THE ATHEIST AND THE CHRISTIAN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Peter 3:15
8-23-70 10:50 a.m.
We are your debtors, glorious and beautiful, angelic, seraphic choir. My, you look wonderful, just like the pastor. Ah! About a week ago our deacons voted to take this choir loft and run it up to the balcony on each side. I came to church this morning expecting to see it done. It is just like it was. I said to Lee Roy, “I do not understand you. We have been looking forward to this for twenty-six years. It is been voted. Come down here to church, not a thing done, just like it was.” So I have been looking at Lee Roy, and I know exactly what is the matter with him. He is so enamored with that Hong Kong suit that he has got on he has forgotten the work of the Lord. I tell you.
O dear wonderful choir, just like heaven to come down here and see you and listen to you sing. And on the radio and on television, you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Atheist and the Christian. In the third chapter of 1 Peter, verse 15: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you; do it with meekness and reverential fear” [1 Peter 3:15].
The sermon arises out of a long period of thought and meditation, turning over in my heart some of these things that I see and hear. Several months ago, as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I made a journey to Alaska. They asked me to visit some of the associations in Alaska. And being on the frontier and the work being difficult, it was thought that I might be able to encourage our brethren, if I would take the time for the trek.
Well, in the providence of God, in the long journey up there, the man who sat next to me in the airplane is a Belgian. He is a Belgian industrialist. He was going to Alaska looking, probing the possibilities of an expansion of his Belgian company in that vast expanse. Being seated by him for hours and hours, we entered a long conversation. He is an atheist. His father was an atheist. He was brought up in an atheistic home. His wife is an atheist. All of his children are atheists. And as he described the home in which he was reared and as he described his own home, he did it with a tone and a feeling of triumph.
He described for me their happiness in their atheism. They are unfettered. They are free. They have proudly, he says, no religious responsibilities. He doesn’t carry with him a load of old medieval theology. He has been liberated from all of the fetters and manacles and chains that bind down the soul and the spirit to some kind of a superstitious belief in a God. He is an atheist. And he described for me in great detail how happy they are.
Well, listening to him for hours and talking to him, as you can see, it made an impression upon me. Then as I went around the world in this recent journey, so much of this world and so many of its multitudinous peoples, if they are not blatant atheists as that man, that Belgian, they are practical atheists; God has no place in their lives. They leave Him out in government, in civic life, domestic personal life, business life. They are practical atheists and, of course, many multitudes of them statedly so. All of that has brought to my heart thoughts, reflections, meditations; so the sermon, The Atheist and the Christian.
As I open the Bible, one would suppose there would be great dissertations on a subject like that. God Himself would expatiate on those who are unbelievers and God deniers and atheists. Surely, there would be much in this sacred Book concerning those who scoff and ridicule and scorn all of us who look to heaven in faith. But as I turn to the Bible and I pore over its pages seeking revelations and discussions and dissertations concerning atheism, I find it is not mentioned. It is not referred to. It is never discussed.
The one exception is a few words, a part of a verse in the fourteenth Psalm, and a part of a verse repeating the same words in the fifty-third Psalm. And I read the entire reference and the entire revelation of God’s Word concerning the atheist. You’re going to listen to it now, the whole thing in God’s entire Book concerning the atheist, Psalm 14:1: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God”; and that’s all. The Lord dismisses it. He never refers to it. He never discusses it. All that He says in the whole Book, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” the fool.
Why should the Almighty call a man who is an atheist, an unbeliever, a God rejecter, why does God call him a fool? “The fool hath said in his heart, There is not any God” [Psalm 14:1]. Well, as you think of it, you turn it over in your mind and heart, some things become immediately evident. They’re written like sky writing over the horizon. “The fool,” God says he’s a fool. One of the reasons; he elevates himself into a deified egotism that staggers the imagination. He says, “There is no God.” Then that means he would have to be everywhere at the same time. He would have to be omnipresent because in a place that he is not, in that place there might be God. Ah! Isn’t that unusual? He says, “There is no God.”
There was a preacher who put an ad in the paper. He would give anybody a thousand dollars if they’d show a mistake, an error in the Bible. And one of the fellows claimed it. He said, “There’s not any Flood. There never was a Flood.” Well, the preacher said, “The Book says there is a Flood, and I believe it.” And this man said, “There is no evidence there was ever a Flood.” Well, the preacher didn’t give him his thousand dollars, so they took it to a New York court. And the fellow sued the preacher for the thousand dollars. So it came to trial. The judge called the court to order, and the plaintiff stated his case; “There is no Flood, never was a Flood, and the Bible says there is, so that’s an error in the Bible.” So the judge asked him, “You say there is no Flood. There was no Flood. Were you there?”
