Debate w Atheists: Doubting Thomas & an “Unfair” God

Debate w Atheists: Doubting Thomas & an “Unfair” God March 17, 2021

This is a follow-up discussion with three atheists, precipitated by my post, Pearce’s Potshots #17: Doubting Thomas & an “Unfair” God (3-16-21). It took place in a combox on Jonathan MS Pearce’s Tippling Philosopher blog.

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eric: Hello Mr. Armstrong, here would be my responses to your reply:

1. There’s a range of people with a range of support needed.

Some people are slow. One can find the entire range of types of people in any group.

This is true. However it would seem to imply that we should be observing the entire range of Godly proofs then, too. If ‘people’ comprise everyone from uber-Thomases to Thomases to those who need no proof, then God’s response should comprise everything from uber-proof to regular proof to none given.

2. It’s not required.

[verse]29 Jesus *said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you now believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
[DA commentary] Did you notice the last verse there? The Thomas incident was not regarded by Jesus as normative, but rather, a special act of mercy that was not “epistemologically required.”

Saying some ask is ‘not regarded as normative’ doesn’t imply God will or ought never do it, it just says it’s not standard. So ‘not regarded as normative’ doesn’t offer any reason why Jesus never provides such proof to modern living people. On epistemic requirements: you can’t conclude ‘not epistemologically required’ from Jesus doing it for Thomas. Best you can conclude is that it wasn’t epistemologically required for the other disciples. But you can’t draw that conclusion about Thomas…and therefore, you can’t draw that conclusion for all humans.

Thank you for a rational, non-insulting response. I can always expect that from you, and it’s a breath of fresh air. I happen to think that this topic can be an enjoyable one for both atheists and Christians to discuss.

Basically I agree with you. I don’t think this is an “issue.” I never denied that there was a range of evidences that God provides. I only denied that these were confined to the empirical sphere. The marvels of the universe as a strong compelling evidence obviously at least potentially applies to all people.

There are spiritual experiences, various miracles, answered prayer, the evidence of social science that Christian beliefs and practices “work” and provide happier, healthy people, the continuing inability of science to offer answers to ultimate origins, various philosophical and scientific evidences, the witness of loving, selfless acts as evidence of God loving others through His disciples, fulfilled prophecy and extraordinary accuracy of detail in the Bible (thus suggesting its inspiration, or at least being consistent with same), the remarkable nature of Jesus; and on and on.

3. Romans saying everyone can see God in nature.

in response to atheist counterarguments, you point out that many people do see evidence for God in the natural world. But this misses the problem. These verses don’t imply a few Christians will see evidence of God, or even that many theists will see evidence of God – no, it implies literally everyone would see God in nature. You have to defend or abandon the literally everyone claim, not some easier “some people will…” claim. Which means either it’s wrong, or we’re all flat-out, bald-faced lying to you. Now I guess because your apologetic approach requires starting with the conclusion that the verse is true, you must reason backwards that I’m flat-out, bald-faced lying to you. But I say I’m not. Hence the problem with the verse.

4. It wouldn’t convince everyone.

As for #3, many atheists — if not necessarily Jonathan — casually assume
that pretty much every atheist and skeptic would respond as Thomas did.

Let’s say the skeptics who claim it would convince “pretty much everyone” are wrong. So what? If Jesus riding down on a cloud working miracles saved even one soul from eternal torment, wouldn’t that be worth it? Is saving a few souls just not worth an appearance to Him? This argument for divine hiddenness only holds water if you claim that absolutely nobody would change their faith when confronted with strong evidence of the divine. Which really doesn’t make a lot of empirical sense, since we observe humans converting over a lot less. And, ironically, even if it were true, it would end up making divine hiddenness pointless anyway (i.e. if nobody would change their mind by his showing up, there’s no reason not to show up). So here’s the problem: if divine presence saves any number of people from 1-to-all, hiddenness is immoral. But if it saves 0, hiddenness makes no sense for a different reason. Arguing “well it wouldn’t save all” might be a true statement, but it doesn’t do what’s required – i.e. it doesn’t explain or justify hiddenness.

It doesn’t follow at all that everyone who says they don’t see God through what He has made is a liar. We can believe that they once did, but have unlearned the belief through various counter-influences. This happens all the time in many areas. At some point a human being accepts one or more false premises, leading to adoption of false ideas and worldviews, which then color their perceptions henceforth. Or many other factors could make one not be open to the belief in God (life experiences, etc.: “why did God make me suffer?” — as if it’s all His fault, etc.).

