In a powerful scenario played out in a hot, dry, and dusty wilderness, Jesus said in response to a temptation: “Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Notice he did not say that man did not live on bread “at all,” as some forms of mysticism and bodily denial might assert. He showed that man did live on bread partially, but not exclusively. In other words, we are both body and spirit, and there is a higher dimension to our existence.
The New Atheists, and the old ones for that matter, would have us embrace what some have called “nothing buttery.” We are nothing but our DNA; we are nothing but our social and biological inheritance; we are nothing but a random collocation of atoms, time, and chance. What is interesting in all this is that those who are saying such things use words. Indeed, they write long books, extensive articles, and scholarly tones to persuade us that we are nothing but “matter in motion.”
Is their use of words, their reliance on reason, their appeal to rationality, a backhanded tribute to Jesus’s claim that there is something higher, more complex, and real that is indeed a major feature of what it is to be human? After all, if my delight in reading or my love of the ideas and impressions that arise from reading are mere chemical reactions with deterministic outcomes, mere responses and not real experiences, then I am left wondering if even my wondering is nothing more than a blind reaction to stimulus. I must confess: I don’t buy it.
If we look at the ancient Scriptures, we see an initial confrontation with several players. Adam and Eve are in an idyllic setting. God is present and in communion with them. Then the “tempter” appears and raises what will be a lasting question, one which has as much bearing on the twenty-first Century as it did when it was first stated: “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1). Now, whether we take this question in broad directions (Is there any God who actually speaks?) or in specific directions (Do I believe God is speaking to me now? What should I do in these circumstances? Can I expect insight from God for life?), the thought has vast consequences. Did God really say?
If there is no God, if there is nothing but chance and necessity, then I must fling myself into existence with all the will and hope I can muster and simply allow the dice to land. If there is a God, however, then I not only have access to the author and creator of life, but I can meet and know a God who is called “The Good Shepherd” and reminds us that his name is Immanuel, “God with us.”
In this age of the saturated self, time and space are drowning in voices, noises, and insistent demands—all clamoring for our attention. We might feel at times as if we are suffocating or simply being squished by blind forces that have no consideration or compassion, and we wonder if we can survive. Did God really say? Did God say anything that could help? In a very powerful story told in Genesis 21:8-20, Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael by Abraham, was sent away as a result of internal family strife and hostility. Abandoned with a young boy, wandering in a wasteland, she collapsed in hopeless despair. We surely feel her sense of utter desperation and loss. Yet into this bleak, dark, and hopeless scenario, God speaks. And his words are words of hope and words of life. Hagar hears what is being communicated and responds.
Of course, it could all be false. It could all be a construct. It could all be nothing but wishful thinking. Perhaps it is all imagination or the work of religious deceivers across time who have created these moving stories to distract us. Perhaps man really does live by bread alone, and what we need to do is simply accept it and get on with life as it is. Or perhaps—perhaps—there is a God, and God is, as Francis Schaeffer said, there and not silent. The choice is real and it is unavoidable. Jesus offers a way and an alternative to the bleak vision of life bound by time, chance, and necessity: Humanity does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.