When Atheists Debate Christians
I work at a liquor warehouse. This job requires me to arrive promptly at 5 a.m. During the first 4 hours of my shift, I am doing what would be expected of a warehouse employee at 5 in the morning:
- I’m drinking coffee
- I’m moving inventory to the shelves
- And, of course, I’m listening to debates between Theists and Atheists
One such debate I came across was a 2016 debate between Dr. David Wood and Dr. Michael Shermer. These two brilliant men were discussing the question: “Does God exist?”—A question that has been debated for thousands of years. Dr. Wood took the affirmative position, presenting a case for why God exists. Dr. Shermer attempted to dodge an affirmative by redefining atheism as a “lack of belief” in God instead of a “belief that” there is no God.
Shermer pulled no punches; The Euthyphro Dilemma, Carl Sagan’s Dragon, out-of-context bible verses, and The Problem of Evil were all thrown at Wood- category errors, false dichotomies, and all.
God’s Character in Question
The hits were endless. What struck me most about the debate was not Woods’ self-named “Defibrillator” argument or Shermer using Carl Sagan’s Dragon as a comparison to the Theist position about God. It was the fact that much of Shermer’s disdain for Christian Theism revolved around the mercy and grace that God shows when even the worst come to know Him while in a jail cell.
He states: “You could be a serial killer on death row in Texas and find Jesus. This happens, don’t you know? … Are we to believe that these men, if they accept Jesus at the last moment after the brutal crimes that they committed… they get to go [free for eternity]? …”
What are we to make of this notion of grace?
God’s Mercy and Grace: Why It’s A Gospel Issue
In the introduction article for this series, I opened with the idea that what we think about God should affect everything else. I quoted Exodus 34:6-7, where Yahweh Himself shares His character and thus our expectation for how He should relate to us. It’s this character that should be the lens through which we filter our understanding of the Gospel and the world around us.
I always find interesting, the stumbling blocks I see people reach on their way to the Gospel. Most of the time it has to do with the existence of hell, evil in the world, church abuse, God’s apparent cruelty in the bible (which we will touch later on in this series), or intellectual roadblocks.
One stumbling block that we do not address enough is the grace and mercy that God shows sinners (probably because it’s so unexpected). However, I would say that the reason there is rampant legalism in the church, 10 “Hail Mary’s” given as penance for sins, and so many cult followings is because we do not naturally accept grace and mercy. We think that we deserve every reparation if we are wronged and therefore, so God should be, too. We do not think that we are deserving of this grace and mercy deep down, so why should a killer or a thief deserve such a thing?
Truthfully, the reason I believe the Gospel is a stumbling block for so many people is this:
The Gospel And Undeserved Grace
The Christian Gospel is as follows:
- God created human beings: in His image, to share in the stewardship of creation, and to enjoy a relationship with Himself.
- Human beings rebelled against God. (Enter: sin.)
- Now, because God is holy and just (a topic we will touch on in this series in more detail), He cannot stand injustice of any sort: greed, lust, taking the Lord’s name in vain, murder, dishonoring parents, sexual immorality of any sort. God’s wrath and justice is on everyone, as we deserve. BUT GOD IS ALSO RICH IN MERCY.
- God’s plan involved sending His Son to take on the punishment that you and I deserve. He didn’t have to… But out of His loving, merciful, graceful, and just nature, He did just that.
- Jesus, the Son of God, willingly died on a cross in order to perfectly atone for the sin of humanity.
- Jesus rose from the dead, victoriously conquering sin, and the eternal grave.
- Everyone who turns away from evil rebellion (repents) and follows Christ is justified by the work of the cross in the sight of God and is saved from the wrath to come. We who follow Jesus are promised eternal glory alongside Christ.
In its simplest form, God pursued us personally, all the way to the cross, for us to be reconciled to Him. We did not deserve that. We could have immediately been put to death for rebellion against the King. Yet God chose otherwise out of grace and mercy.
Is this grace and mercy expected?
Is there a pattern of this grace and mercy being shown to people who seem to be undeserving?
And, to Shermer’s point up top, should we expect a serial killer on death row who puts his faith in Christ to get out of his punishment?
The Pattern of Grace
The answer to all of these questions is “yes.”
Throughout all of scripture we see God showing grace and mercy to the undeserving. Take Abraham and Sarah for example.
Abraham and Sarah.
- Abraham lied to the Egyptians about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin… for those unfamiliar with the story, Sarah was his wife.
- Sarah scoffed at God’s promise that she would conceive at such an old age.
- Sarah gave Abraham her concubine to have a child. Abraham accepted.
- So we now have adultery, lying, scoffing at God, and being stubborn at times.
How did God respond? By being merciful and gracious to Sarah and Abraham, and keeping His covenant with them.
Let’s Talk About Moses.
- Moses got angry and brutally killed an Egyptian guard.
- He fled into the hillside and became a shepherd. God called him to go back to Egypt to appeal to Pharaoh to let His people go.
- Moses responded by giving endless excuses as to why he shouldn’t go.
- Moses also had an anger problem and was incredibly stubborn. How did God respond?
God responded by allowing Moses to continue leading Israel through the desert. And while God did not allow him to enter the Promised Land, he never abandoned Moses.
What About Israel?
I think a reality TV show about Israel and Yahweh would be amazing. Why? Israel, while being in a covenant relationship with God, did all of the following:
- Betrayed Yahweh and began worshipping the gods of other nations. (And received all of the consequences that came with it)
- Complained constantly in the desert and demanded to go back to Egypt into slavery. (I would be mad, too, if I were Moses!)
- Made alliances with other nations.
- Put more emphasis on tradition than the purpose of the Law.
- Demanded to have a king because having a king was what all the other cool nations were doing.
How did God respond?
He showed them the consequences for their actions but still remained with Israel in covenant, blessing all the nations through them. This would be accomplished through Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh.
There are countless other examples:
We have Joseph, David, Jacob, Lot, the town of Nineveh, even the Canaanites for 400 years. Then there is the Roman Centurion, the woman caught in adultery, Peter and the disciples, or even Paul- who sought to systematically kill off the Church.
But I want to speak more to what Shermer brought up: The Serial Killer on Death Row.
The Tale of 2 Criminals
If you are familiar with the crucifixion account, you may be familiar with the report that there were 2 criminals on crosses next to Jesus.
We must remember that only the worst of the worst during this time were crucified. Rebels, insurrectionists, murderers… Breaking common laws did not necessitate crucifixion as a punishment.
The two criminals crucified with Christ had probably attempted to kill some people, attacked guards, stolen choice items from the Roman elite… Maybe they even tried to overthrow the government, among other things.
The first criminal mocks Jesus, His claim to Messiahship, His power and authority, and everything about Who Jesus is.
The second criminal looked at Jesus, admitted that he and the other criminal deserved to be executed for their crimes, and asked for Christ to remember him in His Kingdom.
But how did Jesus, the Son of God, respond?
Bleeding, tired, writhing in pain and suffocating by the minute, he lets out a sentence. “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43b)
Jesus, fully God and fully man, responds to the criminal on death row… he who committed heinous crimes… with grace and mercy.
This is what the cross accomplishes: A grace and a mercy that is underserved, given to rebels who admit their faults and declare allegiance to the King.
In parting, I leave you with these verses to reflect on…
‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’
1 John 1:9-10
‘For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. ‘
Praise the Lord, it’s truly that simple.