Penetrating the Darkness

Talk to someone opposed to the existence of God, perhaps an agnostic or an atheist.  What do you encounter?  Questions.  Many, many questions.  But not merely questions, as if they’re sentences simply ending with question marks.  They are questions ruled by doubt.

So there stands doubt before you, riding atop the horse of inquiry, tugging on the reins, steering the conversation ever and persistently away from your answers.  It can feel like the polarity of opposing magnets.  It’s as if there’s an invisible barrier at play, an unseen resistance that continually presses back.  No matter how eloquent or sophisticated the argument, no matter how simple or plain, doubt finds a way of escape; it finds refuge in some kind of retort.

So what next?  Does not the Christian roll up his sleeves and dig deeper into his drawer of answers?

But where does it stop, this task of proving the existence of God?  Is the issue archeological?  Is it a matter of science?  Is it of a philosophical flavor?  Perhaps the person likes polls.

That’s often how such conversations go.  The Christian apologist seeks to mount an argument- a pile of arguments- establishing and proving beyond all reasonable doubt that God does in fact exist.  But who among us can really bear the weight of such a task, ultimately?  Shall we visit all the archeological dig sites?  Shall we converse with the bearded philosophers of this age?  Shall we comb all the books in the library?  Think of all those books.  Just imagine such a person sitting in his own private nook, book open, glasses sliding down his nose, one page turning into the next, digestion after digestion, world without end.

In order for the Christian to answer all the questions, he would need to be an expert in all the different fields.

But then there’s another problem.  Who among the doubters can weigh all the evidence?  Shall they sit with their noses glued to the books and explore all the corners of the universe?  And what of those who aren’t able to comprehend such things, the unlearned or simple?  How can they be expected to understand all the philosophical arguments?  Just imagine talking with the people at Walmart or the grocery.  There you are, walking around with the ontological argument tucked nicely under your arm.  Or maybe you’ve got a calculator handy and want to talk about how finely tuned the universe is.  What kinds of looks will you receive from those pushing carts?  You’ll sound like a madman.  They’ll squint and pull their kids closer.

So what are we left with?  Are sophisticated arguments intrinsically bad?  Well, no, of course not.  But they are what they are.

It seems to me that if there’s actually truth out there, that if God is to be known, then this truth is going to have be able to break through two profound barriers.  And what are they?

1)      The barrier of man’s ignorance.

2)      The barrier of man’s spiritual obstinacy.

If truth cannot break through the first, then men cannot hope to know, or perhaps only the elite.  And if this truth can be known, it must be able to break through our confused and deceived hearts.

Interestingly, Christianity overcomes both.  For if Christianity is true, then it would mean that the knowledge of God isn’t discursive.  It would be properly basic, part of the very warp and woof of our knowledge.  One might even say that it would be an inescapable knowledge.

Consider here Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18ff.

“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun…” (Psa 19:1-4a)

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  (Rom 1:18-20)

But of course, even as Romans 1:18ff speaks of the objectivity of the knowledge of God, it quickly mentions our spiritual torpor.  As sinners our default posture is one of truth suppression.  We press it down and close our eyes.  So there’s an internal problem.

It doesn’t stop there though.  Paul tells us that the god of this age (Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4).  It’s hard to know how this plays out in each individual’s life, but this much can be sure: Satan has spawned confusion, a confusion that manifests itself in false belief systems.

Now in order to decipher which religion or “ism” is correct, one would need to be that elite thinker again.  Shall each person first have to wade through all the religious texts, wrestle with every argument and counter-argument, delve into the ancient corridors of history, explore the textual transmission, and investigate about a dozen or so other areas of expertise that could constitute a PHD program before they believe the Bible?

Interestingly, God has provided a solution here.  Not only has He objectified the knowledge of Himself, thereby reaching even the most simplistic among us, but He has given us a Word that is self-attesting.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, even the hardest of hearts can be transformed and made to see.  The obstacle of obstinacy can be overcome through effectual calling.  And as Reformed Christians, we believe the bible teaches this, and that it teaches this plainly.

So what shall we say to these things?

Praise God that He has not left us alone, that He has made it possible for man to know.

Praise God that He is able and willing to break the chains of sin.

Praise God that He is able to give us new hearts.

Praise God that the Spirit gives an internal witness to the Word.

Praise God that the task of apologetics isn’t hopeless.

Praise God that both the learned and unlearned are in the same boat.

