A Dialogue on Atheism

From the book “From the Life and the Teaching of Father Epiphanios,”by the Holy Monastery of the Theotokos (a men’s monastery, located near the small town of Trizina, in Peloponnese, Greece).

One morning, the Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos was in a conversation with 2-3 visitors at his home. One of them was an ideological atheist and a communist. Suddenly, someone from outside came rushing in, and informed them that the city of Athens had been flooded with photographs of Mao Tse Tung, with the inscription “Glory to the great Mao.” It was on the same day that the Chinese dictator had died.

Elder: That’s the way things are, my child. Atheists do not exist. Only idolaters exist, who take down Christ from His throne and in His place they enthrone their own idols. We say: Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They say: “Glory to the great Mao.” You pick and choose which one you prefer.

Atheist: You also choose your drug, grandpa. The only difference is, that you call it Christ, others call it Allah, or Buddha, etc.

Elder: My child, Christ is not a drug. Christ is the Creator of the entire universe. He is the one Who governs everything wisely, from the multitudes of infinite galaxies, down to the minutest particles of the microcosm. He has given life to all of us. He is the One Who brought you into this world and has bestowed you with so much freedom, that you can actually doubt Him, and even deny Him.

Atheist: Grandpa, its your right to believe in all of those things. But that doesn’t mean they are true. Do you have any proof?

Elder: You think all of this is just a fairy tale, don’t you?

Atheist: Naturally.

Elder: Do you have any proof that it is a fairy tale? Can you prove that what I believe is false?

Atheist: ………………

Elder: You didn’t reply because you don’t have any proof either. This means, you believe they are fairy tales. I spoke to you of believing, when I referred to God; you, however, although rejecting my belief, essentially believe in your faithlessness, since you cannot back it up with proofs either. However, I must tell you that my belief is not something “out of the blue;” There are certain supernatural events, upon which it is founded.

Atheist: Just a minute! Since we are talking about believing, what would you say to Muslims or Buddhists for example? Because they also talk about believing. And they too have high moral standards. Why is your belief better than theirs?

Elder: So! The criterion of the truth is supposedly judged by this question of yours? Because the truth is most certainly one; truths cannot be many in number. The thing is, who is the possessor of the truth? That is the major question. Hence, it is not a matter of a better or worse belief. It is a matter of the only true belief!

I agree, that other beliefs also have moral teachings. Naturally, Christianity’s moral teachings are incomparably superior. But, we do not believe in Christ because of His moral teachings. Or for His prompting to “Love one another,” or for His sermons on peace and justice, freedom and equality. We believe in Christ, because His presence on earth was accompanied by supernatural events, which was a sign that He is God.

Atheist: Look, I also admit that Christ was an important philosopher and a great revolutionary, but let’s not make Him a God now…

Elder: My dear child! All the great disbelievers in history were snagged by that detail. The fishbone that stuck in their throat, which they just couldn’t swallow, was exactly that: That Christ is also God.

Many of them were willing to say to God: “Don’t tell anyone that You are God incarnate; Just say that You’re an ordinary human, and we shall be more than ready to deify you. Why do You want to be an incarnate God, and not a deified human? We are willing to glorify You, to proclaim You as the greatest among men, the holiest, the most ethical, the noblest, the unsurpassable, the one and only, the unprecedented… Isn’t that enough for You ?

Ernest Renan—he was the head of the chorus of deniers—thunders out the following, with regard to Christ: “For tens of thousands of years, the world shall be uplifted through You,” and “You are the cornerstone of mankind; if one were to wrench Your name away from this world, it would be like shattering its foundations” and “the aeons shall proclaim that amongst the sons of men, never was there born anyone that could surpass You.” But this is where Renan and his likes stop. Their very next phrase is: “But a God, You are not!”

