Monday, May 16, 2011

Billboard Atheism

This is the city.  Westminster, California.  The location: Beach Blvd. and 19th Street.  The following names are fictitious, but the stories they tell are real.
Charles: Hey, did you hear the good news?
Lewis: No, what’s that?
Charles: We just put up a brand-spanking new billboard in Westminster.
Lewis: Who are “we?”
Charles: Oh, the Orange County Coalition for Reason, a local atheist organization.  We’re showing our support for all the non-theists who might drive by. 
Lewis: I’m not sure that exists.
Charles: Well, I’ve got the evidence right here; it’s right around the corner.
Lewis (looking up at the billboard): Well, how do you think it got here?  It doesn’t appear to have been a product of random chance and natural selection.
Charles: Well, of course not; it was professionally designed and only for around $6,000.
Lewis: Apparently, even an atheist’s billboard can’t explain its own existence.
            Snarky as it is, the brief discussion above summarizes the worldviews of those around us: one side (or many) says, “God exists;” the other says, “there is no God.”  Having a meaningful discussion about anything by means of a billboard is like trying to talk to a wookie without Han Solo around; something is always lost in translation.  Most billboards entice you to buy, sell, trade, or believe in something or someone.  But now in Westminster (and several other U.S cities.) atheists (ahem, non-theists for all you politically correct folks) are inviting people to join them in their unbelief.  “Don’t believe in God?  You are not alone” – brought to you by the Orange County Coalition for Reason (OCCoR). 
            Ironic as it sounds, various forms of “atheist evangelism” are increasingly common, from the respectful to the antagonistic.  Recall the Atheist of America slogan this past Christmas: “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.” Atheism is progressively becoming a part of daily life for Christians who previously had little or no contact with unbelievers of any stripe, let alone the more vocal, and in some cases arrogant, voices of modern atheism (such as the New Atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris).  It’s time for Christians to get back to the discussion table – not via billboards or e-mails, but by way of serious, academic, scholarly debate (and popular level apologetics too, i.e. Josh McDowell).
            Atheist turned theist, Antony Flew, once commented that, “The person who claims that there is a God has the burden of proof to show that that’s the case.  However the difficulty with trying to put the burden of proof on the atheist is that it is impossible to prove a negative and therefore that makes us rather smug.”  He’s right on both accounts.  The active burden of proof rests entirely upon the person who asserts God’s existence.  And in the case of historic, orthodox Christianity, this is an assertion and burden we gladly ought to accept, invite and defend with the preponderance of archaeological, historical and empirical evidence on our side. 
            But before we can answer the existence question in more detail, how should Christians react to this billboard (or other kinds of atheist “outreach”)?  Initially, there are a few problems with the sign, logically speaking.  For one thing, if you think God doesn’t exist, why spend so much time, energy and money to attack a God you don’t believe in anyway?
            But more importantly, who is the sign referring to?  Which “God” are we talking about here?  There is no generic “God” appealed to by all religions.  They’re not all the same, you know.  It is entirely possible that all the world’s religions could be false, but they simply cannot all be true; that’s a logical impossibility.  They believe, teach and confess mutually contradictory propositions of truth.
            And lastly, the sign is a claim to truth.  But is it true?  Is there any evidence to suggest that God does exist and if so, is the evidence worth looking at and investigating?  And that is something that can’t be advertised on a billboard.  Maybe you’ve seen these things and you’ve been offended, become angry, disgusted, or even laughed and shrugged it off. 
            Some have even gone so far as to say, “If I had it my way, I’d ban these kinds of signs.”  Really?  Is that the best course of action?  Hardly.  Since when is it beneficial to Christianity silence her opponents?  Christians need to be ambidextrous in handling this issue.  In the kingdom of God’s left-hand rule (His use of government and rule of law) – at least here in the United States - billboards, books, etc. are protected under the first amendment.  And that is a good thing.  It frees the Church (God’s right-hand rule/kingdom) to proclaim the Gospel clearly.  Christians are afforded the same access to free speech that the atheist is.  The very minute Christians use legal means to ban or enforce policy against atheist’s signs, the next minute those same laws will be turned on Christians.
            “Alright, then; let’s get some eggs and toilet paper and go junior high on that sign!”  Really?  Defacing property is never a good idea.  It can get you in serious legal trouble, not to mention, it’s wildly Pharisaical.  How many Christian church signs and buildings have been tagged, vandalized or mutilated?  In this life, the Kingdom of God suffers violence, but she ought not to return violence on her enemies.  And while we are in the Church Militant, this means we fight with the Sword of the Spirit, not spray-paint bottles and fresh, free-range extra-large eggs.
            How, then, do we discuss the Christian faith with those who claim to be atheists or agnostics?  By their own admission, the OCCoR is “a collection of atheist, free-thought and humanist groups working together to increase awareness of non-theist issues and foster community among members.”  So, in theory, or at least on their web statement, these particular atheists are open to discussing free-thought.  Now, I must warn you.  Many of the atheists I’ve spoken to that have claimed the to be open-minded really mean something entirely different by “free-thought” and open-mindedness.  It is possible for one to be so open minded their brains fall out; and on the other hand, “free-thought” ends up effectively meaning: “I’m a free thinker, in so far as your philosophical assumptions, presuppositions and scientific theories line up with mine; otherwise you are the narrow, dull-minded one.”
            As I mentioned earlier, this is a discussion Christians should gladly welcome.  And you should never walk into a discussion unprepared.  Remember, Jesus never called you to check your brain at the door, nor is He asking you to make a wager or take a blind leap of faith into the dark.  He has called you into faith, a life-giving faith fixed in Christ Crucified, His Word and Sacraments and history.  And that faith continues to seek the truth of God’s Word; in other words, don’t let your “Sword-of-the-Spirit-skills” become rusty.  Read. Mark. Learn. Inwardly digest – not only the Scriptures, but books and resources that will equip and prepare you to declare and defend the truth in any situation.
            “So, where do I start?”  1 Peter 3 gives us some good advice: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
            That little word, defense (apologia), is the root word for apologetics.  This is where the evidence language comes in.  That’s why lawyers make such fantastic Christian apologists.  And, thankfully (almost like it was designed this way) there is evidence for God everywhere you look.  There is a multiplicity of arguments for God’s existence:
            There is the Cosmological argument.  Everything is in motion and movement, cause and effect.  Therefore, there must be a “Prime Mover” or “First Cause.”  However, this might only lead to a Divine Billiard Player.
            There is the classic Ontological argument, espoused by Anselm. “God is than which no greater exists. In consequence, God possesses all properties.  Existence is a property.  Therefore, God exists.”  Besides any fallacies involved here, please let me know when that makes sense and you can teach me what in the world that means.
            In recent years, the Teleological argument has been gaining ground through the Intelligent Design movement.  To be fair, this is not creationism (that’s something entirely different).  Essentially the universe exhibits every characteristic of order and complexity and therefore must have a designer.  But this ultimately yields nothing other than a Divine Watch Maker.  This is not to say that Intelligent Design lacks strength.  Much has been written by scientists such as, Michael Behe, in this field.  Through studies in molecular biology he has coined the term irreducible complexity to explain the evidence of design in molecules and in DNA coding (the blue-prints of life).  All of this would have been astronomically improbable to have occurred through random chance and natural selection, no matter the length of time.  Never mind the side-bar discussion that evolutionary theory can become every bit as much of a religion as a fundamentalist fill-in-the-blank; and evolutionary theorists can (and in many cases, are) every bit as zealous as their religious arch enemies they so often decry.
            There is also the Contingency argument.  In other words, nothing explains its own existence (including billboards and Big Bang theories).  Therefore, ultimately an absolute, non-contingent, existent God must be regarded as the final explanation of a world where everything is contingent.
            And lastly (for now), the Moral argument.  C.S. Lewis takes this line of argumentation in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity.  If you want to know to know where the objective categories of right and wrong come from you must have a transcendent God who establishes such rule and law, otherwise right and wrong are left to subjective means of interpretation.  Or think of it as the Law above the law.
            To be sure, these arguments have their place in the apologetic task.  However, the trouble with all of these arguments (and there are plenty others) is twofold. First of all, they are, at best, corroborating evidence to the main point: that God has entered history and taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, claimed to be God and backed this up by dying and rising from the dead and then appearing to over 500 witnesses afterwards.  That’s where apologetics ought to begin and end.  And secondly, knowing or believing in a generic “God” gets you no closer to Jesus Crucified for sinners than knowing Swedish actually helps you understand an IKEA instruction manual.  A generic “God” gets you nowhere theologically speaking.  Theism is not Christianity.  Sadly, there will probably be a lot of good theists in hell.  For “Even the demons believe, fear and tremble” (James 2:19).

