Contemporary neo-atheistic and even some biblical interpretations offer challenging innovative twists and argumentation
By Jiří Moskala
“‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’” (John 17:3).1 For biblically thinking Christians, knowing Christ existentially means eternal life. Baptist pastor Jeremy LaBorde rightly states, “What you believe to be true will control you, whether it’s true or not.”2
Richard Rice aptly observes: “Our understanding of God has enormous practical significance. . . . What we think of God and how we respond to Him are closely related. An inaccurate view of God can have disastrous effect on personal religious experience. We could never love a hostile, tyrannical being. . . . And we could not respect a mild, indulgent figure who never took us seriously. Our personal religious experience can be healthy only if we hold an adequate conception of God.”3
Happiness and balance in life depend on the right picture of God. However, recent attacks on God’s character in different forms—not only by atheists but even by Christian thinkers—have influenced many, and it leads to a realization of the importance of theodicy, which is a combination of two Greek words, theos (“God”) and diké (“justice”). Theodicy refers to a discussion of the problem of evil and a defense of the justice of God in the context of the existence of evil.
Atheism in My Life
Atheism was part of my personal journey even though I was never an atheist; for almost 40 years, I was confronted daily with this ideology. I was born and grew up in Czechoslovakia, one of the strongholds of atheism at that time, and went to atheistic schools. All ideology was atheistic and based upon the evolutionary theory and the premise of the survival of the fittest.
Even though I was from a Seventh-day Adventist family, one of the integral members of our family was my uncle, who lived with us and was a staunch atheist. He tried hard to persuade me that the evolutionary hypothesis was the best explanation for the origins of life and that to believe in God was nonsense, believable only by the weak, uneducated, and aged.
My story is connected even with persecution under the atheistic government. I was ridiculed in schools for being a Seventh-day Adventist Christian; my father had immense difficulties at work for his beliefs, especially in regard to Sabbath observance; my father-in-law was imprisoned for his faith. During my studies, I had to listen to many atheistic lectures and read atheistic books. In my university studies in Prague, I had some of the best Marxist philosophers teach me their ideology and philosophy. I was constantly confronted with atheism.
I have learned that atheism is also a kind of religion that is based upon reason as the highest authority. In such a system, evolutionary theory is untouchable, and some of atheistic thinkers— Lenin, Marx, Engels, Nietzsche, Sartre, and others—are “worshiped.”
Today neoatheists—and even some Christian scholars, theologians, and apologists—are not working contextually and theologically with the biblical material. They are highly selective and retell the biblical story with their own twist in order to ridicule the Christian faith in God and who He is in order to deny His existence. They do not do justice to the original intent of the biblical text and to the overall actual biblical picture of God. But everything in spiritual life depends on a true picture of God.
Classical Atheism—Main Claim and Reasoning
Atheists’ principal assertion is that religion is a human invention, that it is wrong, and only for the weak. “Man makes religion,” Karl Marx famously said: “religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. . . . Religion is the opium of the people!”4 Lenin claimed: “‘Religion is the opium of the people’: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion.”5
Often people found answers to their hard questions in atheism. The evolutionary hypothesis provided an easy solution to the issue of the origin of life. The strongest arguments against Christianity, however, were based on the injustice in the world and the suffering of the innocents. How could a good and omnipotent God allow concentration camps, torture, rape, and violence against women and children? Because these evils exist, it is asserted, God does not exist. Atheists point with contempt to countless religious wars, the Dark Ages, the Inquisition, and the teachings of the Christian churches, such as the doctrine of hell, the intercessory ministry of the saints, and the belief in miracles.
