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Apologetics Without Apologizing

Attacking Atheism Without Inviting Idolatry

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

If we want to learn the best way to proclaim and defend the Gospel, we can do no better than to go to the Bible for guidance. Indeed, not only do we find examples for how to present God’s Word, but we also find examples of problems we will face.

One such example is found in the story of how Paul and Barnabas healed a man in Lystra who had been lame from birth. The onlookers interpreted this miracle in terms of their pagan faith. Instead of believing in God and His Son, they believed that the two apostles were the gods Zeus and Hermes. They even attempted to sacrifice oxen to them. Realizing what was going on, Paul and Barnabas managed to restrain their would-be worshippers, saying:

"Men why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you in order that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is within them. And in generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:15-17; NASB).

Like the Lystrans, those to whom we witness are idolaters. They might be more sophisticated than first century pagans, but their problem is the same.

Atheistic Agnosticism & Idolatrous Certainty

Last month, I wrote on how we must not act as if unbelievers are morally neutral toward, or legitimately ignorant of, the God who speaks through Scripture. According to Romans 1:18-21, all men know God but suppress that knowledge. All creation proclaims the True God so that all people are "without excuse."

But that is only half the story. Paul goes on to say in Romans that, due to this suppression of God’s revelation, unbelievers "exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen" (v. 25). Those who deny God must invariably replace Him with something or someone else. Whether or not they outwardly bow, all unbelievers worship something that is created rather than He who created all things.

This Biblical principle will help us in our efforts to proclaim and defend the Gospel. If God’s revelation is perfectly clear, then a person who claims to not know God is saying that God does not exist. A god who is not evident to all at all times, a god who must be discovered by some process of either reason or mystical experience in order to be known–such a god is not the true God. Thus, as I explained last month, we must never argue with an unbeliever as if his claim to not know God is legitimate. He may not know certain aspects of Christian doctrine, but he knows God. On Judgment Day he will be condemned for sinning against God unless he repents and trusts in Christ.

But now we come to an additional problem with the commonplace method of defending the Gospel: If we argue as if the unbeliever is truly ignorant of God, we will also end up arguing as if there is something else that he knows for certain, whether or not God exists. By not confronting atheism we fail to confront idolatry.

Tearing Down High Places

Let’s imagine a concrete example of such idolatry. What if someone claims that there is no evidence that God exists? I might respond, "Of course God exists! Who else created you and everything else?" This is a fine response, and it could lead to the person’s conversion. After all, if the Holy Spirit convicts the unbeliever that he must stop suppressing the fact is indeed a creature who needs to be reconciled with his Creator, then the unbeliever will stop being an unbeliever.

But what if the unbeliever is not convinced? What if he replies with some philosophical sophistication, saying he doesn’t know whether the world is created personally or a product of impersonal self-existent forces? At this point the argument is going to get somewhat more complicated. I might be tempted at this point to construct an argument designed to demonstrate to anyone, irrespective of their world view, that the world MUST have a cause. This is almost always a mistake.

Why? Well, while there are various forms of the "cosmological argument," as far as I can tell the most popular forms involve "the law of cause and effect." As Christians we know that God has created all things and sustains them in an orderly fashion that the human mind is capable of grasping to the extent that he must do so in order to serve God. But an unbeliever does not accept the Christian world view–that’s why he’s an unbeliever. To use the law of cause and effect as if it makes sense no matter what a person’s world view might be leads to critical confusion. We end up communicating that the law of Cause and Effect is true whether or not God exists. The law is "just there" as a self-existent principle that is "somehow" accessible to the mind of man and reliable for him to trust in irrespective of God’s creation of man in his image and His providential care over man and his universe.

This simply will not do. Instead of God being the foundation of cause and effect, this abstract principle is made more fundamental than the true God. Instead of representing Him as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, including the law of Cause and Effect, God is portrayed as a being within a common environment with man. God "looks up" to the law of Cause and Effect just like man does.

Creator Versus Creature

The pagans of the ancient world tended to be "personalists." They personalized streams, rivers, trees, the sun, the ocean, and other aspects of creation. In common parlance, they "deified" these things. Apollo, for example, was the "sun-god" to the Greeks.

On the other hand, the pagans of the ancient world were really "impersonalists." All their "gods" were merely beings dwelling in a larger environment. Even Zeus was subject to Fate and Chance. The world was bigger and more ultimate than any god. Their gods were merely creatures. When Paul and Barnabas shouted to the crowd that "We are also men of the same nature as you," they were not being as radical as it sounds. The Greek gods were different from men, to be sure, but not so different. What was radical about their message was the difference they made between these gods, "these vain things," and the true God who was not a part of some sort of self-existent Reality, but who created and sustains reality. "Rains," "Seasons," "Food" and "Gladness" are not from various gods who inhabit the world, but are "witness" from the true God who rules the world.

In the modern world, as I mentioned, pagans tend to be more sophisticated then the Lystrans of Paul’s day. We’ve done away with the "persons" controlling the sun and other creatures. We don’t need Apollo to explain a ball of fiery hydrogen in the sky. Modern pagans are simply more impersonal. As the philosopher George Santayana claimed, "Men and gods are not conceivable otherwise than as inhabitants of nature. "*

That is the ultimate issue. Call it Nature. Call it Reality. Call it Being. It does not matter. All people try to make something impersonal larger than God–so that the difference between them and this personal God is not quite as great as Christianity says that it is, so that it can be measured on a common scale of reference. If we are going to do justice to what the Bible claims about God and man, creation and fall, sin and atonement, redemption and judgment, we must confront the impersonal idol which man has constructed for himself to replace God. We must not inadvertently encourage him in his idolatry by positing impersonal principles that exist whether or not God does.

We must remember that all people at all times are confronted by the PERSONAL revelation of God. The law of cause and effect as well as all other aspects of God creation, are meant to be understood and used in God’s service to His glory. We must not act as if we may sometimes ignore the Lordship of Christ even when we attempt to persuade those who do not acknowledge His Lordship. There is no neutral ground.

* "The Discovery of Natural Objects,"John Ryder, ed., American Philosophic Naturalism in the Twentieth Century (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994) p. 31.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

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