Intelligent Atheists, Intelligent Christians: Who Gets It Right?

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Now that Easter is behind us, I’d like to respond to a very thoughtful, and I believe legitimate observation that skeptical people sometimes make about Easter:

It seems that you Christians base all of your beliefs about God, Jesus, and things like Easter and the resurrection on the Bible. For religious skeptics, it’s odd how some Christian pastors try to “prove” that Christianity is true based solely on what the Bible says. But this is circular reasoning, which is unconvincing. Something more, something outside the Bible, is needed to make a plausible case for the resurrection. Unless you can show me that Christianity has more backing it than just the Bible, I’ll remain unpersuaded.

I think that’s a fair observation. Even as a Christian minister, I don’t believe it is possible to definitively prove that the gospel is true or that God exists or that Jesus rose from the dead, any more than an atheist is able to definitively prove beyond any doubt that these things are not true.

There are many bright-minded, scholarly atheists who believe in the non-existence of God as deeply as I believe in the existence of God. The likes of Stephen Hawking, Ayn Rand, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Paul Kurtz, Peter Atkins, Patricia Churchland, and other thoughtful atheists come to mind.

And yet, just as there are many sharp thinkers who do not believe in God and a virgin birth and the resurrection, history is also filled with sharp thinkers who also believe with deep conviction that God does exist, and that Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead, and will one day return again.

In hopes of demonstrating that (1) our brains can (and should) be fully engaged not only in secular, academic endeavors but also sacred, spiritual ones, and (2) the smartest people in the world include thoughtful Christians as well as thoughtful atheists and agnostics, and (3) faith in Jesus causes us to think more and not less, I offer the following additional thoughts:

First, every Ivy League university except for one was founded by Christian ministers and/or laypeople. That’s no small thing.

Second, it is also no small thing that C.S. Lewis was an Oxford scholar and atheist-turned-Christian, who came to believe that “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”[1]

Third, Dr. Simon Greenleaf, a founder of Harvard University School of Law, also came to believe in the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Greenleaf wrote the book, Treatise on the Law of Evidence, which continues to be esteemed by many legal scholars as the greatest volume ever written on the use of empirical evidence to prove or disprove historical truth claims. Once an antagonist toward Christianity, the professor would mock the “resurrection myth” to his students. When challenged to prove his assertion by use of his formidable analytical skills, he accepted the task. But after doing his research, Greenleaf concluded that any honest cross-examination of the evidence for the resurrection of Christ would result in “an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth.”[2]

Fourth, Anne Rice, the intelligent and famed atheist writer of The Vampire Chronicles, wrote about her conversion to Christianity, “The world of atheism was cracking apart for me…I was losing my faith in the nonexistence of God.”[3]

Fifth, there are many world-renowned scientists like Pascal, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and others who came to embrace the resurrection as true. You can add thinkers like Francis Collins, the esteemed leader of the genome project, not to mention the many scientists and cutting-edge healthcare professionals in the church that I serve (not the least of which is one of Francis Collins’ proteges). All would tell you that their faith and their scientific knowledge, far from being contradictory or mutually exclusive to one another, are deeply and mutually compatible. Flexing their well-developed intellectual muscles, each would say that their faith supports and animates their science, and their science drives them to a place of awe for the God who created and sustains it all.

What’s more, none of these scientists accept the secular claim that miracles are impossible, thus delegitimizing the Jesus and resurrection story. For them, it’s quite simple. If there is a God powerful enough to create the entire universe, he is also powerful enough to suspend the laws of nature that he created. He does this to reveal his power, to provide assurance that we are not alone in the universe, and to demonstrate that our lives are infused with infinite meaning.

Based on these and the many instances of what the book of Acts refers to as “convincing proofs” that Jesus rose from the dead (Acts 1:3), it seems to me that it requires more faith not to believe in the resurrection than it does to believe.[4] In my experience, oftentimes people distance themselves from the claims of Christ for reasons that seem less intellectual and more emotional.

Recently, I spoke with a man who had heard the story of Jesus and the resurrection several times in his life. Yet, this man seemed deeply defensive, even hostile, to the idea of becoming a Christian himself. I pointed out to my friend that he seemed not merely to disagree with the Gospel message, but also prone to attack it. I asked him why this was so.

After a quiet pause, he answered, “Okay, Scott, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the real reason why I dislike Christianity. It’s not because the evidence is unconvincing to me. In fact, the opposite is true. But I still don’t ever want to become a Christian because if I do, Jesus will ask me to forgive my father for the ways that he hurt me.”

