I Thessalonians 1:1-10
“There are no atheists in foxholes.” Mark’s Sandlin’s response to this cliché is, “Really? There are atheists in church and you honestly think there are no atheists in foxholes? Look, I get that the point is supposed to be that when faced with death we all turn to God. However, not only is that simply not true for everyone when faced with death, it is really bad logic. In foxholes there are a whole bunch of people trying to stay alive and they pretty much don’t care what the other person believes about God. They just want to stay alive.”
“I get the point is supposed to be that when faced with death we all turn to God,” Sandlin said. I grew up hearing this cliché in public discourse. Maybe it’s not as prevalent today because our world is increasingly secular. This statement comes from a time when the majority of Americans were connected, in some way, with the Christian Church. So, the assumption was that when confronted by death, those who had wandered away from the faith felt the need to turn back.
Now, I can’t speak to the cliché’s validity in times gone by, but we don’t live in the world of my childhood. Many have lived their entire lives with little or no exposure to the world of faith. There was the young woman in my daughter’s high school who asked the librarian, at Christmas time, “Who are these three wise men?” About twenty years ago, those of us who plan worship were told that we could no longer assume that people in the pews would know the prayers and songs that many of us learned in childhood: the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, or Gloria Patri. At the same, for many, exposure to faith has left them scarred, with little interest in exploring or pursuing a relationship with God. The God they encountered through the church was judgmental. Some are so angry with God or the idea of God, that it becomes impossible to expect that, even faced with death, God would be sought.
Yet, there is an underlying message in this cliché. “You have to believe in God, at the right time, in order to be saved. You have to reach out to God or God will reject you.” It morphs into that works righteousness that so often permeates our approach to faith. “Do the work of believing so that God will notice you and save you.”
It’s tempting to assert that those facing death have had every chance, in their lives, to hear the good news and accept it and be saved. That’s often the message of the church. “It’s your responsibility. Make the right, the good choice to believe so that you will have eternal life.” It reminds me of a joke “credit card” a clergy friend had. It was the Heaven Express Card. The motto, written on the card, was “Don’t leave earth without it.” So, the church’s message is, no matter what you’ve heard from us, you had better accept God.
Isn’t it nice that we have no responsibility for conveying God’s love and mercy in ways that others can hear it? So, it doesn’t matter if what people have heard is that God hates them, or God isn’t concerned about their plight or the injustices they face, they had better get right with God. It’s their responsibility. It excuses us, as God’s people, from digging into the mess of human lives and being present in that mess — being Christ to those who suffer. We seek, instead, a sound bite faith, a linguistic formula that has been named, by Christianity, as a sign of faith.
The cliché does not acknowledge the modern reality that many, many in our own society have no real contact with the gospel. It does not acknowledge the reality that some in our society have heard such a corrupted gospel that they have no interest in encountering God.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.” The focus of that statement is on death. What will happen to you when you die? Are you going to heaven or hell?
I struggle with the idea that people should be frightened into faith. But, isn’t that sort of the message of the cliché? When terrified, people will find faith? I’ve told this story before of an elder who spoke to a class of teenagers, once, after one teen’s father was critically injured. “If you died today, would you go to heaven or hell?!” he thundered. “I think this was a good man, but you can’t tell if he was right with God. Get right with God so that you won’t end up in hell.”
At least he didn’t add, “And don’t forget, God is love.” There wasn’t much love in his message. There was lots of fear. I’m guessing the faith he had encountered led him to a faith based on fear, not awe/fear, but terror. And he shared that terror with teens. How often does the church claim to be speaking of God’s love, God’s love which triumphs over death, but, in reality, it speaks terror? Believe in God’s love or God’s going to send you to hell!
God is always seeking us. That’s a persistent Biblical message. God calls. God invites. God answers rejection with further invitation. That pattern is established in the Old Testament — the Hebrew Scriptures—and continues in the New. The gospel of Luke includes that wonderful story of the Father with two sons, the story we call the prodigal son. Both sons treat their father with disdain, shaming him in the community. But the father, adding to his public shame, reaches out to each to offer reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus, through the gospel writer, gives us a glimpse of God whose love is so deep and so profound that it crosses every human boundary of expectation to offer reconciliation. When we call it the parable of the prodigal son, we focus on what the son did to reclaim his father’s acceptance. Scholar Andrew Bailey said that we miss the point. Yes, the son returned. But it was the father who ran to meet him — and offered him full reconciliation. This is not works righteousness where the son earned his way back into his father’s favor. He actually returned to be a paid servant. The father restored him to son-ship.
And God’s reconciliation is not merely a promise of life after death, it is a present gift and reality that invites us into God’s work in transforming a world that knows too much death, too much pain, too much condemnation. The letter to the Thessalonians opens with Paul’s celebration of their faith which was evident even in the midst of persecutions —evident in that they became examples of faith in a hostile world.
The church is always in danger of proclaiming a heavenly faith that is of no earthly good. Such a message empties the incarnation of its good news. Yes, there is in the life of Jesus a promise of life ever death. At the same time, that is not a “someday” promise, but a promise that death has already been overcome and that we have already begun to live that resurrection life — even in this world.
Sandlin’s reflection on this cliché began with an interesting statement, “There are atheists in church.” Really? Atheists? Call out the theological police! We’ve been invaded!
Yet, maybe, when we read the story of the Sadducees encounter with Jesus, we see the problem of having a church based on certainty. The Sadducees were confident in their theology. Their theology, derived from a portion of what we know as the Hebrew Scriptures, had declared that there was no resurrection. So, they challenged Jesus, creating a scenario, that in their minds, illustrated the absurdity of the notion of resurrection. Their theology had become, in some ways, a prison that isolated them from the people around them. They didn’t really tolerate questions. They approached Jesus to prove a point — their point. When the church quits encountering the world, except to declare what God’s truth is as we understand it, we are in danger of missing important elements of God’s word to us. Voices that question — not to prove a point, but to deepen awareness and grow — are a needed part of faith. Maybe, to an extent, we all need to be “atheists,” those who question, those who challenge assumptions and cliches, those who seek the faith that can speak to the pain, suffering and injustice that surround us.
Scholars say that, in this encounter, Jesus is not focused on what the resurrection is like. He emphasized God who is concerned with the living — that is, with the world which all inhabit.
“There are no atheists in foxholes.” It’s not a helpful cliché. It invites a works righteousness approach to faith —that one has to believe in a certain way to be saved. It assumes a knowledge of what is required to be accepted by God and given the gift of eternal life, a knowledge that we don’t fully have. It does little to speak to what faith should be about in this world so beloved by God. It can become an excuse for the church not doing what it should be doing — proclaiming the God of the living who seeks all, and loves all in foxholes, in hospital beds, in hurricane and wildfire devastated regions, in neighborhoods that live in fear and with ongoing violence. The promise of resurrection calls us into the midst of all the worlds death places and death attitudes to be Christ’s presence.