“No,” said the man, “I wasn’t there.”
“Well, how do you know that there was no Flood?”
Well, the man said, “I read in a book where that man said there wasn’t any Flood.” And the judge asked him, “Was he there?”
“No,” said the fellow, “no, he wasn’t there either.”
“Well then that’s hearsay evidence. We can’t admit that. We can’t admit that. How do you know there wasn’t a Flood?”
“Well, blah, blah, blah, blah, that’s how come we know there wasn’t a Flood, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And the judge dismissed it as silly.
He’d have to be everywhere at the same time to say there is no God. For in the place that he isn’t and hasn’t been, God might be there. “The fool,” God says, oh the sublime, divine egotism into which he elevates himself. Look, he’d have to be all wise. He’d have to be all knowledgeable. He’d have to be omniscient because in an area of knowledge that he didn’t know, God might be there. Hmm.
He would have to know all of the agents in the universe, acquainted with all of the forces that move, and thrust, and create, and exist in the universe, because if he did not know all of the agencies of the universe, one of those agents that he might not know, could be God. And he would have to be eternal. He would have to have lived through all of the eons of eternity because had he not lived through all of the ages and eons of eternity, in one of those ages and in one of those eons, there could have been God. What is it? “The fool hath said in his heart.” He precludes, he obviates the possibility of a deity because he deifies himself. You can’t have two deities.
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1]. He blinds himself, volitionally, willingly, he blinds himself to the whole world of reality around him. A man who lived back yonder in the Old Testament lifted up his eyes and looked at the world around him, and he says, “The heavens declare something. They say something. The stars speak something. The whole earth and the creation above it, around it says something.” What does it say? That psalmist said, “The heavens declare, they publish abroad the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His lacework, His tatting, the work of His fingers” [Psalm 19:1].
It is undeniable, the factual realities that are all around us. There is motion. There is movement, but somewhere, sometime there has to be a first starter. For anything that moves, has been thrust and somewhere, sometime there is a great unmoved Mover. This universe is like a clock that is wound up, and it’s running down. When you use the energy in say, gasoline, you don’t put it back. It deteriorates into lower elements. When you use the energy in an atomic fissionary piece of material, you don’t put it back. It’s gone down into baser elements.
The whole universe is like that. The sun is burning out, energy, the whole universe is like a clock, giant, somebody wound up, and it’s been running down ever since. Who wound it up? Somewhere there has to be a great mover, a great first cause. The whole world is governed by the law of cause and effect. There’s no effect without a cause. There’s no effect without a cause. There’s no effect without a cause. Wherever there is an effect, something caused it. Wherever anything is, or happens, something caused it. Go back and back and back, and somewhere there has to be an uncaused cause. Everything is an expression of existence of being, and everything is contingent upon somebody else or something else, contingent upon this contingent, upon this contingent, upon this contingent. And the whole creation is a series of contingencies. But somewhere there is a being against which all contingencies do live and lean.
This is a world of moral sensitivity. But if there is any goodness somewhere, there has to be an ultimate standard of goodness. And that ultimate standard is in the great absolute holiness and purity and righteousness of God. And we live in a world of design. It is unmistakable. The world is ordered. The Greeks called it a cosmos, from kosmeō, “to beautify”; cosmetics, cosmos, the beauty of the order of the universe. And the Greeks called it a kosmos. There is evidence of design, law, pattern, control in everything that moves in the universe.
But there’s no such a thing as design without a designer. No building ever came to pass without the mind of an architect and a contractor to fabricate it. If there is design and pattern in the universe, somewhere there has to be a mind, a thinker, a designer: the great Almighty Creator. And the world is filled with beauty; beauty for no purpose at all. What utilitarian usefulness is a sunset? For what good are the colors in a rainbow? Of what purpose is the emerald of a meadow? It is filled with beauty; the piling up of the clouds and the reflection of the sun against their fleecy tufted surfaces, for what good? No good. It could have all been a dull gray, and been just as effective; but beautiful, breathtaking, oh!
I copied from Longfellow’s “The Manuscripts of God”:
And Nature, the old nurse, took the child upon her knee,
Saying, Here is a storybook my Father hath writ for thee
Come, wonder with me, she said, in regions yet untrod
And read what is still unread in the manuscripts of God
God’s handiwork, God’s writing, God’s poems. Isn’t that an unusual word? The Greek word for “doing,” poems, God’s poems, God’s writing in the sky.
