I’m dumbstruck by the number of former believers, people who say that they were passionate Christians — read the Bible, prayed often, and even engaged in door-to-door evangelism — that can’t seem to articulate their former belief system correctly.
They are atheists because they believe that the God they once served never existed. And that’s a real possibility. Based on Michael Shermer’s summary of his former faith, I can confidently say that that god doesn’t exist.
This is Shermer’s summary from the forward to Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists:
Christians claim that God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenovolent — all knowing, all powerful, all present, and all good, creator of the universe and everything in it including us.
Christians believe that we were originally created sinless, but because God gave us free will and Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, we are all born with original sin as a part of our nature even though we did not commit the original sinful act ourselves.
God could just forgive the sin we never committed, but instead he sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually just himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one god — that’s what monotheism means — of which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just different manifestations. Three in One and One in Three.
The only way to avoid eternal punishment for sins we never committed from this all-loving God is to accept his son — who is actually himself — as our savior. So …
God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself. Barking mad! [p. 11-12; ellipses and emphasis in original]
Let’s take it one at a time.
There seems to be little to with which to take issue in (1).
(2) is basically right; however, original sin represents the propensity to sin rather than an actual sin itself. Sin taints the whole earth and everything in it, including mankind.
So we are born with a sinful nature, and that is abhorrent to God. If we remain on that course, we will sin and we will move further and further away from God. The solution can’t, therefore, come from ourselves and must come from God.
(3) has two problems with it. First, I hesitate to say that God can’t simply forgive sin. What God cannot do is behave inconsistently with his own nature, because God is perfect. So I’d prefer to think of it as God won’t simply forgive sin; but a price or a penalty must be exacted first. In the Old Testament, we see a sacrificial system in place to make propitiation for our sins.
Why? Because there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. God killed a bear to cover Adam and Eve’s shame — the example we draw from! The High Priest would make propitiation once per year by making an offering and entering the Holy of Holies by the blood of it.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
The second problem is the description of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as “manifestations” of God. There is only one essence of divinity in Christianity, and this essence is simultaneously shared by God the Father (the Creator, described in the OT), God the Son (the Savior), and God the Spirit (the Helper).
Characterizing these Persons as “different manifestations” of God is heresy. The Athanasian Creed, one of the three foundational creeds of Christendom, defines what the Trinity is and is not, and it doesn’t leave room for modalism:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Each Person of the Trinity shares the power, glory, majesty, and titles with all other members. However, each has different roles not shared with the others:
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
As for (4), it suffers from the fundamental error identified in (2): sin is both action and nature, and the fact that we have a sin nature is itself abhorrent to God. But, left on that path with no aid, we will sin. So we’re born sinful, we follow that nature — no surprise there — and God punishes us. Not for sins we didn’t commit, but for ones we absolutely did.
The way out is to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. This recreates our flesh anew and removes the sin nature; it removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh. We are regenerated. We are no longer enslaved to sin, and so we are able to choose life instead of inevitably following the path that leads to death.
The conclusion suffers from all of the problems I identified — misunderstanding of the Trinity, misunderstanding of sin, misunderstanding of what the Savior does for us when we accept him as such.
So good for Shermer in not believing in this god. He clearly doesn’t exist. The God described by the Bible, however, does exist! Let’s hope there’s an argument against him somewhere in the rest of the book.