Why Proving God's Existence Won't Save the World
Evangelicals spend so much energy trying to prove that God is real, but most of the atheists I know wouldn’t want the God of the Bible, even if we could prove his existence.
Why? They would reject the faith because they don’t think the God of the Bible is moral.
Don’t just laugh that thought off as ridiculous. Considering some of the information many atheists have received, I can understand why some have drawn this conclusion.
If Christians want to make any progress in sharing the gospel with an unbelieving world, we need to listen to the reason atheists have this particular problem with our faith. And we need to clear some of the fog away before having surface arguments that lead to nowhere.
I. First off, there’s confusion about the facts.
It’s human nature to believe the worst about any worldview that we don’t like. (Look at how quickly we eat up dirty gossip about our political enemies!) So when misinformation about our faith hits the news, many atheists stand eager to embrace the worst possible angle on Christian beliefs.
I don't like seeing this happen, of course, but I can't blame nonbelievers too much because I have made similar mistakes about others I suspect. Having this wrong done to me reminds me how important it is to be fair.
After the hard lesson is taken, though, it's helpful to think about where all this bad info coming from. I've seen two main sources, and I'd like to talk about both of those a little bit.
A. BAD INFO COMES FROM SECULARISTS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE TRYING TO WRITE ABOUT THE BIBLE
For example, last week atheist sites were giddy because Canaanite DNA was found in the Middle East. A secular writer found a verse from the Old Testament and said it was a claim that all Canaanites were destroyed. Before anybody who actually knew the Bible could get a grip on that story, the thing spread like wildfire.
Of course, that’s not what the Bible teaches. It teaches the opposite in fact, showing us why Canaanite DNA should still exist in the Middle East. But over and over again, this sort of viral brouhaha rolls out of a simple misunderstanding, adding to confusion and mistrust on both sides.
B. BAD INFO COMES FROM PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO BE CHRISTIANS
My head literally hurts when I see bad teachers handling Scripture. I don’t mean to be an academic snob, but seriously, I wouldn’t let some of the people I see trying to interpret the Bible read me instructions out of a John Deere riding mower manual.
Some of those folks mix theology with bad science. Some mix theology with bad ethics. And while bad Bible teachers are making some of the most embarrassing mistakes I’ve ever seen anybody make on a public stage, they roar with all the confidence in the world. (I need my blog to have a GIF option. You've seen that one where the guy runs headlong into a wall and slides off, right? Insert that here.)
The Bible isn’t about being “smart,” of course; the core of the gospel is simple enough that even a child can understand it. But people who have never been taught to think clearly—people who don’t know fair principles of literary interpretation—those people often carry raw weaknesses into their attempts to teach about God. And unless God intervenes miraculously (and sometimes he does), especially if pride takes over, a lack of information can lead to goofing the Bible up super badly.
Average Joe would never attempt DIY brain surgery after watching a YouTube video on the subject. Average Evangelical Joe will, however, attempt to teach about the almighty Lord based on hearsay and gut instinct. Attempting the second is even more dangerous than the first. So much damage has been done to the gospel because of this sort of overconfidence.
II. Secondly, there’s a ton of confusion about how the Bible works
Somewhere along the way, the public began to believe that any story included in the Bible was also endorsed by the Living God. But that’s not how the Bible functions.
Some of the most horrifying narratives in the Old Testament don’t show us what God loves; they show us how ugly human sin can get if it runs its free course. The book of Judges says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And indeed, this is a book of the Bible which teaches us how violent and selfish humans can be when entrusted to develop and maintain their own morality. These sorts of narratives show what we look like when God doesn't protect us from ourselves.
So many secondary moral issues clear up when we realize the Bible is doing this. Many teachings about slavery, the treatment of women, even genocide fall under the narrative umbrella of a culture that was thoroughly resistant to submission to God. Laws that you and I criticize would have been utterly unnecessary if God’s people had been willing to seek God’s heart. Instead, they were rebellious over and over again, insisting on doing things their own way.
