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Stephen Hawking was not an Atheist (and no one else is, either), or at least that’s what John Calvin would Say


Following the death two weeks ago of Stephen Hawking, there was much discussion about whether or not he believed in God. Some insisted he remained an atheist to the bitter end, while others suggested that he had a death-bed conversion. To the latter I cannot speak, but I do have an opinion on his attitude regarding the existence of God. He was not, in my opinion, an atheist. He may have claimed to be an atheist. But he wasn’t, and neither is anyone else. What follows in defense of this argument is a shortened version of a chapter in my book, Tough Topics 2 (Christian Focus).

There are, undoubtedly, many, such as Hawking, who claim to be atheists. They insist, often loudly and angrily, that there is no God and that religion is the cause of virtually all human pain and suffering. The only ultimate reality, so they say, is matter. Physical substance, whether helium or hormones, whether water or fire, is all there is. Everything can be explained or accounted for in terms of the existence and interaction of material substance of one sort or another. In other words, there is no spiritual realm. There are no angels. There is no immaterial soul in man, and above all, there is no “god” or deity or divinity or supernatural being of any sort.

To suggest that there is no such thing as an atheist might seem like an outrageous claim, given the notoriety among such prominent professing atheists as Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, just to name a few. But the operative word here is professing. Yes, many profess to be atheists and make a pretty good living writing books about it or appearing on talk shows or teaching in our universities and colleges. But my question is again whether or not these people, in the depth and quiet of their own hearts, honestly believe there is no God.

I contend they do not. I contend that they are living and speaking in denial of what they know to be true. I contend that they are laboring to persuade themselves of what is indelibly and inescapably inscribed on their hearts: that there is a God and that they are morally accountable to him.

No one has made the case for the non-existence of atheists, with greater clarity and force, than the 16th century Swiss Reformer, John Calvin. “There is within the human mind,” said Calvin, “and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. . . . To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty” (Institutes, I.3.1).

All mankind, says Calvin, “perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker” (ibid.). Not even the “more backward folk and those more remote from civilization” can deny the existence of God. There is, says Calvin, “no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (ibid.). Oh, yes, they can verbally “deny” his existence and develop elaborate philosophical arguments to buttress their case, but none is persuaded by his own reasoning. A “sense of deity”, he insists, is “inscribed in the hearts of all” (ibid.).

Before we turn to Calvin’s biblical defense of this truth, let’s hear him make the point again. This sense or awareness of divinity which can never be effaced “is engraved upon men’s minds” and “is naturally born in all” and “is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow” (ibid., I.3.3). No matter how vocal their denials or sarcastic their laughter or loud their derision, “the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within” (ibid.). Although many “strive with every nerve” to suppress this truth, “it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school” but one of which “each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget” (ibid.).

This inescapable “knowledge” of God, however, is not redemptive. That is to say, we must differentiate between an awareness of God’s existence and an enjoyment of it. It is one thing to acknowledge that Deity exists. It is another to repent and seek him and cast oneself in humble dependence upon his grace and receive by faith his gift of life in Christ Jesus. Apart from the saving knowledge of God mediated to us in Christ and Holy Scripture, all men “deliberately befuddle themselves” and turn to every sort of superstition and idolatry (ibid., I.4.2). Or, to use the words of Paul, to which Calvin returns again and again, “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” but “became futile in their thinking” and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-22). They cannot escape “the truth about God”, so they exchange it “for a lie” and worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

But how do we know that all men know there is a God? On what grounds do we refuse to honor their claim to being atheists? Calvin points us in two directions. Not only has God “sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion,” what we often refer to as conscience (ibid., I.5.1; see Romans 2:12-16) but he has also “revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him” (ibid., I.5.1). Upon all his works in the natural order of creation “he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance” (ibid.).

Again, “wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness” (ibid.). Whether in astronomy or anatomy or botany or the power of lightning, wind, and storm, God has made himself known. Whether in his providence over nations or his lordship over creation or his sovereign sway over the lives of men, the glory and majesty of God shine forth. Yet we one and all “forsake the one true God for prodigious trifles” (ibid., I.5.11).

I can’t emphasize strongly enough that although such knowledge is inescapable, it is inadequate to impart eternal life or the forgiveness of sins. Although countless burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe, “although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path” (ibid., 1.5.14). God’s existence and eternal power and divine nature are made “plain” to all men, rendering them “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). But we do not have “eyes” to behold his saving splendor “unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith” (ibid.).

The fault is not with what God has revealed. There is no shortcoming or defect in his handiwork. The failure is in us. The dullness and stupidity and delusion are wholly ours. The problem isn’t that mankind lacks sufficient evidence for the existence of God. The problem isn’t that the evidence suffers from lack of clarity or beauty or falls short in its persuasive power.