My view is that atheism is largely a result of incorrect thinking, and erroneous choices of premises; also an insufficient understanding of what theism and Christianity are about. People arrive at incorrect beliefs in all sorts of ways. But most of them are not consistent with the notion that a person is lying through their teeth. You say you don’t believe in God and don’t see Him in the universe. I believe you.

At that point I would direct you to the amazing facts of the universe, on the cosmic and also molecular level and try to explain how it could all come about through materialism and an atoms-only view. Personally (like Hume and Einstein), I don’t think it makes sense without an organizing Intelligence behind it. I don’t think the materialistic explanation is remotely as plausible or coherent as the theistic one. So it’s not that we immediately look at the universe and intuitively understand that there is a God. I think there is a thinking process involved, too.

The problem with your overall argument is that you seem to assume that every person is this open-minded, rational machine, who would accept God’s existence if only this “hidden” God would reveal Himself. We say He has in many ways, and people reject it. You leave no room for rebellion or irrational rejection or flat-out human pride and unwillingness to be under the “supervision” of a God.

Jesus’ point in Luke 16 was that miracles are only one way to make people “believe.” They convince some, but many more automatically dismiss any purported miracle in a knee-jerk fashion: mostly by simply saying that they are impossible in the first place. So the very possibility is ruled out by one’s prior supposition of anti-supernaturalism.

I only denied that these were confined to the empirical sphere.

But there are no uber-Thomases given reproducible empirical evidence. None. Zero. Zilch. This is not a “not confined to X” issue, this is a “never given X” issue. And if there are people who need X to believe, then they go to hell without it, because God clearly is unwilling to provide it.

[Non-Calvinist] Christians [which are the vast majority of us] believe that God gives everyone the grace and enough information to know that 1) He exists, and 2) His free offer of grace for ultimate salvation is made to all men, who only need to repent and accept it and [in the view of Catholics, Orthodox and some Protestants] perseveringly live according to it. Also, that no one “goes to hell” out of mere ignorance. God judges people by what they know (Romans 2).

Now, the atheist simply responds that no, He has not given enough information and is too hidden to be known as God to one and all. As I said last time, I don’t deny any atheist’s self-report. I’m not calling anyone a liar (and I know many Christians do that, and they are wrong and being lousy Christian witnesses or apologists, as the case may be). But there are many ways that atheists arrive at an atheist position, just as there are many ways that a person arrives at a Christian or otherwise theist position (almost as many as the individuals involved).

There are or could be many many false premises that a person adopted and built an overall position upon. After years go by, they don’t realize that they actually went through a process, and start thinking that it’s self-evident to all that God doesn’t exist, and that it’s the Christians who have unlearned what should be obvious to all (the mirror opposite of what I am contending).

It doesn’t follow at all that everyone who says they don’t see God through what He has made is a liar. We can believe that they once did, but have unlearned the belief through various counter-influences.

Then God is damning people to hell for falling under the influence of counter-influences.

No; they choose to reject God and are judged accordingly. God values our free human choices so much that He is even willing to allow us to be apart from Him for all eternity, should that be our choice. He didn’t create a bunch of robots, who only do what they must do. Once free will exists, then the possibility of rejecting God and ending up in hell (i.e., that state in which one is free from God altogether) exists. C. S. Lewis famously noted that “the doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

At some point, we have to be made responsible for the choices that we make. Its extremely complex, but Christians believe that God [rather than human beings] knows whether any given person has deliberately rejected Him or is simply sincerely confused or misinformed as to whether He exists or not (or whether Christianity is true). In other words, it’s not a fundamentally “unfair” state of affairs: it’s absolutely fair and just and loving. No one has to go to hell. They do because they deliberately reject God and His grace.

You understand the notion of informed consent, right? That it’s not morally right to blame people for an uninformed or erroneously informed decision? So the decision to deny God, based on erroneous information…what does your theology do with that? The conservative, more literal interpretation of the bible would resolve this moral quandary by saying no such situation occurs; we are all sufficiently informed. But that implies I’m a liar.

