Atheism, Arguments, and Apologetics

This weekend a whole bunch of frisky God-haters will be descending upon Melbourne. With all the zeal and passion of an evangelistic tent-meeting crusade, the avid misotheists will congregate to sing the praises of, well, nothing, actually.

Sure, they claim to be celebrating “reason” as they fulminate against God and anyone who dares to differ from them. But as C. S. Lewis so very rightly pointed out, “To argue with God is to argue with the very power that makes it possible to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.”

Still, there will be Christians there to pray for these folks and talk with them if they are open. But that is the real question: for all their talk about reason, just how reasonable are these guys, and just how willing are they in fact to follow the evidence wherever it leads?

I just recently told a class of apologetics students that in dealing with atheists – or anyone else for that matter – one must discern if there is genuine interest and openness, or if they are just arguing for arguments’ sake. Those who are open-minded and really do want to hear what you have to say deserve your full attention.

But those who have closed their minds and have no intention of learning something new from you are probably not worth wasting time on. The truth is, God rewards the diligent seeker, but not the casual inquirer. Those who are really seeking truth, and seeking God, will be found by him.

But those who come simply to argue and push their atheist agendas are not worth spending too much time with. And I also told my students that the main thing that keeps atheists from coming to belief in God is not the scarcity of intellectual arguments.

There is a huge array of sophisticated intellectual artillery which is available to defend the faith. The arguments have come from the greatest minds in Western intellectual history, whether an Augustine, an Aquinas, or a C.S. Lewis. So it is not the paucity of rational and reasonable material – there is heaps of it.

What so often keeps atheists and other non-believers from coming to Christ is in fact not an intellectual problem, but a moral problem. At the end of the day, people want to keep living a selfish and self-centred life. They want to keep pretending that they are the centre of the universe, not God.

Because they are unwilling to give up a me-first lifestyle, they will argue till the cows come home about how irrational it is to be a theist. But more often than not these intellectual objections are mere smokescreens for a life based on self, which is unwilling to submit to someone greater than themself.

Jesus of course made this all perfectly clear in John 3. There he told us why people refuse to come to him and submit to him. This is what he said, as found in John 3:19-21: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people 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 their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

As apologist Ravi Zacharias has put it, “Man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God.” Quite so.

Paul makes a similar argument in Romans 1. In verses 18-25 we read this: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 people are without excuse.

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

“Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.”

And in verse 28 he says: “Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.”

Evidence for God’s existence is all around us, but people suppress this truth, and they do so because of unrighteousness. They reject the light because they are living in darkness. Of course that cuts right across human pride. It is hard for most people to admit to such reality.

So again, it is not so much a lack of evidence, as a lack of willingness to renounce sin and self. Unbelief is in fact more of a moral problem than an intellectual problem. People refuse to come to God because it means a change of ownership, and submitting to a whole new boss: God instead of self.

In 1974 R.C. Sproul released a helpful little volume called The Psychology of Atheism. It was revised and reissued in 1978 as If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists? In this volume Sproul makes some very telling points about these matters.

Says Sproul, “The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural hostility to the being of God.”

Man is in rebellion against God and seeks to be his own boss. Thus the rejection of the real God – he is a competitor to self, and most people refuse to give up allegiance to self: “If God exists, man cannot be a law unto himself. If God exists, man’s will-to-power is destined to run head-on into the will of God.”

It is this clash of ownership, of lordship, of ultimate authority, that takes place in every human life. We either say ‘no’ to self and ‘yes’ to God, or we say ‘no’ to God and ‘yes’ to self. There are no other options here. Only one of us can be boss, and the God of the universe brooks no rivals.

Thus this is not some neutral, impartial debate that we are involved with here. This is about selfish human beings who have a very real vested interest in saying no to God. They hate the idea of God being the boss and calling the shots, so they show their hatred of him by denying that he even exists.

Says Sproul, “The question of the existence of and nature of God is a question attended by a host of vested interests. If we are to examine the question with integrity, we must both recognize and face the implications of our vested interests. If we refuse to do that, then truth will perish, and so will we.”

So apologetics is a valuable tool in the Christian arsenal, but it is an admittedly limited tool. It works well with those who are genuinely interested. Those who ask honest questions deserve all the honest answers we can give them. But those who have made up their minds and refuse to follow the evidence wherever it leads will not be worth spending much time with.

At the end of the day it is not intellectual objections that keep people from getting right with God – it is moral issues. And the chief moral issue is this: will we renounce sin and self and agree with God about who he is and what he demands of us? Or will we continue to shake our fists at God and pretend that we are the centre of the universe?

Those are the sort of questions every single one of us must ask of ourselves. As C. S. Lewis rightly stated, at the end of the day there are only two types of people in the world, and it is very important indeed which group we in fact belong to:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’. All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find; to those who knock it is opened.”

Postscript: I suppose we could sue the atheists for false advertising. They still have a picture of Christopher Hitchens on the website home page for their Melbourne convention. The lawsuit would not be about his non-appearance, but over the fact that Hitchens is of course no longer an atheist. He now knows full well how dead wrong he was about his atheism.

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8 Replies to “Atheism, Arguments, and Apologetics”

  1. >> I just recently told a class of apologetics students

    If you don’t mind it being known, where do you teach, and what subjects?


    Dale Flannery

  2. Hello Bill,
    Thank you for giving me the answer to the puzzle as to why atheists will not accept that God, and Jesus, really exist. It is about self.
    I have been “debating” with my interstate brother-in-law, an atheist and an intellectual, about the existence of Jesus, and the message of the Bible.
    After giving him much evidence and reasons for my belief – as well as sending him a copy of Lee Strobel’s amazing book, “The Case For Christ” – he was still in denial.
    The Holy Spirit then told me to give him my testimony – all of it – including how God’s audible voice spoke to me before I was saved and saved my life when I was about to commit suicide; and many other supernatural events that happened to me before and after I was saved.
    His answer to my evidence each time was to send me a link to an atheist website (or present quotes from same) to counter my arguments.
    However, after my testimony his attitude to me changed, a softening if you like.
    I will continue to pray for and believe for his salvation.
    God bless you, Bill.
    Paul de la Garde, Sydney

  3. Thanks Dale

    For quite some time now I have lectured in theology, biblical studies, ethics, apologetics and so on at a number of bible colleges in the Melbourne area.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. For me it all starts when satan told Eve that she would not die if she ate the forbidden fruit.

    For 6,000 years the question has been the same to every human who has ever lived, will you eat the apple or will you tell satan that God says no, so therefore the answer is a resounding NO I will not eat of the fruit that God says not to eat.

    Who would you trust, God or a proven liar, thief, murderer and covetor of the throne of God.

    Neil Waldron

  5. Thomas Nagel’s new book: “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False”

    “In Mind and Cosmos Thomas Nagel argues that the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one. The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.”

    Damien Spillane

  6. Many thanks for the tip Damien. Amazon tells me it does not appear until October, so we have a bit of a wait yet, but it looks good, especially since it is coming from a noted atheist philosopher.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. I’m learning this. Thanks for writing it!

    “But those who have closed their minds and have no intention of learning something new from you are probably not worth wasting time on. The truth is, God rewards the diligent seeker, but not the casual inquirer. Those who are really seeking truth, and seeking God, will be found by him.”

    Heather Worthington

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