She came into my office visibly shaken. Something terrible had happened and I braced myself for the worst. A parade of possible scenarios raced through my head: a divorce, a death, financial ruin… But it was none of the above.
She couldn’t hold back her tears any longer as she blurted out, “Oh, Pastor, I don’t know what to do. Scott told me he’s an atheist.”
Yes, this was a crisis for her. It may or may not have been a crisis for Scott, her seventeen-year-old son, but it certainly was for his mother. I had encountered this before. Often, in fact. Sometimes it came on the eve of Confirmation Sunday when an adolescent realized they couldn’t in good conscience stand before a congregation of people and claim to believe something they’re not sure they believe. (That’s one of the things I hate most about Confirmation, or Affirmation of Baptism, or whatever it is we’re calling that rite of passage where a young person makes a public declaration of faith. It forces a lot of kids to be dishonest just to please the adults who love them. It’s not fair to those we put in that position, nor does it truly honor their spiritual journey. But that may be the topic for another blog. Back to the spiritual standing of atheists.)
I suspect that the concern many Christians have for atheists is that, by not believing, they are asking for trouble. It reminds me of the way I used to think about Santa Claus when I was a kid. I had plenty of doubts about the veracity of the Jolly Old Elf, but I wasn’t about to let anyone know because I lived with this fear that if I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t get any gifts. Is that the way we think about God? Do we live with the fear that if we don’t believe, God won’t reward us? Well then, I have to wonder… Could the God of “love divine, all loves excelling” be that petty?
Why is it so upsetting for Christians when they learn that someone they love considers himself or herself an atheist? The short answer, for many people, would be: because if you don’t believe in God, and in Jesus specifically, you’re going to hell. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that if you want to go to heaven, you have to believe in Jesus as your Savior? Uh, actually, no.
We glean a lot of this theology from John’s gospel. John was big on believing. But he never says that if you don’t believe in Jesus as your Savior you will go to hell. That’s something we would have to imply from our own distorted perspective on what it means to be saved and what we’re being saved from. In fact, the Jesus that John reveals to us isn’t all that concerned about teaching people how to avoid hell; his focus is on leading them to experience life. Not just survival, but real life, life in all its fullness -- what Jesus calls abundant life, or eternal life, which is something that begins now, not just someday after we stop breathing.
What does it mean when a person says they’re an atheist? Does it mean they aren’t so sure about God? Or that they don’t believe in the God they learned about in Sunday school? Maybe they don't buy into a God who can’t be explained by science? It seems to me that there is a spectrum of belief, and die-hard, Bible burnin’ atheists are at the opposite end of the spectrum from dyed-in-the-wool, Bible-totin’ Christians. (It’s the ones on both extreme ends of the spectrum who scare me, the ones who are so darn certain that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They’re dangerous!) But, at what point does a person move from being a believer to being an atheist? I’m not sure where I would place myself on the spectrum of belief. On any given day, I’m shifting from one place to another. It isn’t easy to differentiate believers from non-believers. And I have to wonder how much it really matters. Certainly, God loves us all, no matter where we fall on the spectrum of belief.
Well, maybe it doesn’t matter as much for God as it does for us. For me, living with an awareness of God’s love is part of what it means to live life in all its fullness, the life Jesus invites us all to participate in. God’s love is a source of joy in my life. For atheists, this must be like receiving an invitation to a party they have no desire to attend. So the love of God is not a source of joy. From my perspective, the atheist is missing out on the best that life has to offer. But I imagine that from the perspective of an atheist, I may be perceived as the one who is missing out.
Those of us who believe in an afterlife might opt to leave all of this up to God and take comfort in the fact that someday we’ll find out who was right and who was wrong. But I suspect that when that time comes, it isn’t going to matter who was right and who was wrong. God’s grace is sufficient. It is now, and it always will be. For everyone. Whether they believe it or not.