Praise God that all of this is itself evidence that He is Truth.

11 Comments

  1. Megan Fisher September 13, 2012 at 1:44 am #

    Thanks for the encouragement. Brandon and I have a lot of friends that fit into this category. We can, at times, become weary of the continuous questions that our answers never seem to satisfy. At times we wonder if their ears are plugged. I suppose they are, but not in a physical sense. After providing answers, giving books and spending time with them it is refreshing/peaceful to lay the burden before the Lord and wait upon the rejuvenation that can only be brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit. We just pray that it would come sooner than later. We would like to be running the race alongside them.

  2. chaotican September 13, 2012 at 6:31 am #

    Funny, I was having an intense conversation with my husband. We’re both atheists, but he’s an “angry” atheist while I never want to question anyone’s faith or (god forbid) aid in taking it from them. When I really, really pushed him, he put his conviction that there is “no form of god” at about 90%. I’m about that certain myself, but I’m aware that, despite all my careful analysis, it IS possible that I’m just broken. That I lack a whole sense organ that finds god. That you and yours KNOW something I don’t. Whether this is true or not, I think that the important lesson is simply to love, tolerate, embrace, understand, and live in the same world with each other.

    More power to you.

    • Austin Brown September 13, 2012 at 6:56 pm #

      Hey, thanks for dropping by and commenting, chaotican. I appreciate the candid remarks.

      As you can imagine, I’m intrigued and would like to follow up with some questions, try to understand where you’re coming from better.

      I’ve personally wrestled with these hard questions for most of my adult life. The funny thing about talking about the existence of God is that it’s only a small part of the bigger picture. Here I’m thinking of God’s character and ways. Let’s suppose that your 10% of uncertainty gives way to certainty. There’s still the question of trust. Knowing something exists and trusting that something are quite different things, after all. Here I’m reminded of Dawkins or Harris or Dennet. If anything’s evident, it’s that they really don’t like God. So even if God were to show up, as it were, they’d still wouldn’t bow the knee.

      So anyway, where is your struggle, more specifically? Is it more with God’s existence, or does it also include His character and ways? Also, what would you say is the biggest barrier to belief (for you and your husband)?

      I wasn’t going to ask anything else, but another question came to me just now. You mentioned that you might be broken, or, in other words, that your “God detector organ” might be malfunctioning. If you would, check out that passage from the first chapter of Romans. You can read it here: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+1&version=NIV

      What is your take on the passage in its larger context? And just to give a little background to it, basically Paul, one of Christ’s apostles, is writing to 1st century Christians in Rome. He wants to explain the Gospel in some detail to them, and in order to do that, he first sets the stage by talking about our need for a Savior, seeing how we’re all broken spiritually.

      Forgive me if you’re already familiar with this.

      Laters,

      Austin

      • chaotican September 14, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

        Interestingly, Austin, I probably found my way toward athesim initially through disapointment in God. I remember being five and learning that no one actually knew anything about God for sure. It was all just guesses and pretend. I felt betrayed then, by the adults in the world who pretended that they actually knew some truth when they told me there was a god.

        Later, watching suffering, I decided that, if there were a God, I did indeed hate him. I dared him to hate me back and come show himself and take me to hell. Even if he made me a queen, however, I still would have hated him on behalf of the suffering creatures in the world. I do struggle with this to some extent, but I no longer have any inkling of a God that would either be complacent to or work to erradicate suffering.

        I’ve matured now to the point where, if I could believe, I could find a comfortable God. Really, just the embodiment of love. But I can’t get over the idea that it would just be wishful thinking. It doesn’t feel right, when I try to open my heart. It feels the same as trying to convince myself that the musician onstage was smiling JUST AT ME or that my high school crush may ask me to prom after all. It feels like I’m simply trying to elevate myself and create the love I crave out of nothing. It makes me sad.

        I’m off to read that passage now, thank you!

        • Austin Brown September 14, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

          Chaotican,

          Once again, I appreciate the honesty. It’s refreshing.

          To be perfectly honest on my end, it’s hard to know where to go from here. There’s a lot on the table. On the one hand, I don’t want to turn all Dr. Phil on you and talk about your childhood and upbringing, but then again, some pretty significant things happened in your past. You also voiced your concern over all the suffering and evil in the world. That’s a valid question- a very valid question! And then, lastly, there’s the issue of feeling like personal belief in God would be nothing more than wishful thinking. Your examples of the singer and high school sweet-heart really pressed the point home. Very well said.

