Atheism and the Christian Witness
by Major Glen Doss –
“Lay the bodies there…there…” Joe said. “With the delicacy of coiled tendrils, I closed Louis’ eyelids when he died.”
I wrote these words once in a poem relating a particularly horrific memory from the Vietnam War. The year was 1968. I was 21 years old; I was also an atheist. Something I did not know then, which I was to discover only years later, was that because I refused to call out to God during this dark night of the soul, I was to find no inner peace.
“Excuse me, Major. May I ask you something?” The young man follows me out of the chapel as the Bible study ends. He has only recently entered our Adult Rehabilitation Center program. “Major, I just got here, and I notice that everywhere I go, there’s ‘God this’ and ‘God that.’ Everybody’s talking about God. To be honest with you, I don’t believe in God. I think it’s all a bunch of nonsense. Can I remain in this program and still not believe in God?”
Of course I say yes, even as my mind reels with a surge of memory and emotion. I am saddened. Only years of misery and spiritual malaise lay in wait for one with this mindset–I know!
Talking with this young man over the days ahead, I am only confirmed in my suspicions. The hubris–the egocentric mindset–is very familiar. The set of the jaw, the toss of the head, the arrogance in the tone–these are things which argument or reasoning can rarely deter. Only a “bottoming out” life experience has any real chance of crashing this psychological stone wall–precipitating surrender to the One who can bring peace. Only life experience and intercessory prayer.
The next morning, the word passes from person to person in our small group Bible study: “Pray for ______.” Now this same young man is lifted up in prayer by fellow beneficiaries. Although he does not believe in God, he is brought before the throne by those who deeply do believe in and love God. It is evident, also, that they dearly love the young man.
Ka-boom! Ka-boom! I lift my hands to my face, and they tremble! What’s wrong?? The red, red blood just will not come off! I scrub and scrub, but despite all efforts my hands will not come clean! In my horror I wring them and scream!
Abruptly, I sit bolt upright and find myself in bed. I am perspiring, trembling with great anxiety. Ka-boom! Ka-boom! Are those mortar rounds? Surely they cannot be! I stand at my bedside window and stare out at the bright lights flashing intermittently from the north. Then it comes to me–this is Vallejo, California. It is August 1978, and the highway department is using explosives to clear land.
When will I ever get past my war nightmares? Is there never to be any peace? I turn on the bedside lamp and again open a book by psychologist Erich Fromm, Man for Himself–my bible. Surely the answer lies somewhere in the pages of this book which I have read and reread! If humans can put a man on the moon, certainly they can cure the social ills of this world! Surely they can grant me inner peace! Surely they can!
“Don’t give me any of that religious ____!” The angry words sound into the hall as a young woman emerges shaken from the hospital room.
“Major, this is the hardest part of League of Mercy visitation. This man is very, very bitter! He says he doesn’t even believe in God! He ordered me out of the room!!”
Calmly, I enter and begin casually a conversation with the man. It turns out that he is a veteran like myself. Now, he’s dying of emphysema and has but weeks to live. He tells me very bluntly that he’s angry with his family and with life in general. He doesn’t believe in any god who would permit the ugliness that pervades this world. He is very outraged at all that defines his existence.
I tell him my story, and he listens intently. “The difference between you and me,” he says when I finish, “is that you have bought into the lie. There is no God! You’ve accepted the illusion because that acceptance provides you a sense of security and serenity–that’s all!”
I talk with the man at length, yet he persists in his attitude. He is angry. He is bitter. There appears to be nothing that I can do to change his mind.
Week after week I visit him on the LOM trips. He tells me that he looks forward to my visits. One day, he opens up his mind enough to allow me to pray aloud with and for him. Weakly, he smiles, “I still don’t believe in your so-called God, but thanks anyway for the prayer.”
On my next visit, I find his bed empty. He passed away two days before, the staff report. A chill passes over me. I pray, “Dear God, thank you for bringing me to this man. I hope and pray that he found his peace. Thank you, Lord, for your love.”
There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” All journeys are planned with the destination in view. As an atheist, I had no concept of an ultimate purpose (destination) for my life. Dr. Ravi Zacharias said it well: “Where there is no answer for death, hopelessness inevitably invades life.” Pascal knew whereof he spoke when he said that he had learned to define life backwards and live it forwards. By that, he meant that he first defined death and then his life accordingly.” (Can Man Live Without God, Word Publishing, 1994, p. 53)
Posttraumatic stress disorder occurs as the mind strives relentlessly to make sense out of something perceived as senseless or unimaginable. A recent trauma can sometimes be a precipitating factor to release repressed feelings. In 1986, while undergoing a divorce, I felt horrific memories of the war lash out from within my psyche with a fury heretofore unknown. One day, when speaking long distance with my brother Dale, a Freewill Baptist minister, he shared with me these simple words: “There is such peace to be found in Jesus Christ.” I laughed at him. At that time in my life, I saw such “myth” as irrelevant–in my arrogance, my hubris, my pride.
A few weeks later, admitted into a psychiatric hospital ward because of suicidal ideation, I shared these words with a counselor: “I see myself as if at the bottom of a very deep and dark well. I keep straining my neck, looking upward for the expected light from the sky above, but I see no light. I scream over and over again from deep down in my soul: ‘Where is the light?’ It’s so dark, dark in here! I know there must be light up there! Where is the light?'”
Some time later–August 14, 1986–parked at a late hour along a dark street, the inward spiraling waves of suicidal despair once more began their downward descent into my soul. I clutched out in desperation for any straw with which to save me from myself. For some reason which I cannot even today identify, my brother’s calming words came back to me: “There is such peace to be found in Jesus Christ.” Then, mysteriously, the words of a Sunday school verse from childhood surfaced from somewhere in memory: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10, KJV)
I prayed silently: “God, if there’s a remote chance that you do exist, let me know you now. I don’t want to die! I want to live!” An amazing wave of peace swept through my mind, and a definite awareness of God’s awesome presence enveloped me. I was never again to doubt his existence.
Today my testimony is that I have found the Light. Jesus Christ is the light of my life. It is he who shows me my way in a dark, dark world. It is he who said, “I am the light of the world . He who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, NIV)
A few days ago, a heroin addict with two years in recovery said to me: “Major, when I first came into the program and heard you preach, I thought you were crazy. You kept talking about God all the time. I had never heard of such things as you said in all my life! I didn’t believe in any god and assumed that what you said had nothing at all to do with me. However, now that I have found Jesus Christ, it has all become very clear–he is my higher power, and he has given me my purpose for living.” A bottoming out life experience, coupled with a Christian witness, made all the difference in the world in this man’s life.
May God use each of us whose lives he has wonderfully saved to provide an effective Christian witness when the crucial moment arrives! May we be humble vessels fit for his service. Amen!