Tolerance is king in pluralistic America—except when it comes to the New Atheists. They are anything but tolerant when talking about Christianity. Christopher Hitchens, a pundit who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, gratingly equates belief in Jesus Christ with Islamic radicalism. Hitchens pontificates, “Many of the teachings of Christianity are, as well as being incredible and mythical, immoral.” Scientist Richard Dawkins suggests that believers “just shut up.” Sam Harris, meanwhile, is busy writing letters to Christians to tell them how wrong-headed they are. The New Atheists are having the time of their lives, and the undiscerning American marketplace is rewarding them handsomely.
But when it comes to unbelief, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris are strictly minor leaguers. Consider an incident from two millennia ago. Jesus’s friend Lazarus has been rotting in a cave tomb for four days. His two sisters, Mary and Martha, are devastated, and not just because their baby brother died. Even more painful, from their perspective, was that Jesus hadn’t come in time to heal his friend. The corpse is wrapped up, beginning to stink. The stone is rolled over the entrance to the tomb, the mourners assembled. It is at this hopeless moment that Jesus arrives, seemingly too late. Even the carpenter from Galilee is overcome with emotion, groaning, and weeping, at the human despair all around him.
Yet the one who called himself “the resurrection and the life” does not allow decay and death to have the last word. On his order, the stone is rolled away. “Lazarus,” Jesus says in front of the tomb, “come out.” His simple command fires like a laser into the black burial chamber, piercing the death wrappings and plunging into the decomposing, ice-cold heart of his friend, bridging the secret and infinite distance between life and death. Somewhere, somehow, Lazarus hears the irresistible order and obeys. Like a mummy he emerges with his hands and feet bound, his face covered by a death shroud. Yet Lazarus is alive, in fact, more alive than he’s ever been, and many who see the sign with their own eyes believe.
But only many. The others go looking for Jesus’s Pharisaical enemies. I can almost imagine these reluctant witnesses saying, “Houston, we have a problem.” They report the miracle to their masters, not to win them to faith in Christ, but like East Germans informing on their neighbors to the Stasi, to figure out a way to maintain their privileged positions.
“What are we to do?” the huddled Pharisees and chief priests ask. “For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Note carefully the order. Rather than repent and believe in the face of a divine miracle, the religious leaders are more concerned with their positions. They decide the only thing to do is kill Jesus. Then the chief priests, seeing the throngs coming out to see both Jesus and Lazarus, decide to murder the raised man, too.
This kind of unbelief is major league. It takes more faith to reject God than to embrace him. Faced with evidence that the universe had a beginning, many atheist astronomers postulate an endless string of universes so that the miracle of this one won’t seem so special.
“The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them,” G. K. Chesterton observed. “The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.” It is not a matter of honest intellectual doubt or seeking more evidence before you come to a decision. Those are the kinds of faith struggles common to most people. They are normal, natural, even healthy. We should respond with love, patience, and facts to someone who doubts, gently helping him or her to see the truth, both in our texts and in our lives.
Unbelief is not doubt, however. Unbelief is a calculating, hard-hearted rejection of evidence, whether it be intellectual, physical, historical, or spiritual. It is seeing the clear work of God and turning away. Worse, it is seeing Jesus’s work by the Spirit and attributing it to Satan. Such unbelief is damnable. And how could it not be? The damned unbeliever is only receiving what he has requested. Such unbelief is a form of spiritual blindness. “The light shines in the darkness,” the apostle John said, “but the darkness has not understood it.” It is a matter not of wrong thinking, but of bad character. And it is nothing new.
One Sabbath while in Jerusalem, Jesus heals a paralyzed man who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. Opponents claim Jesus has violated the law, and Jesus counters with a shocking answer—that he is equal with God and thus has the authority to interpret the law. In essence, Jesus says, “You have no authority to judge me. In fact, I am your Judge.” Then he diagnoses their spiritual condition, concluding with a question:
But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
Theirs is not an intellectual problem, a matter of differing biblical interpretations between people of good will who read the sacred text differently. It is a question of character. At its core, unbelief is never a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart. Their indefensible conclusion—that Jesus is a fraud, a lawbreaker—is inevitable, given the state of their hearts, which are lushly religious but barren of the love of God: either love for God or love from God. Instead of focusing vertically, on the Judge, they look only horizontally, at other unbelievers, in order to reinforce their culpable unbelief.
The scary thing is, those who claim to be followers of Christ can be lumped in with the unbelieving generation. “O faithless and twisted generation,” Jesus asks, “how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” He exclaims this not to Pharisees, but to his own disciples, who had not the faith to cast out a certain kind of demon.
Jesus compared them to unbelievers, apparently scandalized by their lack of belief. What would Jesus say of you or me? Do we have the faith expected of a disciple? One thing is sure: we cannot strengthen our faith if we do not exercise it. God help us to say, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”