You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. – C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is one of the most quoted authors in Christianity. The reason for this lies not only in the quality of his works, but in his life experience, his journey from a hardline atheist, to an unshakeable Christian. I have read the story of his life several times, and each time I experienced my love for God being refreshed.
With his characteristic smile, Lewis stated that an atheist, if he wants to remain a serious atheist, should be very careful what he reads. Lewis was not “careful” and so he came to read three authors who turned his life upside down: G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien. He first “fell” from atheism to faith in God as the Creator, then continued to “fall” and came to faith in Christ, only to eventually become what he never planned to become—a great and loving ambassador for God.
The famous German theologian and martyr of Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, read Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and concluded that the history of the conversion of C.S. Lewis is one of “endurance and teaching.” Reading Lewis’s biographies and his autobiography, I realise how right Bonhoeffer was. And at the same time, I realise that we all somehow go through this valley of indecision, and come out according to the way we choose to answer.
Here is how C.S. Lewis answered: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”1
What the newspapers forget to tell us
The concern, effort, and sincerity of those who debate the existence or non-existence of God are undoubtedly appreciable. However, I cannot imagine anyone leaving with their face shining with joy after such a debate. I rather see them leaving with their finger on their temple or their hand on their mouth. I can’t imagine the man who won the debate having a truly happy heart because he managed, through demonstration, calculations and analysis, to prove the existence of God. At most, I see a man congratulating himself or deifying his intelligence, just as, in pagan times, the fisherman bought incense and worshipped the fishing net. In other words, beyond the temporary satisfaction of intellectual supremacy, people need something far higher than any demonstration, something that certainly comes from outside of themselves.
Human intelligence, education, and culture are not sources of true faith in Him, only the instruments or channels of God’s communication to man. But all three can successfully represent the source of unbelief in Him. Since God cannot be contained in mathematical or ecclesiastical formulas, in forms, images, or beliefs, any kind of faith based on such things will be extinguished, sooner or later.
The God who cannot be “discovered”
God cannot be “discovered” in any way and by any human means, because God cannot be the object of study. This is the essence of the testamentary sermon of the martyr Stephen: “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” Stephen’s statement covers any kind of human achievement or enterprise that seeks to encompass or subscribe to God in a particular space. “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built,” confessed Solomon. The knowledge of God is subject to immutable laws and is obtained only by means and in ways established by God Himself (who nevertheless leaves no one out). Jesus explained, “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” And John meant the same thing when he declared, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”
He “discovers” Himself
The statement “no one has ever seen God” encompasses everything that means direct knowledge of God. God cannot be “seen”, “for no one may see me and live“. In other words, when He does not reveal Himself, God does not focus on Himself, but focuses on man—and his loving aim for man to live abundantly. Paul emphasises that God “lives in unapproachable light” and that “no one has seen or can see” Him.
The question then remains: Does God still reveal Himself? Can He be known in any way and to any extent so that we can believe in Him? Yes, of course. There is Someone who has seen God: Jesus. Jesus knows Him, and has lived among us to make Him known, according to His will, to those who want to know Him. And His will is that all should “come to a knowledge of the truth” and “none should perish.” “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Once Jesus came and lived among us, the request, ”Lord, show us the Father” became pointless. “He who has seen Me has seen the Father!” He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word“. He is the One who said, “I and the Father are one.” Therefore, although no man has seen and can see God, we have, at the same time, the full revelation of God in Jesus.
I understand that this knowledge of God is not possible directly, but it is possible through Jesus. It is not possible through our efforts and abilities—from the bottom up—but only from the top down, through the revelation that God gives of Himself in Christ, the One who descended “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Faith in God either springs from here or does not spring at all. And if Jesus is not enough to convince our souls of God’s existence, then what would be enough?
What about those who did not know Jesus?
It is not a problem that some did not know Jesus. Jesus knew them and that is all that truly matters: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” And Paul says, “now that you know God—or rather are known by God.” That is, it is not of primary importance that I have known God. Rather what is of importance is the fact that He has known me. We know Him because He knew us first. On the operating table, when breath flickers between life and death, what is of the highest importance is not for me to know the doctor, but for him to know me; that is, to know my suffering and the remedy for it. By extension, the same principle applies when life struggles between faith and unbelief.
To the believer
“We want another sign,” said Jesus’ contemporaries. No other sign will be given to you, He answered them, for whatever sign is given to you, you will refuse to believe. Once you receive another sign, you will want another one. If you do not believe the Scriptures, you will not believe even if someone comes back from the dead.
