What Is Wrong With Being an Atheist?
February 1st, 1981 @ 8:15 AM
WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING AN ATHEIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-1-81 8:15 a.m.
So on radio you are listening to the service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor delivering another message on theology; that is the study of God proper. And the title of the message is What is Wrong With Being an Atheist.
In Psalm 14:1 and in Psalm 53:1 the psalm begins, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” And Psalm 53:1, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” As though for the Lord to say that one time is not enough. He repeats it in the exact syllables in the exact sentence. It is the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God.”
And when you look at that statement closely, you will find it to be one of the most astonishing in all the Holy Scriptures. That is the only thing that is ever said about the existence of God in proof, or in defense, or in argument, or in forensic presentation. Search the Book from beginning to end and nothing else is ever said concerning a defense of or an argument for the existence and the reality of God. That’s all. God just makes the comment, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1]; and nothing else is said.
What the Bible does, it just presents the Lord God; never defends His existence, never argues for His reality, the Scriptures just present Him. Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God.” And the Christian dispensation:
In the beginning was the Word . . .
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth . . .
For the law came by Moses, but grace . . . came by Jesus Christ.
[John 1:1, 14, 17]
That’s all; just presents Him, just as a man does the president of the United States. The smaller the man is, the elongated introduction is made; but anytime the executive leader of America, is presented, it is always with this same word, “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.” That’s the way God is presented, “Ladies and gentlemen, and all creation, and the angels in heaven, and the isles of the sea, and the nations of the earth, God!” “In the beginning God . . .” [Genesis 1:1].
Now there has to be a reason for that. So as I study it, as I turn it over in my mind I have come up with these reasons; to me, why it is that God just presents Himself, never an argument for His existence or a defense of His reality, just “This is God.”
Number one: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1], then he’s dismissed, why? Reason number one: the questions of the atheist are irrelevant and inane. They have no pertinency. They don’t face reality.
It’s like this. In ancient Athens, Plato taught in the academy. In ancient Athens, Aristotle taught in the Lyceum; in ancient Athens, Zeno taught in the Stoa. He called his pupils Stoics. So as Plato stands in the academy, or Aristotle stands in the Lyceum, or Zeno stands in the Stoa, and they are surrounded by their incomparable masterpieces—there is no literature beyond the Bible like Plato’s Republic, or like Aristotle’s Metaphysics, or like Zeno’s Moralities. They are tremendous masterpieces.
So as those men stand there before their pupils, and one of the pupils stands up and says, “Plato, do you exist?” or “Aristotle, do you exist?” or “Zeno, do you exist?” What would be the reaction of those tremendous philosophers who are teaching their pupils, surrounded by their tremendous masterpieces, and one of the pupils stands up and asks, “Do you exist?”
Take again, Raphael, the sweet painter of all time. He was beautiful in his personal appearance. He was beautiful in his gentleness and kindliness. Everybody loved Raphael, and he was endowed with an incomparable genius in making a canvas live in the sight of God.
By the side of St. Peter’s in Rome Raphael built his house. And there he had fifty chosen pupils. And Raphael stands in front of his pupils and he’s surrounded by his tremendous masterpieces. Just think of what that man could do. Here is The Coronation of the Virgin. Here is The Sistine Madonna. Here is The Transfiguration; died, and it wasn’t finished. He was buried beneath that beautiful picture. And he stands there, and in the mist of his lecturing to his pupils, one of them stands up and asks the question, “Do you exist?”
Or Rembrandt: bought his beautiful home on Breedstraat in Amsterdam. And standing there before his class, surrounded by his tremendous masterpieces, Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph, John the Baptist, or The Adoration of the Magi, and as Rembrandt is standing before his class, one of the members stands up and says, “Are you real? Do you exist?”
Or think of those men that surrounded Thomas Alva Edison in that vast laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. And as Edison speaks to those pupils, those scientists, and he’s surrounded by his great tremendous discoveries and inventions, here’s the electric light, there’s a battery, here is a phonograph, and as the great inventor speaks, one of his students stands up and asks, “Do you exist?” The inanity and the irrelevancy of the question is a rebuke in itself. That’s God.
