There are two ways of approaching atheism. A classical apologist stands toe-to-toe with the atheist, presenting logical arguments for why Christianity is the correct answer. A presuppositional apologist sits down with the atheist, pointing out the ground beneath his arguments against God. Classical apologetics has value but, when left alone, commits the grievous error of inviting the atheist to preside as judge over God. Rather than encourage man in his sin, we want to help him see his folly and point him towards the light. Presuppositional apologetics does this by examining the presuppositions behind an atheist’s worldview, ultimately demonstrating that atheism is a ball of frayed rubber bands: recycled material only good for clutter and modern art. Atheism has to borrow from the Christian worldview in order to make its case. The presuppositionalist wants to expose these inconsistencies, using elements of classical apologetics along the way. Our study will be using the presuppositional method.

First, we will establish two theological foundations: man’s depravity and God’s self-revelation. Second, we will search the Scriptures to find any direct references to atheism. Lastly, we will define and respond to atheism on God’s terms. Atheists don’t believe in God, but our study will expose a great irony: God doesn’t believe in atheists, either. 

Theological Foundations

First, man is totally depraved. Total depravity refers to the location and degree of sin’s effect on man – where and how far man has fallen into sin. First, the Bible teaches that man’s fall is comprehensive. All of what makes up a human is fallen: the heart (Jeremiah 17:9), the will (John 8:34), the affections (Proverbs 21:10), and all else (Romans 7:18; Titus 1:15-16). You can’t point to one part of yourself that is not sinful. Second, the Bible teaches that man’s fall is antagonistic. We have fallen to the point of hating God. Man is hostile towards God. “No one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11). Man’s heart is naturally inclined away from God,[1] to the extent that he will not come to God on his own. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Total depravity applies to all men, because all inherit the original sin of Adam. “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). “There is no one who does not sin” (2 Chronicles 6:36). “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).

Second, God has revealed Himself to every man. Paul says, “What can be known about God is plain to [men], because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1:19). Outside of man, creation proclaims God’s invisible attributes (v.20). Within man, the conscience bears witness to God’s attributes (2:14; cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11). This means that when a man does something God hates, he is not acting out of ignorance of truth, but rather out of a suppression of truth. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Wickedness is not an innocent predicament: it is an exchange of the truth of God for a lie (v.25).

Atheism in the Bible

Scripture addresses atheism, but not in the way you might think. The only explicit references to atheism come from the Psalms. We read in Psalm 10:4-7, “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’ His ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his foes, he puffs at them. He says in his heart, ‘I shall not be moved; throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.’” This teaching is reiterated briefly in chapters 14 and 53. In all three instances, the one who says/thinks, “There is no God,” is making a statement broader than metaphysical atheism. In other words, the Psalmist is not simply addressing those who claim, “God doesn’t exist.” To say in one’s heart, “There is no God,” is to unhitch oneself from God and live as if He is not relevant. Self-proclaimed atheists do this, but others do this as well. The wicked kings in Psalm 2, for example, plot to throw off the fetters of God and live without His law (vv.1-3).

Therefore, what we learn from the Psalms is that God defines atheism differently than most people do in our modern era. God groups metaphysical atheism (the claim God does not exist) with any worldview that seeks to live as if God does not exist. This could be intellectual atheism, where a man searches for scientific and philosophical freedom from God. This could also be ethical atheism, where a man searches for moral freedom from God, but still confesses that God exists. There are a number of ways to be an atheist, but they all boil down to foolishness (53:1).

This teaches us something about what atheism actually is and how it should be approached. Atheism is not scholarly reservation; it is mental and moral suicide. Atheism is not simply another option; it is an insane, nonsensical option. Any form of unhitching oneself from the Creator is foolishness. That’s what the Bible calls it. God considers it laughable (2:4). So when atheists continually demand to be taken seriously, we can be cordial, sure, but there also comes a time for chuckling and but-really-come-on-now’s.

Defining and Responding

Let us now weave together the threads and offer a response. Man is a depraved creature who has knowledge of God yet hates God. When his rebellion against God reaches the point of living as if God doesn’t exist, the Bible calls that the life of a fool. This is the picture of fallen, natural man we find in the Bible. Apart from the supernatural work of God in salvation, every human being finds himself in this state. So what do we do with the man who says, “God doesn’t exist?” Well, whatever we do, we don’t forget what’s really going on.

First, atheists believe in God

The atheist claims no to believe in God, but the fact of the matter is that he is suppressing the knowledge God placed in him. Every atheist is born a theist. He is not ignorant: he knows God exists. While he is telling you, “God doesn’t exist,” his subconscious is working furiously to suppress the knowledge of God planted inside of him. He does believe in God, but he’s convinced himself he doesn’t. The question is, do you believe what he says about himself or what God says about him? Are you going to engage the atheist based on his self-evaluation, or based on God’s Word?

The classical approach to apologetics prefers the former option. Take the atheist to neutral ground (we’ll talk about that below) and reason with him, attempting to demonstrate the logical cohesiveness of Christianity. As I’ve already said, there is some benefit to this, but it can’t be all that’s involved. You’re assuming the atheist will convert once he sees reason. What you’re forgetting is that the atheist has already seen reason. Do you think a revelation you can give the atheist will trump a revelation God has already implanted within and demonstrated outside of this unbeliever? What’s missing from the classical approach is the Gospel. The atheist does not need a new argument, he needs the power of God to transform his heart of stone into a heart of flesh. The atheist needs a sovereign conversion – the kind that keeps Pelagians up at night.

