The ‘blogosphere’ is buzzing after Bob Ripley’s recent announcement that he has officially moved from the ranks of Christian ministers to convinced atheists. The majority of comment is coming from atheist, secular humanist and free-thinking quarters who celebrate this as yet another example of what inevitably happens when Christians really start ‘thinking’ about their faith.
With the characteristic tone of the New Atheists, (minus the vitriolic edge) Ripley provides an eleven chapter catalogue of his reasons for rejecting God in favour of atheism. He characterizes his move as a “journey from faith to reason.” (p. 28, 120) Using borrowed arguments from his new mentors; Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, Ripley embraces their supposed intellectual oasis of rationalism which rejects belief in God as nothing more than irrational ‘humbug’.
The difference for Ripley however is that his story is one of deconversion; of someone who walked with Christian conviction most of his life only to now reject it as false. I respect Ripley for shunning the hypocrisy of being remembered as a very public Christian leader without making equally public his decision to renounce his Christian convictions. However, what troubles me is how Ripley frames his deconversion as a move from “faith to reason”. What his book actually demonstrates is that he has simply exchanged one set of faith commitments for another.
FAITH VS. REASON?
This false dichotomy that Ripley has accepted is a popular cultural myth that pits faith against reason (and vice versa), as if the two stand in opposition to each other. To borrow the quote from Archie Bunker in chapter 8, this cultural perspective says that: “Faith is something that you believe that nobody in his right mind would believe.” (p. 87) But this is “blind faith”, not real faith.
When speaking about real faith, the truth is that faith and reason are bound together inextricably. The Bible presents faith as a commitment to action based upon what we claim to know is true (i.e. reason). For example, in Hebrews chapter 11 the writer gives us a thorough, if not exhaustive, catalogue of our faithful forebears who never “received what had been promised” (Heb. 11:39), but nevertheless acted (by faith) as if God’s promises were true. A prime model was Abraham, who when asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, through whom God had promised to proliferate his descendants, in faith proceeded to obey because he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead”. (Heb. 11:19) After all, is it not reasonable to conclude that if God is the Creator of life he could easily restore life? Made sense to Abraham!
Properly understood then, faith cannot function without reason, but rather requires reason even to be exercised. Likewise, reason depends upon faith. After all, no one is without faith commitments, whether they claim a religious or ‘secular/scientific’ worldview. Everyone holds to certain fundamental presuppositions or first principles about the world, from which they proceed to reason and think.
Ripley certainly hasn’t turned to atheism because science has proven that God does not exist. Science can do no such thing because science can only observe and comment on working relations within the already existing natural world. By definition, God exists independent from, and outside of, the natural world (i.e. he is super-natural). Therefore, science could never prove God’s non-existence, and no credible scientist would ever claim that it could.
Therefore, the belief that God does not exists is not a scientific or purely ‘rational’ claim, but a religious one, that is, a claim based upon faith. It is assumed as a presupposition; a basic starting point for reason. Therefore, the first principle with which an atheist begins is to say that the universe (i.e. matter + energy) is all that exists. Their reasoning does not establish this fact, but rather proceeds in faith from this most basic assumption.
FROM FAITH TO FAITH
Therefore, what is more accurate is to say that Ripley’s move is not from faith to reason, but from faith to faith. He has simply exchanged one set of religious presuppositions for another. But our question then is, what compelled him to make such an exchange, and is that move justified? Indeed, this is what Life Beyond Belief is about. It is Ripley’s own account of why he made this exchange. But as I read his argument, it soon became clear that his reasons were based upon a faulty set of assumptions about God in the first place.
A DISTASTEFUL DEITY
The first step Ripley admits to in his journey is the sudden offence he began to take at God’s character when he “really” started reading his Bible. Imprecatory Psalms like Psalm 137;8 statements of judgment, which included the destruction of infants and pregnant women (cf. Hosea 13:16); commandments for stoning Sabbath offenders; the plague of the first-born in Egypt, etc. He began questioning how a loving God could will such things? Indeed there are many passages in the Bible that should give us pause to question how they line up with God’s nature and will, but this also requires some careful thought and attention to the Bible itself as inspired literature.1 Ripley accepted the “inspired” part, but seems to have glossed over the Bible’s very diverse literary genres, reading it all through one very simplistic lens. He states:
“In short, holding up the entire Bible, cover to cover, as an exemplar of good behaviour was becoming impossible for me.” (p. 43)
Nobody I know reads the Bible that way. Most recognize that much of the Bible is mostly a record of human sin and wickedness interspersed with the gracious activity of God who, usually in spite of man’s wickedness, works out his eternal plan of redemption. I fully admit that there are still difficult passages to deal with, but Ripley’s one dimensional caricature of the Bible in many places lead him to conflate the sinful motives of man with the wishes and desires of God.2
In addition to troubling passages, the whole concept of the atonement of Christ became ridiculous to him. In his words: “Why couldn’t God just say, ‘I forgive you’, like humans are often called to do?” (p. 32) Where is God’s justice when, given the gospel message, “the deathbed confession of a scoundrel is rewarded with eternal bliss, but a wonderful person who does not accept Jesus into his or her heart is punished forever?” (p. 32) All these observations led him toward a new realization. He states:
“What kind of love is contingent on authority, punishment or reward? Is real love not rooted in admiration and respect freely given without the assurance of reward or threat of punishment? This distasteful characteristic is not offered as proof that God does not exist. But if He does exist and if He is anything like the biblical characterization, I’m not enamoured with such a deity and hardly prone to offer worship and praise.” (p. 32-33)
Here Ripley illustrates the fact that it is our ultimate assumptions that determine our capacity to reason. He reveals two major assumptions that he held; one about God and the other about man. Both stand opposed to what the Bible teaches absolutely, and both determine how he reasons to his conclusion that God, as he understands him, cannot exist. (Or at least it would be preferable if he didn’t)
ASSUMPTION # 1: God’s operating principle for man’s relationship to Him is POWER.
