Why Christians should listen to atheists

Militant secularisation?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about militant secularisation in Britain. There was the case of Clive Bone objecting to council prayers in Bideford. There’s been discussion over whether religious organisations – like the Church of England – should have to submit, for example, to employment law which might force them to accept women priests and gay bishops. On the other side, various bishops and peers  have been hitting back at the atheists and secularists, not always in edifying ways.

I say all this to set the scene; I’m not going to discuss these particular issues here (maybe another time). I’m more interested in how we as Christians or people of faith respond to these perceived threats and challenges. Do we withdraw into small beleaguered communities? Do we shore up our defences and fight back? Or do we seek to display the character of Christ by engaging in generous dialogue with those who oppose us?

Feeling threatened

I used to feel threatened by atheists and their anti-religious rhetoric. I confess my response is still often irritation (or, more charitably, amusement); but increasingly I find what atheists have to say both interesting and challenging – sometimes profoundly so.

I think I used to feel threatened by atheists because I was worried deep down that they might be right. (To put this in context, I also occasionally worry that Christian fundamentalists might be right, or that Muslims or Pagans or the BNP might be right.) This is partly just a result of the strength and passion with which some atheists put forward their views, and partly because I think it’s always important to question our own beliefs and to listen to those of others, changing our own views if the evidence requires it.

I also used to worry that atheists were going to hell and that I personally had to save them. I now worry instead that many atheists may be closer to Christ than some of us Christians. I’m no longer certain about things like hell and who is or isn’t going to be redeemed. All I’m certain of is the unfathomable and limitless love, goodness and mercy of God as shown in Christ.

And nowadays I no longer worry that atheists might be right; I’m sure they’re right… at least about many things. Having heard the best arguments that Dawkins and co. can throw at Christianity, I’m no longer concerned that they’re right about that; and anyway I’m not convinced that much is to be gained by arguments between atheists and religious people. Which leaves me free to listen to atheists on the many things that I do think they may be right about – sometimes more right than Christians and other people of religious faith.

Feeling insulted

Yes, some of the things that some atheists say are merely offensive or ill-informed. If you go on atheist forums as a Christian you can unfortunately expect to be rudely and rounded insulted. The following is a description of Jesus from RationalWiki, and it pulls no punches:

Jesus (Aramaic: Yeshua bar Yehosef), otherwise known as Jesus Christ (“Jesus the Messiah”), was a dirty piece of hippie socialist scum is the central figure of Christianity. In Christian theology, Jesus is the son of God, born to the Virgin Mary, and was sacrificed to atone for humanity’s sins. And he became a zombie in the process, as well as conjuring a zombie army (Matt. 27). http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Jesus

This is fairly typical of certain kinds of atheist and rationalist forum, but it certainly isn’t the full picture – particularly not if you talk to individual atheists face-to-face. Anyway, if our faith is genuine we can – and should expect to – put up graciously with some insult and misunderstanding; and let’s face it, we in the church can hardly claim never to speak offensively or ill-informedly.

Listening to atheists

Perhaps one of the most important things atheists can tell us is what’s wrong with Christians, with the church, and with Christianity as we practise it. They can also challenge us over some of our more bizarre or bonkers beliefs and doctrines, and help us to engage better with the findings of science. Saying this will doubtless irritate atheists but I think God may use them to critique Christians and the church and to shame us into changing our ways. In this sense, they sometimes speak with an almost prophetic voice.

In my experience, atheists are often very forthright and honest, sometimes brutally so when they’re talking about Christianity or religion in general. This can feel pretty painful when you’re on the receiving end – I’ve had some run-ins in the past and notably been called stupid and a liar on this blog. Nonetheless, at best this robust debate can be helpful and healthy– and at least you know where you are!

