While suffering in prison, Paul wrote to his dear friends in Philippi, “My desire is to depart [this life] and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Today new atheists like Sam Harris read this passage and lament the delusional teachings of Christianity, because they think that belief in an afterlife causes people to minimize the destruction of suffering in this life.
Harris writes, “Because [the atheist] refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is . . . only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value.”
Is Harris’ view correct? Does setting our eyes on heaven make Christians dull to the suffering of this world? For someone who claims such high respect for empirical data, Harris provides no foundation for his claim. Historically, he could not be farther from the truth. In the last hundred years atheistic men with atheistic philosophies led some of the greatest human catastrophes since the dawn of time. Hitler, Mao, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, and Pol Pot all denied God and then denied human rights, leading to millions of deaths.
But perhaps Harris speaks of a “new atheism,” which does more good today. Famous New York Times editorialist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote that a Christian organization, World Vision, is the world’s largest relief and development organization, not it’s secular counterparts Care or Save the Children. So it seems those bound for heaven today are also those most set on unbinding the oppressed in this world.
In Christian Smith’s sociological study of 18-23 year olds, he found that the average young adult who took his faith seriously donated significantly more (over double) money to non-profit organizations than his atheist peers.
Sam Harris should rethink his position. He really means to say this: “If I, Sam Harris, believed in heaven, then I would be no earthly good.”
Christians, however, who set their eyes most on heaven are exactly those who do the most earthly good. George Mueller, desiring to show God’s faithfulness to all people, established the largest orphanages for destitute children in the world. William Wilburforce, convinced of the freedom won for us in Christ, succeeded in winning freedom for slaves in England. Mother Theresa, trusting that all bear the image of God, spent her life serving lepers that society claimed bore nothing but shame.
Atheists absolutely lack the foundational tools to appreciate the wonder and awesomeness of God’s crowning creation: mankind. They cannot even call suffering evil, for suffering is merely part of the evolutionary process. Richard Dawkins writes that “blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection.” How blind, then, are the new atheists?
May God graciously save us from a day when his Church’s vision of heaven is blinded. We look forward to a day without suffering, when we will see Christ’s glory and be glorified. Until that day, because our hope will not be put to shame, we will work to relieve and redeem suffering in this world, all to the glory of God.