The first assumption that blurs everything Ripley reasons about God is that God’s primary operating principle in relating to man is POWER. He argues that because God is powerful, God necessarily expects to be worshipped, adored, praised, obeyed, etc. Such a character quality is of course disgusting in humans when they use power to manipulate others to respect or revere them, and it seems as though Ripley begins to measure God by the same standard. He states:
“God was jealous. I knew that already. God didn’t like competition from other deities or objects of worship. The first of the Ten Commandments was that “you shall have no other gods before Me.” Check. There may be other gods but Yahweh demanded exclusivity, though I never did quite understand why God would be jealous of other deities if he was the creator of everything that exists.” (p. 29)
In other words, “What is God’s problem!? He’s got the POWER; he created everything anyways. Why is he so insecure that he needs to make this commandment? Doesn’t this just show how petty and vain he is?” This ‘Dawkinesque’3 caricature of God simply illustrates that Ripley has already transgressed the command himself; creating God in his own image by endowing him with the petty qualities of human jealousy (rooted in selfishness) and vanity (rooted in false pride).
But, this is not the God of the Bible, nor is it the meaning of this command. This commandment doesn’t prohibit competition, but idolatry, which means: treating something other than God as God. Essentially, it is to ascribe God’s worth (which is infinite) to something less than God, (i.e. something finite), which is a lie of universal proportions. Therefore, God’s holiness, not power, is what is at issue and ultimately is what drives God’s dealings with man. Because God is perfectly holy in his being, he is the only one deserving worship. It is not an issue of his ego; it is an issue of truth.
So Ripley’s first mistake is that he is asking critical questions of the wrong god – a god ultimately driven by power rather than the truth about his holiness. After all, if it is actually the case that God is the only God, and as such is worthy to be worshipped, does it not stand to reason that he alone should be worshipped, and that worshipping something else as God is necessarily a lie and an offence against his holiness? So, what Ripley wants is a God who not only overlooks but also makes himself complicit in a lie by simply turning a blind eye to idolatry. But it would be irrational for a God of truth to do this. If he is a God of truth, his very nature will compel him to guard and uphold truth (i.e. to be “jealous” for the truth). This is the God of the Bible. He is a jealous God (i.e. zealously protective of the truth), and that’s a good thing!
ASSUMPTION # 2: People, while not perfect, are basically good.
The second mistaken assumption that Ripley makes is assuming that people are basically good, and that God’s judgment is ultimately against their unbelief. Here again, his critique is based upon an unbiblical understanding of God and humanity. He states:
“I started to think about the justice of God. As the gospel goes, when you die, if you have accepted Jesus as your lord and saviour, you go to heaven. If you don’t, you suffer in hell for eternity. So the deathbed confession of a scoundrel is rewarded with eternal bliss, but a wonderful person who does not accept Jesus into his or her heart is punished forever…For the crime of not believing God exists or believing in the “wrong” god for the few short years of our lifetime, a soul is sentenced to suffer unspeakable torment for eternity. It didn’t seem very just. Something wasn’t feeling right.” (p. 32)
What is not “feeling right” to Ripley is trying to understand God’s justice when his view of humanity does not really warrant God’s judgement. In Ripley’s eyes, our only “crime” before God is “not believing that he exists”. In other words we are not really guilty, just ignorant. Would a loving God condemn people for being ignorant?
This assumption allows Ripley to reason that the God of the Bible, who reveals himself as a righteous judge4, is unjust. God’s punishments do not fit the “crime”. Unfortunately this assumption reveals a surprising failure to grasp both the holiness of God and the biblical doctrine of sin.
First, because God is holy, his judgement against man is based upon truth. After all, even in the human arena, justice is about determining what is true. Guilt comes from being on the opposite side of truth. In mankind’s case, his sin (i.e. guilt) against God is to embrace and desire what is opposed to the truth.
This is the essence of sin as introduced in the Fall of Man in Genesis 3. The serpent’s lie that enticed Eve and then Adam was not the deliciousness of the fruit, but what it could supposedly offer them: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good from evil.” (Genesis 3:5) Being God’s creature was not enough; man was enticed away by the desire to make himself the Creator, determining “good and evil” on his own terms. This was “the lie” that Paul spoke of in Romans 1 when talking about humanity:
“They exchanged the truth about God for [the] lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:25)
And who is guilty of embracing “the lie” that says that the creature deserves the worship due only to the Creator? The biblical answer is “everyone”.
