Some people are skeptics, while others are cynics. So what is the difference?
Skeptics are open-minded about the claims of Christ. Cynics typically ignore any evidence that contradicts their religious prejudices and assumptions.
The term “skeptic” is derived from a Greek word that means “questioning, inquiring, thoughtful.” It is good to be skeptical, whether you embrace Christianity, atheism or some other belief system.
Rather than taking things at face value, true skeptics honestly evaluate the evidence and are committed to discovering the truth. This includes evaluating the overwhelming evidence for the virgin birth, sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the late 15th century, the Oxford English Dictionary defined “cynic” as: “A person disposed to rail or find fault. One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and expresses this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.” Cynics sneer, while skeptics investigate. Cynics are antagonistic, while skeptics are fair and open-minded.
Thomas was skeptical about Christ’s resurrection until he personally saw his risen Lord. (John 20:24-29) Most of the Pharisees in the New Testament, on the other hand, were constantly cynical about Jesus of Nazareth. Closed minds and hostile attitudes are the rotten fruit of cynicism.
While speaking recently at a church in Texas, the brilliant astrophysicist Hugh Ross described how years ago he was invited to do a debate at the Skeptics Society Conference held at Caltech. Five lectures were presented by world-renowned atheist scientists on the non-existence of God.
Ross said, "I stood around afterwards to engage the 750 atheists who flew in from around the world. I told them that this weekend I have seen a brand new proof for the God of the Bible. The scientists who gave the lectures only talked about the non-existence of the God of the Bible. They ignored the god of Islam. They ignored the gods of Hinduism and Buddhism.”
He continued, “The other thing I observed is that they were extremely passionate about the non-existence of God. They spoke for an hour each. What this tells me is that if they really believed that the God of the Bible didn’t exist, they would be treating Him like the tooth fairy or the great pumpkin. What this tells me is that they really do believe in the God of the Bible, but it’s that they don’t like Him.” (37:50)
“I had about 40 atheists gathered around me. They said it’s not that we hate the God of the Bible. It’s that we despise His followers. And I began to hear stories about how they had been wounded or abused by Christians.”
Hugh Ross then shared with them, “Don’t you think it is irrational to let fallen human beings get between you and a perfectly loving and sinless God? They told me how difficult it was for them to forgive how they had been offended.”
Cynics with scars from past abuse can find themselves burdened with bitterness. These chains of resentment are often too strong to be broken by intellectual arguments alone. It requires intervention from the Lord, such as when God told His wayward people: “I will cleanse you from all your impurities…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:25, 26).
Some cynics have faulty theological assumptions they must be willing to address with an open mind. Others need to initiate the emotionally difficult task of confronting their demons.
That is to say, they need to come to terms with the root cause of their pain and hostility. Wounded cynics need to be able to distinguish between their unpleasant experiences with religious people, and the Creator who loves them and sent His only Son for their redemption.
“God is love,” (1 John 4:16) even when a professing Christian fails to demonstrate God's unconditional love in a manner befitting a follower of Christ. Would you like to know God and be delivered from any animus in your heart, or would you prefer to fume and wallow in the misery of your hurtful memories?
Some cynics, such as Saul of Tarsus, have a dramatic conversion experience (Acts 9:1-19) where they are suddenly changed from cynic to Christian. (Galatians 1:11-24) Other scoffers, by the grace of God, gradually evolve from cynic to skeptic to Christian over a period of months or years.
If you have been living under the great weight of cynicism, perhaps you would be willing to speak these words to God:
“Jesus, if you are there, I want to share something with you. I have been turned off to Christianity because of the behavior of some of your followers. But I am beginning to recognize that I would rather be a skeptic than a cynic. I am weary of the resentment I feel in my heart. Please help me with my issues, including those shortcomings I fail to see in myself."
It’s a start, right? If you are a cynic, what have you got to lose by talking to God from your heart? In many ways, you are a product of your past experiences, whether good or bad. And if you have had an ugly experience with a professing Christian, I am sorry you experienced that painful ordeal. But there is a way to move beyond the bitterness.
If you will own and relinquish your animosity, God is willing to perform surgery on your heart and mind. And once your resentment begins to dissipate, you will be in a much stronger position to evaluate the compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as other powerful evidence for the Christian faith. If you are a true skeptic, you are capable of grasping and appreciating Dr. Richard Land’s recent op-ed.
Freedom from cynicism and religious resentment requires the courage to confront your demons, and the humility to lay down your simmering antagonism at the foot of the cross.
Dan Delzell is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Papillion, Nebraska.