Outsiders and the Holy Spirit

atheists buddhists hindus holy spirit islam jehovah's witnesses latter-day saints materialists muhammad qur'an spiritual agnostics

 This article comes from the September 6th, 2023 edition of the Exploration Society Journal.

“Jeremy! Question…”

The voice memo from Phylicia started as most of hers do. She has an unmatched energy and her messages to me are always a reflection of her own deep thinking. Simply put, if I see her name pop up on my phone, I know my day is about to change in some way. She went on to tell me how her women’s theology small group was discussing the Holy Spirit and the question of how to explain the Holy Spirit came up. Even more interesting, they began to discuss how they would explain the topic to someone from another religion.

“One of them said, ‘You should ask your friend All Things All People!’”

Phylicia laughed at the notion that my name was All Things All People and I paused for a moment to appreciate how effective our branding has gotten. There are people in the world who don’t know my name, but they know ATAP’s. Perfect.

“I told them I would ask you and see if you have any thoughts,” Phylicia said.

As I processed the question, I began to realize how much depth there was to formulate an answer. I immediately realized that I had never thought about how I would explain the Holy Spirit to someone from another faith or worldview. It seems that much of our explanation of the Holy Spirit is wrapped in apologetic arguments seeking to offer proof for trinitarianism, but most of our efforts to explain God to non-believers have historically been focused on the Father, and the Son. After I responded to Phylicia that I would get to work on the question, I immediately began to scribble notes on my yellow legal pad. At the top of the page, I underline a note to myself: “One explanation does not fit all.”

What Does the Bible Teach Us About the Spirit?

In Acts 5, Peter rebukes Ananias after he and his wife were found to be deceptive in their dealings with the church. “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit…?” He then charges, “You have not lied to man but to God.” Here we see one of many instances in scripture where the mention of the Spirit of God is given the same weight as every other mention of God. The Bible is full of allusion to the deity of the Holy Spirit. As important though is the Bible’s constant witness to the fact that Spirit has personality and interacts with humanity in an intimate way. Ephesians 4 says the Spirit can be grieved by humans, and 1 Corinthians 12 teaches that the gifts of the spirit are given as the Spirit “wills”.

Christians have historically understood the Holy Spirit to be the third person of the trinitarian nature of God. One person of God among two others, but all three wrapped into one essence. It is a topic that is often misunderstood, even in Christian circles. It is also one of the most controversial ideas the world has ever seen. It is often the theological catalyst for pseudo-Christian sects to break away from the rest of Christendom. It will usually be one of the first things a Muslim will take issue with when discussing faith with a Christian. To the rest of the world, trinitarianism and the Spirit’s role in particular often seems to be at best impossible to understand and at worst a contradiction. It has never helped that even inside of Christianity there is little agreement over who and what the Spirit is. The end result is that the rest of the world has no idea who or what the Spirit is because most Christians don’t know enough about it to explain it to them. Instead, we offer salvation through Jesus as if the Spirit plays no role in a person’s regeneration. If the theology of the early church is to be taken seriously, the modern Christian must realize that the Holy Spirit plays as much a role in their salvation and sanctification as the Father and the Son. This is despite the fact that it is much more difficult to conceptualize the role and function of the Spirit. A biblical understanding of pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit) may actually be the key to unlocking a more fruitful evangelism among other faiths and worldviews. This is even more important when one considers how different the conversation about the Spirit might be depending on who you are talking to, and the preconceived notions various people might have depending on the religious ideas to subscribe to.

Atheists & Materialists: Who We Think We are Talking to

My undergraduate years were filled with instruction that made it seem as if most non-Christians I would come across were atheists in the same fashion as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. These “New Atheists” were militantly anti-theist, and they approached spirituality with a materialist worldview. Many of them suggested that the whole of reality was purely material. Any truth claims stemming from a spiritual point of view were seen as laughable and antiquated. My first years in ministry were spent looking for these types of atheists only to find that they were not as prevalent as I, and many other Christians, thought they would be. There are still some who suggest that the immaterial and spiritual components of Christianity are solely matters of faith and fairytale. To people with this point of view, the Holy Spirit will be a stumbling block.

I have found that in conversing with people like this, it is important to explain why I have the beliefs that I do and ask questions to find out if they actually are as materialistic as they suggest. Questions like, “Do you believe in ghosts?” and “Do you believe in karma?” can uncover that some atheists are not actually materialists. If someone who claims to be an atheist has room in their worldview for some forms of spirit and cosmic forces, then they have room for the Holy Spirit. I would seek to explain that if the God I believe to be real actually exists, then it would be logical to believe that He is present in some fashion in the spiritual world of ghosts and karma. The conversation might not aim at trying to win an atheist over to share my belief, instead focusing on showing that the Christian belief in the Holy Spirit is not as foolish as they might believe. It is important to remember though that, at least in my experience, most atheists are not Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Most atheists are genuinely convinced that there is no god, but recent statistics show that most are not as militantly in favor of materialism as many Christians believe them to be. This should be encouraging as it leaves room for most conversation.

Advice: Ask questions to determine if the atheist is as materialist as you think they are. If not, seek to explain why God is present and active in the immaterial world.

Spiritual Agnostics: Who We Are Probably Talking To

Exploring the religious landscape in the 21st-century Western world has led me to believe that most non-believers are actually "spiritual agnostics". This entails a hesitancy to make truth claims about the existence or nature of a god but leaves room for spirituality. Many “religious nones” as they are sometimes called maintain belief in an afterlife, immaterial forces, ghosts, and other tenets that might have before only been found within the ranks of the religious. Around my area of North Carolina, an entire day can be spent wandering metaphysical and occult shops filled with crystals, charms, and other tools to engage with the spiritual world. Yet, there are few in those shops that would claim allegiance to any one set of dogma. While the notion of engaging those found in this world on the topic of the Holy Spirit might seem intimidating, it is potentially the most fruitful way to approach the subject of the Christian faith and message.

