Union University
Union University Dept of Language


What Christians Can Learn From Atheists (or Demons)

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

November 21, 2012 -

Those who explicitly reject the Gospel often grasp its demands more clearly than those who eagerly receive it.  In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor calls attention to this truth through the actions and words of a murderous nihilist called “the Misfit.”  In the story’s climactic scene, the Misfit speaks frankly to his next victim - a self-centered grandmother whose half-hearted attachment to Christianity is rooted in its perceived socio-economic utility.  The Misfit: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.  If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.”

Quite provocatively, the Misfit articulates the sense in which Jesus came not “to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  Jesus Christ is the decisive and divisive One in reality precisely because there is no safe place, no middle ground.  As the Misfit understands, every human being must either “throw away everything and follow” Jesus Christ or run the other way.  There’s no other alternative - no neutral space.

Prior to his conversion, C.S. Lewis tacitly grasped the radical demands of Christ’s call.  In his post-conversion autobiography (Surprised by Joy), his autobiographical allegory (Pilgrim’s Regress), and his fictional masterpiece (Till We Have Faces), Lewis portrays God as the Great Interferer.  God will not “go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves.”  Lewis understood that inordinate self-love induces Divine loathing, precisely because God’s nature demands that we love Him above all else.  Moreover, the love of God is not expressed by mere acknowledgment of His existence (or even of Christ’s saving work).  Rather, God “meddles” precisely because love must be expressed by total allegiance, by obedience to Divine expectations.

Of course, Lewis eventually gave in to the summons of Divine Love.  But unlike the soil without depth in Jesus’s parable of the sower (Matthew 13:5), the good soil of Lewis’s heart received the word and produced fruit precisely because Lewis understood the natural trajectory of the seed being sown.  Put differently, Lewis had counted the cost of embracing the Gospel (Luke 14:25-33).

Interestingly, the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel arguably fits this pattern of anti-Christian discernment.  In The Last Word (1997), Nagel wrote with refreshing candor and remarkable clarity, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”  Like Lewis and O’Connor’s Misfit, Nagel seems to understand implicitly what many professing Christians do not.  If there really is a God or if, as the Gospels attest, Jesus of Nazareth really is God incarnate, then literally everything has been thrown off balance.  There is no corner of reality or of an individual’s life with which God cannot rightly interfere.

Quite appropriately, just as it did for Lewis, the Misfit, and David the Psalmist (Psalm 139:7), this makes Nagel (and we might add, the demons, see James 1:19) a tad uncomfortable.  If it doesn’t do the same for every professing Christian, then perhaps it’s time for a soil test.