Christians Are Atheists, Too!

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Peter_Paul_Rubens_The_Fall_of_Phaeton-336x450 The above title comes across as a contradiction. It seems more like oil and water than chocolate and peanut butter. How can this be true? In an online article titled: “Conversations with Atheists” the author mentions that in her dialogue with atheists she will ask them the following question: “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in?” She says that usually she finds herself saying to them after they have responded, “I don’t believe in that god either.”[1] I think that this is an interesting question for us to ask the atheist today.  For example if they reply that the god they don’t believe in is the god of the “health and wealth gospel”, could you respond: “I don’t believe in that god either?” Or maybe the god they describe to us is the god that is the modern incarnation of American deism. Could you respond: “I don’t believe in that god either?” It may just be that you share in the same type of atheism since the god she doesn’t believe in is also the god that you don’t believe in.

I once heard a grad school professor say that America really is a polytheistic nation since so many people believe in so many different gods. In some respects it is reminiscent of Paul’s experience of Athens recorded in Acts 17:16 where the text notes that he was distressed over seeing so many idols in the city. The Romans loved having multiple gods. The more the merrier. Historically we even have a record of where the Roman senate debated the idea of including Jesus as one of the gods in the pantheon.[2] No different really than the way that Jesus is treated amongst the Hindus today. It strikes Christians as odd when they have walked into Hindu temples and see a picture of Jesus hanging next to pictures of Krishna, Vishnu, and the like.[3] While America is not a Christian nation by any stretch of the imagination, and there are many non-Christians religions which dot our pluralistic landscape, it is important to note that there are also various iterations of Jesus out there. The American pantheon does not just consist of Krishna or Allah, but we also have the Jesus of the “health and wealth” crowd, the social justice Jesus of the liberals, the “Save the Whales” Jesus of the Green party, the anti-gay marriage Jesus of the conservatives and on and on. The American version of Olympus gets so crowded with the various Jesuses that one wants to scream: “Will the real Jesus please stand up?”

While the Romans didn’t have an issue with polytheism those early brothers and sisters in the faith did. They refused to bend the knee to any of the Roman pantheon including the Emperor. They refused to call Caesar “Lord and Savior”. And in doing so they were labeled as being atheists.[4] Those faithful atheists were not folks who rejected any deities. They just rejected any other claims to deity that were not Jesus. Who gave proof of his divinity by rising from the dead – not as a ghost, not in a vision, not as a subjective experience – rather as a – “touch me” and “give me food to eat” – flesh and blood Messiah![5] On that first Easter morning the real Jesus did stand up as he walked out of the door of the tomb. Yet even those first disciples didn’t fully get it until the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost. It was at this event that the light bulb literally turned on. Until then they still wrestled with the idea of Jesus being a political revolutionary, which is not so different from the various iterations of Jesus spoken about above.[6]

So when we engage in evangelistic dialogue with atheists it is important that we take the time to listen to them. It is easy for us to attach labels to people, pull out the apologetic response card, and then have at it. Yet, in listening to atheists we find out what they believe in and not what the label says they believe in. For example I had a student, from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) during an evangelistic dialogue; proceed to tell me what I believed regarding eschatology when I had never told him what I believed. He was a skeptic who had done some study of eschatology that was primarily from the dispensationalist camp, and had some grave concerns over the political ramifications of this belief system.[7] He thought that all Christians believed the same way.  As we talked about it he kept telling me what I believed, and my continued response was, “I don’t believe that.” Finally he asked me what I believed and I was able to share that with him.

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Again the reverse is true of us, and in regards to our conversations with atheists it, too, would behoove us to take time to listen to the atheist. It is not just beneficial to hear what they believe in (or in this case what they don’t believe in), why they do/don’t believe it, but to evaluate whether their rejection is based upon historic, orthodox Christianity or some other iteration. If it is based upon some other iteration then we can confidently say with them, “I don’t believe in that god either.” I think we would most likely get some jaw dropping looks. More importantly I think it can help to further the dialogue along and get us to a point where we can present to them the historic, orthodox gospel which has been handed down to us from the days of those early faithful atheists.

Evangelism aside I think it is also important for us to do some deep reflection upon our own beliefs. We should ask ourselves: “What God do I believe in?” and “Why do I believe in this God?” If our basis for belief is found in Scripture then we better make sure that Scripture backs up what we believe. If not then we should reject that belief. As R.C. Sproul argues in his book, Knowing Scripture, “...by allowing Scripture to criticize us: we...become aware that the perspective we bring to the Word may well be a distortion of truth.”[8]

In connecting back to evangelism when we have a more firm Scriptural basis and grasp of the gospel then we are in a better position to proclaim that gospel. Also when we are able to rid ourselves of the unnecessary and unscriptural baggage that, for others, is tied into their “gospel” proclamation, there is less of a risk to get all heated under the collar when an atheist attacks a gospel that is not our gospel. Rather we can just smile and nod our head in agreement. The task of the faithful atheist is to share the true gospel with those who don’t believe. While in the end the person whom we share the gospel with may reject that gospel, we can at least say with confidence that they got the chance to hear the true gospel proclaimed to them.

[1] Lisa Dahl, “Conversations with Atheists”, accessed on 4/30/15. [2] As reported by Tertullian in chapter 5 of his Apology, accessed on 5/4/15. [3] See for instance: Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989). [4] Philip A. Harland, “Breaking News: Early Christians were impious atheists”, accessed on 5/4/15 [5] See John 20 [6] See Acts 1:6-11; 2:1-41 [7] And I agree with him on this issue. [8] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 1977), 105.