Dr Randal Rauser is Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary and blogs at The Tentative Apologist. In his book, Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Randal denounces the narrow “rebellion thesis,” i.e., that atheists moreso than any other people are in rebellion (often conscious direct rebellion) against the one true God and one true religion.
Randal points out how popular the narrow “rebellion thesis”/ has been, and still is, among conservative Christians, and how simplistic and naive it is when it comes to explaining how and why people actually become atheists. (He also points out some differences in how different atheists view their atheism, along with differences in how they react to the God question and treat God believers.)
Randal also questions the persistent use of a few isolated passages of Scripture used to support the narrow “rebellion thesis.” He argues that the original context of such passages has little to do with modern atheistic ideas and beliefs—especially since there were no true atheists to speak of in either the ancient Israelite world or the Roman world where Christianity took root. For instance, the Old Testament passage, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God,” wasn't about Israelites becoming atheists or arguing for atheism, but a warning that Yahweh would punish people who foolishly dare to ignore His divine laws or commands and who try to convince themselves in their heart that nothing bad will happen to them as a result.
I applaud Randal's attempt to spare atheists from being negatively stereo-typed by conservative Christians as the most blind, stupid, and vile lot of humanity. (Randal also would like to see Christians not negatively stereo-typed.) Randal invites his fellow Christians to view all people, including atheists, as individuals not as stereo-types (especially not as negative stereo-types) and see atheists treated with as much love and respect as the “neighbors” whom Jesus commanded his followers to love. And Randal cites the parable of the Good Samaritan, changing it to a parable about a good atheist who rescues a Christian who has been beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. I think Randal could have strengthened his discussion of that parable by adding a list of atheist (and agnostic) doctors, agriculturalists, inventors, scientists, musicians, artists, actors, writers, statesmen and stateswomen who have worked to feed, heal, educate, liberate and inspire their fellow humans.
On the other hand, I also found myself disagreeing in part with some of Randal's rosier biblical interpretations.
Let's say we agree with Randal that the narrow “rebellion thesis” aimed so often at atheists today, is flawed for many of the reasons he presents. Should atheists feel better when so many passages remain in the Bible that blame everyone (everyone including atheists) for having a hardened, rebellious, unbelieving heart? There are still plenty of biblical passages that state outright or assume that everyone who refuses to bow down to the Christian God are “rebelling” against the Kingdom of God, and that only Christian beliefs and practices determine who is a true subject/servant/slave of the Lord and His Kingdom. Thus, those “in rebellion” include nearly everyone, from blasphemers, and people of non-Christian religious beliefs—to people of “unorthodox” Christian beliefs, agnostics and atheists.
The irony is that Randal's use of the broad “rebellion thesis” to deflect attention from the narrow “rebellion thesis” doesn't really seem to do atheists much of a favor. Which reminds of the time a famous Southern Baptist decades ago declared that God does not hear/respond to the prayers of a Jew. When challenged by others to explain himself he said he wasn't being anti-Semitic because he also believed that God ignores the prayers of Muslims, Hindus, or anyone else who was not a believing Christian.
Speaking of biblical passages that support the broad “rebellion thesis,” keep in mind that a synonym for “rebelliousness” is “lawlessness.” And one is either a loyal subject of God's kingdom or a lawless rebel. There is no room for “lukewarmness” either per the author of the book of Revelation who warned that Jesus “spew out of his mouth” even lukewarm orthodox Christian believers. While in the Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the sheep and goats is speaking about eternal punishment for those who do not support the worldwide mission to bring more people into the church. It is a parable about what the world owes the church (Google: heavenly extortion scrivenings) While the Gospel of John teaches that those who don't believe are “already damned” (Google: Gospel of John anti-language scrivenings). In short, authors of the New Testament preach Christ and preach against the “spirit of antichrist” in all its forms. The New Testament frequently divides the world and/or its people into Christ or antiChrist, light or darkness, wheat or tare. Either your name is written in the book of life or not. You are either a servant of Christ and of God's kingdom or in favor of lawlessness, a REBEL.
