Atheism and the Problem of Bad Theology

Apr 14, 2020 | Apologetics, Article, Podcast, Theology

Part of the problem when sharing your faith with biblical skeptics is that, more often than not, they have little training in biblical theology, which often results in their having a bad theology.

Some of them have plenty of training, but little thoughtfulness. In other words, rather than approaching the Bible charitably, they usually assume the truth of whatever theological narrative fits their narrative.

I’ve seen this in various groups of people:

  • Those who used to profess to be Christians but have now “deconstructed”

  • Those who spend lots of time learning about Christianity from atheist YouTubers

  • Those who are looking for any opportunity to cast a negative light on the God of the Bible

  • Those who have no intent to be disingenuous, but don’t know any better

Some people may fit all three of the above, some may not fit in those categories at all.

The point is that bad theology persists in these groups and it’s a big, big problem.

Here are just three of the numerous problems bad theology presents.

Bad Theology Kills Conversations

Both Christians and atheists are often guilty of failing to use good philosophy. Philosophy is the art of making distinctions. The ability to recognize one idea as distinct from another idea, even one that is closely related, is the essence of philosophy.

Now, some argue that philosophy is a subset of theology; some argue the opposite. I’m not speaking to that debate right now. Regardless, failing to use good philosophy is the failure to use good theology. Insofar as you will not make proper distinctions about God, his creation, and how he interacts with it you will end up with bad theology.

How does that lead to killing conversations?

For two or more people to remain in an extended discussion about important ideas, a method of communication will need to be established. This means a few agreements and concessions have to be made throughout. Otherwise, no conversation between two people who fundamentally disagree can be productive.

Here’s a practical example:

Let’s say that Atheist (A) in conversation with Christian (C) takes issue with the fact that Yahweh seems to be a God of warfare. One read through the Book of Joshua would make any 21st-century person living in the West a bit squeamish. We have this idea that the same God who is also “tenderhearted Jesus” would never have commanded the slaughtering of entire people groups.

Leaving aside the fact that the “tenderhearted Jesus” idea is a myth, there is room for lots of theological nuance and discussion around affirming the so-called “conquest narrative” as historical, God-ordained truth.

By the way, I am not rampaging against A here. C may be ignorant of this information as well!

Such details like…

  • Often, warfare language in the ancient Near East was rife with hyperbole.

  • The conquests were not against any people group willy-nilly; they were the result of holy war against the giant clans.

  • Worship of false gods in Canaanite territories was so disgusting and vile that if it were occurring today, many would be mad if God was not intervening!

  • God actually waited over 400 years before bringing about this judgment (Genesis 15:13-16).

All that to say this: When understood properly in its theological context, there is much more going on that a genocidal cosmic dictator randomly commanding his people to obliterate another over some land.

That’s not at all what is going on here.

Now—either A or C could, of course, choose to disagree with what has been presented above. But they then need to provide arguments and evidence for taking the text another way. Regardless, what they could not do is blindly assert that ethnic genocide is in view.

And often, this is where the conversation stops. A asserts that this is a case of ethnic genocide, and C either (1) doesn’t have a good answer or (2) ends up defending God’s actions, but in a way that basically concedes the point of genocide.

As long as bad theology is proliferated, there is little room for distinction and discussion about ideas like this.

Bad Theology is Misleading

Bad theology not only kills conversations but can be terribly misleading with respect to all sorts of ideas: the nature of God, anthropology, angelology and demonology, etc.

One of the worst examples I’ve seen of this is captured “nicely(?)” in a popular Internet meme. There are different versions of this, so I’ll express it in the terms the good folks at Got Questions did: “God sacrificed himself to himself to save humanity from himself because of a rule he made himself.”

(As an aside, watch Christian philosopher William Lane Craig dismantle a few very popular atheist memes like this one here.)

Back to the meme.

This statement, though oddly persuading for some, is absolutely rife with bad theology. As GQM has already given a sound point-by-point rebuttal, there’s no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

I will make an observation, though. The problem with a quick jab like this one is that it has rhetorical force.

That is, it has a kind of surface-level persuasiveness to it that quickly calls to mind the Christian story. Without thinking through the ideas, lukewarm or apathetic Christians could easily be shaken by this!

And of course, it is mostly atheists who proliferate this meme and others like it, so I have every reason to think many of them do ultimately believe this accurately represents the Christian story.

Nevertheless, it is bad theology and it is misleading.

Since this is ultimately not what classical Christianity affirms, to set up this view and then attack it would be to attack a straw man. Thus, this commits the strawman fallacy.

Bad Theology Leads to Deconstruction

Finally, bad theology could lead to the deconstruction of a Christian’s belief.

