Billboard or Bible: Atheism's Jarring Proposition (Pt. 2)

"You know it's a myth; this season, celebrate reason."

So exhorts an atheist billboard appearing in several cities.

This opens up numerous possibilities for people bored with the usual tinsel, toys, and pasteboard manger scenes. Just a few ideas:

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A Christmas tree festooned with pictures of the history's notable atheists – Epicurus, Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud, Ayn Rand, Bertrand Russell, Katherine Hepburn, Francis Crick, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, to name a few.

Instead of a star at the top, put a full-length photo of Richard Dawkins.

Gather the family around the tree and celebrate reason. Everyone hold hands and sing William Ernest Henley's "Invictus". Let the kids, Aunt Gretchen, Uncle Leo, and the whole lot give their testimony about how they "know" the birth of Jesus and the Bible's narratives of His coming are all myths.

Right there the celebration of reason becomes problematic. In its zesty altar call, the atheist billboard has veered into landmine territory. This philosophical-psychological zone is called "epistemology" – theories about how we know what we know.

"How do you know there's a God?" atheists ask. "How do you know the coming of Jesus celebrated at Christmas is a 'myth'?" the believer can inquire.

How do we "know" anything? Let's "celebrate reason" for a moment.

Three big notions guide a reasonable discussion of epistemology.

• Some would say we only "know" things by observing, experiencing and verifying them via the scientific method ("empiricism").
• Others line up behind the proposition that thought is the main way we know what we know ("rationalism").
• Many believe our knowledge comes by someone higher and more knowledgeable showing us truth ("revelation").

Some of the people believing in revelation would say there is a direct link between the other two – empiricism and rationalism – and in that "critical confluence" true knowing happens. More in a moment.

The current "billboard evangelism" crusade launched by atheists preaches propositions, as we saw in Part 1 of this series. They propose what they see as truths on which they want us to act – and not merely act, but on which we are to rest our whole lives.

A proposition "proposes" an idea or action requiring a Yes or No, responses with consequences. If I propose we have dinner on me tonight at 7 at Houston's premier steakhouse, Taste of Texas, and you say Yes you get the prime rib of your choice (or the vegan alternatives, which are also succulent), but if you say No, you miss the treat.

There are some bothersome issues involved in my proposition that you must resolve before you accept or decline. First, can I be trusted to show up? To answer that ask people I have invited to dinner previously. Second, if I do show up, am I going to be able to pay or stick you with the bill? You might want to check my credit rating, my bank balance, and, again, my previous performance.

The whole proposition comes down to authority. Is my proposal based on solid authority that is intelligible, obvious over time, that has been embraced by others, and that can be trusted not to fail?

Atheists might answer Yes to all those criteria, citing some of the people whose images might hang on the reason-celebrating yule tree. But the atheist propositional system breaks down when it attempts to stretch its epistemological theories into infinity, or the eternal. Atheism's celebrated "reason" begins on the finite level, and tries to leap up from that limited realm into the infinite.

Consider a single-cell organism, a paramecium, theorizing an epistemological system based on its immediate environment. From that perspective, had the microscopic bug the capacity of reason, it's not likely it could rationalize its way to the existence of humanity, understand the nature of human love, freedom, inquiry, civilization and all the other complexities of humans and their universe.

But now think of a Being so "transcendent" (above it all) that He can survey the whole of creation. While the paramecium is struggling with reason, the Transcendent Being provides revelation, telling the finite creatures what He sees from "way up there".

This is the critical epistemological issue for the atheist propositions: From one's perspective in the finite zone, how can propositions about the infinite be more trustworthy than the revelation that claims to come from over-towering transcendence?

This is a level of "reason" that those who practice finite epistemology cannot comprehend. To go there from the paramecium's murky position on the microscope slide requires, well, faith. The only way to rebut the biblical proposition based on revelation is simply to deny the reality of the absolutely transcendent and the Being purported to inhabit it.

In fact, the yule tree celebrating reason could just as well be decorated with history's famous God-believers. They, who discovered the "critical confluence" of revelation and reason, realize that the Creator-Revealer has "wired" humans with the capacity to know Him rationally and empirically, as well as internally verified in their hearts.

This would include famous non-atheist thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Gottfried Leibniz, Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Augustine, Aquinas, and in our own time, Francis Collins, William Lane Craig, Hugh Ross, and enough more to require that reason-celebrating Christmas tree be a California Redwood.

And right here is where the atheist proposition gets to the jarring edge: If I die and have been wrong as a Bible-believer, I will never know it. When the atheist (or agnostic) dies, if he or she has been wrong, that individual will know it – horribly, according to biblical revelation and the human sense of justice – for all eternity.

What atheist evangelists are asking me to do is accept the possibility they are right rather than the probability the Bible is right. I don't think I will rest my eternal security on the atheist proposition. In the words of C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I don't have that much faith. Or courage.

So here's my proposition: The Battle of the Billboards is a battle of faith-systems. Atheism is a creed or theory at best, or a preference at worst, not something on which I want to stake my eternal destiny.

Wallace Henley, a former Birmingham News staff writer, was an aide in the Nixon White House, and congressional chief of staff. He is a teaching pastor at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.

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