Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow. It’s the last in the series, Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces. The other six on the blog, and I hope they’ve been helpful. I hope your day is a wonderful Lord’s Day!
Seven Cultural Challenges Each Church Faces:
Atheism – Why Don’t They Believe in God?
32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[e] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
A Familiar Scene with a New Question
Here we are in a familiar scene — the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke offers us a glimpse at the activity surrounding the cross of Christ, and paints a very graphic picture of Jesus’ last moments.
After Jesus is given over to the mob, Luke turns our attention to the others being executed that day. In the company of Jesus, two men — both criminals Luke notes — are crucified with Jesus. As the men are nailed to the crosses, and the uprights dropped into the ground, the mob works itself into a frenzy.
Shouts of derision — “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One” — fill the air.
Roman soldiers mock Jesus, offering him wine vinegar, and say, “If you are king of the Jews, save yourself.” The Jews mock Jesus for not being the Messiah, and the Romans mock him for not being a real king. They even nail a placard over his head which reads — This is the King of the Jews, adding insult to injury.
As if the crowd’s taunts and the soldiers’ mocking is not enough, even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus joins in the hateful chorus, with a challenge that reveals his own self-interest — “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other thief rebukes him — “Don’t you fear God?” he asks. Then, he addresses Jesus — “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus’ reassuring response must have brought comfort to the penitent thief, and strangely brought no response from the other one.
Normally, we focus on the penitent thief, explaining that paradise literally means “the garden of the king.” Jesus’ assurance to the one thief was that he would be his personal guest in the eternal kingdom of God.
But the question I want us to ask ourselves today is this: Why did one thief believe in Christ, and the other reject Him? Because today we’re dealing with our final cultural challenge: atheism. Why don’t atheists believe in God?
How could two thieves hanging an equal distance, one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus, come to such different conclusions? The penitent thief even chastised the other by asking, “Don’t you fear God?” Apparently he didn’t.
Atheism Finds Its Voice
In the past 10 years or so, atheism has found its voice in our culture. In 2006, Richard Dawkins, British biologist and professor at Oxford, published his atheistic tome titled, The God Delusion. In it, Dawkins contended that belief in a creator God was a delusion refuted by scientific evidence.
Dawkins is said to share the sentiment made popular by Robert Pirsig in his book Lila, “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.”
Dawkins presented four arguments in The God Delusion:
- Atheists can be happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.
- Natural selection and similar scientific theories are superior to a “God hypothesis”—the illusion of intelligent design—in explaining the living world and the cosmos.
- Children should not be labelled by their parents’ religion. Terms like “Catholic child” or “Muslim child” should make people cringe.
- Atheists should be proud, not apologetic, because atheism is evidence of a healthy, independent mind.
Christopher Hitchens published his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in 2008. Part of the movement called “the new atheism,” Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris — author of Letter to a Christian Nation — and Daniel Dennett, philosopher, are called “the four horsemen” of the movement.
I struck up something of a congenial relationship with another atheist, John Allen Paulos. Paulos teaches mathematics at Temple University, and I received an email from him after I had dismissed his book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, as just one more volume in the popular past-time of God-bashing.
Paulos offered to send me a review copy of his book, in which he challenged the typical Christian arguments for the existence of God. Frankly, I thought he did a pretty good job of dismantling the standard proofs for God offered by Christian apologetics. He was so stunned that I gave his book something of a “rave” review, as he put it, that he offered to buy me dinner the next time I come to Philadelphia. I have yet to take him up on that, but heard from John just a couple of days ago.
Among other things, John indicts Christians in his book for the terrible treatment of atheists. He has been the recipient of a lot of Christian vitriol directed his way, and finds that rather offensive, as I do to.
But, atheism, and its close cousin agnosticism, aren’t just for egghead professors. In 2007, the Lilly Endowment funded a survey by Trinity College that revealed that 15% of Americans not cite “no religion” when asked for their religious preference. The Washington Post summed up the findings this way —
“The only group that grew in every U.S. state since the 2001 survey was people saying they had “no” religion; the survey says this group is now 15 percent of the population. Silk said this group is likely responsible for the shrinking percentage of Christians in the United States.”
