What Jesus Would Say to an Atheist

Psalm 14:1

November 7, 2010 | Brian Bill

I heard a story about one-time heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali: “Ali was flying to one of his engagements and during the flight the aircraft ran into foul weather. The passengers were instructed to fasten their seatbelts immediately, and all complied but Ali.  So the flight attendant approached him and requested that he buckle up, only to hear him audaciously respond, ‘Superman don’t need no seatbelt.’ The flight attendant, however, did not miss a beat and quickly replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane either!’”

Unfortunately some people today have assumed that they don’t need the seatbelt of Scripture to navigate through life’s turbulence.  I went through a bumpy ride as a new believer at the University of Wisconsin.  I had been a Christian for about a year when I became an R.A. in one of the dorms (we called them “Housefellows” back then).  I arrived before the residents to put name tags on all the doors and to familiarize myself with all the rules.  I had been praying for each of them by name for a couple weeks before school started and I decided that I would put some verses up outside my door.  

I had to keep my seat belt fastened securely on Scripture or he would chew me up and spit me out

I’ll never forget what happened the day the students arrived.  I had stepped out for a brat or something like that, and when I came back, someone had written some words in bright red marker right over my favorite Bible verses. Here’s what it said: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”   I recognized this as a quote from Karl Marx and found out quickly that the guy right next door to me enjoyed posting quotes from Marxists and atheists to counter the Bible verses I put up.  He did this all year.  We both learned a lot from each other and I remember how he continuously challenged my faith.  It was good for me because I had to keep my seat belt fastened securely on Scripture or he would chew me up and spit me out.

As we come to our topic today, it’s important to point out that there are many good minds coming at this from many different perspectives.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all really smart people are atheists.  I read this week that one of the leading proponents of atheism is arguing for a different word because atheism has so much baggage.  Instead, he’d like to be called, “bright.”  Let’s just admit that there are very bright people who are deeply committed Christians as well. 

Angry Atheists

A true atheist actively denies the existence of God.  From Time Magazine’s cover story in 1966 that asked the question “Is God Dead?” to some odd atheists like Madalyn Murray O’Hair who were relatively easy to dismiss, it seems that today the playing field has changed with the advent of some really intelligent “scientific” atheists who strike me as angry and abrasive.  Also known as the “new atheists,” their attacks have become more prominent and pointed as their books have gone main stream.  One could make the argument that in the past 10 years or so, atheism has found its voice in our culture.  In 2007, the Lilly Endowment funded a survey by Trinity College that revealed that 15% of Americans now cite “no religion” when asked for their religious preference.  Granted, saying you have “no religion” is not the same as being an atheist but one could make a strong case that more and more people are opting out of belief in God.

In preparation for this message, I listened to part of an audio book by atheist and best-selling author Richard Dawkins called, “The God Delusion.”  I was struck by his angry diatribe against religion.  At one point he declared that to raise a child in one’s faith is “child abuse.”  I was going to play a section of the audio recording of chapter two from his book but I decided that I couldn’t do it because it’s filled with blasphemy and other bombastic language that should never be used in referring to our Holy God.  It makes me wonder why He’s fighting a God He doesn’t even believe exists.  G. K. Chesterton once said, “After meeting an atheist, I became a Christian.”  I can see why.

Another book that I skimmed this week is written by Christopher Hitchens with the title, “god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”  Like Dawkins, he believes that religion does more harm than good.  Listen to what he writes on page 217: “How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?” Check out some of the chapter titles:

  • “Religion Kills”
  • “Revelation: the Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament
  • “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old” One

While I’m certainly no expert, and these guys are much smarter than me, neither of them offered any compelling evidence to not believe in the existence of God.  Instead, they used venomous language to lambast people of faith.  I was both underwhelmed by their arguments and grieved for the state of their souls.  In particular, I’m saddened for Christopher Hitchens because he now has cancer and is still rejecting the Lord and making fun of Christians who are praying for him.

