When we engage in reasoning about God, when we share our faith with someone who doesn’t believe—with whom are we reasoning? With whom are we sharing?
Now, I’m not asking here about the specific person (are we sharing with Fred or are we sharing with Ethel?), although in evangelism obviously knowing the difference might come in handy. Rather, the question I’m asking is: what sort of beings are Fred and Ethel? Who are we dealing with when we share Christ with another person or engage in apologetics?
And I don’t mean what sort of beings do Fred and Ethel take themselves to be? What I’m asking here is: what sort of beings do we, as Catholics, take Fred and Ethel to be?
The answer Fred gives to the question will follow from Fred’s worldview. And if my good friend Fred is like many these days who don’t think much about ultimate questions of any kind, he may have no clue as to what is being asked him. “Who am I? I’m Fred. I’m a husband and father. I do my best to be a good person. What else do you want to know—what sort of music I like?”
Likewise, the answer Ethel gives to the question will follow from Ethel’s worldview. And if my good friend Ethel is, say, a thoughtful disciple of Richard Dawkins, she may have quite a bit to say on the subject. “What sort of being am I? Well, when it comes down to it, I’m essentially a product of nature. I’m a thoroughly material being coughed up by a thoroughly material universe. There is no ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ in me. Instead, I’m a highly evolved biochemical machine, the result of impersonal physical laws operating over time in an impersonal physical universe. That’s who I am.”
Don’t get me wrong. When I sit down with someone to share a cup of coffee and talk about God’s existence, I’m keenly interested in the worldview of the person with whom I’m talking. I’m very much interested in understanding how he or she sees things. It’s just that I’m even more interested in how God sees things. I’m even more interested in God’s worldview.
Because knowing who I’m dealing with in my evangelistic and apologetic efforts can open doors and windows into the question of how I might to actually do evangelism and apologetics.
So what does God’s word tell us about this person who doesn’t believe in God? When you or I share our belief in God with someone who doubts or denies God’s existence, who are we dealing with?
1. According to scripture, we’re dealing with someone who is the image and likeness of God.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).
And what does it mean to be in the image and likeness of God? Is it that we somehow reflect God’s being and nature in our ability to reason? Is it in our moral sense that we mirror the moral character of God? Is it in our desire and capacity to create? Our free will? Our consciousness and sense of ourselves as persons? All of the above?
I believe a key to understanding the meaning of Genesis 1:26 is found when only four chapters later we read of Adam becoming “the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen. 5:3).
Interesting. Our children bear our image and likeness. They are like us. They are reflections of our being and nature. What can our creation in the image and likeness of God mean, then, but that we are, by creation, sons and daughters of God?
Jesus the eternal Son of God, Scripture tells us, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Here in God’s Son we have the image and likeness of God to perfection. But this is what every person is created to be and, after the fall, needs to become in Christ. It is God’s will that each of us be remolded by the Spirit into the perfect image of Christ the Son of God. It is God’s desire that each of us comes to become “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature.”
This is who we are: the image and likeness of God, created to reflect God’s being and nature, created to be finite mirrors of God.
Now, hold your breath and compare this to the description of the human person given by atheist biologist Francis Crick in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis:
[Y]ou, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules (emphasis added).
Here’s the platform from which evangelism begins: whatever the person we’re talking to believes about himself or herself, what we believe is that we’re talking to one who is the very image and likeness of God, a son or daughter of God by creation.
We’re not talking to a mere biochemical machine.
2. According to Scripture, we’re talking to someone who lives in a world that cries out the existence of God.
This is the clear and consistent teaching of God’s word.
The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Ps. 19:1-3).
Now, of course, those who deny the existence of God will dispute this. Richard Dawkins will talk about his “blind watchmaker” and how the universe doesn’t in any way give evidence of a Creator.
Fine. At this point my concern is not about what atheists believe but about what we, as Christians, believe. And what we believe is that in a million ways creation speaks of God’s existence (“The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands”), that it speaks of God’s existence continually (“Day after day they pour fourth speech; night after night they display knowledge”), and that the message of creation reaches every person (“There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”).
And whether or not one accepts the language of Psalm 19 as true—certainly the atheist doesn’t—everyone ought to agree that the ideas expressed are internally coherent.
Even as it makes basic intuitive sense to think that a building would give evidence of the existence of its designer; a piece of music it’s composer; a painting its painter; a book its author; so it makes basic intuitive sense to think that if God exists—and created, as Nehemiah said, “the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them” (9:6)— that creation would give evidence of God’s existence, that it would “declare the glory of God.”
And because God does exist, and did create, and because creation does give evidence God’s existence and divine nature, when we share our faith in God—and this is profoundly important to understand . . .
3. According to Scripture, we’re talking to someone who in his or her heart of hearts already knows the God we’re talking about. We’re talking to someone who really cannot escape knowing God.
As St. Paul writes in Romans 1:19-20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.
