There is one statement in Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant that is probably the toughest one to swallow.
“No longer will they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,”
says the LORD,
“because I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sin no more.”
I applied this prophecy to daily life and ministry by writing, “When you are concerned about people, you need to know this: They already know God.”
Pastor Weekly asked a very pertinent question, “Do you believe that atheists know God–people like Richard Dawkins?” My answer is “yes.”
Saying “No” to God with Our Mouths, but “Yes” by Our Actions
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Parable of the Two Sons. Jesus begins by inviting us to think about the parable.
“Now what do you think?
A man had two sons. He approached the first and said, ‘Son, go work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered and said, ‘I do not want to!’ But later he changed his mind and went.
And he approached the second son and said the same thing. And he answered and said, ‘I will, sir,’ and he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said, “The first.”
For me this parable’s central meaning can be summarized like this: Talk is cheap; it’s obedience that matters. But other insights that can be drawn from the parable.
It is possible to say “No” to God with your mouth and your mind, even with your heart, and nevertheless wind up doing the Father’s will. Based on Jesus’ question to his audience, this question is one valid way to understand Christ’s bottom-line: “Which of the two did the will of his father?”
Valid Reasons for Rejecting “God” and the Christian Message
I grew up with a keen awareness of the Holocaust. I knew that many Jews became atheists as a result. I had read about the anti-Jewish pogroms in Christian Europe, and Christian anti-semitism in general. I knew about America’s refusal in 1939 to allow Jewish refugees to disembark from the S.S. St. Louis and how the refugees eventually had to return to their German homeland. I knew there were many reasons for Jews to not believe in God, and many reasons for them to reject the Christian message.
I also knew that it was possible to say “No” to God and end up doing God’s will just the same, which was one way of describing Jesus’ bottom line criteria for us.
What do people say when they reject God, religion, or the church?
- If your God could order the slaughter of innocent women, children, and animals, then I don’t want to have anything to do with him.
- They kicked me out when I really needed them.
- What kind of God could allow the annihilation of millions of people? of every living relative I ever had? There is no God. And if there is, I don’t want to have anything to do with him.
- He molested me, and they didn’t anything about it, even though I told them.
Some of these people are atheists; some will never set foot in a church. Do you think God is going to consign these people to a Christless eternity in hell?
Often when we “doubt the existence of God,” what we are doubting is not God, but some picture of God, some inadequate version of God, what we learned in Sunday school. When we reject Christianity, often we are rejecting is some narrow sliver of church life, often based on one or two pastors in a single congregation. Even narrower is a blanket rejection of God or religion based on our parents’ idiosyncratic version of the Christian life.
God is not so petty or weird as to punish people he knows and loves, for whom he sacrificed himself, whom he created in his own image–because of a response to the failures of others.
What is happening when we reject inferior mental pictures of God, when we turn our backs on inadequate understandings of God? There are many explanations. I believe the rejection comes from the fact that we are created in the Image of God, and that the Image of God within them will not tolerate “childish things,” no matter how erudite and Bible-based those things are. It is not only understandable and reasonable for some people to reject childish images of God, it is laudable.
Mystics understand the inferiority of our mental images of God. We pride ourselves in rejecting the cliché image of the old bearded man in heaven seated on his rocker, but that is not the limit of inadequate images. ALL of our images of infinite God are ultimately inferior, even the Biblical metaphors. What some mystics call “The Dark Night of the Soul” includes losing every picture of God, every last shred of any human understanding of God, so that only the reality will suffice. To reject an image of God that is inadequate and inferior is wise, spiritual, and godly.
“New Covenant” — Built-In Ethical Guide is Standard on all Models
Let me return to Jesus’ parable of the two sons. One person left this comment to the previoius post:
The kingdom of God is within you. Not within you because you believe certain doctrines, but because it is inherently present within you. IMO this is completely compatible with atheism, though not at all requiring atheism to make sense. The atheist need not believe a God exists and wrote X on her heart in order to have the experience of truth emerging from her ethical core, rather than being handed handed down from an external deity.
Since some people don’t read the comments, I wanted to include this clear explanation. I believe the commenter would agree with my conviction that talk is cheap, and that what matters is our actions. There are several directions I could take this, but I’d like to finish this with something James said.
He who knows to do right and does it not, to him it is sin.
James doesn’t discuss how we know what is right. There are many ways to know that, but the subject here is not epistemology. If I know what to do, and I don’t do it–my bad.