Agreeing with atheists

I also have to admit that, where I am at the moment on my faith journey, I find I agree with and have a lot more in common with some atheists than I do with many Christians. Like many atheists, I get irritated by religious right-wingers and fundamentalists, by biblical literalists and inerrantists, by doctrinal obsessives, and by many of the more narrow-minded or backward-looking attitudes and beliefs prevalent in large sections of the church. On many issues I actually find myself on the side of the atheists – with the one slight difference that I firmly believe in God and don’t see religion as an inherently false or bad thing.

Many atheists are passionately committed to making the world a better place, to combatting bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia, including in the church. In so doing, I suspect that some of them are closer to the radical heart and spirit of Christ than they realise. God doesn’t need us to sign up to a particular creed in order for our heart and deeds to matter and to have worth in his sight… perhaps some atheists may be better Christians than we are. And they quite often call us to action and hold us to account over social issues that we would sometimes rather ignore.

Atheists for Jesus

Interestingly, quite a few atheists who hate church and reject the idea of God still have considerable respect for Jesus. One of my most passionately militant atheist friends has half-jokingly described herself as an ‘atheist for Jesus’. Some Christians will complain that this is just wishy-washy thinking; that Jesus didn’t leave us this option – following one of C.S. Lewis’s less convincing arguments Christ is either ‘mad, bad or God’ and we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise. But as far as I’m concerned, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life then anyone who tries to follow him at all is at least heading along the right lines.

As an aside, you sometimes hear atheists say things like ‘I wish I could believe like you do, it must be so comforting’. I sometimes find myself wishing to retort ‘I wish I could disbelieve like you; faith in God is as often challenging, inconvenient and troublesome as it is comforting’…

Learning from doubt

Another thing we can learn from atheists is the importance of doubt, of questioning, of looking critically (sometimes even sceptically) at our beliefs and practices. Why do we believe what we believe and practise what we practise? What grounds are there for our faith? Atheists often make the mistake of thinking that doubt, critical thinking and evidence-based argument are antithetical to religious faith; the reality is that they are central to it. I’ve talked before of the stages of faith development, and how it’s healthy for early blanket acceptance of doctrine and dogma to be countered later on by a process of rigorous thinking and questioning.

Many of us don’t get to this stage, sadly; and some who do feel unsupported or distrusted by their churches. We need to embrace this phase and be prepared to subject our religious faith to the searching light of reason and the searing heat of criticism and doubt. Yes, for some this will spell the end of their faith – at least for a time. For others it will mark a new beginning with a new depth and strength. Unquestioned, uncritical faith is not in my view a finished faith; it’s more like the flush of first love untested by the trials of really living with another person.

Hearing people’s stories

But perhaps the most important reason why we need to listen to atheists is that a lot of them have been hurt or let down by religion, by religious institutions, creeds and systems – and by religious people.

Some people are atheists simply because they see no evidence or need for God; fair enough. Others believe that the evidence leads to the atheist conclusion; I disagree, but again, fair enough.

However, I suspect that many are atheists because they’ve had bad experiences of religion, from family or peers or the church. Some have been told they’re wicked and godless, that they’re going to burn in hell. Some have been physically or emotionally abused. Some have been excluded on the basis of their sexuality or background. Others have simply been bored stiff, or not listened to, or have turned to the church in their hour of need only to be fobbed off or turned away.

We need to hear their stories; we need to grieve with them and for them, and to acknowledge where we’ve let them down. The church is meant to represent Christ’s body on earth; we know full well that most of the time it’s not a particularly lovable body. That’s inevitable and we have to accept it (and accept ourselves); but we also have to accept that it often does damage to others in Jesus’ name, which is the worst kind of blasphemy.

So let’s be willing to listen and not too quick to take offence, to fight back or to worry that we’re losing ground to secularists – as though our job was to cling on to a Christendom that’s probably best consigned to the past. And if we really show ourselves willing to listen to atheists, then maybe – just maybe – they might be a little more willing to listen to us…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Controversies, Fundamentalism, Politics and faith and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Why Christians should listen to atheists

  1. Rosie Edser says:

    Oooooh! A provocative post today.

