Putting the Atheist on the Defensive
by Kenneth R. Samples
It may come as a surprise to many Christians to discover that all atheists are not
alike. Atheists argue differently depending on what it is that grounds their unbelief.
In this first of two installments I will discuss two ways in which atheists attempt to
explain and defend their atheism. I have labeled them "offensive atheism" and
"defensive atheism." I will also offer suggestions as to how Christians can
successfully answer some of the claims made by atheists and effectively present
the claims of Jesus Christ. In Part Two I will examine some of the traditional
arguments for God's existence.
Offensive Atheism. When Christians and atheists engage in debate concerning the
question, Does God exist? atheists frequently assert that the entire burden of proof
rests on the Christian. This, however, is a false assertion. As Christian philosopher
William Lane Craig has stated, when an interrogative such as Does God exist? is
debated each side must shoulder the burden of proof and provide support for
what they consider to be the correct answer. This is unlike debating a proposition
such as God does exist, where the burden of proof rests entirely with the
affirmative side. It follows then that when debating the question of God's
existence, both the Christian and the atheist are obligated to provide support for
their position. The Christian should insist that the atheist provide proof as to God's
alleged nonexistence. This, however, leads to a logical bind for the atheist.
By definition, atheism is the world view that denies the existence of God. To be
more specific, traditional atheism (or offensive atheism) positively affirms that
there never was, is not now, and never will be a God in or beyond the world. But
can this dogmatic claim be verified?
The atheist cannot logically prove God's nonexistence. And here's why: to know
that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all
things (omniscience). To attain this knowledge would require simultaneous access
to all parts of the world and beyond (omnipresence). Therefore, to be certain of
the atheist's claim one would have to possess godlike characteristics. Obviously,
mankind's limited nature precludes these special abilities. The offensive atheist's
dogmatic claim is therefore unjustifiable. As logician Mortimer Adler has pointed
out, the atheist's attempt to prove a universal negative is a self- defeating
proposition. The Christian should therefore emphasize that the offensive atheist is
unable to provide a logical disproof of God's existence.
Defensive Atheism. Many sophisticated atheists today are fully aware of the
philosophical pitfalls connected to offensive or dogmatic atheism. Prominent
atheists such as Gordon Stein and Carl Sagan have admitted that God's existence
cannot be disproven. This has led such atheists to advocate what I call defensive
atheism. Defensive atheism asserts that while God's existence cannot be logically
or empirically disproven, it is nevertheless unproven.
Atheists of this variety have actually redefined atheism to mean "an absence of
belief in God" rather than "a denial of God's existence." For this more moderate
type of atheism, the concept of "God" is like that of a unicorn, leprechaun, or elf.
While they cannot be disproven, they remain unproven. Defensive atheism's
unbelief is grounded in the rejection of the proofs for God's existence, and/or the
belief that the Christian concept of God (or any other God) lacks logical
An appropriate Christian rejoinder at this point is that defensive atheism is using a
stipulative or nonstandard definition for the word atheism. Paul Edwards, a
prominent atheist and editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defines an
atheist as "a person who maintains that there is no God." Atheism therefore
implies a denial of God's existence, not just an absence of belief. It should also be
stated that defensive atheism's absence of belief sounds very similar to
agnosticism (which professes inability to determine whether God exists). The
Christian should force the defensive atheist to show just how his (or her) atheism
differs from agnosticism. Does he know or not know that there is no God?
The Inadequacy of Atheism. Whether offensive or defensive, there are a number
of reasons why atheism is inadequate as a rational world view. First, atheism
cannot adequately explain the existence of the world. Like all things, the world in
which we live cries out for an explanation. The atheist, however, is unable to
provide a consistent one. If he argues that the world is eternal, then he is going
against modern science which states that the universe had a beginning and is
gradually running down. If the atheist affirms that the universe had a beginning,
then he must account for what caused it. Either way, the atheist cannot adequately
explain the world.
Second, the atheistic world view is irrational and cannot provide an adequate basis
for intelligible experience. You see, an atheistic world is ultimately random,
disorderly, transitive, and volatile. It is therefore incapable of providing the
necessary preconditions to account for the laws of science, the universal laws of
logic, and the human need for absolute moral standards. In short, it cannot
account for the meaningful realities we encounter in life.
The Christian theistic world view, however, can explain these transcendental
aspects of life. The uniformity of nature stems from God's orderly design of the
universe. The laws of logic are a reflection of the way God Himself thinks, and
would have us to think as well. Absolute moral standards, such as "Thou shalt not
murder," mirror the perfect moral nature of God.
The Christological Argument. If individual atheists are willing to consider the
evidence for God's existence, direct their attention to the claims of Jesus Christ.
Jesus claimed to be none other than God in human flesh (John 8:58). This
astounding claim was supported by His matchless personal character, His fulfillment
of predictive prophecy, His incalculable influence upon human history, His many
miracles, and ultimately by His historically verifiable resurrection from the dead (for
a fully developed discussion of the Christological argument see William Lane Craig's
book, Apologetics: An Introduction). The evidence is definitely there for the
honest atheist to examine. As the late Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer put it,
"God is there and He is not silent."
