THE ATHEIST AND THE CHRISTIAN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Peter 3:15
8-23-70 8:15 a.m.
On the radio, you who listen to KIXL at this hour 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, and do it with meekness and fear,” with reverent humility [1 Peter 3:15].
The message comes out of several months of turning over in my mind and heart, and before God, a long and extended conversation on an airplane from Dallas to Anchorage, Alaska. Changed planes at Seattle, and in the unusual providence of the Lord, I sat by a Belgian, a well-to-do industrialist from Brussels; a very able, apparently affluent, and certainly an intellectually brilliant man.
He announced to me with seeming pride that he was an atheist. And in the long, long discussion, hours and hours that followed, his father was an atheist. He was brought up in an atheist’s home. He proudly was an atheist. His wife, he said, is an atheist and all of their children––and they have several children, he described––all of his children are atheists. He depicted to me a life unencumbered with old, medieval theological baggage. He has no religious responsibilities at all. He is unfettered. He is free. He is liberated. And he described to me a happy life without God, without Christ, without the church, without any form of faith. He is an atheist.
In this recent journey, either atheists or practical atheists seemingly dominate the world. Those who are spiritually minded, who have deference and reference for the things of God, who love our Lord Jesus in truth, who worship in His name, who assemble with the saints are in a small, tiny minority. So these things have found repercussion in my own heart; I think of them and the people and those who embrace such persuasion.
When I turn to the Word of God, to my great surprise the Lord doesn’t mention it. Isn’t that an astonishing thing? You would suppose that here in this Holy Book there would be page after page after page concerning the atheists, those who deny the reality and the presence of God. It’s never discussed. There’s only one reference to it, just one. It happens to be repeated twice. In the fourteenth Psalm, and the first verse; in the fifty-third Psalm and the first verse; the only reference that the Bible makes to such a doctrine and persuasion as that is this: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1].
Not another time is it mentioned or referred to, much less discussed. God dismisses them. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Why does the Lord so summarily dismiss the whole mass of doctrinal persuasion that denies His reality and presence? “The fool,” and that’s all. As I turn it over in my mind, oh there is so much to be said. And for a few minutes, we shall say some of it this morning: the atheist and the Christian.
The fool denies God. He arrogates to himself an infinitely elevated egotism. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1]. To avow that and to be persuaded of that is to deify yourself. Look, for one to say that and believe that, he would have to be everywhere and at the same time. He would have to be omnipresent because in some place that he is not, in that place there might be God. Again, he would have to be all wise. He would have to know all things. He would have to be omniscient because if he did not know all things and if he were not omniscient, in some area of knowledge that he didn’t know, in that area there might be God.
He would have to know all of the agents that move in this universe, for if he did not know all the agencies in the universe, one of those agents that he did not know might be God. He would have to be eternal. He would have to have been present and to live in all of the endless eons and ages of time because in one of those ages in which he did not live, in that age there might be God. “The fool, the fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1]. He deifies himself, therefore obliterates the possibility of another deity. He makes a god out of himself.
Not only that, but he, if he is honest, is baffled by the realities that we see in life and in all the created universe around us, for material reality is factual. You can look at it. You can weigh it. You can study it. You can reduce it to mathematical formulae. It is all wonderfully ordered and follows certain definite patterns and designs and laws. And you can look at it for yourself, material realities. As the psalmist says in Psalm 19 and the first verse, the heavens say something, and the whole starry universe says something, and our world, multi-faceted, means something. The psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His lacework, His handiwork” [Psalm 19:1], what God has done with His fingers.
“The fool says in his heart, There is no God.” “The fool”—why do the Scriptures dismiss him a fool? One of the facts of reality is motion, motion. But motion is caused by motion, motion is caused by motion, and somewhere there has to be a great unmoved Mover. The whole creation is filled with cause and effect. There’s no escaping that universal law. Every effect has a cause. Every effect has a cause. Every effect has a cause, has a cause, has a cause, until finally, somewhere there has to be an uncaused cause.
There is actuality in the universe, being in the universe, but all things are contingent upon other things. And these contingencies lean upon those contingencies, which in turn look to these contingencies, and somewhere there has to be some Being upon which all contingencies lean. There is moral sensitivity in the universe. But if there is goodness and morality, ethics, righteousness, somewhere there must be a standard of goodness, a standard of righteousness. And that absoluteness of goodness and perfection is found in the great good One.
