Archives For Atheism

memorial cakeToday’s news carried a truly bizarre story. Yesterday, Venezuela’s dictator died after a lengthy illness. Today we learned that his body is due to be preserved for future generations to venerate. Like his forebear Lenin, he’ll be on call in a glass casket in case someone needs to gaze at him to have their socialist energies reinvigorated.

And that was only half of the surprising news report about Chavez’s demise.

The head of the presidential guard, a general close to the leader, related his final words. He was at his bedside and reported that he was too weak to verbalize the words, but clearly mouthed the plea “I don’t want to die; please don’t let me die.”

It’s shocking that General Ornella would divulge this fact about Chavez, particularly during the actual process of his divinization. The general attributes Chavez’s reluctance to receive his “eternal reward” to his love of country and desire to remain here to lead his nation for ever.

I, on the other hand, would attribute his reluctance to die to other sentiments.

The article that related the morbid plans for the display of Chavez’s body cited the familiar example of Lenin, which I mentioned above. It also noted two other former rulers whose bodies have also been preserved for an adoring posterity: Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. Preparing this post I found that Kim Il-sun and his son Kim Jong-Il share a mausoleum. Likewise, Lenin’s successor Stalin would still be on display, had it not been for eventually falling out of political favor.

Now, there’s something obvious that all of these men have in common. They were leaders of oppressive communist regimes—which oppressed their own citizens because of their atheistic worldview.

Having rejected God and knowing no hope of resurrection or eternal life, they feebly grasped for immortality the only way they knew. They sought to leave a monumental mark on history, in order to be long remembered. And, considering a monument and a statue insufficient mnemonic devices . . . well, enough about that.

A Far Better Way

We who know the Creator of all life have much to be grateful for. Not least of which, his gracious gift of eternal life. Christians believe we will trade in this weak and worn body for a new one. So, while we treat the bodies of those who have died with dignity, we feel absolutely no impulse to venerate them. On the contrary, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

C.S. Lewis wrote something in Mere Christianity which relates directly to this sharp contrast in worldviews.

Immortality makes this other difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

That, dear friends, is quite a paradigm shift. To regard each human life as more precious than any abstract government or institution created by humanity’s hand. Having that perspective is akin to seeing with God’s own eyes.

I hope the people of Venezuela soon recognize the futility of the shrine that is being built. Infinitely better to seek “immortality” (eternal life) in the one place where it may truly be found.

Theological Training

October 31, 2012 — 20 Comments

I’m proud I graduated from a well-respected seminary. And I’m proud of following that Master of Divinity degree with an advanced Master of Theology degree in Patristics. And that’s precisely the problem . . . I’m proud.

As a Christian, I recognize that pride is one of the most destructive and insidious sins. As a pastor and chaplain, I have seen all too frequently how pride expressly targets members of the clergy. Our vulnerability to the temptation to be proud is one of the common chinks in the armor of the ordained.

C.S. Lewis recognized this fact. In A Severe Mercy, he wrote:

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man. St. Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I shd. have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation; and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap. . . .

In fact, the change [to a Christian ministry] might do good or harm. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by. On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making. The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology wd. do. Mind, I’m not certain: but that is the view I incline to.

Lewis understood that “advancement” in ecclesiastical contexts can mask the inner heart and be mistaken as a form of holiness when it is in actuality vanity. I was reminded of this weakness in clerical armor recently, when I read a tribute to a Chinese Christian whose name is little known beyond his homeland. Dr. Sun Yi-yin, known in America as “Freddie Sun,” died in August at the age of 76. A professor of Geology, he lost his faculty position for failing to deny Christ.

Like thousands of other Christians living under the atheist regime, he was imprisoned for his work in establishing churches and Bible schools. He raised the funds to start no fewer than 154 of these training centers, and was key to the equipping of approximately 60,000 underground pastors and teachers. The “underground” Church in China is distinguished from the government-controlled “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

For his labors, Sun endured a decade in a Chinese labor camp. (His wife, Dorothy Chang, was also imprisoned. Rather than reducing his faith, during his sojourn in the harshest of conditions, Sun experienced a personal revival and his zeal increased.