Bertrand Russell explained that if one wanted to be intellectually honest and scientifically informed, such a person could not believe in God. He also rejected Christianity because of the doctrine of hell: “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character,” he wrote, “and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment . . . . I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.”6
Ellen G. White has a powerful comment on the damaging influence of a wrong understanding of the doctrine of hell: “It is beyond the power of the human mind to estimate the evil which has been wrought by the heresy of eternal torment. The religion of the Bible, full of love and goodness, and abounding in compassion, is darkened by superstition and clothed with terror. When we consider in what false colors Satan has painted the character of God, can we wonder that our merciful Creator is feared, dreaded, and even hated?”7
Classical atheists usually did not paint a dark picture of God. It was enough for them to assert God’s non-existence and the folly of believing in God. Some even expressed their frustration and nostalgia, because the reasons to believe in God were not good enough, even though the human heart longs for a loving God in whom to rest. Thomas Hardy in his poem “God’s Funeral” expresses the melancholy that God is dead; Matthew Arnold in the poem “Dover Beach” eloquently describes these strange feelings when one loses the certainty and beauty of faith.
One would expect that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in 1989 and the 1990s, the atheistic ideology would have died as well. While the ideology of atheism and its propaganda was losing ground, however, it was resurrected especially after September 11, 2001, because people realized as never before the passion of organized religion for power.
Atheism is now reviving and working in more subtle ways. It has also become quite aggressive and is still built on the foundation of the Darwinian theory of evolution. This theory has also nurtured the evolution of religion from many gods to a more pure form of one God and then to the pinnacle of the evolution of religion—no God. For the atheist, one’s own reason and scientific worldview decide everything.
With the rise of neo-atheism comes a new phenomenon. The naturalistic origin of life is now mixed with aggressive attacks on religion, including especially Islam and Christianity. They repeat the old atheistic arguments with better scientific reasoning and new tactics. They try to demonstrate that not only is it foolish to believe in God, but that religion is evil, dangerous, and harmful. They viciously attack the God of the Old Testament as well as religion in general, yet they express their anger with charm and elegance. The writings of four principles represent neo-atheism in the world today:
● Richard Dawkins is the most famous of the four, and a prolific author. Emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Oxford, he aggressively challenges the Christian religion. Dawkins formulated the most articulate and vicious attack on the God of the Bible. “The God of the Old Testament,” he wrote, “is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”8
Marcion in the second century A.D. had already expressed negative thoughts about the God of the Old Testament, but Dawkins plays forte fortissimo with the same melody and strongly claims that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a moral monster. Moreover, Dawkins advocates an opinion that everything has only a biological origin. He also criticizes the teaching of hell by many Christians.
● Sam Harris also is a critic of religion. His first book, The End of Faith, fueled a debate about the validity of religion. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he takes a stand against child sacrifices to bloodthirsty gods and argues that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus for humanity’s transgressions is reminiscent of these perverted religious practices. Then he added The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values because he realized that people think that science and evolution have nothing to say on the subject of morality and the formation of human values. He tries to answer this puzzle through science, because otherwise people’s ethical behavior is one of the primary justifications for the Christian faith.
● Christopher Hitchens, recently deceased, was a polemicist and journalist who made a direct case against religion. The title of his main book eloquently describes the reason and his aim for writing the book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. This phrase is a play on a common Muslim saying that means, “God/Allah is great.” Hitchens denies the relevancy of any religion and defines religion as a social poison. As a result of his reading of the major religious texts, he states that religion is a manmade wish, a cause of dangerous sexual control, and a distortion of our understanding of origins. He argues for a secular life based on science and reason.
● Daniel Dennett, a Tufts University cognitive scientist, published in 1991 a thought-provoking book Consciousness Explained, and anyone reading it will agree that to explain human consciousness is not an easy task. Dennett explains everything from the naturalistic viewpoint. He claims that human consciousness, rather than being “hard-wired” into the brain’s innate machinery, is more like software that runs on the hardware of the human brain and is largely the product of cultural evolution.
In another of his books, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Dennett argues for the power of the theory of natural selection. Populist argumentation for undergirding Darwin’s theory of evolution leads him to the conclusion that the evolutionary hypothesis is like a powerful acid, a “universal solvent, capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight” which dissolves everything. At the end, he states that “the truly dangerous aspect of Darwin’s idea is its seductiveness.”9 Dennett in his discussion of morality and religion claims that Christians manufacture terror, psychological abuse, hell, and phobias.
