Imagine a peaceful day in a warm, quiet field. You are stretched out on a bed of flowers and grass, surrounded by nothing but trees and wind. Overhead, lazy clouds drift across a sky of brilliant blue. A gentle breeze drifts through, brushing your cheeks and providing the music of rustling leaves and swaying grass. You lean back, close your eyes, and rest. You have nothing to fear because you know all is right with the world. God has removed every enemy, he has brought his peace upon creation, his people are free from sin and sorrow and suffering and dwell forevermore in a creation made new. God has made his dwelling place with man and man lives forevermore in peace.
While this scene does not describe the sum total of our future experience in paradise, it does offer a glimpse of the coming rest for the people of God. Eternal joy and eternal peace are in store for God’s people. True rest. True joy. True peace. True meaning and purpose.
This is why atheism offers no hope or consolation.
In a recent New York Times column, atheist Susan Jacoby sought to explain why atheism provides an answer – perhaps (she thinks) the best answer – to those coming to grips with the loss of a loved one. She attributes her atheism to the problem of pain: how could God allow people to suffer? In her view, atheism is superior because it does not have to answer this question. If God is not real, there is no need to determine why he allows tragedy. If there is no God, he can have no greater purpose behind our pain. Things happen because they happen and it is up to us to create a world in which terrible things do not occur.
It is difficult to see how this offers hope. Although many people struggle to understand why God would allow – or even ordain – tragedy, we have the confidence that God has a reason for suffering and will ultimately use all things – even suffering – for good. Even if we do not understand, we are able to trust. We know there is no such thing as meaningless suffering. Atheism offers no such hope. In atheism, no one is working out all things for good, no one gives meaning to suffering.
We are Christians because we believe God is real and trust that he is who he says he is in the Bible. We worship him because he is worthy of our devotions. We should not encourage people to embrace Christianity first and foremost because of the hope it offers, but because of the God we serve. We worship God, not his gifts. Our hope is in God, not abstract concepts of reward. But as those who worship and serve the living God, we know that with God comes true meaning and purpose and satisfaction and joy. Because we believe in the God of the Bible, we also believe his promise of future glory.
With that in mind, my argument here is not so much about whether or not God is real, but whether or not the hope of atheism rivals the hope of Christianity. Ultimately, the atheist hope is no hope. Meaningless suffering remains meaningless suffering. If there is no God, there is no hope.
This is clearly seen with Jacoby’s presentation of the atheist’s consolation in the face of death. With the tragedy of Newtown, Connecticut in mind, Jacoby presents the words of Robert Green Ingersoll: “The larger and nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest… The dead do not suffer.” She concludes that the atheist’s consolation is in seeing death as a doorway to that perfect rest.
What Jacoby fails to acknowledge is that in the atheist mind, death is the complete cessation of a person. That individual no longer exists. Once the brain stops, any trace of conscious individuality is gone. Do with the body what you will, the conscious individual is gone and there is no soul to carry on existence. Thus while Jacoby claims that death is a doorway into a realm of perfect rest and no suffering, it is a doorway that completely eliminates a person’s ability to experience that rest.
Is it possible to speak of rest when there is no awareness of rest? Can we talk about freedom from suffering if we do not know we are free from suffering? If the dead no longer exist, we cannot even speak of them. The individual is gone. The only way to speak of him is in the past tense. The dead do not now rest; they are not now without suffering; they no longer exist. There is nothing for them now because there is no them. This is atheism’s true consolation. They do not offer rest and freedom from suffering, they offer absolutely nothing.
Perfect rest is to dwell in the presence of God in a new creation where all has been set right. Perfect rest is the experience of the glory of God. Perfect rest is conscious freedom from sin and its effects. Perfect rest is the continuation of the individual for the rest of forever in the paradise of God.
This still does not answer the question of God’s existence, but it does show that atheism’s consolation is a sham. Whatever it may or may not offer, it does not offer hope. Hope requires One who is able to call people out of the grave to a true and lasting future rest.