(5th ed., 2020)
Review: Lee Strobel. 2001. The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 304 pp.
The stated goal of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Faith is to investigate the “toughest objections to Christianity.” In his book, Strobel presents a list of eight “objections” that he considers to be the strongest obstacles to the Christian faith. For each objection, Strobel interviews a noted apologist. The purpose of this article is to critically evaluate the logic employed by the interviewed apologists and to show how the explanations they offer are inadequate to justify belief in the central tenets of Christianity.
An earlier version of this critique first appeared on the Secular Web in November of 2001. Since that time, I have had many comments—both from skeptics and Christians. Conversations with readers of Strobel’s book have led me to consider anew each of the issues it presents. Those conversations and reflections led me to releasing second, third, and fourth editions in 2003, 2005, and 2006. This is the fifth edition, released in 2020. In fact, this article is now three times as long as it originally was. However, I do not believe that I have added “filler”; the new material contained herein represents a more exhaustive critique of Strobel’s book, covering many arguments that I skipped over originally.
About the Author of this Critique
Problems with Strobel’s Approach
Objection 1: Since Evil and Suffering Exist, A Loving God Cannot
Objection 2: Since Miracles Contradict Science, They Cannot be True
Objection 3: Evolution Explains Life, So God Isn’t Needed
Objection 4: God Isn’t Worthy if He Kills Innocent Children
Objection 5: It’s Offensive to Claim Jesus is the Only Way to God
Objection 6: A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell
Objection 7: Church History is Littered with Oppression and Violence
Objection 8: I Still Have Doubts, So I Can’t be a Christian
About the Author of this Critique
I would like to provide a little information about who I am and my perspective. Everybody has a bias. I would like to share mine so that the reader can best evaluate the merits of my arguments.
At the time I first read The Case for Faith, I considered myself a Christian, albeit a weak one. The very kinds of questions that Strobel asks in this book are exactly the kinds of questions that I have asked myself many times. These questions would nag at me, making it difficult to have much faith. I used to attend church regularly, so I was certainly exposed to a Christian perspective on these questions. When I first heard of this book, I wondered if it could really answer my questions better than the pastors that I had already heard. Yet the book came with many, many glowing reviews, and became a very popular apologetic in Christian circles. I decided to read the book in the hope that it just might provide better answers to my questions. In short, it did not. The purpose of my critique is to explain why, in my view, The Case for Faith falls far short of its goals.
At this point in time, I consider myself an atheist. Some of my critics contend that, since I’m an atheist, I intended to find fault with Strobel’s book. But I was not an atheist at the time I read the book, and I did not read it with the intention of finding fault. I read it with the genuine intention of hoping to find answers to the kinds of questions that Strobel asks.
My expertise is in computer programming, a discipline based on logic. So I feel most competent in noting the logical errors of the responses to the objections. When Strobel’s discussions involve history or biology, I acknowledge that I am not really qualified to debate those lines of argument, and will refer the reader to other sources.
Finally, I’d like to note a personal convention from the outset. I’ve developed a habit of capitalizing pronouns referring to God—such as He, Himself, His, and so on—which occasionally seems to clarify the antecedent. Consequently, I will follow this convention (unlike Strobel and his interviewees) throughout this critique.
Problems with Strobel’s Approach
Strobel’s writing style is straightforward and easy to read. In most chapters, Strobel uses the first few pages to introduce the objection to faith and set the stage for the interview with the Christian apologist to follow. To give Strobel credit, he usually does a very good job at introducing the objection. And most of the questions he asks in his interviews are valid, reasonable questions. My main complaint with Strobel is that after doing a good job at setting the stage, he invariably gets very inadequate responses to the questions and all too easily accepts them.
Many critics of Strobel’s prior work, The Case for Christ, complained that he didn’t bother including the opinions of any skeptics. Perhaps in answer to this complaint, Strobel’s first interview is with Charles Templeton, a former minister who is now an agnostic and has left the ministry. This is a good interview, and, in fact, does a good job at raising some of the questions that many people have about the Christian faith. But it should be noted that Strobel interviews one skeptic, in the beginning of the book, and interviews eight believers to answer Templeton’s questions. Essentially, eight believers are given the opportunity to rebut Templeton’s questions, but no skeptic is allowed to rebut the believers.
Strobel’s supporters say that this is fair because he intended to write an apologetic, not a balanced point/counterpoint. But Strobel portrays himself as a former atheist and a tough reporter, and reminds us of this constantly. He seems to try too hard to make us believe that he isn’t going to take an easy answer from those he interviews. Does he really expect us to believe that he spoke “in a voice laden with sarcasm” to those he interviewed? It is the fact that Strobel proceeds on the pretense of playing the part of the skeptic, but then clearly stacks the deck against the skeptic, that I object to. The Case for Faith hardly qualifies as the work of a hard-nosed reporter trying to cover all the angles, as Strobel would have us believe.