          I’d be willing to talk more, but only if it’s something that might interest you. While I firmly believe the things I said in the post you originally responded to, I also believe that faith isn’t blind. There are real answers to your questions. I wouldn’t be a Christian, if I thought otherwise. I’ve struggled intensely with agnosticism at times, so I understand the intellectual as well as emotional hurdles. For me, and I really mean this, if I didn’t trust in Christ, I wouldn’t know anything at all. I’m convinced that without God, knowledge crumbles under us, much in the same way that morality would be nothing more than a game of relativism.

          Of course, I don’t pretend to be able to convince you, ultimately, but I do think I could press on that 10% uncertainty you still feel.

          In a nutshell, I’d want to explore two basic paths. I’d want to try to help you see something I’ve come to believe, namely, that naturalism or atheism or agnosticism, leaves us with absolutely nothing. But actually more than that. I think there’s a pointed irony to it that causes our hearts to recoil in frustration. The other thing would be to explore Jesus Christ further. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, not to mention charlatans, false teachers, wishy-washy teachers, etc., who help propagate those misconceptions. Secondly, I’m convinced that God has provided us with some clear signs of His goodness and trustworthiness, while also showing us the dire pitfalls of unbelief. I’d love an opportunity to share those with you. But again, only if that would be something you’d want to explore further.

          I also appreciated your willingness to read the first chapter of Romans and comment. I’d like to respond, but I’ll hold off for now. I think it would be better to first ask if you want to correspond further… and if so, via email or here. A private correspondence might be better. If so, here’s my email austincbrown(at)comcast(dot)net.

          All the best,

          Austin

          • chaotican September 15, 2012 at 11:49 am #

            Austin,

            I thought about this. Slept on it. While these topics interest me, I have to confess that my mind isn’t open right now. Or, rather, I’m not at one of those rare moments in my life when I think that I wish I had faith. I’m currently occupying myself and fulfilling the need in me to be part of something greater through raising my kids and writing and even doing pointless work well.

            I imagine you’d say that all these things could be enhanced by faith, but the truth is that I’m not likely to partake unless I’m desperate. Offer a chocolate covered bug to a man after a meal and, delicious though it may be, he just might refuse. (For the record, I’d be all over that bug.) Offer it when he hasn’t eaten for three days and I bet he gobbles it up.

            So, I perhaps the most satisfactory resolution would be if I vowed that, the next time I find myself ready to turn anywhere and try something new, I’ll take you up on your offer to discuss this?

          • Austin Brown September 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

            Once again, I’m appreciative of your honesty and forthrightness. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line sometime.

            It was good talking, brief though it was, Choatican.

          • Barry York September 15, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

            As Austin’s friend and fellow contributor, I also appreciated the honest exchange. I did just want to point out to you some progress that was made, Chaotican.

            In your first comment you mentioned that you lacked a sense organ for God. In your last comment you identified it correctly. It is hunger. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). No one will come to God through his Son until he or she realizes how unsatisfying all the other things in this world we try to feed our soul with are. That is why Jesus so often compared Himself to food and drink, and indeed why he used bread and wine in the only visible representation he gave us of himself in the Lord’s Supper.

            I pray you will develop this hunger.

      • chaotican September 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm #

        I’ve read it, thank you.

        I know I should respond with intellect and analysis and be just more mature, but what wants to come out is, “Where is God’s sense of humor?” He just sounds so…uptight. Do I really want to be part of that? I find the bible alientating, in many passages. I have to really search for the love, as I find that so much of it speaks to a darker side of human nature, including the need to feel superior to each other.

        I’ve read some similar passages, though not that one. As a Jew, I guess that I should feel privallaged that I’m a desired convert. I just feel like we’re moving away from a unifying presence and the God that is love. So maybe I just don’t get it.

        But, if there is a God, then didn’t he make me this way? Impossible to reach?

  3. mindari September 13, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    It is so encouraging to know that God doesn’t expect me to save people by dazzling them with brilliant rhetoric or rapier wit. (Not that there was ever any danger of my doing that anyway. :D) Praise be to God who can use even a misspeaking tongue with His Holy Spirit.

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    […] the mail. Austin is a deacon in the RPCNA.  This article appeared at the Gentle Reformation blog and is used with […]

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