by Alex MacDonald
Why am I not an atheist? The cynic might say right away, “I can tell you why you are not an atheist – it’s because you are a preacher and you have a professional interest in keeping God alive!” But of course I was not always a preacher; I was not always a Christian. So I would like to explain why I believe that God does exist and what difference it makes in my life and the life of many others.
Like many people of my generation I have felt the lure of atheism at various points and in its many forms: from pantheism-the belief that the universe is God, that there is not a personal God at all-to ideologies like Marxism or communism stressing social justice and what man can achieve.
I would like to consider first the reasons why I might have been an atheist. Take freedom, for instance. I was brought up in what would be called today in the media – rather disparagingly perhaps – a Calvinistic home, indeed in a Highland Free Church home. For some people that has been something to put them off Christianity, to put them off religion, to put them off believing in God. They have had some kind of Christian or church background and their reaction to it has been negative, to believe there is no God. But in fact I spent my teenage years, which are probably the most rebellious period of anyone’s life, away from home. That is because in the part of the Highlands I came from, as in many parts of the Highlands and Islands still, to go to ordinary secondary school you had to leave home, live in lodgings in a town many miles away, and attend school there. So, what I did rebel against at that particular point in my life, was not what I would regard now as true Christianity but against what would be called bourgeois values: the idea of a kind of respectable middle-class view of what religion and morality is, which now I would see as a Christless religion and a loveless morality. It was not at all what I have come to know as the truth that God reveals in the Bible.
Those days were the sixties, perhaps best summed up later in the Queen song “I want to break free”-break free from all kind of restrictions. There was the idea that there was no longer any meaning to life. The world seemed so horrendous in many ways, especially with the threat of the hydrogen bomb and nuclear warfare. What meaning could life have? Science itself seemed to have developed into some kind of great destructive juggernaut. It had disappointed our expectations, and failed to provide the answers that we were looking for. And because life, it was thought, had no meaning, there was also no point in morality, no point in believing in what is right or wrong. It could all be summed up in the words of the nineteenth century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” That was generally the idea in the sixties: it was called the permissive society. But someone who was writing a little earlier, Aldous Huxley, who himself was an atheist, said, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning, consequently I assumed that it had none. The philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.” In other words he wanted to break free and so he believed life had no meaning. It was not that he came intellectually to the honest belief that life had no meaning and therefore he could live any way he liked. He wanted to live any way he liked and therefore he said life had no meaning. So there was a certain amount of dishonesty going on at that time, and still is, in that kind of view.
But if we take that famous statement of Dostoyevsky’s, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” and turn it round, we realise that in fact everything is not permitted. If I look at my life and say, “Well, I would like to be as free as possible and I’d like to do everything I want to do”, I cannot logically grant the same freedom to everyone else, because if everyone else does what they want to do they will impinge on my freedom. And I do not like other people doing the same things that I let myself off with. There is some kind of standard that we come up against, irrespective of what we really might like. There are certain standards of right and wrong: everything is not permitted. The most liberated person – the person who believes that the world is meaningless – if you stand on his toe he will complain and say “That’s wrong!” That is the kind of unwritten law that is there: there is some kind of idea of fairness, of right and wrong. Everything is not permitted. So, if everything is not permitted, is the logical conclusion that yes, God does exist, there is some source of standards in this world?
But a second reason why I or anyone else might be an atheist lies in the area of suffering and injustice. Like many other people – I suppose like everyone – I was aware of the cruelty of the world, even from an early age: in nature, red in tooth and claw, or in human beings’ treatment of one another. These are things of which we become conscious very early on, and as we get older there are various things that reinforce our awareness. Again in the part of the world I come from, in the north of Scotland, there was a consciousness of past history, an injustice done in the past at the time of what is called the Highland Clearances, when many of the people were turned out of their homes and great sheep farms were set up instead. These people had to eke out a living on the coasts, or they were transported away to America and Canada. Many of them died on the voyage, others arrived at the other side and eventually settled down there and made good lives. But there was this sense of injustice, of something wrong with a world where this kind of thing could happen.