And those poor wretches cannot perceive that all of these things constitute an indescribable tragedy! Their dilemma is inevitably relentless: Either Christ is an incarnate God, in which case, He is indeed the most ethical, the holiest and noblest personage of mankind, or, He is not an incarnate God, in which case, He cannot possibly be any of these. In fact, if Christ is not God, then we are talking about the most horrible, the most atrocious and the most despicable existence in the history of mankind.

Atheist: What did you just say?

Elder: Exactly what you heard! It may be a weighty statement, but it is absolutely true. And I will tell you why. Let me ask: What did all the truly great men say about themselves, or what opinion did they have of themselves ?

The “wisest of all men,” Socrates, proclaimed that “I came to know one thing: that I know nothing.”

All the important men in the Old and New Testament, from Abraham and Moses, through to John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, characterized themselves as “earth and ashes,” “wretches,” “monstrosities,” etc.

But, strangely enough, Jesus’ attitude is quite the opposite! And I say strangely enough, because it would have been natural and logical for Him to have a similar attitude. In fact, being far superior and surpassing all others, He should have had an even lower and humbler opinion of Himself. Ethically more perfect than any other, He should have surpassed everyone and anyone in self-reproach and humility, from the moment of the world’s Creation to the end of Time.

But, the exact opposite is observed!

First of all, He proclaims that He is sinless: Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? (Jn 8:46). Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me. (Jn 14:30)

He also pronounces very high ideas of Himself: I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (Jn 8:12); I am the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6).

But, apart from these, He also projects demands of absolute dedication to His Person. He even penetrates the holiest of man’s relationships, and says: He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Mt 10:37). For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. (Mt 10:35). He even demands a life and a death of martyrdom from His disciples: They shall deliver you to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you shall be dragged before leaders and kings for My sake… And brother shall deliver his brother to death and the father his son, and the children shall revolt against their parents and shall put them to death… And you shall be hated by everyone, for my namesake… And he that shall endure to the end, he shall be saved… Do not fear those who destroy the body… Whomsoever shall deny Me before mankind, I too shall deny him… Whomsoever has forfeited his soul for My sake, shall recover it. (Mt 10:17 onward)

And now I ask you: Has anyone ever dared to demand for himself the love of mankind, forsaking their very life? Has anyone ever dared to proclaim his absolute sinlessness? Has anyone ever dared to utter the words I am the truth? No-one, and nowhere! Only a God can do that. Can you imagine your Marx uttering things like that? They would take him for a lunatic and nobody would be willing to follow him!

Now, just consider, how many people sacrificed everything for Christ’s sake, even their very life, having believed in the veracity of His words regarding Himself! If His proclamations about Himself were false, Jesus would have been the most despicable character in history, for having led so many people to such a huge sacrifice! What ordinary man—no matter how great, how important, how wise he may be—would deserve such a tremendous offer and sacrifice? Well? No-one! Not unless he were God!

In other words: Any ordinary man that would demand such a sacrifice from his followers would have been the most loathsome person in history. Christ, however, both demanded it, and achieved it. Yet, despite this ‘achievement’, He was proclaimed by the very deniers of His divinity as the noblest and holiest figure in history.

So, either the deniers are being illogical when they proclaim this most loathsome figure as “holiest,” or, in order to avoid any illogicality, and to rationalize the co-existence of Christ’s demands and His holiness, they must concede to accepting that Christ continues to remain the noblest and holiest figure in mankind, but, only under the condition that He is also God! Otherwise, as we said, He would be, not the holiest, but the most loathsome figure in history, being the cause of the greatest sacrifice of all ages, and in the name of a lie! Thus, Christ’s divinity is proved by His very deniers, on the basis of those very characterizations of His person!

Atheist: What you just said is really very impressive, but it is nothing but speculation. Do you have any historical facts that would confirm His Divinity?

Elder: I told you at the beginning, that the proofs of His Divinity are the supernatural events that took place while He was here on earth. Christ did not rest on the proclamation of the above truths alone; He certified His statements with miracles as well. He made blind people see and cripples walk; He satisfied the hunger of five thousand men and manifold numbers of women and children with only two fish and five loaves of bread; He commanded the elements of nature and they obeyed; He resurrected the dead, amongst which was Lazarus, four days after his death. But the most astounding of all his miracles was His own Resurrection.

