A number of years ago the famous atheist Bertrand Russell was asked, “What if you are wrong? When you stand before God, what are you going to say to him?” Russell confidently replied, “I am going to tell him he did not give me enough proof.”
This reminds me of some words from one of Philip Yancey’s older books, The Jesus I never Knew. He spoke of the miracles of Christ and the impact it had on people’s lives. He says:
Jesus performed miracles – around three dozen, depending on how you count them – but the Gospels actually downplay them. Often Jesus asked those who had seen a miracle not to tell anyone else. Some miracles, such as the Transfiguration or the raise of a twelve-year-old dead girl, he let only his closest disciples watch, with strict orders to keep things quiet. Though he never denied someone who asked for physical healing, he always turned down requests for a demonstration to amaze the crowds and impress important people. Jesus recognized early on that the excitement generated by miracles did not readily convert into life-changing faith.
I also remember something Yancey wrote in one of his very first books, Disappointment With God. He speaks of an extensive study he did of the Old Testament. He then describes a shocking realization as he studied the life of Moses and his leading the Jewish people into the promised land.
Yancey put it this way:
What happened during those days almost defies belief. When Moses climbed the sacred mountain stormy with the signs of God’s presence, those people who had lived through the ten plagues of Egypt, who had crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, who had drunk water from a rock, who were digesting the miracle of manna in their stomachs at the moment – those same people got bored or impatient or rebellious or jealous and apparently forgot all about their God. By the time Moses descended from the mountain, they were dancing like heathens around a golden calf.
God did not play hide-and-seek with the Israelites; they had every proof of his existence you could ask for. But astonishingly – and I could hardly believe this result, even as I read it – God’s directness seemed to produce the very opposite of the desired effect. The Israelites responded not with worship and love, but with fear and open rebellion. God’s visible presence did nothing to improve lasting faith.
This has to make you wonder about the real reason for people’s unbelief. Is it truly lack of proof which leads to intellectual disbelief, or is there more to it?
I can think of two issues that impact a person’s willingness to believe and become a follower of Christ. The first I will cover in today’s blog, the other I will write on in next week’s blog.
For men, I find there is one question we are always asking ourselves, even though we often are not aware of it. It seems to be the central question that must be answered before we make certain decisions or take a definitive course of action. It is a question that haunts many a person’s life. The question is:
What do people think of me?
The fear of rejection is a powerful force in people’s lives, and it is difficult for many of us to even shake.
An author I have grown to really like is Dr. Paul Vitz. He is a retired psychology professor who taught at NYU. He was an atheist until his mid-thirties, but he shares some interesting insight on why he rejected God.
The major reason for me wanting to become an atheist, was that I desired to be accepted by the powerful and influential psychologists in my field. In particular I wanted to be accepted by my professors in graduate school, As a graduate student I was thoroughly socialized by the specific culture of academic psychology. My professors at Stanford, as much as they might disagree on psychological theory, were, as far as I could tell, united on really only two things: their intense personal ambition and their rejection of religion. In this environment, just as I had learned how to dress like a college student by putting on the right clothes, I also learned to think like a proper psychologist by putting on the right, atheistic or skeptical, ideas and attitudes.
Do you see what he is admitting? He wanted to be accepted by his peers and professors. Because of his fear of rejection, he adopted their views, regardless of whether he believed them to be true or not.
A number of years ago I met with a man who was on a search for spiritual truth, though he told me up front he did not believe in God. We met for several weeks, and for a man who claimed to be an atheist, he sure sounded like he believed in some type of God. We reached a point where he sheepishly admitted that he did believe in God and he also believed that Jesus was the son of God.
However, he said he did not want to be a Christian because it might impact his social life (he was single) and it might impact what his business colleagues might think of him.
Looking back, it was much easier for him to say “I don’t believe in God” than to admit that he feared rejection and what people would think if he was a follower of Christ.
It is hard to believe that we would allow the approval of man to set the boundaries of our faith, but this seems to be a major factor that leads to unbelief.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.