Now that of course is magnified many times over throughout the whole world, and there are examples in human history – in recent human history – far more horrific than the Clearances. The most notorious of all is the Holocaust: the attempted destruction of the Jewish people and others by the Nazis in Germany and the surrounding areas in Europe in the time leading up to and during the second World War. The case against God, it has been said, can be summed up in two words-the Holocaust. Such great suffering and injustice demonstrates that there is no God. There is such injustice in the world, there is such suffering – how could there be a good, all-powerful Being looking after everything?
Ultimately there is no easy answer to the question of suffering, and I do not pretend to have one. But I would like to open up one or two questions of my own. First, who caused the Holocaust? The Holocaust was caused by Nazis holding a particular philosophy and outlook on life that was atheistic. They did not believe in God. They believed in human power. And if we look at the twentieth century-the countless millions of people who were killed, whole countries and societies and communities destroyed-it was achieved by various branches of atheistic thought, not just Nazism and fascism on the Right but also various forms of communism on the Left. In communist Russia and Eastern Europe sixty million people were killed in fifty years, in China seventy million, and this was repeated in various other places to a lesser extent. So when we talk about what has caused such evil, we see not only that it is human beings, but particularly in the last century we have seen this unprecedented destruction and savagery unleashed by atheistic philosophies.
We also have to consider this: if there is no God, as Dostoyevsky said, everything is permitted. If there is no God, if there is no ultimate being to whom we are answerable, then how can we complain about anything? We cannot say that the Holocaust was wrong, we cannot complain, we cannot plead for justice anywhere, we have just got to accept that life is utterly meaningless. Yet we do not. We cry out against the injustice of it. That seems to speak again of the fact that we have intrinsically a sense of justice, the sense that there is something unfair, the sense that some wrong has been done, and the more we complain about it and say, “How could God exist and allow this?”, the more we are actually complaining to God, because we believe in an ultimate standard of justice.
A third area that might very well have caused me to be atheistic in thought was the area of science – and that is true for very many people. The idea, put into the most popular terms, is that evolution has replaced God. One of its key proponents in our own day is Richard Dawkins. He appears on television, he has written various books, such as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and he emphasises all the time that natural selection is the blind watchmaker. Whereas before, God was viewed as the watchmaker, the designer of the universe, he says there is this impersonal force at work, natural selection, that is the blind watchmaker. There is no ultimate purpose to the universe, there is no good Being looking after everything. Everything has just happened according to deterministic laws.
Some of those who hold that view have been perfectly honest about why they hold it. One evolutionary biologist, D.M.S. Watson, said, “The theory of evolution is a theory universally accepted, not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative is special creation which is clearly incredible.” In other words, we rule out the possibility that God is and that he has created, and then we are left with evolution, even though we have no coherent system of proof of it – and we cannot have, because we cannot put the whole universe back into the laboratory to test it. We are guessing at things that happened in the distant past. Colin Patterson, who was a senior palaeontologist at the Museum of Natural History, said, “I fully agree with your comments on the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them… Gould and the American Museum people are hard to contradict when they say there are no transitional fossils… I will lay it on the line – there is not one such fossil for which one could make a watertight argument… It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not part of science, for there is no way to put them to the test.” Although Patterson still held to evolution as the best explanation, he was casting great doubt on the evidence for transitional forms, a central pillar of present evolutionary thinking. Although at the popular level evolution is seen as explaining away any need for a God, there are many scientists, who are entertaining serious doubts on various areas of evolutionary theory. This inevitably militates against building an evolutionary philosophy offering a complete explanation of how the world has developed.
There is another avenue along which I was tempted very strongly towards a form of atheism, and that is what earlier on I called pantheism. That simply is saying that there is no personal God, but the universe is divine. There is a mystery about the universe itself, and when we see the beauty of the created world we are involved with this great process that is going on. I came at that view from perhaps a different perspective from most people. During the sixties many people were drawn to Eastern religion. But it was particularly through the writings of Neil Gunn, the Scottish novelist, that I came in contact with a certain form of pantheism, a Celtic mysticism that feels that the universe is somehow spiritual. When you read Neil Gunn there is always this kind of mystery element in the natural world and in human beings’ relation with it. It is something that is very appealing and very tempting: the idea that there is ultimately no personal God to whom you are answerable, but there is a kind of spirituality, a sense of awe – that feeling of the hairs at the back of your neck standing on end and of something exciting in this world, though it is vague and you cannot pin it down.
