Be an atheist for an hour!

Here is John Piper (possibly the most well known theistic determinist in the western world):

This is my third consecutive blog on John Piper so I promise to give him (and all of you) a break after this one. At least for a little while!

I talk to atheists a lot. One criticism which often arises is that they feel theists play semantic games and that they cannot explain their worldview rationally. Many of these atheists are genuinely interested in dialogue but they want to see theism make some rational sense and answer some of the questions which matter to them. Because of this, and because I am influenced by reading philosophy regularly, one thing I like to do is listen to Christians talk as if I were an atheist and see what I make of it. For those of you who are dubious you should try it some time – it’s more fun than I am making it sound!

Now, luckily, in my role as an atheist I just happen to have read a fair amount of theology and I know quite a bit about John Piper’s views. I know, for example, that he has a view of God’s sovereignty which would appear quite extreme to most Christians. He thinks that everything that happens (from the location of sub-atomic particles to planetary motion) is causally determined by God to take place. But I also know he thinks that I (the atheist!) am going to spend eternity in hell if I don’t convert to Christianity before I die. In addition to this I know that Piper thinks I am morally responsible for rejecting God and that God is going to be completely just in judging me.

With all of this background knowledge in place I proceed to watch the above video Q&A…

As I watch it I hear Piper admit he does not have an answer to the question (along the lines of) ‘How can humanity be responsible for their actions and attitudes if God determined them?’ Furthermore I hear him say he does not know how the first sin happened (although this appears odd since I have heard him repeatedly say that God determines everything so surely Satan’s fall was determined by God if he’s going to be consistent and not be guilty of special pleading?). Yet I hear him affirm again that God “controls” everything that happens and yet I am responsible for rejecting him (because he thinks both are taught in the Bible).

This appears to be a crucial aspect of Piper’s theology and yet he admits it does not even make sense. He calls it an “antinomy” (following theologian J.I. Packer) or a “mystery”. But it’s not a mystery at all. It’s an outright contradiction. You cannot logically hold to both at the same time. How is it that God controls my rejection of him and I cannot possibly resist this attitude I have yet I am supposedly responsible for having it (no matter whether you adopt incompatibilism or compatibilism for that matter)? Either one of them must be modified in some significant way or reason has just left the room. But Piper offers no possible explanation and rules out one possible explanation other Christians do tend to use (the option of humans having some degree of free will).

Furthermore, as an atheist, I’m not only ‘lost’ but I’m “dead”! The job of Christians is to command me to “live” (which then God will do if I’m one of the elect I assume). You don’t reason with dead people like me. Did Jesus reason with Lazarus? Did he give Lazarus a lecture on ‘5 Reasons to believe in God’ from outside his tomb? Those Christians formulating apologetic cosmological, teleological, moral, resurrection of Jesus arguments are wasting their time. Unregenerate, spiritually dead people don’t reason the things of God – they’re dead! So what is the place of apologetics for such a version of Christianity? To make the already convinced more convinced?

Listening, as an atheist, it gets really hard to not have all the stereotypes of Christians affirmed: They play language games, they commit logical fallacies, they use blatant logical contradictions and then play the mystery card when it gets too hard to explain (but you had better believe all the rest of their ‘reasoning’!). Then it finishes with the not-so-veiled-threat that if I cannot share Piper’s blind faith I am going to “perish”! He sounds sad about that but that also confuses me since all those perishing have been determined by God to perish so why would someone mourn god’s will taking place? I could understand him more if he rejoiced over my eternal damnation – at least that would be consistent (if a little heartless)!

As another Calvinist thinker puts it:

“For, according to the “no-risk” view, God controls all events and yet issues moral commands which are disobeyed in some of the very events which he controls. For example, he commands men and women to love their neighbours while at the same time ordaining actions which are malicious or hateful.”

Paul Helm, ‘The Providence of God’ p.133

Can the ‘god’ of such people really be worthy of worship if this god cannot even explain himself to us coherently and who instead leaves us at the mercy of such mystery-talk? (Of course, such Christians will comfort themselves as they walk away from me in the ‘knowledge’ that I was determined from eternity to be ‘rational’ and therefore am unable to share their superior state of fideistic faith and be saved or some other kind of presuppositionalist shtick!)

As I cease playing the atheist and return to my Christian theism I confess that sometimes I completely understand why some people reject my worldview when they encounter some versions of it.

About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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8 Responses to Be an atheist for an hour!

  1. Great post! Weird thing is though, I remember watching this clip of Piper and thinking it sounded positively Molinistic! What think you?

    • michaelstheology says:

      Thanks Peter. Yes I can see why you would think that but Piper’s not a Molinist and here’s why.

      Keep in mind Piper is a theistic determinist (very much unlike the Molinist). Therefore prayers only ’cause’ things to happen because every motivation to pray, let alone every single prayer, is determined by God so God determines his foreordained means through foreordained prayers.

      This is, in my opinion, the ad hoc game you have to play if you want prayer to be meaningful and worth doing (as any evangelical would see as crucial and biblical) and yet hold to theistic determinism at the same time. It’s the same way the theistic determinist affirms the importance of doing mission.

      Hope that helps?

  2. Colin Burgess says:

    Agreed, Piper is in a position of reducing rationality to an illusion and prayer to an exercise in futility.

    Why rationality, to an illusion? Because without intentionality of real genuine making, a proposition is not true because it was preceded by rational thought. I would then say “2+2=4” not because of there being truth content, but because I was fatalistically determined to hold this view.
    Typically, we make true decisions because we intend to make them. I will have success in making a pizza if I undertake to do so, rather than to make peanut butter sandwiches, and accidentally make pizza. Under fatalism, you cannot say you undertook to do anything, because you were following a predetermined blueprint, or track, and your decision to make pizza, or to say “2+2=4” is as natural as dropping a stone and it falling.

    I do think the theological fatalist is committed to these results as the naturalist that holds we were never put here by a rational being, but are merely animated matter, as collecting matter together to a critical mass of conditions does not produce rationality. The parts of matter are not rational and there is no reason to believe that the sum of these parts, when arbitrarily rearranged, are rational either.

  3. cornelll says:

    Good points though I don’t know why one needs to play an atheist here when any non-Christian will do.

    • michaelstheology says:

      Thanks. Yes any non-Christian would do but I was aiming specifically at the less sympathetic of that group and that’s why I labelled it the way I did.

  4. RazorsKiss says:

    You do know that Piper is consistently “squishy” on this subject compared to historical Calvinists, right? I’d suggest a quick look at Gill, Hodge or Warfield on this. That’s not the historical answer we give, by any means.

    • michaelstheology says:

      Thanks Razor. I’ve never heard any Calvinist prepared to call Piper “squishy” before. What do you mean may I ask? I tend to think Piper is actually facing the music in terms of where high Calvinism logically leads and so I appreciate his honesty.

      Gill I don’t know, which Hodge (A.A. or Charles) and what about Warfield? I’ve just read Warfield’s book ‘Election’.

      This is another problem with those who hold (probably not yourself of course) that high Calvinism is central to the gospel or to Christian living in some way – there are so many varieties of it historically. Non-Calvinists often get told they cannot appreciate Calvinism unless they have plunged the depths of Turretin or Boettner and learnt some 16/17th century scholastic philosophical terminology. If that’s the case then not too many people out there are ‘genuine’ Christians!! My worries continue.

  5. Pingback: Arminianism, Calvinism and Atheism | Arminian Perspectives

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