Richard John Neuhaus once passed on this wonderful little anecdote:
At the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, the confessing atheist organization, Freedom from Religion Foundation, for the second year in a row put up a sign next to the Christmas tree. “In this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our material world. Religion is but a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” On the backside of the sign they put the admonition, “Thou shalt not steal.” Sez who?
Now, I suppose the atheists who put up this sign would say they were being tongue-in-cheek here, but I do believe that beneath the chuckle there is a very important truth: no matter what we might say about God on the front of our sign we find ways to smuggle Him in on the back. In other words, man is a religious creature and, as such, belief in God is in some ways unavoidable.
Neuhaus also passed this along.
The Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, does come up with these odd reports…The Barna people say, “Many atheists and agnostics possess theological perspectives that parallel the beliefs of Christians.” One out of three reads the Bible, most believe that there is a Heaven, and one out of five prays to God during a typical week. At least they’re Christian atheists and agnostics, of a sort.
Here we see the point once again: many who proclaim disbelief on the front of the sign still find ways of saying “Credo! I believe!” on the back.
I want to consider the first line of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God…” Before we get to what this God is like, let us first consider the fact that humanity is drawn to believe that there is a God.
Belief in God constitutes man’s embrace of the source of his very existence and therefore both his origin and his destination.
Belief in God is predicated upon two fundamental facts: (1) God made us and (2) God made us in His image. Having been created by Him, we are necessarily made for Him. He is our origin. He is also our destination. Our beginnings are founded in God. So, too, our destination.
These two fundamental facts are found in the first chapter of the Bible. In Genesis 1, we read:
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Here we see:
- “God created man…”
- “God created man in his own image…”
That humanity bears the image of God means that we are qualitatively distinct from other animal life. Man is no mere animal. Theologians debate the exact nature of the image of God, the imago Dei, but we might suggest that there are many evidences and fruits of the fact that mankind bears the image: love, altruism, self-sacrifice, intelligence, creative ability, the religious sensibility, etc.
The scriptures tell us that men and women bear the image alike. We are united in our uniqueness from the rest of creation. Indeed, one evidence of our being image bearers is that we have been given dominion over the earth.
Bearing the image means, more than anything else, that we are intuitively aware of the fact that we are no accident, that we are accountable to God, and that we will stand before Him one day. More on this in a bit, but for our purposes we need only point to the almost-universal religious impulse of humanity. To find an unreached people group is to find, more times than not, a worshiping people. I do not say all. Atheism is ancient indeed. Yet, on the whole, the world bears evidence of the religious impulse of humanity.
Why is this? It is because (1) God made us and (2) God made us in His image. God, being our origin, is the true yearning of our heart. God, being our destination, is the true finish line of all of our aspirations.
This is why the psalmist was not actually trying to indulge in insults when he said in Psalm 14 (and Psalm 53:1).
1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
No, this is not meanness. This is a mere matter of fact. For it is, in fact, the height of foolishness to deny the God who both made you and sustains your very life. Just think of it: when a man or woman howls his or her atheistic creed to the heavens, he or she must necessarily use the tongue that got gave him or her to do it and the brain that God gave him or her to do it and stand upon the earth that God made to do it and look up to the heavens that God made to scream his or her protest. In other words, there is a staggering folly to refusing to say, “Credo in deum! I believe in God!” Without the existence of God you would not be able even to be an atheist!
One of the most famous saying to arise from the early church was said by Saint Augustine and is found in his Confessions. There, Augustine writes: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
There it is! The recognition that because God has made us we will only truly find contentment in God! He is our origin. He is our destination. He is the source of our very lives. Every breath we take is a gift from our great God! Every bat of the eye, every twitch of the finger, every step, every leap, every crawl, every sigh, every word…all of it! We say, “I believe in God!” because it is the most reasonable and common sense thing we can say!
To refuse to believe in God is to (necessarily) give to some aspect of creation the devotion that rightly only belongs to God.
There is another reality arising from those two fundamental facts that (1) God has made us and (2) God has made us in His image. That reality is this: to refuse to believe in God is to (necessarily) give to some aspect of creation the devotion that rightly only belongs to God. In other words, we are worshiping creatures and we will worship…the only question is what or who will be the object of our worship? We might worship God or we might worship something else, but be sure of this: that something else will necessarily be some aspect of creation. And why is that? Because outside of the one true God that’s all there is left!
