“Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God” – Frank Schaeffer

This was a challenging book for me. The difficulty certainly was not in the writing, as it was excellently written. Nor was the book difficult to follow. The book not only was written well, but also was arranged in such a way that fostered genuine enjoyment. There were plenty of personal anecdotes that added an emotional element to book. It was almost as if Schaeffer was inviting us into his moments with his family, especially his grandchildren. Yet, while the book was an enjoyable read (good literature), the overall message of the book gave me mixed feelings.

It should be noted at the outset my bias. While I am not part of the “religious right,” (a term Schaeffer uses often) I would consider myself an orthodox Christian. I affirm historic creeds like the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed, meaning I believe the words mean what they mean. I hold a high view of Scripture (which Schaeffer does not share, for example, read chapter “XX” [20]). I affirm the deity of Christ, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection (Schaeffer believes is open to interpretation[?], pg. 138) and ascension.  I hold a high view of God, which includes the belief that He is knowable through His self-revelation. While I’m not in disagreement necessarily about the age of the universe (I don’t think a young universe is necessary in the Christian worldview) nor am I diametrically opposed to his stance on physical evolution (there are theistic evolutionists within Christian orthodoxy, like Francis Collins), I do struggle with the ramifications of Schaeffer’s purely materialistic evolutionary leanings (as I understood him). With that being said, I must also admit that Schaeffer seems to have no problem with such a worldview because while he affirms macro-evolution, even including social and moral evolution, he holds to a spiritual element not fully explained or understood. Schaeffer seems to find numerous problems with Scripture. He seems to be in disagreement with historical creeds (“whatever those statements mean anyway”,  phrase you’ll see Schaeffer use on occasion, like page 136). My innate orthodoxy squirms in its’ seat. Yet, here is a strength of the book, maybe the strength. Schaeffer emphasized Jesus.

Schaeffer seemed fascinated with Jesus. His understanding of Jesus is vastly different that evangelicalism. Schaeffer writes (italics mine; pg.  47), “Jesus certainly was not a “Bible believer,” as we use that term in the post Billy Graham era of American fundamentalist religiosity that’s used as a trade-marked product to sell religion. Jesus didn’t take the Jewish scriptures at face value. In fundamentalist terms, Jesus was a rule-breaking relativist who wasn’t even “saved,” according to evangelical standards. Evangelicals insist that you have to believe very specific interpretations of the Bible to be saved. Jesus didn’t. He undercut the scriptures.”

I would be really interested in getting a better definition of what a “Bible believer” is in the “post Billy Graham era” because I’d call myself a “Bible believer.” And, it seems to me Jesus believed the Bible. How often did he quote text in reference to his own ministry. At the outset of his public ministry in Luke 4, Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue and says, “today, this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “what Isaiah prophecied about in his writings, the One to come, he is standing right in front of you.” After his resurrection (which I’d suggest is actually an unbelievably well documented historical event…for information see N.T. Wright’s massive tome on the resurrection, The Resurrection of the Son of God), Jesus comes alongside two of his disciples and starting with the Law and Prophets, explains to them how the scriptures spoke about him. Jesus believed his Bible.

I’d also argue Jesus did take the Jewish scriptures at face value. Yes, Matthew 5-7 has Jesus saying, “You have heard it said, but I say…” But, it is clear that Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but fulfill it (Matt. 5). Besides that, none of those statements altered the law. Rather, they showed the intent of the Mosaic law. Instead of believing something like, “if I never sleep with another woman, I will be able to honestly say I’ve never committed adultery”, Jesus makes it clear that if I lust after every woman I see, and become physically involved with her in mind, I’m an adulterer. I’m no longer honoring my wife. I don’t see how Schaeffer makes this claim. Maybe he’s written more on this elsewhere. Another example might be helpful. Jewish scriptures affirm God’s creation of Adam and Eve, male and female. So did Jesus (Matthew 19:3-6). Such a significant statement, in my opinion, could have used some supporting evidence.

One other question I’d like clarification on. Which rules does Schaeffer believed Jesus to have broken? This is another statement that some support would’ve been helpful. He does mention purity laws like touching lepers (Lev. 13; Lk. 5) and dead bodies (Num. 19; Jn 11) as examples, but Isaiah tells us Jesus would do this, right? You read Isaiah 53, the great chapter on the Suffering Servant and you read how he, Jesus, took on our infirmities. He touched the unclean, became unclean for us that we might be declared clean, and righteous forever (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

Before I move on to some positives, let me briefly state why evidence for such claims is important. I did choose one quote out of the whole book. While I’m not desiring to mischaracterize Schaeffer’s perspectives, I believe it is a fair representation of his views. (If I a wrong, I will admit it) I believe other examples could be offered. I would’ve appreciated support because I still believe Jesus is who he said he is. I believe the gospel (but please understand I’m not saying Schaeffer does not believe the gospel). With that, I believe Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the world (though I do believe the gospel is far simpler than modern church, or evangelicalism, might lead on…read 1 Cor. 15:1-5 if your curious). I believe portraying Jesus as something other than Scripture shows him to be is dangerous. If the Bible cannot be trusted, why trust the Bible’s picture of Jesus? Now, if you don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell (which I gathered from this read Schaeffer does not, like pg. 13), the answer to the above question is mute. Support for his statements might have allowed readers to investigate the claims. As it stands now, it is simply stated as fact, which I believe to be inaccurate.

With all the negatives that have been said, I must say there are great positives to the book. Interesting questions are raised throughout. Here is one example. Schaeffer writes (italics added; pg. 73) “I have a nagging question though: if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares? I would like to have asked Sagan why he bothered to write with such poetic skill and beauty about the meaninglessness of writing, given our transitory and diminutive place in the universe.” I’ve asked this question often of the “New Atheists.” If all this is mere matter doing what matter does, why try so hard to convince us that our matter did wrong in believing in God? Matter can’t do wrong. Matter does what matter does. DNA dances to its own music (so said Richard Dawkins). I found Schaeffer’s critique of the “nothingness” philosophy helpful.

I suppose it’s not entirely fair to overly generalize the entire book through a few examples. Again, I have no desire to misrepresent Schaeffer. I found his book an engaging read. While I struggled with his theology, some parts of the book might have you clap you hands. I think some of his statements concerning the evangelical world were right on, others not so much (like the ones given above.). I would recommend this book, but cautiously. I believe one needs to answer a few questions before they read it. For believers, I’d say it would be important for them to wrestle with what is essential Christian teaching before diving in. Schaeffer will say things with force and clarity that might sound accurate, but, in my understanding of Christian orthodoxy and church history, are incorrect (for some interaction on those points, see the above post). Once you walk through non-negotiables of Christian theology, enjoy the helpful critiques of evangelicalism and an emphasis on love, beauty and Jesus.

I’ll end with one positive contribution the book makes. In my estimation this book does a wonderful job through narrative creating an argument for belief. No, it isn’t a Christian apologetic. But, it does show the difficulties living out the nihilism of atheism. Schaeffer shows how meaning, purpose, love, beauty and hope are all around us, despite what a thoroughly secular world tells you. No matter what one says they believe, people live as if life matters, and that can only be true if there is a spiritual side to our humanness that pure, biological, mechanical evolution cannot explain.  This aspect of the book is certainly commendable.


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