Some of the things that infuse more meaning and joy into life are the unexpected connections and conversations I have with other people. My life has been made dazzlingly rich by the sheer diversity of people I know and talk to on a regular basis. If someone was trying to figure out where I stand, what convictions I hold, or which values are dearest to me by analyzing my family and friends, the only one thing that might be deduced is my love for people of all kinds.
On Saturday night, my circle was widened by a conversation with a man who lives on my street. I had seen him around here and there, and I think I had said “hello” to him a few times, but just as I was about to get into the car and run down to the grocery store, he said, “Hey, Chris!” So, I stopped to talk to him a bit, asked him typical chit-chat questions about his family, his work, etc., etc.
From there– and admittedly I’m horrible at recalling conversations line by line– somehow I got to mentioning something about how I’ve learned many different life lessons from God.
After that, he said something like, “Well, as far as God and heaven go, I like to think that we’re living in heaven right now, that heaven is now.”
I immediately thought to myself that if this life right now is heaven, we’ve been royally had by a cosmic sadist. Sure, life is wonderful, but far, far from perfect. It’s certainly nothing I’d call “heaven.”
So, I think I said something to him like, “Maybe God will lead us to something far better than this.”
To that he replied, “Well, that’s assuming that there is a God.”
That was when I knew our conversation was going to get far more complex and perhaps thornier than either of us had imagined. Here we were, a theist speaking to an atheist. From there we conversed back and forth on the question of God’s existence from the point of view of nature, the origins of the cosmos, and everyday human experience. For every idea I proposed to demonstrate the reality of God, he countered it with some kind of non-theistic scientific explanation. We were obviously getting nowhere fast with one another.
I then tried to shift our conversation to the person of Jesus and his resurrection. We talked about the historicity of Jesus’ life and resurrection with multiple and varied attestations to both things, sources like the gospel accounts, Josephus, and other ancient Roman histories. He questioned the validly of the sources, and honestly I wasn’t sure how familiar he was with them. So, I borrowed one more tried and true question which C. S. Lewis used on skeptics. Lewis said that Jesus claimed himself to be Lord and God. There’s no question about that from the gospel accounts. So, either he was a delusional lunatic, a liar, or indeed who he said he was. And if you look at all the things Jesus did and said with any kind of objectivity, you’d be hard pressed to conclude that he was crazy or a liar.
My new friend thought for a second, and then said, “Maybe Jesus told a good lie. Religion is the sum total of human creativity and imagination, designed to make human beings feel good and do the right thing, so maybe Jesus told a good lie in order to get people simply to do good. It’s like Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a good lie; it’s harmless, and yet it brings people enjoyment.”
“So,” I countered, “what you’re saying is that people like me and millions and millions of others are living in a delusive lie– albeit a good one!– that people have designed in order to help us be good people and do the right thing?”
“Basically, yes,” he replied.
“So, you’re saying, that my career, everything I believe, my livelihood, and what I’m prepared to preach to my congregation tomorrow, is a good lie on par with something like Santa Claus?”
“Yes,” he said. “But that’s not bad! If it’s what you believe…”
Hmm… after we wound down the conversation and said goodbye to one another, I began to taste a new found bitterness towards atheism. I’m not at all bitter towards atheists as people. In fact, I really like my new friend and hope to get to know him better. I’ve known and loved other atheists, too.
But this conversation helped me to see that atheism exercises a philosophical bravado, if not a degree of arrogance, to assume that the commonly held spiritual conviction of the other 90% of us who believe in some form of deity is nothing but a fanciful human creation which we’ve unwittingly convinced ourselves to call “God.” It escapes all reason to argue that intelligent, sophisticated, sane, self-aware, highly educated people would be snared into a delusion as large as God. Have we been duped by the greatest and oldest conspiracy of humanity? An atheist would have to conclude, “Yes.” In that case, my passionate convictions of Jesus Christ are no more substantive than a child’s belief in Santa Claus.
Yet there’s also another heartbreaking problem with atheism: it robs people of their full humanity. We humans, as creatures who strive towards greatness and mastery, all have a basic need to fetter that power with humility by awing something or someone greater than ourselves. In other words, human beings have the need to worship. When we hear a stirring piece of music or stare wide-eyed at a classic painting, it’s not long before we start to revere the artist as the creator. Likewise, when we look up into the sky to see the immeasurable vastness and power of the cosmos, gaze out at the grand canyon, marvel at the intricate balance of our environment, caress a newborn baby, dive through a coral reef, or take in the symphony of birds and insects in a forest– all these things far, far greater in intricacy, beauty, and force than a piece of music or a painting– how can we fail, without losing an essential part ourselves, to acknowledge and worship their Creator? If there is no no one to thank, praise, and worship, then we have fallen into a sub-human cesspool of narcissism, nihilism, and cynicism. Those of us who believe in a deity can fall into these same forms of dehumanization when we fail to fall humbly on our faces in worship. From time to time I’ve seen dehumanization in myself from my lack of worship.
Thinking again of my new friend, I realize that clever arguments won’t curb his atheism. Any condemnation or condescension he senses from me will only repel him. I believe he will come around by the influence of two things: the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and by my loving him, accepting him, and serving him as an authentic witness and image of Jesus himself. In the end, love, which comes from God, and is indeed God, will be the victor over any shred of unbelief.