We must keep in mind that between a Christian and someone within the metaphysical movement, there are actually quite a few shared beliefs. Both agree that there is a spiritual component to reality that is as real as the physical- we disagree though on who is over and above that spiritual world. And while the individual who entertains the use of those crystals and charms is seeking to manipulate that spiritual world in their favor, the Christians instead abide in the advocacy, protection, and comfort of the Holy Spirit. As Christians grow in their understanding of the “unseen realm”, they must grow too in their willingness to use it as a common ground with those who believe in it yet do not understand it fully.

Advice: For the person who readily believes in spirituality yet rejects Christianity, seek to show that the Christian worldview has more to say about the “unseen realm” than they might realize. The Holy Spirit is the hallmark component of that discussion and might actually make more sense to the Spiritual Agnostic than we might expect.

Latter-day Saints & Jehovah’s Witnesses: Who Is At Our Door

The Latter-day Saint or Jehovah’s Witness at your door believes in the Holy Spirit too, though they have completely different beliefs than the rest of Christianity. Latter-day Saints believe the three persons of the trinity are actually three separate entities entirely, and that both the Father and Jesus are actually made up of physical bodies. They believe that the Spirit is not equal to God at all. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Holy Spirit is God’s active force. They do not believe that the spirit is a personal entity at all and is instead simply a projection of God’s will in action.

These beliefs set these groups apart completely from the rest of Christendom and make conversation on the topic of the Holy Spirit extremely difficult. The biblical references that show the personality and will of the Spirit should remain front and center in these discussions.

Advice: Do not allow the manipulation of the scriptures to stand as truth. Great lengths have been taken by these groups (especially Jehovah’s Witnesses) to reinterpret the meaning of the scriptures on the personality and godhood of the Spirit. Familiarize yourself with what the scriptures say about the Spirit in such a way that you won’t be thrown off by these claims.

Hindus & Buddhists: Who We Think Isn’t Here

The group most Western Christians are least equipped to evangelize are those that come from South Asian backgrounds. Yet over the last century, they have migrated to the Western world in droves and have become important parts of our culture. They are neglected and ignored by the western church though, and I believe that is due to the fact that most Christians have no idea how to engage in conversation with them on matters of faith.

Most who belong to South Asian religious traditions profess belief in karma and reincarnation. Despite the fact that the historic teachings of the Buddha seem to be non-theistic, most Buddhists do in fact believe in spiritual figures who play a role in bringing about nirvana in the lives of those in this present age. So the same common ground found within the above groups is present in this group as well. Along with this, an appeal to the Holy Spirit being the Christian’s “comforter” should be highlighted as well. Simply put, karma and reincarnation (samsara) can be an intimidating and dismal lens to view the world. Many Hindus and Buddhists are living lives looking towards a seemingly endless stream of future lives all aimed at one goal: to be released from the cycle of rebirth they believe all of us are bound to. The belief then that God is present in the spiritual world and that one of His primary goals is to comfort us might prove appealing to those who feel as if the spiritual world has little comfort and instead calls for sacrifice and resignation.

Advice: Be sure to highlight who exactly the Spirit is and what exactly the Spirit does. God is especially loving and cares deeply for us, and this is not found in all religious worldviews.

Muslims: Who Thinks We Are Polytheists

While the Qur’an is full of references to the “ruh al-qudus” (spirit of the holy), most Muslim interpreters have insisted that these refer to the angel Gabriel. This is due to the Islamic doctrine of Tawhid, which is the belief that Allah is one. The Qur’an, which came through the supposed revelation by Gabriel to Muhammad in the 6th century, refers to Christians and Jews often and insists that trinitarianism is flawed. It is not uncommon for Muslims to accuse Christians of polytheism. It should be mentioned though that the Qur’an’s charges against trinitarianism include Mary as the third member of the Christian trinity, not the Holy Spirit. This would show that Muhammad misunderstood the Christian teaching entirely.

While many Muslims believe that Christian scripture has been corrupted, it is helpful to remember that most Muslims have never read the Bible themselves. Seemingly, Muhammad himself only had a loose grasp on what the church taught about the nature of God. It might be enlightening to Muslims if they were to explore the scriptures themselves to see what the Bible actually teaches about the Spirit.

Advice: Even the suggestion of the existence of the Holy Spirit is hugely offensive to a Muslim who believes Allah is one, and that the Qur’an’s mentions of the “spirit of the holy” are referring to Gabriel. Despite this, an offer to walk through the Christian scriptures with a Muslim who is unfamiliar with them may prove fruitful. Comparing the Qur’an’s words on the Christian trinity with what the Bible actually says might show that it is a flawed document.

An Appeal to Mystery

Overwhelmingly, I find great comfort in the fact that I cannot figure God out. No more do I feel this than when I ponder his Trinitarian nature. I fully believe it to be a mystery and one that I may never truly understand- even in eternity. I believe that an appeal to mystery needs to be more often utilized in our evangelism and apologetics. As we communicate about our God and what he has done in human history, why would I ever suggest that I could neatly explain everything about him? Why do we think this would make him more appealing to an outsider? The God of our evangelism should be one that is as deep as the ocean and as vast as space. He should be a God we never grow tired of exploring- because that is who he is. As we communicate to people of other faiths; whether about the Father, the Son, or the Spirit- we must tell them of a God who cannot be figured out. If our God could be figured out and neatly packaged into our apologetic arguments and evangelistic methods, would he even be worth worshiping?

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