In the best-selling diatribe by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, the evangelist for atheism argues that people who claim to believe in God are deluded. Well, he has things half right. He is wrong to claim that God does not exist, but he is right to say that people can be deluded. The question is, what are they really deluded about?
The Judeo-Christian scriptures make it clear that all people are deluded. We are all deluded because we are all sinful. Being finite and fallen means we will have false beliefs, skewed perspectives, and contorted understandings.
The nature of our deluded condition is extensive and irreparable. The Hebrew and Greek Bibles both speak to this. A few passages – of many – come to mind. A classic is Jeremiah 7:19: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
In the Old Testament the term ‘heart’ often refers to the mind, the source of human thought and action. Here Jeremiah says the mind is sunk in depravity and deception, and humans can never get a full and unbiased grasp on their own true condition. Only God can accurately assess the human condition, as verse 10 reminds us: “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.”
In secular terms we are aware that each of us has blind spots, things we cannot really see, and we need others to help us to see things as they really are. In spiritual terms, we are one big blind spot. Our true spiritual condition is hidden from us, and we deceive ourselves as to how good and how decent we are.
When we see ourselves as God sees us, we can only recoil and shudder. As Isaiah cried out after seeing God’s holiness, “Woe is me. I am ruined, I am a man of unclean lips”. When Isaiah has this personal encounter with the holy and majestic God, he becomes “suddenly and brutally aware of himself” as John Oswalt comments. It is not just “the recognition of his finitude which crushes Isaiah; it is his uncleanness”.
But in our sinful condition, we really do not think we are unclean or spiritually needy. Jesus often spoke to this issue. He could say, “Blessed are those who see their spiritual need” (Matt. 5:3). He repeated the message of the prophets, warning us of our inability to see ourselves as God really does.
Various biblical metaphors, such as blindness and darkness, are used to describe the delusion of sin. Jesus often made use of these images. He told the religious leaders of the day that they were blind leaders of the blind (Matt. 15:14). He said he was the light of the world, and that all who followed him would walk in the light (John 8:12).
But sin so deludes us that we think we already are in the light, when in fact we are walking in darkness. And we love the darkness, said Jesus. We prefer the darkness to coming to the light, to the truth, to reality. Jesus puts it quite starkly:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)
But not only does our fallen and finite condition result in delusion and deception, but there are spiritual forces also at work. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:4: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
As David Garland comments about this text, “The mind blinded by Satan cannot think straight, and it rebels against God’s truth.” Of course the modern secularist rejects the very idea of spiritual realities and spiritual deception. They in fact reinforce the very message Paul is presenting here.
So then here we have at least three major elements leading to our deluded condition: our own finitude; our fallen, sinful nature; and demonic deception. Taken together, it leaves what Scripture calls the “natural man” in dire straits. Any one of these three elements alone is enough to keep us in perpetual delusion.
Sin, for example, is so pervasive, so comprehensive, and so deep-rooted, that every aspect of our being is affected. Thus we no longer see things as they really are. We no longer act the way we ought. We no longer think the way we should. We no longer understand as we were meant to. We are spiritually, morally, intellectually and volitionally impacted by our fallen condition. This is the biblical understanding of sin.
Thus sin deludes us. It makes us believe in falsehoods, and leads us away from truth. This is certainly the case when it comes to God. As sinners, we are deluded into thinking there is no God, or that we are God, or that God must somehow exist in our own image.
This explains the importance of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Fallen man is always tempted to worship false gods and reject the true and living God. In the state of delusion, man fashions gods in his own image, while oblivious to the one true God.
The popular film, The Matrix, although quite eclectic in its worldview, offers a nice picture of this idea of mass delusion. In the film Neo (a messiah-type character) and a handful of human good guys are trying to let others know that they are living in delusion, that they are artificially constructed and form a mass computer simulation (the Matrix). They think this is the real world, but they are deceived, deluded.
A bit of dialogue from the film nicely illustrates this:
Morpheus: Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Neo: The Matrix.
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
Although there are plenty of Eastern concepts in the film, this is nonetheless not a bad way of showing the biblical truth about sin. Sin deceives us. Sin deludes us. Sin blinds us. We think the way we are now living is the way we are meant to be living. But not so. God designed us for something much different, much better, much richer. But we have preferred sin and selfishness to God and his purposes for us. Thus as long as we reject God, we continue in our delusion and darkness.
The good news is, God did not just leave us in this predicament. He came to earth, became one of us, and provided the way out of our deception and bondage, back to reality. Many people jumped at this good news when Jesus announced it. Others rejected it.
It is the same today. The truth of the gospel will continue to be proclaimed. But what people do with this truth is up to them. They can continue in their delusion and deception, shaking their fist at their creator and saviour. Or they can bow the knee, admit to their own inability to make things right, and return to reality by means of a love relationship with Jesus Christ.
So Dawkins is at best partly right. Humans certainly have the capacity for deception and delusion. And self-deception is perhaps the most difficult to break free of. As Helen Keller once remarked, “There is none so blind as those who will not see”.
The first step to freedom from delusion and blindness is to admit our need. As long as we think we have no need, help will not be forthcoming. But if we humble ourselves, admit that we are not the centre of the universe, and that we have messed things up big time, then help is there in abundance. But it begins with us. Do we want to continue in our delusion, or come back to the real world?
Or as Morpheus (a John the Baptist-like figure) tells Neo: “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”