I’m a person of very strong faith. There is just not much that brings everything to a full stop and makes me really doubt what I’ve found to be true time and time again about God or His promises. Do I reconsider? Sure. Reevaluate? Constantly! Doubting though…that’s not something I struggle with very often.
There is one thing, however, that really keeps me up at night, wondering about the existence-or at very least-the goodness of God. That one thing is hearing of someone leaving this world while reportedly still an atheist. Stephen Hawking’s death is a particularly startling one, because I’ve read many of his works and took from them a body of evidence that gave me a very strong suspicion that he was in fact a closet believer. (More on that maybe another time.)
What really bothers me about this business of dying an atheist is the fact that faith in a Creator is, at least in part, a deeply selfish act of self-preservation. Many in America feel that Christianity is about being better than someone else, or that it’s a mechanism to help life’s harsh realities be a bit softer. Maybe some do abuse it that way, but I don’t personally know any of those “christians”. The believers I know and love would all tell you the same reason for their faith. We’re all dying of an incurable disease of self and self-centeredness, and there is no hope of waking up from it without the restorative powers of God Himself. Belief in Jesus is self-preservation. We do it because we know that we’re sick, and ultimately dying. Not to help us enjoy this life, but to help us endure after death.
Faith is humanity’s last feeble cry to a God that they find obviously unreachable on their own, but who professes Himself to be good and loving. So we reach for Him, we trust Him to carry us from this life into the next. We lean on Him, we depend on Him and “cast our cares” onto Him, because He is the only hope. Faith in God is not just a selfish act, of course, it’s much, much more, but it really can’t be denied that first and foremost, it’s a profound choice in favor of saving one’s own skin.
So when someone has what appears to be great confidence (but I suppose may turn out to really be great arrogance) about entering the afterlife without a loving God, I take sharp notice. Freud did it. Hawking did it. Sagan did it. Nietzsche did it. Why? Why would they choose death salvation is offered freely? Why alienate their only hope, which comes from a Father who so lovingly pursues?
I finally brought these thoughts to Aaron, and in the way that only he can, he gave the simple reply that the answer I’d been looking for, unastonishingly, was pride. I immediately knew that he was right (and asked myself for a hundredth time why I always wrestle with something so long before asking for his view on it). I should have known, it’s always pride in the end, every sin that ever was. It’s the simple act of saying “I know better than God.”
These famous names, all the ones I’ve listed and so many more, refused to believe in a God that they didn’t understand, Aaron explained. In the bright minds of these people, their own ability to comprehend a thing is what makes the thing believable or unbelievable. To paraphrase CS Lewis though, if God could be fully understood by our finite and clumsy minds, would He really be God to us? No. A God that fits inside the mind of a mortal could only disappoint. So in the end, for these brilliant men, it was their brilliance that deceived them into unbelief. They simply thought too much of themselves, and left no room for God.
Isn’t this metaphorical of the America of today? My understanding, my feelings, my wants, my desires, my regrets, my fears…. All are elevated to a position that is thought so sacred and so worthy of attention that laws are made from it, courts are backed up litigating it, relationships are thrown away, and abuses of liberty are rampant. All because we know best. I shouldn’t be pregnant. My marriage is a mistake. She’s not worthy of reconciliation. My regrets are his responsibility. He’s not my president. I won’t share space with that woman. That was a smug look on that clerk. The waitress brought my food out cold. That child is disturbing my peace.
We throw people away in the most dismissive way in our hearts. It’s who we are. We pay exorbitant amounts of money to throw people away. We spend countless hours, we pursue frivolous lawsuits, we cry and complain until companies bend the knee to our overactive sense of self. We punish all who dare to offend and we alienate those few people who have the courage to speak the truth in love. We block someone out if they say things we don’t like.
My 6-year-old Benjamin, who is especially emotionally driven, covers his ears whenever Aaron or I try to correct him, no matter how loving or how gentle we are. He refuses to hear the truth because, in his own words, “The truth hurts my feelings!!” He is so right. We are too fragile to hear the truth. Are our feelings really more important than solid, stable, reliable truth? Can we continue to bend what’s true to our own sensibilities?
After mulling all of this over for a few weeks, I’ve realized that I was asking the wrong question all along. I never really doubted that God existed or that He was good, but rather how these people could choose such a thing for themselves. So now the real question remains; after a life of throwing away others, wasn’t it really themselves they were regarding as worthless? For who could throw away his own soul, when the alternative of saving it costs him nothing?
Something else I’ve learned through this experience is that every single verse in the Bible is life. That sounds palpably obvious to Christian readers, I know, but if we admit it, we are all guilty of considering this or that passage in Scripture to be “flyover country.” The older I get, and the more I learn about the nature of God and the nature of men, the more I realize that God has made every single verse with the power of life stored inside. “Lean not on your own understanding.” That one was there all along, ready to address the problem of deficit that exists in our ability to comprehend the whole of God’s plan. It’s always been there, stealthily reminding us “Hey, one day you’re going to need this very encouragement. I’m here when you’re ready.”
