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.
“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.