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Incarcerated Atheists

During the eight years that I’ve evangelized convicts in the Alabama penal system, I have had the privilege to be a witness for Christ to a thousand men. Nearly a hundred of them have become Catholics, mostly from the ranks of Fundamentalist sects.

Evangelism is possible only if the evangelist has some proficiency in apologetics. Most of the apologetics we use here are directed to the Fundamentalists, as they make up about 95 percent of Alabama’s population, but we must also defend Catholicism to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and a scattering of Evangelicals. And, of course, there is the dreaded penitentiary atheist.

Few non-Catholic Christians go beyond the Bible in learning about Christianity, and those who do often feel uncomfortable with the practice. This makes the average Christian a lamb ready for slaughter (or, as they say down here, like a chicken in a whole barnyard full of roosters) by the crass prison atheist who mocks God. Consequently, most Christians label the prison atheist as someone who is owned by the devil, which means the atheist is rarely reached. I suspect the same holds true in the “free-world.” This is unfortunate and unnecessary, as proving the existence of God is quite simple.

Before reviewing an incident in which one poor fellow’s parade was rained upon, it’s necessary to understand the average so-called atheist. In all the years I have dealt with these men, I can truthfully say that I have never met a genuine atheist. I have a much respect for the beliefs of a true atheist, because it requires an amazing amount of faith not to believe in God; conversely, it is difficult to respect the beliefs of the average self-proclaimed atheist, as his school of atheism is not genuine.

The false atheist–especially one of the convicted-felon variety– tosses the label around like a badge of honor, and he does so for two reasons. One is that he knows most Christians will avoid him if he claims to be an atheist. The other is that he can use an adherence to atheism as a balm to soothe his conscience. By claiming not to believe in God, he is not bound by God’s law. His atheism is a justification for sin. If the so-called atheist can be made to admit to the existence of God, then his excuses for not living for God are gone. Such is the case with a friend of mine, Bubba Morgan.

Bubba is a good ol’ Southern boy who is typical of the prison atheists I run across: He appears on the surface to be highly intelligent; then he begins to speak. Bubba’s real name is unknown to me, although it is possible here in the deep South that “Bubba” is his real name. But, as with most convicts, “Bubba” is probably just his prison “handle.” Mine is “Bucket-head,” and Bubba loves to use it. I’ll spare you the humiliating reasons for my having been given such a handle.

My little debate with Bubba began one day when he came into my cell block looking for a cup of coffee. Bubba got his cup of coffee and a whole lot more.

BUBBA: Hey, Buckethead! How’s your family?

BUCKETHEAD: Hey there, Bubba. Whatcha lookin’ for?

BUBBA: Aw, man! Why I gotta be lookin’ fer somethin’ just ’cause I stopped to say hey while handling my bidness?

BUCKETHEAD: Bubba, do you see a zipper in my head? I’ve pulled eight years in this hole, so I knew what it means when a man asks about my family. What can I do for you?

BUBBA [grinning]: Need a shot-o-mud. Ya got one?

BUCKETHEAD [putting a spoon of instant coffee in Bubba’s cup]: There ya go, Bubba. I’ve done this favor for you–now you must do one for me.

BUBBA [speaking cautiously]: Okay. Whaddya want?

BUCKETHEAD: All I want from you, Bubba, is that you should attend our next religion class this Sunday night.

BUBBA: Ha-ha-ha-ha! Aw, come on, Buckethead! You don’t want me down there. I’m a atheist! I got no use for religion, ’cause I don’t believe in no God. I just h eard a good pope joke I can tell ya, though.

BUCKETHEAD: Thanks, but I’ll pass on the pope joke. Why don’t you believe in God?

BUBBA: Bucket, I could give ya a whole bevy of reasons why there ain’t no God. If I started into that we ‘d just argue all day.

BUCKETHEAD: You’re probably right about that, Bubba. I’ll tell ya what, let’s make a deal. If I can prove to you that God exists, you come to our class. If I can’t, I’ll give you coffee for a week.

BUBBA: Now you’re talking Buckethead! Whatcha gonna do, make God strike me down?

