“16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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.”
–Romans 1:16-20, (ESV) emphasis mine
Based on my experiences through the years and the observation of other Christians, I believe there is a lurking, pervasive fear of the “intellectual atheist” amongst Christians. This nameless, faceless group of people seems to be our modern-day Goliath which goes about blaspheming God and mocking His people. These scoffers, whom God laughs at from His throne in heaven (Psalm 2), have raged and taken their stand against the Lord loudly enough that we have become afraid of them.
We fear them because we think maybe they have an argument we can’t defeat, questions we can’t answer, theories we don’t understand, or data we are not aware of. We fear them because maybe within their Ivory Towers they have ascended to a higher state of knowledge and understanding. We fear them because they can be loud, angry, mean, and belittling.
Even worse, we may fear them because we’re not entirely sure that the Bible is God’s Word. Maybe, in some ways, we agree with the unbelieving World’s way of thinking.
And maybe we have a haunting suspicion that they are right, and we are wrong.
No Reason to Fear
Whatever the reason, this is my word of encouragement to all Christians who fear interacting with the atheist: You have no reason to fear them. In fact, you already possess in God’s Word the primary reasons why you should not fear them.
And what are the primary reasons Paul gives for not being ashamed of the gospel, and thus, not being afraid of those who brazenly reject it?
1) The gospel is the power of God for salvation (v. 16).
2) Anyone who rejects the gospel knows the God of Scripture, but he suppresses the truth of God in unrighteousness (v. 18).
3) God has clearly revealed Himself to all men, through general and special revelation, so that they will have no excuse for their unbelief on the final day of judgment (v. 19-20).
In sum, the most basic reason why you should not fear the atheist is that atheists themselves don’t truly believe what they claim to believe.
All atheists know, without doubt or excuse, that God exists because God has clearly revealed Himself to all of humanity. Regardless of a person’s belief system, everyone truly knows in their heart of hearts that the True and Living God exists. No one will be able to plead ignorance on the day of judgment for a fact that God made abundantly clear to them every single day of their lives.
An Amazing Capacity for Self-Deception
So, how is this possible? How can atheists seem so sincere and genuine in their denial of a Creator? The atheist can say God doesn’t exist while believing that God exists in the same way that a person can profess to be Christian while not actually being a Christian.
The commonality between the false believer and the God-believing atheist is a powerful thing called self-deception. We all have an amazing capacity for self-deception because, as fallen creatures, we have an amazing capacity to lie.
We can lie to others, and as most people are readily willing to recognize, we can lie to ourselves. We all know someone who has been “in denial,” both knowing the truth and refusing to admit that they know it at the same time. We have all been hypocrites ourselves, who say we believe one thing and then do the opposite. Because of sin, we all, atheists and Christians alike, have the ability to lie to others, to God, and to ourselves.
Not Intellectual, But Moral
The dilemma of the atheist professing a denial of God’s existence while really believing that God exists is no dilemma at all. It’s a pattern of behavior that we’re all very familiar with here in this fallen world. Paul expresses this condition eloquently by saying that atheists are those “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”
The Apostle John puts this same truth in another way: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God,” (John 3:19-21).
All unbelievers know that God exists, but they push that knowledge down and suppress it because they love their sin. Their suppression looks like this: a young boy is angry with his father and yet also very hungry. So, to show his anger, the boy hides his eyes with one hand to make his father “disappear,” and yet he holds out his other hand so he can receive food from him. This is how the atheist lives; he shields his spiritual eyes from the glory of God in creation while presumptuously expecting the ongoing provision of God to sustain his daily existence. So, as it turns out, there are no real atheists.
Therefore, we begin to see an apologetical principle come forth: The atheist’s problem with God is not intellectual, but moral. They don’t deny God because there’s a lack of light or evidence for His existence, or because it’s “unscientific,” or because it’s “irrational.”
They suppress the truth of God because they love the darkness and hate the Light.
The Power of God for Salvation
This ought to be very encouraging for you, Christian! This means that you don’t need to fear the atheist’s arguments or data or theories or questions; none of those things have anything to do with why he denies God.
So, we should not fear atheists and we should also not quibble over “facts” or “theories” with them. Instead, we should strive to show them the contradictions between the beliefs they profess and the way they live in God’s world. We should boldly and unashamedly proclaim to them the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.