Let’s pretend Time magazine published an issue called The Number One Atheist of All Time.
Who’s picture do you think would be on the cover?
Maybe Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin or David Hume…
Or 9th century A. D. religious critic …
Or even 5th century Athenian philosopher Socrates who was, for political reasons, accused of being ‘atheos’ (“refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the state”).
What Makes These Atheists Great?
They’ve all published and advocated substantial arguments against the existence of God (except perhaps Socrates who didn’t really publish anything).
But what other qualifications make them a good candidate for the number one atheist? What metrics would help you find that atheist?
IQ? Logic of arguments? Level of publicity? Strength of outside voice?
Maybe it’s who they’ve debated…and the number of debates they’ve won. Or the number of best-selling books they’ve written against the existence of God…or for the proof of evolution.
Perhaps we also measure the depth of their hatred or the intensity of their bitterness. Calculate the number of times they can say the f-word in a sentence. Or count the number of theists they’ve tortured and murdered.
No doubt a person who excelled in all these areas would make a fine atheist. Maybe even the best.
But are these good indicators to measure the worth of the all-time greatest atheist? To be honest, I don’t think it really matters. Or that I even really care.
What’s important is this: Once God sets his sights on someone–whether a staunch, heavy-weight atheist or a lightweight, equivocating agnostic–that person is toast.
Take Saul of Tarsus, for example.
My Vote for Number One Anti-Christ
Before his conversion, Saul was a model opponent of Christianity. He had the pedigree:
Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.
Furthermore, he was bred in the proper intellectual environment: the Mediterranean sea town Tarsus [modern day Turkey], a city well-known for it’s emphasis on knowledge.
He sustained a drive to advance up the Jerusalem temple leadership chain.
He even violently persecuted the followers of Jesus. In fact, the first time Saul makes an appearance in the Bible he is standing over the stoning of Stephen.
And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.
So while Saul of Tarsus might not of been an atheist, he was by all standards a critic of Christianity. An anti-Christ if you will, who was systematically picking off the early church one-by-one.
And he looked unstoppable, which terrified first century Christians.
My Knees Would Buckle in the Face of This Anti-Christ
I have to confess: I would cower, too. And I have something else to confess: I sometimes waver when I think of contemporary opponents of Christianity.
People like Dawkins or Hitchens or Barker.
But there need be no alarm. Even the fiercest opponent of first century Christianity was no match for God:
And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
After this menacing meeting with Jesus on the Damascus road the same Saul who breathed threats and murder eventually wrote [after his name was changed to Paul] this:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Don’t Take Saul’s Conversion Lightly
This former Pharisee and Jew went from unconditional disgust for Gentiles [a disgust all Jews held] to a relentless drive to bring them the gospel…
A gospel he found prior to his conversion to be a ridiculous corruption of the messianic truth in the Old Testament canon…
A gospel that opposed everything he’d been taught to believe.
Yet, not only did he affirm the truth of this gospel…but he surrendered his life to this gospel and went on to spread it through the Mediterranean region, planting churches and growing believers.
What makes someone do that? Simple: Paul’s conversion is a testament to the irresistible call of God upon a believer’s life.
That’s Why They Call It Irresistible
The same kind of call former atheists like A. N. Wilson, Anthony Flew, and experienced.
No matter the amount of intellectual backbone an atheist has…no amount of vicious threats or personal conviction or danger to a person’s life can resist the gracious sovereignty of God when he chooses to open the eyes and soften the heart and apply the work of Christ to an unbeliever’s soul.
In the end, the number one atheist of all time doesn’t stand a chance against the spirit of God–whether in this life or the next.