When I’m speaking to someone and they tell me that they ‘don’t believe in God’, I’m always intrigued and ask them if they’d be willing to tell me what they mean by that. A number of common responses have come up in my personal conversations. For instance,
- “I don’t believe that there’s some cosmic guy up there who rules everything”
- “I don’t believe that there’s an all-powerful force that can do anything”
- “I don’t believe in a judge who comes up with some set of arbitrary rules and demands that we live by them or else we need to go to hell”
My response is almost always the same. “I don’t believe in that God either.”
In the physical sciences we recognise that the word ‘equilibrium’ can have multiple possible meanings depending on the context and subject (e.g. are we talking about chemical equilibrium, dynamic equilibrium, thermal equilibrium, or something else?). The same word can have different referents. And despite the letters ‘g’, ‘o’, and ‘d’ coming together within the English language in discussions between atheists, agnostics, theists, and deists, the follower of the Lord Jesus Christ sees ‘God’ as having a particular referent in mind that must be clarified.
- The Christian does not believe in a God who is merely some big guy in the sky – we believe in a holy and transcendent being who is perfect and ultimately expresses His greatness in service and sacrifice.
- The Christian does not believe in an impersonal force that can do anything – we believe in a personal and revealed figure as seen in the Lord Jesus Christ and who cannot sin or cease to exist.
- The Christian does not believe in a moral figure who creates arbitrary rules to oppress – we believe in an eternally loving and good Creator whose moral judgements are perfect expressions of His character and who must deal justly with any rebellion against Him.
These may seem like arbitrary distinctions to make but they do matter. Apparent contradictions in character melt away when the biblical God is revealed (e.g. Can God make a rock so big even He can’t lift it? The answer is no). And by clarifying who the ‘God’ that you are speaking about is with anyone we speak to we can invite them to meet the God who has truly, definitively, and decisively revealed Himself by calling Israel as His nation and sending His Son to become flesh and dwell among us.
Isn’t it telling that when God first told Moses who He is that He said “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:4-6)? God is the one who drew near to us and chose Abraham to be the father of the faithful. If we want to know who God is then we must see how He relates with Israel. Also, in one instance when the Apostle Paul writes about what the message of Christianity is he says that we proclaim Jesus as Lord, us as servants, and that this message is what God uses to reveal who He is as we see Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). In other words, to know God we need to know Jesus.
A few months ago (though, I have personally witnessed this sort of conversation dozens of times now, both as an observer and as a participant) a friend began dating someone and her close friends wanted to inquire as to who the boyfriend was. She struggled for a bit, describing him as ‘sweet’, ‘funny’, ‘a bit dorky’, etc. but after a while, appearing a bit exasperated, she exclaimed “you just need to meet him – I can’t describe it well enough!” Well said. Even on a human level we understand that to know someone descriptors may be helpful but are woefully insufficient in encapsulating the totality of who that person is.
Thankfully, the God that Christians believe in didn’t just give us a series of descriptors about Himself – He has truly, definitively, and decisively revealed Himself by calling Israel as His nation and sending His Son to become flesh and dwell among us. We can know who God is by meeting Him ourselves in the story of the Bible that records how God has acted and worked in history. This is the God who we worship. As Francis Schaeffer puts it, this is the God who is there and is not silent.
Apologists and so-called evangelists who think that the best way to engage with non-Christians is to provide philosophical arguments to prove the existence of a ‘first cause’ or some ‘purpose’ and ‘design’ to ‘prove the existence of God’ are not going to save anyone. Don’t get me wrong – these philosophical arguments are helpful (especially in encouraging Christians that we do have a coherent and rational faith), but the God who we know is more than a ‘first cause’. He became a slave and was obedient to death on a Cross.
So when we speak with friends (even those who may claim to be followers of the same faith) don’t hesitate to ask the basic question: “which God do you say you do/don’t believe in?” It could save you a lot of time feeling confused and engaging in miscommunication. Better yet, it may lead the conversation to who Jesus is and what He has done right from the outset. And as you continue to deny yourself, struggle with sin, follow Christ, and renew your minds in the Scriptures, continue to desire and pray that you would know the one, true, living God as He has revealed Himself. In the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt. There is no God but this God.”