Recently I was up at the hospital providing pastoral care to one of my members. As usual, I was wearing my clerical attire, and, as often happens, this gave me an opportunity to share the Gospel with someone I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise (as an aside: for all of those missional-minded pastors out there who hate wearing a collar for fear of being mistaken as a Roman priest, I maintain the collar is one of the best evangelism tools pastors have; I have written more about this here).
I had been taken aside by a woman whose mother had been dying. But she wasn’t seeking help for herself at the moment; it was her brother she was worried about. She described him as “inconsolable”, and indeed, when I met him, he had a hard time speaking through the sobbing and the tears (he was in the waiting area because he “couldn’t stand to see his mother like that”). One of the few things he managed to tell me was, “They’re going to dig a hole, throw her cold, dead body into a ditch, and cover it up with dirt.”
As you might expect with somebody who’s inconsolable, he was also without hope. Early on in the conversation, I had spoken of the comfort Christ gives us in His resurrection and how we mourn, but not as those who do not have hope (at this point I had been assuming he was a Christian). But as I said these things, all he could do was shake his head from side to side and his sobbing turned into wailing. He told me he had even tried praying for his mother, “but it didn’t work.”
I’m not entirely sure whether this man would have described himself as an atheist or not before our conversation (his mother was a Christian, so I assume he had been raised in the church or at least been exposed to the Christian faith), but either way, he was essentially in despair when I found him. At one point I even asked him if he’d found anything that was able to bring him even a small measure of comfort, and he said he hadn’t.
After some time of sitting with him and listening, I asked, “How do you think we got here? Where do you think life comes from?” He told me he wanted to believe in God, but it’s just a really hard thing to do. “Too good to be true,” he said; “the stuff of fairy tales.” This seems to be a fairly common enough line of thinking among atheists. At this point it became clear that he wasn’t ready to hear the Gospel, as he was in severe doubt as to the reality of God’s existence. He could see nothing good or beautiful in life on account of his suffering, but his suffering was profound and undeniable, so I began to use his suffering to point to the reality of God’s existence (for the time being, the identity and nature of God would have to wait).
Conventional wisdom says it’s best to point to all of the blessings of being a Christian when doing evangelism, perhaps even promoting an “every day a Friday” (prosperity gospel/theology of glory) mentality. This doesn’t work, of course, because a theology of glory, like its father, can never make good on its promises. It is true that creation declares the glory of God, and the good things of this life testify to the existence of a good Creator. But the reverse is also true: the existence of evil and the presence of suffering can also point to the existence of God, and perhaps even more so.
There are really only two options when it comes to things like life, death, joy, suffering, and meaning. Either our existence is the result of random chance and life is there is no inherent meaning or value in love, pain, fear, or sorrow; or we have been created with the capacity to feel these things, and they have genuine meaning. If our existence is a cosmic accident, this means that our feelings, like a son’s profound and undeniable love for his mother and great anguish at her death are a biological accident, nothing more than meaningless chemical reactions. This is much harder to swallow (for me, at least), than to regard them as being genuinely meaningful, God-given capacities, the exercise of which is inherent to our humanity. In this way, I suggested to the man that as hard as it may be to believe in God (especially when He looks like your enemy), it may actually be harder not to.
We instinctively know that there is something more to a mother’s love for her son or a son’s love for his mother than meaningless chemical reactions. We possess the capacity to love others with every fiber of our being. We genuinely suffer when our loved ones die. If husband and wife truly are one flesh, death (or divorce, for that matter) can be genuinely devastating, not unlike being cut in half.
We suffer because we know things aren’t the way they should be. But where did we get this odd notion that there is a way things should be? We know there’s something inherently wrong with death. After all, God has put eternity into man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11). Suffering testifies just as powerfully to the existence of God, if not more so, than beauty. This is why suffering is the key to evangelism. Tentatio, not prosperity, makes a theologian. The theology of the cross directs sinners to God’s love, not a theology of glory. What’s more, the more pleasant things of this life, such as love and beauty, have been tainted by sin; suffering has not. Nothing drives us to seek refuge in Christ quite like suffering. Consider Israel: in their prosperity, they continually forgot the Lord their God (cf. Deuteronomy 8), but in their affliction they cried out to God for deliverance (Exodus 2:23, 3:7; Judges 3:8, 9).
We love our parents and children because God created us to be in meaningful relationships with one another. These relationships are not an illusory social construct designed to fill a vacuum (which, incidentally, also testifies to the reality of God’s design for life, for if there is no design, there would be no vacuum to fill). The love and suffering we experience in relationships is real, and it’s real because being in meaningful relationships are an essential feature of God’s design for human existence. If this is not true, then all “meaning” we experience in life is not real, but manufactured.
The wonderful reality of Christ’s death and resurrection means that our relationships with God and one another do not have to end, nor does death have the final word. The fact that Christ was raised bodily on the Third Day dead means everyone who has been thrown in a ditch and covered in dirt will likewise be raised (indeed, all are raised; but eternal life is only given to all believers in Christ; Revelation 21:8, 27). It may be difficult to believe in God when He looks like our enemy, but He only appears that way. He has given the definitive answer to the problem of death. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; not even death (Romans 8:38-39). Nor is death the last we will see of those who have fallen asleep in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14; Revelation 7:9-17).
Though there is a sense in which it is harder to be an atheist, this does not mean faith comes naturally to us or that it is ever perfect in this life. We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Christ; one can only confess Jesus as Lord by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). What the father of the demon possessed boy is absolutely true of all Christians, “I believe; help my unbelief!”(St. Mark 9:24).
Nevertheless, the Christian faith provides the most compelling narrative there is, one which accounts for things as they actually are. The Christian faith provides answers to questions of birth, identity, meaning, suffering, and death. Science, for all of its “facts”, cannot even begin to provide an answer to these most basic questions (unfortunately, that doesn’t always stop it from trying). Not only does Christianity account for reality as it actually is, the death and resurrection of Jesus provides genuine comfort. We were created to live forever, and we shall. We were created to live in meaningful relationships with God and one another, and by faith in Christ, those will not end. In the meantime, we grieve the death of our loved ones, and rightly so. But we do not grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). At least that’s what the man with the dying mother told me before I left.