Failure to Convince

By Jonathan Williams

“I don’t need your God to make me good.”

I was having lunch with Tom, a close friend and devout atheist. I ordered the Reuben. He went light with the salad. The topic was heavy.

06_Williams_JN“Then what’s your foundation for goodness and morality?” I asked him. “What stops you from being a compulsive liar or a career con artist?”

“Morality and goodness are biological,” Tom replied, “they’ve been with us from the beginning. That’s how our species not only survives, but also thrives.”

I brought up the late Jeffrey Dahmer, a convicted murderer and sex offender, who, in a jailhouse interview, said that if morality all happens naturally, what’s the need for a God? Can’t we set our own rules? “Who owns me? I own myself.”

“Every species will have their Dahmers, their Hitlers, and whoever else,” Tom said. “They’re the outliers, though. The large majority of humans will adhere to these moral codes in order to protect and advance humanity.”

“Well if morality and goodness are with us from the beginning,” I said, “is it possible that God is the origin of both? They have to come from somewhere.” I was sure this question would stifle Tom, but it didn’t.

“Have you read your Old Testament lately?” Tom replied. “Your God sanctioned genocide, the death of women and children, rape, and slavery . . . what else? I hope we’re not getting morality and goodness from your God.”

I talked about Jesus. I talked about the true character and nature of God being represented in Christ the Son. I talked to Tom about how there are troubling parts to Scripture.

“It doesn’t mean we throw it all away. It means we wrestle with Scripture, all the while focusing on the grace and love of Christ, the central tenet of Christianity.”

“Well frankly, Jonathan, there isn’t much I’m hearing about today that would make me think I should find love and morality through the Christian faith. Most of what I read about Christianity is oppressive and shortsighted, and most of the Christians I encounter are the same!”

I took a bite of my Reuben. I had nothing else to say.

This wasn’t the first conversation I’ve had with an atheist. I pastor a church in a city with 8 million people and only 3 percent of us attend Sunday morning worship services. There are plenty of atheist and agnostic people around. Many have become close friends. There’s always room for spiritual conversations and debates amongst our population. But the more I debated, conversed, and defended my religion, the more futile it seemed.

As I walked back to the office, I replayed the arguments in my head. Although I spend time reading through philosophical arguments and Christian apologetics, I am still no expert. Of course I would continue to study and read, but it felt like I was missing the point.

There was so much more I wanted to tell my friend about the goodness of God and the fallible ways of human beings. I wanted to acknowledge the difficulties and doubts Christians wrestle with when it comes to the infinite God. I wanted to tell him that those Christians he sees on TV and reads about don’t represent my God and my Christianity. I wanted to tell my friend that when I talk about the love of God, I really mean it.

And that’s when I realized the moral argument for God doesn’t work.

 

Representing Our God?

As a collective whole, the church has not given others reason to believe we worship a God capable of creating a good and worthy morality that allows humans to thrive. More often than not we talk about the things God is against. Instead of showing the love of God through Christ, Christians talk about losing their freedoms and their cultural and political strongholds. We argue and debate with one another on a wide variety of topics that change the minds of no one. I recognize I’m guilty of that too.

We do a poor job of representing our God. Of course, others don’t want to believe in him.

Two months ago an atheist acquaintance showed up at our church. He wanted to support a friend going through difficult times. He came back the next week, and the next. Then he volunteered to help feed the homeless with one of our partner organizations.

I talked to him about church a few weeks ago. He said to me, “My first time at church I was ready to get kicked out. I thought for sure someone would judge me or say something offensive. Instead everyone was really friendly. I heard about the work the church was doing in the community. You’re actually a church that really wants to help people! I had to come back. I am not sure I believe in God, but seeing the actions of these people and this community makes me think there could be one.”

Maybe the moral argument doesn’t work but the love of the gospel does.

A common saying offers good advice to those who are ready to argue the case for our God: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

 

Jonathan Williams serves as pastor of Forefront Brooklyn (New York) Church.

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3 Comments

  1. Joe Wilson
    June 20, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Anecdotal evidence is never a good basis for broad and sweeping conclusions. Still, I’m grateful that the church there is being such a great representative of Jesus.

  2. June 21, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Although I am grateful that people often come to Christ through mere observation of good behavior of Christians, the sentiment portrayed in this article is a hasty generalization. Just because the author’s encounter with an atheist did not persuade him to become a Christian does not mean that apologetics should be thrown out. Many have come to Christ through good sound apologetic arguments. It’s also short-sighted to think that apologetics should be thrown out because “you can’t argue someone into the kingdom.” Good arguments for Christianity is also needed to influence the culture–to let it see that Christianity is an intellectually viable option.

  3. Mark
    October 29, 2014 at 10:52 am

    For one thing, there is a distinction to be made between an argument’s soundness or cogency and its actual effectiveness in convincing this or that individual. The most plausible of arguments may not sway the most entrenched of skeptics. In that event, such would count against the skeptic and not the argument.

    And there is far more to the consideration that theism provides the metaphysical underpinnings for morality in a way that naturalism cannot than is ever raised by the author in the reported conversation. The heart of the matter does not involve the sorts of considerations raised here, namely, whether ‘the Christian faith’ offers insights into the nature of morality that are missed elsewhere. Rather, it is a question of whether the apparent normativity and objectivity of morality can receive an adequate accounting on an atheistic view of things. I believe it cannot, but the question never so much as arose in the exchange. Were our author more astute he would have seen that his friend’s observation regarding the bad behavior of some Christians is quite beside the point. (The question has nothing to do with whether it is possible to be both virtuous and an atheist. There is ample proof all around us that it is indeed possible, just as it is clearly possible to be both vicious and a professing believer.) He confesses that he is still studying and learning. That is good, but it is also more than evident in the reported presentation. I’m not sure he would have convinced me, either.

    From his encounter he draws the conclusion, “And that’s when I realized the moral argument for God doesn’t work.” All that he was entitled to infer was, “I failed to say anything to convince my friend.”

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