the Gospel most attracted them? Why were they willing to go against the flow of their society — facing persecution, imprisonment, or even death — to follow Christ? What is the elemental nature of their faith? Is it rationally based? Is it primarily experiential? How do they present the Gospel to their countrymen? How do they view themselves within the context of a decidedly nonChristian society? How do they view themselves in the context of global Christianity and its numerous divisions?
    I’m just curious. So, if there are any native Chinese Christians tapping in on iMonk, I (for one) would love to hear from you.

  27. Michael the Haggard, that’s one side of the story… not the whole picture (leaving out other important parts of Confuciansm and Taoism, like ethics). So, accurate as far as it goes, but missing some essential pieces.


  28. e2c; Notice that I speak of daily practice and popular culture… not the specifics of the philosophies. A thinker may know these things… but common man in his daily living and ethics? Come visit. Cheating in not only common, but nearly encouraged. Confucius and Laozi would not be impressed with today’s Taiwan. Gods are there to beg gifts from and nothing, NOTHING more. That is as deep as the faith gets here… and I am talking even about some really “devout” worshipers. But not scholars or monks. How are scholars and monks viewed by most people? As people who don’t get it… they are too pie-in-the sky and divided from the real world.

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