Original title: Are Atheists “Evil”? Multiple Causes of Atheist Disbelief and the Possibility of Salvation
(17 February 2003)
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Jesus taught that those who love Him will at least attempt to follow His teachings:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
(Matthew 7:21; see entire context of 7:16-27)
Also, James writes:
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
(James 2:17; cf. 2:26; RSV)
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
(James 2:24; RSV)
As for non-Christians (religious or otherwise) their possible salvation depends on how much they truly know of Christianity, and what they do with that knowledge. If they really do know it and reject it, they cannot be saved. If not, they are judged by what they know and do, according to the teaching of Romans 2:1-24 (particularly 2:13-15):
Romans 2:11-16 For God shows no partiality.  All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.  For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them  on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
As to the virtuous, “good” atheist, who is kind and loving, forgiving, etc., I believe that a variety of psychological, experiential, cultural, and philosophical factors come into play. The Bible’s position is actually that there are no atheists in fact; that everyone knows there is a God (at some level – perhaps unconsciously), but I would hasten to add that the factors cited above can affect a person so that they might possibly not be culpable to the extent of damnation. I sure hope so. It’s dangerous ground, in any event.
The Catholic Church has always held that there are such things as “invincible ignorance,” “implicit faith,” “baptism of desire,” and so forth. It’s in the Bible itself; Augustine, Aquinas, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr and many others all taught this. To the extent that atheists or anyone else think mainstream Christianity holds that only those who literally hear the gospel can be saved, they are incorrect. There are some Christians who believe this (some Calvinists and/or fundamentalists –the two groups overlap), but they are in the minority, even in the sub-group of Protestantism.
My impression of many atheists is that they seem to think it is a slam-dunk case for atheism; that it is very clear, and that, conversely, Christianity lacks any good evidences at all – and suffers from the effects of many counter-proofs – , and is clearly untrue. If that is indeed the case (about clearness), and further, if atheism is true, then there must be an awful lot of Christians and other theists who are resisting this “obvious” truth.
My view is somewhat intermediate: I think (as anyone would fully expect) that the theistic proofs are compelling and the atheist ones implausible and fallacious, yet I believe that the “psychological” aspects of belief (all sorts of belief, not just religious faith; i.e., epistemology) and the many many complex influences which make one believe what they do, “nullify” – in large part -, the clearness of the objective proofs qua proofs.
In effect, then, it would not be such a clear thing, either way, once these other non-philosophical influences and factors are taken into account. Nor (for largely the same reason) is it so straightforward (as some atheists seem to think), that if a person is presented with a fantastic miracle, that they automatically believe in God or Christianity. That is not the biblical teaching, nor what we have learned from human experience and history. And that is because every person comes to the table with a host of prior belief-paradigms and theoretical frameworks, and experiences, including the emotions and the will, which are not to be underestimated, either, in their effect on beliefs, in all people, of whatever stripe.
In my view God’s existence is known by the cumulative effect of evidence drawn from many, many sources and sorts of arguments (which includes the stars and conscience, as Paul argued in Romans 1 and 2). The teleological and cosmological arguments connect God’s existence to the known physical world, which is why they are my favorite theistic arguments; I love that “concreteness” about them.
And if even David Hume could accept a minimalist, deist form of the teleological argument, then I think we are on pretty solid philosophical ground (at least at a level that can’t be immediately dismissed as children’s fairy-tales). Albert Einstein looked at the universe and posited some sort of God; not the Christian God, but some sort (more akin to pantheism). He accepted something that was not atheism.
Furthermore, Christians don’t say that “regular miracles” are unnecessary. Most of us believe they still take place, though less often and less spectacularly than before. Christians believe in empirical proofs (the Resurrection and post-Resurrection appearances by Jesus are precisely that). The dispute here is whether we have reliable eyewitness testimony of same (which takes the arguments into the ground of “legal-type” evidence, rather than strictly empirical).
If one accepts the existence of biblical miracles on a legal criterion of how past events are determined to have occurred (such as a murder or robbery), then one can believe in Christianity for that reason, among others. Beliefs and belief-systems are formed by a huge multitude of contributing factors. As for Christians and scientific proof: if God was so opposed to that, He wouldn’t perform miracles at all, and the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus wouldn’t have occurred.
If indeed there is no God, and people are supposedly “objective, truth-seeking machines” who will inexorably believe only if shown the proper amount of proof, why is it, then (I would ask an atheist) that the vast majority of mankind remain religious and don’t become atheists?
One should use the normal means of inquiry to determine truth. That’s the whole point of Christian apologetics. Christianity, rightly-understood, does not claim for itself some sort of esoteric, hidden “gnostic” knowledge, but attempts to appeal to eyewitness testimony and the tenets of philosophy. We accept natural law, known to all men (Romans 2), and upon which was built the English-American tradition of jurisprudence (Jefferson presupposed a Creator and natural law in the Declaration of Independence, etc.).
