I’ve written before about my atheist neighbor. In my last reference to him, I told you he abandoned his family and friends and ran off to Florida with a woman none of us liked. Prior to that, I shared my final letter to him.
Emotionally, I found it difficult to believe he would truly abandon everything he’d known for fifty years and forsake his family and friends, but knew his atheism would allow him to do just that. And, he did. That was four or five years ago, I guess.
Atheism is about belief in name only. Linguistically, atheism is a compound term made of the Greek word for God, theos, and the negative prefix, a. So, atheism means: I don’t believe in God.
However, this definition—I don’t believe in God—is not entirely accurate. I know loads of Christians who don’t believe in God and live like atheists. More accurately, they believe in the existence of God, but they don’t believe He is active, involved, and present in their daily lives to the degree they trust in and rely upon Him. Or, they believe He’s engaged, but they don’t believe they want Him engaged in their life, i.e. they don’t trust Him or don’t want to rely upon Him.
So to define atheism simply as, I don’t believe in God, is not accurate enough. What atheism means in actual belief is, I don’t believe in the existence of God. This clarification captures atheism and distinguishes philosophical atheism—like my neighbor’s—from the practical atheism of Christians whose names are on the church roles, claim religious identity, and espouse belief while living daily as if God is not present.
My neighbor used to say, “Preston, you took a leap of belief. I took a leap of unbelief.” He was right to a point, but I took issue with the word, leap. I wanted to discern if he envisioned a for-real leap, as into an abyss, or if by leap he meant a hop, or a step, or if the leap was that he turned the other direction from what he perceived of God while I turned toward what I believed about God.
My neighbor didn’t want to believe.
I won’t bore you with the details, but my neighbor’s leap of unfaith turned out to be a turn from God. He used “leap” in debate with me to make it seem as though my belief was an irrational leap into foolishness, like jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon believing that God will catch me. His leap, by comparison, was rational—which made my belief irrational. Around and around we went.
In the end, my neighbor concluded I was not an irrational, thoughtless fool and I knew the same about him. His leap simply meant he determined to turn away from God and face the other direction.
When it came down to it, my neighbor didn’t leap anywhere, nor did I. His unfaith and my faith were neither one irrational, or blind, or foolish. His unbelief and my belief were separated by a choice we each made, not by facts that either disproved or proved the existence of God—that’s not possible—but by what/who we determined would govern our lives.
That’s important to understand. One of the gifts my neighbor gave to me was the forum to debate with him on friendly terms. Don’t get me wrong, our discussions were no-holds barred. As long as respect was maintained, all the theatrics of debate were on the table. On occasions my neighbor writhed in theatrical anguish that his friend (me) could be so dumb. And, I exhibited my own theatrics, cynicism, indignation, and so forth.
In the end, our conversations revealed a separation only as wide as our willfulness. My neighbor didn’t have an intellectual problem with faith. He had a volitional problem with faith. That is, my neighbor didn’t want to believe.
It boils down to this in my experience: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
Isn’t that what faith is all about? Occasionally, there is the testimony of a Josh McDowell or CS Lewis who is moved to a commitment of faith by studying the apologetics for Christianity, but the vast majority of those who believe say of their salvation experience that they decided to put their trust in God.
Salvation includes the step of repentance, i.e. turning from my way and turning to God’s way. It seems to me the critical variable in this oh-so-simple concept is the degree to which one must turn to constitute a turn sufficient in God’s mind that He can engage, and transform us, without concern that He is running slip-shod over our freedom of choice.
In a perfect, churched formula for a proper salvation experience, there is a turning that includes an observable about-face and open declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ. In some religious traditions this turning is exhibited by walking an aisle. In others, it is a class, a sinner’s prayer, or a confirmation, and in many the turning includes some sort of baptismal and ceremonial display to make public the repentance decision and salvation reception.
This leaves ample room for God to initiate what we know of redemption.
These formulas aren’t wrong—Romans Road, the Four Laws, etc.—but of course, there are plenty of folks who see this differently. All you have to do is check out the number of denominations.
What strikes me—the observation that is inescapable—is the menagerie of testimonies I hear about how followers of Jesus Christ came to faith and entered into salvation, i.e. the transfer from old to new, from dark to light, from outside to inside, from lost to found, from irretrievably useless to ultimate worth, from separated to family. To wildly varying degrees, people testify that they turned—and their lives are confirmation that spiritual transformation occurred. I’ve even heard testimony of people who turned to follow Jesus Christ and didn’t know His name. When introduced, they affirm only that it is nice to know the name of the Person they have been following, not that any further action on their part is necessary.