In other words, according to the inspired word of God, this is the situation in which the atheist finds himself: if he looks out his window at the beauty and majesty of creation, he is confronted by the God who made all things and for whose glory they were made. If he looks in the mirror, he sees God’s reflection, because he is himself the image and likeness of God. If he interacts with others—his wife, children, friends, strangers—there again he meets the face of God. If he closes his eyes to look inward, again he finds God, whose likeness is stamped on his very soul. Everywhere the atheist looks, “what can be known about God is plain to [him].”
In other words, what we believe is that the atheist cannot escape knowing God. This is a knowledge that is etched into his very being, because he is God’s child by creation and designed to be a replica of his Father. For this reason, St. Paul says that those are “without excuse” who will not give God thanks.
4. According to Scripture, we’re talking to someone who already desires relationship with God and in reality has been searching for God all of his or her life.
This is one of the very first truths elaborated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and I think one of the most important we can ever come to understand about ourselves and others:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for (CCC 27).
St. Augustine famously stated this truth when he prayed, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
This is something I’ve thought about a lot. If the atheist were correct that nothing exists but the natural order (no God or gods, no human souls, no spirits of any kind) and that you and I are in every aspect of our beings the products of nature—evolved within nature and therefore utterly “one with nature”—why have the vast majority of human beings throughout history believed in and desired to know and live forever in heaven with a God who doesn’t exist?
If there were no God, it seems it would be “natural” for us to not believe in God. Imagine a fish, evolved into existence in a universe of water; its entire existence lived within this universe of water; having no experience whatsoever of any other sort of existence, for some reason evolving the strong desire to fly through the air. Or finding within itself an inexplicable yearning to crawl about the desert.
If we human beings are as one with nature as an apple hanging from a tree, why do we seem so entirely not one with nature?
Actually, it seems that what is “natural” for us is to believe in God. What seems “natural” for us is to believe that we’ve come from somewhere, rather than from nowhere.
The search for happiness
It was in my first year at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, that I read for the first time what seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal had to say about happiness and humanity’s search for happiness.
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. . . . This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves (Penses, 425).
According to Pascal, this applies to you and me and to every person we will ever talk to about God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. In everything we do, every step we take, every move we make, happiness is what we’re looking for. And Pascal isn’t talking here about the superficial happiness of enjoying a nice meal or a new car, or even the much more profound happiness of human love. He’s talking about the satisfaction of our deepest desires.
So what’s the answer according to Pascal?
All complain [about their inability to find true happiness], princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all times, all ages, and all conditions. . . . What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the comfort he does not receive from things present. . . . But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, by God himself.
Pascal is describing a desire, a hunger, a thirst we all know too well. We probably also know too well how pathetic our attempts have been to satisfy this hunger and thirst with this or that created thing, even when that thing is a person. As the Catechism reminds us, it’s precisely because we’ve been created “by God and for God” that “only in God will we find the happiness we never stop searching for.”
These other things can never fill the “infinite abyss” Pascal talks about. They’re all “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). It’s always really God that we’re looking for. As Bruce Marshall put it, “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God” (The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith, 108).
It’s in this spiritual context that the unhappiness of so many who seem to have everything one could want in this world begins to make sense. It’s also in this context that the words of Jesus appear so staggering in their audacity, and so wonderful.
I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35).
If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink (John 7:37).
* * *
And what does all this have to do with apologetics?
To start, having a clear idea of who I’m “dealing with” when I seek to convince others of God’s existence helps me to remember the spirit in which the “dealing” ought to be done. I’m reminded, for instance, that this is not my opponent, not my enemy.
But in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15).
But there’s more to it. Having a clear idea of who this person is who doubts or outright denies the existence of God, and who I’m hoping to convince otherwise, also guides me in the very approach I take with my evangelism, my apologetics.
You see, since I believe my agnostic or atheist friend knows a lot more than he thinks he knows, I view my work as an apologist as one of reminding more than one of instructing. Specifically, because I believe my friend knows he’s more than a mere biological machine, I attempt to remind him of this—gently, respectfully—by leading him to think about what would be true if he really was nothing more than a biological machine.
For instance, what if the universe really is what Richard Dawkins insists that it is—a universe in which there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference?” (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 131-32). What would the implications of this be for the meaning of life? What would the implications be for morality? What would they be for our view of the worth and dignity of human persons? For human rights? For self-consciousness and the sense we have of ourselves as persons? For free will? For the possibility of knowledge?
What would the implications be if atheism were true?
As I raise these questions and draw out the answers in living color, my hope is that the image my atheist friend sees before him will be of a universe he doesn’t want and realizes he doesn’t believe in. My hope is that the logical implications of what he says he believes as an atheist will so contradict what he as the image and likeness of God knows to be true, that it will cause him to think again.
In a future installment, I’ll begin to illustrate what I’m talking about.