The early 2000s saw a reinvigoration of “the new atheism,” as a small but noisy band of authors proclaimed the evils of faith and religion. One of the most strident of those voices belonged to Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is not Great. Hitchens saw religion as “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
That’s quite a set of accusations! Hitchens broadbrushed all religions with his sweeping charges, and not a few critics took him to task for his careless generalizations. One reviewer, Ross Douthat, observed, “Hitchens’s argument proceeds principally by anecdote, and at his best he is as convincing as that particular style allows, which is to say not terribly.”1
Douthat has hit on something here. Most of us naturally form our worldview through anecdotes—the stories we live out or that are shared with us. But this is an inadequate basis from which to build a defensible philosophy—especially when it comes to pondering the possibility of an infinite God.
Implicit to Douthat’s point is the fact that we must move beyond the anecdotal in order to establish an effective framework for living. The life wisely lived can’t indulge a sophomoric philosophy.
A predecessor of Hitchens displayed more careful thought as he considered the topic of philosophy and worldview. Said the atheist Bertrand Russell, “. . . In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Whatever our opinion of Russell, he looked at life unflinchingly. And he also made this observation: “Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”3
Is Russell correct? Is this just a dog-eat-dog world? And if so, doesn’t that argue against the existence of God—or at least in favor of a God who is less than good?
Christopher Hitchens would think so. Sadly, he died having never renounced his atheism. But, in a fascinating twist to this story, Christopher has a brother who survives him. Peter Hitchens also had a fling with unbelief. As a teenager, he even burned his Bible. But Peter Hitchens eventually replaced that Bible and is now an articulate defender of faith in God.
Both Hitchens brothers can’t be right, but the questions they address are crucial for all of us. Does God exist, and if so, can we get to know him? How can we know he is good? What is his character?
The book Peter Hitchens torched in his youth is a pretty good place to search for some clues. The Bible contains a wealth of insight into the nature of God. Some may say the stories are “anecdotal,” but the entire volume taken together gives us a sample size of immense significance.
It’s futile to try to even scratch the surface of God’s character in one meager post, but it is quite feasible to look at a few of the highlights. What kind of God do we glimpse in the pages of the Bible?
In Genesis, we meet a God who created a good world and “very good” humans,4,5 but he gave his creatures the ability to reject him.6 They do exactly that. After they eat the forbidden fruit, God looks for them and asks, “Where are you?”7 They respond in typically human fashion, deflecting blame and making excuses. God expels them from the garden, yet leaves them with hope for the future.8
Soon after that, we read the story of Cain and Abel. Before Cain commits fratricide, a proactive God approaches him and warns of the self-inflicted danger he is in.9 Cain ignores him. After the murder, God again approaches Cain and says, “Where is your brother Abel?”10
This is not a God we are likely to invent. Why does a presumably all-knowing God approach human beings with questions? The questions aren’t for his information; they’re revealing an aspect of God’s character to us. He is inviting his creatures to be honest with him. The Creator is offering us a restored relationship, despite our misdeeds.
God shows up many more times in the Old Testament, displaying passionate love for his people and a strong desire to intervene on their behalf—if they will heed his counsel. Then, in the New Testament, we meet Jesus, who claimed to be God in the flesh: “I and the Father are one.”11
This God in the flesh went to a cross, betrayed by one of his own followers. And, as with Cain, he approached his betrayer before the deed was committed. As Jesus the Bread of Life extended a literal piece of bread to Judas, the two must have made eye contact. What was darting through Judas’s mind in that awful moment?12
Another disciple turned his back on Jesus that night, but with a dramatically different result. At the precise moment of Peter’s denial that he even knew Christ, Jesus turned and looked at him.13 No condemnation. No judgment. Just a look—eye contact that pierced Peter’s soul.
That’s not the end of the story. At the tomb shortly after Jesus’s resurrection, some women—close followers of his—met an angel who told them, “He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter.”14
Why the addition of Peter’s name specifically? Because Peter needed restoration. He needed forgiveness. And Jesus had just died to give it to him. In just a few weeks, Jesus would restore Peter completely.15
As we consider God’s character, perhaps the most helpful concept to grasp is that he is counterintuitive. To revisit Bertrand Russell’s cynical contention, Jesus chose to be the victim and died like a criminal. That is perhaps the most counterintuitive thing about God.
Some people stare the grace and mercy of God in the face and walk out into the darkness. Others, like Peter Hitchens and Peter the disciple, accept it and move into the light—into hope, purpose, and community.
The all-knowing God asks questions of us. He gazes into our eyes. He pursues us, dies for us, and offers us restoration. Such a counterintuitive God must exist. We could never make him up.