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’
Gospel of Matthew 7:22-23
“Let no one in any way deceive or entrap you, for that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first [that is, the great REBELLION, the abandonment of the faith by professed Christians], and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction [the Antichrist, the one who is destined to be destroyed]
2 Thessalonians 2:3 [Amplified Bible, so are the passages that follow]
“For the mystery of lawlessness [REBELLION against divine authority and the coming reign of lawlessness] is already at work; [but it is restrained] only until he who now restrains it is taken out of the way.”
2 Thessalonians 2:7
“For there are many REBELLIOUS men who are empty talkers [just windbags] and deceivers; especially those of the circumcision [those Jews who insist that Gentile believers must be circumcised and keep the Law in order to be saved].
“…understanding the fact that law is not enacted for the righteous person [the one in right standing with God], but for lawless and REBELLIOUS people, for the ungodly and sinful, for the irreverent and profane.”
1 Timothy 1:9 [“irreverent and profane” are broad categories, and I suspect the author of this letter, had he lived to see our day, would have viewed it with a level of concern similar to (if not exceeding) that of conservative Evangelicals who rail against increases in the nones, in agnosticism, atheism, and non-devoutly minded (historically questioning) works by NT scholars].
“Do not harden your hearts as [your fathers did] in the rebellion [of Israel at Meribah], On the day of testing in the wilderness.”
Hebrews 3:8 [I have heard Evangelicals say more than once that all who refuse the invitation to convert to Christianity have “hardened, rebellious hearts.”]
“So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and harvested the grapevine of the earth, and threw the grapes into the great wine press of the wrath and indignation of God [as judgment of the rebellious world].”
“[ The Coming of Christ the Conqueror ] And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who was riding it is called Faithful and True… He judges and wages war [on the rebellious nations].”
“From His mouth comes a sharp sword (His word) with which He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He will tread the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty [in judgment of the rebellious world].”
“[The Final Rebellion ] And when the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison (the abyss)…”
Christian preachers and biblical authors have always taken the broad question of “rebellion” against God seriously, both then and now. Therefore Christians who believe every passage In the Bible is inspired will always be able to pluck out passages capable of inspiring divisiveness rather than unity, passages that can even lead to the literal demonization of other people as rebels against God and His kingdom, inspired by the spirit of antiChrist. One must either bow down in trust and obedience to the Christian God as depicted in the Christian Bible, or risk eternal punishment.
Let's also look at Randal's interpretation of this passage in Romans, chapter 1:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
Was Paul even being original in coming up with such ideas? Very similar ideas appear in a non-canonical apocryphal Jewish writing that Paul probably had some knowledge of, i.e., The Wisdom of Solomon, which was popular among Jewish readers during the Hellenistic era when it first appears on the scene. Compare Paul above with these passages from the Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5 & 14:22-31:
“For all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if men were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is he who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.)… Afterward it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but they live in great strife due to ignorance, and they call such great evils peace. For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, pollution of souls, sex perversion, disorder in marriage, adultery, and debauchery. For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil. For their worshipers either rave in exultation, or prophesy lies, or live unrighteously, or readily commit perjury; for because they trust in lifeless idols they swear wicked oaths and expect to suffer no harm. But just penalties will overtake them on two counts: because they thought wickedly of God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness. For it is not the power of the things by which men swear, but the just penalty for those who sin, that always pursues the transgression of the unrighteous.)”
See the similarities between Paul's hyperbolic rant in Romans 1 and the similar rant that most likely preceded it in the Wisdom of Solomon? In both cases the message is that worshiping idols is stupid and insults the invisible creator of all things, who then turns people over to acting like lawless animals. Randal agrees such passages do not apply to modern day atheists who don't worship idols, nor do modern day atheists have a holy book, not even Darwin's Origin. Nor is Paul and the author of The Wisdom of Solomon discussing common ancestry as modern day atheistic evolutionists might. Paul mentions people worshiping birds which aren't even in the line of human descent.