10 The views of these neo-atheistic thinkers and scientists are founded on naive views of human nature and the denial of the power of sin. This positivistic understanding of our nature is doomed to fail as the history of humanity demonstrates. The selfishness of the human heart is naturally incurable and is not going from bad to good but from bad to worse. In Communism everyone was considered equal, but some people (members of the leading party) were more equal. Corruption, unfortunately, is a notorious problem in any political system.
It is true that many crimes have been committed and wars fought in the name of God or Allah. (As Seventh-day Adventists, we strongly protest the misuse of religion—the Inquisition, slavery, terrorist attacks, etc.). Violence in the name of God is a black spot, a curse, and a plague in the history of Christianity and brings great shame on Christians. But atrocities have also been committed by atheistic dictators as a result of a denial of God: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse-tung.
One telling illustration from the French Revolution should suffice. In 1793, when religion was replaced by reason, as Madame Roland, an advocate of democratic principles, was going to her execution, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Revolution and uttered the words for which she is now remembered: “O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”11
The inhumanity, in fact, is a common element in sinful human nature, regardless of whether perpetrators are religious or atheist. The sinful heart cannot be changed merely by education, better economy, or different circumstances. Only a true conversion performed by the power of God’s grace, His Spirit, and His Word can ultimately affect the human heart. No true unselfish love is possible on the basis of biological inclinations. At best, human behavior may demonstrate altruistic love, but even it is tinged with selfishness. From a consistent evolutionary perspective, it is impossible for genuine self-sacrifice or morality to spring from the natural heart. According to atheistic ideology, only the most powerful and strongest survive in the end.
Dark Pictures of God’s Character by Christian Theologians
Besides these four spokesmen for neo-atheism, some Christian thinkers paint a dark picture of God with their pragmatic and biblical-theological arguments that have appeared in current literature. Difficult texts of the biblical narratives are elaborated upon, usually with the author’s own interpretation.
Theological constructs are many and one must seriously ask if they best describe and explain the meaning of difficult biblical texts. For example, the biblical scholar Julia O’Brien wrestles with images of God as “an abusive husband,” “authoritarian father,” and “angry warrior.”12 David Penchansky entitles the six chapters of his book as follows: “The Insecure God,” “The Irrational God,” “The Vindictive God,” “The Dangerous God,” “The Malevolent God,” and “The Abusive God.”13 Readers of the Holy Scriptures sincerely struggle with such descriptions of God. One of the strongest attacks on the loving character of God is expressed by Bart D. Ehrman, the leading authority on the early church, New Testament textual criticism, and the life of Jesus, in his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.
The most popular arguments for putting God down are the following:
● God is not good because there is so much innocent suffering in the world, and He is blamed for all evil;
● Abraham is told to sacrifice his own son because God is a bloodthirsty monster demanding a human sacrifice (Genesis 22);
● Child abuse—42 children were killed by two bears because they were ridiculing the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:23–25);
● God is not great or good, contrary to most popular religious sayings;
● Joshua committed genocide in Canaan;
● Wars were perpetrated in the name of God and under His command;
● God is cruel because He allows people to suffer, for example, punishing the Egyptians with 10 plagues including the killing of their firstborn sons;
● God is a jealous and egocentric being in His expectation that other gods need to be destroyed;
● Ethnocentrism and racism, calling Abraham, for example, founder of a specific nation to be the bearer of light and cursing Canaan;
● Bride-price and sex scandals;
● Inferiority of women to men;
● Institution of Levirate marriage;
● Polygamy in the Old Testament;
● Old Testament legislation is filled with violence, such as an eye for an eye and capital punishment;
● Incest of Lot with his two daughters;
● Rape and violence in the Book of Judges;
● Life of David—warrior, polygamist, murderer, adulterer, yet a man after the heart of God;
● Innocent suffering of Job for proving “nothing” in the end.
Epicurus, a Greek philosopher of the third century B.C., declared: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”14 Because evil conflicts with the existence of God, many rush to easy, simplistic, and false conclusions: either God does not exist or He does not care. How can an allegedly perfect, loving, and omnipotent God exist with so much evil, suffering, and death in the world?