I have had many similar conversations in which the person in front of me, when push came to shove, had very few issues with the rational aspect of faith—but they used the rational arguments as a smokescreen. For each of these friends, beneath the surface was something about Christian discipleship—something about the narrow path of following Jesus in every area of life—that bothered them on a visceral level. For my friend with the difficult father story, it was a painful grudge he didn’t want to release to God. The call of Christ to “forgive…just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:13) felt impossible for him.  Others can not envision surrendering to Jesus their approach to money, their sexuality, their prejudice, their pride, their addictions, their divisive and partisan attitudes, or their moralistic self-righteousness.

The resurrection and absolute lordship of Jesus Christ come as a package deal. If Jesus is risen from the dead, then it means we are accountable to all that Jesus said, namely, that we are sinners who are without hope apart from him, and that our lives belong completely to him.

“Christ is risen!” means that he has a claim on our lives.

It means that he is the boss of us.

It means that he has full rights over us.

It means that he is Lord.

And this, as opposed to the intellectual arguments against Christianity, I contend is the most pervasive barrier keeping people from faith.

This is an adapted excerpt from Irresistible Faith by Scott Sauls. Used by permission from Thomas Nelson.


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[1] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

[2] Simon Greenleaf, An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules Administered in Courts of Justice (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1846), 37.

[3] Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.

[4] For further reading on the “many convincing proofs” for Christianity, I recommend Reason for God and Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell, and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

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10 responses to “Intelligent Atheists, Intelligent Christians: Who Gets It Right?”

  1. Glenn McLea says:

    This is a great article. I would offer the thought that as you said, knowledge and faith are two different things. You may factually believe that Jesus is the son of God and went to the cross dying for your sins. BUT, if you do not ask to receive him and for Jesus to be your LORD (master) and savior you will not make it to heaven.

  2. Louis LeBlanc says:

    This is amazing. Thank you.

  3. Gary says:

    But isn’t it a big problem for your position that most Bible scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels? How can we be certain that the stories in these four books of people seeing a walking, talking resurrected body are not just legends or theological embellishments?

    • scottsauls says:

      Not sure where you get your information about “most Bible scholars.” In my world, the opposite is true, that most Bible scholars see the eyewitness accounts as strikingly authentic and verifiable. If you want my fuller answer to your question, suggest listening to THIS SERMON.

  4. greg rogers says:

    Thank you so much Pastor Sauls. You hit the nail on the head! I have observed this intellectualism vs faith scenario for years now. I am concluding that the cavern between intellectualism and wisdom may sometimes be more wide than wisdom coupled with simple trust in our true Wisdom, Jesus, through whom the universe was created and through whom His ideas about our existence are revealed in Scripture.

    I have certain views about creation that some even Christian scientists suggest are akin to calling the earth flat from a materialist perspective. And from a theological perspective, I view their materialist bent macro evolutionary views akin to what I would call a spiritual flat earth perspective about an either non existent God or one who is so distant and uninvolved in both creation and our lives of recreating us in His image that he may as well be non existent.

    So I may be average in intelligence but I am not dumb either. Science seems to conclude a very old earth and Scripture seems to conclude with a much younger one. What in the world is God trying to communicate through this dilemma? This question has haunted me for 4 or 5 years now. Is God trying to tell us to take a blend of both? Is God testing us? Where is God in this dilemma that has amplified many fractions in the culture of the church?

    I don’t know the answers to these completely. But just a couple of insights: 1. God is not enthused about how both sides of the creationism/evolutionism debate have sort of branded, politicized and capitalized on the brand. This is not true of all of course and only God can judge hearts. My sense of things is that this is going on and divisiveness will inevitably be the result. 2. If God can create the universe, then any physical feat that is impossibly unpredictable and observable in science is possible. 3. The gospel itself should be more confounding to rational thinking than science about our beginnings that consider the natural and supernatural. -think about this: God is so perfect and so holy and so outstandingly good that his wrath against evils that run contrary to Him MUST be the adequate response. Yet God in His perfection is also a loving God where He chose to humble himself to take that wrath that we deserved. This is mind blowing-a perfect sinless God taking on our sin and sorrow. For years this has sunk in deeper into my heart and the more it does, the more I am dumbfounded by the ingredients of the perfect goodness, perfect holiness, perfect justifiable wrath against sin and perfect love that exist in the gospel of Jesus Christ!

    In light of this and revelation from God who says He created plants, animals and mankind a few thousand years ago, I as a Christian, in wisdom implanted within me by God’s grace and God’s grace alone am choosing the wisdom that goes contrary to the decision of the humiliated man invited to the wedding feast (Luke 14) who chose a seat of honor closest to the Person who gave the invitation. I am choosing not to assume a place approval from the mainstream that demands I listen to them in how to define God and His creative purposes thus trusting in intelligence that depends on materialism may puff my ego and cause me to take that seat of honor as approved by a majority that think the same. Rather, I am choosing a seat in the rear of the banquet in a position of humble reverence to the Person who invited me; indeed a Person who transcends our understandings and our intelligence and who has spoken. And if in the end He comes and offers me a seat with a better view because I was better in line with His thinking, then so be it! If He does not, then I will conclude in the wisdom offered me by the grace that took a helpless sinner and gave me life that even a glimmering glance at the greatest of all Kings from the back of the room is infinitely better than a front row seat observation of a figment of my impressions according the perspectives, intelligence e and even science of man!

