The Gospel of ‘Meh’: Why apatheism is more dangerous to the Christian faith than atheism or other competing worldviews
Have you ever shared the case for Jesus with someone, only to be met with a resounding ‘meh.’ If so, you’ve met an apatheist.
So what’s an apatheist?
An apatheist is someone who is indifferent about the existence of God. It’s not a belief, but it’s more of a psychological state of mind. Whether God exists or any religion is true makes no difference to them. One writer in The Atlantic describes someone asking about his spiritual condition. He replied “I used to call myself an atheist,” I said, “and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m” — that was when it hit me — ”an … apatheist!”
Apatheism is on the rise — 33% of twentysomethings call themselves religiously unaffiliated. It’s important to note here they’re not identifying as atheists or as agnostics. They’re ‘nones.’ The idea of figuring out which belief system or worldview is correct apparently is a little too much drama, so they’ve just shrugged their shoulders at the whole enterprise. Blaise Pascal’s words ring true today: “As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.”
How did Jesus respond to apatheism?
So what can we say in response to apatheism? Jesus ran into it centuries ago and dealt with it. Many of his audience, although Jewish, were functional apatheists. Jesus told the parable of the wedding feast. Here’s Matthew 22:1–14:
Jesus answered and spoke again in parables to them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who made a marriage feast for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast, but they would not come. Again he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner. My cattle and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the marriage feast!”’ But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his merchandise, and the rest grabbed his servants, and treated them shamefully, and killed them.When the king heard that, he was angry, and sent his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited weren’t worthy. Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the marriage feast.’Those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together as many as they found, both bad and good. The wedding was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who didn’t have on wedding clothing, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here not wearing wedding clothing?’ He was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and throw him into the outer darkness; there is where the weeping and grinding of teeth will be.’ For many are called, but few chosen.”
So here we see the king invited many to come to the party of the century but was met with shrugs and lame excuses. They didn’t care how fantastic it might have been, they were too wrapped up in their daily routines. Here’s one apatheist justifying his stance, and I think it just goes to show that Jesus hit the nail on the head: “Theists and atheists can debate the question all they like, but at the end of the day, food still needs cooking, clothes still need washing, bills still need paying…These conditions will continue to exist regardless of the presence or absence of any deities.” Here’s the rub: those who are too comfortable to be bothered by the kingdom invite fail to realize that life isn’t always going to continue this way.
Jesus said “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:37–39)
So someone who shrugs and says ‘meh’ fails to realize this life is quickly vanishing. Pursuing the day-to-day is a bit like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Worse, it’s like shuffling the deck chairs because order really is your thing, and you can’t imagine being rescued even when rescue is right in front of you. Christianity claims that Jesus rose from the dead and promises the same immortality to others. Isn’t that at least worth a look?
CS Lewis famously said:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
So we see that the apatheist needs to see the value of the kingdom of God. Jesus compares the kingdom to a treasure hidden in a field and a pearl of great price. (Matthew 13:44–46) If someone offered an apatheist a map to a buried treasure that would set them up for life, would they really be so ambivalent? Plus, Jesus says that if we can orient our lives around the kingdom, Jesus promises that our day-to-day needs will be met as well. (Matthew 6:33) Jesus advises some prudence, stating that even if we gain the whole world, there will be no profit if we lose our soul in the process. (Matthew 16:24–26)
Considering these kinds of claims, Christianity is at the very least something we should look into. As JW Montgomery surmised, if the average person put as much time into investigating Christianity as they did in passing a college course, most would come to faith.
Charles Leslie, writing back in the 17th century hammered this point home as well: “But our very souls and bodies, both this life and eternity, are concerned in the truth of what is related in the holy Scriptures; and therefore men would be more inquisitive to search into the truth of these, than of any other facts; to examine and sift them narrowly, and to find out the deceit, if any such can be found; for it concerns them nearly, and is of the last importance to them.”
Here’s the sad part: A lot of Christians are functional apatheists.
Let me refer back to The Atlantic article I mentioned earlier. In describing his religious friends, he writes: “I have Christian friends who organize their lives around an intense and personal relationship with God, but who betray no sign of caring that I am an unrepentantly atheistic Jewish homosexual. They are exponents, at least, of the second, more important part of apatheism: the part that doesn’t mind what other people think about God.”
Ouch. Jesus was pretty clear that the lukewarm need to repent or risk being excluded as well. (Revelation 3:15–20) If we really believe what we say we do, we ought to be busy inviting people to join us at the wedding feast. But according to a recent study, just 38% of self-proclaimed American evangelicals picked the option: “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.”
Maybe our society’s ambivalence is a reflection of the church’s lukewarmness. Penn Jillette, a famous atheist, and part of the magician duo Penn and Teller said he doesn’t respect Christians who don’t share their faith:
“I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there are a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward — and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
“I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.”
We tend to think of evangelism as bothering someone, but it’s sad to say that many in the world are more bothered that we say nothing at all. If we’re lukewarm about what we say we believe, why should they find it believable themselves?
Originally published at isjesusalive.com on January 27, 2019.