When I was in high school I badly sprained my right ankle. The sprain was so severe that I was told that if I had broken it the healing process would have been simpler. For I severely damaged two of the three tendons in that ankle. The result was that the ankle was put into a cast and I had to walk on crutches for several months. Thanks be to God that this experience was used by God to confront me with reality and lead me to consider faith in the Lord Jesus.
Frequently people who dismiss Christian faith (and belief in religion generally) accuse those who do believe of depending upon religion as a “crutch.” This is stated to assert that religion is fundamentally a means which people use to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives and for avoiding the hard reality that God does not exist. They then tend to assert that the responsible alternative is to trust in one’s own instincts and knowledge gained through the senses and to press on bravely to make the most of one’s brief existence.
This perspective assumes much that not only cannot be proven but is also frankly irrational. For if ultimately all we have in this brief existence is what we can make of life, given the lot we inherit from our parents and culture, how can there be any rational meaning to life? It is ultimately futile and foolish to boldly assert that there is nothing to existence beyond what we can see, hear, taste, touch or think about. How does the atheist know that there is nothing more to life than this? The point is that he or she does not know nor has any basis for the assertion beyond faith in his or her basic faculties of perception and thought. Indeed, one must esteem oneself very much to depend upon these to know the nature of reality!
The truth is that our knowledge, and even our ability to make conclusions about even the most basic aspects of what we call “reality” is based upon faith; for the atheist and the theist assert equally by faith that we are perceiving the world correctly through the “five senses”. How does the atheist know that he or she is perceiving the whole of reality? Such a person does not know this for certain but takes it on faith that this is the case—and then vilifies and mocks those who would assert that “reality” is composed of so much more than what our natural senses normally perceive.
I do think, and will acknowledge, that religious people have used religion to walk on crutches, as it were, and thus to cope with the profound and deep-seated fears every person confronts in this life. In the same way, people turn to substances (drugs, alcohol) or visual stimuli (pornography) or experiences in life (sexual experiences, high risk sports) or avoiding the hard work of relationships (through working all the time and being loners) or seeking positions of power (high powered and high status jobs or positions in government or other organizations). Any of these can become a means to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty of our mortality and the certainty of death. These are one more way to walk on crutches through this life. So atheists need to be careful about throwing stones at those weak-minded “religious people” or else they run the risk of falling over themselves!
Yet the atheistic critique of religion in general as a crutch does have some force to it that we who call Jesus the Christ Lord must grapple with. The biblical writers, in a way, asserted that religious activities (vows, acts of worship) could become destructive when they were directed at things or creatures—at anything other than the true God. The constant refrain of the prophets, beginning with Moses, was to call the ancient Israelites out on their idolatry—their dependence upon the political or military power of the people’s around them (notably Egypt) or upon the gods honored and worshiped by the peoples who lived around them (notably serving the “Baalim and the Ashtaroth” [see Judges 10:6]). In this sense to use any created thing to, as it were, walk on crutches through this life is foolish and destined to bring disappointment. And ironically, even while denying the validity of the claims of religious traditions (but particularly that of Christianity) the modern day atheists have chosen their own human nature and abilities as their crutches by which to cope with the challenges of this life.
The faith called for in Scripture calls people to trust in God and not anything else in life (or in oneself) as that is effectively a crutch. William Gurnall, with characteristic insightfulness, asserted the following:
“When we trust God for His bare promise we trust Him on His own credit; and this is faith indeed. He who walks without a crutch is stronger than the man who needs one to lean on. The promise is the ground which faith walks on, but sense and reason are the crutches which weak faith depends on too much.” (The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 3 [Banner of Truth], p.86)
I would suggest that crutches may well be necessary if one’s faith has not yet grown strong. Thus people’s perceptible experiences of God’s Presence or the presentation of rational arguments for the evidence of God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture’s testimony, for example, are genuinely helpful for many people to explore. But these do not touch the core of true faith.