The Lord presents Himself talking, revealing, explaining, speaking, judging, wooing, persuading, living. And He is surrounded by his great masterpieces. “The very heavens declare the glory of God . . . and the whole earth, day unto day, uttereth speech and showeth knowledge” [Psalm 19:1-2]. And in the midst of the presence of the living God, and in the midst of His vast masterpieces, some little insignificant man made of the dust of the ground stands up and says, “Do You exist?” That’s why God says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1].
Francis Bacon, the tremendous English essayist, wrote, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to God.” One of the most unusual things I’ve ever read in my life, written by John Foster, who was born in 1770; he’s talking about the atheist and the material universe as being, in his persuasion, just an accident, just a coordination and development of fortuitous atoms. So he speaks of the atheist as “denying the cause for anything, even his own existence. He denies the existence of God by an assumption of knowledge which transcends the limitations of his own negative decree.” Then he writes, now you listen to this:
The wonder turns on the great process by which a man can grow to the immense intelligence that can know there is no God. This intelligence involves the very attributes of deity himself. For unless the man is omnipresent, in some place where he is not, there may be God. If he does not know, if he’s not omniscient, absolutely every agent in the universe, the one that he does not know may be God. If he is not himself the chief agent, if he’s not the great creator himself, if he himself is not the chief agent in the universe, and does not know what is so, that which is so may be God. If he is not in absolute possession of all the propositions that constitute universal truth, the one which he lacks may be God. If he cannot with certainty assign the cause of all that he perceives to exist, that cause may be God. If he does not know everything that has been done in immeasurable ages past, some things back yonder may have been done by God. Thus unless he knows all things, that is, precludes another deity by being one himself, he cannot know that the being whose existence he rejects does not exist.
How do you like that? Or, as a little boy, a guy came up to him and said, “Son, I’ll give you an apple, if you’ll show me where God is.” And the little fellow said, “Listen, mister, I’ll give you a barrel of them if you’ll show me where He isn’t.”
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1,53:1]. And one of the reasons, as I think of that, is his questions are inane. They are irrelevant.
Number two: why does God say, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1], and then dismisses it, there’s nothing else? The second reason: speculations of the atheist are vapid. They are void. They are empty. They are sterile.
You know, it’s a remarkable thing resounding through the Bible, not one time, but many times, such as Psalm 111:10, “The reverential awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” translated, “The fear of the Lord, the reverential awe of the Lord,” and repeated again in Proverbs 1:7 and in Proverbs 9:10, “The reverential awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That’s the way we start, is bowing before the great high God. Well, I have said the speculations, the metaphysics of the atheist are vapid. They are sterile. They are empty.
A sophisticated self-important high school, college senior, said to a freshman who’d just enrolled, he said to him, “What would you think if in ten minutes I can pulverize the idea of God, annihilate the idea of God in ten minutes?” And the freshman replied, he said, “Sir, I would think the same thing as if a gnat were to climb up the side of Pike’s Peak and say, ‘Look at me, in ten minutes I’m going to pulverize this thing with my left hind foot.’”
A hop toad and a green lizard were watching an express train hurtle by in West Texas. And as those two creatures watched that train thunder by, the hop toad said, “You know, they say that somebody made that train. What idiocy. It made itself.” And the green lizard said, “And you know, somebody says that there’s an engineer that drives that train. What idiocy. It drives itself.” And a red ant overheard the conversation, and he climbed up on a spike and he said, “And they tell me that there is a president of this railway system. If he exists I dare him to come and strike me dead.” Does God listen to the vapidity and vacuity of such inanity? “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1]. And the Lord never argues, defends, expatiates; that’s all.
No atheist ever gave an intelligent answer to the mystery of the cosmos all around us. And no atheist ever gave an intelligent answer to the meaning and the purpose of a man’s life in this earth. Somehow he misses the great, and precious, and marvelous wisdom of God.
Paul wrote in Romans 1:19-20, “That which may be known of God is manifest . . . for God has shown it unto us. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen.” Isn’t that a remarkable passage? “The invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen” [Romans 1:20].