And yet, he [the atheist] can’t see it. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God;
but only he who sees takes off his shoes.
[from “Arora Leigh,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning]
Everywhere, but like a clod, dull, and blind, and buried in the muck and the mire, they can’t see. Like the dog in his kennel, utterly oblivious of the sky above him; like the cow grazing in the meadow, utterly unaware of the beauty of the world around him. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1].
And not only the world of God’s handiwork, publishing His glory [Psalm 19:1], but the world on the inside of me; I look on the inside of me, and I find somebody, me, lives in this house of mud and clay. I am. Oh, the glory of personality, the throbbing of life, of living! And I turn to the Book. God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness” [Genesis 1:26]. “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” [Genesis 1:27]. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” [Genesis 2:7]; throbbing with life, intense, vibrant, quickened [Ephesians 2:1-8], all here on the inside. You can think.
I am morally sensitive. I can choose. I know right from wrong, like God. I can feel like God. I can be hurt. I can be grieved. I can be filled with love and every wonderful response; personality, life, God’s life, made in the image of the Almighty [Genesis 1:27]. But the fool hath said in his heart, “Why, there’s no such image. There’s no such life, and there’s no such mighty Creator, and there’s no such God.” When he marries, it’s like a jungle mating. It has no holy significance. It has no spiritual meaning. When he marries, there’s no God to bless, no holy sanctity to the vow, like a cat mates, like a dog mates.
And so much of modern education presents it like that. They even use illustrations, for these children, of chickens mating and dogs mating. And they have pictures of a man and a woman under a sheet and say, “They’re doing the same thing”; just like animals. There’s not any God to them. So marriage is a jungle mating. It’s an alley cat relationship. Oh, how different!
“And the Lord God said, It is not good for the man that he live alone; and He made for him an help meet” [Genesis 2:18, 21-22], the last and the crowning creation: the woman. And there in the Paradise of Eden our heavenly Father hallowed and sanctified our first home. And the Lord God performed the first marriage ceremony, and the Lord God gave the first bride away [Genesis 2:22]. And when the man looked upon her, he said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh [Genesis 2:23]. And God said, Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife; and they two shall be one flesh” [Genesis 2:24]. Ah, it’s a different world.
And when death comes, “The fool hath said in his heart, Why, there is no God.” And when death comes, the child dies, he buries the little thing out of his sight. It’s just one more piece of animality! Just put it in the dirt. Bury it in the ground; no purpose, no meaning, no God, no immortality, no anything except dirt, corruption, and death. The child dies. Bury it away. Put it in the dirt. How does anybody stand at the tombs and the graves of his fathers and not ask himself, “Surely, surely, there is something beyond the age, the grief, and the death of this life. Surely, somebody is up there in the sky. And surely, there’s another world and a better one. There’s another life and a finer one, surely there is God.” “But the fool hath said in his heart, There is not any God. There’s no one to take the problem of your soul and lay it before Him. There’s nobody to pray to. There’s nobody to listen. There’s nobody up there who knows or who cares, or even who exists. And all of the decisions that we make in life, all of the impulses that sweep through our souls, they have no purpose and no meaning. Whatever decision you make, it’s immaterial.”
I remember a banker, he was interviewing men to work in his bank, and he had an especially place of trust. He found out the young man making an application for the job didn’t believe in God. And the banker said, “I don’t want a man in this place of trust that doesn’t believe in God.” You see, the atheist is his own standard of goodness of what’s right and wrong. The atheist is his own model of what is righteous. He just makes his own decision, he makes his own mind, and he could change that mind, any day, any hour, any time. He may say today, “I want to be honest.” Tomorrow he might find it more convenient to be an embezzler.
But a man who believes in God and has given his life to God, believes that above any banker, or any executive, or any officer of the law, or any legislature that makes the law, he believes that there’s a great Almighty “I Am” [Exodus 3:14], to whom he is accountable, to whom he is chargeable, and he lives his life as unto the Lord [Colossians 3:23-24]. He’s not honest because he’s afraid of being in jail; he’s not honest because it pays; he’s not trying to do right because he thinks it’ll profit him: but he’s honest, and he tries to do right, and he walks in rectitude because of his faith and his belief in God. He is what he is because God is what He is.
We must hasten. Not only things beyond me, God’s lacework, the beautiful work of His fingers [Psalm 19:1], and not only the life inside of me, a throbbing, quickened being that can feel and respond, but a deep and spiritual sensitivity, a quickening soul. My father was a Christian man. I’m so grateful. Not a great man in the eyes of the world, but a humble man, a God fearing man. In the shop, ten thousand times have I come in, by himself, no customer there, reading the Word of God.
