As Christians who defend their beliefs against skeptics and critics, it is easy to take on the perception that we are in a war, and indeed we are. However, it is essential that we maintain clarity about just what, and not who, we are battling. What we need to be fighting against are ideas contrary to the Christian worldview, not those who object to our beliefs. We needn’t get caught in the modern idea that a person is identical to their belief, idea, or feeling. Atheists are simply people, just like you and I, who have a different view of reality.
Do you ever wonder why, when you put forth an argument, it is never quite the shock-and-awe campaign you hoped for? That is because there are some fundamental assumptions which we take for granted that non-believers will not, and there are underlying motivations for atheism that you may not realize. As an example, I will use an old cliché to show how an argument for Christianity can quickly reveal a very real and valid argument for the atheist (in this case, possibly the most used and least answered), and how we need to be aware of it ahead of time in order to have a valid response.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
I’ve seen this assertion tossed about like a grenade, as if it had the power to blow atheists right out of their pagan foxholes and straight into the arms of Jesus, at which point the Christian will stand smiling and vindicated, ready to be congratulated for having saved the soul of a skeptic from the shackles of their own ignorance. In truth, however, it is a pithy, pious, and condescending remark that seriously misunderstands the mindset of the skeptic. In fact, it is often the case that being in some type of metaphorical foxhole or infirmary, or identifying their fallen comrades, has propelled them into an enlightened state of atheism. It is precisely that there is a war full of blood and guts that convinces many people that there cannot be a god running this show or, if there is, it is a bumbling or else indifferent god, not worth saluting, much less following.
That we exist in a world of suffering is not even a controversial statement. Right now, less than two weeks away from the 2016 election, we are bombarded daily with glaring reminders that humanity is divided, that we are in danger domestically and from abroad, that it is almost impossible to venture into a conversation about religion, politics, or sex without stepping on someone’s already wounded toes, and that the wrong word could get you shot. People are dying and suffering from war, poverty, famine, cruel tyrants, oppressive governments, racism, and natural disasters. Our leaders and media have been lying to us and the more they are exposed, the more they lie to cover it up. To even use the word “leader” is a misnomer so fallacious that it would be funny if leaders were not in such high demand.
We all, at some point, feel overwhelmed by the seemingly desperate situation this world is in. We are pressed down by the sense of futility and anger that no one is doing anything to fix the problem. Where is that support from headquarters? We’re ready for the napalm. And then we remember that there is supposed to be this God above who is in control and loves us. You see, Christians have been espousing this other pithy phrase: “God is Love.” Cute, right? Looks good on the inside of a Christmas card, but does it carry any weight? How can it be that God is Love, if God is also all powerful? As philosopher David Hume points out, “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
That we exist in a world of suffering is not even a controversial statement. Humans are divided and we are in danger both domestically and abroad. People are dying and suffering from war, poverty, famine, cruel tyrants, oppressive governments, racism, and natural disasters.
Now, if you’re one of those who have used the foxhole proverb before, it would be fair for you to point out that the point of it is something different. It is meant to suggest that, when faced with death, everybody will turn to God for help and, when faced with an afterlife, anybody in their right mind would choose God over hell. But again, you will have missed the real issue. The threat of death and hell are yet another reason that people easily and quickly reject God. Again, if God loves us, why would we be in this foxhole in the first place? Worse yet, if we happen to not survive (which is 100% certain), we end up somewhere even worse. Infinitely worse, to be exact.
“But you don’t need to end up somewhere worse. You could choose God and heaven instead”, you might reply, but once again, you’re missing it. They would likely come back with something like, “Why would I want to spend an eternity with a God who got me in this foxhole in the first place? In fact, he’s put me in a position where I can either choose to worship a god who created a world of suffering, or he will make me suffer forever if I don’t. I’d rather just be dead and cease to exist than choose either of those.” And so, this is likely what they will choose: a worldview which ends in oblivion, rather than an eternal continuation of suffering. Atheism becomes, not so much a more loving worldview, but at least it is more fair, in the mind of an atheist or skeptic.
Be careful with your words and sparing with your assumptions. If you don’t understand atheism, and the motivations for it, your arguments against it are simply going to sound stupid and insensitive. We are not in a war against atheists. Better to think of them as our temporary fellow soldiers and brothers in arms. We are in this world of suffering together. We all need to be working to alleviate pain where we can, serve with courage and honor, not be divisive or arrogant. While you’re in that foxhole with your atheist comrade, spend some time asking questions and offering what peace and comfort you have available.
Let them see Christ in you so that you will be given the opportunity to defend the hope that is within you. However, there will be nothing to defend if you have no hope, and the problem of suffering is as real an issue for us as for anyone. Most Christians will need to seriously address these questions as well because, if we have not already, they will come in full force when we face real situations of our own suffering. We also must come to terms with this God of a suffering world, or else it will be nothing but atheists in foxholes.