BUCKETHEAD [smiling]: Nothing that dramatic, Bubba. We’re just gonna talk.

BUBBA: Well, I’ll go for it, Bucket, but only if ya promise me to come up with somethin’ ‘sides that “’cause the B ible says so” stuff. I don’t believe in the Bible no way, ’cause it’s just a book wrote by men.

BUCKETHEAD: You’re right. The Bible is written by men. Don’t worry, Bubba. I don’t use what you feel is a tired argument.

BUBBA: Okay, Bucket, let’s hear it!

BUCKETHEAD: Good. We’ll save a lot of time in this discussion, Bubba, if you’ll just grant two points of my argument as facts. The first thing I’m asking you to concede that the Old Testament is ancient Hebrew literature. I’m not claiming that it’s inspired by God nor that any of its stories are true. I’m only asking you to agree that it’s historically correct to say the Old Testament is ancient Jewish writing.

BUBBA: Ya got somethin’ up your sleeve there, Buckethead. I ain’t never heard one a ya’ll come out your head with such as that. What’s goin’ on?

BUCKETHEAD: Nothing is going on, Bubba. I’m just trying to have a discussion. Will you agree to my stipulation?

BUBBA: Ummm, okay. I’ll go along with that one. What’s your other point?

BUCKETHEAD: Good. The other point I want you to concede is that Jesus of Nazareth was a true historical person who lived in Palestine nearly 2,000 years ago.

BUBBA [shaking his head]: Naw, I cain’t do that. All ya got to prove that is the Bible, and I ain’t buyin’ that.

BUCKETHEAD: You’re mistaken, Bubba. There are sources other than the Bible which attest to Jesus’ existence. Have you ever heard of some fellows named Flavius Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius?

BUBBA: Nope.

BUCKETHEAD: These guys were all non-Christian historians who lived in ancient times. Flavius Josephus was a historian who happened to be a Jew. Pliny, Tacitus, and Sutonius were all pagan historians. By their very own belief systems–Jewish and pagan–the four weren’t particularly impressed by Jesus and certainly weren’t friends of his; yet all four document enough information about Jesus’ life not only to attest to his existence, but also to validate the historical value of the Gospels. That means the writings of the four Evangelists–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–are acceptable as accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. We have some of these works in our Catholic library. Would you like to go down and take a look?

BUBBA [grinning]: Naw, that’s okay. I do remember that Flavor fella, now that you mention him.


BUBBA: Him too.


BUBBA: Okay. Jesus really lived, but that don’t mean he was anything ‘cept a nice guy.

BUCKETHEAD: We’ll see about that. Now we’ll talk about the Old Testament for a minute. I assume you’re familiar with the prophecies regarding the Messiah.

BUBBA: Sure! I done read all that stuff before.

BUCKETHEAD: Fine. If we take all of those prophecies and list them, then list from the Gospels corresponding accounts from Jesus’ life, we will see that he fulfilled those Old Testament prophecies.

BUBBA: Got no problem with that, Buckethead, but that don’t prove nothin’. Even I could make them prophecies come true.

BUCKETHEAD: Rig ht, Bubba. You could fulfill the prophecies. Anybody could–to a point. Therefore we have to determine what sort of man Jesus was. Logically it all boils down to the fact that Jesus had to be one of three types of men. He either had to be a bad man, a criminal type; a mad man, someone who needed to be heavily medicated; or he had to be who he says he is, God. Look at the first one. Could Jesus have been a bad guy, a criminal like us? Could he have devised a scheme so he could gain power, wealth, and fame from a dedicated following?

BUBBA: You betcha! That’s ‘xactly the sort of thing I’d do! Ha-ha! Yessir, I’d have bunches of bucks an’ broads and . . .

BUCKETHEAD [clearing throat]: Yeah, well indulge in your fantasies on your time. Right now let’s just stick to the subject. Your answer then is that Jesus could be a bad man?


BUCKETHEAD: Fine. There’s a problem, though, Bubba.

BUBBA: What problem? It’s a perfect scam!