  5. gary says:

    Good morning, Rev. Sauls. Thank you for responding to my comment above.

    I am sure that you are very sincere in your belief that there is good evidence for the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. However, even most conservative Christian NT scholars will admit that the majority of NT scholars today reject that claim. Here is a quote from probably the preeminent conservative Christian NT scholar of our day, Richard Bauckham:

    “The argument of this book [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses]–that the texts of our Gospels are close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus–runs counter to almost all recent scholarship. As we have indicated from time to time, the prevalent view is that a long period of oral transmission in the churches intervened between whatever the eyewitnesses said and the Jesus traditions as they reached the Evangelists [the authors of the Gospels]. No doubt the eyewitnesses started the process of oral tradition, but it passed through many retellings, reformulations, and expansions before the Evangelists themselves did their own editorial work on it.” p. 240

  6. Bill Hays says:

    Hello, Mr. Sauls, I’m an Atheist and I find some of the logic in your argument to be amusing. Hilarious. Better evidence than anything you discussed to answer the “Intelligent Christians” question.

    You said, “Beneath the surface was something about Christian discipleship—something about the narrow path of following Jesus in every area of life—that bothered them on a visceral level. Others can not envision surrendering to Jesus their approach to money, their sexuality, their prejudice, their pride, their addictions, their divisive and partisan attitudes, or their moralistic self-righteousness. The resurrection and absolute lordship of Jesus Christ come as a package deal. If Jesus is risen from the dead, then it means we are accountable to all that Jesus said, namely, that we are sinners who are without hope apart from him, and that our lives belong completely to him.”

    You pretend your life belongs to a man who died about 70 AD, who has been dead for nearly two thousand years, who didn’t know how old the earth was, or how humans evolved over billions of years? What can you possibly think is intelligent about THAT?

    What I would suggest is, approach this as an Intelligent person. In 70 AD, Jews would see their relatives nailed to crosses and a small group said, “Things are so bad for us, it can only mean God is about to end the Age and resurrect all the dead in new, perfect bodies.” That was the message of the Pharisees decades before Paul, and it is clearly the same kind of “Wishful Thinking” that you’re demonstrating by your “Faith.”

    You said, “And yet, just as there are many sharp thinkers who do not believe in God and a virgin birth and the resurrection, history is also filled with sharp thinkers who also believe with deep conviction that God does exist, and that Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead, and will one day return again”. History might be filled with them, but the Evidence of Modern Evolutionary Theory has only been around for a century, less even, and without the Correct Explanation of how modern humans appeared on Earth, any of the wacko Theories seem equally possible. I don’t question their intelligence because they couldn’t figure out how life appeared on Earth. They came up with an explanation that covered all the known facts. However, today, we have facts they didn’t have. We can look at the mutation rate in DNA and project back how many millions of years since we split from our closest relatives, the Bonobos, or maybe the chimpanzees. If all human life perished in a Great Flood except for a few, how did we get black Africans, Asian races clearly descended from a much different line of monkeys, all in less that two thousand years? The Old Testament writers were unfamiliar with Asians, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and didn’t bother to write them into their Epic Origin Mythology. We have photos of the Moon’s surface and we can project back to the impact craters eleven million years old, and a few a billion years old. Jesus didn’t seem familiar with the evidence apparent on the surface of the Moon. In fact, Jesus never said Slavery was against God’s law.

    The story of Jesus is not only exactly the Fiction that a persecuted people would invent as ‘Comfort Food,” it also changes. At first, Jesus is made Son of God by baptism. Nobody at the time was confused by the phrase “Son of God.” Jewish boys were named “Son of God.” Then, he’s made Son of God by a virgin birth copied from Alexander the Great and other competing gods. And then, he was part of Creation, many thousands of years earlier. The way the Story changed as Christianity discovered other religions that were older and more popular, is another Answer. I see nothing credible about the Story of Jesus in any sense. You haven’t understood what the New Testament means by Resurrection. Jesus was the “first-fruits.” Resurrection means ALL the dead coming back to life in new, perfect bodies as one Age ends and a new Age wipes out the power of the Romans to torment Jews. Wishful thinking

    Scott: If Jesus is risen from the dead, then it means we are accountable to all that Jesus said, namely, that we are sinners who are without hope apart from him,

    But the prophecies didn’t predict ONE resurrection. They predicted the end of an Age and a General Resurrection. And the priests at the Temple denied their Torah talked about resurrection of human beings at all. The better reading is the resurrection of the Nation of Israel, NOT individuals. You have misread or misquoted or simply lied about enough in the Bible that I don’t worry about a man who not only came back from the dead, but also rose up into the sky and vanished behind a cloud to explain why a Resurrected Jesus wasn’t around to be questioned.