Or another verse which says “you judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life..” Wow. I didn’t even know about that one until yesterday while I was playing catch-up in the summer reading our church is doing. That one was just sitting there waiting for me to find. Isn’t there life in that verse? When I read it, I see God teaching us that even in not choosing, we are still choosing. We judge ourselves worthy or unworthy of eternity. Powerful freedom there.
How about Romans 1:25? “They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself…” What does that mean? I think it speaks to the illusions that we so easily convince ourselves of.
At least one of you reading this worships sex, even though it’s a created thing, unworthy of your worship. You don’t even realize that it’s a kind of worship, but it is. Has sex been elevated to such a position of priority that other decisions are secondary to it? Does your living arrangement or your very beliefs about God submit to your sexual desires?
Someone else worships nature, even though its sole purpose (which it fulfills brilliantly) is to reveal the invisible attributes of God (Rom 1:20), not to become God itself. Nature is a part of this creation, and it deserves our respect in caring for it, but it isn’t sacred. It does not bear the image of God, it only gives witness of Him. So we protect it, and we preserve it, and we give thanks for all it does for us. But we do not go to it for restoration and we certainly can’t put hope in its ability to carry us from this life to the next.
Lastly, most of us can say we’ve been guilty of worshiping the self, and prioritizing our own agenda above things that there can be no doubt belong higher. I once saw authentic love described as “seeking the highest good of others,” but oh it’s so hard to place someone else’s good above my own. Now we’re back to “my feelings, my needs…”
The beginning of wisdom is saying I care less about my own thoughts and opinions and more about what God thinks. This belief is why you’ll never catch Aaron or myself at a Bible study that does not ask about the mind and the intentions and the heart of God. If God is the originator of everything, than His thoughts and His ways are the ONLY ones that count. I must submit my own understanding to His. My heart is hopelessly wicked and incurable. It’s unstable, and it knows no truth apart from what it wants. Despite knowing the disease of my own heart, I find safety and comfort in following my heart. It thinks it knows best. And so I dabble with atheism myself, without realizing, and I have seasons where I pretend that I am God. That’s when things go badly.
Ultimately I always return to the place where I need God to right my ship and give me a true heading. And with God as my compass, I can safely turn away from my own understandings, and follow THE Truth; the only living Truth who has a demonstrated ability to protect and preserve the one part of me that’s worth saving – my soul.
I’d like to share a lengthy but worthy quote from Max Lucado:
Paul was writing to Corinthian Christians, people who had been schooled in the Greek philosophy of a shadowy afterlife. Someone was convincing them that corpses couldn’t be raised, neither theirs nor Christ’s. The apostle couldn’t bear such a thought. “Let me go over the Message with you one final time” (1 Cor. 15:1 MSG). With the insistence of an attorney in closing arguments, he reviewed the facts: “[ Jesus] was raised from death on the third day… he presented himself alive to Peter… his closest followers… more than five hundred of his followers… James… the rest of those he commissioned… and… finally… to me” (1 Cor. 15:4–8 MSG).
Line up the witnesses, he offered. Call them out one by one. Let each person who saw the resurrected Christ say so. Better pack a lunch and clear your calendar, for more than five hundred testifiers are willing to speak up.
Do you see Paul’s logic? If one person claimed a post-cross encounter with Christ, disregard it. If a dozen people offered depositions, chalk it up to mob hysteria. But fifty people? A hundred? Three hundred? When one testimony expands to hundreds, disbelief becomes belief. Paul knew, not handfuls, but hundreds of eyewitnesses. Peter. James. John. The followers, the gathering of five hundred disciples, and Paul himself. They saw Jesus. They saw him physically.
They saw him factually. They didn’t see a phantom or experience a sentiment. Grave eulogies often include such phrases as “She’ll live on forever in my heart.” Jesus’ followers weren’t saying this. They saw Jesus “in the flesh.” When he appeared to the disciples, he assured them, “It is I myself!” (Luke 24:39 NIV).
Five hundred witnesses left a still-resounding testimony: It’s SAFE to die.
It’s safe to die. What an outlandish statement! Death….What could ever make it safe? I wouldn’t dare try to make that crossing on my own power. Who’s power then? Who has authority over death? We must be talking unfathomable power, more than we could ever grasp with our minds.
Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I don’t know about Stephen Hawking, but there is no way I’m finishing this ride without putting my faith in someone who Himself has first defeated death. To do so would be to judge myself unworthy of God’s best, and if I look to my own understanding, it’s easy to lean that way. But it’s God who says I am loved, I am wanted, I have been spared for a purpose. I am worthy of eternity, and so is Stephen Hawking. I hope I meet him there.