Religious Atheism

Psalm 14:1 —

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.

James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1994), pages 81–82:

The sentence seems to say that atheists are silly and atheism is frivolous. We know that in our culture that is not so. The denial of the existence of God is made by serious and honest people. In the society that this psalm describes, however, nabal does not mean things like dumb, inept, silly, clown, buffoon. Rather, the term designates a person who decides and acts on the basis of the wrong assumption. . . . A nabal is a person who, whether shrewd or powerful, makes a mistake about reality.

The “foolishness” with which the psalm is concerned is to say in one’s heart there is no God. That may sound as though the psalmist lived in a secular society and endured atheists who denied the existence of God. But the rest of the psalm makes it clear that the problem is not a reasoned intellectual argument against the existence of God but conduct based on the private assumption that human beings are not held accountable by God.

The psalmist reasons from the way people act to the way they think.

If people enact life in corrupt and perverse ways (vv. 1–3), do not pray to God in their need but live by preying on others (v. 4), then they are denying the reality of the LORD, the God of exodus and the covenant and the prophets. . . . It does not address, therefore, the phenomenon of modern atheism directly. But the “atheism” it does uncover is more dangerous, insidious, and general because it is a reasoning that can be found, as the prophets and Jesus insisted, in the hearts of the religious as well as the secular.

The psalm is not concerned with the question of whether people accept the existence of a supreme being. It is concerned with whether people acknowledge the reality of the LORD, the God of Israel, by calling on the LORD in need and seeking the LORD in the decisions of life.

Indeed, this “no God” as “no culpability” line of thinking is more flagrantly connected in Psalm 10:4,13.

Erotic, Agapeic, Plerotic? Understanding the Creator’s Relationship to Creation

Models of God’s relationship to creation have led to endless debates over the centuries, important debates we must get right because our knowledge of God is directly informed (or de-formed) by our conclusions here. In fact, how we explain this to our kids will have implications on what they think God needs from us, or what he’s trying to give us.

So I was thrilled to hear Michael J. McClymond employed his brilliant mind and research skills to the often ignored problem of Christian universalism (the idea, found among professing Christians, that everyone will be saved in the end). Because how we understand God’s relationship to creation is directly bound to whether we accept or reject the heresy of universalism.

McClymond brings the theme to a boil near the end of his new, two-volume work: The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic; June 5, 2018).

There he introduces three key Greek terms. The erotic (self-fulfillment sought in another), the agapeic (an overflow of free love), and the plerotic (an overflow of abounding fullness).

First, the plerotic

Rather than adopting a logic of deficiency and lack, Christian thinkers in approaching God might instead be guided by a logic of plenitude and sufficiency. … In a “plerotic” view, the stress would lie not on metaphysical deficiency but on the fullness, completeness, and overflow of the Father’s existence in the existence of the Son and of the Spirit. Within the intra-trinitarian life of God — so far as we understand it — there is no competition, no give-and-take, no fixed sum of available deity. The language of the Nicene Creed might suggest a plerotic interpretation: “The only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.” Where here is the tug-of-war? Where is the competitive relation of Father and Son? These are non-Nicene notions of God. Do we not instead see in the creed a beautiful picture of the Son as the overflow or fullness (plērōma) of the Father’s being? “For in him the whole fullness [plērōma] of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). (1,024)

Later he builds from the plerotic (an overflow of abounding fulness) to the agapeic (an overflow of free love) in contrast to the erotic (self-fulfillment sought in another) —

The universalist problem with grace is intimately connected to the universalist problem with God. Philosophers Leszak Kolakowski and William Desmond both distinguished “erotic” from “agapeic” conceptions of God. Kolakowski captures the basic idea and the basic problem of an “erotic” deity in this way: “God brought the Universe into being so that He might grow in its body. . . . He needs His alienated creatures to complete His perfection. The growth of the universe . . . involves God himself in the historical process. Consequently God himself becomes historical. At the culmination of cosmic evolution He is not what He was ‘in the beginning.’ He creates the world and in reabsorbing it enriches Himself.”

When God is conceived of “erotically” rather than “agapeistically,” God remains in what a psychologist might call a codependent relationship with the world. For this reason God cannot love in a free, full, or independent way. Grace in the biblical sense becomes impossible, not because of an impediment on the human side but because of an inherent limitation or flaw within God.

According to the “erotic” model, God is initially deficient in himself and then seeks to complete what is lacking in himself. The emergence and development of the cosmos is a process in which God is developing toward completion, so that the world fulfills God just as God fulfills the world. One might call this a philosophical hieros gamos (sacred marriage). God and the world are “married.”