Something I don't recall whether Randal discussed fully but which I hope he will expand on in future works is how conservative Christians, especially new converts, tend to approach the Bible, especially the New Testament. In my experience it appears like they view it as a personal love letter from God to them. That tends to bias them toward finding something “more” in Romans 1 than merely an ancient dismissal of ancient practices of idolatry. If the Bible is a letter written from God to them personally then can one chuck out large sections, especially long loud hyperbolic warnings and condemnations, as only being fit for some ancient time and ancient reader?Therefore conservative Christians are likely to treat Romans 1 as if it must have some teaching or practical modern day application, or at least a deep metaphorical or analogical meaning, and by God they will discover it, whatever they can wring out of it and connect with something current or relevant, otherwise it is a relatively useless long loud rant about stuff that mainly first century Christians, (and Christian missionaries in India—a land still filled with idols) should be concerned with.
Hence, conservative Christians have difficulty imagining why God would have ensured the canonization of every story, teaching, and passage found in the Protestant Bible used by modern day conservative Christians if it wasn't all divinely profitable for study, even more so than any other book ever written? Such a view is also tacitly endorsed by conservative Christian clergy who spend lifetimes straining to squeeze timeless moral, theological or even scientific lessons for modern day believers out of even the most confusing, densest, vaguest or darkest, stories and passages in the Bible. Some long winded sermons even revolve around less well attested meanings or usages of a single phrase, noun or verb in a single Bible passage; or they might even revolve around the tense of an ancient Greek verb in the New Testament with such sermons being wrapped up with a glowing tribute to the authority of Christian Scripture above and beyond any merely earthly authority, lessons, experiments, or teachings.
One can therefore see how and why the conservative Christian finds it more than a little tempting to interpret Romans 1 as being packed with modern day relevance, and interpret it as a rant useful against modern atheism and evolution. Such a mindset is also tempted to view the condemnation in Paul's letter to the Romans of two women burning for each other with the fact that that still happens today. So to their minds Paul might just as well be speaking about modern day atheistic lesbians who are pro-evolution. Unfortunately it doesn't occur to many conservative Christians that same-sex urges have persisted for millennia for reasons other than idolatry or the theory of evolution being taught in school. One might also consider that ancient Israelites banned same-sex encounters with an instant death penalty, which may imply that it takes quite a harsh punishment effort to try and reduce such urges—even among ancient Israelites who were not modern day atheists nor evolutionists.
Conservative Christians are perhaps most tempted to interpret Romans 1 as a condemnation of atheism in the section which states that idolaters actively suppress the self evident truth in themselves that the power and divine nature of God is clearly seen through what has been made, and therefore they are without excuse:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
This idea of Paul's echoes a widespread Old Testament motif in which various aspects of creation are depicted (in the book of Job or Proverbs) as illustrating Yahweh's power and glory to uphold or maintain them, or, creation itself is depicted as singing praises to Yahweh's power and glory. Conservative Christians who defend the narrow “rebellion theses” might then adjust their interpretation and argue that “If idolaters in Paul's day were suppressing such a major truth about what creation is revealing to everyone how much more so might modern day atheists be suppressing such a truth? Atheists appear even more deaf and blind to such a truth than those who worship the sin, moon, stars, or other living things.”
I am not sure how Randal would reply to the adjustment I suggested that conservative Christians make to try and employ Romans 1 as an inspired cudgel with which to beat down modern day atheism. But my own reply to such an argument would be to ask what evidence Old Testament writers actually cited from nature that Yahweh created it and upheld it? They believed Yahweh held the earth in place so that it would not be moved, and that Yahweh guided the constellations through the sky in their season (see the book of Job), but do such statements constitute self evident evidence of any sort? What about the Psalmist praising Yahweh for giving Ravens and lions their food when we know how often birds starve to death in nature, quite often in fact, and how lions eat other creatures, so I guess Yahweh “satisfies the hunger of every animal” by often giving it other animals to eat, including feeding the lowly Staph bacterium human flesh. As for passages about all creation singing praises to Yahweh, what kind of self evident evidence do such passages provide?