Northern New England has surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country; 34 percent of Vermont residents say they have “no religion.” The report said that the country has a “growing non-religious or irreligious minority.” Twenty-seven percent of those interviewed said they did not expect to have a religious funeral or service when they died, and 30 percent of people who had married said their service was not religious. Those questions weren’t asked in previous surveys.”
Granted, saying you have “no religion” doesn’t mean you’re an atheist, but the accompanying answers on religious funerals and weddings indicate that faith traditions are not as important as they once were in our culture.
Why Don’t Atheists Believe in God?
Atheists obviously don’t believe in God. I’m reminded of the story about the little boy who was growing up in an atheist home. He turned to his dad one day and asked, “Daddy, does God know we don’t believe in him?” And while that is an amusing story, the reality is that fewer people see the need to center their lives around a god of any kind, much less the God who sent Jesus to save the world.
So, why don’t they believe in God anymore?
First, our culture has changed. Religious faith, or at least church membership, is no longer required for one to be considered a good, upstanding member of society. As a matter of fact, in certain circles — academia being one of them — religious faith is viewed as a non-scientific superstition, and those who hold religious views as deluded.
Following World War II, as the GIs returned home on the GI bill, former soldiers went to school, graduated, got jobs, and moved to the suburbs. Church nurseries were packed, as were sanctuaries. God, home, and country were the pillars of society in the 1950s. Of course, not everyone went to church, although a higher percentage of the population did then than now. But, most everybody had an answer for the question, “What religion are you?”
Of course, that was long before a plurality of religious beliefs flooded our nation. So the answer to the question, “What religion are you?” was usually Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. At least in the south. But those days are over, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Faith now is not a cultural expectation, but a personal experience. But the option not to believe is just as accepted in our culture as the act of believing.
Secondly, atheists are often convinced that the only rational position based on science is that there is no god. Scientists haven’t discovered God, have proven his existence, and have developed widely-accepted explanations for how life on this planet began, and how it sustains itself. Atheists reject the idea offered by Christian apologists that if you have a garden, there must be a gardener. Why? they ask. Just because that’s how things work in our everyday lives, doesn’t mean there is a superior intelligence guiding us.
The New Atheism is also promoting a new name for atheists. Apparently being called an atheist still carries a lot of cultural baggage with it, so the new atheists have come up with a name they like better. They would prefer to be called “Brights.”
Granted, Brights does sound, well, all shiny and bright — luminescent, glowing, a kind of aura. They are “bright” they say because they believe in science and rational thought, not superstition and tradition. I’m not sure “brights” will catch on, but the name they have chosen says more about their view of themselves than anything.
Third, atheists often come to that position after a bad personal experience with the church, religion, or religious people. And, they remind those of us who are Christians that there was a time when the Church killed those it considered infidels or blasphemers. Of course, they are right. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the settling of the new world, all involved either the conversion or subjugation of those who were not Christians.
Although not an atheist, Ghandi’s observation, “If it weren’t for Christians, I’d be a Christian” has a stinging rebuke to it. We Christians are our own worst enemy when it comes to appealing to atheists.
The opposition that Madalyn Murray O’Hair garnered after successfully suing to stop prayer in public school, led Life magazine in 1964 to call her “the most hated woman in America.” O’Hair became the target of the wrath of the Christian community. As founder of the American Atheists, she served as president of that organization until her disappearance and death in 1995.
Fourth, some view the existence of multiple religions as proof that none are right. “If the Christians are right,” they argue, “then the Muslims are wrong; and vice-versa.” Pluralism, which we explored at the beginning of this series, becomes the basis for not believing in anything.
Finally, I am sure some deny faith in a God of any kind because of their own personal tragedy, or their inability to understand the problem of evil and suffering in our world. UNC professor Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus Interrupted, writes in his book that the problem of evil and suffering is what led him to become a “happy agnostic” in his words. The loss of a loved one, an injustice or hurt, can shatter personal faith, or become a stumbling block to that faith.