It seems to me, any turn that is by divine definition a yielding of willfulness, is by definition a sufficient turn for God to seize upon His opportunity to save those who are apart from Him.
Now, two thoughts on this definition of the salvation experience. Three actually.
First, this definition leaves ample room for God to initiate what we know of redemption. God, who humbled Himself to take on human flesh, to take upon Himself all that was intolerable about us, descend into hell, resurrect, and live now to make constant intercession on our behalf, seems perfectly willing to take us on at any point in the journey, and then busy Himself working out the details of our redemption along the way.
Lewis wrote, “It is a poor thing to strike our colours to God (i.e. to surrender) when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up “our own” when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him.”
What I’m advocating—what I’m attributing to God, what I’m putting forward—is what I term, divine humility. I’m saying that any turn sufficient in God’s determination—and He is just and He is right and He is true—to reflect a yielding of our will is indicator enough to God that He can act on our behalf to save us and begin redemption. God is not proud.
Consequently, a rigid definition of turning is next-to impossible to define. Therefore, it is unwise to box God in based upon human action or inaction. It is much safer to evaluate redemption. Salvation is about transferring from death to life. Redemption, therefore, is about people who are alive growing spiritually. The test is this: When you pour the life of Christ into a person, do they progress? Live people will, dead people will not.
Second observation: I’ve already stated it. God is not fully knowable, but one aspect of God that He has gone to great lengths to demonstrate is His humility so that He is approachable.
Yes, He is worthy of praise. He is high and lifted up. There is all the stuff about angels, and heaven, and timelessness that is true. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent; and He is a lot of other qualities as well, many of which are so grand we will spend eternity attempting to comprehend.
But the one quality God has endeavored to convey most clearly is His humility. Christmas alone is sufficient testimony to this. It is noteworthy enough that He left heaven and took on humanity. But He also limited His divine power. He took on humanity in the poorest of poor form, in the most helpless of states, i.e. a baby, and did so through an illegitimate birth, to a young woman deemed impure, in a barn with a trough for a bassinette, and a birth announcement carried by the lowest of the low class in society, the rabble of shepherds. That’s humility.
But then, there is His message. It too is infused with divine humility: Come. Come from wherever you are, however you are, in whatever condition you are. Come. If you turn, I’m there. I will run to meet you. We will work out the details later.
We call this grace. The magnitude of mercy in it almost hints of desperation.
My college professors were intellectually lazy.
Third, as nearly as I can tell, my neighbor never turned. It troubled me that even after we reduced the definition of “leap” to a simple turning, he didn’t convert. He didn’t even show interest.
He didn’t want to.
That stunned me about my neighbor. I thought more nobly of him. For all his intellectual honesty, I thought he would be intellectually reasonable if I could demonstrate that faith wasn’t a long-jump leap.
In the end, my neighbor was honest, as honest as any man I’ve met. He denied the existence of God because he didn’t want to make room in his soul for God. He didn’t want to so much that he never paused to turn.
He didn’t want to turn, even to glance, not even to avert his eyes. The risk was too great that God would be there and seize the initiative. My neighbor didn’t turn because if he did, and God did indeed exist—even if the idea of God existed—then intellectual honesty would require that he bow his knee. In his self-enthronement, that wasn’t reasonable.
The difference between my atheist neighbor and my atheist college professors was that my neighbor was diligent about atheism. My college professors were mentally-emotionally-intellectually lazy. They were also bullies, using their positional power to demean, ridicule, and condescend in order to intimidate and shut down honest consideration. But what their threatened indifference had in common with my neighbor’s thoughtful rejection is that neither wanted to turn.
After more than six decades on the planet, and in excess of fifty years journeying with God, the one truth that I’m most confident about is that God is humble. Yes, I think He is just, and righteous, and good, and a number of other things that work themselves into my theology. But the one thing I am most confident about with God, and the one thing I’m most committed to as a follower of Jesus Christ, is that God is anxious to engage with me, and in my heart-of-hearts, I’m anxious to turn to Him.
Of this, I’m certain: If I look, He is there and He is active. How His activity shakes out is another matter.
Next, I want to think more carefully about another friend of mine. He isn’t an atheist. He’s an agnostic.