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A Brief Biblical Theology of Atheists

This post is a continuation of my last post on apologetics, which should probably be read before this one. It has been a while since I wrote that post, which is both because I’ve been busy and because I wasn’t sure how to start this one. Finally, though, I decided I should start it by offending some atheists and making more than a few evangelicals uncomfortable. It can only get better from there, right?

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. – Psalm 14:1

Well, there it is, right? The Bible calls atheists fools. Actually, it goes further than that. The phrase “there is no God” could also be rendered simply “No, God.” The fool is the person who refuses God, either denying His existence or simply disagreeing with Him. This is the first definition of the fool we see in the Scripture. Before we know anything else about the fool, we know that he is an atheist in his heart.

Now, to be faithful to Scripture, we should let the Bible define what it means by “fool.” You might think of someone who could hardly spell (let alone pass) the SAT’s, but that isn’t what Scripture is talking about. If we move a little further in redemptive history you’ll see what I mean. What follows is a sort of (brief) Biblical theology of the heart atheist (or fool) in Scripture.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7

There is a contrast here that we must pay attention to. The man who fears God has set out on the right foot, the beginning of knowledge. The fool is the man who refuses to learn, despising wisdom and instruction. In some cases, this can include instruction from men. But this passage is talking about the man who won’t listen to the wisdom and instruction of God.

This makes sense, the fool is the one who is an atheist in his heart. Of course he despises God’s wisdom and instruction. Because of this, however, he doesn’t even have the beginning of knowledge. Actually, he hates knowledge (Proverbs 1:22).

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: but he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise. – Proverbs 12:15

The fool doesn’t seem foolish to his own eyes because his own eyes are the standard by which he judges everything. He takes no pleasure in being corrected and only likes to hear from people who agree with him (Proverbs 18:2). Indeed, the idea of hearing more people who think just like him, heart-atheists, is altogether appealing to him—though he’d generally prefer to be the one doing the talking (Proverbs 13:16).

False Knowledge

Now when I said that fools hate knowledge, I imagine that some of you made a face. There are a lot of atheist teachers, college professors, and scientists. How can I say that they hate knowledge? Those fellows clearly know what they’re talking about or else they wouldn’t have gotten their positions, right?

Scripture is clear, though. Fools hate knowledge and love folly (Proverbs 26:11; 27:22). Their folly lies in their denial of God (Psalm 14:1) and this means that they refuse Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3). What fools have instead is something that is falsely called knowledge (1 Tim 6:20).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they get the answers wrong on tests, but it often means that they’re asking the wrong questions. When they say that they know something, they mean something different than what the Christian can mean because their knowledge is not according to Christ. They might understand that the Germans lost World War II, but they cannot understand that their loss was providentially determined and not left even the leastwise to chance. They scrape about on surface knowledge, observing things without being able to really interpret them according to truth (more on this in future posts).

I should note that Christians behave like this too when we ignore God’s clear instruction. Knowing that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ does not mean we always think to look there.

Answering the Fool

Having identified the unbeliever as a Biblically defined fool, we are ready to learn from Scripture how we are to interact with and debate such persons. The first thing Scripture teaches us to do is not to answer him according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4). This is because we may find ourselves thinking like him and abandoning our convictions.

This means that if the fool judges everything by what his eye sees, we need to be careful to make sure that we are not arguing in such a way that makes his eye (or ours) the arbiter of truth. Truth is what God says, not what we see. In all our arguing, we must remember this and bring it to bear on the conversation. We need to tell him that the only way to have knowledge is to get it from God, who knows all things. We need to refuse to play the game of evidences because they are not the arbiter of what is true and false (show me one piece of evidence that says they are).

At the same time, however, Scripture says that we need to make sure we do answer the fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 26:5). This means that we need to tell the fool that if he judges everything he thinks by what he thinks, he’ll never be wrong. We need to show evidences that knowledge-by-evidence can’t work. We need to use reason to prove that reason alone is not sufficient for knowledge. But we do all of this as one using a foreign language, not as a native folly-speaker.

Speaking the Truth in Love

Much more will need to be said about each of the two points above, but I’m leaving that for separate posts because it is important to note here the importance of humility and love in all of our conversations. I refer to the atheist as a fool here because I have carefully defined what I mean by fool. I suspect few atheists would take offense to being told they don’t want to listen to God. However, if you approach someone, call them a fool, and then don’t listen to anything they have to say and instead spout off Scripture verses, you are being neither loving nor humble. You might be speaking of Christ, but you’re not behaving as though you know Him.

You will need to listen and think carefully about what the other person is saying, trying hard to understand it. This is something most of us in modernity need to get a lot better at. Answering a matter before hearing it is shame and folly for Christians and non-Christians alike (Proverbs 18:13).

The line between answering a fool according to his folly and not answering him according to his folly is a difficult one. You’ll need to genuinely listen to him and evaluate what he’s saying by his own standards. You’ll need to show him that you’re able to do this. You’ll also need to evaluate what he’s saying by the standard of Scripture and show him that Scripture is the only sensible standard. As Proverbs points out, it’s not “either/or”, but “both/and.”

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This article was posted on 05/29/2015 . It relates to these topics:
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