Sometimes the people Strobel interviews seem to contradict each other. Though it is reasonable that, like doctors, not all theologians will agree with each other, if Strobel is to play the part of the skeptical, hard-nosed reporter, he shouldn’t let contradictions pass without exploration. There is something disingenuous about interpreting theology in one way to give a plausible answer to one question, and then interpreting it in another way so as to make an answer to another question plausible.
There is one other minor thing to note, and that is that Strobel’s interviews often stray from the main topic, or objection, for that chapter. This isn’t a criticism, just something to keep in mind. Because Strobel’s interviews often stray from the topic at hand, so will my commentaries.
Objection 1: Since Evil and Suffering Exist, A Loving God Cannot
(Interview with Dr. Peter John Kreeft, Ph.D.)
Of all the “classic” arguments dealing with faith, the issue of the existence of evil is probably the most discussed and most argued issue throughout the ages. Strobel spends several pages explaining why he himself struggles with this question, a very difficult question. His discussion of the evil in the world that he has seen is moving and well-presented. In fact, Templeton says that suffering was a major reason why he turned away from the Christian faith, noting a photograph of an African woman holding her dead baby, who had died of starvation due to severe drought, in her arms. God allowed all of this suffering when all that the woman needed was a little rain. How can there be a loving God if He won’t even send a little rain? (p. 14).
Peter Kreeft offers a couple of possible explanations for the suffering experienced by the woman who lost her child. For one, Kreeft says that finite humans are not capable of understanding the plans and reasoning of an infinite God. Kreeft illustrates his point with an analogy:
Imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear’s confidence, but he can’t do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn’t realize this is being done out of compassion (p. 32).
Kreeft argues that, like the bear, we may not be able to comprehend the eventual good that will come from our pain and suffering. Like most of Kreeft’s other arguments, this analogy can generally be summed up as: ‘God knows better than we do.’ And, truth be told, I cannot know that Kreeft is wrong. God may well know better than I, and what appears to me to be injustice could all be a part of a greater plan. I am imperfect, and cannot know that which a perfect God may know. However, Kreeft’s argument that I cannot know what eventual good may come from some suffering is a fallacious “argument from ignorance.” Since we cannot know that a greater good won’t come from apparent injustice, Kreeft concludes that there, indeed, must be a greater good. I need a better reason to believe that a greater good will arise than simply the lack of knowing for certain that it won’t. If, indeed, there is a God, and this God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then I suppose that apparent injustice has a reason. But those are big “ifs.” The bottom line is that if I am like the bear of Kreeft’s analogy, unable to see the greater good to come from apparent injustice, then God should not be surprised that I see apparent injustice as genuine injustice. For there is no reason to assume that there is a greater good to come from injustice.
All things considered, I’ve had a pretty easy life. There have been times that it hasn’t always seemed like it—particularly during my episodes with depression. But it is, indeed, quite true. I’ve never known hunger or severe pain, and never been in a war zone. So discussing things like the death of the African woman’s baby may sound pretentious. It may sound like Strobel, Kreeft, and I are using this woman as a debate tool. “Let us see if the baby’s death was ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ in the grand scheme of the universe.” And it is unkind to use other people’s suffering as a debate tool. But these are real issues being raised, and they need to be discussed.
To explain how suffering can lead to a greater good, Kreeft offers the analogy of when his daughter pricked herself and suffered a small amount of pain, but learned from it (p. 41). However, his daughter’s pinprick isn’t comparable to the suffering of the African woman, or the Indian people Strobel discussed. I can accept that a modest amount of suffering may lead to greater good, but I find it rather pretentious for Kreeft to compare his daughter’s pinprick to the dead African baby and essentially say, “Well, that explains it.” Of course, he isn’t actually equating the two, just using the pinprick as an example of good that can come from bad. But that is the problem with analogies. A valid explanation for a little pain doesn’t explain extensive, intense, and apparently gratuitous pain.
Noting that the poorest often experience the most suffering, Strobel spends some time discussing the suffering that he saw first hand in India. I’ve never been to India or Africa, but I have been to the Philippines, and I have known people from India and Africa. I have also seen a fair amount of suffering first hand. And with that comes a feeling of guilt. Why have I been fortunate, while so many others have not? Arguing that there must be no God because of the suffering in the world is sometimes called an “argument from outrage.” But should one not be “outraged” at the injustice of the world?
