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

The one question atheists can't answer: "How do you live without hope?" June 14, 2012

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?

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  • 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.


    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

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

          • ThreeRing

            What you miss, though, is that many of us would refuse to worship any deity that would roast, torture, or annihilate anyone for failing to believe in a deity that deliberately hides from those he intends to later judge.

            No god who carefully arranges fossils from trilobites up through jawed fishes and followed by dinosaurs and then megafauna can blame you for not believing in him when he has carefully arranged the entire universe to make it look exactly like he wasn’t there.

            At Creation, He would have known that the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection would be conceived, and in that moment when he decided to arrange the fossils as He did, He damned me before I ever had a chance to sin.
            Because he made the sensible evidence-based conclusion damnable.

  • 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.

    • ThreeRing

      I guess if you lived your life being told that you had a huge trust fund with billions of dollars in it, you’d feel horrible sorrow if you were later told that it was all gone.
      But eventually, you’d get over it and realize that you didn’t ever really need a billion dollars. Or a billion years.

      • Thorsen Vreeland

        twisting your analogy a little further it’s like an email from a Nigerian prince promising great wealth, etc…

  • 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?

  • ThreeRing

    Why would I need a fantasy in order to accept my place in the universe? I don’t believe in an afterlife. I think that when I die, it will be basically equivalent, from my perspective, to the entire universe suddenly failing to exist without even a satisfying kaboom.
    But why should I demand that I should persist forever? If you contemplate the concept of forever, you may notice that forever is a very, very long time. In an infinite amount of time, you can spend an infinite amount of time doing an infinite number of things, so I understand the attraction to the idea, but I think that after just 10,000 years, I would be extremely bored. With no problems to solve, with nothing to strive for, or struggle against, exactly what would you want an eternity FOR?

    I did not exist in the thirteenth century and feel no sorrow for it. Why should I feel sorrow that I won’t exist in the 23rd century? No one really experiences death. You have to go through an event to experience it. An event that ends you is not an event you experience.

    What gets me through the day? Well, I open my eyes and see that there are things to accomplish, my sons to instruct, my mind to expand and hone, and my loves and passions to pursue. The question of how a person can exist without heaven seems to me to be as foolish as a child asking how one can live without the belief in Santa Claus.

    Obviously, a world with a Santa would be desirable. But that doesn’t make him real.

  • hoverFrog

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

    We do it ourselves. It’s as simple as that. No Deux Ex Machina. We’re on our own. We have to grow up and live with that and stop acting like foolish children.