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
What of Ripley’s distinction between the “scoundrel” and the “wonderful person”? Oh, to be sure we can make those distinctions because some people exhibit greater sins in their lives than others, but of course we must always realize that such distinctions are human comparisons. When we call people ‘scoundrels’, we are simply comparing them to other less ‘scoundrel-like’ people. But God does not judge us based upon comparison with other peoples’ characters, but with his own.
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)
On the scale of human righteousness, there is no question that some stand out as more ‘pure’ than others. But against God’s perfect righteousness (i.e. holiness) no one even comes close to measuring up; we are all sinners. We are not simply ignorant of God; we have all wilfully embraced “the lie” that allows us to deny God his true and rightful place as sovereign over us. That denial may be manifest in obvious outward acts of evil, or may be confined to the private and inner motives of our hearts, (i.e. that no one sees so they think we’re really good people) but the inescapable message of the Christian gospel is that we are by nature all sinners and consequently fall under God’s righteous judgment.
Man’s natural state before God is not, as Ripley conceives, basically good but merely ignorant of the facts. Rather, our natural state is one of wilful enmity against the very Creator who made us for his glory. This drove King David to confess:
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
An Inconvenient Truth
Then what of Ripley’s chain of arguments against God and the Bible? Well, it would take an entire book to reply to every assertion he makes, but if you follow much of his argument it really flows from the fact that he reasons against God from a false set of assumptions about God and man.
The revelation of God from the Bible demonstrates two basic assumptions:
- That God is the holy creator of the universe, to whom all things owe their very existence, and therefore worship.
- That man, the crown jewel of God’s creating activity and the only creature made to bear God’s image, wilfully rejected God as Creator, seeking to put himself in God’s place.
When you begin reasoning forward from these two biblical assumptions, the questions that will fill your mind with astonishment will not be: “Why would a loving God condemn any?”, but “Why would such a holy God save any?” In other words, if you begin with the proper biblical assumptions about God and man, what will amaze you most is that the Bible continues after Genesis 3 at all. What will also amaze you even more is the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ which tells how this holy God became incarnate through the person of Jesus to be a substitute sacrifice and pay the penalty for your sin. The grace of this message is that it is free for all; both the “scoundrel” and the “wonderful person”. Sinners great and small are extended this great gift, and I suppose that perhaps it is the greatest sinners who feel the greatest gratitude for such a gift. It is little wonder then that the once murderer of Christians, the Apostle Paul, would utter such words of appreciation: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:15)
There is however, an inconvenient truth here for our human pride. To grasp this truth, we must embrace the assumptions upon which it is based. We must recognize God’s holiness first, but we must simultaneously confess our own sinfulness. We cannot simply extol God’s love and kindness without recognizing why and how that love and kindness have been demonstrated for us. Jesus did not die to show us an example of love; he did not die to demonstrate a superior ethic that we were simply ignorant of. He died to make an ultimate exchange: our sin for His righteousness; His condemnation for our justification; His death for our life.
But until we grasp the extent of God’s holiness and the guilt of our own sin, this great message of the gospel will never make sense. It will appear as “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). While not the only reason given, I believe that this is where Ripley makes his gravest mistake.
My hope is that Bob Ripley is not as satisfied with his new atheist homeland as he makes out to be. Personally, I feel saddened by this, because Ripley has stood as such a prominent Christian figure in my own community of London, Ontario for so long. Also, as a pastor who had opportunity to hear him speak to my colleagues and me, I at one time counted him a real brother in ministry, denominational differences notwithstanding, and I consider his decision a great loss.
In making the announcement of his deconversion (and subsequent book launch) in the London Free Press, he included a call for everyone to “constantly test and examine our assumptions.” My hope is that he will apply this axiom to the new set of assumptions he has embraced and will see that this vantage point will in fact present him with even greater challenges than he had before. By God’s grace my prayer is that Ripley will, perhaps for the first time, find his way home.
. For an excellent work on dealing with these and other difficult Old Testament texts, see Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2011).
. Psalm 137 is one such example. In this imprecatory Psalm, the writer is reflecting the sorrow of the Jews in Babylonian exile, remembering the brutal destruction of Jerusalem with the attendant brutalities of Ancient Near Eastern warfare: “infants seized and dashed against the rocks”, and the like. As the prayer book of God’s people Israel, it certainly does raise questions as to what part the inclusion of sentiments concerning revenge play in the faith life of God’s chosen nation: “Daughter of Babylon…happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us…who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” The writer is definitely expressing sentiments of “let’s see how you like getting your comeuppance.” Obviously Psalm 137’s inclusion in the Bible means that God’s dealing with sinful people includes him dealing with their thoughts and desire for revenge. However, this is a far cry from saying that God therefore wants what they want, or blesses a vengeful heart.
. Ripley admits to Richard Dawkin’s influence on his thinking, and this is no surprise because his reasoning sounds just like Dawkins. Though definitely more vitriolic than Ripley’s, Dawkin’s assessment of God shows no less consistency with what happens when we assume that God is just like us:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)