    I agree that many of the atheists I know seem to have taken up their position as -at some level – an emotional reaction to past experiences… as of course they would argue that I have. 😉

    Re recent debates in the media between the church of England/government I am particularly interested to see how the ‘you must provide gay marriage not to be discrimatory’ versus ‘no you secular government people just don’t get that it’s a given-by-God sacrament and just not the kind of thing suitable for legislation’ discussion develops.

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  2. Jim Pruitt says:

    Excellent post. Here is my view in about 500 words on why atheists might also want to lsiten to us:

    While we cannot prove or disprove God, we can know the effects of atheism which in our time have tended toward a degrading of human rights. “Without God,” Dostoevsky famously wrote, “all is permitted” or as John Adams surveying the French Revolution declaimed, “I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists.” Here is the future of the French Revolution that Adams, a different kind of revolutionary, was sensing but could not yet know. The French Revolution ushered in two decades of “revolutionary and Napoleonic struggles, which would encompass all the great powers, leave the continent choking on its own blood – with a toll of over two million dead or maimed – realign boundaries, topple rulers, kill a pope, weaken empires, divide America, and presage the ghastly bloodshed of the twentieth century’s two world wars.” In August of 1792 a violent mob …arrested the French royal family and murdered nine hundred Swiss Guards. “…(C)orpses of Swiss guards, what was left of them, were stripped naked and mutilated; gobbets of human flesh were mounted on pikes and carried in triumph through the streets; other corpses were piled on bonfires and then lit.” This was after the king had ordered the Swiss Guards to cease firing.” This is what Thomas Paine foresaw when he said “the people of France were running headlong into atheism.”

    If in France atheism was attended by a reign of terror, in America monotheism was attended by political progress. “America’s Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed ‘by our Creator’ with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver.” That is a why a generation removed from the American and French Revolutions, Tocqueville observed that in America the “boldest” political ideas of the Enlightenment were “more fully applied” then in any other country. “It was only the anti-religious doctrines that never were able to make headway.”

    In history, non-events that were expected are sometimes more astonishing than actual events. A surprising non-event in the twentieth century was the failure of God to die. Good can come out of that fact because for all the harm that religion has done, atheism has done far more. The Soviet Gulag, Auschwitz, the Cultural Revolution in China of the 1960s and the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s were all linked to atheistic regimes.

    There is little more that I can say on the topic. People have learned to believe or disbelieve in a prime mover or first cause or God independent of scientific advance and despite such human suffering as the horrors of war in the twentieth century where more than 150 million people were killed by state violence. Some turn from God when they see suffering. More turn toward God.

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    • Thanks Jim. I take your point about events like the French Revolution and the Soviet Gulags. However, my own sense is that religious and anti-religious groups are fairly well-matched when it comes to bloodshed, brutality and reigns of terror.

      Eric pointed out in his comment the link between fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians (or fundamentalists of any creed). The main problem as I see it is neither belief in God nor unbelief, but the kind of mentality that will kill in the name of creed, whether that creed be religious, anti-religious or something else entirely.

      There’s a lot more that could be said on all this… maybe another day. 🙂

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  3. Roisin says:

    Excellent read Harvey, well thought and balanced. Really inspires me and gets me thinking…Roisin

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  4. Eric says:

    Fundamentalists make the best atheists.

    I mean this in both of its possible forms. Fundamentalists manufacture atheists through providing the sort of awful religious experiences that create people who are really angry at religion. Fundamentalists also convert to being excellent atheists, as there are a number of scales in which fundamentalists and the more rabid atheists cluster at one end.

    However, I generally find that atheists who really feel a need to go evangelize for atheism have had bad experiences with religion, which very much supports your statement that we should listen to their stories.

