Earlier this year, Rick Gervais was a guest on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert. If you don't know Gervais, he is an English comedian. As part of his appearance, Colbert challenged Gervais about his atheist beliefs. One of Gervais' arguments went like this: "So you believe in one God, I assume...But there are 3,000 to believe from...So basically, you...deny one less God than I do. You don't believe in 2,999 gods, and I don't believe in just one more." The audience obviously liked Gervais' argument as they immediately laughed and applauded. Colbert didn't have a response and changed the direction of the interview.
Gervais' point was essentially, "Hey, we are both atheists. I'm just one degree more of an atheist than you, so really your God-believing position doesn't amount to much?" It's a clever little argument, but I don't think it has any real force. Let me explain by way of an illustration.
Let's suppose you and I are in a room and near the exit. We look around the room and agree there is not a polar bear in the room. We also both agree there is not an alligator in the room. Furthermore, we agree there is not a lion in the room. Subsequently, you could say we are both "atheists" relative to the existence of polar bears, alligators, and lions in the room. But let's suppose I believe there is a hyena in the room and you don't. Now, if there is not a hyena in the room then whether you or I believe there is one makes no difference at all. But if there is a hyena in the room, it makes a big difference, and I'm heading out the exit as fast as I can!
Gervais is right that a Christian only believes in one more God than the atheist. But if that God exists -- and he is the judge of the universe who is nonetheless willing to pardon those who have turned their back on him -- it would be unwise to turn down that pardon, especially if my eternal destination depends upon it. I'll give Gervais this: if God doesn't exist then there is only a degree of difference between my "atheism" and his. But if there is a God and we don't respond to him appropriately, finding yourself face to face with a hyena just might be preferable.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.