When speaking with an atheist, we should visualize a swimming pool. You find the atheist in the shallow end holding an over-inflatable beach ball underwater. His arms are shaking and his face is strained – it’s hard work suppressing this over-inflated beach ball. Your job is take your finger and poke the atheist’s side. “Hey pal… watcha got there?” This is where reason and logic come into play. We can use classical arguments for God’s existence to poke and tickle the atheist, while he desperately attempts to suppress his knowledge of God under the water. We always want to arrive at the gospel, though – and we pray all the while that God would use our faithful testimony to beautify Christ crucified.[2]

Second, atheists hate God

Atheists will tell you they arrived at their conclusion through a neutral examination of science and reason. They want you to have a conversation with them on that playing field: a neutral playing field. Don’t bring your bias that God exists: start from nothing and prove God exists. We must not forget, as with the point before, what is really happening inside the unbeliever. He is not neutral, but rather incredibly biased, while he talks to you about the existence of God.

We know this because, not only does Scripture tell us the atheist has knowledge of God, but further, he hates God. He has no interest in giving honor to his Creator. The atheist is expressing his hatred for God in the greatest way possible: pretending like He doesn’t exist. And when you quote Bible verses to him or tell him things like, “God created you and wants you to repent,” he says, “But I don’t believe in God, remember? Don’t quote the Bible at me, I don’t believe in it.” So instead of speaking Biblical truth to the atheist, we dialogue on his terms: no Bible, no theology, etc. This is what the atheist calls a “neutral” playing field, one void of faith and fairy tales.

But there are no neutral playing fields. First of all, Jesus is Lord over everything – every speck of dust, every thought, every history book. Everything. Jesus is even Lord over the atheist. So in reality, there is no neutral battle ground on which to dialogue with an unbeliever. There’s nowhere you can take an atheist where Jesus isn’t King and Sovereign. Secondly, contrary to what he’s telling you, the atheist is extremely biased. It is in his best interest that God does not exist, because if God exists, that means the atheist is accountable to Him. If there is a God, then that means the atheist will have to answer for his sin. If there is a God, then that means the atheist can’t be god of his own life. Therefore, the atheist is in fact partial to his own argument.

The bottom line is that no one is approaching this issue in a neutral way. Christians approach the conversation with a love for God and faith in His Word; atheists approach the conversation with a hatred for God and disbelief in His Word. There is no actual or moral ground where we can go and find ourselves impartial. We are all invested in the conclusion of this matter.

So how are you to react, when an atheist claims you’re being biased, or when an atheist says, “I don’t believe in God and the Bible, remember? Don’t quote Bible verses at me?” Well, say you are a robber, waiting to rob someone on the sidewalk. A sharply dressed man walks by and you jump out, pistol held up. “Hand over your money, or I’ll shoot!” The man doesn’t flinch. After sizing you up for a second, he smirks, “Silly girl, I don’t believe in guns!” In despair, you hang your head and put away the pistol: “Oh, erm – I apologize, sir. I didn’t realize that.” The sharply dress man laughs and walks away, muttering to himself about how some people never grow out of Santa Clause. And you scurry off to find someone to rob who believes in guns.

Now what’s wrong with this story (aside from the sin of robbery)? The problem isn’t that the sharply-dressed man doesn’t believe in guns, it’s that you don’t believe in guns. This is what it’s like when a Christian feels ashamed for speaking truth to an atheist. You may quote John 3:16 to an atheist, or you might make a comment about how beautiful the sky is and how you’re so glad God makes beautiful things in the world. The atheist may then say, “Um, I don’t believe in God, remember?” And right there, that’s where you have to ask yourself: “OK, but does that mean God isn’t real?” No. A criminal may not believe in the police, but that won’t stop him from going to jail. Don’t put away the truth just because someone hates the truth, or because someone denies it. Remember: there is no neutral ground. 

Conclusion

Paul summarizes my final admonitions to you: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). All Christians should have some exposure to apologetics, but this doesn’t mean we all are called to jump into the lion’s den. Apologetics can be a deadly, dangerous field, because you are engaging stubborn and unbelieving philosophies. Paul implies it is possible to be taken captive by ideas contrary to Christ, whether through philosophy or simple tradition.

Keeping our feet planted in the Word of God and our eyes on Christ is essential. You were not made to combat every vain idea and sin all at once, or even in a lifetime. You can’t handle that kind of rampant warfare. So as a Christian, if you are not inclined to study this matter further, don’t feel guilty about it. Read what the Bible says and believe it: God is faithful, He will never change or let you down. If you are interested in apologetics, perhaps even in ministering the gospel to those indulging themselves in the sin of atheism, then it is my prayer that forthcoming studies will aid you in this ministry.


[1] In his hatred for God, man is not as sinful as he could be. There is always the possibility of falling further into depravity, becoming more and more entrenched in opposition to God. Common grace restrains the antagonistic instincts humans have against their Creator. However, man’s hatred for God is true, natural hatred.

[2] I must credit Douglas Wilson with the two primary illustrations I use in this article: the beach ball and the pistol.

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