When Atheists sound like Prophets…and Jesus?

I just finished a book called Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism by Merold Westphal. The author argues that rather than simply seeking to refute the atheistic criticisms of religion of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, Christians should realize that much of what they say may ring true. If we know our scripture, these atheists may even echo the harsh words of the prophets and Jesus. For example, Marx famously said that religion is the opium of the masses. In other words, if those in power can get the masses of poor and weak to believe they will have a better life in the next life, then the masses will be put to sleep and accept their low position. Ironically though, much of Marx’s critique of religion echoes the prophet Amos, for the truth is that those in power often use religion to put the masses to sleep!

Westphal warns that if we Christians simply answer their critiques with argument, we may win a battle and lose the war. This is because their attacks are not focused on the truth claims of Christianity as much as on the motivations of Christians. So even if their attacks are proven false (i.e., we argue why religion is not the opiate of the masses), it does not mean Christianity is true. And to the neutral observer, the fact that we argue may make us look guilty, for like the teacher of the law (Luke 10:29), we seek to justify ourselves. Or, to put it in Jesus-language, we may be so quick to remove the speck from the atheist eye that we forget the large plank in our own Christian eye.

Nietzsche is famous for declaring “God is dead”, but overall his philosophy was an attack not just on Christian ideals but on any who claim to find an overarching truth or morality for all people whether in religion or reason. What struck me in Westphal’s analysis was Nietzsche’s attack on justice. He warns against “preachers of equality,”, those “who talk much of their justice” (254). For Nietzsche, justice is just another way to speak of revenge. People in power are strong enough to get revenge, but poor, weak people without the means for revenge (Christians) call out for justice on those who have hurt them. This call for justice, from God, is really a call for revenge.

This becomes uncomfortable when we realize Nietzsche’s case is made strong by comparing the Nazi’s Final Solution with the Christian’s Final Judgment (256). Pretty much everybody, in looking back at the abhorrent extermination of six million Jews, as well as millions of others, by the Nazis during WWII is sickened. This is evil at its clearest.

Yet Nietzsche would point out that Christians are okay with the exact same thing when God does it. We may say hell is justice given out by God. Yet there is also a spirit of revenge, the hope that our enemies will “get what they deserve” one day. Further, if we just go by numbers, many more than 6 or even 60 million will face eternal gas chambers in hell. The Final Judgment makes the Nazi’s Final Solution look practically tame.

I think this is disturbing. Especially if we have the courage to admit that perhaps Nietzsche is right about us: our desire for justice sometimes is really a desire for revenge.

Then we come to the first chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonian church, which I am studying through and commenting on in weekly devotional emails to the CSFers:

 5 All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. 6 God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you 7 and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Isn’t this kind of proving Nietzsche correct? Isn’t Paul basically telling the Thessalonian Christians to be encouraged by the fact that they will see justice in judgment on their enemies, they will basically get their revenge? Isn’t this what “God will pay back trouble to those who trouble you” (v.6) means? What happened to loving your enemies? They will be punished with “everlasting destruction” (v. 9)? What happened to praying for those who persecute you?

There is not space here for a whole theology of hell (although I have done teaching on that at CSF and can send you some material if you’re interested). Perhaps we can briefly say a few things.

Like Westphal argues, we should admit that sometimes Nietzsche is correct about us. Justice is a good thing with a strong biblical basis. But I wonder how often we speak of it we are really looking for revenge against those who have hurt us?

But another point to remember is that both Nietzsche and I, as well as most who read this and who discuss such issues, write from a position of white-wealthy-comfortable-European privilege. The church in Thessalonica was a tiny, persecuted minority. If we listen to a starving mother who has just lost her son to illness because he drank the only water available as she cries out for justice…or the cries of the villagers who have just seen their homes destroyed by a militia which also raped their daughters and enslaved their sons as child soldiers…or the cries of the young girl who is raped numerous times each night in a dark brothel…justice is needed. Things like slavery, forced prostitution, abject poverty are evil. There is real evil in the world. No normal person would shrug their shoulders and say we should just forget it. Evil requires justice. If God did not judge evil, did not pass out justice, how could he be a loving God? Miroslav Volf is a theologian from Croatia, which experienced horrific war and genocide in the 1990s. Volf’s theology flows out of his cultural experience and speaks of God’s necessary judging of evil:

“If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence – that God would not be worthy of worship…My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered. Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.”

What Volf is saying is that the idea that God will never judge, that God just kind of loves everybody no matter what they do, is an idea that might fly in a relatively wealthy, happy and prosperous suburb but quickly fails in a war zone filled with rape and violence. Confronted with the evil in the world we recognize that to be a loving God means that judgment on evil must come.

Along with the fact that judgment of evil is necessary goes the fact that it is God’s judgment alone that is perfectly just. If we were to look at judgment throughout scripture, we would see that it is not always as cut and dried as we would like. Mainly, it is the most religious people who are most at risk of being judged. The prophets preached harsh messages of judgment to those who had received God’s clearest revelation of the Law. Jesus’ harshest words of judgment were for religious leaders. This should serve a warning to us to tread lightly and not speak too quickly of judgment. Nietzsche reminds us to examine our motives in calling out for justice. Sometimes we are right in desiring justice, other times we may just want revenge. But God is fair, when it comes to God’s judgment no one can say they were treated wrongly.

I am fond of quoting CS Lewis here:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened” (The Great Divorce, 75).

In looking at Scripture, it is not too much to say that Christians are often in the same position as the Pharisees. We are quick to identify those like us as insiders and accepted by God, with the outsiders as condemned, the point being that we are the ones God likes best. Our prayer ends up being like that of the Pharisee in Luke 18, thanking God for making us good. But Jesus blows up the whole paradigm of “we’re good, those different from us are evil” for in the same parable it is the outsider, the tax collector, whom Jesus says went home justified (Luke 18:14).

Nietzsche argues that religious people, such as Pharisees and often Christians, say “we are good, accepted by God and outsiders are the problem.” Jesus in the gospels wakes us up to the falsity of this, as consistently the one who finds grace and acceptance by God is the one who says “I am evil, broken, in need of help. I am the problem.”

So we again return to Marx: religion is the opiate of the people, putting us to sleep. But Jesus and the gospel is the smelling salts that wakes people up! (I stole that from a Tim Keller sermon). May we be more like Jesus.

PS: This post is super-long and I have so much more to say! Reading Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer has been a blessing the last few days, as I am reminded of the centrality of Jesus and the radical grace of God. Remember – Jesus hangs out with sinners and if we don’t think we are broken (i.e. like religious people Nietzsche is critiquing) then we don’t recognize we need Jesus. May we be reminded of our brokenness each day!

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