Of course I can’t verify that I actually know what atheists hate the most. Some might hate warm beer more than they hate anything else. Some might hate the Dallas Cowboys more than they hate anything else. Some might hate spending Christmas at their in-laws more than they hate anything else. So this generalization I’m making comes with a caveat—I’m speaking specifically about theology and what the atheists I’ve encountered hate about Christianity and specifically about God.
Put simply, they hate that God’s ways are not our ways. In one discussion, an atheist kept insisting that an omniscient God would have to act this way or that way. Which is it, he kept asking. He, of course, isn’t omniscient, so I couldn’t figure out how he knew that an omniscient God, who’s ways and thoughts aren’t like ours, had only those two choices.
In a more recent discussion, the point is one that Christians have struggled with, and disagreed about for centuries: is God sovereign or does humankind have free will? As I read Scripture, I have to conclude God is both sovereign and has given humans who He made in His image, free will.
There are lots of verses in the Bible that people use to support the idea that God is sovereign. There are also lots of verses in the Bible that people use to support the idea that humans have free will. The natural conclusion seems to be, then, that both are true. It’s not a matter of either-or, but of both-and.
To reinforce this idea, there are a few verses that mesh the two. One is Philippians 3:12. I need to give the context though so that the meaning is clear. Here’s what Paul said about knowing Christ:
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (vv 8-11)
So Paul doesn’t count anything in his past as worthwhile. By far the greatest thing in his life is knowing Christ Jesus, which isn’t a result of any of his own good deeds, but is because of faith. The result is that Paul knew Jesus, suffering and all, anticipating the resurrection from the dead. Then the key verse:
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. (v 12, emphasis mine)
Christ laid hold of Paul and Paul laid hold of faith in Christ.
On the flip side, 1 Peter 2 contains a verse that shows the same synchronistic relationship between God’s sovereign plan and humankind’s rebellion against Him. Again a little context:
And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture:
“BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A CHOICE STONE, A PRECIOUS CORNER stone,
AND HE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve,
“THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED,
THIS BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone” (vv 4-7)
The stage is set. Believers are part of a spiritual house, with Jesus as the Cornerstone. But the next verse discloses the truth about those who do not believe. Peter gives another quote from the Old Testament, then draws the conclusion:
“A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE”;
for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. (v 8, emphasis mine)
Some, Scripture says, find Jesus to be a “rock of offense.” But how did they arrive at that position? By being disobedient to the word, a doom to which they were appointed.
This is enough to cause headaches. In general, we don’t like the idea that people are appointed to doom. We don’t like the idea that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Of course Scripture also says Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
How can both be true?
We want things to be clear, easy, tied up in a neat bow, we want answers that makes sense to us.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Here’s the thing. There really is a clear, easy, tied up in a neat bow truth which we can rely on: God is trustworthy. That’s the truth.
So when God told Abram to leave his home, even though Abram didn’t know where he was going, he trusted Him. When God promised to give Him more descendants than the stars, even though Abram was childless, he believed Him. When God told him all the nations would be blessed through him, though Abraham never lived to see the fulfillment, He counted that promise to be a done deal.
Yet, with respect to the promise of God, [Abraham] did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Romans 4:20-21]
That’s the response of faith to the transcendent God whose ways are higher than ours.
Not that there’s no room for questions—something atheists accuse Christians of is never asking questions. Of course we ask questions—as Gideon did when he was tapped to go up against the Midianites. As did Mary when the angel told her she’d give birth to the Messiah. As did David and other psalmists who cried, How long, oh Lord; or, Why do the wicked prosper; or, Have you forgotten your people?
Questions are not anathema to God. What He wants is a broken and contrite heart, though. Questions from a broken and contrite heart are very different from questions coming from a heart of pride that harbors a desire to be like god.