Amongst Christians circles, it is “common sense” that atheists stand as the greatest threat to faith. They are “godless” and they reject everything we stand for. Besides, doesn’t Psalm 14:1 tell us that a fool says “There is no God.” Instead, didn’t Jesus say that you must be “born again” to enter into the kingdom of God in John 3? Isn’t it obvious that the born again are better off than atheists?
But hold up. Is that really what is said? Psalm 14:1, and the equivalent passages in Psalm 10:4 and 53:1, literally says in Hebrew “no God.” In our modern world where the debate is between the existence of God and not makes that topic very salient, we will be inclined to here the negation of “no” here as a rejection of God’s existence. But in a time where there are multiple gods and goddesses to worship, the salient concern is about what god or goddess is in power and whether that god or goddess cares. Therefore, to say “no God” wouldn’t be a rejection of the existence on a single, monotheistic God. Rather, it would be closer to stating “God is not here” as if God is unconcerned about what happens or is incapable of doing anything. The implication within all of these psalms is that the person who thinks to themselves that God isn’t concerned about what they are doing are people are someone who engages in evil, unjust acts. Far from saying “God does not exist,” the fool in these psalms speak of persons who think God is not paying attention to what they do, thus legitimating their evil deeds.
Meanwhile, in John 3:1-9, Jesus is engaging in a discussion with Nicodemus. Jesus begins by saying “no one can see the kingdom of God unless one is born ἄνωθεν.” ἄνωθεν has two different meanings. It can mean to start afresh, which is where we get the common translation of “again.” It can also mean from above. The Gospel of John is notorious for using words that have double meanings, where people interpret the words one way when in fact the word is used in a different manner.1 That is what happens here. Nicodemus interprets Jesus as talking about a second birth in vs. 4, thinking Jesus is talking about being born again.
Jesus then offers a clarification by describing it as a birth from the water and the Spirit. Now various interpretations have been offered as to what born of water refers to. Does it refer to baptism? Does it refer to the first type of birth? While I think the baptismal explanation is closer than an explanation of a first birth, the joining of water and Spirit, which also means wind” is an echo of creation, where the world has been un-formed and at that moment there is a wind/Spirit of God hovering over the waters. Jesus is speaking of a creative act of God, who resides “above” in the “heavens.” Then, Jesus clarifies the original statement about being born from above by a reference to the metaphor of wind, which is invisible and yet people hear it. To be born above is a mystery that you see happen but it is not something you ever understand or grasp. In the end, to be born from above entails God’s creative action, entailing a looking forward to God rather.
Thus, the difference between being “born again” and being “born from above” is about where our attention is. Is our attention within ourselves, in some experience we have, that we have some fixed status within ourselves that sets us apart? Or, is our attention to what God is doing, looking for God’s power to make something real instead of attention on something we possess ourselves within ourselves? Being “born again” is about my experience and about my state. Being “born from above” is about God’s action. In the case of being “born again” we are the center and God is the legitimation of my experience of change, forgiveness, etc.; frequently this is joined together in many evangelical, “conversionists” circles with a sense of absolute certain ourselves as individuals. In the case of being “born from above” God is at the center and we are left in a state of mystery and ambiguity as to how this is all supposed to happen; there is a hopeful trust in God but not a lot of clear knowledge about how it is all supposed to go down.
Which leads me to my point: it is better to be an atheist than to be born again. Why? Because being born again means God becomes defined by my experience, which means I will make a lot of statements about God that are veiled statements that serve the interest of my own self-esteem, interests, status, power, etc. I am the center of what God is about. However, the whole trajectory of the prophetic tradition starting in Moses and came to expression in the prophetic literature is that God is a holy God, who is not to be fashioned into an idol, whose kindness and mercy is not some automatic possession of the people, no matter what they do. The prophetic tradition would say so much of what is said about God is self-serving; even as the people appealed to the traditions and practices that God had given to them, the prophets point out how the very meaning and intentions of those practices were forgotten and distorted for other purposes.
If we were to take the prophetic tradition seriously today, we might say 95% of what is said about God today in religious circles or by religious persons is either outright false or deeply mistaken; appealing to Scripture does not justify them. Guess what? Atheists would say 100% of what is said about God is outright false. The difference between taking the prophetic tradition serious in this manner and atheists is only on about 5% of things. While we would disagree with atheists on propositions pertaining to God’s existence, we would agree that so much of what is done in the name of religion is false and frequently self-serving. Furthermore, so much of what is said by Christians, or people of other religions, is said in such a way to justify ourselves, to suggest that God is on our side. Hence, we can be tempted to say something similar to Psalm 14:1 – “God is not concerned about me and what I do” because we have made ourselves, our desires, our dreams the center of God’s intentions. And so, in a self-cloaking in darkness, those who are “born again” can be tempted to think what they do is justified and that God will not enact justice against them for their actions. Atheists do not work with such an egocentric idea of God.
What if in the secularizing West, atheists, agnostics, and people who have serious doubts about God are closer to the kingdom of God than many of us Christians who think we are on the right side? What if the problem of the Pharisees is the self-serving, self-justifying nature of their religion that was used to indemnify them from their own ethical responsibilities and to mask their own injustice? What if the reason Jesus chose sinners to eat with was that they, despite their sin, were not caught in a web of religious self-justification that blinded them from seeing what was truly good, appreciating it, and receiving it? So, what if atheists, agnostics, and those who have serious doubts about God are closer to God’s kingdom than many Christians because atheists, agnostics, and those who doubt are actually closer to the truth and thus more open to receiving it? Would that throw your whole world upside down?
To be clear, the problem isn’t the existence of some theological or ethical error among us Christians. The problem is that when we believe something to be true, but the deeper, more subconscious reason we believe it is true is that it somehow serves our own interests, and then we resist letting those beliefs go because it would threaten us. Theological self-justification of our own interests creates a resistance to true, godly repentance because we have already place our property stake in the ground about what we think about God and we want to keep the property lines where they are. Theological self-justification can absolute erode any sense of humility is ourselves, making ourselves the center rather than in humility allowing God to be the center. Meanwhile, those who have reservations about God may have their reasons for why they do believe in a God or trust in God, but they do not justify their lives and interests based upon their lack of belief in God. And while there are the militant atheists such as the New Atheists for whom much of what is said would not be applicable, most people who question God and His existence are not caught in such a vitriolic state; they simply fail to be convinced or they have been deeply hurt by religious people.
To be “born from above” entails a posture where our hearts are wide open as we stand in a mystery, not presuming we know enough to legitimate ourselves and our dreams, but where we look towards the power and action of God to bring about new creation of His Kingdom and us as His people. Atheists are closer to this status because they do not use God to legitimate themselves, rather than many Christians whose lives are defined by the inward posture of being “born again” where God legitimates them. That is why it is better to be an atheist than to be “born again.”