Why Argue with an Atheist?

I’ve been watching a debate (from 2008) between Christopher Hitchens (an atheist), Dinesh D’Souza (a Christian), and Dennis Prager (a Jew).  (See the video here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0LY6Vwcp4-U).  The debate lasts for about two hours, and I’m 45 minutes into it.

So far, Hitchens has dwelled a lot on evils committed by religious people.  I was surprised to find myself agreeing with him on lots of points.  (Of course, we disagree completely on the main point but that’s…beside the point).  

In the Christian worldview, it is a given that people will fail and do evil.  Sometimes, religion compounds sin by dressing it up in robes of righteousness, giving divine sanction to fallen behavior.  Scripture is clear about this.  Jesus said, “a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2).  This was Saul’s mentality when he was jailing and killing Christians in the name of Judaism (prior to becoming a Christian and changing his name to Paul).  This way of thinking drove wars between Christian denominations, the inquisitions, and other dark patches in church history.  The ultimate example is Jesus’s death at the hands of the religious leaders in His day.

Hitchens’s argument has an unspoken premise: if there really is a God, then those who claim to know Him should be free from evil.  Perhaps I’ve stated it too simply but that’s the basic idea.  This premise is false and unbiblical.  Throughout scripture we find people who are as flawed as they are faithful.  Paul says sin dwells in our members (Rom. 7:23).  Our faults do not disprove our faith.  In fact, they support its claims.  In his book Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton wittily points out that original sin “is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”  

Despite the false premise, believers get trapped into arguing that we’re not flawed or that we’re less flawed than non-Christians.  

The real picture is messier.  Corporately, every church is a mixture.  Some aspects of church life manifest the real, living God.  Other aspects are just human ideas or practices parasitically attached to true religion.  These range from irrelevant and silly to sinful and harmful.  I would argue this is true of individual Christians as well.  We are all in process, and the process isn’t always pretty.

But getting caught up in arguing against Hitchens’s false premise betrays something else: We don’t believe the gospel as deeply as we might.  If we believe that Christ became “our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” why argue with an atheist about how good we are?  (1 Cor. 1:30).  Jesus Himself said, “Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One—God” (Mark 10:18).  (If you really want to bake your noodle, meditate on the fact that God the Son is saying this!)

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the brothers (Alyosha) is a monk.  He discusses faith throughout the book, including with his brother Ivan, who is an atheist.  At one point, Alyosha comments that he and the other monks are not in the monastery because they’re better or holier than others.  Instead, they are there because they know they need God more than others.  This is a good posture for any Christian to take.  We don’t need to whitewash our public image.  We can fully acknowledge our need for God.  This makes our message about God’s love instead of our sterling morals; it makes our message about God’s greatness, not our own.

Still, Christians believe that God transforms us as we know Him.  I can’t say whether I’m better than anyone else.  I can say that I’m better than I was.  I can also say that change is because of Christ in me.

For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves because of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:5).

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