This morning I caught up on news I had missed during the past week without internet. One item immediately caught my attention. I discovered that there is a huge public conversation involving Christians and Jews over this question: if an atheist is diagnosed with cancer and he begins treatment for it, should we pray for him to get well?
What? I don’t know enough about Jewish theology to converse about their attitudes, but I have been a Christian for a long time, so I feel completely prepared to discuss this question as regards Christians. What I don’t understand is this: why is this even a question?
One day someone asked Jesus what was the greatest law. The obvious intent was to have him prioritize among the many laws Pharisees tried to observe and enforce. The questioner almost certainly expected to get additional guidance about the way God evaluated obedience to more important or less important laws. Instead, Jesus ended the discussion by saying this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) In summary, love God and love your neighbor. That is the law. That is all there is. Forget that list you think you need. God’s law is about giving yourself completely to God and then loving everyone.
The person who asked this question was just like the people who wonder if we should pray for the healing of an atheist. He thought that God had rules that separated the “good” people from the “bad” people. Everybody engaged in this debate about praying for an atheist has the same mind set. This debate has nothing to do with God at all. It is entirely about human attitudes and it is completely motivated by Satan’s constant desire to build walls between us and God and between each of us and all the rest of us. This debate has nothing to do with the will of God; it is all about the will of the Self that sits on the throne of each human heart, the Self that is its own little god in its own little empire that has no room for anyone else.
So I ask: why is this even a question? The answer is that when someone does not love God with all his heart, soul and mind, he cannot even begin to love his neighbor. The answer is that if someone does love God with all his heart, soul, and mind, he will absolutely love his neighbor, because God loves his neighbor. So I ask, if an atheist is diagnosed with cancer and he begins treatment for it, should we pray for him to get well? I answer, Yes, indeed we should.
We should not, however, pray that he be healed simply with a view to the possibility of using his healing to make a convert out of him. We should not pray for him in order to show God how good we are. We should not pray for him in order to show the world that Christians are post-partisan. We should pray for him, as we would pray for any neighbor, because God loves him and wants the best for him. Whether a person is an atheist, a Buddhist, a Communist, a Presbyterian or a Shinto priest, God created that person out of God’s love for him. God created each of us and gifted each of us and yearns for fellowship with us. God loves each individual even if that individual is spitting in his eye.
If you doubt this to be true, just look at Christ on the cross. He had been whipped and tortured for hours before he dragged his own cross to the hill of Golgotha where Roman soldiers nailed him to that cross where he hung, on public display, for hours. Jeering crowds surrounded him, daring him to prove he was God’s Son by jumping off the cross and saving himself. His response was to ask his heavenly Father for forgiveness for everyone. Then he died for everyone, because he loved everyone. If Christ died for this atheist, then Christ loves this atheist, and that is why we should pray for his healing.
It is not possible to pray lovingly that this man be healed of his cancer and not pray also that the Holy Spirit will work in his heart to give him the gift of faith and the gift of life in Christ. We pray that prayer for the world, and we pray that prayer for individuals, but that is the natural outgrowth of love for people.
It is impossible for me to understand how this debate ever got started. If anyone had approached me to ask what I thought, my answer would be, “When I see Jesus on the cross, I know that he died for everyone, including this atheist. May God grant this man healing in both body and soul, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.”