The Atheist Within

The Atheist Within

Recently I engaged with an atheist in a short dialogue. I was drawn into the conversation because of the young man’s honesty and from a sense of love towards him and his soul. He stumbled into this blog by “accident” and he started asking some very good questions. But he also came in with a lot of presumptions, expecting responses from me like “of course you must believe because X, Y and Z are true.”

Instead, I felt led to share the struggles of unbelief in my Christian heart. I could tell that my response shocked him. He was saying he could not believe and I was saying — because of my sin — I too find it hard to believe. He assumed, as many atheists do, that faith is easy. In a sinful world that is a false assumption. Faith is not easy. Apart from God’s grace, faith is impossible.

Three interesting (and unexpected) conclusions resulted from this conversation.

First, because of the climate in our culture, the difference between atheists and Christians seems suited for a debate. Truly one is right, one is wrong. God is or He isn’t. Both opinions cannot be correct. But while I agree with this, the public polarization of the debate makes arbitrary distinctions between faith and reason, religion and science. Rather, the debate is solved by both faith and reason. God is not unreasonable. To ultimately conclude there is no God is not to lack faith, but to be a fool without knowledge (Ps. 14).

Secondly, belief is not easy or natural. He staked his claim in atheism and I stake my faith in the Cross, but there was a common conclusion: there is nothing easy about faith. The atheist assumes, for those living in a culture projecting Christianity, that faith is the easy response. Faith is never easy.

We assert with Peter, “Lord, I will never deny You” and then in our actions deny Him three times over. “I believe; help my unbelief!” is our cry (Mark 9:24). Christians transgress the greatest commandment every day by living in unbelief because at some level, all sinners (whether redeemed or unredeemed) are atheists. Atheism is not only a supposedly rational conclusion that a god does not exist, but also the practical conclusion that God is unworthy of my affection. The idols of my own heart reveal the depth of remaining atheism!

Look at your commitment to private prayer. Does it show a lack of faith in God’s existence? And only remaining unbelief would permit sin to continue our hearts. Each sin communicates the unworthiness of God. Paul says atheism is revealed by sexual sin, covetousness, envy, strife, lying, pride, disobedience to parents, being unloving, untrustworthy, unforgiving and unmerciful (Rom. 1:18-32). As long as sin remains, a level of atheism remains.

Third, the atheist assumed that God is pleased with me because I believe. This, too, is incorrect. God is pleased with me because His pleasure has been purchased in the blood of Jesus Christ! The blood of Christ shed on the Cross, not my faith, merits salvation from the guilt of sin and perfect righteousness. I have been embraced as the prodigal son into the arms of my adoptive Father through Christ (Luke 15:11-32).

What a glorious Savior that He saves even through faith the size of a mustard seed (Luke 17:6). By this, Jesus reminds us our salvation is not through great faith but through the great Savior. In the age of the telegraph C.H. Spurgeon said,

“There is no difference between one believer and another as to justification. So long as there is a connection between you and Christ the righteousness of God is yours. The link may be very like a film, a spider’s line of trembling faith, but, if it runs all the way from the heart to Christ, divine grace can and will flow along the most slender thread. It is marvelous how fine the wire may be that will carry the electric flash. We may want a cable to carry a message across the sea, but that is for the protection of the wire, the wire which actually carries the message is a slender thing. If thy faith be of the mustard-seed kind, if it be only such as tremblingly touches the Savior’s garment’s hem, if thou canst only say ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief,’ if it be but the faith of sinking Peter, or weeping Mary, yet if it be faith in Christ, he will be the end of the law for righteousness to thee as well as to the chief of the apostles.”

Unbelief is a very serious sin, a sin Christians grieve over in their own hearts. This personal struggle equips believers to be especially sensitive and knowledgeable of atheism. Added to this, atheistic chatter always reaches a pinnacle near presidential elections. This discussion will continue heating up and provide excellent opportunities to share the greatness and beauty of Jesus Christ and His Cross that redeems us from our sin. It just may be that a slender wire of faith, rather than a polemical debate, separates our hearts.