But if this is true, or if some form of pantheism is true – if the universe is divine and we are part of it – then ultimately there is no reason for a distinction between good and evil. If everything is part of God, whatever God is, we are simply saying we are all part of this universe and everything that happens is part of it, whether it is good or evil: and how are we to decide what is good or evil? In Eastern religion, which is more consistently pantheistic than any other form of thought, the emphasis is that all distinctions are illusory, so the distinction between good and evil is also an illusion. Everything ultimately is part of the One. And so we lose this firm line between good and evil which is so essential, not just to our other complaints about the existence of God, but to our whole lives. How can we live without some sense of good and evil, of right and wrong, the things that we condemn, even if it is condemning them in others and letting ourselves off with them? We have this sense that there is this intrinsic distinction.
These are some of the ways in which I have been tempted towards atheism. Now I would like to explain why I actually believe in God. It is not just because I have rejected these particular temptations to atheism, but because of the more positive emphasis that I actually believe there is evidence that God exists.
First of all, I am not an atheist because of the universe. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, said, “The basic philosophical question is that something exists.” That may seem very obvious, but in fact it is the starting point. Something exists. The universe is here. We have not created it. We are here. We are part of the universe and we must make some sort of sense of it. But what is there is not just something, it is this incredibly ordered and beautiful and human universe. It is ordered, in the sense that we can discover uniformity in it, and frame scientific laws about it. It is beautiful, in that we can appreciate the beauty of the natural world and of human beings. But it is also a kind of human universe, and even in science there is the development of what is called the anthropic principle, the idea that things seem to be fitting together in relation to human beings. And this is what we discover: that the world is there for our benefit, and that there are all sorts of things that fit together for us. We discover and invent all sorts of things from this universe in which we are. We develop our life and our culture from it, it all seems to fit together. Now this poses a huge question – Why should it be so? The universe does not seem to be random and utterly meaningless.
The physicist Roger Penrose (who worked together with Stephen Hawking who wrote A Brief History of Time) computed the odds of the “Big Bang” producing our ordered universe merely by accident. The odds came out at one in 10 to the power 10 to the power 123. I am not a great mathematician, but I know that that is a very big number! In fact we are assured that it is so large that it has more zeros than the total number of particles in the entire universe. That is how big it is. In other words, he is saying that it is impossible that the universe as it is could have come about by accident. There seems to be some sort of design at work in the physical universe from the moment of the “Big Bang” or however we describe its beginning. And it is interesting that science at the moment is definitely pointing towards the universe having had a beginning, and a structured beginning, although we cannot fully understand it – which again, as we see, is exactly what the Bible says.
Voltaire, the French philosopher, said, “I shall always be convinced that a watch proves a watchmaker and a universe proves a God”. That argument is often ridiculed and people say that, if it is valid, all it shows is that a universe proves a universe-maker, which is different from a God. But if there is a Being – whatever we call him, Universe-maker or anything else – who has made this universe, this amazing, vast, complex, beautiful universe, then I will fall down and worship him. Voltaire and others have seen the power of this argument from design. The universe seems to be designed. It is not just chaotic, not just random, not just by accident. There is some meaning and purpose behind it.
In the very first words of the Bible we have the explanation of this: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The first chapter of Genesis does not explain the mechanisms by which God did it. It may be the “Big Bang”, it may be that modern physicists are on the right lines in explaining how God brought the universe into being; but we are simply told the fact that it did not have an impersonal, chance beginning. God decided it and God designed it, by whatever mechanism. Similarly with the history of the universe – God has designed it, God has created it, God is working out his purposes in it. And this to my mind makes sense of what we see in the universe. I am not an atheist because of the universe.
But secondly, I am not an atheist because of human beings. I am not an atheist because of the nobility of human beings. We have thought already about the cruelty and the evil of the human world: but what about the nobility? “How like a god!” Hamlet says – of a human being, of a man – how like a god. And there is much in human history that brings out the same emphasis. There is the creativity of human beings. If we look at Michelangelo’s statue of David or any of the great works of art, the gift of creativity that human beings have is breathtaking. If we look at York Minster, we see a medieval building that is astonishing today as we take in its complexity and vastness. Or as we look at modern inventions like Concorde or television or computers or whatever, we are amazed at the creativity of human beings.
