A year ago, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Ryan Bell, announced he would spend 2014 living as an atheist to explore “the limits of theism and the atheism landscape in the United States.” His experiment ended on December 31st, 2014. So what happened?
Well, after a year of living as an atheist, Bell no longer believes that God exists.
“I think the best way I can explain the conclusion I’ve come to — and conclusion is too strong a word for the provisional place I now stand and work from — is that the intellectual and emotional energy it takes to figure out how God fits into everything is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us,” he told the Huffington Post.
Bell is not the angry disillusioned stereotype you usually see presented in stories of this sort. He comes across as a very sincere, likeable man. He simply believes “the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary.”
Which, of course, is not surprising in the least.
No doubt many saw the result of this experiment coming the moment it was announced. When I first read of it, this was certainly my reaction (though, not snidely, I hope).
The problem, is, of course, us. And more specifically, it’s our sin nature. Of course living as though God does not exist is going to be easier for us. When we acknowledge God as God, it means acknowledging his authority—which, yes, does make life more complex in some ways.
But so, too, does denying his existence.
An example of the greater complexity of denying God
For example, although, as Bell points out, atheists in general are not amoral people, we should recognize that there is a fluidity to their morality simply by virtue of there being no recognized objective, outside standard from which those morals emerge. We can more easily justify our wrongdoing as mistakes or errors, or point to the end result for our justification (see: “little white lies”). You do what’s right, you do your best to go to bed with a clear conscience, and you do it again the next day.
But here’s the rub: this is actually a far more complicated way to live. Not because going to bed with a clear conscience isn’t a good thing. Not because we shouldn’t be morally praiseworthy people. But, as Paul says, it’s our right deeds that present a problem for us. For when those “who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves” (Romans 2:14, emphasis mine). This is the same law, the same objective standard, he later says condemns us—not because the law is bad, but because it does not save us. Just because it’s easier to not recognize the source of morality doesn’t mean he’s not there, and it doesn’t mean we will escape the consequences of our falling short of it.
The greater concern with denying God
But there’s a greater concern that I have with this whole situation—and it, again, is one that comes as no surprise. As a Christian, as someone has been saved by Jesus, had my sins forgiven through his death on the cross, I cannot fathom the idea of living as though God did not exist. And I understand backsliding, straying, letting your love for the Lord grow cold, all that. It happens to all of us. But this is different. here’s something terrifying about the idea of being to so easily say, “Yep, I’m going to live this way now,” for it means something else entirely. That the Lord you professed to know, you did not know at all.
That, to me, is tragic. Not because I’m naïve enough to think this doesn’t happen all the time—I know far too many people who have either fallen astray for significant periods of time, continue to walk in rebellion, or have outright denied Christ who once claimed to be believers for my liking—but because the conceit of the project seemed to be self-deceptive. One doesn’t simply decide one day to be an atheist; it’s the result of moving along a trajectory toward unbelief. And one doesn’t engage in such a project if he or she is intending to come out the other side a more committed believer. Instead, the results show the experiment for what it was: one man getting comfortable with being able to say, “I don’t believe God exists.”
And it’s tragic because someday he’s going to meet the God he’s just denied.
So what should we do? We should not make callous comments. We should instead pray for God to reveal himself to Bell and people like him. That genuine believers would come into their lives. That they would meet the real Jesus—the one they never knew—so that, when they stand before him someday, it will not be in judgement, but as being welcomed home.