The one question atheists can't answer: "How do you live without hope?"

I have been following my friend Peter Saunders series of posts based on 20 Questions Atheists Struggle to answer. It is an interesting series, and in it he attempts to engage with a group who simply don’t understand Christians. I am glad to see that the age-old craft of apologetics is far from dead. But there is one question he didn’t ask that to me at least is the most critical:

“How do you live without hope?”

I have lived now for more than 41 years. This is easily long enough to realize that this world is far from ideal. It really is a cruel world that almost seems to be thinking of ways to disappoint, damage, or ultimately destroy us. It surely can’t be long before I reach the half-way stage on my life if I haven’t already. Death, whether your own or others can bring bone-crushing sorrow, even to a Christian. So I ask,

How do you live without a hope in the after-life?

I simply cannot understand how someone faces life each day, believing that their existence and that of those they love can be permanently snuffed out in an instant. Believing that they will never meet again with those that have died. Believing that ultimately this short life is all there is.

But it is not just that. If you are an atheist by definition the universe is a random place. Everything within us cries out that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way the world works. Sin, sickness, and death feel like unwelcome invaders. Few willingly welcome any of them. Yet the Christian believes that behind a broken world there is a sovereign God who will one day fix it all, and in the meantime is working everything round for good to those who love him (Romans 8:28).

If you couldn’t look an enemy in the eye and say with Joseph “You meant it for harm, God meant it for good” how do you get through life?

How do you live without hope that a person who is loving will one day fix the worlds woes and is already turning around bad things to cause good results?

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock has been a blogger since April 2003, and part of the leadership team of Jubilee Church, London for more than ten years, serving alongside Tope Koleoso. Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus.

Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway. Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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    • Bill F

      “Atheists work to make everybody’s lives better”
      - So tell me how this is different than what Christians do? There are Christian scientists, there are Christian engineers, Christian philosophers, Christian leaders, Christian doctors. Do atheists do more to make people’s lives better than Christians do?
      You realize don’t you, that Christians donate 10x more money and services to help the needy than atheists do don’t you ? Many hospitals, colleges and charities were all started by Christians.

      “You just want to make everybody obey your outdated belief system.”
      - We do? Yes, we do evangelize because that’s what God wants and we hope to save a few souls. Yes some do get carried away. But you can choose to ignore as easily as we choose to ignore atheism. Why is our belief system outdated? We still have the same basic moral values that we’ve had for thousands of years and I’m sure you still follow them as well.

      “Your God is supposedly all powerful, yet you admit the world is broken, people suffer and die and your God isn’t preventing it.”
      – There are so many arguments debunking this parroted statement and it would take too much typing to go over it all. Just do some searching and you’ll find them.

      “How is it you’ve never really tried talking to an atheist?”
      - Have you visited the forums at Dawkin’s site or any of the other militant atheists? They are rude, condescending and just plain childish. You could never hope to have a civil discussion with any of them. However, speak to one in real life and they are all friendly and caring – most anyways. It’s called internet bravery. At least Christians will behave the same way online as they will in person. Either way they will tell you about God and why he is good.

      “How can you mislead your followers with a straight face?”
      - We could ask you the same. You obviously have not read the bible, truly studied the bible, studied other historical documents that back up the bible, spoken to biblical scholars and you simply parrot what the mainstream atheists say over and over. Frankly it’s boring.

      I wish you the best. I pray you’re young and live a long life. But I guarantee as you get older you’ll start to reconsider your position. Life as an old person can be hell, especially when you believe that death only leads to a hole in the ground. If that’s what you continue to believe then I am positive you will be a grumpy old man. There is never going to be a magic pill that makes you live longer, or stops your aging, makes you more attractive – you’re going to die. Plain and simple. In fact with all the toxic foods and laziness in the world the average age of death will soon be lower than it is today. Science is not going to let you live forever, or for a lot longer than we do today. Not going to happen.

      Peace

  • Bill F

    Way late to comment I know, but I’m the opposite of Lindsey above. I’ve been on both sides too…having been an atheist pretty much most of my life and turning to Christianity in my late 40s. Why did I turn to Christianity? Because my life was miserable, I was always grumpy, and people flat out found me intolerable to be around. This went on for at least 30 years and the thing is I never knew why I felt like I did. I’ve always had a good job, did whatever I wanted, bought whatever I wanted, I have great kids…basically it was the atheist’s dream. But so many times I would find myself crying in private because I didn’t know why I was on this planet and what purpose my life had. I cursed my parents for ever having me and considered suicide more than once.

