Monday, May 5, 2008

The Bottom Line With Atheists

Last year, after viewing the debate on ABC between Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron and the atheists Brian Sapient and "Kelly" I found myself initially walking away with mixed emotions. The chest beating male in myself saw it as a contest of Tyson v Holyfield proportions and was cheering for my guys (Ray and Kirk) to kick some serious atheistic butt. Having been heavily influenced by Ray and Kirk's ministry I was well aware that both Ray and Kirk are fine Christian apologists who have deep familiarity with the Scriptures and are very capable at going "into the ring" with the angriest of atheists. As I watched them argue primarily from the basis of creation and human conscience pointing to a creator I found myself screaming on the inside begging them to pull out the heavy argumentative artillery and teach these atheists a lesson. Many Christian commentators felt the same and launched some stinging attacks on both Ray and Kirk and suggested that they did a poor job of defending the case for a Creator.

My thoughts were that I loved Ray and Kirk and there ministry but I was disappointed that they didn't "go for the jugular" with their opponents. They failed in their attempt to convince the American public of God's existence......... or did they. It was at this time that I was slowly working my way through the book of Romans and the Gospel of John. By the time I'd hit chapter 3 in both of these books I was convinced that my initial impression of the debate was wrong and that Ray and Kirk actually did the right thing in appealing to the idea that creation proves there is a Creator, and that the conscience reveals God's moral law written on the human heart. No one has asked me to write this, but my hope is that it would serve as a reminder as to what Scripture tells us about sinful man and what our priorities should be as the body of Christ, sinners saved by grace, embarking on the great commission.

So what happened in my travels through the early chapters of John and Romans? I would like to plead with the reader at this point to biblically consider these following observations in the hope that they might galvanise and transform our evangelistic endeavors in the future.

As a Christian our primary calling is to preach the Gospel because the wrath of God is poised to slay our "opponent" at any moment and condemn them to eternal conscious punishment.
Most professing Christians can quote John 3:16 but are unfamiliar with the rest of the chapter. One who is familiar with John chapter 3 understands that "he that believeth not is condemned already" (John 3:18) and that "the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36). The atheist spends every day on the brink of eternal torment and the cruelest approach a Christian could take would be to engage in a debate without ever proclaiming the Gospel. I applaud Ray and Kirk for leaving their egos at the door and focussing first and foremost on giving a clear proclamation of the Christian message which is the (already condemned) atheist's only hope of escaping God's wrath.

A healthy understanding of our own depravity dissipates our desire to deliver a knockout punch and raises our urgency to plead with those who are lost.
Romans 3:9 asks the question "are we better than they?" and goes on to say "no, in no way" for we are "all under sin". The following verses go on to tell us that "there is none righteous" (v10), "none that seek after God" (v11), "none that do good" (v12), that the law of God "stops every mouth" from justifying and leaves the whole "world guilty before God" (v19), and that God's law brings "the knowledge of sin" (v20). A healthy grasp of this passage destroys any remaining traces of self righteousness and, with that, the need to compete with an ungodly adversary. But this passage does serve to remind me of my own guilt, that it is only an understanding of God's moral law that will stop the sinners futile self defense and, in turn, awaken his guilt before God. With this in mind, I see the biblical soundness of Ray and Kirk's approach in explaining God's moral law via the Ten Commandments prior to presenting the Christian Gospel.

The following observations really took me by surprise.

The atheist already has knowledge of God but suppresses it in unrighteousness.
It is worth asking ourselves the question at this point as to whether it is a worthwhile exercise investing time in dazzling the unbeliever with wizz bang apologetics concerning God's existence when the issue is not one of knowledge but of sin.

Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
Rom 1:19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them.
Rom 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
Rom 1:21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

These verses from Romans 1 tell us "that which may be known of God is manifest" in the unbeliever "for God hath shown it unto them". They are holding "the truth in unrighteousness". And what is it that testifies God's existence to sinful men? Verse 20 tells us the answer. The "invisible" things of God are "clearly seen" in God's creation "even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse". Put simply, the creation compellingly testifies to the Creator God Himself. My disappointment with Ray and Kirk in using the argument of creation instead of "deeper and more profound apologetics" was one of biblical ignorance on my part (it is interesting to not that some atheists did call in to talk back radio after the debate and concede that they did find the creation argument compelling). It is clear to me that Ray and Kirk showed great wisdom in realising that the atheist already has knowledge of God's existence and time is better spent trying to awaken this knowledge rather than try and win an argument with him. Because the atheist's problem is not a lack of proof concerning God's existence, but rather one of human pride and a love of sin. Understanding this has helped enormously with my witnessing activities because I have stopped wasting time arguing over God's existence and spent time trying to awaken the unbelievers conscience through God's moral law that brings the knowledge of sin which leads to my next observation.