Moreover, the fact that the poorest often suffer the most is, to me, very significant. In a debate with William Lane Craig, Corey Washington develops the point:
But I think there is something you may not have known about these natural disasters. You know who gets hurt in these earthquakes? Mostly poor people. Mostly weak people, the old and the young. You remember that earthquake that happened in Armenia, back in the eighties? This earthquake was actually less powerful than the earthquake in San Francisco. Yet 25,000 people died in Armenia. Why did they die? Because they had bad housing. It was cheaply made. They were just crushed by the roofs. On the other hand only a few hundred people died in San Francisco, because we’re a wealthy country and we have very good housing. Relatively speaking, people really didn’t suffer. So you have to think about what Craig is saying. God’s going to allow the innocent, the weak, and the poor to suffer, so the rich can show their colors, can be courageous, and develop themselves into moral beings. That sounds kind of sick to me actually. I think this is totally incompatible with Christianity as you read it. Remember the proverb was that, “The meek shall inherit the earth,” not that they shall be destroyed by it.
Some people argue that God has provided; there is enough food in other countries but man has failed to distribute it fairly. Is God in Heaven thinking, “Well, if those rich Americans (Europeans, etc.) won’t solve the problem, well, I guess that’s just too bad?” And why would God even expect us to solve this problem—we’re just prideful, selfish sinners, right? But we’re expected to solve world hunger on our own, or else people die—tough luck? The bottom line is, the people starving in Africa are completely unable to provide for themselves. They are completely dependent on aid or they die. But God could solve the problem, or at least mitigate it a great deal, by sending more rain. Is this really too much to ask of a compassionate, miracle-working God?
As I said, I cannot know for certain what greater good might come. But what possible “greater good” can come from massive injustice? What “greater good” to come is there for the African mother’s baby? The baby is dead. What “greater good” can the baby experience? If any Christian was there in time to save the child, surely he would do so, would he not? If a Christian had saved the baby’s life, would he have circumvented the “greater good” that was to come? Kreeft says he purposely let his daughter bleed a little, for the learning experience—the greater good to come. Would he have let the baby die too, in the name of the greater good? The fact that a Christian would save the child if he could implies that Christians don’t really believe that an apparently needless death serves any greater good.
Kreeft, of course, claims that injustice not rectified in this life will be rectified in the next. He quotes Mother Teresa, who said, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel” (p. 47). In other words, in the grand scheme of eternity, the dead baby’s needless death is “no biggie.” But doesn’t that make this life on Earth rather pointless? The baby, for all intents and purposes, had no human life, having died so young. And this baby is (presumably) doing fine in Heaven. Then what value is life on Earth at all?
There is yet another significant difference between his daughter’s pinprick and the death of the African baby: His daughter’s pain resulted in a verifiable greater good—a learning experience for her—in this lifetime. By contrast, the African baby could not possibly experience any greater good resulting from its own death while it was still alive. To defer to a person’s unverifiable condition after death in order to find any resulting greater good appears remarkably forced—it is tantamount to admitting that there is no greater good to be found. For we have to take it entirely on faith that this otherwise seemingly needless suffering resulted in any greater good at all. To postulate that, since we can’t find any evidence of a greater good in this life, it must reside elsewhere, after death, strikes me as an incredibly ad hoc assumption designed to explain away any contrary data.
A related question concerns the existence of evil. Kreeft says that the complete elimination of evil would eliminate free will and the chance for true love, and claims that some evil and suffering is necessary to make us who we are:
It’s like that old Twilight Zone television show, where a gang of bank robbers gets shot and one of them wakes up walking on fluffy clouds at the golden gate of a celestial city. A kindly white-robed man offers him everything he wants. But soon he’s bored with the gold since everything is free, and the beautiful girls who only laugh when he tries to hurt them, since he has a sadistic streak. So he summons the St. Peter figure. “There must be some mistake.” “No, we make no mistakes here.” “Can’t you send me back to earth?” “Of course not, you’re dead.” “Well, then I must belong with my friends in the Other Place. Send me there.” “Oh, no, we can’t do that. Rules you know.” “But I thought I was supposed to like heaven?” “Heaven? Who said anything about heaven. Heaven is the Other Place.” The point is that a world without suffering appears more like hell than heaven….
Pretend you’re God and try to create a better world in your imagination. Try to create utopia. But you have to think of the consequences of everything you try to improve. Every time you use force to prevent evil, you take away freedom. To take away all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose love (p. 42).
If Kreeft believes that an Earth without pain and suffering would be like Hell, what exactly does Kreeft believe Heaven is like? Is there evil in Heaven, or no free will and no love? Do Satan, Hitler, Stalin, etc. run around Heaven causing random acts of pain and suffering so that its inhabitants aren’t bored all of the time? Are people in Heaven mere “puppets,” without the ability to freely choose love? I think that most Christians believe that Heaven has no such requirement for pain, suffering, and evil. But if so, why would life on Earth have such requirements?