But there is also a moral awareness that I have emphasised already. We have this awareness of right or wrong. We have what is called a conscience. Yes, there may be great evil and great brutality in the world, but there is always a voice raised against it. There is something within us that says this is wrong, this is evil. There is something about us as human beings that seems inexplicable in purely mechanistic or animal terms.
Supremely, there is love. I do not mean the kind of love of which we might see parallels in the animal world, such as my cat loving me because I feed it cat food. There is something much superior in the human world where love may be shown without anything gained in return – for example in time of war, where people sacrificed their own lives for other people’s freedom. But examples occur also in time of peace – a mother dying for her children, people giving their lives or living their lives for other people, sacrificially, unselfishly. What is the explanation of it, how is there such nobility in human beings?
In contrast with that, we thought earlier about the cruelty and brutality that exists in the human condition. B.F. Skinner, a psychologist, paraphrased Hamlet when he said of man, “How like a dog!” He was comparing human beings to animals and showing how animal psychology can teach us a great deal about human beings. But human beings are capable of far greater brutality or cruelty than any animal. A human being is capable of far more evil than a dog, or a tiger, or the fiercest animal we can think of. There is something intrinsically, worryingly evil in the heart of human beings, so that even the most respectable person might turn out to commit some incredible wickedness. There is all the spite and the hurt and the abuse in this world just at the ordinary level of human society, let alone the great, horrific things like the Holocaust, or Bosnia, or Kosovo.
What is the explanation of this paradox – that there is this great nobility of human beings, these great achievements of human beings, and yet this cruelty and evil? I have never found a satisfactory explanation in any kind of atheistic thinking. The satisfying explanation I have discovered is the message that the Bible gives me, that we as human beings are made in the image of God. We are personal beings, not just some kind of advanced animal, not just some kind of computer. We are human beings made in the image of God – personal, spiritual beings with capacities of creativity and of love and all the rest of it – because we are made like God, we are Godlike. How like a god – Shakespeare was right. But on the other hand the Bible also explains why there is evil. God did not originally create us evil. He created us perfectly good, to enjoy the universe that he had made and to enjoy fellowship with him. But we rebelled against him. The origin of evil is rebellion. The origin of all the evil in the world is rebellion against the laws and the love of God: the refusal to put God in God’s place, at the centre, and the resolve to place ourselves at the centre. And then we make the absolute mess that we have made of the world and of our lives. To my mind this explanation we discover in the Bible is the most satisfying explanation as to who we are: made in the image of God, but sinners, rebels against him.
But thirdly, I am not an atheist because of the Bible. I have referred already to some of the things it says. It is because of this book that I am not an atheist. This is an amazing book. It is remarkable because of its survival. What other book of the ancient world – and we are talking here of two thousand years ago and earlier – has survived in the way the Bible has? We have bits and pieces of manuscripts and books of the ancient world, but they are in libraries or museums, and they are of no great interest to most ordinary people. This book is of astonishing interest to people, and it has survived down through the ages. In spite of vitriolic attacks against it, in spite of attempts to suppress it, it has survived and it flourishes: it is still the world’s best seller. Back in the sixties, people were glibly saying that the Bible was being outsold by another book – ‘the little red book’, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao. It might have been very popular for a short time, but it has disappeared. Nobody thinks about it now, nobody talks about it, hardly anyone reads it, but the Bible has increased its popularity. Even in China where attempts were made to root out the Bible, it is going from strength to strength.
This book is also amazing because of its unity and complexity. The Bible is a complex book. I am not going to pretend that you can simply just pick it up and start reading it anywhere and you will understand everything right away. It contains 66 books, written by about forty authors, so it is complicated. It was written over a period of about 1500 years by all these different people living in different cultures, writing in three different languages, and yet – this is the amazing thing – it all fits together. You can read it as one story. It has one purpose. It has one focus – Jesus Christ. No one human being or group of human beings could have engineered that. It came together over a period of a millennium and a half, from Moses right through to the Apostle John. And yet it makes sense. It has a power today that no other book has.