It does not, as I have explained. Erroneous information or lack of knowledge is not necessarily a dishonest “lying” situation. In most cases (I would argue) it’s not. People on all sides are much too quick to pull out the “lying / dishonest” charge.

The typical more liberal resolution to the quandary is: God permits such nonbelievers in heaven. But that goes against Catholic doctrine. So how do you resolve this?

By Paul’s teaching:

Romans 2:6-8 (RSV) For he will render to every man according to his works: [7] to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; [8] but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

He gives us the grace to do any good thing, but once He does, then we are responsible to act accordingly. We’re accountable for our behavior.

In Catholicism, as you know, we believe in purgatory, which is an additional refining or “purging” of sin, for those who have only “venial” [relatively less serious] unrepented-of sins. We make a big distinction between venial and mortal sins. This is an additional grace or mercy that God grants human beings. We not only have to deliberately reject God to be damned, but to do so with full knowledge and full consent of the will (the conditions for mortal sin).

Because many atheists lack those attributes, they are less culpable as a result, and have a chance to be saved. I don’t know how much of a chance exists, but I know that some chance exists, according to biblical and Catholic teaching. And I know that only God knows who is saved and damned. No human being does: and don’t let any Christian claim that we do: they are just blowing ignorant hot air.

The problem with your overall argument is that you seem to assume that every person is this open-minded, rational machine, who would accept God’s existence if only this “hidden” God would reveal Himself.

No, no, no. I was very clear in saying pretty much the exact opposite of this. I pointed out that even if every human on the planet was closed minded except one, then God’s hiddenness is morally wrong. Because even in that extreme case, God is damning a person to hell whom He could save, simply by appearing. You are again arguing “not everyone”, when the counter simply requires “only one.”

By what objective criterion does an atheist determine that God (if He exists) is too “hidden”? It seems to me all you can say is “well, because all of us atheists don’t believe He has revealed Himself enough to compel belief.” But that goes back to my last reply: there can be any number of reasons why human beings fail to believe in God: not only the claim that He has made it too difficult for them to honestly do so. You neglect the aspect of why human beings believe in things, and the wrong reasons for believing in things that are untrue.

Atheists love to construct all sorts of theories for why Christians are supposedly so gullible, infantile, undereducated, etc. to believe something so silly as Christianity. For our part, we are entitled to develop various theories for why atheists reject Christianity. My own leading theory is that ignorance is the culprit: by which I don’t mean “stupidity” (let alone willful). I mean lack of knowledge, which can result from many different things. Causation is always multiple and complex.

You make the assumption also that the only way God can sufficiently reveal Himself is by “appearing.” This is simply not true. It’s an easy excuse for non-belief but it’s false. 99.999999999999% of Christians who have ever lived have not met Jesus directly in a post-Resurrection appearance (or even in a ghostly “apparition” or vision). Yet we still have faith that God exists, for many different reasons.

Take the scenario for what it is, DA: let’s suppose that God showing up in indisputable, empirically testable form saves only one more soul from hell. Is that not worth it?

Again, I don’t accept your premise, which seems to be: “this is the only way that God can prove Himself to a human being. Therefore, God is morally required to do this for anyone who seeks it.” Our view is that God gives every human being sufficient reason to know that He exists and that He (through His enabling grace and mercy) is their savior. Obviously, many human beings reject this. The reasons are many and complex, and they are insufficient and irrational.

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Geoff BensonI’ve read your post and prepared a response. Sorry, I’ve done it without numbering or copying, but hopefully the points are clear. I see other people have also replied

Thomas may just be one of many but he’s the one Jesus feels he needs to convince. There’s no reason to take the verse other than at face value, that Jesus wanted to convince Thomas. It might be seen as a case of special love, but equally it could be that Jesus was a little cross that Thomas wasn’t immediately on board.

I think God does provide sufficient evidence (of all sorts) for every human being, but human beings have various mechanisms by which they rationalize such things away or reject them. If it’s not efficient enough to bring about belief (I’m not a Calvinist and believe in human free choices and free will) then one can either criticize God or point out that perhaps the person involved has an irrational demand. The fault can conceivably be on either side. God’s not to blame for everything (as many of His critics seem to think).