What is to be done with these issues and the vast atheistic and theological literature on the biblical picture of God? Making God immoral or impotent is nothing new, but the recent neo-atheistic and even some biblical interpretations come with innovative twists and argumentation that are disturbing, shocking, and humiliating.
The Book of Job Scandal
The innocent suffering of Job is the most notorious and significant objection to belief in the goodness and fairness of God. One must ask, what is the primary purpose of this ancient document? Is the author intending to answer the question of why the innocent suffer, as is usually asserted? Is it a story about the wager between God and Satan, about who is right and who will win?
Bart Ehrman states his negative response to these questions emphatically: “God himself caused the misery, pain, agony, and loss that Job experienced. . . . And to what end? For ‘no reason’—other than to prove to the Satan that Job wouldn’t curse God even if he had every right to do so. . . . God did this to him in order to win a bet with the Satan. . . . But God is evidently above justice and can do whatever he pleases if he wants to prove a point.”15
But what God allows He does not cause or do. The biblical text reveals that it was Satan who brought on Job’s calamities and not God (Job 1:12; 2:6, 7). God is the Creator of life and created everything very good (Gen. 1:31). Evil comes from another source (Matt. 13:38, 39).
The most crucial issue in the book is not Job’s suffering; neither is it the capricious or private wager between God and Satan, because the whole drama of the book begins in heaven when the sons of God assemble before the sovereign Lord (Job 1:6). In this cosmic scenario, the Great Controversy unfolds, thus signaling that the problem is universal. The recognition of this cosmic dimension is the crucial issue.
Satan opposes God, pronouncing Job righteous (1:8; 2:3) and attacks Him with a frightful and seemingly innocent question: “‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’” (1:9). This cynical inquiry introduces the whole plot of the book, because Satan categorically denies that God is just in justifying Job and proclaiming him perfect. At first glance, the remark appears to be directed against Job, but in reality it is an attack upon God by trying to disprove His statement about Job. Thus the main theme of the Book of Job is God’s justice—the trustworthiness of His word. The real drama turns on the fact that God is for us and proclaims us just, and the Book of Job is really a quest for God’s visible presence in life.
How can Satan be defeated? This question needs to be answered to shed light on the whole issue of theodicy and the conflict in the Book of Job. Surprisingly, Satan cannot be defeated by logic because each argument has a counterargument. To refute someone only with external facts has no lasting results. If Satan could be defeated through debate, God would have done it a long time ago, for He is the Truth (Ex. 34:6; Deut. 32:4; Ps. 31:5; Jer. 10:10; John 17:17).
Can Satan be defeated by force? Nothing would please him more than to face force in whatever form. This is exactly what he wants to prove about God. He wants to accuse Him of using force, but he lacks evidence; he cannot demonstrate it. Of course, Satan could be silenced by the power of God if God chose to do so. The omnipotent Creator is also the mighty Warrior (Ex. 15:3; Isa. 42:13; Jer. 20:11). In that case, however, God would be accused of not playing fair because He is stronger and thus has an advantage over Satan. The Great Controversy needs to be won—but in a different way, by moral power.
Satan can be defeated only by someone who is weaker than he is, and God can do it only with pure ammunition—love, truth, justice, freedom, and order. Satan draws different weapons from an evil arsenal: ambition, pride, selfishness, lies, deceit, violence, anger, hatred, prejudice, racism, terrorism, addictions, manipulation, etc. How often it is questioned why Almighty God allows tragedies to happen in the lives of good people, forgetting that God’s victory is not won by power or force. A gracious Lord does not act like Superman. He wins by humility.
This is the reason for the incarnation. The God of the whole universe had to become weak in order to defeat evil. Only with the frailties of humanity could He defeat Satan. On the cross of Calvary, the Creator God demonstrated His love, truth, and justice. The suffering God, hanging on the cross, is a victorious God. He lived a life in total dependence on and in relationship with His Father.
What a paradox! Sin began with pride but was overcome by humility (Phil. 2:5–11).