His story is amazing, but here is the aspect that hit the mark in the center of my conscience. In his autobiography, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.”

Now, I am grateful that God has preserved me from the “fiery furnace,” but I do long to experience the fruit of the spirit that Sun so richly harvested in prison. While not dismissing the importance of the classical subjects of homiletics and hermeneutics, as the Apostle says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV).

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis’ treatise on suffering, he addresses how God can redeem terrible things such as unjust punishments. For those desiring to understand how an omnipotent God can allow evil to occur, Lewis’ presentation is quite helpful. And, the life example of Dr. Sun provides a superb example of its validity.

I advance six propositions necessary to complete our account of human suffering which do not arise out of one another and must therefore be given in an arbitrary order. 1. There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity. Blessed are the poor, but by ‘judgement’ (i.e., social justice) and alms we are to remove poverty wherever possible. Blessed are we when persecuted, but we may avoid persecution by flying from city to city, and may pray to be spared it, as Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane.

But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided? I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.

Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse—though by mercy it may save—those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

I thank God for the life and testimony of Sun. I pray God will reap an abundance of believers in China, and elsewhere, due to his faithfulness. And I thank God for using Sun’s words to cause me to stop in the midst of my busy activities and take the time to examine my own heart and motives.

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!

How Precious You Are

March 23, 2012 — 7 Comments

God loves you.

It doesn’t matter how loveable, or unloveable you are, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether you praise his Name or deny his existence, he loves you.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you love him. You can even hate him . . . but he still loves you.

Doesn’t make sense to our fallen human reason, but it’s true. One of the amazing revelations of the Christian Scriptures is that God loves each and every one of the people he has created.

Every human being is unique, and each is precious to God. Whether you feel like it or not . . . whether you feel undeserving or (far more dangerously) you think you are a pretty “good” person . . . you are precious to him.

I find it intriguing how some manmade religions and philosophies consciously downplay the uniqueness of each person. What is clearly evidence of God’s infinite creativity—the glorious diversity of men and women the world over—is seen as something odd. A cosmic fluke to be remedied when all essence returns to the amorphous and undifferentiated “whole.”

The elimination of what makes you and me precisely who we are, seems to be the goal of some of these worldviews. But deep within each of our souls we know that this pursuit is wrong. It’s alien to the core of our existence. Loss of identity is, in a phrase, not that for which we were created. You and I were made for a different purpose. And our distinctive personalities (and even our quirks) in this one-time-in-all-creation combination, are no accident.

In his treatise on why suffering exists, C.S. Lewis offers a powerful glimpse into the singularity of our souls. He argues that Christ’s sacrifice was no generic or blanket wonder. Rather, it was a divinely individualized miracle. Listen to Lewis:

The signature on each soul may be a product of heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. I am considering not how, but why, He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.

For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction. The Brocken spectre ‘looked to every man like his first love’, because she was a cheat. But God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand. (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.)

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. And I think I just may address that distinction in my next post.

Christians may cease reading here.

A personal and sincere note to any unbelievers reading this column. I’m not writing this to offend you, or to push any of the buttons that may be holdovers from your days in restrictive or destructive religious settings.

If you’ve never believed, I encourage you to tune out the voices (on both sides of the issue). Go directly to the primary account(s) of Jesus’ life and read them. (There are four “Gospel” accounts of his ministry, but I encourage you to first read the Gospel according to Saint John.) Any of your Christian friends would be eager to offer you a copy of the Bible for no cost, but it’s also available for free download at various sites. For example, here you can download an entire Bible in English Standard Version (ESV) for free.

If you once believed, but have laid your faith aside, I don’t want to offer guilt. Instead, listen to this promise of grace. Just as the father of the Prodigal Son was always awaiting the return of his child, the same joyous welcome home awaits you. If ever you desire to return home, know with certainty that he’ll welcome you again, not as a servant or second class citizen, but as his son or daughter. And you’ll hear the words from that parable proclaimed over you: “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother [or sister] was dead, and is alive; they were lost, and are found.” (Luke 15:32).