This is why I get so frustrated when atheists start citing random laws from the Old Testament as some sort of claim against the Divine. It’s not that those laws never existed, but they did exist inside of a human context that didn’t fit into God’s ideal. Like a temporary restraining order against a violent husband, protections were sometimes put in place that a healthy marriage would never require.
As the New Testament expands, we see a truer picture of the sort of moral order that God intends—a morality that is based on union with his Spirit instead of just rote regulation and obedience. This is why the Old Testament must always be read through the lens of the New Testament. They are not equivalent. One foreshadows, and the other completes.
III. Despite all this, there are still confusing sections of the Bible
I’ve studied the Bible for over thirty years now, and there are still some passages that are difficult for me to understand. There are still a few passages that I feel are unjust, too, and I don’t ignore that feeling like I used to. I don’t check my brain at the door and trot along in trusting ignorance, excusing sections that seem to contradict the greater thrust of Scripture.
I will say, though, that quite a few times over the course of my life, disturbing, obscure passages have opened up beautifully once the right information has appeared. So while I was defiant and angry about unclear passages of Scripture in my twenties, in my 40's, I'm more patient about sections that seem offensive or mysterious. I don't try to hide my horror from God. I pray, “Uh, what do you even want me to do with this part because it doesn’t seem to fit with 90% of what you’ve said in the rest of the Scriptures.” I pray, “What in the world? Why would you even care about this?" I’m honest about all that stuff when I pray because God’s my Father, and I trust him with my gut reactions.
And where the Old Testament seems wonky, I interpret the unclear by what is clear. I interpret the old through the new. And I never act on obscure teachings that seem unstable or disjointed.
I don't strain to apply stories I don’t understand as moral guidance for my soul. I WAIT FOR GOD to show me how mystery fits, and I leave it alone until he clears the confusion up. There's plenty to do in the clear, direct commands of love and compassion without getting snarled up in what is uncertain.
IV. What I've written here doesn't make the core snag of atheism vanish
Sometimes I think atheists are unfair about the Bible, and sometimes I think messed up Christian teachers distort the Bible. But even if all this is handled properly, determined secularists will still hit a snag.
Even if all narrative confusion is swept away, the God of the Bible still asks for us to trust him, and trust comes hard for people who haven’t lived in a trustworthy world.
You and I have been hurt, so we trust ourselves and not much else.
That old temptation of Eve’s serpent is still running the circuit, and it's still powerful. “Has God really said he’s going to take care of you? Why don’t you just try to be like God without involving him? You don’t need him--you can be strong on your own. You’ve got this. You’re smart enough. Just be the best you that you can be. Look at these resources around you.l and use them. That’s all anybody can do.”
Gosh it's such a sweet promise for hurt people because we want to hold the controls to our own lives so badly. Even deeper than arguments about evolution, genocide and misogyny, lies a real question of whether or not we would be willing trust a God to hold authority over us.
Lest we point too many fingers at atheists, this is the same mistrust that has led evangelicals astray for years. We make political alliances because they promise tactile safety. We make strategic plans because God is too quiet. We reach for fading comforts because eternity is too dang hard to imagine and too far away to embrace.
In fact, sometimes I think the atheists have one up on us in that they are at least willing to admit that they don't trust God. I want to trust Him always, but a lot of the time, I don't. In that regard, I suppose we all have a whole lot to confess and a whole lot to learn.
“Fifty years ago, the main cultural tension of being a Christian in the United States was that the Christian believed things regarded as naive and false by the general culture: that believing in an omnipotent creator required the checking of your brain. Now the main tension is that the Christian's tradition is regarded by the general culture as immoral: that the God of scripture is a bad character, and those who adore him are misshapen by the company they keep. Consequently the work of the apologist today resembles more closely that of the early church's apologists. The Romans, to be sure, regarded the Way as false, but (more gravely) they regarded it as dangerous -- a thing that produced bad citizens.” David Mitchel