Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Atheism and Christian Salvation

Christianity Today has a piece by Alistair McGrath which he excerpts from his book The Twilight of Atheism. McGrath argues that atheism reached its zenith sometime before WWII and has been in decline ever since. The reason for its appeal is disapproval of the moral temper of Christianity, but Christians have done a much better job of representing Christ to the world in the last sixty years than atheists have in presenting a plausible alternative. McGrath says:

The failure of atheism to capture the public imagination in the West reflects its failure to articulate a compelling, imaginative vision of a godless future that is capable of exciting people and making them want to gather together to celebrate and proclaim it.

Listen to John Updike: "Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position." I have to confess that I now share his catatonic sense of utter tedium when I reread some of the atheist works I once found fascinating as a teenager. They now seem simplistic, failing to engage with the complexities of human experience, and seriously out of tune with our postmodern culture.

The battle, however, is far from won:

The moral passion of atheism, especially when set alongside the laziness and complacency of European state churches in the 18th century, cannot be dismissed.

In the end, debates about whether God's existence can be proved remain marginal. The central issue is moral and imaginative. The most fundamental criticisms directed against Christianity have to do with the moral character of its God. They often focus on the issue of eternal punishment.

"Eternal punishment must be eternal cruelty," said secular humanist orator Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), "and I do not see how any man, unless he has the brain of an idiot, or the heart of a wild beast, can believe in eternal punishment."

We cannot assert eternal damnation and expect Western culture to nod approvingly. This culture is not predisposed to reject Christian doctrines as a matter of principle; rather, it is surprised by what seems a massive retreat from society's fundamental notions of decency and evenhandedness. Atheism arises mainly through a profound sense that religious ideas and values are at least inferior to, and possibly irreconcilable with, the best moral standards and ideals of human culture.

In other words, Western culture finds implausible and repugnant the conviction, widely held among evangelicals, that no matter how much in love with God a person might be, if he or she has not accepted Christ as Lord, God rejects them, and they are eternally damned. McGrath, in fact, believes this doctrine to be the major reason why people who become atheists abandon theism.

I'm not sure he's right about this. I think that most people who reject theism simply don't want there to be a God even remotely like the God of the Bible and wouldn't embrace Him regardless of what the Church taught about salvation.

Even so, McGrath is doubtless correct that there are many who find Christian exclusivism morally incomprehensible if not repellant and reject the Gospel because of it. It is on behalf of these that the Church, in our view, should revisit its thinking on this very important issue. If the doctrine is clearly and unambiguously taught by scripture then so be it, but if scripture admits of other ways of thinking about what it means to be saved and what it means to be lost, then it would be a worthwhile project to reconsider some of the arguments, some of the exegesis, and some of the theology involved in deciding exactly what God's plan of redemption involves.

Scripture may be inerrant, but our understanding of it surely is not.

Here We Go Again

ABC has run a story that claimed that Republicans were using the Schiavo tragedy to further their political agenda, and they adduced as evidence an alleged "talking points memo" that they claimed had been circulating among Republicans in congress. The memo was said to have contained claims as to how the issue would benefit Republicans and hurt Democrats.

Well, a lot of questions have been raised about the origin of this document and PowerLine has been right on top of it. It looks suspicious. Check them out to get brought up to speed on what may turn out to be yet another black eye for media trustworthiness.


There's a not so quiet groundswell building in the blogosphere, just beneath the MSM radar, concerning the practice of rendition or returning suspected terrorists and sympathizers to their country of origin for interrogation. There are certain advantages to this practice, but there are numerous legitimate concerns as well. There have also been tragic mistakes and abuses.

For insight into why rendition is done see Michael Ignatius' column in the WaPo. There is much to dislike about Ignatius' piece, but he does explain the rationale for rendition fairly.

For a tragic illustration of the potential for abuse of rendition and why many are calling for restricting it or eliminating it see here.

We imagine that we'll be hearing a lot more about this issue in the weeks and months ahead.

Flying By the Seat of Their Pants

There's a revealing special airing on HBO on March 31st that will be of "must see" interest to any Air America fans out there. Drudge has the inside scoop on the documentary.

American Justice

A story in The Guardian points out that Jeff Weise, the 16 year-old who went on a killing spree in his Red Lake, Minnesota high school was, according to those who knew him from his posts on a Nazi web site, fairly mature given his age.

"We knew [Weise] briefly through 34 posts he made on the forum. He expressed himself well and was clearly highly intelligent and contemplative, especially for one so young," the site's administrator said in statement posted today on

Perhaps he is as mature as many twenty year olds. But even though he killed wantonly and cruelly his crime did not rise to the level of a capital offense.

One of his victims was 14 and four were aged 15. At least three were girls. A student, Sondra Hegstrom, heard shooting from an adjoining classroom, she told the local newspaper, The Pioneer.

"You could hear a girl saying, 'No, Jeff. Quit! Quit! Leave me alone. Why are you doing this?' Boom, boom, boom, and then no more screaming," she said.

Horrific, but nevertheless, due to the wisdom of Anthony Kennedy and four fellow Supreme Court justices, if Weise hadn't taken his own life he would never have had to worry that it would be taken from him. Killers under 18 are not mature enough to be fully responsible for their actions Justice Kennedy opines in Simmons.

What Weise did would not have warranted punishing him with death. No matter how many fourteen year-olds he would have murdered, the loss of their lives is not sufficient to justify the taking of his. Their loss just isn't significant enough to merit the imposition of the severest punishment. Weise's life has more value in the eyes of the law than do the lives of his victims.

Meanwhile in Florida, other judges deem it perfectly appropriate to let a woman starve to death just because her husband, whom there is reason to believe may be directly responsible for her condition, wants her dead.

What a country.