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"I believe what I can see."

God gave Simeon a promise: before his death, he would lay his eyes on the Messiah. One day, in some way, as those fading eyes scanned the faces in the temple courts like always, the fragrance of Christ met Simeon on a holy breeze. Simeon saw them. He shuffled over to two peasants and their tiny baby. He took little Yeshua in his arms. When Simeon spoke, it wasn’t, “What a strong little guy,” but “Sovereign Lord.” His first words were not explanation to startled parents, but praise to the living God.

What Simeon said in that moment was that his life was complete, that death was his friend, that God kept his promise, that Simeon stared into the face of salvation and felt the warm light of glory on his face. The wonder is that when Simeon said all this, he was looking at a baby. This was Simeon’s gift—to gaze at an infant and see far more. The Spirit helped Simeon over the scriptural dilemma, the conflict between faith and sight. We’re all asked to trust things we’ve never seen on the promise of Someone we’ve never met. The wait-and-see approach will not do. We would miss out on everything that means anything at all.

Some things have to be believed to be seen.

(Please read Luke 2:21-35.)

To a materialist, everything can be explained in a naturalistic way, no matter how thick the cloud of mystery that hangs about it. What you call being in love is a chemical reaction in the brain that is built by a long, slow evolution. Things happening just the right way are not providence but coincidence. The assurance that God is gracious for Jesus’ sake is only my peculiar psychology and the way I’ve been conditioned. It’s all so simple; the truth is seen once you break each thing down.

The term is reductionism. Every wonderful thing can be reduced. Art comes down to blotches of color on a canvas. Music is merely a combination of sound waves that strangely pleases our minds. The worship making my spirit whole is ultimately chemicals at play in my skull. The things you can see and touch, vivisect and analyze, these are real. Meaning, hope, morality, truth are mere thoughts in our heads, odd-shaped crutches on which the mind keeps leaning. My costly faith is mild neurosis. That’s all.

Yet I notice that those who think this way still feel something penetrating and deep—something very close to gratitude—at their baby’s first cry. They gaze up at the same stars I do and the impossible spaces between. They know pleasures and joys they have not begun to explain. Still they say, “There is nothing more.”

The apostle James took that other point of view: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” Try savoring a delicious aroma drifting from the kitchen without your mind naming its source: “Ah . . . fresh-baked bread.” So much of the pleasure of the scent is your anticipation of the thing itself. Similarly, every good thing in this world is a whiff of heaven. Can you glimpse the outrageous color, the red-on-purple sunrise, and not think, “Ah . . . God”? Can you truly enjoy a sunset when you have no one to thank for it . . . or before you realize you don’t deserve it? How can you not follow the gift’s glowing trail back to the Giver? Given such artistic glory on a canvas so grand, those who see only blotches hardly seem qualified to comment.

Hear them anyway. Although when writing his famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell seems not to have bothered to crack open the New Testament, it can be worthwhile listening to a humanist such as him speak with evident integrity: “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains.” The honesty is admirable. The truth is, few atheists live and think consistently with their beliefs. It would be too awful. Take the ideas of meaning and hope. To be a consistent atheist would mean abandoning any such ideas. For meaning to exist there must be “Someone to Mean it.” If in the end the universe is cold and dead, it had no real purpose from the start. And if life itself has no higher purpose, nothing within it does either. If atheism is true, we must abandon all hope and every worthwhile reason to live because the death that waits at the end is the death of any motivation, save the satisfaction of animal desires.

Yet, meaning and hope are necessary to the mind, thoughts not so easy to shake. The young man who stood up in a debate claiming, “Nothing has meaning,” clearly thought his own sentence did . . . and gave himself away. And we cannot survive without hope. Nothing kills the human soul the way this one sentence does: “I have nothing to look forward to.” All this makes atheism an unworkable philosophy: though you don’t believe in meaning and hope, you realize that survival depends on living as if you do.

