Recently, we became aware of an email conversation between two young persons: one a young physicist and a deeply committed Christian named Aron and the other, Josh, a person who at least at the time the conversation began was a skeptic. The exchange is so rich that we’ve asked for permission to post it here. We hope you find it as informative and intriguing as we have.
Thanks for taking the time to discuss this. I am still skeptical. Please consider the following:
- The evangelical Christian God exists, is omnipotent, omniscient, loves people and wants them to believe in him so that they can join him in heaven.
- There are sincere truth-seeking people who have not seen evidence that convinces them that this God exists, but if they just saw Jesus walk on water, feed thousands with a few fish and loaves, rise from the dead, have vivid and non-contradictory dreams about heaven, etc, they would believe. It does not have to be one single awesome event. It can be many different signs to different people. If God employed a multitude of miracles and awesome ways to reach people, people will not idolize one single manifestation. They would understand that these diverse awesome signs are just different ways that God is using to show his presence and not God himself.
- God has no other agenda more important than the agenda of loving people and having people believe in him that would prevent him from showing evidence like the ones above.
Then, I believe God would show himself more clearly to these people, but he isn't doing so, so one of the above statements must be false.
The first step in communicating yourself is to signal your presence. 'Creation' may or may not convincingly point to the existence of a Creator, but I don't see how it points to the Christian Creator and not some unknown Creator that is not the Christian God. To many people, the Bible is just a religious book, and not special compared to other religious books of other religions. Just because it is claimed to be true and to have had its accuracy preserved doesn't mean that claim is true. A non-believer who requires more substantial evidence in order to be convinced should not be required to just accept the Bible, because he has no prior reason to believe in it.
In essence, God is letting these people go to Hell because they fail to believe as a result of his failure to provide convincing evidence. In this situation, humility doesn't really matter.
In my last email, I was discussing only of this life, and what reasons God might have for partially concealing himself for the sake of our spiritual development here. The issue you raise in this email regards the final judgement and Hell. Any discussion of this must necessarily be more tentative than discussions of life on earth, because the final judgement hasn't happened yet, so we don't know right now exactly what it will be like. If the life of Jesus reveals what God is like, then God is very merciful (even though he is also very severe towards hypocrisy and unforgiveness). If Christianity is true, then Jesus will be the one doing the judging. If he was merciful when he was on earth, then he will also be merciful when he comes again.
Your objection to Christianity is this: How could a loving God possibly arrange things so that a sincere truth-seeking nonchristian, (an atheist, polytheist etc.) goes to Hell through no fault of his own?
In order to check to see if this is a problem, we should first check to see whether there are any sincere truth-seeking non-Christians who go to Hell. One could imagine two different kinds: 1) people who have never been exposed to Christianity, and therefore have no opportunity to know it is true, and 2) people who have been exposed to Christianity but claim there is not enough evidence to believe it.
With respect to the people in the category (1), how do you know that the Christian God would send them to Hell just for not being Christians? I think the Bible teaches quite explicitly that God does NOT do this. In Acts 17, Paul is trying to convince the Athenians not to worship idols. He says, "In the past God winked at this ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent." In other words, Paul explicitly says that God did not hold the idol worship of the pagans against them before they had an opportunity to hear the gospel and repent. Furthermore, it says in the book of Revelation that people are redeemed from every "nation, tribe, people, and language". Since many groups went extinct before having an opportunity to hear the gospel, it is clear that at least some people are saved without having explicitly heard the gospel in their lifetimes. Finally, Peter seems to suggest that there is some opportunity for people to believe the gospel even after they have died, when he says:
"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built....the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit." (1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:5-6).
This text goes against the standard evangelical view that there is no chance to be saved after death. On the other hand, evangelicals also say you're supposed to go with the Bible rather than what any particular church says, so I think I'll go with the Bible.
Now let's turn to category (2), the case of a person who has been exposed to Christianity but doesn't believe it because they claim not to have enough evidence. I think there are several different possible things that might be going on here:
First of all, just because they claim to be seeking the truth doesn't mean they really are:
(A) They might actually have enough evidence to believe in God, but dishonestly refuse to admit it to themselves, because they don't want it to be true. In this case, they are not actually sincere, and have rejected God not because of inadequacy of the evidence, but because of stubborn rebellion. In this case, there is no reason to think that they would accept God even if they did have more evidence. So it is not God's fault that they do not believe. It should be pointed out that many of the people who saw Christ multiply the loaves, heal people, raise the dead etc. nevertheless refused to believe. It is naive to think that if everyone saw miracles, everyone would believe. Rather the people who don't want to believe become more firm in their rejection of God.
(B) Or, although they don't have enough evidence to believe, they choose not to investigate to see whether it is true or not. In this case, it is their own fault that they don't have enough evidence. If people claim to base their decisions on evidence and reason, it is hypocritical if they reject Christianity without carefully considering whether there is sufficient evidence for Christ's Resurrection and other miracles to show that Christianity is true. In particular, it is utterly irrational to insist on seeing a miracle personally in order to believe if there is lots of evidence that other people have seen miracles. People don't refuse to believe in scientific results unless they personally witness the experiments, so long as multiple reliable people say they have done the experiments, that is enough. Why should religion be different?
I never assume that anybody is intellectually dishonest until I have some specific reason to think they are dishonest. But I've talked to enough atheists to know that most of them do fall into categories (A) or (B), at least to some extent. However, I'm sure that there do exist cases in which atheists are sincere. In this case:
(C) It might be that although right now they do not have enough evidence to believe, later God will give them enough evidence to believe and they will become Christians. This might happen either before or after death, for all we know.
(D) Or, although they will die without explicitly believing in Jesus, it may be that through caring for the needy, Jesus will regard them as having accepted him without knowing it. (See Matt 25:31-36)
(E) Or, although they do not have enough evidence to believe, they live wicked lives without love. Since God is love, this means that what little they do know about God, they hate (even though they do not know it is God that they are hating). If people hate God, there is no reason to think they will stop hating God if God reveals himself more clearly. Why should God reveal himself to someone who would not benefit from it?
Given all of the possibilities A-E, it is not at all obvious that there ARE any sincere, truth-seeking atheists who are going to Hell. I think that most of them aren't really sincere or truth-seeking, and also that many of them aren't going to go to Hell.
Jesus says "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come." In other words, when people reject Jesus without knowing his divinity, God forgives them and does not hold it against them. But when someone by the influence of the Spirit receives the insight necessary to understand that God is working through Jesus, and then rejects him, this is a sin that cannot be forgiven. (God forgives everyone if they repent, but the point is that people who persist in this attitude won't repent.)
It should also be made explicit that no one deserves to go to heaven; God saves people by his mercy. But God will not overrule people who insist at every opportunity that they want nothing to do with his mercy. If people would hate God if they knew him, God is being merciful by not revealing himself to them yet. It gives them a chance to grow and develop, so that maybe later they would be prepared to accept him.