Review: The Christian Atheist

Craig Groeschel.   The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn’t Exist   .  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 241 pp. $16.27.

Craig Groeschel. The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn’t Exist. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 241 pp. $16.27.

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While I have little doubt that Craig Groeschel 1) loves the Lord, 2) wants to see as many people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as is possible, and 3) is as sharp as he is compassionate, I believe The Christian Atheist offers more of what the North American Christian scene needs less of—content that, in an effort to be “clear” and “remove obstacles” for people, swims in a sea of ambiguity. And that’s where my main critique of this book lays.

Rooted in Vagueness

In the introduction, the author recounts the culmination of his own spiritual journey:

That was it. I had knelt down in the field as one person, and I stood up as a completely different person. I had the same body, the same voice, and the same mind, but I wasn’t the same. I’d later learn that I’d become what the Bible calls a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The old was gone; the new had come. I had finally transformed from a Christian Atheist into a Christian. For the first time in my life, I believed in God and began to live like he is real (p. 25).

A great account of God’s gracious provision! A sinner, filled with humility, cries out for forgiveness and trusts in Christ for salvation. The author even cites the 2 Corinthians passage which highlights the instantaneous and permanent transformation that takes place at justification—”the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come!”

However, several pages prior to the above quoted statement, Groeschel had already told of his “Christian” upbringing, experiences in VBS, and a possible conversation in college which included a hunger for God’s truth and guidance. The recounting of that college experience concluded with this statement:

We were a bunch of guys who believed in God but didn’t have a clue who God really is (p. 23).

Is the author saying he was saved on page 23 or page 25?

I found myself finishing the introduction confused as to what the author was saying about his own experience. Is he claiming that, while he thought he was saved for years, it wasn’t until the experience recorded on page 25 that he actually passed from death to life (à la 2 Cor. 5:17)? If so, that’s understandable and worth celebrating. But I don’t think the author ever clarifies and, because of that, there are several unanswered questions that underlay the rest of the book.

In fact, the book concludes with similar ambiguity. The author describes “three lines” of Christian faith that all believers should strive to cross: 1) believing in God and the gospel of Christ enough to benefit from it, 2) believing the same but enough to contribute comfortably, and 3) believing enough to give me life to it (pp. 236–237).

About the first line, Groeschel asks:

Is the first-line faith real Christianity? Is believing in Jesus enough? Although God is the only true judge, I’m not sure that simply believing in Christ makes a person a Christian (p. 236).

And then about the third, and obviously most optimal line:

Although most people I knew were line-one and line-two believers, suddenly anything less than line three didn’t seem like real Christianity to me. Could I give my whole life to Christ? Not only in words but in my daily life (p. 237)?

Soooooo, what does it take to be saved? Belief? Total surrender? Are all three lines saved people or are only the “truly committed” actually saved? What about those who were, at one time, line-three Christians but have since lapsed to line-one, or worse?

This is simply the lordship salvation and free-grace debate articulated in a less clear, less understandable, and less biblical way.

While I disagree with what I think are the authors’ lordship leanings, I’m not saying that what he’s written is completely untrue. What I’m suggesting is that it’s confusing, unhelpful, and potentially causing unneeded doubts in some and unearned assurance in others.

The confusion can actually be summed up in the title of the book. The intentionally oxymoronic label, Christian atheist, seems to refer to unsaved people who foolishly carry the label “Christian.” Yet, the subtitle of the book, Believing in God but living as if he doesn’t exist, seems to reverse that and suggest that the target of the book is regenerate people who are not living like Christians. Is “Christian atheist” synonymous with “deceived pagan” or with “carnal Christian”?

That’s a pretty important distinction to make, one Scripture helps us answer, and one that, as far as I can tell, the author of this book doesn’t attempt to address directly.

Shepherds fight doubt

The author is vulnerable and transparent with his own walk with God, his struggles with faith, and his past mistakes. And, in part, that should be commended and is a testament to his pastoral heart.

My worry is, however, that we’re living in a time in which doubt is elevated as a virtue. “It’s cool to have doubts and to not be sure.”

Well, it’s not cool. It’s not good. It’s not applaudable.

Do we all have them? Sure. We’re all suffering from the noetic effects of the fall and, thus, will wrestle with doubt. However, to parade doubt as a sign of maturity is foolish and, for a pastor to do so, is potentially damaging to weaker brothers and sisters. It undermines the sufficiency and authority of God’s Word, the comfort of his promises, and the power of his Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God.

As pastors we are called to feed, lead, protect, and care for the sheep God has providentially put under our care. We are to do so by the power he’s given us and with the methods he’s prescribed in Scripture. This includes seeking to bring lucidity to issues of salvation.

Groeschel has some good insights and some helpful, pastoral advice on dealing with specific manifestations of Christian atheism (however you end up defining it). However, I’m afraid that the decent content is made impotent by the lack of clarity surrounding it.