The Despair of Atheism and the Hope of Christianity

world-view-eyeAs we grow and develop mentally, we develop a worldview, which is a biased perspective on life. A worldview is a mental framework of beliefs that guide our understanding of what is. It’s the assumptions we employ to help us make sense of the world, ourselves and our experiences. Early in life—when our perception of the world is being shaped—we are influenced by the worldviews of family, friends, and surrounding culture. As we grow older, we are confronted with different and opposing worldviews via religious and educational institutions, literature, movies, music and art. At some point in our development—it’s different for each person—we choose what we believe and why. Our worldview is important because it’s the basis for our values which influence our relationships, money habits, social and political decisions, and everything we say and do. At its core, there are basically two worldviews a person can have. Either one is a theist or an atheist. Choices have consequences, and which worldview we adopt has far reaching ramifications. The biblical worldview offers value, purpose, and hope. The atheistic worldview—when followed to its logical conclusion—leads to a meaningless and purposeless life that eventuates in despair.

The atheist’s worldview denies the existence of God and believes the universe and earth happened by a chance explosion billions of years ago. Rather than intelligent design, he believes in unintelligent chaos, that the earth, with all its complexity of life, is merely the product of accidental evolutionary processes over millions of years. His worldview believes everything is merely the product of matter, motion, time and chance; that we are the accidental collection of molecules; that we are nothing more than evolving bags of protoplasm who happen to be able to think, feel, and act. The conclusion is that we came from nothing significant, that we are nothing significant, and we go to nothing significant. Ultimately, there’s no reason for us to exist, and no given purpose to assign meaning to our lives. We are a zero. Some have thought through the logical implications of their atheism and understand this well. Mark Twain wrote:

Mark TwainA myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other. Age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities. Those they love are taken from them and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year. At length ambition is dead; pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last – the only unpoisoned gift ever had for them – and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they have existed – a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever. Then another myriad takes their place and copies all they did and goes along the same profitless road and vanishes as they vanished – to make room for another and another and a million other myriads to follow the same arid path through the same desert and accomplish what the first myriad and all the myriads that came after it accomplished – nothing![1]

Consider also this view of death by the atheist John Updike, from his novel, Pigeon Feathers:

John UpdikeWithout warning, David was visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you were drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt in your face. There you will be forever, in an upright position, blind and silent, and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called by any angel. As strata of rock shift, your fingers elongate, and your teeth are distended sideways in a great underground grimace indistinguishable from a strip of chalk. And the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, an unaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars.[2]

And Bertrand Russell wrote:

Bertrand RussellMan is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hope and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruin – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built [bold added for emphasis].[3]

No God means we live in a purely materialistic universe. Logically, materialism leads to nihilism which teaches that life is meaningless. If there is no God, then each of us are nothing more than the accidental collection of molecules. All our thoughts, desires, passions and actions can be reduced to electrochemical impulses in the brain and body. We are nothing more than a biochemical machine in an accidental universe, and when we die, our biological life is consumed by the material universe from which we came. But this leaves us in a bad place, for we instinctively search for meaning and purpose, to understand the value of our lives and actions. This tension leads to a sense of anxiety, what the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, called angst. Angst and fear are different, for fear has a direct object, whereas angst is that innate and unending sense of anxiety or dread one lives with and cannot shake. The French Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre understood this worldview and the despair connected with it. Sartre proposed that individual purpose could be obtained by the exercise our wills, as we choose to act, even if the act is absurd. Francis Schaeffer wrote:

[Sartre] held that in the area of reason everything is absurd, but nonetheless a person can authenticate himself by an act of the will; everyone should abandon the pose of spectator and act in a purposeless world. But because, as Sartre saw it, reason is separated from this authenticating, the will can act in any direction. On the basis of his teaching, you could authenticate yourself either by helping a poor old lady along the road at night or by speeding up your auto and running her down. Reason is not involved, and nothing can show you the direction which your will should take.[4]

John SartreI would argue that most atheists really don’t want to talk about the logical conclusion of their position, and choose to go about their daily lives ignoring the issue altogether, as it’s too painful to consider. This is why Sartre abandoned reason and advocated that we seek for meaning in the choices we make, even if those choices are irrational. Aldous Huxley proposed using psychedelic drugs with the idea that one might be able to find truth and meaning inside his own head. “He held this view up to the time of his death. He made his wife promise to give him LSD when he was ready to die so that he would die in the midst of a trip. All that was left for Aldous Huxley and those who followed him was truth inside a person’s own head.”[5]

But there is another implication to an atheistic worldview, and that’s in the area of morals. If there is no God, then there is no moral Lawgiver outside of mankind, and no moral absolutes by which to declare anything ethically right or wrong. There is only subjective opinion, which fluctuates from person to person and group to group. We’re left to conclude that if there are no moral absolutes, then what is, is right, and the conversation is over. Morality becomes a matter of what the majority wants, or what an elite, or individual, can impose on others. Francis Schaeffer wrote:

If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies, that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgments conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.[6]

Ironically, when the atheist states “there is no truth”, he is making a truth claim. And when he says “there are no absolutes”, he is stating an absolute. Logically, he cannot escape truth and absolutes, without which, reasoning and discussion is impossible. The biblically minded Christian celebrates both truth and absolutes which derive from God Himself, in which He declares some things right and other things wrong (e.g., Ex 20:1-17), and this according to His righteousness (Psa 11:7).