In the story of Job, only Job himself, who was weaker than the devil, could refute Satan’s argument, defeat him, and thus prove that God was right when He justified him and stood by Job’s side. Job overcame the devil not because he was so good or strong (Job 10:6; 14:17), but because he totally surrendered his life to God. He did this in full confidence and trust in the God who gave him strength and victory (13:15; 19:25–27; 42:5). Paul says eloquently, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
When Job demonstrated that he loved God above all, God’s standing by him was vindicated. His justice prevailed. God is just in justifying us because His grace and presence, even though very often unseen and silent, sustains His people. God demonstrates that He rules in love and justice. The beauty of God’s character shines brilliantly because God is a God of love, truth, and justice.
The Christian’s Primary Task
The first task of the followers of Christ is to present to the world an accurate picture of God. This is the work that needs to be accomplished before the second coming of Christ, because Satan has grossly distorted the character of God from the very beginning (Gen. 3:1–6). Postmodern attacks on God, His character, and the Scriptures are more sophisticated and stronger than ever. The task of Christ’s disciple is to be a witness for God and let His glory shine through his or her character (Rev. 14:4).
Revelation 18:1 states that at the end of history the glory of God will shine throughout the world. The last work of God’s people will be to let God illuminate the world with His glory through them. This will be the most powerful argument in favor of God’s existence and love, and His true character will be defended. We are a spectacle to the world and to the whole universe (1 Cor. 4:9). God’s people need to live to the glory of God, reflecting in their characters the loving character of God.
According to 2 Thessalonians 1:3 to 5, the believers’ living faith and love are the evidence that God is true and His judgments are just. Ellen G. White explains the Christian’s role in the parable about the 10 virgins: “It is the darkness of misapprehension of God that is enshrouding the world. Men are losing their knowledge of His character. It has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. At this time a message from God is to be proclaimed, a message illuminating in its influence and saving in its power. His character is to be made known. Into the darkness of the world is to be shed the light of His glory, the light of His goodness, mercy, and truth. . . . The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world, is a revelation of His character of love. The children of God are to manifest His glory. In their own life and character they are to reveal what the grace of God has done for them.”16
Many biblical texts affirm God’s abundant love (Ex. 34:6, 7; Ps. 100:5; 117:2; 136:1–26; Rom. 5:5, 8; 1 John 3:1; 4:16). Personally experiencing God’s goodness (Ps. 34:8) leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). The God of the Bible is the God of love, truth, justice, freedom, and order.
The best proof of God’s existence and His goodness is our personal experience with Him. Only our appreciation of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us on the Cross can give inner peace and assurance of His love in times when calamities, struggles, and tragedies of life strike. Christ-like Christians are the best proof for God’s presence. Loving Christians are the ultimate argument for the God of love.
In times of great suffering, there are no easy answers. In those situations, we need to focus on the big picture of God’s revelation that ultimately testifies about the goodness of God. An inscription was found on a wall in a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews hid from the Nazis. The anonymous author left behind the following profound words: “I believe in the sun even when it does not shine. I believe in love, even when I do not feel it. I believe in God, even when He is silent.”17
Jiří Moskala Th.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology and Dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
2. Quoted in “What You Believe to Be True Will Control You”: http://bigthink.com/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&q=Jeremy+LaBorde. Accessed August 2015.
3. Richard Rice, God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985), p. 10.
4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels(Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975–2005), vol. 3, p. 1.
5. Vladimir I. Lenin, “About the Attitude of the Working Party Toward the Religion,” in Lenin’s Collected Works, 47 vols. (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960-1980), 17:41.
6. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, in Paul Edward, ed. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957), pp. 12, 13.
7. The Great Controversy, p. 536.
8. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), p. 31.
9. Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 521.
10. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), pp. 279-283.
11. http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2009/11/o-liberty-what-crimes-are-committed-in.html. Accessed August 2015).
12. Julia M. O’Brien, Challenging Prophetic Metaphor: Theology and Ideology in the Prophets(Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
13. David Penchansky, What Rough Beast? Images of God in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1999).
14. Quoted in Chad Meister, Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Continuum, 2012), p. 6.
15. Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (New York: HarperOne, 2008), p. 168.
16. Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 415, 416. Italics supplied.
17. See Shmuel Waldman, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Nanuet, N.Y.: Feldheim Publishers, 2005), p. 197.