Exchanges with an Atheist on Hell & Undue Skepticism

Exchanges with an Atheist on Hell & Undue Skepticism December 17, 2015


Photo by “kummod” [public domain / Pixabay]

* * *

These occurred in the combox of my post, A Defense of Hell. Korou is an atheist who claims he would become a theist / Christian, if only there were any evidence at all for it. He believes there is none. I stated in the combox that I didn’t have time to debate further a very complex topic such as hell, but he kept making short replies, thus tempting me to come back with short counter-replies (you know how that goes, when one feels they have good answers, but little time to give them). We see below the results of this scenario: in no particular order. Other Christians in the thread did answer him at great length, for anyone who is interested. But in this instance, I gave “nutshell” arguments, which are good for people who possess relatively less knowledge about theology. My opponent’s words will be in blue. Some words in green come from a second atheist, Tacitus.

* * * * *

I’ve collected a bunch of scholarly articles about hell.

Thank you, I’m sure they’ll make interesting reading. I’ve just started with [William Lane] Craig and Bradley’s debate. Bradley does an excellent job of pointing out the illogical nature of Craig’s arguments about hell. I’m afraid, though, that no matter how many articles defending the existence of hell you collect they’re unlikely to help you; you still have to address the basic incongruity between a God you say is loving and the existence of hell. Such defenses as we’ve seen in this post and thread only serve, at best, to push the Christian’s difficulties a step back without resolving them.

Hell’s existence with a loving God is no less implausible than a prison’s existence, while there are many loving, merciful judges. The supposed fundamental contradiction simply isn’t there.

Which judge do you know of who would sentence a criminal to an infinite sentence? Which judge do you know of who would regard “I don’t want to be friends with you” as a crime?

* * *

In Christian thought, God is apparent by His creation (Romans 1). But in the next chapter, Paul appears to give a lot of slack to those who through no fault of their own, do not accept the “law” (by extension, the gospel). There is ignorance and there is obstinacy in the face of what one truly does know. I wrote about this distinction.

I’ve read your article and appreciate the conciliatory tone. But there seems to be some confusion. The people who honestly do not believe that God exists – me, Richard Dawkins and just about anyone else I’ve heard describe themselves as an atheist – they’ll be treated mercifully. Well, that’s fair enough. Kind of. But who are the other type of people? The obstinate people? These people who apparently know God exists but deny Him? I’ve never met or heard of anyone like them. How could anyone be like that? Who could honestly say “Yes, I know that God exists but I refuse to worship Him”?

Satanists, for one.

Are mostly atheists. They don’t actually believe in God, or Satan either.

I know some Catholic scholars will argue that a “sincerely seeking” Atheist can be saved from Hell, but is that most of them, or a vanishingly small number?

That (salvation of some atheists) has been my argument, too. But trying to determine numbers is simply a mind game. The point is that God knows each person’s heart and He is merciful. Only the ones who know for sure that He exists and reject Him anyway, will be damned for eternity. The free gift of salvation is open to all.

We don’t know how many are saved, but the suggestion from Jesus seems to be that a great number are damned, from His referring to the “narrow way” of salvation and the “broad road” of destruction, and the lack of faith on earth, etc. Scripture seems to imply a large proportion of the damned. From the history of human sin and rebellion against God and His revelation, that seems plausible.

Who are these people who know for sure that He exists and reject Him utterly? I’m not one, and have never met or heard of one. Perhaps you can quote a few people, or link to the websites of these strange individuals? I’m not an atheist like that, and have never heard of or met an atheist like that.

People can delude themselves sometimes, too. They may claim to be atheist, when in fact, they simply don’t want to be constrained by the moral system that God represents. I don’t feel a need to identify who is who. That’s for God to figure out.

Well if I were God, I’d be thinking: “Dear me, most of the human race have ended up in hell forever. I wish I’d thought that out more carefully. Surely there was something I could have done? Maybe if I hadn’t manifested myself just one time in a remote part of the ancient world things might have turned out better…?