When we as Christians see the atheist within our hearts we begin to understand the glorious greatness our Savior! What a beautiful Savior that holds on to sinners and never lets go.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)

Ray Comfort: “Eyes that see and a brain that works”

Ray Comfort’s “debate” happened this afternoon (watch here). I’m at least very thankful for his presentation of the gospel message, although he said he would not open his Bible. Atheist rebuttal: “The Ten Commandments were used wholly for his proof.” Indeed, there was a little bait-and-switch not unlike what Josh Sowin was worried about. Overall, the atheist argument was predictable, underdeveloped and a bit reminded me of high school debates (“there are way more better arguments”).

Kirk’s “wake-up call” for the audience to think was good as was his presentation of his testimony though no mention of the Cross.

The highlight for me was Kirk’s response to the question that god is merely the projection of our cultures. In other words, let’s assume god exists, why not follow the god of Islam? Cameron responded with REVELATION! How amazing. This is how you respond to this question (just don’t advertise the debate with the promise of keeping your Bible closed). God reveals Himself in His Word and His Son and converts sinners in America and Pakistan and wherever. This takes courage in a debate.

Overall, it was a strange “debate” that did not seem to showcase the best arguments on either side from a convincing scientific standpoint. Comfort said he could make undeniable scientific claims and would not open the Bible. He seemed to fail on both promises to a watching world. Evangelicals were concerned of being represented by Comfort and their concerns were justified. The lesson for future recollection: What parameters are Evangelical Christians willing to draw in advertising the debate? And what will they promise to deliver?

Atheism, the Cross and Revelation

Many debates between a Christian and atheist go something like this:

Christian: “God exists because we see the influences of a Creator all around us. Only His existence can make sense of everything else.”

Atheist: “Okay, so God exists. Now why are you a Christian and not Jewish or Mormon or Islamic?”

Christian: “Ummm” (insert awkward relativism like: “For me Christianity makes the most sense”) …

If you don’t think this fumbling happens, I would encourage you to listen to the recent McGrath/Dawkins debate. When a Christian debates an atheist – as you hear in this and many other debates – there comes a moment when the debate takes an awkward turn. The question changes from the existence of God to why the Christian has chosen his/her religion over all the others. It’s an awkward moment because it reveals that the Christian was debating from rationalism, not pleading obedience to God’s revelation. This misunderstanding gets exposed with one simple question.

So you believe in God. What makes Jesus Christ your god of choice? It seems the only objective answer to this most pressing question is to say God is found in His Son as revealed in His Word. It’s here that the wisdom of God will get you laughed out of an academic debate. But Scripture makes this point clear in several places:

1 John 2:23 “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”

1 John 4:15 “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”

1 John 5:1 “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.”

2 John 1:9 “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

In other words, if you have not persuasively turned sinners toward Jesus Christ and the Cross you have not persuaded sinners to God! Even if you can prove God exists — if this is where you end — you have won nothing. When Christians dialogue with atheists/skeptics/agnostics, the discussion must move beyond the mere existence of a god (and the skeptic knows this!).

Attempts to prove the existence of God make it very easy to forget the message of the Cross of Christ. Keeping the Cross central in our conversations with atheists demands that we have a firm handle on the revelation of God that breaks into our hearts and is confirmed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’m not supposing we should disengage the debates. Certainly not! The church must continue to engage culture (and atheism is a growing segment of our cultural fabric in America). I’m arguing that a successful debate cannot be defined as the persuading of others of the existence of God. Rather, God is here, He is angry towards sin every day and sinners must bow and repent from their sin. Especially when we enter the philosophical and academic centers of the world God calls us to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:30-31).

If we have not (by God’s grace) persuaded skeptics to the Cross, neither have we persuaded them to God. The Cross — not Deism — is the goal.

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As I finished this post, Jon Bloom posted an excellent comment on another post that fits here. Thanks Jon!

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.” – Christopher Hitchens.

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matt 11:25). “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). – Jesus

We will always be the infants of our species. Thank you, Tony!

Indeed, Jon. Thank you!

Atheism and Revelation

What I appreciate from Christopher Hitchens (and other atheist/skeptics) is the utter impossibility of the human mind to wrap itself around God.

