Something that is telling in these statements is that atheists do not claim that they will become followers of, or become obedient to, God, but only that they will admit his existence if God were to "manifest himself" in some miraculous way.
Many atheists claim that this is their standard for admitting that there is a God. Whenever an atheist uses this argument it makes me think of the story told by Jesus in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus. Some claim this story is a parable, but I don't agree with that. No other parable of Christ's does He give names of individuals. There are some other things unique to this story that make it different from the parables that Christ told, but that isn't really the point of this blog entry.
Most of the time in this story we concentrate on the fact that the rich man had a good life and disregarded the needs of poor Lazarus. That is a valid take away from the story, but near the end of the story Jesus includes a couple of details that are germane to our discussion about the atheist's demand for absolute proof in the existence of God.
If you remember the story, the rich man lived luxuriously, while Lazarus lived a life of poverty. So poor was Lazarus that he ate the crumbs that fell to the floor from the rich man's table. Both men die and go into the Hadean realm. There the rich man is in torment because of the wicked life he lived, and Lazarus is comforted in Abraham's bosom. Here is the exchange that takes place between Abraham and the rich man:
24And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.This exchange tells us some important things, and I believe this is precisely why Christ included it in the telling of this story. Notice the rich man's concern for his 5 brothers. He wanted Lazarus to be raised from the dead, and then to go to his brothers to warn them against the torment that the rich man was in.
25But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:
28For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.31And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Abraham's response is that they have Moses and the prophets to tell them what they must do. This is very interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is important to remember that this is prior to the Day of Pentecost, so the Jews were still living under the law of Moses. The rich man is obviously an Israelite because he refers to Abraham as Father Abraham. Another reason this is interesting is because Abraham refers to "Moses and the prophets".
Now it could be that this story is taking place while Moses was still alive. I find that unlikely. First, the first 40 years under the Mosaic law, while he was still alive, Moses was leading the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. It is unlikely that there were rich among the wanderers due to the constant struggle of the people to find food and water during that time. Also, Abraham says "and the prophets". While Moses was alive God had no need of prophets because He communicated with the people through Moses and Aaron.
Abraham is most likely referring to the writings of Moses here. Specifically the books of the Torah, Genesis-Deutoronomy. That would have been God's word, at this time incomplete but still the word He had revealed to this point. That is why He used prophets, to further reveal His word to the children of Israel. What Abraham is referring to when he says "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them" is His word as it was revealed up until the time of this story.
Abraham is basically telling the rich man that the rich man's brothers have the writings of Moses and the prophets, and through those writings, the inspired word of God, they can find out what they need to do in order to avoid joining the rich man in the torment side of Hades.
Another interesting part of this story is the rich man's claim: "but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." Sound famaliar? Think of the modern day atheists that claim that if God would just manifest Himself in a miraculous, undeniable way, then they will believe that God exists.
But notice what Abraham says: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." To paraphrase Abraham, he is saying: "If they will not heed the word of God, then they won't be persuaded even if one rose from the dead." Doesn't this describe modern day atheists perfectly? They have the perfect, or complete word of God. Christ was raised from the dead. Atheists refuse to listen to God's word, and they are not persuaded even though Christ rose from the dead!
The implication here is simple. No matter what God does, whether it be providing His complete word in written form, raising His son from the dead, or even manifesting Himself in a miraculous way today, there are those that will deny Him and His existence. God could appear to atheists and they would still find some way to rationalize their disbelief in His existence. If they refuse to listen to His word then no matter what He does it would not be enough for some.
We even have examples of this in the Bible. In I Kings 18 we have a story of contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal to determine whose god was true and living. Here is the story:
I Kings 18:21-40
21And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.While this persuaded the people, notice the prophets of Baal. When their god proved to be a fraud, they were so distraught they cut themselves with knives. Even after almighty God proved Himself, the prophets of Baal remained defiant to the point where Elijah ended up killing them.
22Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men.
23Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under:
24And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.
25And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.
26And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.
27And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
28And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.
29And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.
30And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down.
31And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the LORD came, saying, Israel shall be thy name:
32And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.
33And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.
34And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.
35And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
36And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
37Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
38Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
39And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.
40And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
Modern day atheists are being disingenuous when they claim that a manifestation of God would convince them. They have God manifested through His complete word. They have God manifested through His creation of the universe (Psalms 19:1). They have God manifested through the death, burial and resurrection of His son for the remission of their sins. Yet they still deny Him. And they would continue to deny Him no matter what God did.