There is also its reliability. A great archaeologist from the beginning of the twentieth century, Sir William Ramsay, started off his investigations in the Middle East and in Turkey convinced that the Bible was inaccurate and unreliable. That was because of the kind of teaching about it that he had had at university. But when he investigated for himself, when he actually excavated in those ancient cities and pieced it all together, he confirmed the details of Luke’s record in the Acts of the Apostles time and time again. His conclusion was that Luke should be placed along with the very greatest of historians. He came to view what Luke said as completely accurate. That testimony has been given again and again about the Bible. When discoveries have actually been made and real work has been done, it has been shown to be accurate.
So we have this remarkable book that has survived, that has this internal unity, this reliability and this amazing popularity throughout the world. It is a book that commands our attention. And because of this book and its message, I believe that God exists: that this is God speaking to me. It has a vibrant, abiding and powerful message for every one of us.
But, finally, I am not an atheist because of Jesus. There is a passage in 1 John, chapter 4, that speaks about Jesus, and about the love of God. God is love, and this is the love that he has shown to us, that he sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. I am not an atheist because of Jesus. I am not an atheist because I have come to know God’s love to me in Jesus Christ.
I have come to know that love in different ways. First of all, through my family. One of the strongest reasons why I am not an atheist is that this love of God in Jesus Christ was communicated to me from a very early age. People today, as I said at the start, look disparagingly at Calvinism, as it is called. But what they are disparaging is simply what the Bible says. Its content was passed on to me from a very young age, and I became aware of the great message of the love of God in Jesus Christ¾that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. I have come to know that love through Christian friends, through the support and encouragement of Christian people, in ways that have been astonishing and beyond the call of duty, love that has not been shown by anyone else.
But supremely I have become aware of this love of God directly in Jesus Christ. The message of the Bible that I have tried to explain focuses on Jesus, this unique person who is the Son of God. He made extraordinary claims about himself, such as “I and the Father are one”. He said all sorts of outrageous things. And remember he was saying these things, not in India in the context of Hinduism where people would say, “O yes, we are all one with God”, but amongst the most monotheistic people in the whole history of the world, the Jewish people – and he himself was a Jew. There is one God, only one God – one God, who is high, majestic and holy, above this world and above human beings – yet he said, “I and the Father are one”. When at his trial he was put on oath and asked, “Are you the Son of the Blessed, are you the Son of God?”, he said, “I am”. Nothing could be clearer than that Jesus himself presented himself as the Son of God – the revelation of God in this world, God become flesh. Now we may say, as C.S. Lewis famously said, “We would put an ordinary person who said that on the same level as someone who believed he was a poached egg”. And people said Jesus was mad, they said he had a demon, but they could not really explain away the fact that Jesus showed perfect love and perfect sanity and yet clearly said, “I am the Son of God”. And this astonishing person, Jesus Christ, had this amazing love that he showed to the outcast, the downtrodden, the rejected, this love that broke through and still breaks through to us today.
But supremely I have come to know God’s existence and his love in the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus said quite clearly that he had not come just to live, or to preach: he came to die. “I have come not to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many”, Jesus said, and that is what he did in dying on the cross. The answer to all our questions about God is right there at the cross, the very centre of all history, where Jesus died for our sins.
There is a little story, written back in the sixties in a students’ magazine. It is called The Long Silence. This is how it goes:
“At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly-not with cringing shame but with belligerence. ‘Can God judge us?’
‘How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror . . . beating . . . torture . . . death!’
In another group a black man lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched for no crime but being black!’
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer?’ she murmured. ‘It wasn’t my fault.’
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he had permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred! What did God know of all that men had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly disabled arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other.
At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever. Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their verdict was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die in agony. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a whole host of witnesses to verify it.
As each leader announced the portion of his sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served the sentence.”
God has experienced the depths of our suffering in this world. But more than that, it was the punishment of our rebellion that the Son of God endured. Jesus died the death that we deserved – without friend, without hope and without God. As the nineteenth century preacher ‘Rabbi’ John Duncan said, “It was damnation and he took it lovingly.” The apostle Paul said, ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
I am not an atheist because I believe there is ample evidence that God exists and, supremely, that God is love. I know that my redeemer lives, because I know the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.