Yes, He could have made us all robots who automatically always did right and believed in Him. I’m sure glad He didn’t. It’s cool being a free agent. And with freedom necessarily comes the possibility of making wrong choices and denying the God from Whom we all derive. Free is free. Even an omnipotent God can’t force a free person to make a free will choice, because that is logically impossible.

I’m afraid that’s a false dilemma. There’s plenty of room between the robots you describe and the world we see – a world in which, quite clearly, the vast majority of the human population innocently and sincerely chooses a path of goodness which leads to hell – sincere Muslims, sincere atheists, sincere Jews. The key point is this: if God is as described, then we must assume that this is the way he wants the world to be. Free will is a mathematical argument, but in the real world we know that it’s quite possible to steer people into making a decision we want them to without taking away their freedome of choice. God just obviously isn’t very good at it. 

If we assume that God exists, this is a huge problem. If we assume that He doesn’t, this is just what we would expect to see – a world of religions, all with the same amount of proof – which is to say none – and all of them claiming to be the one true faith.

So Moonies and nutcases like the wacko in Waco or Jim Jones have the exact same amount of evidence for their religion (“none”) as Catholics and Protestants do, huh? This does grave damage to your credibility as a rational debater.

Since you yourself just said that evidence and arguments count for nothingwhen compared to religious experiences you don’t have a leg to stand on when trying to convince an independent party that your religion is more valid than any other. Muslims, Jews, moonies or Catholics – all they have to do is say “I have sincere faith in my religious beliefs” and their arguments are suddenly just as valid as yours.

Sure Catholicism and Protestantism are different from the Moonies and other cults. They’re older, more respected, have more followers and don’t make such ridiculous demands upon their followers. None of this, however, means that they have any less proof than other religions, since all religions function the same way: by faith; and it is on this measurement that all religions are equally valid.

Saying that people come to faith in one usual way is not the same as saying “evidence and arguments count for nothing . . .” The arguments are fine; they just aren’t the way that people usually arrive at a decision to become a Christian. Other ways are the usual means. They help bolster and support faith in most cases. And this is true of apologetics generally.

Your reasoning is like saying, “the way I first discovered love of sweets was through the local Dairy Queen; therefore, cookies and cake and pudding bought at supermarkets count for nothing.”

This is clearly fallacious. The presence of one thing in many instances does nothing to discount the “validity” and goodness of the other.

Nor is this saying that all Christian sects are exactly the same: all having no evidence. That’s your cynical slant. It is not my position, and doesn’t follow from my position at all.

Because they’re not fine. If they were fine then people would be converting because of them. That’s the way that arguments work. Plenty of people do convert to Christianity; but not because of apologetic arguments. Why not? Because they’re not convincing.

You just keep confirming what I say while denying that you’re doing it. I give you credit for your honesty in doing so, but you’re undermining your own case. The apologetic arguments are supposed to provide evidence; they’re supposed to be “reasonable faith” as W.L. Craig titled his book; they’re supposed to be the “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” and “The Case for Faith”. But – by your own admission – they don’t work; people don’t read them and think “Hey, this evidence has changed my view and made me rethink things; I’d better become a Christian.” No, the people who read apologetics arguments are Christians already – and when they’ve read them, they think “Aha! I knew it! My faith is based on good arguments! Those atheists and skeptics were wrong!”

That’s what apologetics arguments are for; not to convert people, but to reassure them.

You have to say this because for you, reason is apparently the means by which anyone does anything. Lots of things are determined on a non-rational basis, such as choice of food, favorite colors for a room or clothes, picking a marriage partner, what determines the friends we pick out, the music we like, appreciation of nature or artistic beauty . . .

