The Comfort Factor
One of the accusations that is sometimes raised by atheists and other nonbelievers against religion in general and Christianity in particular is the idea that believers hold on to their faith with a tight grip simply because it offers them comfort, not because it is really true. From this perspective religious faith is viewed as a crutch used by intellectually and morally weak people to cope with the harsh realities of life. In this view religious believers are seen as weak individuals who don’t have the courage or fortitude to face the harsh realities of living in a world without ultimate meaning and purpose, a world where they are ultimately destined to return to a state of eternal non-existence, a world without God. On the other hand, from this viewpoint atheists and other skeptics see themselves as both intellectually and morally superior, for (from their perspective) they have the intellectual integrity and moral courage to face the implications of living in a universe without God. A universe without God might not be very comforting, but it can be exciting and even liberating (so they say) to face the facts and live in the real world (i.e., a world without God). How are we Christians to respond to such accusations?
First of all, let us admit that there is some truth to the accusation that we Christians find comfort in our faith. The comfort factor is a reality for us. It is indeed true that the gospel is our “crutch,” because it is true that we are broken sinners who are crippled by sin. The gospel (good news) that Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Messiah, came to this earth to pay the penalty for our sins on the cross and to rise again from the dead to secure our eternal salvation, is of tremendous comfort to those of us who have been led by God’s grace to see our wretched condition as sinners before a holy God, and thus our desperate need for a sinless Savior. The very first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is thy only comfort in life and death?” The lengthy answer begins with these words: “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…” We believers do indeed find great comfort in the gospel truths expressed by those words.
But let it also be recognized that atheism also offers its adherents a kind of comfort. The “comfort factor” also exists in atheism. For example, no doubt some atheists and skeptics hold their beliefs in part because it gives them comfort in the face of death. Many atheists understand that if the Bible and historic Christianity are true, then they will face God’s judgment and eternal damnation after they die (unless, of course, they repent of their unbelief before death). For such unbelievers atheism can be a very comforting option, for it relieves them from anxiety about the prospect of facing God’s judgment after death. Likewise, no doubt some unbelievers find atheism attractive and comforting because it allows them to indulge in immoral and sinful behavior without the fear of Divine judgment. (One suspects that this is one of the factors leading many young men of college age to embrace atheism.)
Of course, I am not meaning to suggest that all atheists are immoral, or that atheism inevitably produces immoral behavior. However, as a worldview atheism does offer comfort to those looking for an excuse to sin without fear of eternal consequences. But the point here is that the comfort factor is not absent from atheism. Atheists are human beings who, like all human beings, choose their beliefs for a variety of reasons (both objective and subjective). No one chooses his/her beliefs for purely objective, dispassionate reasons. Subjective factors – including the comfort factor – influence our choices of belief and worldview, whether we be Christians or atheists.
Furthermore, while Christianity does offer its adherents radical comfort, on the other hand the Christian message also radically disturbs. The biblical gospel disturbs because it confronts us with our sin, our rebellion against God our Creator, our self-righteousness, and it summons us to repent and believe the good news. In the Scripures the Lord Jesus confronts us with our fallen condition, with our need to repent, with solemn threats of Divine judgment should we refuse to repent, and with the call to discipleship. For example, Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14, ESV) In another passage, after calling on His disciples to love Him even more than their own family members, Jesus taught that “…whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38, ESV). In this shocking image Jesus compares discipleship (i.e., learning from and following Him) to the disturbing but familiar scene in first century Palestine of a condemned criminal carrying his cross to the place of execution, where the criminal would be brutally nailed to a cross to die a slow, agonizing, torturous death. Not a very comforting picture of the Christian life!
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was martyred by the Nazis for opposing Hitler, wrote in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples, who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.” (p. 99; New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, Second edition copyright SCM Press Ltd 1959) Christ’s call to discipleship, in line with our baptismal identity, summons us to die to self and live in newness of life, since we have been united to Christ in His death and resurrection.
Christianity is tremendously comforting, for the Bible reveals a sovereign, personal Creator God who cares for us and who has provided in Jesus Christ a perfect Savior for sinful humanity. But the biblical message, when it is truly understood and embraced, can also be deeply disturbing. It shines the light of truth into the dark recesses of our souls, thereby confronting us with our sin. It pushes us out of our comfort zones. And it summons us to a life of daily self-denial and faithful obedience to the Savior who died for us. Let us seek faithfully to confess this comforting-yet-disturbing message, and let us look for opportunities to invite our atheist friends and neighbors to be both disturbed and comforted by the gospel of Jesus Christ.