Faith is like a muscle by which the human heart, the center of the human person, acts through to choose to believe God’s word. And as with all muscles in the human body, faith will always be weak unless it is utilized consistently. And further, faith will only become strong if a person persistently chooses to exercise it, in the midst of the challenges of this life, while properly “feeding” oneself with spiritual food.
Again, Gurnall’s winsome and creative description is worth quoting at length.
“The little child thinks his mother is lost if she goes out of the room where he is; but as the child grows older and wiser, he realizes this is not true. And so it is with the believer. Christian, bless God for the experiences when you tasted His love; but know that we cannot judge our faith, whether weak or strong, by these. . . . [they] are like crutches which help a lame man walk; but they do not make him sound or strong. Food and exercise must do that. So labor to lean more on the promise and less on the tangible expressions of God’s love. Although a strong man does not rely on his cane all the way—as the lame person leans on his crutch—yet he many use it now and then to defend himself from a thief or dog in his path. Thus the maturing Christian may make good use of his experiences in some temptations, although he does not lay the weight of his faith upon them, but upon the promise [of God in the gospel].” (The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 3, pp. 86-87.)
The atheist or the agnostic can dispute the claims of Scripture or the testimony of people who have encountered personally the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Lord Jesus Christ. This may make for interesting conversation and plenty of fodder for those who are gifted writers (the atheist or the Christian). But in the end, the atheists who insists upon attacking Christian faith will be doing this only through their experiences and personal preferences; for it is a truism, that everyone, no matter how intelligent or clever, will work from core presuppositions about reality. And it is only until a person is willing to critically re-evaluate his or her core presuppositions that the ultimate questions about life, God, purpose of existence and human destiny can be honestly grappled with. Everything else is a mere playing with words.
Those who have become disciples of the Lord have been given certain tangible evidences of the reality of God, his character and love and the truth that he will keep his promises. These are given by the Holy Spirit and are expressions of his boundless creativity and love. They are helpful to us and God in his mercy gives them to help us to build the muscle of the human heart (through faith). But we also have the gift of the capacities of a redeemed mind and rational thought to help us comprehend the teaching of Scripture and to develop wisdom to practice the truth we learn. This combination of a supernaturally birthed heart (spirit) and renewed mind (healed capacity to feel and think rationally) are gifts which only God’s sons and daughters can enjoy.
In Psalm 50, an extended prophetic word is quoted. Most of the Psalm is directed toward those who are wicked and “religious”—who choose to do what is evil yet play the game of being involved in religious activities. One line is particularly relevant: “These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one just like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.” (50:21, NRSV) This is a kind of practical atheism which modern day atheists are right to point out as incompatible with professions of faith in God.
However, this reveals the fundamental assumption of the modern atheist, and exposes his or her crutch: Namely, that if “god” exists it is merely like a human being who plays games to preserve self-interest and thus can managed. Or if “god” does not exist then we can simply dismiss his actual existence as human fantasy. And since such a being(s) do not exist, says the modern atheist, then we can dispense with any religious exercises altogether. The only actual difference between the practical atheist addressed in this prophetic word of Psalm 50 and the modern atheist is the content of conscious intellectual thought.
That the modern atheist flatly denies the actual existence of God matters very little. This word from Scripture applies to him or her just as readily as to the person who professes to believe that God does exist (and seeks to perform some religious duties). For they both presuppose that reality, with or without the actual existence of a “god(s)” operates according to their understanding; they assert that they are really gods who can define reality for themselves. This is sheer delusion. This is a crutch—the crutch of the stubborn rebellious human heart.
When I was in high school I discovered just how helpful, when my ankle was badly injured, crutches could be—even necessary for a time. Thanks be to God that, while utilizing those crutches for the sake of the healing process in my body, I encountered the truth of the Gospel. For through that I started down a road that has led me through an often painful process of learning to stand tall on my own two feet by faith. I know that God, revealed in the Lord Jesus, exists and is true to every word he has spoken. And it grieves me that so many people not only do not know the One true God but also resist the multiple means which he uses to speak to them.