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  5. Ken Schei says:

    Hi,
    RE: One of my most passionately militant atheist friends has half-jokingly described herself as an ‘atheist for Jesus’.
    Some of us are quite serious about it. 😉 I founded “Atheists for Jesus” in 1989.
    I enjoyed your article, and–if you have the time/interest–I would be very interested in your thoughts about my work. Details can be found at: http://www.atheists-for-jesus.com and http://www.rescuingjesus.org. I also have two podcast series’: “Atheists for Jesus: Rescuing Jesus from the Bible” and “Rescuing Jesus (and America) from the Religious Right.” Both are free and can be found on iTunes or my websites.
    All the Best!
    Ken Schei

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    • Thanks Ken – great to hear from you! I’ll definitely have a look at your websites and podcasts – they sound really interesting. Looks like Richard Dawkins has borrowed your idea (or at least phrase) too: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/20.
      All the best,
      Harvey

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      • Ken Schei says:

        Hi Harvey,
        Yes, Richard Dawkins got more attention for the idea by putting on a tee shirt (an unofficial one at that) than I have in the last two decades. Can’t imagine why! 😉
        Your opinion of my work (positive or negative) would be most appreciated. (Note: You don’t start an organization called “Atheists for Jesus” if you’re thin-skinned 😉 ).
        I look forward to reading more of your material.
        Sincerely,
        Ken

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        • Hi Ken,
          I’ve started looking at your websites and there’s a lot of interesting material there! That’s not to say I agree necessarily, but that’s not a problem. 🙂

          I’ll say upfront that I really don’t agree about the Paul-vs-Jesus idea, though I do have considerable fellow-feeling with where you’re coming from. I think Paul has been so badly misread, misunderstood and misused for so long by the fundamentalists and the religious right that it’s strongly tempting just to throw out his writings as a gross distortion of Jesus’s teachings and ideals. However, I don’t think this actually does justice to the depth and complexity of either Paul’s thought or of Jesus’s. On this, I’d recommend reading anything by Tom Wright (aka N.T. Wright), particularly ‘What St Paul really said’ and ‘Virtue Reborn’. In my view, Wright is the best scholar dealing with these issues at the moment.

          But I do genuinely think that what you’re saying is very interesting and deserves to be properly engaged with. And I’m with you every step of the way in opposing the religious right in America – and everywhere else! 🙂 And the prospect of Rick Santorum getting anywhere near the White House fills me with utter dread…

          All the best,
          Harvey

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  6. tnmusicman says:

    “As an aside, you sometimes hear atheists say things like ‘I wish I could believe like you do, it must be so comforting’.”

    I have yet to hear that from an atheist. What I hear is ” I use to believe like you but became a more rational person who stoped believing in magic sky daddies”. That’s actually the nicer quotes. I won’t mention the ones where Jesus,my Lord and Savior, is a “zombie Jew” ,which if I’m to believe the atheists you are surrounded with are doing their best to “combat bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia” then I guess I’ve just come across the ones that dont care about combating racism,I suppose.
    I think you have a great attitude but I just haven’t seen this great and wonderful side to being an atheist as of yet. I surely hope to. Perhaps then I can engage in a conversation in the forums with an atheist and we can see eye to eye on some things but one of the problems I see with that is that atheists think that Christians are deluded and as one atheist so eloquently put it ” how can I have a serious conversation with a theist?? I mean, come on…….”
    Yes,this is the breed of atheist that I deal with quite frequently. I agree that the church has a lot of people in it that aren’t really Christians. It is just something they feel like they should do or want to be seen at church but a real meaningful relationship with God isn’t on the agenda. I’ve seen these kinds of “pseudo-Christians” all my life and I was one for a while but then I left church for about 23 years. It was the sweet sound of the holy spirit that kept tugging at me and I finally decided to listen. I searched outside of church for a long time trying to find meaning and purpose to my life,which I found, but my life is so much better with God in it. This much I’m prepared to defend all day long.
    I do hope those searching for evidence for God can find the evidence that will convince them that we serve a wonderful and loving God that wants to be part of their lives. He alone is worthy.

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    • I know what you mean – I’ve certainly encountered plenty of rude and opinionated atheists (and also a fair few rude and opinionated Christians!). I was called ‘stupid and a liar’ by an atheist on this blog once. But I’m no longer so worried by these – as far as I’m concerned, if anyone feels the need to resort to insults they’ve already lost the argument.

