There has been considerable response to my earlier post entitled, “Bell’s Hell and the Destiny of those who’ve never heard of Jesus.” One issue that came up repeatedly was my denial that there is any such thing as an “honest atheist.” Perhaps a bit more explanation of what I meant is called for.
Do honest atheists exist? By “honest” I don’t mean atheists who pay their taxes and keep their promises and choose not to steal or lie. What I mean in asking the question is whether or not there exists an atheist who honestly believes there is no God.
There are, undoubtedly, many who claim to be atheists. They insist, often loudly and angrily, that there is no God and that religion is the cause of virtually all human pain and suffering. The only ultimate reality, so they say, is matter. Physical substance, whether helium or hormones, whether water or fire, is all there is. Everything can be explained or accounted for in terms of the existence and interaction of material substance of one sort or another. In other words, there is no spiritual realm. There are no angels. There is no immaterial soul in man, and above all, there is no “god” or deity or divinity or supernatural being of any sort.
So I’ll ask again: do honest atheists exist? You may think that to be a silly question given the notoriety of late among such prominent professing atheists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, just to name a few. But the operative word here is professing. Yes, many profess to be atheists and make a pretty good living writing books about it or appearing on talk shows or teaching in our universities and colleges. But my question is again whether or not these people, in the depth and quiet of their own hearts, honestly believe there is no God.
I contend they do not. I contend that they are living and speaking in denial of what they know to be true. I contend that they are laboring to persuade themselves of what is indelibly and inescapably inscribed on their hearts: that there is a God and that they are morally accountable to him.
No one has made the case for the non-existence of honest atheists, with greater clarity and force, than John Calvin. “There is within the human mind,” said Calvin, “and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. . . . To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty” (Institutes, I.3.1).
All mankind, says Calvin, “perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker” (I.3.1). Not even the “more backward folk and those more remote from civilization” (I.3.1) can deny the existence of God. There is, says Calvin, “no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (I.3.1). Oh, yes, they can verbally “deny” his existence and develop elaborate philosophical arguments to buttress their case, but none is persuaded by his own reasoning. A “sense of deity”, he insists, is “inscribed in the hearts of all” (I.3.1).
Before we turn to Calvin’s biblical defense of this truth, let’s hear him make the point again. This sense or awareness of divinity which can never be effaced “is engraved upon men’s minds” and “is naturally born in all” and “is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow” (I.3.3). No matter how vocal their denials or sarcastic their laughter or loud their derision, “the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within” (I.3.3). Although many “strive with every nerve” to suppress this truth, “it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school” but one of which “each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget” (I.3.3).
This inescapable “knowledge” of God, however, is not redemptive. That is to say, we must differentiate between an awareness of God’s existence and an enjoyment of it. It is one thing to acknowledge that Deity exists. It is another to repent and seek him and cast oneself in humble dependence upon his grace and receive by faith his gift of life in Christ Jesus. Apart from the saving knowledge of God mediated to us in Christ and Holy Scripture, all men “deliberately befuddle themselves” (I.4.2) and turn to every sort of superstition and idolatry. Or, to use the words of Paul, to which Calvin returns again and again, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” but “became futile in their thinking” and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-22). They cannot escape “the truth about God”, so they exchange it “for a lie” and worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
But how do we know that all men know there is a God? On what grounds do we refuse to honor their claim to being atheists? Calvin points us in two directions. Not only has God “sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion,” what we often refer to as conscience (I.5.1; see Romans 2:12-16), but he has also “revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him” (I.5.1). Upon all his works in the natural order of creation “he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance” (I.5.1).
Again, “wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness” (I.5.1). Whether in astronomy or anatomy or botany or the power of lightning, wind, and storm, God has made himself known. Whether in his providence over nations or his lordship over creation or his sovereign sway over the lives of men, the glory and majesty of God shine forth. Yet we one and all “forsake the one true God for prodigious trifles” (I.5.11).
I can’t emphasize strongly enough that although such knowledge is inescapable, it is inadequate to impart eternal life or the forgiveness of sins. Although countless burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe, “although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path” (I.5.14). God’s existence and eternal power and divine nature are made “plain” to all men, rendering them “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). But we do not have “eyes” to behold his saving splendor “unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith” (I.5.14).
The fault is not with what God has revealed. There is no shortcoming or defect in his handiwork. The failure is in us. The dullness and stupidity and delusion are wholly ours. The problem isn’t that mankind lacks sufficient evidence for the existence of God. The problem isn’t that the evidence suffers from lack of clarity or beauty or falls short in its persuasive power.
The problem is that mankind, apart from Christ and his regenerating grace, despises what he sees. The problem is that we hate what we know. The problem isn’t that men look upon creation or contemplate the conviction of their own conscience and turn away saying, “It’s not enough; proof is lacking; it doesn’t add up; God doesn’t exist.” The problem is that they willfully and selfishly and knowingly loathe the God whom they see and know to exist and would rather indulge their own fleshly lusts and worship their own souls than to honor and give thanks to the God of glory (cf. Romans 1:21-25).
Calvin has read Paul rightly. His conclusions are therefore on the mark. There is no such thing as an honest atheist. There are those aplenty who with their mouths scoff at the notion of God and formulate their arguments to “prove” he does not exist. Perhaps there are even some who from years of willful rebellion and self-induced hardening of heart have anesthetized their souls to God’s powerful presence. Perhaps there are some (many?) whom God has simply “given over” (Romans 1:24,26,28) to the deeper cultivation of their self-delusion, some (many?) who have degenerated to such a degree that they’ve rendered themselves impervious to the clearest and most persuasive of evidence. But in any and every case, they are still “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). The plea of ignorance will not suffice at the final bar of judgment.
Do not go in search of an honest atheist. You won’t find one. Turn, instead, to the heavens above which “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1a). Turn, instead, to the sky that “proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1b). “Lift up your eyes on high and see” the trillions and trillions of stars and worship the One who “brings out their host by number” and calls “them all by name,” whose power alone sustains them so that “not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).
And then worship!
And then share these glorious truths with a “professing” atheist and direct him to the revelation of Christ in Scripture and pray that the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” might shine in his heart “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).