In Part One, we examined how atheists go about explaining and defending their
naturalistic world view. I gave suggestions as to how Christians can respond to
both the dogmatic (offensive atheism) and skeptical (defensive atheism)
approaches taken by atheists. In this installment we will examine a way in which
the Christian can go on the offensive by offering evidence for God's existence, thus
illustrating the rationality of Christian theism.
Nearly everyone, at least in their more reflective moments, has asked some simple
but deep-seated questions such as: Where did the world come from? Why is there
something rather than nothing? How did the world come into existence? The asking
of these elementary but profound questions has led to the formulation of a popular
argument for God's existence. The argument is known as the "cosmological
argument." It derives its name from the word kosmos, the Greek word for world.
While there are several variations of the argument (see Scaling the Secular City
by J. P. Moreland [Baker Book House, 1987] and Questions That Matter by Ed L.
Miller [McGraw-Hill, 1987]), the basic point of the argument is that God is the only
adequate explanation for the world's existence. This argument, which I consider to
be both cogent and persuasive, was first formulated by the Greek philosopher
Aristotle. Its most famous presentation, however, was given by the medieval
Christian philosopher/theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. We will now examine a
popular and simplified form of the cosmological argument that can be presented to
Just how do we account for the universe? How do we explain the existence of the
world? Well, logically speaking, there are only a few options -- and only one of
them is rationally acceptable.
Our starting point in discussing the world is to assume that a real world of time and
space does in fact exist. There are some who would dispute this assumption,
arguing rather that the universe is simply an illusion. However, most atheists, being
materialists (who believe that all reality is ultimately matter and energy), will be
willing to accept your starting point. (If the world was an illusion, there would be no
good reason to believe that we would all perceive the world even remotely the
same way. But we do, generally speaking, experience the world the same way --
and can even make accurate predictions [science]. To argue that the world is
illusory violates our common sense and experience.)
Since we have a real world staring us in the face, how do we account for it? Well,
the first option is that the world somehow caused or created itself. This, however,
is an irrational conclusion. For something to create itself, it would have to exist
before it was created, and that is completely absurd. Something cannot both exist
and not exist at the same time and in the same way. Concluding that the world
created or caused itself is simply not a rationally acceptable alternative.
A second suggested explanation is that the universe came from nothing by nothing.
Some atheists do, in fact, argue this way. This, however, is also irrational because
something cannot be derived from nothingness. An effect cannot be greater than
its cause -- and in this case the cause would be nothing. One of the basic laws of
physics is expressed by the Latin phrase ex nihilo, nihil fit, "from nothing, nothing
comes." It's a tremendous leap of faith to believe that the world emerged from
nothing. Remind the atheist that he is not supposed to have any faith.
Our third option is that the universe is simply eternal. It has just always been here.
This alternative, however, is also doomed to failure. First, the world that we live in
shows signs that it is contingent (dependent for its continued existence on
something outside itself, ultimately something uncaused and absolute). The fact is,
no single element in the universe contains the explanation for its existence.
Therefore, this chain of contingencies we call the world necessitates the existence
of a noncontingent or absolute ground of being.
Further, the concept of an eternal universe directly contradicts the prevailing view
of contemporary science which teaches that the universe had a specific beginning
(Big Bang) a finite period of time ago. Worse still, it contradicts the scientific fact
that the world is gradually running out of available energy (Second Law of
Thermodynamics). If the universe was always in existence (i.e., eternal), it would
have already run down (see The Fingerprint of God by Hugh Ross [Promise
Publishing, 1989]). Additionally, if the universe was eternal, then it would have an
infinite past (i.e., an infinite number of days, weeks, months, years, etc.). This,
however, leads to a logical contradiction. By definition one can never reach the end
of an infinite period of time; nevertheless, we have arrived at today, which
completes or traverses the so-called infinite past (see Scaling the Secular City).
These points make an eternal universe theory scientifically and philosophically
Seeing that these other alternatives have failed, the only truly rational alternative is
that the universe was caused by an entity outside space and time, an entity that is
by definition uncaused and ultimate. And, because this Being created other beings
who possess personality, He must also be a personal Being (remember, the effect
cannot be greater than the cause). This explanation is perfectly in line with what
the Bible teaches: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen.
This argument, even if it is considered cogent, does not bring the atheist to
personal faith in Christ. At best, he or she arrives at a deity with many theistic
attributes. However, this argument does illustrate that believing in God is rational,
and in this case is the only rational alternative in explaining the universe.
It is at this point that we can turn the discussion back to Jesus Christ and set forth
His credentials as being God incarnate (see Christian Apologetics by Norman
Geisler [Baker Book House, 1976] and History and Christianity by John Warwick
Montgomery [Bethany House Publishers, 1964). Remember, simply believing in a
God does not save a person. It is a relationship with Jesus Christ that saves (John
We haven't been able to discuss some of the objections atheists have raised
concerning this argument. For a list of objections and responses concerning the
cosmological argument, consult Faith and Reason by Ronald Nash [Zondervan
Publishing House, 1988] and The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne [Oxford
University Press, 1979].
About the Author
Samples is currently serving as director of the Augustine Fellowship Study Center at
Post Office Box 23, Hemet, CA 92543; (909) 654-1429.
Taken from the Witnessing Tips column of the Christian Research Journal, Part One, Fall 1991, and
Part Two, Winter 1992, page 7. Copyright © 1994 by the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box
7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research
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