      My own advice would be to steer clear of atheist debating forums – you’ll always get the most militant, angry and rude ones there, and the anonymity of the internet leads people to say things they wouldn’t dream of saying face to face. Discussions with atheist friends are much more fruitful than debates with angry axe-grinding strangers.

      I guess I’m not hugely interested in arguing with atheists these days – I’ve learnt that my words are unlikely to convince a hard-line dyed-in-the-wool rationalist. But if I’m prepared to listen to them and engage constructively with their views and their hurts, perhaps that might at least show some atheists that Christians aren’t inherently stupid, intolerant and bigoted.

      All the best to you in whichever ways you choose to engage with people who aren’t Christian,

      Bless you,
      Harvey

      Liked by 1 person

      • tnmusicman says:

        Thank you,Harvey. I’ve given up trying to share Jesus on the atheist forums but I’m still active on the Christian forums that allow atheists to post comments but at least in CF there are rules about insulting. Thanks for your encouraging comment.
        Blessings,
        Chris

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  7. Isis Galaxy says:

    I’d like to thank you for this post and leave a couple of responses.

    “As an aside, you sometimes hear atheists say things like ‘I wish I could believe like you do, it must be so comforting’.”

    This is very close to what I said in a conversation with my stepmom, who is a fairly religious person. She was concerned for me because her faith gives her a lot of comfort and peace and meaning, and because I do not share that, she was concerned that day to day life much be tougher. And I agreed. I think a lot of things that have happened – either in my life or in the larger world – perhaps might be less personally upsetting to me if I possessed a belief that they “happened for a reason” or were planned that way by god (even if I do not understand why). I absolutely believe that I would find it comforting to have the faith that my stepmom – and so many others – possess.

    The other thing I’d like to respond to is the point about the reasons people are atheists. I’m sure you are correct that there are those who have come to their atheism from a place of former faith, and that a subset of those may be folks who had negative experiences. I cannot speak to that, however, because it’s not my personal experience. For years I was an agnostic, such sitting on the fence. I didn’t really believe, but, I thought, “Who am I to say?”. Then I read a quote from Bertrand Russell that allowed me to hop off the fence and into the atheism camp. It related to the issue of proof or signs. When I studied religion and philosophy in college, it did seem to essentially all boil down to that – the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” that requires of true believers to not require the signs or proof – but to take that leap of faith in their absence.

    Anyway, I just wanted to stand up to be counted as someone who had no negative personal experience with organized religion (in fact, I proudly identify as Jewish and my son will have a bar mitzvah in 3 years). I just don’t believe in the western conceptualization of god. I don’t discount the possibility that something could change my opinion or belief in the future, but that’s where I’ve sat for the past 25 years or so. And I also have full respect for those who do believe (such as my stepmom). Live and let live.

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    • Hi, thanks very much for your comment, and for engaging with this. It’s really good to hear your views and your story (or at least a little bit of it), and also to be gently put right on a couple of points! 🙂

      Interestingly, though I am a believer (of sorts!), I don’t believe that things necessarily always ‘happen for a reason’ or that they were ‘meant to be’. I believe we live in a mixed-up world where sometimes ‘s**t happens’. For me, my faith is then more about what I do with that s**t when it does happen (or when I’m responsible for it, which is fairly frequent!), and where I go with it. I think for me the framework of faith helps me ask questions rather than always giving answers.

      Though I do strongly believe in the reality of God (in some sense), and also in Christ, I nonetheless see atheism as potentially a very positive thing – far more so than many manifestations of religion, including many forms of Christianity!

      For me the important thing is to have an open mind, to live with a sense of wonder, to seek reality both through science and through art, to know and accept your own goodness and flawedness, and to care about people. For me I’d say something like Christ is the reality which (who) ultimately makes this possible, but I wouldn’t say you need to know or believe in him for that to be the case. And I completely accept that others will see things completely differently, and I have no problem with that.