Other reasons probably exist for why people choose not to believe in God, but whatever the reason, we as followers of Christ must find ways to engage our atheist and agnostic neighbors and co-workers as friends, not as objects to be converted or hated. Jesus responded in love to both thieves hanging beside him, I am sure. Only one believed that Jesus was the son of God.
Losing Faith and The Clues For God
Debbie and I were in the youth group at Dalewood Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee when we were in high school. Our church didn’t have a paid youth minister, but we had great volunteers who opened their homes to us, took us on retreats and camps, and helped us find our own faith during our teenage years.
Two couples stand out in my mind. Bob and Darlene Mendenhall, and Leonard and Norma Wills. Bob was the manager of the Baptist Bookstore in Nashville, and he and Darlene had the entire youth group of about 25 kids over to their house many Sunday nights after the evening service, as did the Wills. Debbie and I saw Bob and Darlene last in 2003, the year before we moved to Chatham. We had the “World’s Oldest Youth Fellowship” reunion, and several members of our old youth group came.
But Leonard and Norma Wills weren’t there. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but during our high school years, Leonard stopped working with the youth at our church. As a matter of fact, he quit coming to church altogether. We missed him, prayed for him, but never heard exactly what happened.
Years later, in 2003, at the World’s Oldest Youth Fellowship, Bob Mendenhall told us what had happened to Leonard. Leonard had become an atheist. Apparently one night Leonard walked into his backyard in Nashville, and said, “God if you’re real, strike me dead right now.” When nothing happened, Leonard concluded that God did not exist.
Faith is a fragile thing. If you’re looking for reasons not to believe, they’re all around us. War. Poverty. Disease. Famine. Suffering. Tragedy. The list goes on. If you’re looking for scientific proof for the existence of God, you won’t find it. When the first Russian cosmonaut returned to earth, he proudly observed that he had been into the heavens, but hadn’t seen God.
When our grandson Wesley was about three, Blues Clues was his favorite TV show. Blue, a cartoon dog, and his real sidekick buddy Steve, led preschoolers on a search for something that was missing in every show. The kids could buy Blues Clues notebooks, so they could put the clues they found in them. After enough clues were revealed, the mystery was solved.
A clue on the Blues Clues show was indicated by Blue’s paw print, in blue, of course. So, if you saw a blue paw print, you knew that was a clue. One day our grandson was standing at the front door, when he said, “A clue! A clue!” He had spotted what looked like Blue’s paw print, even though it wasn’t blue, on the sill of the front door.
After writing the review of John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, and posting on my blog, I wrote another article titled, Why I Believe God Exists. I told the story of our grandson, that I just told you, and here’s the rest of what I wrote —
“The point of Blues Clues was to spot the clues and jot them in your notebook. Well, that’s kind of what we do as believers. We spot the clues of God. We make note of them. Those clues validate, not prove, that God is here, just like we read in the Bible. The Bible which contains the story of God.
So, I don’t need proof. I don’t need the philosophical sleight of hand that loses me in its twists and turns. I just need some clues. And a story. And a community to share it with. Do I agree with Paulos? I think he makes some good points, and I agree he presents his case well. It just doesn’t matter to me. Just as he states his unbelief, I state my belief. He finds no reason to believe; I find a million clues to believe.
In the New Testament, they just told the story of God and of Jesus. They told it to those who wanted to listen, and to those who did not. They told it to those who accepted it, and those who rejected it. They told it to those who loved them, and to those who tried to kill them. But, they told the story because they believed it with all their hearts. Which is where this story takes root, and flourishes, waiting to be told to others who have also seen the clues but need a story to go with them. That’s why I believe God exists.”
For those who do not believe, our lives are the only Bible they will read, the only presence of Christ they will experience. Whether they come to faith or not, our job is to love them, just as God does.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,[a] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.