The problem is that mankind, apart from Christ and his regenerating grace, despises what he sees. The problem is that we hate what we know. The problem isn’t that men look upon creation or contemplate the conviction of their own conscience and turn away saying, “It’s not enough; proof is lacking; it doesn’t add up; God doesn’t exist.” The problem is that they willfully and selfishly and knowingly loathe the God whom they see and know to exist and would rather indulge their own fleshly lusts and worship their own souls than to honor and give thanks to the God of glory (cf. Romans 1:21-25).

Calvin has read Paul rightly. His conclusions are therefore on the mark. There is no such thing as an honest atheist. There are those aplenty who with their mouths scoff at the notion of God and formulate their arguments to “prove” he does not exist. Perhaps there are even some who from years of willful rebellion and self-induced hardening of heart have anesthetized their souls to God’s powerful presence. Perhaps there are some (many?) whom God has simply “given over” (Romans 1:24,26,28) to the deeper cultivation of their self-delusion, some (many?) who have degenerated to such a degree that they’ve rendered themselves impervious to the clearest and most persuasive of evidence. But in any and every case, they are still “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). The plea of ignorance will not suffice at the final bar of judgment.

Do not go in search of an honest atheist. You won’t find one. Turn, instead, to the heavens above which “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1a). Turn, instead, to the sky that “proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1b). “Lift up your eyes on high and see” the trillions and trillions of stars and worship the One who “brings out their host by number” and calls “them all by name,” whose power alone sustains them so that “not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26).

And then worship!

And then share these glorious truths with a “professing” atheist and direct him to the revelation of Christ in Scripture and pray that the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness” might shine in his heart “to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Is there a chance that Stephen Hawking, before dying, was granted by God’s sovereign grace “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”? Yes. But we’ll never know until we all stand before the great white throne of God’s final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). But what I do know, from Scripture, is that while alive on this earth he knew that God existed, notwithstanding his most vehement and repeated denials of such.



I think Sam is dead solid perfect on this and would offer this riddle as proof:
What's the difference between God and an atheist?
God doesn't think he's an atheist.

I see where you’re going with this. But last I checked, it was an atheist who wrote “The God Delusion,” not a Christian. Now perhaps Dawkins is just turning the tables on Paul who first said that all unbelievers are “suppressing the knowledge of God,” so turn about is fair play. But if Paul is right, then there really are no atheists and to claim you are one is to engage in self-deception at some level. In other words, if Paul is right, so is Calvin and so is Sam.

Your plea is that we treat the atheist with humility and hospitality etc. I think we can do that without having to give up on Paul’s argument. If the old adage, “There, but by the Grace of God go I,” has any merit, then we can approach any unbeliever, including atheists, with the deepest humility knowing that the only difference between them and us is a five letter word spelled, g.r.a.c.e.

As for the claim that we engage in circular reasoning, that objection can cut both ways, depending upon your starting point. If you start with reason, then the charge that atheists are self-deceived does indeed seem to beg the question. But if we start with revelation, as Paul, Calvin and Sam do, then there is no circular reasoning. God is the presupposition here. You either believe He has revealed Himself in the written word of scripture or you do not. If you do make this your starting point, then surely the inspired word of God has a certain epistemic priority over 21st century experience, no?

Which is why your appeal to doubting Thomas seems incongruous with your presuppositions, not to mention dissimilar to the issue at hand. Thomas’ skepticism was based on the reasonable assumption assertions require evidence. What Thomas didn’t know at was that there was evidence for the assertion that Jesus had risen that went well beyond the testimony of his companions.

Paul, in contrast, is saying that the very heavens declare the glory of God and that his eternal attributes are knowable through creation. So the evidence is right before your very eyes, whereas for Thomas it was not until he saw Jesus in person.

But if modern 21st experience is the basis for our knowledge claims as you seem to suggest, why appeal to scripture at all? I mean, if what we read in Paul can be wrong, then why can’t what we read in the Gospel of John be wrong too?

The problem with this is that it is dealing with the "theoretical mind" of the atheist. Nothing in the Calvin quotation really indicates a willing friendship with an actual, living breathing atheist (or agnostic) person. In my experience, if Calvin's assertion is true, it is extremely well-hidden in actual atheists. If I did not consider Calvin much more in tune with these matters than I consider myself, I'd believe Calvin's statement to be in service of his broader theology, rather than rooted in actual experience and fact.

When we develop and promote a mindset among Christians that reduces our atheist friends to self-delusional rebels, we become the very thing that we are (often, rightly) accused of being by those same atheists.

This is a dangerous way to go about ministry to a group of people who consider Christians to be dimwitted-yet-arrogant and professing "special knowledge" that cannot be shown to be true through other than circular reasoning. And you know what? They're right. The entire body of proof for the 21st century believer is experiential, it is not something that is readily perceived, at least not with tangible evidence.

So why not instead approach our atheist friends with humility, hospitality, and intelligence? We can enjoy food, wine, and culture with them. We can demonstrate love without degrading their unbelief as delusion or willful blindness.

After all, when Thomas did not believe the resurrection, he was not told "you are deluding yourself" - he was allowed to touch the body of Christ. We can be the body of Christ to unbelievers, to experience for themselves.

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