Interestingly, because we live in a “scientistic” culture, when someone who is a scientist speaks, almost everyone grants him or her undue authority irrespective of what the topic is.  While Hitchens and Dawkins are indeed experts in their fields, they are not really qualified to make philosophical and religious assertions.  Even the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking, in his new book, “The Grand Design,” seems to go out of his way to argue that the laws of physics show there is no need for a supreme being.  But he then makes a god out of gravity in an effort to argue that “the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

There are many different ways to approach atheism and to argue for the existence of God.  I find Dr. William Lane Craig’s arguments compelling:

  1. The cosmological argument – the universe came from something rather than nothing.
  2. The teleological argument – the complexity in the universe presents the case for an intelligent designer.
  3. The moral argument – true morality comes from God.
  4. The resurrection of Jesus – the evidence of the resurrection has not been refuted.
  5. The immediate experience of God – experience as evidence for God.

These philosophical arguments would take an entire sermon series to flesh out so instead I’m going to walk through the Word today, like we’ve done the past two weeks.  Partly in response to these arguments, a parody had been propagated called, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster,” which atheists sometimes use to show how absurd it is to believe in a Supreme Being.  The central belief is that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe after “drinking heavily.”  I believe that Jesus would just shrug this off and go right to the Bible for his answer to an atheist.  Let’s start at the beginning.

God Just Is

The Book of Genesis gets its name from the Hebrew – It’s the book of “beginnings.”  Look at the first four words: “In the beginning God…”  By the way, this is the first instance of baseball in the Bible – “in the big inning.”  This is a declaration that God has always been; He’s had no beginning and He will have no end.  

Did you notice that Genesis 1:1 is a simple declaration of the existence of God, and does not provide an explanation for His existence?  The Bible just assumes that He is.  He is eternal.  He is here today.  He was here yesterday.  And He will be here tomorrow.  He was, He is, and He will be.  

Don’t Be a Fool

It’s a pretty bad deal to be called a fool by someone.  It’s even worse to be called a fool by God.  Check out the first part of Psalm 14:1: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.”   The word for “fool” here means someone who is as stubborn as an animal. This kind of fool does not have a mental problem in his head; he has a moral problem in his heart.  Notice that the fool says this to himself.  Instead of proclaiming his atheism publicly, he privately lives as if there’s no God.  

I wonder how many of us do the same thing.  We publicly proclaim that we’re following Christ but if someone were to follow us around all day, record everything we say, monitor everything we think, note how many times we pray, look at how much we give, and measure the unforgiveness in our heart, would they conclude that we’re a Christian?  Are we essentially just doing what we want and living as if God does not exist?  In that sense, aren’t we practical atheists when we live like that?

The second part of this verse helps us see that beliefs lead to behavior.  If people persist in believing that there is no God, they will act accordingly. Once God is effectively removed from our heads and our hearts, then there will be consequences in our character: “They are corrupt…” and in our conduct: “their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”  The word for “vile” means “rotten, putrid, and decayed.”  The implications of atheism are crucial because everything crumbles with God out of the picture.  There is then no basis for morality, no purpose in pain, no reason for existence and no hope for the future.

I listened to a podcast last week called, “The Good Atheist.”  I think the name was tongue-in-cheek because the tagline was: “Chilling Tales of Godlessness.”  I decided to hang in there and give it a chance but I had to turn it off because of all the cussing, the vulgar talk and the countless times that they took the Lord’s name in vain.  I understand why they cuss and talk vulgar because if they don’t believe God exists, then why not do whatever you want and say whatever you’d like?  But I don’t get why they take the Lord’s name in vain if they are convinced He doesn’t even exist.  That doesn’t add up to me.

Creation Cries Out

The Bible makes it clear that there is evidence for God everywhere.  We don’t have to look far to see Him because He’s displayed His beauty in creation.  Turn over a few pages to Psalm 19.  

1. He’s revealed Himself in the world. 

We see this in verses 1-6.  We’ll look just at verses 1-2: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.”  God is everywhere present and He’s left his fingerprints all over creation.  The earth is marked, if you will, by a sign that declares in bold letters: Made by God.  

The Bible is bursting with direct statements from God about God – and it reveals His mind, His heart, and His will for us

2. He’s revealed Himself in the Word. 

Look at verse 7: “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul…” God has not only revealed Himself in a general sense through His creation of the world but has also made known His character through His Word.  The Bible is bursting with direct statements from God about God – and it reveals His mind, His heart, and His will for us.