Deconstruction refers to the “tearing down” of one’s Christian affirmation and identification.1

A recent example of this comes through the testimony of the comedic duo and Internet sensations, Rhett and Link.

R&L were raised in an evangelical Christian environment not too far from where I live now in North Carolina. They have recently released a few tell-all podcast episodes and YouTube videos breaking down their individual paths to deconstruction.

While they requested not to be psychoanalyzed, that’s a bit lofty a request when you tell millions of people your story—especially when many of those who hear it (fans, even) spend no shortage of time professionally studying and teaching aspects of Christian theology and apologetics.

Again, numerous point-by-point rebuttals/lamentations are available from both friends and acquaintances of mine. Here are a few of my favorite takes on the issue:

Spoiler alert: Bad theology is the issue.

Now, allow me to stress that both Rhett and Link were raised in what I believe to be doctrinally sound churches. Although I would disagree with the Calvinism that at least Rhett was raised up in, my Calvinist friends are squarely within the realm of classical Christian orthodoxy.

I have no reason to think that they were given bad information with respect to the essentials. And, they both were involved (at least to some extent) in Christian leadership. These were not weekend Christians; they believed it, they lived it, they were committed to it, and they could even defend it.

So what happened?

Well, a number of things. See the links above. But I think a huge part of the problem was simply bad theology!

To speak very broadly, Rhett had a problem understanding the relationship between science and the biblical worldview. This lead to questioning one thing after the other, to eventually questioning if he could trust what scholars said about Jesus.

Link’s issue centered more on the problem of evil, which led to questioning God’s disposition toward hot-button social issues of today like homosexuality and gender neutrality.

They both seemed to have difficulty trusting experts who affirmed Christianity. For them, those experts had a “bias” the others did not, and thus were motivated to conclude favorably toward the Christian view. This particular point is more philosophical than theological, but as mentioned above they are very much related.

What’s interesting is how bad theology leads to bad philosophy. I think this was captured nicely by a comment on one of the links I shared above, which (I think) was actually written by a friend of mine and committed reader of this blog:

It is incredible to me that people can look at, on the one hand, the idea that everything came from the God of the Bible and, on the other hand, the idea that everything came from literally nothing and conclude that the latter is not only more believable, but does not require faith. If it doesn’t require faith, then please describe a time when anyone anywhere has ever observed something coming from nothing. The reality is that our experience tells us that everything that begins to exist has an external and independent cause. To say that something began to exist out of nothing with no cause requires you to believe something happened that is completely contrary to everything you have ever seen. That sounds a lot like faith to me, and not just any kind of faith, but the kind that blindly jumps into the abyss. (Comment written by Tim L. on the article shared above)

To be clear, Rhett and Link now both identify as “hopeful agnostics.” They have not necessarily descended into a sort of materialistic naturalism, but it certainly seems as though they are on that trajectory.

If that is where they land, bad theology will have led them to a point where they are willing to accept the philosophically bankrupt position that nothing produced something billions of years ago, and in relatively recent history, fish evolved into moon-landing, space-traveling philosophers.

It sounds like a bad fairytale, but it is the truth.

How Should We Respond?

The all-important question is, what do we do now? How do we navigate these conversations?

Let me offer a couple of practical suggestions:

  1. Don’t be surprised. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” When a person is not a partaker of God’s saving grace, they are futile thinkers and are unable to understand spiritual things. In some cases, this leads to utter irrationality. You may have a leg up in any given conversation by going into it with modest goals and the expectation that they may not be approaching these issues with a sound mind.
  2. Deal with worldview. I know it’s not popular that I am a proponent of presuppositional apologetics (although I hate the name and the implications that come with it). But I think a balanced approach (like the one I outline here) can be persuasive and useful when dealing with folks who, like Rhett and Link, have all the evidence they need—yet still reject. The goal is to show that they have a worldview that is built upon a sinking foundation; where each day, they unknowingly saw off the branch of the tree on which they are “firmly” perched.
  3. Learn good theology. I suppose this one should be obvious, but take it upon yourself to learn what good theology is! They say that experts don’t identify counterfeit money by studying the counterfeits, but by a meticulous study of the real thing. What an illustration! Learn good theology, and when you have the chance to deal with open-minded skeptics, try your best to educate them on why their objections are missing the mark.

At the very least, I hope this post will help you identify areas in your own walk where you may need to develop a better theology. Maybe it’s your theology of suffering, of creation, or something else.

Regardless, God has given us a sound mind. Let’s use it for his glory.


  1. I hesitate to use the term deconversion because that language comes with distracting baggage that is not germane to the point.

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