The entire edifice of Christianity is supported on the event of the Resurrection. This is not my speculation. The Apostle Paul said it: And if Christ be not raised (from the dead), our faith would be vain. (1 Cor 15:17). If Christ is not resurrected, then everything collapses. But Christ was resurrected, which means He is the Lord of life and death, therefore God.

Atheist: Did you see all of this? How can you believe it?

Elder: No, I didn’t see any of it, but others did: the Apostles. They in turn made this known to others, and they actually “signed” their testimony with their own blood. And, as everyone acknowledges, a testimony of one’s life is the supreme form of testimony.

Why don’t you likewise bring me someone, who will tell me that Marx died and was resurrected, and that he is willing to sacrifice his life in order to testify it? I, as an honest man, will believe him.

Atheist: I will tell you. Thousands of communists were tortured and died for their ideology. Why don’t you embrace communism in the same way?

Elder: You said it yourself. Communists died for their ideology. They didn’t die for real events. In an ideology, it is very easy for deception to seep through; and because it is a characteristic of the human soul to sacrifice itself for something it believes in, this explains why so many communists died for their ideology. But that doesn’t compel us to accept this ideology as something true.

It is one thing to die for ideas, and another to die for events. The Apostles didn’t die for any ideas. Not even for the love one another, or any of the other moral teachings of Christianity. The Apostles died for their testimony of supernatural events. And when we say ‘event’, we mean that which is captured by our physical senses, and is comprehended through them.

The Apostles suffered martyrdom for that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life. (1 Jn 1:1).

Just like the clever speculation by Pascal, we say that one of the three following things happened to the Apostles: either they were deceived, or, they deceived us, or, they told us the truth.

Let’s take the first case. It is not possible for the Apostles to have been deceived, because everything that they reported was not reported to them by others. They themselves were eye and ear witnesses of all those things. Besides, none of them were imaginative characters, nor did they have any psychological inclination that made them accept the event of the Resurrection. Quite the contrary—they were terribly distrustful. The Gospels are extremely revealing, in their narrations of their spiritual dispositions: they even disbelieved the reassurances that some people had actually seen Him, resurrected.

And one other thing. What were the Apostles before Christ called them? Were they perhaps ambitious politicians or visionaries of philosophical and social systems, who were longing to conquer mankind and thus satisfy their fantasies? Not at all. They were illiterate fishermen. The only thing that interested them was to catch a few fish to feed their families. That is why, even after the Lord’s Crucifixion, and despite everything that they had heard and seen, they returned to their fishing boats and their nets. In other words, there was not a single trace of disposition in these men for the things that were to follow. It was only after the day of the Pentecost, when they received strength from on high, that they became the teachers of the universe.

Now the second case: Did they deceive us? Did they lie to us? But then, why would they deceive us? What would they gain by lying? Was it money? Was it status? Was it glory? For someone to tell a lie, he must be expecting some sort of gain. The Apostles though, by preaching Christ—and in fact Christ crucified and resurrected—the only things that they secured for themselves were hardships, labours, lashings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst, nakedness, attacks from robbers, beatings, incarcerations and finally, death. And all this, for a lie? It would be undoubtedly foolish for anyone to even consider it.

Consequently, the Apostles were neither deceived, nor did they deceive us. This leaves us with the third choice: that they told us the truth.

I should also stress something else here: The Evangelists are the only ones who recorded true historical events. They describe the events, and only the events. They do not resort to any personal judgments. They praise no-one, and they criticize no-one. They make no attempt to exaggerate an event, nor eliminate or underestimate another. They let the events speak for themselves.

Atheist: Are you excluding the possibility that in Christ’s case, it was just an incident of apparent death? The other day, the newspapers had written about someone in India whom they buried and three days later they exhumed him and he was still alive.

