After a several-hour-long Facebook conversation with a friend of mine who is an atheist, I decided the best way to continue the conversation was to sum up some of my thoughts in a letter. Hopefully this speaks to some of you and opens up future conversations.
I’ve been sitting in this coffee shop for about an hour trying to think of which articles or videos to send you that would really ‘do the trick.’ But nothing has come to mind and nothing really seemed to fit exactly what I wanted to say, so I figured, why not type up a letter that will say just what I want to say, in lieu of an in-person conversation?
You told me you’ve been an atheist for many years, and it has not helped you satiate the aches and pains within your soul. Therapy and medications, while they can be helpful, have not seemed to abate the void, or however you want to refer to it. C.S. Lewis talks about a longing for joy which is ultimately what led him to Christianity from atheism. It was not a longing for rules or for some false sort of religion that led him to seek out God, but the search for joy.
Contemporary pastor and writer John Piper strongly echoes Lewis’ sentiments when he preaches, and in his monumental book Desiring God, in which he coined the term ‘Christian Hedonism.’ This refers to the fact that humans are made to seek out joy, happiness, and satisfaction (eudaimonia) at all costs. Christianity is, essentially, a human coming to realize that the greatest heights of joy and the ultimate source of satisfaction is to be found in Christ.
The Catechism states that the chief end of Man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This is the source of much of this thought. If we are not enjoying God, but are merely submitting to Him out of sheer will, or even worse—out of fear, then we are doing Christianity wrong. Hebrews 12:2 says that “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus underwent the most painful and humiliating death a human could endure for the sake of joy! It was not because God the Father told Him to, or that He would be in trouble if He didn’t.
In the same way, we are drawn to God because of His kindness, because we see some sort of joy in Him. Men and women who stand on street corners and yell at people to condemn them are not reflecting the heart of God, who draws people to Himself because of His love and kindness. Psalm 37:4 says to “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” God calls to us and offers us joy and delight.
The biggest hurdle you seem to be at seems to be the first step, though: Believing that He exists. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I’ve been at that place, looking for a god to relate to.
In Genesis, there is this story of Jacob wandering through the wilderness and one night a man comes to him and they begin to wrestle on the ground. They wrestle all night long and eventually the other man realizes he has been overpowered, so he touches Jacob’s side and throws it out of joint. The man (who is God, it turns out) renames Jacob ‘Israel,’ which means “he wrestles with God.” I think the best Christians are those who wrestle with God. I have little respect for those who believe whatever they are fed without wrestling with it and crying out to God, begging for an answer.
Of course, in the present secular atmosphere of our hedonistic culture, the hardest problem tends to be finding a god to wrestle with. And that is where I have been many many times. And I think the best things to do are these:
Pray. It sounds weird for me to tell you to pray, because to you, it may seem like speaking words into an empty room. But think about it this way: IF there is a God, and IF He really wants you to come to Him, doesn’t this seem like a good place to start? I mean, what do you have to lose? The worst case scenario is you waste five minutes (or more…) talking to an empty room. Ask Him to reveal Himself to you.
Join a community of Christians. I would love to take all my atheist friends to church. But many of them wouldn’t go to an actual church with me, and if they would, we often live in different cities. Having conversations like this can help give you a taste of what it’s like to be a Christian. Find people (or just keep talking to me!) who will let you ask the hard questions and reply in a loving way. Christianity is not meant to be a solo endeavor where we just have some kind of ethereal connection to God and follow certain do’s and don’ts. It is a life lived in a community that consistently shows each other grace because each one of us has received grace from God.
And I guess this brings me to the gospel. WHERE DO I BEGIN??
The gospel is not men working hard enough to earn favor from God. It is not a reward system of doing good things and ‘getting’ heaven. It’s not something that is meant to enhance your life and make you happier (though that is essentially a result).
Each of us has screwed up. We have had hatred in our hearts toward others. We have lied. We have cheated. We have been greedy. This is not a matter of adding up our ‘good deeds’ and weighing them against our ‘bad deeds.’ Imagine instead that you’re hanging from a chain that is connecting you to God. It doesn’t matter which link in the chain you break; if one breaks, you’re falling. And so has each one of us fallen.
This means that you, me, and Hitler are all on the same level. There are no degrees of fallenness when it comes to our standing before God. And no amount of giving to the homeless or petting impounded puppies is going to reverse that.
I learned a new phrase recently: felix culpa. It is Latin for ‘happy fault.’ I love it because it encapsulates so much of the gospel. Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden. This was a bad thing. But because of it, the entire narrative of Jesus coming and dying for us, so that our sinful state may be redeemed came about. His body was beaten, broken and killed. Another fault. But how happy are we Christians that His body was broken! Happy fault. His blood poured our so that ours doesn’t have to.
Buddhist monks sit in caves, striving for nirvana (self emptying), and when it is attained, they light themselves on fire to purify their souls. Catholic monks whip themselves bloody to punish themselves for their sins.
Jesus’ blood fell from the fissures on His body so that ours doesn’t have to. His blood has removed our sins because He was the only one who did NOT sin, yet was punished as if He did.
Felix Culpa. Happy fault.
And what did Jesus say as the soldiers were pinning Him to the cross? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Jesus is the embodiment of grace and love. And since He was fully God, He shows us what God is like. God is grace and love.
I think you may see religion as people following certain rules in order to try to please some god. But Christianity is different from every other religion in the world, because we believe that our God came to us, while we WEREN’T seeking Him! (Romans 5:8). Christianity is a free gift and all you need to do is accept it. It’s like Jesus bought you a boarding pass and paid for the ticket and all you need to do is get on the plane.
Of course, these metaphors break down, but you get the idea.
The greatest gift in the entire gospel message is that we get GOD! In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Christianity is not about using Jesus to get eternal life. He does not merely point us the way to salvation. Rather, he says come to me to have eternal life. The greatest gift we can receive is God Himself!
Which brings me back to my first point: Joy. By binding ourselves to God, we find the greatest and deepest source of joy imaginable. Galatians 2:20 says that “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” This means, yes, we will have our deepest desires fulfilled, but our desires will be changed! We won’t look for satisfaction in things like money, fame, sex, drugs, etc. But we will delight ourselves in God! Because He will give us a new life.
Becoming a Christian is not self-help or life-improvement. It is getting a NEW life! It is being born again. You were born once, and the first life does not seem to have gotten you what you want. So coming to Jesus means being born again into a whole new life! It’s far more than I can explain in this little letter so I’ll leave it there.
There is so much more I want to say, and I wish this was a conversation not a dialogue, so I’ll end it here with how my dad ends most of his prayers:
I praise God that because Jesus walked out of His grave, we too will walk out of ours.