Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Knowing & Doing. All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible.
ne time, on a train ride from Vienna, Austria, to Budapest, Hungary, my wife and I were sitting in a car with four others. Two were atheists, and the other two had at least some connection in their background to the church. As we talked, my wife found out that one was a believer who was related to a prominent leader in the Christian community who faced many difficult struggles. This led to the subject of the difficulty of relationships and the unique way Christ calls us to forgive and to love. One of the atheists, a young man, shared his desire for a loving marriage and family and asked, “Can’t atheists love and forgive?” I responded, “Yes, of course atheists can love and forgive but not because of their atheism.” There ensued a lengthy discussion that went along these lines: in the atheist perspective all is matter. There is no God, no solid basis for moral values (other than my own individual and community preference), and no source for the other-centered (“agape”) love that Christ embodies and teaches his followers to practice.
Atheism leads inevitably to a grim meaningless universe. It encourages autonomy rather than love. Atheist Bertrand Russell held that as a result of his denial of God’s existence, we need to build our lives on the basis of “unyielding despair.” Fellow atheist and existential philosopher Albert Camus said that the only really serious question is whether or not to commit suicide. Fyodor Dostoyevsky has one of his characters argue that if there is no God, everything is permitted. Another atheist, Jean Paul Sartre, said that no finite point had any meaning without an infinite reference point. He believed that there is no infinite reference point; therefore, life is meaningless. He said, whether you choose to help an old lady across the street or beat her on the head, just be authentic. Where in atheism is there a basis or motive for love and forgiveness? If anything, atheism seems to undermine love and forgiveness. Certainly, atheists often love their spouses, children, and others, but not because this is encouraged by or a necessary consequence of their atheism.
Throughout the conversation on the train, the young man followed each point and admitted that he had never thought about this before. I went on to point out that love is at the core of Jesus’ message. We live in a universe where personality is valued (not just impersonal matter). God is personal, in fact tri-personal—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Personality is at the core of the cosmos. The members of the Trinity are in an eternal relationship of love. So love and relationship are also at the center of reality. God has made us in His image. We are given worth, value, and dignity that can never be taken away from us. Furthermore, we are made in the likeness of God to express our God-given personalities, engage in relationships, and love God and other people.
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