BUCKETHEAD: Not quite. Let me ask you: Are you willing to die in order to be the Messiah?

BUBBA: No way, Jose! That’d be sorta stupid. Ain’t no amount of money and wimmin worth dyin’ for.

BUCKETHEAD: So Jesus couldn’t have been a criminal.

BUBBA: How come?

BUCKETHEAD: Because, Bubba, in order to fulfill the prophecies he would have to die. Is any criminal willing to die for such a thing?

BUBBA: Naw, I reckon not.

BUCKETHEAD: Then Jesus was not a criminal. Let’s look at the second one. Could Jesus have been a madman, a nut? Could he have decided that a voice was telling him that he was the Messiah and that he had to begin fulfilling prophecy?

BUBBA: Sure could. In fact, Buckethead, Jesus musta been nuts. Only a nut would be willin’ to die like that.

BUCKETHEAD: There’s a problem here too, Bubba. You and I have been in prison the better part of a decade, and we’ve both spent time up there in the mental health section helping out with the poor guys who live there.

BUBBA: Half those jokers already believe they’re God.

BUCKETHEAD: Sure, so you should be able to spot the reason why Jesus couldn’t have been a madman. What is it?

BUBBA: I dunno.

BUCKETHEAD: It’s simple. Indeed a mad man could hear a voice telling him he is the Messiah, and he could begin to fulfill prophecy. A madman would even be willing to go to his death if he truly believes in what he is doing. The problem with the crazy-man theory, though, is that no insane person has the ability to remain consistently directed toward one focused goal. A madman always becomes inconsistent and his focus blurred no matter how great his achievements. A case in point is Adolf Hitler. Had Hitler continued to listen to his generals instead of his astrologers, he would have won the war, but insanity blurred his focus. No, Jesus could not have been a madman. If Jesus was nothing else, he was certainly consistent and focused.

BUBBA: Okay, I’ll buy that. So let’s hear your Yankee carpetbaggin’ sales pitch for the last one.

BUCKETHEAD: Well, if Jesus was neither criminal nor insane, he had to be who he said he was, Bubba. He said he was God.

BUBBA: Hold on! Hold on! Jesus never said he was God The most he ever claimed to be was God’s Son, and your own Bible says we’re all sons of God.

BUCKETHEAD: A worthy argument, Bubba, but an invalid one. Offhand I can think of four passages in John, one in Philippians, two in Colossians, and one in Titus proclaiming Jesus’ divinity. To my way of thinking the most telling one is John 8:58: “Jesus said to them ‘Truly, truly, I say to you before Abraham was I Am.’ ” Jesus used the word “truly” twice in succession only when he was about to make a most serious and solemn proclamation. This was the way Jesus highlighted what he was saying. The most powerful part of Jesus’ statement is when he describes himself a s “I Am.” Let’s look at Exodus 3:14 for a moment. When Moses asked God what explanation he would give the Israelites when they asked who sent him, God replied, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” “I Am” is the All-Eternal himself. When Jesus called himself “I Am,” the Jews understood what he was saying–hence their desire to kill him for b.asphemy. Jesus claimed to be God, Bubba. As the Son of God he is the second Person of the triune God.

BUBBA: He’s what? Now I got no understanding of what you’re talkin’ ’bout, Bucket.

BUCKETHEAD: Honor your wager, Bubba, and I’ll explain it all to you there.

BUBBA: Okay. Ya got me. When and where?

This is a method of dealing with so-called atheists that has never failed me, but it is not a guarantee of conversion. The atheist either will pursue continued dialogue–for some reason, particularly metaphysics–which is the desired response, or he will become foolishly obstinate and flee from any dialogue. It all depends on his level of intellectual honesty.

This is only one of several methods for proving the existence of God. Catholics should arm themselves with this and other methods. No Catholic should ever fear proving the existence of God, nor should he shun one who claims to be an atheist. To do so is a denial of God, thus causing the Catholic to become a practical atheist himself. Apply the counsel of our first pope, Peter (whom we affectionately refer to as Simon P. Johnson): “Always be prepared to make a defense of anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1Pet. 3:15b).


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