We don’t say that all of that is UNreasonable, simply because rationality is not the sole or primary determinant of those choices. It’s simply “other” than rationality. Matter of the heart or artistic taste are that. But I don’t see people running around chiding others for having a “blind faith” in Beethoven or the color blue or lovely sunsets or a preference for petite brunettes with big beautiful eyes (characteristics my wife has). We don’t call poets irrational simply for being poets. Yet poetry is a very subjective, often non-logical endeavor.

Likewise, religion is one of those things that function mostly on a basis of things other than reason and logic per se, while not necessarily (here’s where you go wrong) being illogical or unreasonable.

But because atheists are hyper-rational and often have a poor understanding of non-rational elements in life, they can’t grasp the point I am making; you can’t comprehend it. You can only see it as a plea for blind faith and irrationality.

It’s the same mentality that habitually leads atheists to say that Christians are anti-science merely because we also believe in God and think there are other epistemological considerations and ways of determining truth, like philosophy, and other philosophies besides the narrow atheist bubble-world of empiricism and logical positivism.

You’re a prisoner of your own false presuppositions. This is why I’ve always viewed atheism as mainly an intellectual disorder (lousy thinking) rather than a moral one (exceptionally wicked, evil people), though it could always possibly be a moral problem, too, in any given case.

I could also make your argument as applying to atheists, because the same dynamics apply. I would submit that most atheists don’t become so by virtue of cold, calculated logic. The reasons are usually highly subjective and emotional: they’re sick and tired of Christian rules, or they see Christians as hypocrites or sexually repressed or authoritarian or puritanical in a nauseating way, or they view them as opposed to science or reason. Many atheists are former fundamentalists, and one can see why they rejected that, since it is a urine-poor representation of authentic Christianity.

These are all primarily subjective and emotional reasonings; ones of passion and defensiveness and being fed up. And they are the reasons we observe times without number in atheist rhetoric. The “reasons” for your atheism are manifest in what you guys talk (and complain about). Atheists talk far more like disgruntled former employees or husbands / wives than dispassionate, objective philosophers.

And atheist reasonings and logical arguments are mostly accepted after the fact as well, just as Christian apologetics resonates far more with existing Christians than to non-Christians. This is how most people (theists and atheists alike) operate.

I can turn almost all of your arguments above analogically against you:

Plenty of people do convert to atheism; but not because of atheist arguments. Why not? Because they’re not convincing. [they are bolstered by them after the fact, to justify or rationalize their decision]

They don’t work; people don’t read them and think “Hey, this evidence has changed my view and made me rethink things; I’d better become an atheist.” [because in these matters, reason is not usually the primary cause]

The people who read atheist rhetoric and self-justification arguments are atheists already – and when they’ve read them, they think “Aha! I knew it! My rejection of religious faith is based on good arguments! Those Christians and other religious fanatics were wrong!”

That’s what atheist / anti-theist arguments are for; not to convert people to atheism, but to reassure atheists and make them smugly feel so intellectually and morally superior to Christians.

* * * 

Hell is terrible but justice demands it.

“You made the wrong choice, and justice demands that you suffer forever because of it.” Is that what you’re saying?

No. I would say that human beings are eternal, one way or the other. They can either end up eternally with God (for Whom they were made, and union with Whom is their greatest fulfillment) or without Him. God offers the free gift of mercy and salvation to all who will repent and accept it. No one need go to hell. But God honors the choices even of those who reject Him.

And once they’ve made that choice, they can never change it. Not a minute later, not a day later, not a trillion years later. “So what if you made the wrong choice? You had your chance. You should have been a Christian. Now, go to hell.”

The choice is made during one’s entire life. But even that is not enough for skeptics of God and Christianity: “Naw, 70 or so years ain’t long enough to allow us to make up our minds on the question of God.”

Of course, the false premise is always that God hasn’t manifested Himself enough so that the wise, intelligent, ultra-reasonable atheists can make a “rational” choice of following Him. Obviously, we deny that this is the case.