The answer we give to revelation is either faith or unbelief. Neutrality is not possible. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him”, said the epistle to the Jews. But true faith is not born and is not manifested in a vacuum, it is born of God’s initiative: “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” First God reveals Himself, and then asks us to believe in Him. A faith that is not based on revelation but on imagination is fertile ground for the devil. Instead, true faith appeals to intellect, reason, nature, and experience. “Judge, seek, taste, choose,” are the watchwords that accompany true faith.
The world, divided by belief
Our faith or unbelief does not change reality. God does not come into existence because we believe that He exists, nor does He cease to exist because we imagine that He does not exist. Instead, it is the choice to believe or not that changes dramatically. Adopting one position or another in terms of faith in God will have a decisive effect on the quality and nature of our lives and those around us.
Is it not strange that those who said they did not believe in God made themselves gods? History bears witness to a river of blood shed by the hand of the one to whom it was sung: “Glory to him, glory to him, glory to him!”: Joseph Visarionovich Stalin. There are no people who do not believe in the idea of deity. Such people believe in themselves, in their Reason, in the intelligence and information they have, and they make themselves gods. Their “own strength is their god“, says the Bible. The apostle Paul, in his second epistle to the Thessalonians (2:4), speaks of the adversary who “will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God”. Should I still believe that atheism means unbelief in God, or should I rather believe that it actually means trying to usurp God?
Often, unbelief in God goes further than a simple philosophical attitude and becomes militant, turning into enmity against the One it says does not exist. It is so strange to hate “nobody”, to fight against “nobody”, to convert another to believe in “nobody” and “nothing”. The attitude of hostility, irritation, and “missionary zeal” that often accompanies unbelief in God proves that the so-called “atheism” (of which the devil is not tired) is more than an attitude of the mind towards perceived reality. It is an alienation of our spiritual nature: “he who is not with Me is against Me.”
God believes in atheists
It is difficult, if not impossible, to chart the path someone has taken to reach one conclusion or another about faith. A lot of factors are involved. But the most comforting thing is that God knows the nature of our attitude, whatever it is, the path we take and the destination to which we are heading. He judges fairly and responds appropriately.
The zealot, Saul of Tarsus, used to persecute “the one that does not exist”, kill His followers, and travelled far and wide to get others on the “good way” of believing in the non-existence of Jesus as the Son of God. He was led by an ardent and tireless belief that since ancestral traditions are “eternally true,” that must mean that everything that is different is false. The Bible says that Saul “was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples“. This is what could be seen from the outside in this man who made thousands of his fellow men tremble. But beyond what was seen on the outside, God could read in his soul what no earthling could read. As a result, “the one who did not exist” cut him off from Damascus to have a talk with this man who was persecuting Him “to death.” Saul fell to the ground and worshipped Him. By the power of God alone, his “previous way of life” has been replaced by “the new life in Christ“.
This biblical story reveals how God treats faith and unbelief. First, Saul does not seek the Lord, but the Lord seeks Saul. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you,” Jesus said. Saul does not believe in Jesus, but Jesus believes in Saul. We do not know exactly why and how Jesus approached him. However, judging by the results we can understand that the time, place, and manner were the best. It is clear that Saul had been struggling with his conscience for some time, because “it was hard for him to kick against the goads,” but in the end he did. Why was he so fanatical in his persecution of “the one who does not exist”?
Carl Jung says that fanaticism is a compensation for the mysterious doubts of the individual. What does it mean for man to meet God and for God to meet man? Transforming man into a robot or a computer? No. God wants man to judge, understand, and decide. “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus asks Saul. “Do you have a logic, a good reason, is your attitude the result of your research and your lucid decision? What is your motive?” “It’s what I believe about You,” was Saul’s unspoken answer. Then he says, “Actually, I’m asking you now what I should have asked you from the beginning: ‘Who are you, Lord?'” It was the first time Saul stopped to ask “the one who doesn’t exist” a question. He had never asked for an answer from Him before. Maybe he sensed and feared the truth. He had been walking by virtue of his prejudices and traditions, which denounced Jesus as deceitful. The Lord’s answer is simple, the one Saul feared: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Saul does not hesitate to draw the logical conclusion: “So You exist, Lord, You are true, and I am unjustly persecuting you.” Faced with the truth, his positive reaction is not long in coming: “What do you want me to do?” This attitude marks the beginning of a life that has had a powerful impact on all believers to this day. This is God’s way of confronting man with the truth and his own conscience. He knows that true faith is not born, and manifests itself only in true freedom. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” This is what He does with people with different beliefs. What sort of respect, what sort of tact, what kind of grace God manifests towards us! If I were an atheist, I wouldn’t be afraid to meet such a God. “How convincing are the words of the truth,” says Job.
Faith in God is not the product of our minds, culture, or the church. It is the gift of God in Christ Jesus. To have or not to have this faith does not depend on the verb “to obtain,” but on the verb “to receive.” Transparency and lucidity are required. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”