This was one aspect of Paul’s carefully-constructed argument from Romans 1. Listen closely.
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Ah! Do you see? We instinctively, intuitively, inherently know there is a God! We all know, even if we say we do not. How do we know? Because God’s “attributes,” Paul writes, are “clearly perceived…in the things that have been made.” Creation itself bears unmistakable testimony to the fact that there is a God! This is what theologians call “general revelation” (as opposed to the “special revelation” of the gospel, of Jesus, of the scriptures).
So we know there is a God! If nothing else, we can look at creation and conclude that there is something out there and this something is powerful and divine (v.20). But here arises a problem. Every thought we know (i.e., God’s attributes “have been clearly perceived”), yet we turn from God and refuse to give God “honor” or “thanks.” That is, we do not worship Him as we should! But when we refuse to worship God the human impulse to worship does not dissipate. It is still there! We were made to worship! Having rejected God, then, where does our worship go? Paul tells us:
22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Do you see? Refuse to worship God and what will you worship instead? “[I]mages resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” In other words, idols of creation!
How unbelievably foolish! The idolizing of any aspect of creation is the necessary result of refusing to worship the only proper object of worship: the one eternal God!
Examples of this misappropriation of devotion due only to God might include base literal idolatry, actual images. But it might look like this:
- Devotion to politics
- Devotion to earthly security (i.e., money, escaping death, personal protection)
- Devotion to relationships
- Devotion to God’s gifts (i.e., children, nature, beauty, pleasure)
Anytime I find a person overly-obsessed with and psychologically tethered to, say, politics, I see a person who has given their worship to an aspect of creation. We should care about these things but we must not worship these things!
Note too that this misplaced worship can attach itself to even good gifts: our spouse, our children, our friends, our job, our material possessions. But here is the problem: no aspect of creation can bear the weight of worship that is designed to be given only to God. This means that any aspect of creation that is deified is therefore demonized. C.S. Lewis made this point so very well in The Four Loves: to make anything that is not God, God is to inevitably make it a devil! We distort and pervert good things by exalting them too much with worship that they do not deserve!
Want to destroy a child? Treat him or her like they are God.
Want to ruin a marriage? Determine that your spouse will be God to you.
Want to distort a beautiful thing? Make love and relationships divine.
Beware, church, misplaced worship! Beware the folly and absurdity of refusing to worship God! Note that Paul, too, employs the language of “fool” in his argument:
- 21d-e …but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
- 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools
Do not be a fool! Worship the God who made you, the God whose image you bear! Refuse to worship God and you will find yourself worshiping some aspect of God’s creation.
Jesus is God entering the arena of our misplaced affections in order to call our affections back in the right direction.
Seen in this light, we may say that Jesus is God entering the arena of our misplaced affections in order to call our affections back in the right direction. Jesus is God seeing and then coming among His rebellious creation in order to show that in fact no aspect of earthly life deserves our worship. Jesus is God come among us in order to lay down His life to pay the price for our disastrous rebellion so that we can be declared right before God and return to Him in faith and worship and love.
Jesus, on the cross, pays the price for our idolatry, our refusal to worship the one true God, our foolishness, our sin. He is God saying to us, “Do you not see that the idols are killing you…have killed you! Do you not see that I and I alone can bring you back to the one source of life, to God?”
John, John 1, writes of the Word, Jesus:
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Here John makes the point beautifully: by becoming flesh and dwelling among us Jesus, who is God, enables us to “[see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Seeing the glory of God in Christ means refusing any longer to pretend that there is any glory in any earthly object or person or any other aspect of creation. Seeing the glory means embracing Christ in faith. It means saying, “Credo! I believe in God…”
Make no mistake: we all believe. The question is, do we believe in God? Jesus comes to show us that this is possible now through Him and that He is the only way that this can be done. Only through Christ can we actually say, “I believe in God…” Outside of Him, there is only misplaced affection and rebellion and grief.
Can you say, “Credo in deum! I believe in God!”? I do hope so.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. March 1998.
 RJN, “While We’re At It,” First Things. March 2000.