It would be a better case for God having manifested himself if we had more evidence for them than stories which were written down decades after they were purported to have happened.

You don’t need to be ultra-reasonable to regard the case for God as unproven. Common sense is quite enough.

Compared to the trillions and trillions of years we will live for, and then an eternity beyond that? and by the way, no, it is self-evident that 70 years is not enough time to make up our minds on the question of God – because most people don’t!

Ya lives yer life and ya makes yer choice . . . fer God or agin God . . .

And that’s always assuming that you live a rich, comfortable three-score-and-ten life with plenty of time for philosophical reflection… To borrow a phrase: I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could think that letting someone chosoe between heaven and hell and then NOT letting them change their mind if they made a mistake is either just or loving.

Okay, so you must also think (applying analogy) that a convicted murderer must get a chance to repent right after his sentencing to life in prison. He says he is sorry, so now he’s a free man, huh? I cannot for the life of me understand that. But it’s what you expect of God.

No, that’s what you expect of God. A person can be as vile as is humanly possible, and commit the worst atrocities imaginable; but if they repent and become a Christian God will take them to heaven. Right? What I would expect of a just and loving God is more or less what I’d expect of a just judge; punishment for actual wrongs committed in proportion to how grave they were. Which is why a God who sends souls to help forever is immoral, and talk of people sending themselves to Hell is nonsense.

* * * 

The atheist will always find fault with God. Ironies abound . . .

Quite a defense mechanism there! “If you don’t agree with me it means you haven’t thought it through properly.”

1. I would never make such a broad stupid statement like that. But this is stock atheist tired rhetoric. ZZZzzzzz . . . . (-_-) 

2. I do conclude in some cases that someone hasn’t thought through an issue adequately, but it is never merely because they disagree with me. In some cases it is true. It’s not necessarily a defense mechanism.

Nobody said those words, but they’re the truth of what Dave Armstrong says: “the atheist will always find fault with God.” Atheists are quite willing to be convinced of God’s existence; it’s just that the evidence for God is so very, very poor. Apologists can’t admit that, so they have to pretend that atheists are “hyper rational” or “over-skeptical” – forgetting that atheists are simply applying the same standards that Christians do themselves, to anything except God.

It’s just that no evidence is ever sufficient for them, because they labor under the false assumptions and “empirical-only” mindset of scientism and (yes) hyper-rationalism. Those are legitimate categories and intellectual shortcomings.

I’m an apologist, and I think the cumulative evidence is compelling. I don’t have to pretend anything. And atheist arguments are often very poor: above all when they attempt to do biblical exegesis, which is some of the worst I’ve ever seen.

But I understand that this is how you have to spin it. What choice do you have? You can’t just say, “I’m unconvinced”; no, you must go on to claim that we apologists are supposedly pretending and being hypocritically selective as regards evidence.

An atheist is quite capable of presenting their arguments poorly, and a flat-earther is quite capable of being a brilliant debater. But the heart of the issue is this: why do you believe what you believe? What evidence can you offer for it? And the evidence and arguments that apologists use are never convincing – except to people who are already predisposed to accept them.

Virtually no one comes to initial faith in Jesus or conversion to Christianity through apologetics (and I know this firsthand, due to my own 34-year apologetics efforts, as both a Protestant and Catholic). I didn’t, myself. In that sense, I agree with you.

It is an interior spiritual experience or awareness which is key. But that is where we will likely continue to disagree, because you’ll probably dismiss that, too, with a wave of the hand. This is what atheists do.

If you’re serious about possible conversion (you claim you are willing), I highly recommend that you get past standard apologetics and inquire about these sorts of far deeper analyses.

I recommend three writers who discuss it: Cardinal Newman (Essay on the Grammar of Assent: available online), Michael Polanyi, and Alvin Plantinga. William Alston is good, too.

I’ve even made it easy for atheists to read this great stuff, in my collection of scholarly links (one of many). See section 2.

