April 1, 2009

An Atheist for One Afternoon

2009 1508 page20 caphey’re wanting to teach atheism as part of the religion syllabus in British schools. Why not? I pondered. It’s taught in every other subject. Which reminds me of an atheist’s version of the Lord’s Prayer someone sent me some time ago:

Our brethren, who art on earth,
Hallowed be our name.
Our kingdom come, our will be done
On earth, for there is no heaven.
We must get this day our daily bread;
We neither forgive nor are forgiven.
We fear not temptation,
For we deliver ourselves from evil.
For ours is the kingdom and the
And there is no glory and no forever.
One Dark Afternoon
I flirted with atheism myself about the time of the John F. Kennedy assassination back in 1963. Just then I’d been much taken with the work of the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. Indeed, I was an atheist for the greater part of an afternoon. God let me get away with it all the way from the public library to my homebound train, throughout the homeward journey, and until I began my long walk from the railway station.
It was not all due to Hume, of course. I’d been broke since the day before forever. Girls—all of them “God botherers,” I reflected, had been giving me a difficult time. An interview panel at Cambridge had made it necessary for me to contemplate a future at a redbrick university (at a venue other than Cambridge, in other words). The “establishment” in both the state and the (Adventist) church was failing to live up to my high standards. I was rejigged and tooled up for a new approach to life.
Then God began to make His presence felt.
The Sun Broke Out
My walk home was down a country lane. Of course, it was the same lane I’d trod every morning and evening. But that late-April day was different. Is it possible God was showing off?—you know the sort of thing: the buds bursting forth in blossom; skies impossibly full of tiny, highly colored birds; the giant trees (were they always that well sculpted?).
2009 1508 page20David Hume, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud, temporarily in the ascendant, bit the dust in favor of a work of art that required an Artist. And in the months and years that came after that, I chose to build on my faith instead of my doubts.
Three towers of faith, in particular, emerged:
The first was the phenomenon of the Bible. It was written over a period of some 1,600 years, by more than 40 different authors, and merged around a common theme, namely, God’s offer of salvation by grace through faith.1
The second faith tower arose out of my reading of Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone? and represented the wealth of valid historical evidence for the literal resurrection of Jesus.2
The third was the sheer personality of Jesus to which I was exposed every time I dipped into the Gospels. If “in God there is no un-Christlikeness at all,” as I had learned, then not only did I want to be in on God, I wanted to be part of His team.
But that late-April afternoon was important. It gave me an empathy for atheists. Atheists choose to live without God. And living without God makes humans into cosmic orphans—the only creatures in the universe who ask “Why?” but cannot find an answer. If Time + Matter + Chance is the explanation, then there is no explanation; you have no reason for your existence, and all you face, ultimately, is death.
Ravi Zacharias wrote: “I am thoroughly convinced that when the last chapter of humanity is written . . . the implications of atheism, i.e., living without God, . . . will have made life plainly unlivable.”3
Do you see why I’m concerned about atheists?
The Case of C. S. Lewis
Some of the finest Christians started out as atheists. Take C. S. Lewis, for example. His early atheism was, in part, well founded. He wrote: “I am quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me for ever and ever if I should fail in coming up to an almost impossible ideal.”4 Forty-six years after the JFK assassination, I still don’t believe in that  kind of God.
By the summer of 1929 Lewis didn’t believe in that kind of God, either. On 
a bus going up to Headington Hill (God is never off duty!), Lewis felt the approach of the “Our Father” God.5 In Surprised by Joy he describes how, in 1931, in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike en route between Oxford and Whipsnade Zoo, he moved to the belief “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
Nevertheless, acceptance of the Christian God—even acceptance of Christ—was only the beginning of his road. Lewis often struggled. Readers who find it hard to get their heads around ideas such as “justification by faith” might be surprised to learn that Lewis did, too. His (atheist) biographer, A. N. Wilson, suggests that in Lewis’s Mere Christianity he failed to 
do justice to many key concepts of the apostle Paul’s theology.6
For years to come Lewis continued to experience “tremendous vacillations in his faith.” He wrote: “I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational dead-weight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of the age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.”7
Those readers whose own faith is uncertain will become angry with Lewis at this point. That a great Christian suffered from occasional doubt will make them feel spiritually insecure. Those with more mature experience will recognize the feeling. They will know, too, that when those feelings come, they have a choice: Do I build on my doubts or build on my faith? They will know, also, that if they choose to build on their faith, the experience cannot be divorced from Bible study and prayer—sometimes desperate prayer—for faith. As A. T. Hanson, one of my theology professors, once said: “If I stopped studying the Bible I would be an atheist in a fortnight.”
Hang On in Dark Times
The greatest crisis in Lewis’s faith happened, as it often does to others, after the death of his wife. “I have stood by the bedside of a woman whose thigh-bone was eaten through with cancer . . . ,” he wrote. In the same way as he had committed his search for faith to paper in Surprised by Joy, he committed the bleak period of his loss to paper in A Grief Observed. Rarely, if ever, has a Christian shared so much of their sorrow as Lewis did in that little book.
As is so often, Lewis won the respect of his skeptical biographer when he exposed his vulnerability. “Presumably one of the things which makes A Grief Observed such a consoling and helpful book to thousands of bereaved people,” A. N. Wilson writes, “is that Lewis knew by instinct what is now a commonplace of bereavement counseling, that grief must be expressed and lived through. . . . Outside the Psalms and the book of Job, there is not a book quite like A Grief Observed, a book by a man who still believes in God but cannot find evidence for His goodness.”8
Lewis won Wilson’s admiration for hanging on to God even in the worst of times and, in those times, having faith that the dark tunnel would have an end in blazing sunlight. Whatever our present crisis, God asks us to go with Him—not go with our feelings—and when the reckoning comes, it will be found that He’d carried us through it.
Whatever happens, we do have an invisible means of support if we have built on our faith, and if we pray earnestly for that gifted faith that is saving faith.
“There cannot be a greater difference than that between someone who supposes that the human race (and with it all art, philosophy, science, and virtue) is a mere atomic accident in a blankly meaningless universe and those who believe that there is a plan, and behind it all a design.”9
1I’ve summarized these arguments in The Battle for the Bible (Autumn House, 2004).
2I’ve summarized Morison’s arguments and added a few of my own in the chapter on the resurrection in The Essential Jesus (Pacific Press, 2002).
3Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Word Publishing, 1994), p. 17.
4Cited in A. N. Wilson, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (Harper Collins, 1990), p. 42.
5Ibid., p. 109.
6Ibid., p. 137.
7Cited in A. N. Wilson, p. 123.
8Ibid., pp. 283, 284.
9Ibid., p. 87.
David Marshall is the senior editor at Stanborough Press in Lincolnshire, England.