“The mildest criticism of religion is also the most radical and the most devastating one. Religion is man-made. Even the men who made it cannot agree on what their prophets or redeemers or gurus actually said or did. Still less can they hope to tell us the ‘meaning’ of later discoveries and developments which were, when they began, either obstructed by their religions or denounced by them. And yet—the believers still claim to know! Not just to know, but to know everything. Not just to know that god exists, and that he created and supervised the whole enterprise, but also to know what ‘he’ demands of us—from our diet to our observances to our sexual morality. In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction—itself composed of mutually warring factions—has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need. Such stupidity, combined with such pride, should be enough on its own to exclude ‘belief’ from the debate. The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.” [Slate mag]

All the more, this forces us back to the graciousness of God, that He discloses Himself. First, in the “theater” of creation and then more specifically in His Word — Jesus Christ (John 1) — and then confirms His revelation by the power of His Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16). The answer is in Him, not my blog. As Tom Fluharty profoundly puts it, “I cannot be right and I’m never wrong because Christ is true!” Can the Church, following this revelation of God, be any less solipsistic?

1 John 5:9-10a says, “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself …” The testimony of men will prove to be a mass of contradictions, an unstable foundation for our eternal hope. But this is all we have until and unless God speaks and seals!

Created by God, for God

I’m a sucker for witty prose. So Sam Harris’ endorsement of atheist Christopher Hitchens’ new book (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) caught my attention:

“If God intended reasonable men and women to worship Him without embarrassment, why did He create Christopher Hitchens? It was a fatal miscalculation. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens not only demonstrates that religion is man-made — and made badly — he laughs the whole monstrosity to rubble. This is a profoundly clever book, addressing the most pressing social issue of our time, by one of the finest writers in the land.”

– Sam Harris, Author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation

I know this endorsement was intended to be funny, but it raises interesting questions: Was the creation of Christopher Hitchens a “fatal misconception” by God or is there more to it?

What if God — to declare his power throughout the world — created Christopher Hitchens to consume his mind with Himself? What if Christopher was created by God to shake lethargic God-ignorers into more serious thought? What if God created this atheist for the purpose of one day shocking the world by his repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? Maybe God created Christopher to further evidence the indestructibility of His church? Maybe Christopher was created to help the church sharpen its understanding of God’s Word, spiritual battles and the beautiful marriage of science and faith? Or maybe God created Christopher in order to patiently wait for an opportunity to display His holy power and wrath (Rom. 9:22)?

It’s not possible right now to know exactly why God created Christopher Hitchens. But somehow, at some time, God will reveal His infinite wisdom. Bottom line: God created Christopher Hitchens — and Sam Harris — for His own glory. What infinite wisdom! “For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1 Cor. 1:19).

Christopher Hitchens was no “fatal miscalculation.” He bears the Potter’s fingerprints as much as anyone.

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Related: See Doug Wilson’s review of God is Not Great.

Spiritual suicide and personal prayer

Spiritual suicide and personal prayer

“At the bottom and to begin with, there is some absolutely unaccountable alienation of our sinful hearts away from our Maker and our Redeemer. There is some utterly inexplicable estrangement from God that has, somehow, taken possession of your heart and mine. There is some dark mystery of iniquity here that has never yet been sufficiently cleared up. There is some awful ‘enmity against God,’ as the Holy Ghost has it: some awful malice that sometimes makes us hate the very thought of God. We hate God, indeed, much more than we love ourselves. For we knowingly endanger our immortal souls; every day and every night we risk death and hell itself [i.e. our greatest spiritual dangers] rather than come close to God and abide in secret prayer. This is the spiritual suicide that we could not have believed possible had we not discovered it in our own atheistical hearts. The thing is far too fearful to put into words. But put into words for once, this is what our everyday actions say concerning us in this supreme matter of prayer.

‘No; not tonight,’ we say, ‘I do not need to pray tonight. I am really very well tonight. My heart is much steadier in its beats tonight. And besides I have business on my hands that will take up all my time tonight. I have quite a pile of unanswered letters on my table tonight. And before I sleep I have the novel of the season to finish, for I must send it back tomorrow morning. And besides there is no such hurry as all that. I am not so old nor so frail as all that. Go thy way for this time, when I have a convenient season I will call for thee.’

But even when it is not so bad with us as that, at our very best there is a certain backwardness in prayer to which all praying men have to confess … There is no worse sign of our spiritual danger than the backwardness we have to pray. So weary are we of the duty, so glad are we to have it over, and so witty are we to find an excuse to evade it.”

– Alexander Whyte, Thomas Shepherd: Pilgrim Father and Founder of Harvard (Reformation Heritage; Grand Rapids, MI) 1909/2007. Pp. 55-56.