Elder: My poor child! I will recall the words of the blessed Augustine again: “O faithless ones, you are not actually mistrustful; indeed, you are the most gullible of all. You accept the most improbable things, and the most irrational, the most contradictory, in order to deny a miracle!”

No, my child. It was not a case of apparent death with Christ. First of all, we have the testimony of the Roman centurion, who reassured Pilate that Christ’s death was a certainty. Then, our Gospel informs us that on the same day of His Resurrection, the Lord was seen talking with two of His disciples, walking towards Emmaus, which was more than ten kilometers away from Jerusalem.

Can you imagine someone, who could go through all the tortures that Christ underwent, and three days after His “apparent death,” spring back again? If anything, he would have to be fed chicken soup for forty days, in order to be able to open his eyes, let alone walk and talk as though nothing had happened!

As for the Hindu, bring him here to be flogged with a scourge—do you know what a scourge is? It is a whip, whose lashes each have a lead chunk or a piece of broken bone or sharp nails attached to their end—bring him here, so we can flog him, then force a crown of thorns on his head, crucify him, give him bile and vinegar to drink, then pierce his side with a spear, put him in a tomb, and then, if he comes back from the dead, then we can talk.

Atheist: Even so, but all the testimonies that you have invoked belong to Christ’s Disciples. Is there any testimony on this matter, that doesn’t come from the circle of His Disciples? Are there any historians for example, who can certify Christ’s Resurrection? If so, then I will also believe what you say.

Elder: You poor child. You don’t know what you’re saying now. If there had been such historians who had witnessed Christ resurrected, they would have been compelled to believe in His Resurrection and would have recorded it as believers, in which case, you would again have rejected their testimony, just like you rejected Peter’s testimony, John’s testimony, etc. How can it be possible, for someone to actually witness the Resurrection and yet, NOT become a Christian? You are asking for a roasted fowl, on a waxen skewer, that also sings! It just can’t be done.

I will remind you though—because you are asking for historians—of what I said earlier: that the only true historians are the Apostles.

Nevertheless, we do have testimony of the kind that you want; and it is by someone who didn’t belong to the circle of His Disciples: it was Paul. Paul not only wasn’t a Disciple of Christ, he actually persecuted Christ’s Church relentlessly.

Atheist: They say that Paul suffered from sunstroke and that it was the cause of his hallucination.

Elder: My child, if Paul was hallucinating, the thing that would have come to the surface, would have been his subconscious. And in Paul’s subconscious, the Patriarchs and the Prophets would have been top ranking. He would have hallucinated about Abraham, and Jacob and Moses, and not Jesus, whom he considered a rabble-rouser and a fraud!

Can you imagine a faithful old granny seeing Buddha or Jupiter in her dream or delirium? She would most probably see St. Nicholas or St. Barbara, because she believes in them.

One more thing. With Paul, we have—as Papini notes—the following miraculous phenomena: First of all, the abruptness of his conversion. Straight from faithlessness to faith, with no intermediate preparatory stage. Secondly, the steadfastness of his faith; no wavering, no doubts. And thirdly, his faith lasted for a whole lifetime. Do you believe that all these things can occur after a case of sunstroke? They can in no way be attributed to such a cause. If you can explain how, then explain it. If you can’t, then you must admit the miracle. And you must know that for a man of his time, Paul was exceptionally well-educated. He was not your average little person, who was totally clueless.

I will also add something else. We today, my child, are living in an exceptional era. We are living the miracle of Christ’s Church. When Christ said of His Church that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Her (Mt 16:18), His followers were very few in number. Almost two thousand years have passed, since that day. Empires vanished, philosophical systems were forgotten, world theories collapsed. But Christ’s Church remains indestructible, despite the continuous and dramatic persecutions it has undergone. Isn’t that a miracle?

And one final thing. In Luke’s Gospel it says that when the Holy Mother visited Elizabeth (the Baptist’s mother) after the Annunciation, she was greeted with the words: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. (Lk 1:42). And the Holy Mother replied as follows: And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. (Lk 1:47-48).

