In the rich, classic story The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis pictures a Christian and an atheist discussing the claims of Christianity. Both were scholars of a sort. They grew up together; they were schooled together; they lost their faith together.
Then one of them, late in life, regained it. The one who didn’t—the atheist—was offended that the Christian should blame him for refusing to believe in the resurrection of Christ.
Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions? …. Honest opinions fearlessly followed—they are not sins.
But his friend—now a believer and a denizen of heaven—replies,
Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful…. We just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause…. When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith? (36–37)
Lewis here paints a very biblical picture, because the Bible doesn’t call any anti-God conclusion “honest.” This doesn’t mean Christians are free to doubt the proximate motives of their religious or political opponents. A given politician from across the aisle may genuinely believe that his political program will promote human flourishing. And by God’s common grace it might. No, the anti-Godness is often deeper down. Why does he want humans to flourish? Whatever the answer is, it has nothing to do with their status as image-bearers. This politician, and all non-Christians, is a mutineer. He may be cordial to his fellows—there’s honor among thieves. But no amount of courtesies and good deeds can change the central rebellion that defines his heart. He’s trying to occupy and steer a ship he doesn’t own.
What Lewis means is that one need not fear Bart Ehrman or Karen King, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. None of them is a neutral, fact-processing machine. Each one of them is driven by desires, desires which in themselves may not be wrong (an ardently atheistic scientist may devote long hours to serving his neighbor through drug research), but desires which are founded on a heart that points violently away from God.