The God-concept in Böhme, Hegel, Whitehead, process thought, and much of current kenotic-relational theology is based on the “erotic” rather than the “agapeic” model. God needs the world. God becomes complete through relating to the world. But the biblical idea of free grace is ruled out in erotic conceptions of God. (1,032)

He concludes —

The God-concept of historic Christianity, which is “agapeic,” holds that God created the world out of a sufficiency or even a surplus of being, happiness, and goodness. As Augustine wrote, “We exist because God is good.” The world is an overflow of divine goodness, yet God does not “need” the world. This viewpoint, connected with the foundational Christian teaching on creation from nothing, makes it possible to conceive that God is genuinely gracious and that God loves the world freely and unconditionally. (1,032)

God’s purpose for creation must be explained in ways that affirm that the Creator is not served by human hands, “as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25). He needs nothing. In him is fullness. We cannot add to him. And yet he created, created freely, created a world for the overflow of his person, his joy, his grace, a place where the abundance of his love would flow freely to us. Only a God who doesn’t need you can be the God who endlessly satisfies you (Ps. 147:10–11). These are profound connections worthy of deep reflection and lifelong worship, and words appropriate for even our children to grasp.

The God Who Makes Jobs, Fills Jobs (Psalm 8)

Psalm 8:6–8 —

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under his feet,
     all sheep and oxen,
     and also the beasts of the field,
     the birds of the heavens,
     and the fish of the sea,
       whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Scattered across the globe are thickly dusted coal miners deep in the earth, sunburned farmers on top of the earth, chefs in kitchens, cattle ranchers, lawyers, politicians, horse tamers, teachers, brick masons, writers, auto mechanics, computer programmers, mothers managing kids and grocery store product price comparisons at the same time.

Countless occupations. And according to Psalm 8 all our legitimate jobs are traced back to God’s special design.

Along with its rich Christological truths, Psalm 8 paints a picture of humankind given dominion over God’s work of creation. And while the tone of the Psalm is one of awe, wonder, and joy at God, writes Ben Witherington, it is specifically awe, wonder, and joy over the majesty of God’s deep concern for us in his design of human nature and human vocation over creation.

“We are told that humankind is bequeathed both glory and the functions of God (though on a lesser scale), that is, to rule over all of creation,” he writes. “Notice that it is God who is the actor in all these actions (‘you made . . . you put’). We are not talking about human accomplishment or what humans deserve, but rather the plan and gift of God. We were meant and made to be rulers over all the works of God’s hands.”

God creates the planet, calls forth vocations, and then actively places and activates his image bearers in specific occupations. And what makes this point especially definite is the cultural contrast. “This stress on human dominion over creation was a revolutionary doctrine,” he writes. “Other ancient Near Eastern cultures saw the gods as part of nature, and all humans as slaves of the gods under the sway of the stars (hence the need for astrology). But it is not by recognizing nature as humankind’s mother, but rather God as its father, that human beings come to understand why they are here. Only by God’s special revelation through his word do humans learn of their true place and task in life.”

Our role in creation is not discovered or settled by astrological signs. Our callings are not simply the byproduct of nature’s latent possibilities. Each human occupation is the result of God’s unique calling for each life based on his design for the planet. Creation and vocation are linked by the command of God.

In other words, to see the earth full of vocationally called image-bearers leads us back to the awesome wonder of God. Browse a list of every available job on the planet, and then, if you have eyes to see divine glory, work backwards until you can see the God who calls each creation-serving vocation into being, and who fills each job opening with an image bearer of his, a vice regent of God’s rule over his creation.

Think like this long enough and eventually you must be overcome with the joy and wonder of beholding the evidence of God’s endless creativity over this planet, and all the particular callings and jobs he called into being. God’s care for us is this deep. He makes jobs and fills jobs. Such a sovereignly invested God must lead us to proclaim: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (v. 1).

Source: Ben Witherington III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics (2017), 52–54. An Arminian biblical theologian, one I disagree with regularly, BW3 offers marvelous insight in his new trilogy on intertextuality (i.e. the NT use of the OT) in Isaiah (2017), the Psalms (2017), and now finally the Torah (2018).

The Scent of Memory

I recently wrote about the nose and how smells evoke memory. In our ocularcentric age, the sense of smell gets sorely undervalued. Scents process more slowly than sights. But it is the nose that most often evokes powerful and concrete memories, even bad ones.