What was the Holy Mother at that time? She was just an obscure daughter of Nazareth. How many knew her? And yet, since that day, empresses have been forgotten, distinguished women’s names have been extinguished, the mothers and wives of great generals went into oblivion. Who remembers, or even knows, Napoleon’s mother or Alexander the Great’s mother? Almost no-one. But, millions of lips across every length and breadth of the world, throughout the ages, venerate that humble daughter of Nazareth, the more precious than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim. Are we, or aren’t we—the people of the twentieth century—living in this day and age the verification of those words of the Holy Mother?

The exact same things are observed in a “secondary” prophecy of Christ: While He was staying at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him and poured her expensive fragrant oil over His head. Christ commented: Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. (Mt 26:13). Now, how large was His circle of followers at the time, so that one could say that they outdid themselves in order that their Master’s prophecy be fulfilled? Especially a prophecy such as this one, which, by today’s world standards, is of no importance to most people.

Are they or aren’t they miracles? If you can, explain them. But if you can’t, then admit them as such.

Atheist: I have to admit that your arguments are pretty solid. But I would like to ask you one more thing: Don’t you think that Christ left His work unfinished? That is, unless He deserted us. I can’t imagine a God that would remain indifferent to mankind’s suffering. We are down here toiling, while He, up there, remains apathetic.

Elder: No, my child. You aren’t right. Christ did not leave His work unfinished. On the contrary, He is the one unique case in history where a person has the certainty that His mission was accomplished, and had nothing further to do or to say.

Even the greatest of philosophers, Socrates, who discussed and taught during his whole lifetime, and towards the end composed an intricate “Apology,” would have even more to say, if he had lived.

Only Christ—in the time bracket of three years—taught what He had to teach, did what He had to do, and finally said (on the Cross): It is finished. Another sample of His divine perfection and authority.

As for the abandonment that you mentioned, I can understand your concern. Without Christ, the world would be a theatre of insanity. Without Christ, you cannot explain anything: why are there sorrows, why injustices, why failures, why sicknesses, why, why, why… Thousands of monumental “why’s.”

Try to understand. Man cannot approach all of these “why’s” with his finite logic. It is only through Christ that everything can be explained. All these trials merely precondition us for eternity. Perhaps then, we might be honored by the Lord with a reply to some of those “why’s.”

It might be worthwhile, if I read you a beautiful poem by Constantine Kallinikos’ collection “Laurels and Myrtles,” with the title “Questions:”

I asked a desert father of seventy years,

whose silver strands were blown by the wind:

Tell me o father, why, on this earth,

do the light and the dark inseparably move ?

And why must they—like twins —together sprout:

the thorn and the rose, the tear and the smile?

Why, in the loveliest part of the woodland green

have scorpions and vipers concealed their nests?

Why must it be, that the tender bud,

before unfolding its fragrant bloom,

be struck by a worm in the heart of its stem,

and left to die, like a shrivelled rag ?

Why are the plow, the seed and the hands

a must for the wheat, to become our bread?

Why must everything useful, noble, divine

always be purchased with tears and our blood,

while selfishness ever rampantly reigns,

and lewdness is swallowing up the world?

And why, amongst such harmony around,

must tumult and disorder find their way?

The hermit replied, with his somber voice

and right arm pointing to the sky,

that there, beyond those clouds of gold,

the Almighty weaves a tapestry divine.

But since we are wanderers of the lower plane

we see nothing but the knots and strings below,

It is no wonder, why the mind sees wrong,

when it should always be thankful and give praise:

For the day will come, when Christians all,

with souls that ride the skies with wings,

will gaze atop God’s tapestry and see

how careful and orderly everything was!

My child, Christ never abandoned us. He is forever with us, as a helper and a supporter, until the end of time. But you will realize this, only when you become a conscientious member of His Church and be joined by Her Sacraments.

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