            The danger is to stop with the arguments for God’s existence and never get to the Gospel.  In fact, Christianity is not primarily concerned with proving God’s existence.  Even though the evidence for Christianity, over and above, outweighs the evidence against it.  Christianity is primarily concerned with proclaiming “that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  That is the good news that was preached to them and us.  And Jesus says to His disciples, “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father.”  That is why everything in Scripture, and hopefully in Christian apologetics and evangelism, points to and centers upon Jesus Christ, Crucified and Risen whose life and work is testified to by the faithful and historically reliable witness of the Scriptures, the eye-witness of the disciples, apostles in the Church, in history and hostile witnesses outside of the Church in antiquity, and who was seen by James and Peter and over 500 other witness after His resurrection. 
            Jesus is the best evidence, not only for the existence of God, but also for the truth of Christianity.  Jesus believed in God and claimed to be nothing other than God almighty come in human flesh and He backed that claim up by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.  And he does it all for you.  Don’t believe in God?  You are not alone; Jesus still died for you.
Here are a few good resources to get you started:
·         The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel, Zondervan.
·         The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel, Craig Parton, CPH.
·         Religion on Trial, Craig Parton, Wipf and Stock.
·         History, Law and Christianity, John W. Montgomery.
·         The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? F.F. Bruce, Eerdmans.

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