Kreeft also asserts that simply recognizing “evil” as being “evil” in and of itself is a good argument for the existence of God. If there is no God, then there is no absolute definition of what is evil and what is not evil (p. 34). It indeed seems true that, if there is no God, then there is no ultimate definition of what is “good” and what is “evil.” But the fact that we have the concepts “good” and “evil” does not necessarily prove that there is a God making such definitions. For example, there is no absolute definition of “hot.” And yet, from our biological perspective, we can judge what is “hot” and what is not “hot.” It is the same for “pain”; if there is no God, then there is no ultimate meaning as to whether “pain” is “good” or “bad.” Yet we are biologically wired to interpret “pain” as “bad.” This is one of the mechanisms that we have for the preservation of the self and the species. Our ability to empathize, I suspect, is also a biological preservation-of-the-species mechanism. Therefore, I believe that our concepts of “good” and “evil” are simply conceptualizations of these biological functions. The fact that many concepts don’t have an ultimate meaning in a godless universe does not mean that they are without meaning to our biological nature.
Please do not think that I’m comfortable with my assessment. Like most Christians, I would prefer that there be a universal concept of “good” and “evil” over morality just being derived from conceptualizations of biological functions. But as near as I can tell, that’s just the way it is. After all, if God really has defined a universal concept of “good” and “evil,” He hasn’t done a good job of communicating it to us. Different cultures and religions often have very different concepts of “good” and “evil.” Sure, there are a lot of commonalities; but there are also a lot of differences. (This is covered in more detail in Objection 7.)
For the remainder of the interview, Kreeft takes his opportunity to discuss issues subsidiary to that of pain and suffering. Many skeptics will ask why God doesn’t reveal Himself more clearly. Kreeft replies: “Scripture describes God as a hidden God…. If we had absolute proof instead of clues, then you could no more deny God than you could deny the sun” (p. 33). I’ve heard this many times, and it still doesn’t make sense to me. Christians often say that if we had absolute proof of God’s existence, then we really would not be free to accept or reject His grace. But I’ve got absolute proof that my wife exists, and this isn’t a problem. I can still choose whether I want her or not. Why, then, is it necessary for us to lack absolute proof of God’s existence? And what about Satan? Satan, when he chose to rebel against God, had absolute proof of God’s existence. And yet he was still free to choose not to follow God. Again, why is it necessary for humans to lack absolute proof of God’s existence?
God is often called our “Heavenly Father.” If somebody’s earthly father moved to another country and left no forwarding address, but left a few clues lying around as to where to find him, would we consider this earthly father worthy of seeking? If this human father got mad because some of his children didn’t dedicate their lives to finding him, wouldn’t we consider him irrational? Isn’t the love of a child for a father who does not hide, and who directly cares for the child, actually more rational than loving a father who runs and hides and gets mad if you don’t find him? So why does God think that it is a virtue for men to love Him without proof of His existence?
Kreeft also dismisses atheism as “snobbish” and “elitist,” as more than 90% of all human beings that have ever lived have believed in God (p. 35). Frankly, after this comment I found taking Kreeft seriously rather difficult. At one time, more than 90% of the world’s population believed that the Earth was flat, but that certainly didn’t make it so. (Note that I’m not equating belief in God with belief in a flat Earth.) But understanding our world and natural forces has been a quest of humankind throughout history. And during this quest, at times beliefs that were held as unquestionable by the majority have been proven false.
And Kreeft must, of course, also realize that 90% of all human beings that have ever lived have not believed in his God. Kreeft seems likely to believe that the followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, pagan religions, and so on are completely wrong, but he is happy to accept their members just for the moment to “prove” how “snobbish” atheism is. Is Kreeft any less “snobbish” and “elitist” in believing that his God is the real God, and everybody else’s God isn’t?
Satan did not come up very much in this book, although a short section in this chapter discussed Satan and the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross was the defeat of Satan. Since I already have a short article on Satan elsewhere, I defer the reader to my paper “The Implausibility of Satan.”
Objection 2: Since Miracles Contradict Science, They Cannot be True
(Interview with Dr. William Lane Craig, Ph.D.)
The first issue to address here is, if miracles exist, what would qualify as one? Craig defines a miracle as “an event which is not producible by the natural causes that are operative at the time and place that the event occurs” (p. 62). I actually like this definition. Additionally, Craig asserts that David Hume, who defined a miracle as a “violation” of natural law, is wrong:
That is an improper understanding of miracles. You see, natural laws have implicit ceteris paribus conditions—that’s Latin meaning “all other things being equal.” In other words, natural laws assume that no other natural or supernatural factors are interfering with the operation that the law describes (p. 63).
