A friend recently forwarded me a link to an article on the CNN website and was interested in my perspective on what Ryan Bell, a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor turned atheist, had to say about his recent conversion to atheism (see link above). I think that the term “conversion” is wholly appropriate here because it is true that atheism is a religion. Even though it does not espouse a God, it is a belief system that is central to those who follow it (even though a panel of atheists recently stated that they do not hold any beliefs-huh?). In other words, their atheist worldview informs the way in which they view the world that in turn gives them meaning in life. Even though it appears in the opinion section of the CNN website, Ryan’s article is captioned as an advertisement and is located with photos of others who are atheists. Of course, he is not the first nor will he be the last minister who turns to atheism. In discussing Ryan’s comments, I will have some thoughts to convey from logic and common sense observation but I will also address his view of Christianity that I must say is foreign to me. Like most atheist communication that I have noted, his advertisement for atheism does not treat any topic in detail but lists a number of objections superficially. So, it would take a book to respond thoroughly to his remarks on the insufficiency of Christianity but I will respond in general to the theme of his article.
As Ryan has mentioned Christian apologists in his article/advertisement, I do find it interesting that a good number of prominent Christian apologists were former atheists who, after investigating the evidence for orthodox Christianity, became Christians and then on to becoming Christian apologists (those who defend the objective truthfulness of Christianity). Some of these prominent atheists turned “apologists (I like the word ‘defender’ better)” include C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, J. Warner Wallace, and Lee Strobel to name a few. Furthermore, I have met a number of former atheists in my seminary training who are now studying to be Christian apologists or ministers of the Gospel. However, this change from skeptic to believer like those just mentioned was not my experience. Even as a young child, I have always believed in the existence of God even though I would not label my parents “evangelical Christians” in these early days. Moreover, through my experiences of personal and family need, I came into relationship with Jesus Christ at an early age. I found this new relationship with Jesus Christ aided me not only in developing myself as I transitioned into adulthood, but it helped me to deal with the ongoing struggles that I experienced daily. A lot of assistance through these hard times came from other Christians who were always there to support me in these times of need. In similarity to those who helped me, I also have been able to assist others in time of need as they experience hardship. It was only as I grew older that I questioned whether my subjective experiences of God meeting me in my moments of trial, had an objective basis in reality. So, this began my quest to determine how my faith in Jesus lined up with the “real world.” I wasn’t questioning my assumptions about whether God existed like Ryan. Rather, I was checking to see if my profound life experiences lined up with a God who could also be discerned through philosophy, logic, and actual evidence.
With this introduction, I would like to comment on some of what Ryan had to say in his article from my perspective as a Christian. I have to say that even though there are some Seventh Day Adventist groups that are now considered within the realm of “evangelical” Christianity, there are many groups within this sect that would not be considered evangelical at all but hold to a doctrine that strays from the norms of faith by grace in Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Some of these views would be the notion that Jesus not only had his own identity but also was considered by some SDA adherents to be the Archangel, Michael. Other aberrant beliefs held by a number of SDA groups include the necessity to hold worship services on Saturday, the denial of the immortality of the soul, the denial of the punishment of the wicked, and an emphasis on the teachings of Ellen White (the founder) who emphasized a legalistic or works based approach to a relationship with God. I mention these points because I am not sure that Ryan, as a SDA pastor, was really within the “evangelical” mainstream of Christendom.
In making his points about atheism, Ryan mentions his time of reflection looking at the ebbing and flowing ocean and the fact that he is actually alive to experience them marveling at the coincidence or chance of this happening. I appreciate his passion for beautiful vistas, especially the ocean as I have always been one who loves to go to the beach and experience it as not only a work of art but also as a playground of sorts where splashing around, swimming, etc. makes an ideal day for me (except for the sunburn-problem of evil-ha). As equally satisfying to me as looking at the beauty of the ocean and playing in its waters, is to smell/feel the salt water breeze, hear/see the different denizens that inhabit this habitat, and to either read or just to be with someone I love. It really doesn’t get any better for me.
I mention my love for the ocean because it is a tremendous assumption to believe that the ebbing and flowing of the tides and all of the other qualities just described about the ocean/beach came about because of random chance. Notwithstanding the lack of planets with life sustaining qualities with oceans in the observable universe, it is also unlikely that the ebb and flow of our tides caused by a moon that orbits our planet is serendipitous. Additionally there are complex eco-systems that regulate the population of creatures that are designed to fill their own little niche or role. Not only is there efficiency of design in this particular ecosystem but there is also the aesthetic aspect of the ocean (beach) to consider as well. Most of us have enjoyed a beautiful sunset or the night sounds and sights of the sand being covered by a layer of water and iridescent foam illuminated by a glowing moon. What random process causes the panorama of colors, the scent filled breezes and the stars that twinkle in the night skies? What random process gave me the faculty to sense all of these delights much less the medium that these delights travel through (sound and light waves)?
The truth is the chance of an organism that has the faculties to observe the intricacy and appreciate the beauty of the designed world/universe arrayed before us is really zero. It is not reasonable at all to believe that this all just happened and is sustained indefinitely by chance. We know intuitively that the sun will rise tomorrow and the planets will remain on their celestial courses like clockwork. These assumed events would not be reasonable in a chance universe. So even though I appreciate the seascape like Ryan does, it is totally unreasonable that this beautiful and complex environment just “popped” into being. Also, there is great evidence to believe that Jesus Christ was a real space-time person who was crucified and was observed to be alive after his death. For brevity’s sake, I will not list these proofs here but I am convinced after examining the evidence that all of the aforementioned facts about Jesus are true and that he can be experienced today (for a later post).
Again in contrast to Ryan, I find meaning in the fact that a kind and loving God who created such beauty and intricately designed all of the details of this world/universe that we live in cares so much for us corporately and as individuals! Not only did He create this wondrous world and universe but he also created us to enjoy it, to explore it, and to fellowship with Him. The fact that God spent so much effort on all of this ultimately shows his kindness for humanity. However, the greatest kindness was when God condescended and took the form of a human, lived a perfect life, and sacrificed all so that we could not only find comfort through the struggles of life now, but also in order that we can come into relationship with him here and into eternity.
In contrast to Ryan, I find that my relationship with Jesus Christ has sustained me through the struggles in life with the hope that he is refining me when I experience these temporary “evils.” His selfless example also informs me in my relations with others no matter what their sexual orientation or gender. I respect and appreciate others no matter what label they have. Just because I may not agree with someone does not mean that I wish them any ill will. Rather my faith compels me to love another person unconditionally yet tell them the truth about a God who cares for them who will help them navigate life’s storms. So, I guess that Ryan’s brand of “Christianity” that he affirmed in his post is totally foreign to me. Instead of this mute and uncaring deity that Ryan was acquainted with, my experience is that God has sustained me in dark times and develops His character in me as I continue through life. In short, my subjective experience of God is objectively affirmed through the world that I observe around me. The kind creator of the oceans humbled himself even to death in order to give me comfort/guidance in this life and so that I can be His family member here and forever!