3. Our response should be worship. 

Check out verse 14: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

The Living Word Reveals God

When we come to the New Testament, we read in John 1:18 that Jesus has made the Almighty apparent: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”  That means when we understand Jesus, we understand God, for He is God.  God’s primary vehicle for self-disclosure is through Jesus Christ.  The Bible teaches in Hebrews 1:3 that “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being…” Jesus reveals who God the Father is.  Jesus would say to an atheist just what He said in John 8:19, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”  

In my Bible reading one day last week I came across a verse that reminded me once again that for some people even when they are given a boatload of evidence including many miracles and overwhelming proof, they will still refuse to repent and receive what Jesus offers.  Why is that?  Because for some, the issue is not lack of evidence, but is rather a refusal to believe in spite of all the evidence.  I find John 12:37 really compelling: “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.” 

The Christian apologist Josh McDowell tells about a student who once told him that all of his questions and problems had been answered.  McDowell then asked, “Are you then going to become a Christian?”  The student told him that he did not want to do that.  When McDowell asked why, he said, “Frankly, because it would mess up the way I’m living.”  

Evidence for God’s Existence is Evident

Turn now to Romans 1:18-20 where at least three truths become clear.

1. God expresses His wrath toward those who suppress the truth. 

We see this in verse 18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”   We tend to reject the doctrine of God’s wrath but because He is righteous, He must express His wrath against unrighteousness.  The word “suppress” means “to hold down.”  To deny God’s existence is exhausting and ultimately futile because it’s impossible to suppress.  Let me demonstrate with this spring.

2. God has clearly revealed Himself. 

Look at verse 19: “Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”  Abraham Lincoln once said, “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how he could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.”  

3. We have no excuse to not believe. 

Romans 1:20 states that the evidence for God’s creative power is clearly evident: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”  Henry Bosch has pointed out this example of God’s careful and marvelous design: “The earth rotates on its axis at approximately 1000 miles per hour. If that had been 100 miles per hour, our days and nights would be ten times longer, and our planet would alternately burn and freeze.”

In his book called, “The Reason for God,” Timothy Keller states that the real challenge is not to prove that God exists, but to recognize that people already suspect that God exists.  He’s revealed Himself in nature and we know about Him by nature.  And because He is the Creator, He is greater than that which He has created.  It’s not that people can’t know God; it’s that some don’t want God.  But, this natural revelation of God is limited.  We can know the power of God by observing His creation, but we can’t know His love.  For that we need His Word and we need the gospel.

An Atheist Sees the Light

Someone who attends this church used to be an atheist and is now really fired up for the Lord.  I sent him a note this week and asked if he would be willing to share some insight with us.  Here’s some of what he had to say.

“I wish I had insight!!  But, I was only a fool pretending to be wise and informed…I valued the praise of men…I felt superior by denying God…Atheism is more about denying the evidence of God all around you than believing God does not exist…One thing is common among most: their interest in learning. Getting an atheist like this into the Bible is the best way to set them up for a conversion by the Holy Spirit. In all likelihood, most atheists will think very little of a Christian and reject what they say without even hearing their words; nobody could have said anything to me that I’d have listened to. I was only interested in myself, I had no profound convictions, only bringing praise to myself…To the man with knowledge, the serpent is logic and the venom is pride.  

The atheist that doesn’t believe God can exist in a world with so much bad will have a hard time being convinced by others…We cannot convince them their ways are wrong, we are not the Holy Spirit nor can we fulfill the role of the Holy Spirit.  A man that considers himself wise does not seek the counsel of those he considers foolish.  I would warn against getting into confrontations or debates; the atheist is likely to approach the debate with anger towards your ignorance (and ours towards their blasphemy). “A gentle answer turns anger away. But mean words stir up anger [Proverbs 15:1].” Gently warn them — do not quote their ruin — we know not what their hearts are or will be at the time they meet their Savior.

