An Honest Admission
Recently, this title in the Washington Post (Feb 4, 2016) caught my eye: “I’m an atheist. So why can’t I shake God?: Turns out it's pretty hard to believe in nothing when your psyche is wired for faith.” Elizabeth King, the author, then tells how she abandoned her childhood Christian faith for atheism. Yet, “somehow God has found a way to stick around in my mind.” She thinks that “God’s lingering presence” could be attributed to “the inner-workings of the human mind” against which the atheist battles hard. She claims, “If I could. . . banish this figure from my psyche, I would.” In the end, she has to admit, “I have no choice but to accept that I’m an atheist with a sense for God.”
Not only did I appreciate her candid confession, I also identified with it. I used to be an atheist, one who claimed in Sociology class that God was created in the image of man. Still, without expressing the same words, I too wondered, “Why can’t I shake God?” The Puritan Steven Charnock (c1628–1680) answered this question well in his Discourses on the Existence and Attributes of God (1682), one of the most profound yet practical treatments ever written on the doctrine of God.
We Are All Atheists
Charnock develops upon Psalm 14:1, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” This verse describes everyone, for we all as sinners try to escape God (like fallen Adam did) and push him out of existence. Some of us manifest a conscious “disowning of God” while the rest of us exhibit a practical atheism affirming God but denying him in our hearts by sinful lives. We distort a “right notion of God” and fail to seek and love him, for which we were created. Indeed, whoever fails to love God, “denies God.” We are all by nature atheists.
We Cannot Get Rid of God
The atheist, Charnock maintains, “cannot raze out” thoughts of God. We would “blot” him out completely, but he is too “much in the light” to allow this. For example, he wrote his laws in our hearts giving us a sense of right and wrong. While we smear this divine script with our “muddy lusts,” the operations of conscience continue. As though he were speaking directly to Ms. King over 300 years later, Charnock observes that this imprint of God “cannot be totally shaken off by man.” We cannot escape what he so clearly reveals. If people could, they would rather than suffer “so many troubles in their souls” because of the guilt of sin. Instead, our knowledge of God is an ineradicable “implanted principle.”
God Was Not Created in the Image of Man
If the idea of God came from man, Charnock asks, why doesn’t he “rid himself of it? No man would endure” what can “frequently molest and disquiet him.” So, the inner workings of the human mind, as Ms. King suggests, hardly seem capable of keeping us from erasing thoughts of God. After all, the human mind is in the end, well, just human. There must be another explanation why our demolition of divinity will not succeed. Charnock has it. We cannot shake the idea of God, because it is “sown in man by some hand more powerful than man,” namely, God. Charnock later speaks of God making himself so clear that all people “knew him when they did not care for knowing him.” We all have a “restless instinct” for him that we sinfully trample leading us to worship something, anything (e.g. self), other than God. We “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18) implanted in us. Still, a “relic” of true knowledge remains “like fire under ashes” always-present and ever-ready to be stirred. If God so plainly reveals himself, we are without excuse if we still deny his existence.
An Insufficient Knowledge
Of course, this imprint of God is not enough to reconcile us to him. Our sin taints our knowledge of him and keeps us from rightly seeking him to receive his mercy. The natural revelation in “the book of the creatures is legible in declaring the being of a God,” while a special revelation in “the Scriptures” are necessary for “declaring the nature of a God.” The Word of God clearly shows us the way to God through Jesus Christ who lived a perfect life and died a perfect death for forgiveness and acceptance. Ms. King, thank you so much for your frank admission that you can’t shake God. With such a confession, I plead with you to pick up your childhood Bible; seek him you cannot escape. This you can do through Jesus Christ who so clearly declares him.