Never the church open but that he was there, singing in the choir, at prayer meeting, in the services of the Lord. I’m so grateful. My mother was a Christian woman. We were brought up in the love and nurture of the Lord [Ephesians 6:4]. I’m so grateful. The Christian faith was second nature. It had a place in our every day’s living.
Christmas, oh! what a happy time, Christmas. Eyes of a little boy get so big! Christmas, celebrating when God came down to this earth, when the Word was made flesh [John 1:14], Christmas [Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 2:8-16], singing, what songs of joy, Christmas. But not to the atheist: foolishness, mockery, ridiculous, inane, Christmas. Not only the happiness of Christmas, but Easter. I was taught that every Sunday was Easter; not just once a year, but we met on the first day of the week because it was on that day that the Lord triumphed over death and the grave [Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-7].
And every Sunday was a celebration; it was Easter one day every week! And we sang songs again, songs of immortality, and glory, and victory, and triumph; Easter, the resurrection. And in those services, O dear Lord, far back as I can remember, those services, and in one of those services, I gave my heart to Jesus. And in one of those services, this one out under a tent, I gave my life to be a preacher. The spiritual happiness, meaning; the overflowing gladness of being with the people of the Lord.
Now I close. I realize that all of the arguments a magician could marshal in the earth would not convince a man of the Lord. He’s not won by argument. The only way a man comes to know God is in the experience of regeneration. Without that new birth, no man can see God [John 3:3-7]. The natural man doesn’t know the Lord, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “For the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” I realize that argument doesn’t convince a man of the Lord. There has to come a divine enlightenment [1 Corinthians 2:14].
There is no surer illustration of the spiritual depravity of the fallen man than this; that he’s down, and his eyes are earthward, and he can’t see God. His eyes must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit. His heart must be quickened by the presence of the Lord [Ephesians 2:1-9]. He has to be made alive; otherwise, he’s dull like a clock, or he’s an animal like a dog. God has to speak to him. But, oh dear! When a man opens his heart toward that spiritual wisdom, and his mind is illuminated with that divine enlightenment, oh dear, what a fullness, what an abundance, “My cup runneth over” [Psalm 23:5].
I know not how that Bethlehem’s Babe
Could in the Godhead be,
I only know the manger Child
Has brought God’s life to me.
I know not how that Calvary’s cross
A world from sin could free,
I only know its matchless love
Has brought God’s love to me.
I know not how that Joseph’s tomb
Could solve death’s mystery,
I only know a living Christ
Brought my immortality.
[“Our Christ,” Harry Webb Farrington]
I can’t explain, nor can I justify by human argument. I just know that when God came into my heart and my life the whole world is a new world.
And I love this other world. I don’t like it out there. I don’t like it. I don’t like their dirty jokes. I don’t like their filthy language. I don’t like their compromised living. I don’t like their worldliness and their godlessness. I don’t like it. In Macao, I was in one of the most beautiful places you ever saw. It’s the gambling casino of Red China. I never saw a plush hotel so plush. Even in Monte Carlo, I never saw a gambling arena so luxurious. And I walked among those people.
If I had the world and everything that’s in it, I wouldn’t expend it with all that it has to offer me in exchange, I wouldn’t do it. I love the things of the Lord: that Book, these hymns, this fellowship, these people. And if I have any choice, as long as God gives me breath, my choice is with the people of the Lord. I love when Sunday comes. I love coming to God’s house; I love seated here with you, the family, the deacons, the choir, the staff, the sweet people whom I have come to know and love so well.
I love Thy kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The church our blest Redeemer saved
With His own precious blood.
I love Thy church, O God,
Her walls before Thee stand,
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
And graven on Thy hand.
For her my tears shall fall,
For her my prayers ascend,
To her my toil and cares be given,
Till toils and cares shall end.
[“I Love Thy Kingdom,” Timothy Dwight]
I love the people of the Lord. That’s something God puts in our souls.
We’ve far spent our time. In a moment we shall stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and a family you, to come and to join with us in this ministry, would you make it now? Would you do it now? In the balcony round, you, there’s time and to spare; on this lower floor, into that aisle and down to the front, would you make it now? Two of you, one of you, the whole family you, “Here we are, pastor, we’re coming now.” As the Spirit of Jesus shall press the appeal to your heart, come. Make the decision now. Turn to your wife. “Wife, let’s go”; to the children, “Let’s all go.” You, make the decision now, and in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming. “Here I am, pastor, today.” Do it. While we stand and while we sing.