I object to the use of the words “assume” and “interfering” as technically imprecise, but I understand that this is written for a lay audience. So I will accept this explanation at least for the natural factors. What is more problematic is his introduction of supernatural factors into the equation. As natural beings in a natural universe, we don’t exactly know what a “supernatural factor” is. All that we know is its definition—something that causes “an event which is not producible by the natural causes that are operative at the time and place that the event occurs” (at least on Craig’s definition).
While visualizing catching an apple before it hits the ground, Strobel correctly notes that “You’re not violating or negating the law of gravity.” Craig then adds, “You’re merely intervening” (p. 63), which is also true—so long as it is clear that you are intervening in the trajectory of the apple, not the force of gravity itself. If you catch the apple, the force of gravity remains unchanged. The gravity is still there, pulling the apple towards the Earth, resulting in the weight you feel in your hand. The force of gravity does not know that you have caught the apple. What you have done is apply a counterforce, thereby altering the trajectory of the apple—but nothing has happened to the gravitational force itself.
Perhaps some readers may naïvely suggest, “The Earth is just a lot bigger than an apple, but what God did in stopping the Earth from spinning is not fundamentally different than catching an apple.” Well, yes it is fundamentally different—due to what is known as the problem of interaction. How does an entity that is defined as not physical, not natural, interact with the natural, or physical? In order for something supernatural to interact with the natural, one of two things would need to happen. Either it would need to inject new energy into the system, which would violate the law of conservation of energy; or it would have to rearrange the energy already in the system, which would violate the law of conservation of momentum.
And indeed “violate” is the right word here, not “intervene.” When natural agents “intervene,” such as by catching an apple, they apply counterforces that never violate any physical laws. When I catch an apple, the force of gravity is unchanged, which is why I feel the weight of the apple in my hand. If God stopped the Earth from spinning, the momentum would have to be nullified, or else everybody on Earth would fly off. Then, when the Earth started spinning again, the momentum would have to be restored. Catching an apple doesn’t contravene either the law of conservation of energy or the law of conservation of momentum. Stopping the Earth from spinning and then kick-starting it again, with no ill effects, does. Craig is the one who is in the wrong when he criticizes Hume for talking of miracles “violating” natural laws. They do.
To clarify, some skeptics argue that the interaction problem makes miracles impossible by definition. I do not argue that. I don’t know how I could know if it is possible for something to violate natural laws. But if miracles do happen, they are not akin to you or I catching an apple, and do require a lot more evidence and explanation.
Strobel and Craig then turn to the idea of “extraordinary evidence.” Strobel points out the objection “that the Resurrection is an extraordinary event and therefore it requires extraordinary evidence.” Incredibly, Craig actually denies that this is true! He says:
This standard would prevent you from believing in all sorts of events that we do rationally embrace. For example, you would not believe the report on the evening news that the numbers chosen in last night’s lottery were 4, 2, 9, 7, 8 and 3, because that would be an event of extraordinary improbability. The odds against that are millions and millions to one, and therefore you should not believe it when the news reports it (p. 65).
Here, Craig seems to be equating an “extraordinary event” with simply a low-probability event. Who would use that as the definition of an extraordinary event? It is plainly obvious that random events, while individually low-probability events, are commonplace. To estimate where any specific raindrop might land would result in low probabilities for any specific location that one might choose. Yet nobody would claim that a specific drop of rain landing on his/her nose is an “extraordinary event.”
Thus, Craig’s lottery example is more accurately described as follows: “The news reported that a random set of numbers were picked in the lottery.” Given that this is exactly what we expected, it is hardly extraordinary. Dr. Craig, who likes to portray himself as a great philosopher, is engaging in cheap sophistry.
Craig is simply trying to dodge a well-accepted concept, the concept of “initial probability.” The amount of evidence that one would need to reasonably believe a proposition is inversely proportional to its probability given our overall background knowledge. Our background knowledge of lotteries tells us that random numbers are drawn regularly. Thus, once again, this is not an extraordinary event. On the other hand, our background knowledge of resurrections is that they are impossible, or at least extremely rare. Thus, based on the concept of initial probability, we should readily accept news reports of random lottery drawings, and require quite extensive evidence to support a resurrection. This is patently obvious.