There is design in the universe. It unmistakably shows pattern. Any building you ever saw was born in the mind of a man who thought it out, who saw it in his mind. And the workmen who contrived it and made it; it is definitely built after a pattern, a design. The design in this universe is in evidence everywhere. There is order in it. There is law in it. There is pattern in it. All of that means that somewhere there is a great thinker, a great designer, a great pattern maker. There is beauty in the universe. What utilitarian purpose is a sunset? For what good are the colors of a rainbow? Why should the meadows be emerald? Why should the clouds pile up so beautifully reflecting the light of God’s sun in the heavens? Why isn’t everything just a dull gray? God’s hand upon it all. I copied from Longfellow his, “The Manuscripts of God”:
And Nature, the old nurse,
Took the child upon her knee
Saying, Here is a story book
My Father hath writ for thee,
Come, wander with me, she said,
In regions yet untrod
And read what is still unread,
In the manuscripts of God
The handwriting of the Lord, the manuscripts of God in the whole created universe.
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1], and the Lord dismisses it. Once again, not only do I think and speak of the actualities, the realities, the materialities that show His handiwork and presence, but I look in myself. Beyond animality, beyond materiality, there is something other in this world. And there is something other in me. I can sense it. I can feel it. I can live it. It is a throbbing life. And I turn to the Word of the Lord: “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]. Or again, “And God said, Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness . . . So God created the man in His own image, in the image of God created He him, male and female created He them” [Genesis 1:26-27], in the image of God.
Personality; I have self-consciousness and volitional moral choice; God in me. I have feeling as God can feel. I can be grieved and hurt. I can be filled with joy and love. I can respond. My life is like a harp, and you can play chords on my very soul. I will respond. Not a clod, I’m not. Not an animal, I’m not. Inside of me there is a living soul, made, created, after the likeness of God. “The fool hath said in his heart, There’s not any God…and there is no such thing as personality made in the image of the Lord.” Therefore, when he marries, when he marries, there’s no God to sanctify, to hallow, or to bless. To him it is an animal union. It could be like a jungle mating. It has no sanctity. There’s no holiness. There’s no God to bless. So he mates in the same animal way as the cats, the dogs. “There’s no God.”
When I think of marriage, when God made the first man and placed him in the garden of Eden, He said, “It is not good that he live alone. And He made for him,” He made for him, “an help meet” [Genesis 2:18]; the last and the crowning creation, the woman [Genesis 2:21-22]. And there in the Paradise of Eden, the Lord hallowed and sanctified our first home. Marriage is of God. It is an ordinance of heaven. God Himself performed the first marriage ceremony, and God Himself 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], God.
Or death: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1]; so when death comes, it’s a piece of animality he’s burying away. His child dies. It is nothing. It is nothing. There’s no meaning. There’s no purpose. There’s no God. So bury the child as you would bury a cat that’s been run over in the street, or a dog that’s been poisoned. Just put it in the ground. It is nothing for there’s no God, or reason, or purpose. Just bury the thing out of your sight. It has no meaning, just an animal, just a piece of mortality. Who has not stood at the tombs of his father and lifted up his heart, and asked if there isn’t something over and beyond?
I was not reared where my people were reared and lived. And upon a day in a cemetery, in Paint Rock, in Poncho County, West Texas, I walked among the tombstones. My grandfather and grandmother and their children, all buried there, generations. Who has not stood in the presence of the graves and tombs of his father and has not lifted up his heart to ask, “Is there not a life beyond? Is there not meaning and purpose? Isn’t God out there?” The fool says, “No, we die as animals die.” But the Christian, oh what strength, and what assurance, and what comfort; why, in the presence of death, he’ll sing a song. In the presence of that dark, cruel enemy, he’ll read Scriptures of triumph, of victory, of resurrection, of heaven, of a land that is fairer than thee.