* * *

I’m quite ready to abandon atheism and become a theist. I’ve just never seen any reason to as yet.

I’m quite ready to abandon theism and become an atheist. I’ve just never seen any reason to as yet.

And you aren’t going to. It’s theism which has the burden of proof. Which brings us back to the only important question we can ever ask: what is your best evidence for God’s existence?
And if you can’t answer that -well, there’s your reason for becoming an atheist.

Here are some of the best arguments I could find:

1) God: Historical Arguments (Copious Resources)

2) Atheism & Atheology (Copious Resources)

3) Science and Christianity (Copious Resources)

4) 15 Theistic Arguments (Copious Resources)

5) Teleological (Design) Argument for God (Resources)

6) Cosmological Argument for God (Resources)

7) Ontological Argument for God (Resources)

The usual atheist response after I present these, that I worked for several weeks compiling is (this has literally happened several times) [my sarcastic embellishment of real events]: “I can’t read all that! Can’t you summarize some of the best ones in slogans and soundbites, so my feeble mind with its short attention span can comprehend it?”

Sorry, I don’t do that. We’re not in kindergarten here. If an atheist asks for the best rational arguments we can give, I think I have collected a great deal of them, and they will have to spend serious time reading, if they are serious about an objective examination of the philosophical strength of the theist or Christian worldview.

My goal is to present the best evidence I can find. I don’t need to always personally argue some argument. Some scholar is gonna be able to do it way better than I am.

Atheist inquirers who weren’t serious in the first place will ignore and mock my links collections. Their goal is usually just to make Christians look stupid and supposedly make themselves look so intellectually superior.

More open-minded, serious ones, on the other hand, who have asked for some solid arguments, will look them over (and should thank me for saving them the trouble, collecting all these articles).

* * * 

If committing a crime is a free choice, then why are there so many more criminals from certain socioeconomic backgrounds than others? This is the flaw in the entire argument. Free will, in reality, is nothing of the sort. Yes, we make our own decisions, but they are heavily influenced by our circumstances, our background, our personality our genes, our upbringing — i.e. our inherent nature and our entire life’s experiences up to that point.

There is plenty of scientific evidence for how elusive the concept of free will is. Even the way a question is presented to you can heavily influence the decision you make in response. Any pollster can tell you that.

Yes, lots of different causes lead to human behavior, good or bad. I’ve always believed that (as a sociology major in college). This doesn’t prove, however, that determinism is true. For that to be true, you have to prove that there can be no free decision that is not predetermined by environment or genetics, etc. And that would be quite difficult if not impossible to do.

My argument doesn’t require the non-existence of free will. I make no claims to be an expert on philosophy or the latest scientific research into how the human mind works, but if you step back and look at the statistics as opposed to each individual case, you can clearly see, for example, the decision to stay out of trouble with the law can be easy for one group of people while it can be next to impossible for another. The difference, when you boil it down, is little more than accident of birth.

And when it comes to your religious faith as a adult, is there any greater determining factor than where you were born and raised? How else can one explain the fact that, say, 97.8% of all the citizens of Turkey are practicing Muslims?

If the existence and nature of God can be so clearly seen and we all have free will, then how did 72 million people out of 74 million get it so wrong?

Yep. Most people simply adopt the view of those around them. I never did that. I was a practical atheist in the late 60s and early 70s. Then I was an evangelical, which is very unpopular in secular circles; then a Catholic, which is even more unpopular.

I conformed to my upbringing at first, but then I didn’t: twice.

* * *

What no orthodox, biblical Christian can deny is that hell 1) will definitely have souls in it, 2) is irrevocable punishment, 3) is eternal, and 4) the choice of the person who winds up there; not God’s predestined choice from all eternity.

#1 through #3 refute universalism / Origenism and annihilationism, and #4, Calvinism, Luther (not Lutheranism), and predestinarian strains of fundamentalism.

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