What distinguished Frederick Nietzsche is that he was a consistent atheist. He mentally followed the godless path all the way to its inevitable conclusion: utter emptiness, unyielding despair, and societal collapse. See a gloomy man hunched over a desk in a dark, claustrophobic closet, quietly going insane—the man who came saying, “God is dead.” Now step into the sun. Set that pathetic life side by side with the man of joy—the earth-shattering, ethically brilliant, self-sacrificing life of Christ. Someone said, “The glory of God is a man fully alive,” and this is Jesus. Jesus came saying, “God Is,” and lived in perfect harmony with that belief. In Nietzsche and Christ are two who lived consistently. But they cannot both be right.

I set before you death and life. Atheism is not only unworkable, it’s logically unjustifiable. A negative assertion—there is no God—cannot be proven. Sensing this, many people fall back to an agnostic position, assuming that ground is more defensible. What they say is, “I don’t know whether there is a God or not.” As this philosophy works its way into real life, it becomes clear what they mean: “Until God is proven beyond any shadow of doubt, until there are no more questions that can be thought of, I will live on the assumption that he doesn’t exist.” I have to ask, how much sense does it make to have that be your default position? What if we were talking about even a one-in-a-hundred chance that your family was in grave danger? Would you work on the assumption that everything’s fine?

To bet against God and wager your soul that after death you’re nothing but six feet under is not only to forfeit meaning and jettison hope, but it is to take the most horrendous gamble imaginable and to risk no possible recovery if you’re wrong. But why? Do you have an intellectual problem with believing in things you haven’t seen? A young man said that to apologist Josh McDowell. The apologist answered, “Well, would you at least consider Christianity’s claims if I put some tangible evidence in front of you that the New Testament is the most reliable piece of literature of antiquity, that its historic claims are consistently verified, that its . . .”
“No.”
This, my friends, is not an intellectual problem at all.

The problem is not with the mind, but the will. If you aren’t able even to listen to the possibility of Christ, in spite of everything I’m trying to teach you, I suggest it’s because you do not want to. There is no other reason. God has not failed to provide compelling reasons to acknowledge him. The human will has motives all its own. For the sake of its own shabby self-interests, it routinely decides against God and his perfect self-expressions: his Word, his Son, and the Spirit he sends. Do you plan to evade the reality to which everything that is dependable points? . . . until it’s proven before your eyes? . . . until it’s too late? Does this make sense to you? When the apostle Paul met people who shrugged their shoulders in worship of a question mark—they had erected an empty altar “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”—he answered, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance . . . now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

After all, what if Christ is true? What if God had to reduce himself to nothing but a helpless child? What if divinity had to appear in a dimmed and muted way so that we might, for once, be able to hear him and look straight at him and not be consumed? What if there’s more to Christianity than sprinkled water and bits of ink on ancient paper? “I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” What if there is more than meets the eyes in the broken bread and sips of wine? “My body . . . my blood . . . for you,” said Jesus. What if the Man on the cross was not only a Man? What if the Scriptures are nothing less than the voice of the almighty God, meeting your soul, overcoming your resistance, crying, “Take this. This is for you”? Indeed, God wraps himself in these means of grace. The hidden God is revealed in the Word and the water, the bread and the wine . . . and, preeminently, in the crib of Bethlehem. Blessed, truly blessed, “are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

***

We sinners don’t need to know what the invisible God looks like. We need to know his heart, his will, his verdict on us. For that, there have to be words. Our real need has always been for him to speak in a way that we can somehow bear to hear his words. Thank God for God. He has spoken with a “still, small voice.” He has said something to this world through his only Son that will never be unsaid. With Word and water, bread and wine, God comes all the way down to us, calling us “forgiven,” calling us “his.” And we follow these piercing shafts of day back to the Father of the heavenly lights.


Prepared to AnswerFrom Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of George Hodan, licensed under CC0 1.0.