Charles-Darwin-3000-3x2gty-56a4890a3df78cf77282ddafThe atheistic view regards mankind as merely a part of the animal kingdom. But if people are just another form of animal—a naked ape as someone once described—then there’s really no reason to get upset if we behave like other animals. A pack of wild lions in the Serengeti suffer no pangs of conscience when they gang up on a helpless baby deer and rip it to shreds in order to satisfy their hunger pains. They would certainly not be concerned if they drove a species to extinction; after all, it’s survival of the fittest. Let the strong survive and the weak die off. Evolution could also logically lead to racism, which is implied in Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, which original subtitle mentions the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Ironically, we teach evolution in public schools, telling children they are just another animal species, but then get upset when they act like animals toward each other. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t logically teach atheistic evolution and simultaneously advocate for morality. It’s a non sequitur. If there are no moral absolutes, then one cannot describe as evil the behavior of Nazis who murdered millions of Jews in World War II. Neither can one speak against the murder of tens of millions of people under the materialistic communistic regimes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot.

It’s interesting that people cry out for personal and social justice because they’re naturally wired that way. But for the atheist, such inclinations are either a learned behavior based on arbitrary social norms, or a biological quirk that developed from accidental evolutionary processes. Again, we’re left with no moral absolutes and no meaning for life. Naturally, for the thinking person, this leads to despair. For this reason, some seek pleasure in drugs, or alcohol, partying and/or sexual promiscuity in order to deaden the pain of an empty heart. Others might move into irrational areas of mysticism and the occult. The Burning Man events are a good example of this. The few honest atheists such as Twain, Updike, Russell and others accept their place of despair and seek to get along in this world as best they can. But they have no lasting hope for humanity. None whatsoever.

Bible With PenBut the Christian worldview is different. The biblically minded Christian has an answer in the Bible which gives lasting meaning and hope; and this allows us to use our reasoning abilities as God intended. The Bible presents the reality of God (Gen 1:1; Ex 3:14; Rev 1:8), who has revealed Himself to all people (Psa 19:1-2). The apostle Paul argued this point when he wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20).[7] This is called general revelation in which God reveals Himself through nature. God has also revealed Himself to the heart of every person, for “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom 1:19). John Calvin referred to this as the sensus divinitatis, which is an innate sense of divinity, an intuitive knowledge that God exists. Calvin wrote, “there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity.”[8] He further states, “All men of sound judgment will therefore hold, that a sense of Deity is indelibly engraved on the human heart.”[9] Part of Calvin’s argument is based on God’s special revelation in Scripture. But part of his observation is also based on human experience. Calvin wrote, “there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, [which] amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart.”[10] The problem is not with God’s clear revelation, but with the human heart which is negative to Him. For those possessed with negative volition have, as their habit, to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). The problem lies in the sinful heart that suppresses that revelation from God in order to pursue one’s sinful passions. Paul wrote:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Rom 1:21-23)

However, God is a perfect gentleman and never forces Himself on anyone. People are free to choose whether to accept Him or not. But if they reject what light God gives of Himself, He is not obligated to give them further light, as they will only continue to reject it. Of those who are negative to God, three times it is written that He “gave them over” to “the lusts of their hearts” (Rom 1:24), and “to degrading passions” (Rom 1:26), and “to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper” (Rom 1:28). Once God permits a person to operate by his sinful passions, he is given a measure of freedom to live as he wants, but not without consequence.

God does not render final judgment upon the rebellious right away. Rather, God extends to them a common grace, which refers to the undeserved kindness or goodness He extends to everyone, regardless of whether they are righteous or unrighteous, good or evil. God’s common grace is seen in His provision of the necessities of life (i.e., sun, rain, air, food, water, clothing, etc.). This grace depends totally on God and not the attitude or actions of others. Jesus said of His Father, that “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). Paul said affirmed this grace, saying, “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways [in rebellion]; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17). Here, God’s grace is most obvious, in that He provides the necessities of life and even blesses those who are unsaved and hostile toward Him. His love and open-handedness toward the undeserving springs completely out of the bounty of His own goodness. Part of the reason God is gracious and patient is that He “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). However, grace ends when the unbeliever dies, and if he has spent his life rejecting Christ as Savior, then afterward, he will stand before God’s judgment seat, and if his name is “not found written in the book of life”, then he will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15), where he will be for eternity. This final judgment is avoidable, if Jesus is accepted as one’s Savior. The Bible reveals:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16-18)