I was struck by this fact again while listening to a recent interview with Bill Cosby accuser and former guest star on “The Cosby Show,” Lili Bernard. She recounted her attendance in the latest trial, and her poise in Cosby’s presence. “Being in a courtroom with a rapist was difficult but at the same time I felt empowered,” she said confidently. “When Bill Cosby passed by me, within inches, I was really pleased in that my heart didn’t quiver, my breathing didn’t become short. When he passed by me I looked at him with disdain as if he were disempowered. Being just inches away from him, where I could literally put my hand out and touch him, and not feel my heart quicken, and not to begin to hyperventilate, and be able to stand firm and not even feel afraid — for me it was a really empowering moment of healing.”

“But his odor,” she transitioned, as her voice broke. “Oh, shoot I’m going to cry.” She does. “Every time he passed by me in that courthouse, I smelled the tobacco. I smelled his sweat. I smelled his cologne. And that took me right back, because I remember the smell.”

An Age Without Scents

“The Song of Quoodle” is a rhyme by a dog (written by G. K. Chesterton). Really it’s a short lament that of all the wonders of the smellable world, we humans miss out. “They haven’t got no noses,” Quoodle opens, “The fallen sons of Eve / Even the smell of roses / Is not what they supposes” (Works 10.2, 477).

Alas, it’s true. The human sense of smell is dull, a sense we don’t cultivate with much attention. In fact, most of our entertainment is detached from the nose. Even our best novelists, the rare few writers who can put words to the human experience, mostly ignore the smells of storytelling.

We haven’t got no noses, and this is especially true in the age of the eye, an observation of philosopher Byung-Chul Han in The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering (Polity, 2017). There he compares optics and olfaction as a contrast of two ways of living: atomized time and eschatological time.

It’s one long essay on the sense of smell — a sense of lingering, a sense deeply connected to creation, community, covenant, our past, and our memory (see Gen. 27:27; Lev. 26:31). In comparison, 200 digital images can flash before our eyes in a minute. But smells don’t work the same way. Smells are immune from acceleration. You cannot enjoy 20 consecutive smells in one minute. Aromas cannot be scaled and accelerated like digital images get scaled and accelerated. Thus, in an age of acceleration, images overrun the senses and smells are ignored.

“A scent is slow,” writes Han. “Thus, as a medium, it is not adapted to the age of haste. Scents cannot be presented in as fast a sequence as optical images. In contrast to the latter, they can also not be accelerated. A society dominated by scents would probably not develop any inclinations towards change or acceleration. It would live off its recollections and its memory, off those things that are slow and long-lasting. The age of haste, by contrast, is a ‘cinematographic’ age, one that is to a large extent shaped by the visual. Such an age accelerates the world into a ‘cinematograph film of . . . things’ [Proust]. Time disintegrates into a mere sequence of present moments. The age of haste is an age without scents” (46).

We should all stop and smell the roses, and the stopping is the necessary point by which we can begin to smell. To smell is to linger. We cannot smell until we stop. We cannot smell until we see that some created beauties are immune to acceleration. This is one non-negotiable to enjoying the fragrances of the Creator, wonders more obvious to lesser beasts.

Free Study Guide for 12 Ways

This summer, my book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, was released (Crossway). It has been received well in the States, and seven international publishers are currently working on translations (Dutch, French, Italian, Malayalam, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish).

Part of my encouragement comes from the many parents who are using the book in their family devotions, and many pastors who are using the book in family discipleship and teen training contexts. I wrote the book as a tool to equip parents and pastors, those Christians on the front lines in a new awakening to the cataclysmic personal and spiritual changes in the wake of the digital age. In turn, those parents and pastors are strategically positioned to get the book into the hands of the youth and teens of the iGen, and for this I am deeply grateful.

Today I received a copy of the following family discussion guide, written by pastor Chip Cowsert. He serves as the director of student ministries at the historic First Presbyterian Church of Meridian in Mississippi.

I’m posting the guide here with his permission, and with the prayer that it will serve other parents and leaders. Feel free to copy and paste and adapt it to serve your needs.


Family Discussion Guide:
12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You

The following questions are based off Tony Reinke’s book, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You. I am challenging each family in our student ministry to put this family discussion guide to work! There are a few open-ended questions and a passage of Scripture for each topic.

A few ways this resource could be used:

1. Work through one topic each week as a family devotion.
2. Pick a few questions to ask and discuss at the dinner table.
3. Buy the book, read along, and ask your family these questions.

Introduction and Chapter 1 — We Are Addicted to Distraction

What is technology? (Share your own definitions, but feel free to look one up.)

What are some good ways technology can be used? What are some harmful ways that technology can be used?

What are some ways that technology (phones, letters, cars, etc.) can improve our relationships?

What are some ways that technology can detract from our relationships?

What are your favorite things to do with smartphones?

