I haven’t forgotten. Well, I have forgotten far too many things in recent years, but I didn’t forget my recent “promise” to address the challenging subject of the distinction between agnosticism and atheism. Last week I wrote: “I suspect that the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.”
It’s not my desire to offend anyone with the discussion which follows. After all, God loves the “lost” just as much as he loves those who have surrendered their lives to him. In fact, there’s an amazing passage that hints at how the rescue of one of those who has “strayed” is even more exciting to the hosts of heaven than the faithfulness of his dedicated disciples. (Check out verses 12-14 in chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew . . . and remember what I have said in the past about how eager any of your Christian acquaintances will be to provide you with a copy of the Bible if you don’t already have one.)
Every soul is precious to God. And yet, many don’t recognize that fact. Many worship false gods (religious and secular). Among those who deny the existence of supernatural deities, there are essentially two camps. Agnostics who (technically) do not deny God’s existence, but merely profess that it is unknowable. Thus they personally remain unpersuaded. Atheists, on the alternative hand, are more adamant about denying God’s existence. Some, in fact, make a living by stridently refuting God himself and all things holy.
Intuitively, most people assume agnostics are not quite as distant from faith as are atheists. After all, agnostics are generally more polite and respectful toward those of us who naively cling to such superstitions . . . right? Atheists, by contrast, tend to ridicule those who would worship a God who laid down his very life, and died a human death.
Take, for example, what is arguably the earliest surviving illustration of Christ’s crucifixion. The illustration above was carved on an ancient plaster wall near Palatine Hill.
It’s a bit difficult to discern, but historical consensus sees the graffito as a pagan insult directed towards a Greek Christian. The scribbled inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” The crucified figure on the cross clearly bears the head of a donkey. The Church Father Tertullian wrote in the second century of slanders alleging Christians followed just such a deity.
Would something like this be likelier to come from the mind of an agnostic, or an atheist?
Agnostics would rarely summon the energy to rail against God like this. However, atheists sometimes feel so imposed upon by God’s children that they lash out with invectives.
So, as I noted above, the gut feeling of most observers would be to say vocal atheists are farther from God than their kindred disbelievers. However—I am convinced that is not the case!
Ironically, it is the tepid individual who lacks any serious conviction who is in greater danger of perishing without seeing God. This is due to the fact that agnostics have, as a rule, come to grips with the fact that there may or may not be a God . . . but they are content to proceed through life without caring much either way. To them the issue is rather trivial, in a sense, since they rarely lose sleep over it.
This is not true of the atheist, who recognizes that the matter is of the utmost importance; that’s why he is not content to simply ignore it. If God truly exists—they comprehend in the core of their being—nothing could be of greater significance.
Agnostics typically have an unreasoned impression that if there is a God, he is probably benevolent, and most likely more concerned with other elements of the universe he created than their small life. They echo the thinking of liberal “Deists” who imagined God as a distant “watchmaker” who set creation in motion and then left it forgotten on the shelf. This Great Watchmaker is not threatening. He isn’t angry at us, because he doesn’t even deign to notice us. He remains oblivious to humanity, just as we presumably live out our lives anonymous to him.
Atheists don’t want to believe in God, because of their overwhelming doubt. Simultaneously, they recognize that the stakes of the gamble are enormous. Eternal, in fact. And they resent God for placing them in this difficult predicament. Why can’t he just make his existence undeniably evident? Faith is the leap they are unwilling to take. But, by the same rational premise, the wise among them realize that in opting against theism, they are actually placing their faith in an equally unprovable tenet. And this has a tendency to make some of them mildly cranky.
Which brings us back to my suspicion that “the intimately personal nature of God’s love for us is one of the things that moves some people from agnosticism to atheism.” You see, when someone deeply ponders the mystery of whether there is a Creator, they understand he would never have created a sentient being with this yearning to cleave to him, without possessing a compassion for them in return.
Agnostics walk about like spiritual zombies, pursuing their various interests. Atheists, though, are tormented by the nagging “fear” that a loving God just may exist. Certainly, they do whatever they can to exorcize the notion, and they publicly celebrate their liberation from ancient and medieval superstitions, but unlike their unaffected agnostic relations, they have recognized the enormity of their choice. Oh to be a blissfully ignorant agnostic, the more thoughtful might muse.
Sadly (from their present perspective), the lot of the atheist is to be closer to God than the agnostic. Atheists may rail against their Maker, but the agnostic’s spiritual indifference causes them to drift farther and farther from the Truth.
The Scriptures offer a parallel to this distinction in the description of one of the early Christian churches. Apparently the believer in Laodicea had grown lackadaisical about their faith and lived lives that differed little from their pagan and agnostic neighbors. The Lord’s judgment of them begins: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Strange, it seems to us, that God might prefer a militant atheistic mindset to an aimless agnostic worldview. But the amazing truth is that, in most cases, atheists are closer to the kingdom of God than their disinterested peers.
In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his own pre-Christian disposition. The grandson of an Anglican priest, he had consciously rejected the faith. Yet, as the possibility of its truth grew more real to him as an adult, he reacted against it. He clearly describes his condition as differing from that of the lukewarm agnostics I’ve described above.
Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I was then, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.
In the same volume he elaborates on the sentiments I’ve been describing.
I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.
So, if you consider yourself “angry with God for not existing,” you may be closer to meeting him than you ever imagined. If you do follow C.S. Lewis’ example, heaven will host a more resounding celebration for you than it does for the ninety-nine who have always remained part of his flock. And, if you’re a dispassionate agnostic who is weakly amused by this thought . . . my sincere prayer is that you, my friend, would become either hot or cold!