The atheist already has knowledge of God and his conscience bears witness that he is alienated from Him.
The atheist can deny all he wants and try to argue from an intellectual standpoint. It is both foolish and futile to war on this front because knowledge is not the issue and some atheists are a lot smarter than I am. But try as he may, the atheist cannot explain why his conscience opposes his human nature. But we know why because God's Word tells us that God's law is written on everybodies heart and our knowledge of right and wrong testifies both to God's existence, and man's alienation from this God.

Rom 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
Rom 2:15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

By explaining God's moral law via the ten commandments prior to explaining the Gospel message Ray and Kirk actually gave the necessary point of reference in order to understand the Gospel and in so doing avoided futile reasoning on the intellectual level. I do not mean to discount the use of the intellect but rather to use it only when an individual is humbled before God. Brian Sapient and Kelly may have mocked and laughed but they have the knowledge of God and suppress it in unrighteousness, this I know for the Bible tells me so.

It seems ironic that in a land with so many "seeker sensitive" mega churches built on a catch cry of "relevance" that they have neglected to fully explain the universal guilt of mankind. I can't think of anything more relevant than the fact that "all have sinned". Sure it might get mentioned from time to time, but rarely is it explained. Sin by definition is transgression of God's law (I John 3:4) and I fail to see how an individual could fathom their sinfulness without an understanding of God's law.

People don't reject the Gospel because it wasn't presented in a clever or attractive manner, people reject the Gospel because they love darkness and hate the light.
Again, John 3 explains to us why people reject the Gospel. It is amazing how much neglected yet important information is contained in the verses following John 3:16. Information so important in fact that a working knowledge could have saved many "seeker sensitive" pastors a lot of time and effort with how they approached evangelism.

Joh 3:19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
Joh 3:20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

Again, I commend Ray and Kirk for avoiding the conventional route of clever argument and instead choosing to reason of sin, righteousness and judgement. It's not rocket science - people love sin and therefore hate the light of God's Holiness. With this in mind and knowing our own sinfulness and the incredible mercy extended to us by God, let us approach the task of evangelism with deep humility but strong urgency to show the sinner (as lovingly as we can) that his deeds are evil and his primary need is not happiness but righteousness. Reasoning from God's law is the only way to show the sinner his exceeding sinfulness and warn of the coming judgement as Paul did in his sermon to the pagan culture of his time

Act 17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
Act 17:31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

In the Old Testament God continually reminded the Israelites that they should remember that they were once strangers in Egypt. We Christians should humble ourselves in the memory that we were once strangers from God and that our redemption had nothing to do with our own merit (because we have none) but by God's grace so that we could never boast in anything but the cross of our risen Saviour. With this in mind may we plead with lost souls appealing to the Holiness of God, the wretchedness of man, the justice of God in punishing sin, that God punished Himself in our place, sealed our eternal hope through His resurrection, and that all men must respond in repentance and faith.

Cameron Buettel 12 February 2008


WhaWouJeDo said...

Hey Cameron! Wow wow... I was so blessed by reading this. I watched the debate too on youtube some time ago... and afterwards I found a follow-up video on Wotmr where Ray and Kirk explained why did as they did. And there they also explained how their main-focus was not to discuss evolution but actually to preach the truth. It's way cool...

Clucky Nurse said...

Hi Cameron.
What is your response to people who have read too many Dawkins and Hitchens and refute that God is a racist, sexist, homophobic, genocidal, rapist, warmongering tyrant and therefore do not want anything to do with him? My stomach twists with disgust on hearing these things.

Cameron Buettel said...

Clucky Nurse, I would tell them that that comment does not sound atheistic at all. That is not evidence that God does not exist, it is evidence that they hate God. If they really read the Scriptures in context, and had a right understanding of their own sinfulness then they would ask another question. How does a just and righteous God put up with such evil sinners for so long? Why hasn't He damned me to hell already? How can God forgive sinners without compromising His righteousness?

Clucky Nurse said...

Thank you. This person really does hate God and loves his sin. I will continue to plead with him to repent.