We check our smartphones 81,500 times each year, or about every 4.3 minutes of our waking lives. Do you think that’s too much, too little, or about right? Why?

Why do you most often check your phone? Read Psalm 109:2–13.

How do smartphones resemble the hand-carved idols of ancient people?

Chapter 2 — We Ignore Our Own Flesh and Blood

46 of 50 states have outlawed texting and driving. Why do you think that people still do it? How does this practice show a disregard for the people physically closest to us?

Read John 1:14, John 6:51, and 1 Corinthians 15:42–43. In what ways does the Bible speak highly of our physical bodies?

Read 2 John 1:12. Do you think that spending time with someone in person is even better than communicating via technology? Why or why not?

How might our phones prevent us from interacting with the people around us?

Jesus came in the flesh, and commanded us to meet together, to eat the Lord’s Supper, and to be baptized with water. Why do you think that God calls for so much of the Christian life to be done with our bodies?

How might smartphones cause us to ignore our bodies?

Chapter 3 — We Crave Immediate Approval

What are some ways that a teenage girl might seek approval on Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram?

What are some ways that a teenage boy might try to gain approval on Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram?

Does life online feel socially safer than real life? Why or why not?

Do you feel more comfortable knocking or someone’s door or sending them a text? Why?

What are some awkward, boring, or uncomfortable “real life” environments for you? How might these environments be good for you?

Are people more comfortable arguing online or in person? Why do you think that is?

Do you ever find yourself trying to impress people online? How? (This might be a topic for parents to model vulnerability and confession!)

How does knowing Jesus address our deep need for approval? Can you think of (or look up) any verses that address this?

Read Isaiah 43:1–2. How does knowing Jesus reduce our social anxiety?

Chapter 4 — We Lose Our Literacy

What is the best book you’ve ever read? What did you like about it?

Christians, on average, read slightly more books per year than the general population. Why do you think that is?

A fairly large number of Christian smartphone users are beginning to read more books, but more commonly, smartphone users are reading fewer books than ever. Why do you think phones may help some people to read more, but others to read less?

In this chapter, Reinke claims that “by seeking trivial pleasure in our phones, we train ourselves to want more of those trivial pleasures.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

Reinke also argues that reading on our phones is training us to skim quickly (a good skill), but that we may be losing our ability to concentrate on a text or a story. Why might these habits be detrimental to our spiritual health?

As a family, read Psalm 1. What do you think it means to “meditate on the law of the Lord day and night”? What does God promise for those who do?

Chapter 5 — We Feed on the Produced

What celebrities do you like to read, watch, or learn about? What makes them so interesting?

Would it make you uncomfortable to have a really fun day, in a really cool place, and not be able to post a picture of it online? Why or why not?

In this chapter, the author argues that our desire to photograph our most powerful experiences may dull the actual experience and our memory of it. (In other words, we miss out on the depth of an event when we’re busy photographing it.) Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

In this chapter, the author also argues that when we obsess over capturing moments, we are subtly believing that we may never be this close to glory again. How might a Christian worldview challenge that belief?

On the nine-month anniversary of her social media sobriety (from Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter), the author’s wife said, “Compulsive social media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.” What do you think she meant by this? Do you agree?

Read Psalm 19:1. What is one way that you could enjoy God’s creation (without your phone) this week? Ask God to help you see his glory in creation this week.

Chapter 6 — We Become What We “Like”

What is something that a lot of guys in your group of friends wear (a brand, a style)?

What is something that a lot of girls wear?

Why do you think we dress like so many of our friends? Who is someone that you’d like to be more like?

Inevitably, when we worship someone (or find them worthy) we will become like them. By worshiping dead idols, we become spiritually dead. By worshipping trivial comforts, we become trivial (and maybe comfortable). In what ways do you think your phone might be changing you?

Read Isaiah 44:9–20. What are some things (maybe even good things) in your life that may compete with God for the ultimate love of your heart? (Mom and Dad may have to model and explain this.)

If life is about more than what goes on in our smartphones, then how might we practice “digital repentance” in your life? (Some possible examples: Having a ‘no-phone’ Bible reading time on your schedule, going back to a flip phone, deleting a certain app, removing push notifications on your email, only checking email twice a day, having a drawer in your house that your phone goes in during “family hours.”)

Chapter 7 — We Get Lonely

What are some ways that technological advance has worked to isolate us? (For example, the fireplace where families used to gather gave way to central heat; milk delivery replaced by refrigeration, etc.)

Smartphones make for easy social shields. We don’t have to talk in elevators, on buses, or even to our closest friends when we don’t feel like it. How might this be detrimental to our growth as human beings?