I think Jesus appeared to Thomas because He knew (knowing all things) that he would respond to such an appearance. But not everyone would or does, as Jesus Himself taught in Luke 16. Therefore, it follows that God would not be required to provide spectacular confirmations to all and sundry. Most of them won’t accept it anyway, and God knows that. A consistent theme in the New Testament is that Jesus performed miracles and taught without parables with and to those He knew would be receptive to both. Hence we have passages like these:

Matthew 13:58 And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

Mark 8:11-12 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. [12] And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”

There are then three comments that refer to empiricism, and whether there are alternatives, but which don’t do anything to rebut Jonathan’s basic point, that Thomas insisted on extra evidence before he would believe.

It rebuts a false premise that lies underneath Jonathan’s argument. I’m a socratic, and we always want to know (and critique if necessary) the premises of our dialogue opponent.

This is followed by a massive list of links to previous posts, presumably each pretty long in its own right, and no doubt themselves full of other links. I ignored them.

You can ignore them as you wish. My articles are for many kinds of people and links serve as “footnotes.” Whoever wants to pursue the argument in more depth (in this case, the non-exclusivity of empiricism as a means of knowledge) they can go read to their heart’s content. Posting links is the “luxury: for a person who has worked his tail off for 40 years of apologetics, including 3,200 papers on his blog. I’ve earned the “right” to refer to other papers of mine (also to show that I have done the thinking and research in whatever area is involved). But folks are free to ignore them as they wish. They are merely footnotes. I give enough words for the argument proper, and then provide links for anyone who wants to go deeper.

Then there’s loads of bible verse quotes, especially Romans. I really got bored with these and found that they were of little relevance to Jonathan’s article.

Then you don’t fully understand my response. I never post irrelevant links: above all to Scripture. It always has relevance to whatever I am writing about.

Then he equates atheist belief in atoms with religious belief. Oh dear, this old chestnut! Can I see an atom! No, of course not. However, I do understand the science that underscores them and I’ve also seen pictures of them, together with very convincing theories that surround them. One has only to see the results of splitting the atom to see the results of them, something I have yet to see for god.

Then you don’t yet grasp that argument of mine, either. Perhaps if you actually read the link (this time) you might. But many atheists didn’t. The analogies and satirical style were far to much for many of them to comprehend. They’re not used to such provocative critiques.

I would also take issue with the claim that Einstein wasn’t an atheist. The problem was that he wasn’t especially interested in the subject so his language was a bit loose. He sometimes described himself as agnostic, but he did not believe in a personal god. The best way of describing his view appears to be that he saw the universe as wondrous, albeit he understood it more than most, and in that he clumsily referred to god.

I have an extensive collection of his own words on religious topics. It’s exactly as I have said: he was a pantheist or panentheist. He certainly wasn’t an observant Jew, a Christian, or an atheist. He did greatly admire Jesus, though, and he had great admiration and gratefulness to the Catholic Church for saving so many Jews during WWII (estimated at 800,000).

Thanks for responding. It’s cursory and not really any sort of compelling refutation, but at least you took the effort and remain non-insulting, as always. I appreciate that.

I’m also not impressed by the Chesterton saying that people who don’t believe in god will believe anything: experience shows the opposite to be true.”

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guerillasurgeonYou certainly took one for the team. Thank you. I gave up when I came across the biblical quotations. Partly for Brandolini’s law. But partly because quoting the Bible doesn’t usually help the debate. Especially to atheists.

I was presenting how the Bible itself views this issue of God being “fair”; and how it views evidence and how God is known. The critique in the OP is of the Bible. If Jonathan didn’t want it to be [at least partially] a biblical discussion then he shouldn’t and wouldn’t have ever introduced the Doubting Thomas story into it. Since he did, I explain why it doesn’t fly (from our Christian perspective).

If I critique atheism, then you can explain your view (that I don’t accept, just as you don’t accept ours). If you claim the Christian view is unjust or insufficient or incoherent / inconsistent in some way, then the Christian quite logically responds by showing how this isn’t (internally) the case.

I’m not citing the Bible to try to convince atheists of anything: only to explain why the atheist critique of Christianity in this instance doesn’t succeed (being based on insufficient understanding of what the biblical teaching is in the first place).

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Photo credit: Mario F Monsalve (5-21-13) [Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA license]

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Summary: Exchanges with three atheists who say God should appear to everyone to prove that He exists, like Jesus appearing to Doubting Thomas. I contend that this is irrational & fallacious reasoning.


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