Intelligent Atheists, Intelligent Christians: Who Gets It Right?
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 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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 C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.
 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.
 Anne Rice, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.
 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.