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1]; and his life is as one lived in a dead-end street, no one to lay his problems before, no one to pray to, no one to ask help from heaven, no one up there to answer. The heavens to him are brass. The whole universe is a hollow mockery. It’s a cheap burlesque. It’s a sorry kind of a comedy. No one to pray to, no Savior in time of grief or trouble; “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”
And not only things that God hath wrought, the realities and materialities of life; and not only the personality, the living that I see inside of my own soul, how God made us, set us in families [Psalm 68:6]; but the spiritual considerations of life, oh! My father was a Christian. Increasingly, I am grateful for that Christian father; sing in the choir, come to the services every time the church door was open, a good, good man. My mother was a Christian; come to the women’s Ladies Aid, they called it in her day, work in the church, cook for the preacher, welcome the saints of the Lord into the home. My mother was a Christian. I grew up in a Christian home. And the spiritual equations in my life are so overbalanced in gratitude to God I cannot describe them, I cannot say them.
Christmas, that’s when we thank God for the incarnation, the nativity, the human flesh that God took when He came down to save us; Christmas [Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 2:8-16]. There’s no Christmas in the atheist’s home. He mocks it. But Christmas to us is a time of inevitable joy and oh the songs that we sing then. Easter, every Sunday, I was taught when I grew up as a boy, was Easter, every Sunday was the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection [Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-7]. That’s why we met on Sunday, and we sang and praised God for the living hope in the living Lord; a Christian service. And in those services, oh, I was so moved. I gave my own heart in faith to the blessed Jesus, and I felt His presence in my soul, I did, as a boy.
And in those services in the church, this one under a tent, I felt God wanted me openly and publicly to give my life to Him as a minister of the gospel. And ten thousand multiplied times since have I felt in the congregation of God’s people the moving of the Spirit in my soul. To him [the atheist], it’s a farce. It’s a folly. It’s a fantasy. But to me, it is the very fabric out of which the substance of life is made. I must conclude.
I realized, and no one could be more sensitive to it than I, after the years and the years, I realized that no marshalling of arguments in the world ever suffice to convince a man. These things are spiritually discerned. A man in his natural wisdom cannot know God, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” By nature, a man cannot see the kingdom of God. He must be spiritually quickened [Ephesians 2:1-9]. And I don’t think there is any firmer illustration of the depravity of the fallen man than the fog of confusion into which he is plunged outside of God.
He is in the muck, and in the mud, and in the morass, and somehow he cannot lift up his eyes. He just sees the mud. He can’t look at the stars and beyond the stars to God, for he sees the dirt and the muck and the mire. He’s blind. He must be quickened. He’s dead. He must be made alive. No marshalling of arguments ever convinces a man. He must be touched by the Spirit of God. It is a work the Lord has to do [1 Corinthians 15:45].
Like my conference with a sweet family last evening; the man said to me, “I didn’t intend to come down there, nor had my family spoke of it or planned it. It was just something that God did.” Then he describes, “Seated there in the balcony, and God did it.” And I said to him, “I rejoice, for so much of the pattern of our lives leaves God out of it, and to see something that just God did, oh, how it blesses my soul!” It’s like a little word from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest pass God by.
[from “Aurora Leigh,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning]
But there are some whose eyes are opened, and they bare their heads, and take off their shoes, in the presence of the Mighty One, the Glorious One. God has to quicken us. And the message that is brought from the Book must be carried on the wings of the Spirit to the human heart. There must be regeneration.
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 marshal the arguments, and I haven’t vocabulary or logic to explain. I just know, since the Holy Spirit quickened my heart, God is the realest thing in the universe. And the experience of loving the Lord is the sweetest of all the responses in life, and the fellowship with God’s people, to me, is like a piece of heaven itself. I don’t like worldly things. I don’t like worldly parties. And I don’t like worldly convocations. I don’t like filthy talk. I don’t like dirty jokes. I don’t like lives that slant down. I love the fellowship of God’s people. I’m glad when they say, “Let’s go to church” [Psalm 122:1]. Ah, this is a great day to me! This is a sublime hour to me. I’d rather be here than anywhere in the earth. God has done something to my heart; and my whole life flows heavenward, and upward, and God-ward; and I am glad.
O happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away.
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day.
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away.
[“O Happy Day, That Fixed My Choice”; Philip Doddridge]
And we share that infinite joy with you. Not by argument, by logic, by reason, by persuasion, but by the Spirit of God, come. You in the balcony, a family, a couple, just you, come. On this lower floor, into the aisle and down here to the front, come. As the Spirit of God should make the appeal, as the Lord should anoint the Word, come. Make the decision now, and in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming. “Here I am, pastor. I make it now.” Do it, while we stand and while we sing.