      I don’t fully agree with Kierkegaard about the ‘leap of faith’ – or rather, I do, but I actually think that it applies to everything in this world, not just to religious belief. Including science. But that’s another discussion maybe! 🙂

      All the very best,
      Harvey (The Evangelical Liberal)

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  8. Atheism isn’t as white and black as many in the west make it today.
    Carvaka, a well known atheistic school within Hinduism (Santana Dharma before the 14th century) along with many others flourished greatly in northern India, Nepal and parts of Tibet.
    Gradually with the extreme Islamic treatment of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, Hinduism became more and more theistic and atheistic Hinduism was virtually wiped out.
    Atheists also make many great philosophical belief systems mainly in the Indo-Chinese area with Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism and Taoism as the prominent ones.
    Yogic Hinduism too is highly atheistic.

    So, the divide between atheists and theists never caused any upheaval in India until the Islamic invasion.

    Also many atheistic sects that denied a supernatural being and deities still practiced Tantra and meditation to reach altered states of mind.
    Also, the most important case of all, the Harappan civilization that only practiced Yagna and linga-yoni without a formal religion was the most peaceful and happiest civilization on earth, even without any government at the time… It greatly flourished.

    So, atheists would do much better than Christians and Muslims did around the world if they actually are open to possibilities and observing and experiencing before concluding.

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  9. Connie says:

    Harvey,
    Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts regarding atheism. I personally had many years experience with an atheist, my mother. Her death put me into a tailspin. Her sudden unexpected death came on the heels of the death of my father-in-law, step father a few months later, my grandmother (mom’s mom) a year and few months after step dad’s death then the sudden death of my mom almost two months to the day of my grandmothers death.
    This threw me into a time of questioning that I may never had had the courage to face otherwise. I felt wholeheartedly betrayed by God. The pain and fear was almost unbearable. I truly believed my mother was in hell. How could this happen? If God is omnipresent, omniscient and all the other things we are taught every Sunday then how could this be? I prayed for her many years so somehow I must not be good enough for Him to answer my prayers, or I didn’t pray hard enough, or He just doesn’t care and on and on….
    Yes I believe we all make our own choices and if someone doesn’t want God then even He can’t force them (free will). And yes I do believe in hell as much as I hate the idea.
    But let me say this about my mom and what I have observed about her beliefs. Firstly I know she wasn’t an atheist as much as she claimed over and over. There were comments she made over the years that said otherwise. Secondly she was abused as a child and one of her abusers was a Baptist minister. As a supposed representative of God this sick man demonstrated to her in a clear way that God didn’t care about her or what happened to her. Bottom line is she was furious with God.
    I completely understand this as I was also abused by a “Christian” man when I was 5 years old. Although I am a Christian I am struggling with hating God because of mine and my mothers abuses and the resulting mindset this caused in her.
    There is more to the story but for now based on my experience I truly believe that many atheists were abused maybe physically, sexually, spiritually and certainly mentally by some authority figure.
    Thank you for a forum that encourages spiritual honesty no matter how uncomfortable. You can’t believe the relief I feel being able to share these things.
    Blessings to you!
    Connie

    Like

    • Hi Connie,
      Firstly thank you so much for sharing your incredibly difficult and painful story – I can’t begin to imagine what you have gone through, or what your mother went through. I’m so very sorry to hear of what happened to you and to her, and at the hands of people you must have thought you could trust. Nothing I can say can come near to expressing anything adequate in response to your story, but thank you so much for telling it, and bless you for your courage and honesty.

      I no longer fully believe in a literal hell (and I’ve blogged about that quite a few times in different ways!). I think what I do believe in is that we can, if we really choose, persistently shut out God’s light and love and mercy and grace so that we are living in a kind of self-made hell of loneliness and inner darkness. But I also strongly believe that in the end, God will do all he can to tear down the walls we put up against him. I cannot believe that the God I know a very little in Jesus inflicts unending suffering on anyone, whatever they have done, and certainly not for simply failing to believe in him.

      God bless you Connie, and thank you again.
      Harvey

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