    It was for the grace of a Christian friend that somehow put up with my garbage for all those years that changed me. He invited me to church. I thought I would go and make fun of them, and I thought they would ridicule me and tell me I was going to hell and all they would want from me was money. It was so much different than that. They were kind, inviting and I rather enjoyed it. They never asked me for anything. After about a month of going it occurred to me how much better I felt inside – how my life was starting to have true meaning. The next step was bible study and also studying other historic documents that prove the occurrences in the bible that so many people misconstrue.

    I’m now unbelievably happy, fulfilled and have no problems getting up in the morning to face the day or going to bed at night wondering what there is after this shell of a body no longer exists. My family and friends are astonished at the change in me and it was all done without anything but God’s love.

    I can’t understand Lindsey’s statement above – “I stopped praying and got off my butt and started doing”. What does that mean? Does she think when she was a Christian that praying was going to get her everything she ever wanted? If so then she has a totally different understanding of Christianity than anyone else I know. God helps those that help themselves.

    Once I accepted God into my life it became very clear to me why I chose atheism so long ago and it’s so very clear by what the atheists above have all written – they, like my former self, do not want to be held accountable for their lives by anyone – even if that someone is God. They are going to do what they want to do when they want to do it. To heck with the Ten Commandments – full speed ahead.

    I know you’ll never get an atheist to admit this, but this will be their life cycle.
    1. Birth to late teens – believe in God because that’s what the adults tell you.
    2. Late teens to 40 years old – I’m not going to die anytime soon and if I do it will be quick probably so I’m not worried about it, I’ve still got another 30 or 40 years of life left.
    3. 40 y/o to 65 y/o – As they start to see wrinkles showing up and friends and family members dying they start to think about what happens when they die, but hey it’s no big deal. I’ll just be put in a hole in the ground and I’ll rot. I’ve still got quite a few good years in me.
    4. Over 65 y/o – Whoa, I could drop dead any minute or my spouse or children could also drop dead any minute and I’ll NEVER EVER see them again, man did this life go by fast. Perhaps there is something more after this life. Maybe I’d better start looking into it.

    Like I said not one of them will admit that. In fact some, like Dawkins, truly don’t even think about it. But for the majority of them, thinking that this extremely short life is all their is will be to much to bear and they will all accept Christ as they near death. Oh they may not admit it to anyone but themselves, maybe they won’t go to church…but they’ll say silent prayers, they’ll start caring about people other than themselves and they’ll genuinely worry.

    It’s easy to be an atheist when you’re young – it sucks to be an atheist when you’re old. In just my very short time of accepting God I’ve worked with the elderly and I’ve seen many of them on their death bed accept Christ into their life. It doesn’t matter to me that they were atheist or agnostic their entire life and many people think they “screwed the system” by being sinful until the very end. I’m just very glad they accepted Christ before passing on.

    That’s my story and I’m sure someone will come by and make a negative comment about it, but it’s all good. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, I know my life has purpose now and I don’t “sit around praying” thinking God is going to give me everything I ever wanted. Yes I do pray, but it’s thanking God for accepting me and praying that he give the will to other people to also accept him. If anything I get off my butt more now than I did before. Praying and sitting around on your butt are mutually exclusive – God doesn’t expect you to sit around and wait for him to work miracles. He expects you to get out there and do things to help yourself and others. Saying “I stopped praying and got off my butt and started DOING” is the biggest cop-out I’ve ever heard. Bottom line is Lindsey is young and doesn’t want anyone telling her what she can and cannot do.

    Peace

    • Greg

      The questions are facile, you could have entitled the piece: “Why can’t atheists answer in a way that affirms my outlook.”
      here goes:
      1. Hope for what?… a sunny day? making a friend? a tolerant world? the list is endless and atheists have them.
      2. Very well, thank you.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock Adrian Warnock

        Hope when a loved one has died.

  • Dorfl

    For specificity, I’ll address the question “How do you live without a hope in an afterlife?”. My answer to the second question would simply repeat the same general arguments, with some specific points changed.

    The Zen answer would be to point to myself and say ‘like this’. I’m not sure if the longer answer explains much more, but I’ll try:

    ‘How to you live without hope in an afterlife?’ is a question that I – as an atheist – struggle to answer, for the simple reason that it is based on such a very different world-view from mine that it’s difficult for me to even see what is being asked. Without making a deliberate effort to see things from a Christian perspective, it’s not really possible for me to see that there is anything there to ask about.