How do you see the invisible? Paul says, “They are seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and the Godhead” [Romans 1:20]. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? And you contemplate that sentence for a minute. Back of everything you see there are invisible forces that create it, that make it, that move it, invisible laws of gravity, or motion, or physics, or chemistry, or thermodynamics; and by the eye of faith, or searching, or belief, we are introduced to those invisible things in matter, in mind, in heart, in soul, in life.
As God’s Book says of Moses, “He endured as seeing Him who is invisible” [Hebrews 11:27]. Isn’t that a remarkable thing? The realities actually are things unseen. And we only appropriate them and see them with the eye of faith. That’s what God says.
Isn’t it a strange thing? The answers, the speculations, the metaphysics of the atheist are sterile and empty. It is like drinking at a mirage; it never quenches the thirst. It’s like eating food of fancy; it never satisfies the hunger. It’s like reading a book that has no meaning. It’s like building a house without a plan. It’s like running a train without an engineer. It’s like living a life without any purpose or without any meaning. God says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1]. His speculations are empty.
All right, number three: why does God write that in the Book, and that’s all? Number three: the character of the atheist is bankrupt. It could not but be lost on a student of the Bible that Paul quotes this psalm, Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, in that tremendous passage in the third chapter of the Book of Romans when he concludes that all mankind is utterly depraved [Romans 3:10-12, 23]. There is sin in all of our faculties. We are a fallen humanity. Our mind, our hearts, our souls, our emotions, our wills; all are fallen.
And he quotes that Psalm that begins with, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1]. What Paul is avowing is that when a man denies the existence of God, character and righteousness disintegrate and evil flourishes in the land. And do I have a poignant remembrance of that.
One of these radio and television stations in the city of Dallas—and all of you will remember this yourselves—they took a notion that they wanted me to debate Madeline Murray O’Hair, the most infamous atheist in existence. So against the advice of everybody in the church, why, I said, “Why, I’ll do that.” Well, when the night came for the television and the radio to carry the thing on for four solid hours, well, what they did, they took us into a reporters’ room, and sat us down there, and all those reporters were up there at the front.
And then at a signal, why, they were, said now, “Ask them anything you please.” So a young reporter from the Houston Chronicle asked the first question. And brother, did that question set fire to her shuck, did it light her fuse, did it blow up her dynamite cap. She exploded. So when we went into the conference on television and the radio, she was livid. She was furious.
The question was this, and it dumbfounded me, and I never had an opportunity to answer. And I wanted to be nice in answering the question. I never had an opportunity because she simply went into a tirade. The question was this. He said, “Dr. Criswell, do you think that you are lowering yourself in condescending to debate this atheist over here?”
Oh, did that plow her up, good night! Well, anyway because of the television cameras and the situation there, I had to sit about six inches away from that female. And every fifteen minutes there were commercials, you know, whatever they do. So they’d carry on for fifteen minutes and there’d be a commercial.
Well, in those commercials, that critter would talk to me. I can’t quote in mixed company what she said. I’d blush to repeat what she said to me in an outhouse. Do you know what an outhouse is? I grew up in an outhouse. I’d blush to quote what that woman said. You can’t imagine. That is, I couldn’t. I just wasn’t ever introduced to a woman like that: filthy, dirty, in every imagination of her mind.
And that’s why it was amazing to me when her son William Murray, Bill Murray, who was the young fellow concerning which the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and the reading of the Bible in the public school system, William Murray, son of Madeline Murray O’Hair says miracles have happened in his life since he denounced atheism and gave his life to God. Sixteen-year-old Murray—was the plaintiff in his mother’s three year court battle that began in 1963 and resulted in the United States Supreme Court decision to ban state-mandated prayer in public schools. He stunned the Christian community last month when he said he was born again into Christianity, and made a public apology for his role in his mother’s suit. “I began searching for meaning in my life, thinking surely there has to be something else than this. My self-search for communion and meaning brought me to my knees. And since then there have been miracles in my life.”