Similar boastful claims were made in the ancient world concerning high gods other than Yahweh and their ability to create and maintain the world both structurally and ethically. I cite examples in both the text and endnotes of my chapter in The Christian Delusion, in a chapter titled, “The Cosmology of the Bible,” that features a two page chart of parallel claims.
In short, Paul appears to be boasting in Romans 1 about self evident evidence that never was self evident, not even to ancient Israelites who seem to have merely mimicked the all too common sky high praises being doled out to other high moral gods of surrounding nations. Look up henotheism in the ancient near east on the web (also Google: ancient near east scrivenings).
Lastly, concerning Romans 1 and the parallel passages and ideas found in The Wisdom of Solomon, one should note the hyperbolic negative language used in both writings concerning how willfully blind and full of evil all Gentile idolaters are, and by implication how wonderful the Jewish religion, and/or Christianity is. Such high powered name calling probably owes not a little bit to the fact the Jews resented being conquered so many times, and by mere idolaters who had developed far more impressive in many ways than the culture the Jews themselves had developed. If it wasn't the Babylonians invading Yahweh's people, it was the Greeks, then the Romans, so damn all those idolaters. (Though the Jews did love the Persian emperor Cyrus who allowed Jews exiled by the Babylonians to return to Israel. In fact the Jews called the Persian king a messiah or anointed one, the only non-Jewish messiah mentioned in the Bible. And scholars point out ways the Persian religion most likely impressed the Jews and plausibly led the Jews from henotheism and monolatry toward monotheism, as well as toward a belief in a general bodily resurrection.)
Of course in opposition to the so-called endless evils of idolaters one ought to take a closer look at Judaism's bloody history, the conquests allegedly commanded by Yahweh, or the long list of offenses demanding capital punishments in ancient Judaism, and endless temple sacrifices of animals, and realize that in some respects Judaism was less enlightened than many Greek and Roman philosophical schools of thought and their philosophical approach to the gods. Nor did the allegedly God-blessed Israelites excel at a host of important practices and inventions necessary for civilization that we owe principally to ancient non-Jewish idol-filled cultures.
In summation, I hope more conservative Christians of all denominations get a chance to read and ponder Randal's book, though I suspect that the broad “rebellion thesis” I mentioned above, rather than the narrow one that Randal focuses on in his book, is still something that will continue to divide not only Christians and atheists, but Christians with other Christians whose theologies and Bible interpretations or holy rites and practices differ. Because labeling other people or their ideas as signs of rebelling against God's holy kingdom (or as signs of being inspired by antiChrist) seems guaranteed to raise the bar of interpersonal disagreements rather than lower it. Randal proposes what he calls a stance of hopeful universalism as a calming influence, but I suspect that the apocalyptic “us versus them,” “sheep versus goats,” “early arrivers to the feast versus those who arrive late and are locked out,” “Lazarus versus Dives,” “followers of Jesus versus members of their own earthly family,” “Jesus versus Satan,” “Christ versus antiChrist,” “believers versus those who are damned already,” “eater of the body and blood of Jesus versus non-eater who has no life within them” passages in the Bible are more numerous and more firmly embedded in the New Testament, than Randal is willing to admit, along with the eternal punishment passages. In contrast, universalism passages appear fewer and further between, which has always been a weakness of arguments for Christian universalism.
And Randal is not a universalist himself, he just hopes universalism might be true, and wishes more Christians openly expressed that as their fondest hope as well, while apparently keeping in mind the very real and more orthodox option that eternal damnation is also a very real and dire theological claim. Quite a knife's edge theological position I would say, maintaining hope of universalism but also fear that many will be damned eternally. So one entertains fearsome troubling thoughts, constantly dousing them with a watered down kind of hope rarely mentioned in the Bible, a hope that extinguishes the fire of such fears, but not the many live embers throughout the New Testament (and the inter-testamental book of Daniel, and other inter-testamental Jewish writings though they are non-canonical—but reading them one can trace outlines of where and when the idea of eternal punishment entered Judaism and how Christians adopted and adapted such ideas).
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