Foundation of Faith

When it all comes down to it, while there is ample evidence for the existence of God, the exercise of faith is foundational.  We can’t just trust God on the basis of logic and reason.  Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

I’m reminded of the story about the little boy who was growing up in an atheist home.  He turned to his dad one day and asked, “Daddy, does God know that we don’t believe in Him?”  Philippians 2:10-11 teaches that every Atheist will eventually bow before the Lord and recognize not only His existence but His supremacy, righteousness, justice and holiness.  Unfortunately, for many it will be too late to be saved: “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 

Reaching Atheists

1. Love atheists.

Before speaking to an atheist first make sure that your heart is filled with love.  

2. Ask questions. 

Most atheists hold to their beliefs for a reason.  According to the Dare2Share ministry, there are four basic questions you can ask an atheist.

  • “What do you mean by that?” (This makes them define the terms in their argument.) 
  • “How do you know that to be true?” (This makes them explain the logic of their argument.) 
  • “What difference does it make?” (This makes them defend the value for their argument.) 
  • “What if you’re wrong?” (This makes them think the unthinkable.) 

Here are 12 additional questions that will help move them to the logical end of their beliefs.

“What do you mean by ‘atheist’?”
“Do you mean there is absolutely no God?”
“Do you mean that you don’t know personally if there is a God?”
“How do you know that there is no God?”
“Have you been everywhere in the universe?”
“What solid evidence can you produce to prove your position?”
“What difference has atheism made in your life?”
“Has it given you a purpose to live for?”
“What fulfillment has it brought you?”
“What if you’re wrong and the God of the Bible is real?”
“If you’re right, I have nothing to worry about, do I?”
“But if you’re wrong, what are the consequences?”

3. Know your Bible. 

This is really the main application for every one of the sermons in this series.  In September of this year, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life released some stunning results of a survey about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions.  It turns out that atheists answered more questions correctly than evangelicals!  We actually came in fourth place, with atheists and agnostics sharing the top spot; followed by Jews and Mormons (we’ll be addressing “What Jesus Would Say to a Mormon” next week).  Friends, this is a survey we should have nailed.  I’m not one to bring up Packer football illustrations but we need to do what legendary coach Vince Lombardi did when he took his team back to the basics of football.  With his players huddled around him, he held up a football and famously said, “This is a football.”  Brothers and sisters, “This is a Bible!”

Unfortunately, there has been a continuing decline in biblical knowledge even though we have access to more Bible teaching than any Christians in history.  I am pleased to report one bright spot in the study.  Those who attended worship services weekly performed better on the survey so it appears that something is sticking on Sundays.

4. Let your kids question but help them find answers. 

I’m told that the decline of faith among parents in Germany is leading to a whole generation of children growing up with an “atheist mindset” and the belief that “faith doesn’t matter.”  The idea of a singular truth has become so unpopular that it is widely regarded as dangerous, arrogant and potentially violent.  Os Guinness has said that the biblical view of truth has become “obscene to modern minds” and is taken by many to be exclusive, intolerant and divisive.

Parents, while some children hold on to atheism through reason and logic and science, others are wrestling with serious questions about evil, miracles and prayer.  Still others find the Christian faith to be too difficult so they just kind of drift away.  And others want to just have fun.  But the part that has really rocked me recently is that we as parents sometimes fall into the same kinds of things, and our kids notice.  One blogger writes: “What we’ve lived in our homes, private lives, churches, workplaces and friendships have spoken louder.  We are the ones who appear to not believe in the God we say is real.”

The Centrality of the Cross

An atheist once said, “If there is a God, may He prove Himself by striking me dead right now.”  Nothing happened.  “You see,” he said.  “There is no God.”  To which his friend replied, “You’ve only proved that He is a gracious God.”

We’re reminded of God’s grace when we celebrate communion as we fasten our seatbelts to the foundation of our faith – the death, burial, resurrection, ascension and second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus is both “super-man” and “super-God.”  How can we not but serve Him with all that we have?  My former atheist friend puts it like this: “You cannot give up your life to something without letting it take part in your life for more than an hour a week!”that if God were truly there, I wanted him. I just didn’t think he was. ANd then God did the rest. Soon coincidences ceased to be coincidence and I read it as God reaching toward me. But, if the letters had not been sent by a really close friend, I would never have even opened them.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?