    You wrote a lot of Wishful Thinking, and attacked the Intelligence of Atheists by making them afraid to consider your Pretend World. We are MUCH smarter than that. And not only Smarter than you, we are more honest. You pretend that a Christian in 2019 can be as intelligent as a man who accepted the Gospel in 200 AD or 1500AD. Today, if you don’t understand how Modern Evolutionary Theory has PROVEN that the words and predictions of Jesus come from very ordinary humans, no one with even 1% of today’s knowledge about, for example, how the Moon is related to the iron core of the earth. I will grant you that humans might not have been able to give a better explanation that Special Creation in 1500 AD. But a Christian today who quotes the Gospel the way you do, it is proof that you are NOT intelligent. The Age did not end around 70 AD with a General Resurrection of the Dead. When Paul said he was on trial for his belief in Resurrection, that’s what he was talking about. Try reading more about the beliefs of the Pharisees and why a dim man raised as a Pharisee was so vulnerable to a story about “the first-fruits of a Resurrection that has begun.”

    Let’s think about a Global Flood. Today, our tallest mountains are five miles above sea level. After your imaginary Flood ended, the water level dropped five miles. The amount of water that had to vanish is more than three times all the water on earth today. Claiming that intelligent people find this credible TODAY is not only proof of your dishonesty, but it shows that your Faith is more important to you than learning something real.

    • scottsauls says:

      Dear Bill, thank you for weighing in here. I’m not surprised that you as an atheist find my logic “amusing,” any more than I find it amusing that you would be so invested in debunking a religion that you believe so viscerally is a fairy tale, namely Christianity. I do appreciate the passion with which you write. But I also find your logic incomplete, and your faith too big for the likes of me. I do not have enough faith to believe that the cosmos — and all the intricacies such as water, earth, sky, photosynthesis, fingerprints, earwax, toenails, heartbeats, eyeballs, and personalities — simply came into being without a first cause and creator. That, sir, takes so much more faith than I personally could fathom. As for me, I find it much more believable that God created everything, including the portion of Darwin’s theories that may have proven true, and that this same God — because he is creator — has power not only to create and sustain the laws of nature, but also, should he so choose, to suspend the same laws (i.e., resurrection) to show that he is there.

      In your note here, you say that it’s only the ignorant and oppressed who look to the Christian narrative as some sort of Comfort Food. If you read my essay in its entirety, you’ll see that there are also the likes of Harvard Law School Founder Simon Greenleaf, and Oxford historian CS Lewis, not to mention Genome biologist Francis Collins, Galileo, Copernicus, NY Times David Brooks, Solzhenitsyn, Tolstoy, and scores other intellectual titans, with whom your theories about “comfort food for the ignorant” must contend.

      But my bigger question, Bill, is…if you think what we believe is so silly, why spend so much of your time and energy and passion standing against it? Why not just write it off and let it go? If it’s so absurd and so untrue, why do you care so much? As Shakespeare once quipped, “Thou protesteth too much…” What is beneath your protesting, if I might ask?

      Some food for thought for you, whether or not it brings comfort, I do not know.

      Thanks again for engaging. After reading what you’ve said here, however…I think I’ll stick with Jesus and resurrection.

  7. gary says:

    Just how historically reliable are the Gospels and Acts if even prominent conservative Protestant and evangelical Bible scholars believe that fictional accounts may exist in these books? I have put together a list of statements from such scholars and historians as Richard Bauckham, William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Craig Blomberg, and NT Wright on this issue here:

    https://lutherwasnotbornagaincom.wordpress.com/2019/05/23/bombshell-how-historically-reliable-are-the-gospels-if-even-conservative-bible-scholars-believe-they-may-contain-fictional-stories/

  8. Jared Anderson says:

    I am a “new believer”. 40 years old, never read the Bible or set foot in a church until January 27th 2019. There are so many documented miracles that defy logic. How does an athiest explain what defies logic? I’ve personally experienced the unexplainable. All I know for sure is that there are so many documented miracles, that it would take more faith for an athiest to dismiss miracles as coincidence, then the faith of Christians to believe in God. If you’re over forty and haven’t researched modern miracles, please do so before condemning believers in a condescending manner. If your an athiest and need proof that answered prayers defy logic, just ask. There are more modern miracles than you can research in a lifetime.

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