Using Craig’s logic, if I were to say either that “I walked to the store” or “I flapped my arms and flew to the store,” it would be unreasonable to demand more evidence for the latter than for the former! Frankly, I’d expect a little better understanding of logic from somebody with Craig’s credentials. It appears that the discussion of “extraordinary events” and “extraordinary evidence” is placed here so that the rest of the chapter can appeal to merely “ordinary” evidence. And while Strobel apparently argues that he doesn’t need strong evidence because he doesn’t want to have to provide it, I doubt he would accept merely ordinary evidence for the miraculous claims of any other religion.
Obviously, when one is claiming that an event is extraordinary, it has to be both of low probability and nonrandom. And of course there are different degrees of extraordinary, depending on exactly how low probability we consider an event to be. Considering that we live in a world of billions of people, “one-in-a-million” events are literally going to happen every day. Thus, the lottery example, even if examined purely from the probability of one specific set of numbers, isn’t really all that extraordinary, relatively speaking. What if we are looking at a possible event that we deem to be more like a one-in-a-billion event? Or a one-in-a-trillion event? The less likely we consider the event, generally, the more evidence any reasonable person would require of it.
But even we if deem some alleged event to be a one-in-a-trillion event, if we consider the event to be physically possible, we will probably accept that the event happened if we are provided with a good amount of evidence. But what about when we consider the event physically impossible? Rising from the dead is, to the best of our knowledge, physically impossible. That is why the Resurrection, if it actually happened, would be a miracle. But notice that Dr. Craig’s lottery analogy is purely naturalistic; no miracle is involved. A more applicable analogy is needed. Why didn’t Craig just use some well-known miracle that everybody has experience with, where everybody knows how it works? Because there are no such examples! That’s not to say that there are no miracles; I don’t think anyone can say whether miracles do or do not exist. But there are no “benchmark” miracles that everyone can point to. I will explore this in more detail in the following sections. But, for the moment, I am pointing out that whenever someone tries to defend the possibility of miracles, they always fall back on to naturalistic examples. On one hand, they have to; for, as I said, we don’t have any supernatural “benchmarks.” But on the other hand, to fall back on naturalistic examples is always inherently deceptive. Resurrections and lotteries simply cannot be compared in any reasonable sense. Craig’s lottery analogy is deceptive, amateurish sophistry.
So, let us turn our attention more directly to the supernatural nature of the resurrection hypothesis. Here is more from Dr. Craig:
I would agree with Hume that a natural resurrection of Jesus from the dead, without any sort of divine intervention, is enormously improbable. But that’s not the hypothesis. The hypothesis is that God raised Jesus from the dead. That doesn’t say anything against the laws of nature which say dead men don’t come back to life naturally (p. 65).
Craig is arguing that one cannot apply the fact that a natural resurrection is enormously improbable towards a claim of supernatural resurrection. In other words, simply saying “it was a miracle” automatically exempts a proposition from the requirement for strong evidence. Would he accept that I flapped my arms and flew to the store if I said that it was a miracle? If Craig’s argument were sound, then every single supernatural claim of every religion would have to be accepted prima facie. No doubt he would dispute this implication, but that is what his view entails. He argued that if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the rules against a natural resurrection don’t apply. But if that’s so, it can’t be true only for the miracles that he wants to support. If saying “God did it” changes the rules for an alleged resurrection, then saying “God did it” changes the rules anytime anybody says it.
Strobel’s next topic is whether believing in miracles is reasonable. Craig responds, “If there is a Creator who designed and brought the universe into being … then certainly it’s rational to believe that the miraculous is possible” (p. 66). And I can agree with this—if God did create natural law, He could violate it or intervene in it. However, Craig adds that many scientists dismiss supernatural explanations when an honest investigator should consider all options, including supernatural explanations, in the “pool of live options” available to explain an event. He says that if investigators only consider natural explanations, but there is no natural explanation for an event, “they’re simply left with ignorance” (p. 67).
But if you allow supernatural explanations into the pool of options, how do you determine whether or not a supernatural event occurred? Craig offers his ideas on this. First, he says, “You would have to investigate to see if something cannot be accounted for in terms of the natural forces that were operable at that time and place” (p. 67). The problem here is, how can you know this for sure? How can you know that you have, in fact, accounted for all the natural forces that were operable at the time of a purported miracle? For example, if something appears to be levitating and defying the laws of gravity, and you cannot find any natural force to account for it, how do you know that you haven’t missed something? How do you know that your pool of options isn’t simply missing the right explanation? Perhaps the supernatural explanation seems to be the best one only because you haven’t yet found the right naturalistic one.