Smartphones make it easy for us to “feel connected,” even when we’re by ourselves. How might the absence of regular times of true solitude affect our emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual lives?

Read Psalm 46:10.

Why is it important for Christians to spend time in quiet, isolated communion with God? How does this benefit us?

John Piper identified three “candy motives” and three “avoidance motives” that act as lures to checking our smartphones during times of solitude.

1. Novelty candy — we want to know what’s new in the world and among our friends. We don’t want to miss out.
2. Ego Candy — we want to know what people are saying about us and how they are responding to things we’ve said and posted.
3. Entertainment Candy — we want to be fascinated, impressed, weirded out, or shocked.
4. Boredom Avoidance — we want to put off the day ahead, especially if it’s boring or routine.
5. Responsibility Avoidance — we want to put off the burdens of the roles God has called us to as fathers, mothers, employees, bosses, and students.
6. Hardship Avoidance — we want to put off dealing with relational conflicts or the pain, disease, and disabilities of our bodies.

Which of these attractions to smartphones are you most prone to? What are some spiritual truths that could help you gain freedom from that attraction? (Parents, this is a great chance to share gospel truths with your kids. The only way to defeat a desire is to replace it with a more satisfying desire!)

Chapter 8 — We Get Comfortable in Secret Vices

Read 1 Thessalonians 4:3–5.

How does a love for Jesus transform us?

What sins in your life are made more easily accessible by your smartphone? Read Mathew 5:27–28.

In this verse, Jesus challenges us to fight our sin, even if the sin is more comfortable to us than the fight. Have you ever considered radical measures to fight secret sin in your life?

Are there any steps that you could take to fight your sinful habits? Confessing them to a parent? Giving up your smartphone? Giving your parents access to your social media? Keeping your smartphone out of your room? Read Hebrews 12:1-2.

This verse invites us to “look to Jesus” as we run our race. How does looking to Jesus help us “set aside the sin which clings so closely”?

Two questions for self-reflection:

1. Am I safeguarding myself from smartphone sin and practicing smartphone self-denial?
2. Am I simultaneously seeking to satisfy my heart with divine glory, even if it is (for now) invisible?

Chapter 9 — We Lose Meaning

The average output of email and social-media text is estimated at 3.6 trillion words, or about thirty-six million books — typed out every day! How do you think this constant flow is affecting the value of these words to us?

“Neomania” is an addiction to anything that is new within the last five minutes. What are some ways that smartphones produce neomania? In what ways does this cost us?

Read Lamentations 3:22.

Do you think an unhealthy desire to stay current could prevent us from experiencing the timelessness of God? Why or why not?

Read Job 28:1–11 and list the accomplishments of technology that you see. Read Job 28:12–28 and discuss the limitations of technology.

Pray that God would fill your family with great and godly purposes.

Chapter 10 — We Fear Missing Out

Check out this new entry in the Oxford English Dictionary: “FOMO—Fear of missing out, anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Now ask this question. “Why does social media seem to be increasing our FOMO”? Why does it hurt so much to feel left out?

Why does it feel so good to flaunt our fun experiences online?

How realistic are the “personas” of the people you follow online? Why? Why could Adam and Eve’s first sin be described as FOMO?

Read Hebrews 4:1 and note that there is one kind of FOMO that God wants us to have (the fear of missing out on eternal rest). Now read Hebrews 3:12–19 and list what actions and habits should accompany this fear.

How does knowing Christ remove the fear of missing out (FOMO) on eternal life?

Chapter 11 — We Become Harsh to One Another

Read Matthew 15:15–20. How should this passage shape the way we think about online disagreements?

Describe a time when something you saw online made you angry.

Why do you think there are so many harsh comments online? Do you think that people are just as harsh in person? Why or why not?

How does James 4:11–12 govern the dirt that we have on other people? What would be some good questions to ask ourselves before posting?

How does a relationship with Jesus transform us into kinder, patient, more optimistic, and more loving people?

Chapter 12 — We Lose Our Place in Time

Read Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 and imagine trying to emotionally engage each of those occasions at once. How deeply can we possibly feel multiple emotions at the same time? Do you ever feel numb as you scroll through tragic news, great accomplishments, trivial jokes, and meaningless updates?

Read Ephesians 5:15–18. What are some things that you’d like to spend more time on? What’s keeping you from doing so?

What are some of the times in Scripture that we are called to “remember”? How could life in the digital age make it difficult to remember what God has done in the past and what he has promised to do in the future?

Do you think it’s a good idea to use several hours each month browsing? Do you think you’re entitled to this time? How does the idea that you’ve been bought with a price affect the way you view your time? Does it?