He was a drunkard. The alcohol vanished. He smoked four packages of cigarettes a day. That vanished. “The minister,” to whom he made his confession of faith, “told me that I needed to make amends. And I believe in that. When you’ve done somebody wrong, and you get right with God, ask their forgiveness. So I decided to come back to Texas and apologize. Having done that, I felt a burden off of my soul. How my life has changed.” And I have a long magazine article, and I don’t have time to follow it through, concerning the confession of faith of that atheist, Madeline Murray O’Hair’s son.
Now what I was saying was that the third reason why God calls an atheist a fool is because of his bankruptcy of character. I want to go back to her. This is again in a national magazine. She is speaking about herself. “I’d describe myself as a sexual libertarian. I will engage in sexual activity with any consenting male, any damn time I well please. Sex is where you find it. I’ve had five affairs,” and I don’t know how many since then.
I’ve had five affairs, all of them real wing-dings. I’ve enjoyed every damn minute of them. I think young people should be able to have their first sexual love affair whenever they feel like it. In the case of most girls, this would be about thirteen or fourteen; for most boys it’d be around fifteen or sixteen. Whenever they want to try it, they should be allowed to go at it without supervision or restriction; in their parents’ bedroom, on a grass park, it doesn’t matter, anywhere.
What did I say? The character of an atheist is bankrupt. That’s why God says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” [Psalm 14:1, 53:1].
My time is gone. I have one more. I have one more. Why does God say that? “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” Number four: the end, the ultimate destiny of an atheist is ignoble. It is not exalted and marvelous. It’s desecrated to the very earth in which he’s buried. His death is ignoble.
In my reading, I came across an incident in the city of London, where in 1899, and still existing, is the Society for the Advancement of Atheism. And every year, the article says, they have an annual banquet. And in this particular banquet not long ago the president of the London Society for the Advancement of Atheism gave the first toast.
And in the toast he referred to the apostle Paul. And in his reference he said, “The apostle Paul was blinded on his journey to Damascus” [Acts 22:11], and then eloquently added, “and he remained blind the rest of his life.” Well, that was smart and the members of the society guffawed, and applauded. And while they were applauding, the president was seen to totter and to fall. And when they went to his assistance, he was dead. And the banquet broke up, the article said, in confusion and disarray; the death of an atheist.
Reading that, I couldn’t help but think about Dr. A. N. Hall, twenty-eight years pastor of the First Baptist Church in Muskogee, Oklahoma, a man who looked like George W. Truett, talked like him, a great saintly man of God. In his age he said to his deacons, he said, “If anything ever happens to me, I want you to call Dr. Criswell to be my successor.”
And on Christmas Eve in 1940, he died suddenly, just closed his eyes on this earth and opened them in glory. And on his desk he was preparing his sermon. Guess what it was? “My First Five Minutes in Heaven.” They appointed the pulpit committee at twelve-thirty, the first Sunday in January. And at one o’clock they called me on the phone. It was from that pastorate I came here. That’s the faith. And to be welcomed by the angels and by our Lord and by the saints in glory, that’s God. Now may we stand together?
Our Lord, it’s a glory road, this highway to heaven. What a fulsome life that has meaning every step of the way. Our sorrows have meaning. Our trials have meaning. Our age has meaning. Our death has meaning. God lives and the Lord purposes some wonderful thing for His children [1 Corinthians 2:9]. We praise Thee, blessed Jesus. We offer Thee the sum, and substance, and meaning of our lives. We only wish we could serve Thee better and love Thee more.
And in this moment while our people pause in awesome reverence before God, you, to give your heart to Jesus [Romans 10:8-13], or to come into the fellowship of our dear church [Hebrews 10:24-25], a family, a couple, or just one somebody you, down one of those stairways, down one of these aisles. “Pastor, today, I have decided for God, and I’m here.” Some of you, “I want to be baptized as it says in the Book [Matthew 28:19], as Jesus was baptized [Matthew 3:13-17], and commanded us to follow Him through the waters of the Jordan [Matthew 28:20]; I want to be baptized.” Or, “I want to put my life in this church in promise of a letter.” However God shall say the word, make the decision now in your heart. And when we sing in a moment, take that first step and welcome. Thank Thee, Lord, for the sweet harvest, in Thy wonderful name, amen. While we sing, come, come.