Consider: Some of our ancestors thought that lightning was the wrath of God. Because they had not yet discovered the natural force of electricity, their pool of options was missing the right explanation. So, they “penciled in” God as the answer. This is known as a “God-of-the-gaps” explanation. Basically, Craig is arguing that appealing to a “God of the gaps” is a valid way to find miracles. But history has shown that this isn’t very effective, as in the case of explaining why lightning occurs. Suppose that lightning actually were the wrath of God. What could a scientist do? All that he could do is search in vain for a natural explanation for lightning, failing to find one time and again. But if scientists had just said “God did it” every time something appeared to defy natural explanation, little would have ever been discovered or invented.
In Strobel’s introduction to this chapter, he says that in his years as an investigative reporter, he never saw a defendant try to claim that the evidence against him was placed by supernatural means. I suspect that this type of defense has indeed been attempted. So, let’s say someone is accused of murder, and the defendant claims that he was framed by Satan. Satan put the defendant’s fingerprints on the gun, and forged all of the other incriminating evidence. Should we consider this to be a member of the “pool of live options”? If not, why not? According to Christian thought, Satan is the second most powerful being in the universe. Certainly Satan is capable of committing this crime, is he not? How can we prove that the defendant is not telling the truth?
I suspect that Craig would agree that, in principle, the supernatural explanation would indeed be in the pool of options, but that it should be rejected because it doesn’t seem to be the best answer in the pool. But this implies that supernatural agents would avoid producing supernatural events if, in so doing, the event would seem to be better explained by natural causes. If Satan was indeed going to frame somebody for murder, wouldn’t he do it in such a way as to make it look like no supernatural event took place? The only means we have to discern which option best explains an event are naturalistic—our senses. The very nature of supernatural events, if they happen, means that we cannot trust our senses. The entire concept of discerning which explanation in a pool of possibilities best fits the evidence only makes sense if there are no supernatural possibilities in that pool!
This is a case of Craig wanting to have his proverbial cake and eat it too. You can’t both allow supernatural causes into the pool of options, and expect to use naturalistic means (which is all that we have) to discern which is the best answer in the pool! As I said, if Satan could commit the crime, then he could cover it up. No matter how compelling a naturalistic explanation for an event is, it is completely useless in disqualifying a supernatural explanation. Once supernatural explanations are allowed into the pool of live options, they can never be eliminated, even if natural explanations seem more likely.
Craig offers one more tool to help verify a supernatural event, “you’d look for a religio-historical context”—some religious significance to the purported miracle—as this would lend credence to it being a genuine miracle (p. 67). Really? How does he know? What statistics correlate the religious significance of a purported miracle with its independent validation? One would need some kind of independent validation in order to confirm or falsify his claim that religious significance improves the likelihood of a miracle being genuine. Without such, his claim is just an assertion.
I can think of several more problems with Craig’s assertion:
- How would one even judge the “religio-historical context”? For example, in my “Satan framed me” scenario, the defendant could claim some destiny, appointed by God, that Satan wanted to prevent. Couldn’t one find a possible religious significance for every purported miracle? Using a “religio-historical” context to judge the likelihood of a genuine supernatural event appears to be circular. How do you know that a supernatural event happened? Because the event had a “religio-historical” context. How do you know it had a “religio-historical” context? Because a miracle happened! Consider: If Jesus was a magician rather than a miracle-worker, then the apparent “religio-historical” context of his life is fraudulent. On the other hand, if he was a miracle-worker, then his life really does have a “religio-historical” context. So there is either both a miracle and a “religio-historical” context, or neither. Isn’t using one to validate the other circular?
- Are purported miracles with religious significance within non-Christian traditions also likely to be genuine miracles? Somehow, I doubt that Craig would agree to this.
- Finally, do Satanic or other alleged supernatural agents only participate in supernatural events if there is a “religio-historical” context? And if so, why?
Craig’s assertion that religious significance lends credence to the validity of miracles is completely unfounded. In fact, if anything, if someone alleges that a miracle must be true because it validates their religious beliefs, one should be even more skeptical of the event, not less so. I suspect that if most people, Christians included, found themselves in a courtroom where the defendant used a “Satan did it” line of defense, they would scoff at the idea. Likewise, they would scoff if a coworker reported: “Man, I was really sick yesterday. So I went to an exorcist to get the flu demon exorcised from my body. I’m much better now.” Yet many of the very same people insist that Jesus did, in fact, cure people by exorcising demons, as reported in the Bible. In other words, most people would scoff at the very things that they insist happened 2000 or so years ago.
Craig clearly attempts to show that belief in miracles is rational so that he can then argue that believing in Jesus’ miracles is rational. But Craig’s possible methodologies for verifying supernatural events are too problematic to be workable. Nevertheless, this doesn’t imply that supernatural events do not occur. I accept at least the possibility of the existence of the supernatural. With this point in mind, let’s turn to Craig’s discussion of Jesus’ miracles.