    I don’t think I’ve ever believed in an afterlife. I remember having an argument with a friend in kindergarten about what happens when we die. She thought we turned into angels and lived on clouds. I thought that was a preposterous idea. I don’t think the debate ever got beyond the level of ‘Is too!’-'Is not!’-'Is too!’-'You’re a dumbyface!’, but in any case I’ve lacked belief in any kind of afterlife for as far back as I have even slightly reliable memories.

    This means that I’m completely used to the idea of my lifetime being limited to a few decades. There is nothing unfamiliar or strange about it to make it frightening. Speculating about the possibility of a paradisal afterlife is – to me – like asking ‘What if the ground was all made of delicious candy?’. It might be fun to speculate about, and on some intellectual level I have to say that it would probably be an improvement, but I have no particular emotional response to the belief that it isn’t the case. The possibility that there might not be any afterlife only becomes terrifying by contrast if you already have a strong belief that a paradise exists and you are going there – for much the same reason as a multimillionaire would terrified of losing his fortune, while I’m quite comfortable with not having millions of dollars.

    I also have to point out that ‘no hope’ is not the same as ‘no consolation’. If someone I know dies, you are right that I have no hope that they might not really be dead: that their death is just a very convincing illusion. But I can be consoled by the knowledge that they had a good life, they achieved good things and we had good experiences together. Or, if none of those things are true, there is at least the cold comfort that it’s now over.

    I’m not sure how much consolation this would give you though. Christians tend to find it very paltry, since you are used to seeing our lives as just the prologue for when the real fun will begin. Atheists tend to find the Christian view paltry for much the same reason – many of us see you as being so obsessed with ideas and intuitions about the afterlife and the supernatural world that you miss the wonder that is actual life, in the real world.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock Adrian Warnock

      Thanks that’s a very helpful enlightening answer in terms of understanding what you actually believe. The world view difference is critical and I do believe its important for us all to learn to walk in another’s shoes. Of course I would love nothing more than for you to change your mind and become like us. I guess you’d probably want me to change my mind too. Discussing our different views is important in my view. But too many conversations in the Internet really aren’t much better than that playground spat you spoke of! Thank you for being respectful and thoughtful.

      • Dorfl

        That is good to hear. I’m actually not very interested in converting anybody, but I do think it’s very important to explain what our views actually are, since that’s pretty much a prerequisite for any kind of productive discussion – even respectful internet discussions have a bad tendency to consist very much of attacks on a third-hand summary of the other party’s beliefs.

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/adrianwarnock Adrian Warnock

          I guess removing the “false” hope of an eternal hope probably feels less urgent than persuading people of everlasting consequences for decisions made today.

  • Winston Jen

    Epic fail, Peter. Epic fail. Atheists live with hope. We don’t have faith or trust in a being that lied to his first two humans and never stopped.

    I guess that helps a lot too.

  • JacobBe5

    I don’t understand why you thought this is a difficult question.

    I live with the knowledge that man in the past committed horrible acts to one another, slavery being a great example. Today many societies have banned the practice. Man overcame a limitation and made the world, or at least part of it, better. And in the US they not only did this without some deity showing up telling them to prohibit it, but in the face of many long held beliefs that it was acceptable to their god to do this to their fellow human beings.

    So I have hope for a better tomorrow because in many ways in many places the past was much worse than today. I therefore know we can improve things and therefore hope we can have a better future.

    I don’t need to live forever to find satisfaction with relationships. If anything it makes me cherish them all the more. It doesn’t drive me to despondency to know my loved ones will eventually die and be no more, it informs my relations with them. It makes me care more about our lives and not depend upon the claim that it will all be better later.
    Tomorrow is not promised, and today could end abruptly, so make now count.

    Lastly, and I am unclear why you even wrote about it, why do you think atheists would think the universe is random place? I have no reason to believe it is random. In fact it appears to operate in very predictable ways. If I hold out a rock and release it I predict it will fall towards the Earth in accordance with the description called the theory of gravity. If it was random sometimes it would fly upward, or away from me laterally. This applies to other things too. If I spit in the eye of a person I can predict they will be offended. I can predict it will negatively affect my relations not only with them, but anyone who witnessed the act. In short my choices are informed because I’ve seen the universe is not random.

    In closing you have highlighted where we have a fundamental difference.
    I live life for life’s sake, you appear to live it for death’s.
    But when faced with possible death do you rely on your God’s will, or do your best to assert your will?
    Which we can answer with a simple question, do you look before crossing the street?


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