Skepticism and hard-nosed rationality and desire to see things proven is fine. I oppose excessive skepticism: the kind that is impervious to any disproof of itself, or evidences for opposing viewpoints because of prior ironclad predisposition. Some atheists may possess this attribute; some may not. Who’s to say? But it is foolish to deny the very concept or possibility of such excessive skepticism. If skepticism is a valid concept, then there is such a thing as an excessive amount of it, as well as too little of it. One must find a happy medium.
I’m not doubting anyone’s sincerity or intellectual honesty (including that of atheists). All I’m contending is that, as a Christian, we must believe that God put awareness of His existence in all men in some fashion. This should come as no surprise. If I believed that God didn’t do so I would agree with atheists that such a Being (if He exists) was unjust, and would I might doubt that He exists, or deny it outright. I don’t deny that such knowledge could be deeply hidden or lost, through no fault of the persons themselves.
I happen to believe that one can know there is a God by looking at creation, just as Paul in the Bible argues (Romans 1). Christians and atheists disagree on that. We disagree on lots of things. Certainly atheists cannot expect a Christian to not believe plain biblical teaching. It doesn’t follow that I am attacking atheists’ honesty or integrity, and I think belief (any belief) is an extraordinarily complex matter. Nor does it follow that I am advocating some sort of idiotic anti-empiricism or anti-scientism.
I do not think all atheists are inherently dishonest and willfully blind (though some might indeed be). I simply believe in Romans 1 and try to apply it to atheists in the most charitable, unassuming way I can. God has made Himself known to all men, as one would hope He would do. No discussion is possible if both sides think advocates of the other opinion are “fundamentally disingenuous.”
How silly is it to hold (like atheist advocates of the argument from non-belief), on the one hand, that because all men don’t believe in God, He obviously hasn’t made His existence clear enough, therefore He must not exist (because this is unjust), yet, on the other hand, hold that someone who does believe in God should not believe that He has made Himself known to all men? One can’t claim that one thing is unjust to the extent that it is grounds to doubt God’s very existence, yet complain loudly about a theist who merely consistently holds to its contrary. What do atheists want Christians to do?: believe in this unjust God that they so object to, and hold that He doesn’t give all people enough evidence, so that some go to hell unjustly? If I believed in that sort of “god,” I would hate him, not worship and adore Him, as I do.
To reiterate: I think that, on a very deep level, even atheists know that God exists. I am trying to be both honest and true to Christian views. In any event, I think any belief is extremely psychologically and intellectually complex, so it works out the same way. I don’t question anyone’s sincerity or intellectual honesty. That’s not the issue. Both sides have to come up with some reason why the “other guys” aren’t convinced by the same evidence. The prevailing atheist view is that Christians are gullible ignoramuses, anti-scientific, anti-rational, etc. Atheists can believe whatever they want about us. But Christians have to agree with biblical teaching about unbelief. That doesn’t mean we have to demonize every individual person. Many Christians do that, and they are wrong to do so.
I believe atheists’ self-report. I think people can get to a place where they truly don’t believe something, by various means. I have no problem with that. If all atheists were rotten rebels who know the God of Christianity exists, and reject Him, then they would all go to hell. But I am already on record, stating that I don’t believe that. I think many, many factors are involved in both Christian or theistic belief and atheist belief.
As for the Bible’s “philosophical” position on unbelief: there is no philosophy per se in the Bible because the Jews were not a philosophically-oriented society. They were much more practically-oriented and historically-minded. Parts of St. Paul come close, though (and he was a highly-educated man who grew up in a very cosmopolitan town of that era: Tarsus in Asia Minor).
Romans 1 is one such passage. It is a very primitive version of the teleological argument (or at least a statement of it, if not an argument – but not that dissimilar to what David Hume stated, as I have shown). Now, does Paul claim that all atheists are wicked people who suppress the truth? No. He seems to claim, as I have stated, that all people know there is a God by looking at creation (Romans 1:19-20). He rails against those who “suppress the truth” in 1:18, but there is no indication that this is intended to include everyone who doesn’t believe in God or Christianity.
This is quite obvious from context. For example, continuing to talk about people who suppress the truth, in 1:23, he condemns idol-worship (“images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles”). As far as I know, that doesn’t describe the ordinary atheist, so Paul isn’t talking about atheists at that point (rather, idolatrous polytheists). In verses 1:26 and 1:27 he describes these people who suppress the truth as lesbians and male homosexuals.
Quite arguably, this doesn’t include all homosexuals, either, as Paul is clearly making a very broad statement, and such utterances allow of exceptions. In verse 29 he says such people are murderers and those who commit all kinds of other sinful acts. In 1:30 he calls them “haters of God” (hard to hate a God one doesn’t believe exists). So, clearly, Paul is talking about those who know the truth and reject it. I don’t see how this can be interpreted as a blanket condemnation as utterly evil, all persons who aren’t Christians.
When St. Paul he was in Athens, he preached his famous sermon on Mars Hill (or, the Areopagus). He observed the idols in the city (Acts 17:16). He argued with the philosophers, including the Epicureans and Stoics (17:17-18). When he started preaching (17:22 ff.) he didn’t utterly condemn the religious practices as utterly evil, but utilized them in his presentation. He commended the people for being “very religious” (17:22). What he did was build upon their knowledge in order to present Christianity in terms they could understand. In so doing, he cited the pagans Epimenides and Aratus (his work, Phaenomena) – 17:28. He mentions that “the times of ignorance God overlooked . . . ” (17:30). Christians have argued from the beginning that there is such a thing as invincible ignorance and the possibility for those who have never heard to be saved.
