One of the oldest jokes from our earliest years at school is where some bright spark in the class shouts out ‘absent’ when the teacher is calling out the names from the register in order to check on attendance. Each child calls out ‘present’ when his or her name is mentioned; except for the one who jokingly calls out ‘absent.’ Why is it funny? Simply because it’s a denial of someone’s presence which by itself proves that the exact opposite is true! A version of the same thing is found in the classic children’s story about a bear called Winnie the Pooh. I’m encouraged to think this is a story known outside the United Kingdom where I’m based, because as I travel to far flung parts of the world, I see huge, cuddly toy Winnie the Pooh bears for sale by the road-side, even in developing countries!
So here goes … Winnie the Pooh goes to visit his friend, Rabbit. Rabbit, you may guess, is a rabbit, simply called Rabbit. Winnie the Pooh calls into the hole in order to see if Rabbit is at home: Is anybody at home? At first, there’s no answer, so Winnie the Pooh calls again: What I said was, “Is anybody at home?” This time, from within the hole, comes Rabbit’s voice saying: “No.” “Bother,” says Winnie the Pooh. “Isn’t there anybody here at all?” Again Rabbit (who doesn’t want visitors) answers: “Nobody.” A puzzled Winnie the Pooh bear scratches his head: ‘Must be somebody there because somebody must have said “Nobody.”‘
Quite so, the logic is simple but inescapable. But we adults don’t fall for silly things like that, do we? Well, er, quite readily, it turns out. It’s common enough to hear someone say these days: ‘There’s no such thing as absolute truth.’ And when you ask: “Are you sure?” Often the answer is “Absolutely!” You see what they have done? They’ve declared they’re absolutely sure that no one can be absolutely sure about anything! Which thing is a contradiction of itself. Even Winnie the Pooh could see there was something wrong with that. This way of denying absolutes serves only to prove the opposite. And let me say this: the denial of absolutes – whether it be absolute morality or absolute truth – is a necessary part of any attempt to deny the existence of God.
The dogmatic denial of God
Atheism has been described as ‘the dogmatic denial of God.’ Svetlana Stalin, the daughter of Josef Stalin spent some time with Malcolm Muggeridge in his home in England while they were working together on their BBC production on the life of her father, Josef Stalin. ‘According to his daughter, Svetlana, as Stalin lay dying, plagued with terrifying hallucinations, … he suddenly sat halfway up in bed, clenched his fist toward the heavens once more, fell back upon his pillow, and was dead.’ (Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, (Word, Dallas: 1994 p. 26). But you’ve got to ask: who was he shaking his fist at? The irony of his life is that at one time Josef Stalin had been a seminary student, preparing for the ministry, before making a decisive break from his belief in God. This dramatic and complete reversal of conviction resulted in his hatred for all religion. The name Stalin, which means “steel,” wasn’t his real name, but was a description of his character given to him by his contemporaries. Certainly, that one last gesture of a clenched fist toward God, tragically seems to show his heart was as cold and hard as steel.It’s very far from comical, but of course as we think of a man shaking his fist at God while at the same time denying God’s existence, we can’t help but again be reminded of the Winnie the Pooh and Rabbit story which we shared earlier.
One day, on a university campus in Manila, the Philippines, a student interrupted a preacher by shouting out from the back of the hall: ‘everything in life is meaningless.’ The preacher was alert, and at once took up the challenge. ‘Let’s analyze what you just said,’ he shouted back. ‘I assume you believe your statement is meaningful … [if so] then everything is not meaningless [like you’ve just claimed].’ ‘[But]… on the other hand, if everything is meaningless [like you said], [then] what you just said was meaningless too, so [in effect] you said nothing!’ (Beyond Opinion, p.320). I’m pleased to say there was a sequel to that exchange in which the young heckler was led to receive Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour through faith.
Everything is meaningless?
In the Bible book, Ecclesiastes, the author explores this same claim that ‘everything is meaningless’ or ‘all is vanity’ (1:2). So it’s a claim that’s been around for a long time. It’s still around because if – as some who should know better claim today – if, the universe was not in fact created by God, but somehow created itself, then ultimately there’s no meaning to life: and all is indeed vanity. We either have God, absolute moral values, universal truth and real meaning – or none of those things. There’s nothing new in this, the apostle Paul when visiting Athens, that ancient centre of learning, came across so-called Epicurean philosophers (Acts 17) with whom he went head-to-head. Epicurus (c. 341-c. 270 BCE) himself followed the thinking of Democritus who invented the theory of atoms. To Democritus, atoms and what he called ‘the void’ were all that existed. Atoms came pouring through the void, forming stars and ultimately ourselves – so that, he could claim, all that exists is the result of mindless processes. Epicurus used this thinking to attack what he saw as the superstitious notion of divine intervention.
In response, Paul took his audience that day to explore creation-based evidence for a creator. Now some say it’s taking an easy way out to say God started it all going. They say that it’s no explanation at all. But what they fail to understand is that ‘all explanations have to come to an end somewhere’ (Alvin Plantinga). Do we not have two alternatives here? Either ‘In the beginning God’ or ‘In the beginning a sea of energy and elementary particles.’ If you think the last suggestion is more satisfying, and more rigorous than the first, I suggest you try asking a thoughtful scientist ‘what is energy?’ There’s no easy answer to that. So in their attempt to deny answers which are in terms of things that can’t fully be understood by us, they are actually doing the very same themselves!
The United Kingdom’s Professor Richard Dawkins is a modern disciple of Epicurus, being himself a materialist. What does he believe? He’s on record as saying there’s “No God … no evil … just blind, pitiless indifference.” But in my opinion, he’s recently demonstrated that not even he can live with the unliveable philosophy he enthusiastically tries to spread. For in 2010 we had the first ever state visit of a Pope to Britain. Writing in the New Humanist magazine, Dawkins told the Pope he was ‘not welcome.’ He described the Catholic church’s attitudes towards women and sex as “inhumane and immoral” (Quoted from This Week, 18th Sept, p.6). From his point of view, I think I can understand the inhumane bit, but when he labels anything at all as immoral, it appears he’s affirming what he’s previously denied when he declared there was no God, no evil and so, no objective morality. One of his previous colleagues at Oxford (Prof. Mackie), also an atheist, conceded there was a logical path from belief in absolute morality to belief in the existence of God. Try to remember this: whenever you feel yourself to be full of moral indignation expressed against some outrage, that’s not consistent with atheism, but it’s consistent with the reality of the existence of God.
But let’s round off with a historical, biblical example of a denial which affirmed the very opposite was in fact true. It’s when Matthew in the last chapter of his Gospel records details about the weekend Jesus Christ died at Jerusalem, including how Jesus’ empty tomb was to be explained: “The guard … reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day” (Matthew 28:11-15).
But their denial only helps to affirm the opposite! Because it shows that even Christianity’s enemies conceded that the tomb was in fact empty! Christianity is in a unique position in that it stands or falls on just one testable historic fact: the resurrection of Christ, which historians and lawyers have called the best attested fact in all of history. As the apostle Paul said: ‘if Christ has not been raised, our faith is worthless.’ But, equally, if Christ has been raised then everything the Bible claims for him is true. And, in particular this: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)