We're completing a two-year period in which many atheistic books have soared onto bestseller lists. Some evangelicals are alarmed at this, but there's no need to be: On the roller coaster of history we're merely seeing a hands-in-the-air moment-and this too shall pass.
Atheistic authors see themselves as avant-garde, but they're merely echoing the riffs of 19th-century atheists who predicted the imminent demise of Christianity. Gilded Age orator Robert Ingersoll, for example, said that when Christians dominated schools and media, it was hard to mount an attack on concepts of revelation and miracles, but "now that religion's monopoly has been broken, it is within the compass of any human being to see those evidences and proofs as the feeble-minded inventions that they are."
So what happened? Why are many churches in the United States booming? Why is Christianity expanding so rapidly in Africa and China? To begin to answer that, we should let our imaginations run wild: What if, in the 20th century, in the biggest country by land area and also in the biggest country by population, leaders had required the teaching of atheism in all schools. Freed of "feeble-minded inventions," would mankind have taken a great leap forward?
Oh, you say we don't have to imagine? You say the Soviet Union and China did establish atheism, and the results were not pretty? Atheists regularly write about the ravages of the Inquisition. Sure: It appears that the Inquisition over the centuries killed 5,000 people, which in my view is 5,000 too many. But Stalin and Mao killed not 5,000 or 50,000 or 500,000 or 5 million, but at least 50 million. Torturing and killing innocent people is a human phenomenon, not a religious one. There's plenty of sin to go around.
Keeping that Soviet and Chinese experience in mind, it's remarkable that Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, claims that his fellow atheists "may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and pursuit of ideas for their own sake." Who is "we"? Hitchens writes that atheists who disagree on a question "resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication"-but the 20th century was a century of atheists resolving their disputes not by excommunication but by murdering each other.
Hitchens is typical in saying that biblical commands lead Christians to two conclusions: either "a continual scourging and mortification of the flesh," along with confessions of guilt and denunciation of others, or "organized hypocrisy," with churchgoers paying the religious authorities to give them a break. He offers two alternatives: a "spiritual police state" or a "spiritual banana republic."
But God offers a third alternative: grace. John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace," had been a slave trader. He became a Christian, finally realized the evil he had done, and could with confidence fight against slavery despite his past, because he knew his sins were forgiven.
The atheistic bestsellers often stew about religion in general and lump all religions together, but Christianity differs from other religions in its emphasis on grace. Lots of religions are bargaining religions-"I'll do this for you, Allah, or Vishnu, and you'll do something for me." As we saw on 9/11, bargaining religions can sometimes cause big trouble: Fly an airplane into a building and you get a big reward. Christianity, though, is about grace. We can't buy God off. We can't trade with Him. Some folks never understand this, but those who do find it's enormously liberating.
Christians who debate atheists differ in their approach. Some are evidentialists, explaining how the facts back up the truth of the Bible and the generally positive role of Christianity in history. Others are presuppositionalists, realizing that objective facts seem like subjective fiction when we're not viewing them through a biblical lens.
Both approaches have their uses. Facts can get us part of the way, but on Christmas we celebrate grace incomprehensible to those resolutely opposed to biblical truth. Nevertheless, "He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove, The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love."
Let heaven and nature sing.