The hubristic resistance that many people feel to God’s authority is eloquently conveyed by Hitchens: “It would be horrible if it were true that we were designed and then created and then continuously supervised throughout all our lives waking and sleeping and then continue to be supervised after our deaths—if that were true, it would be horrible…. It would be like living in celestial North Korea. You can’t defect from North Korea but at least you can die. With monotheism they won’t let you die and get away from them. Who wants that to be true?” Hitchens helps us understand the psychology of atheism, which is often based not on inability to believe but unwillingness to believe. That is why the atheist embraces the scientific way of knowledge as the only way, not because this is necessary to operate his cell phone or iPod, but because this is how he can deny the supernatural, on the basis that it doesn’t show up in any laboratory experiments.
The atheist basically wants to shut himself off from God, and this helps us see why heaven is not closed to atheists. Nor is hell the fiery pit into which atheists are flung for their misdeeds. Heaven is God’s domain, where He is eternally present. Hell is where God is eternally absent. God doesn’t reject the atheist; the atheist rejects God. God doesn’t dispatch the atheist to hell; the atheist wishes to close his eyes and heart to God and God reluctantly grants him his wish. In a sense, the gates of hell are locked from the inside.
The Bible says that salvation is the gift of God. Many people—even many Christians— understand this to mean that God is offering us salvation as a gift. But the Bible doesn’t say that salvation is the gift from God. Rather, it says that salvation is the gift of God. GodHimself is the gift. Heaven is best understood not as a place but as a description of what it is like to be with God. To be with God requires that we want to be with Him, that we accept His present of Himself. In a lovely book on faith, J. Gresham Machen writes that we become Christians not by accepting that Christ died to save others or that he died to save mankind but that he died to save me. This is what it means to be a “born again” Christian.
For some, the Christian concept of a “second sailing” or a “new life” will continue to sound absurd and offensive. Whatever the rewards promised by Christianity, it is humiliating to have to admit that we are sinners helpless to solve our human problem through our own efforts. Aristotle would have found it incomprehensible that a totally degenerate person could have his life transformed. Yet Christianity not only says that this can happen, but that it must happen to each and every one of us, if we are to be with God. Evangelist D. James Kennedy says it is significant that Christ specifies the requirement of being born again to Nicodemus, who is neither a thief nor a prostitute but rather a learned and righteous man. Kennedy’s point is that even righteousness is not enough. The only person who we know made it to heaven is the penitent thief hanging on the cross by Christ’s side. “Lord, help me,” he said, “for I am a sinner.” And Christ replied, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”