Therefore, Paul cannot be interpreted to teach that all atheists are wicked God-haters who know the truth and reject it, nor that they cannot possibly be saved. This is a theme throughout the New Testament. For example, when Jesus talked to a pagan Roman centurion who probably knew little about Judaism, He commended him for a faith not seen in all of Israel (Matthew 8:5-13). Paul extends the possibility of salvation to all who do good, even without the law, based on their consciences, while condemning those Jews who hypocritically do not follow the greater revelation they had received (Romans 2:1-28; see esp. 2:6). God judges in the end, and He does so impartially (Romans 2:11).
Christianity holds that “to be saved by Jesus” is not necessarily identical to “knowing all about Jesus” or “hearing the gospel.” But some people are stubborn and rebellious. Many, many religious people will be damned. Jesus talks a lot about that, and states that the “Gentiles” would come in before many of the Chosen People, where the latter were hardhearted, in individual cases. Some atheists are willfully blind or obstinate or rebellious; others disbelieve for many, many reasons (philosophical, psychological, social, moral, cultural, emotional, familial, etc., etc.). Only God knows who will be saved in the end.
Generally (almost always, in fact) people don’t go through the arduous process of testing, proving, reasoning, trying to falsify, with regard to their axioms (upon which grand theories are built). I want to know, in my dialogues, why people accept certain axioms, and try to get them to see that we all have them, and that they are ultimately unprovable. All views require “faith” (in the sense that they are not airtight or demonstrable beyond any possible doubt or disproof). I do believe, however, that atheism becomes either self-defeating or purely fideistic if examined closely enough. Christianity doesn’t do that. Faith itself is neither necessarily self-defeating or fideistic (i.e., entirely devoid of all rational support).
I don’t say the primary atheist problem is intellectual dishonesty; I say it is shoddy thinking and inability to prove their starting assumptions or axioms to an extent at all superior to the theistic and Christian starting assumptions and axioms.
Belief in God is not simply an abstract proposition. If the Christian God exists, we must devote our lives to Him, do everything we do for Him, and tell others about Him. It’s not just an intellectual pursuit to be undertaken in dimly-lit, elegant libraries. It is a way of life; reality itself.
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Here is another piece I wrote on 12-12-06; originally entitled, “Can Atheists Be Saved? Are All Atheists Immoral? The Demands of Christian Charity”
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Here, I was responding to remarks from Theresa Frasch: a former Christian who became an atheist.
Calvinist theology doesn’t allow that an atheist who claims to have once been a Christian ever actually was one. Catholic (and Arminian Protestant) theology does hold that folks can fall away from true faith. I never believed otherwise (thus in my critique of your deconversion I never denied that you were a Christian). I was an Arminian Protestant and am now a Catholic.
The “perseverance” / eternal security position is a minority viewpoint in historic and present-day Christianity. Catholics deny this; so do Orthodox (that’s already some 1.4 billion Christians). So do most pentecostals, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans and lots of non-denominational groups. It is mainly the Presbyterians, Reformed, Baptists, and smaller groups related to them theologically, who hold this (greatly unbiblical) position.
Before Protestantism arose in the 16th century, Christians virtually unanimously agreed that falling away was possible.
Of course the downside of the opinion that you were a Christian, would be that you, therefore, rejected Christianity and the first hand experience you had with it (and with God), and are now (by definition) an apostate. The ones who claim you never were a Christian cannot really say that. They’d have to say you were a “wolf-in-sheep’s clothing.” So it’s either that or an apostate.
Either way, the future doesn’t look too bright for you, from where we sit.
But my theology and approach tries to adopt a middle way as much as possible: objectively you are an apostate, but subjectively there may be many reasons (mitigating circumstances) why you left (or that influenced your decision) that would cause God to exercise mercy on the last day. That is my hope.
The key would be if you truly knew Christianity was the truth and rejected it. That is very serious. Only God knows if you had and have full and sufficient knowledge or not.
If you didn’t, and didn’t now, there is hope that you may be saved, because you are not directly rejecting something you know to be true, but rather, mistakenly believing a falsehood that you sincerely believe to be true. In Catholic theology, this is a very large factor.
In any event, our job as Christians (of whatever type) is to convince you to embrace Jesus and Christianity again (or for the first time, so say the Calvinists, etc.). That is obviously far better than to be an atheist, from our vantage point.
You know this; it isn’t like I’m saying anything new. But what we believe on this affects how we approach people. Those who think you are unregenerate and never-saved will tend to be (but don’t necessarily have to be) more rude and presumptuous about your soul and ultimate destination.
I make no claims on either your sincerity or the state of your soul or moral character. None whatsoever. I simply critiqued the reasons you gave for your deconversion. I don’t see why that would be insulting to anyone (as it is merely entering into the arena of competing ideas), yet John Loftus blew a gasket when I examined his story.
Go figure, huh?