Comedian and illusionist Penn Jillette amazes audiences with his slight of hand tricks and such routines as the “Magic Bullet.” For more than a decade, he’s worked his magic six nights a week in Las Vegas with fellow magician Teller. Both members of the Penn & Teller duo are gifted performers who also happen to be advocates of atheism—the belief that there is no God.
For his part, Penn would be the first to admit that he can be crass, vulgar, and unapologetically opinionated about his lack of belief in God. Not surprisingly, Penn has leveled a number of hardcore attacks against Christianity. One particular rant posted on YouTube, “The Bible is Bulls—t”, has garnered more than 1.4 million views since its release several years ago. And, when signing autographs, Penn typically adds the comment “there is no God” adjacent to his signature.
Like I said, the man is outspoken. This might surprise you, I like that about Penn.
While he and I hold very different views about the existence of God, I appreciate the fact that Penn is transparent about what he believes—or doesn’t believe. Penn refuses to make his convictions palatable in order to be liked, nor is he worried about offending people when he defends his atheism.
That said, an interesting thing happened back in December of 2008.
In this video entitled “A Gift of a Bible,” Penn had an encounter with a “big guy” who was waiting off to the side in what he called the “hover position” after a show. You know, just lingering, waiting for an opportunity to speak with Penn once the crowd dwindled. When the coast was clear, this unnamed audience member approached. Penn describes what happened next:
[The audience member] said, “I was here last night at the show and I saw the show and I liked it.” He was very complimentary about my use of language, and said nice stuff. And then he said, “I brought this for you,” and he handed me a Gideon pocket edition of the Psalms. He said “I wrote in the front of it, and I wanted you to have this. I’m kind of proselytizing.” And he said “I’m a businessman, I’m sane, not crazy.” And he looked me right in the eye as he spoke.
It was really wonderful. I believe he knew that I was an atheist. But he was not defensive and he looked me right in the eyes. And he was truly complimentary, not in any way empty flattery. He was really kind and nice and sane and looked me in the eyes and talked to me, and then gave me this Bible.
Pause there for a moment.
Did you notice something Penn repeated three times? He was apparently touched by the fact that this businessman “looked me right in the eyes.” I can only guess that what Penn saw there was unconditional love and acceptance, not judgment over his atheism. What resonated even more with Penn was the fact that this individual made sharing his faith an urgent priority. Penn continued:
And I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize, I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize, just leave me alone, keep your religion to yourself, how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? [emphasis added].
How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? If I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you—and you didn’t believe it, that truck was bearing down on you—there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And this [eternal life] is more important than that.
Bravo, Penn! I can’t say I’ve ever heard the call to share our faith articulated more dramatically than that, can you? Isn’t it time we made the most of the opportunities which come our way to tell others about Jesus?