To the heart that is positive to God and turns to Christ as Savior, He has revealed Himself in special ways in His Son, Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-3), and in Scripture (1 Th 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16-17). God’s special revelation gives us insights into realities we could never know on our own, except that God has revealed them to us in His Word in propositional terms (see my article: The Bible as Divine Revelation). As we read the Bible in a plain manner, we come to realize that God exists as a trinity (or triunity), as God the Father (Gal 1:1; Eph 6:23; Phil 2:11), God the Son (Isa 7:14; 9:6; John 1:1, 8:58; 20:28; Col 2:9; Heb 1:8), and God the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Cor 2:11-12; 2 Cor 13:14). And that all three persons of the trinity are co-equal, co-infinite, and co-eternal, and worthy of all praise and honor and glory. The Bible also reveals that God personally created His universe and earth in six literal days (Gen 1:1-31; Ex 20:8-11). That He created the first humans, Adam and Eve, in His image, with value and purpose to serve as theocratic administrators over the earth (Gen 1:26-28). We have the ability to reason because we are made in the image of God, who also gave us language as a means of communicating with Him and each other (Gen 2:15-17, 23). God also created a host of spirit beings called angels, but one of them, Lucifer, rebelled against God and convinced other angels to do the same (Isa 14:12-14; Ezek 28:12-17). Fallen angels are called demons and belong to Satan’s ranks (Matt 25:41; Rev 12:7-9), and they influence the world of people in many ways in their thinking, values and behavior (1 Tim 4:1; Rev 16:13-14). Later, Lucifer came to earth and convinced the first humans to rebel against God (Gen 3:1-7), took rulership over the earth (Luke 4:5-7; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2 1 John 5:19), and expanded his kingdom of darkness to include all unbelievers (Matt 13:36-40; John 8:44; Acts 26:18; Col 1:13-14). Adam and Eve’s sin brought about spiritual death (i.e., separation from God) and God cursed the earth as a judgment upon them (Gen 3:14-19). God’s judgment also explains why everything moves toward decay and physical death (i.e., the second law of thermodynamics). But God, because of His great mercy and love toward us, provided a solution to the problem of sin and spiritual death, and this through a Redeemer who would come and bear the penalty for our sins (Gen 3:15; Isa 7:14; 9:6; Matt 1:23; Luke 1:26-35; Gal 4:4; Heb 10:10, 14; 1 Pet 2:24; 3:18; Rev 1:5). Historically, this Redeemer was Jesus Christ, God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity who became human (John 1:1, 14), who lived a sinless life (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5), willingly died on a cross (John 10:17-18), was judged for all our sin (Heb 10:10, 14), and was buried and raised to life on the third day (1 Cor 15:3-4, 20), never to die again (Rom 6:9). After His redeeming work, Jesus ascended to heaven, where He awaits His return (Acts 1:9-11; cf. John 14:1-3; 1 Th 4:13-18). Jesus’ work on the cross opens the way for us to have forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7), and spiritual life (Eph 1:3; 1 Pet 1:3, 23), if we’ll trust in Him as our Savior (John 3:16; 20:31).

When a Philippian jailer asked the apostle Paul, “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), Paul gave the simple answer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Act 16:31). Believing in Christ means we turn from trusting in anyone or anything as having any saving value (which is the meaning of repentance) and place our complete confidence in Christ to save, accepting Him and His work on the cross as all that is needed to have eternal life. Salvation comes to us by grace alone (it’s an undeserved gift), through faith alone (adding no works), in Christ alone (as the only One who saves). Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). God also promises us an eternal existence with Him in Heaven (John 14:1-3), who will eventually create a new heavens and earth, which will be marked by perfect righteousness (2 Pet 3:13), and be free from sin and death (Rev 21:1-5). God has already begun this restoration process, and this starts with the restoration of lost sinners to Himself, and progressing toward the complete and perfect restoration of the universe and earth.

If we accept God and His offer of salvation, we have a new relationship with Him, and this means we are part of His royal family. God also gives meaning to our lives and calls us to serve as His representatives in a fallen world. To reject God and His offer is to choose an eternal existence away from Him in the Lake of Fire. This is avoidable, if one turns to Christ as Savior, believing the good news that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and raised again on the third day (1 Cor 15:3-4). Won’t you trust in Christ as your Savior and begin this new and wonderful life? I pray you do.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Michael J. Kiskis (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, WI, 2013), 28.

[2] John Updike, Pigeon Feathers (New York, NY, Random House Publishers, 1975), 17.

[3] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship” from Mysticism and Logic (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917).

[4] Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, 50th L’Abri Anniversary Edition. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 167.

[5] Ibid., 170.

[6] Ibid., 145.

[7] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, published by the Lockman Foundation.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), 1.3.1

[9] Ibid., 1.3.3

[10] Ibid., 1.3.1

About Dr. Steven R. Cook

Dr. Steven R. Cook is a Christian educator. He is protestant, conservative, and dispensational. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than seven hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven currently serves as professor of Bible and Theology at Tyndale Theological Seminary, and hosts weekly Bible studies at his home in Texas. Steven’s ministry activity is entirely voluntary (articles, blogs, podcasts, and video lessons), as he works a full time job as a Case Manager for a local nonprofit agency that helps the elderly and disabled in the community.
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