Unsurprisingly, Craig argues that Jesus’ purported miracles were indeed genuine, saying: “If you believe God exists, then there is no good reason to be skeptical about these events” (p. 69). Presumably Jews and other non-Christian theists would beg to differ, and in any case the validity of such events warrants investigation regardless of whether or not you already believe in God.
So is there convincing evidence for the skeptic that Jesus is God? Craig says:
Regarding the central miracle of the New Testament—the Resurrection—there is a very good case for concluding with confidence that, yes, this is really an event of history. You see, the evidence for the Resurrection is much, much stronger than the evidence, say, that Jesus did a miracle by healing the blind man in John 9. You have a wealth of data concerning the empty tomb, the Resurrection appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in the Resurrection (p. 69).
There is more evidence for the Resurrection than there is for the healing of the blind man? A more detailed biblical account of the Resurrection constitutes “much, much stronger” evidence for that event? Nonsense. There is one source of evidence for both events—the Bible. One sentence or a thousand pages is still the same amount of evidence! For example, the Koran has thousands of pages. Does that mean that the evidence for Mohammed’s claims are “much, much stronger” than they would be if the Koran was a short booklet?
In response to this objection, Craig claims that the Gospels represent four independent accounts, and Paul’s epistles make for yet another account. Though it is highly doubtful that the Gospels actually are four independent accounts, I will grant for the sake of argument that we have a total of five independent accounts. Then we merely have five believers testifying to the truth of their religion. I doubt that Craig or Strobel would find the testimony of five followers of non-Christian religions very compelling; yet we’re expected to regard the over two-thousand-year-old testimony of five followers of Christianity as a great amount of evidence that Christianity is true?
Next, Strobel and Craig turn to the existence of God, having concluded that for miracles to be considered a reasonable possibility, God must exist. They offer several reasons to believe that God exists.
Reason #1: God Makes Sense of the Universe’s Origin
Craig gives an abbreviated rendition of his kalam cosmological argument. The origin of the universe is indeed a great mystery, and it can seem unbelievable that such a wonder could just “happen” for no good reason. But, as near as I’ve been able to discern, using God to explain the universe is merely answering a mystery with a mystery—explaining one imponderable with another. I discuss this in more detail in my paper on Strobel’s later book, The Case for a Creator. (See also the Secular Web’s Theistic Cosmological Arguments page.)
Reason #2: God Makes Sense of the Universe’s Complexity
Next, Craig offers a fine-tuning argument from design, and my short answer to that is analogous to my previous one: the universe’s complexity is imponderable, but then so is God. (See also the fine-tuning section of the Secular Web’s Argument from Design page.) Now for the longer answer.
No one disputes that even slight changes in the physical laws and constants of our universe would indeed make life exactly as we know it impossible. But this tells us nothing about the possibility that different laws or constants might produce unfamiliar life-forms. That said, I’m reasonably convinced that if we could run experiments, picking random laws and constants and generating universes based on them, probably very few universes would generate life. I cannot prove this, but it seems likely. To this extent I tend to agree with Craig. But no matter how improbable our universe is, it appears no more probable that a Creator capable of creating such a universe exists and decided to create ours.
Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine that you do not know that the proverbial “life, universe and everything” exists at all. Then define some characteristics that happen to be consistent with our universe: current laws of physics; countless galaxies, each with billions of stars; and at least one planet with many forms of life, including one self-aware animal known as man. Calculate the following probabilities:
- The defined universe comes into existence via purely natural means, and evolutionary processes eventually lead to the origin of the animal known as man.
- A God powerful enough to create the defined universe and all life forms (including man) exists, and decides to create this universe.
In neither case can you really find a formula to calculate the probability. Moreover, if such formulas did exist, either case would surely be rendered extremely improbable. A very small probability for option 1 would not increase the probability of option 2, and vice versa. Indeed, if God’s motives and dispositions are as inscrutable as many theists would have us believe, how could we possibly have any idea whatsoever how likely option 2 would be?
Option 1 has many subcomponents, some of which may be calculable to some degree (though the mathematical validity of most attempts to do so is highly suspect). By contrast, option 2 has no subcomponents whose probability could be calculated. This creates the illusion that option 1 is astronomically improbable whereas option 2 is not. But, in fact, there is no method for determining the probability of option 2 at all.
Moreover, the mere fact that option 1 has many subparts may lead one to believe that it is less likely. One might think that option 2 appears to have a low probability, but it only involves one improbable thing–God. Option 1, by contrast, might appear to involve one improbable thing after another in order to bring about the existence of human beings. But the apparent simplicity of God is also an illusion; if God really exists and created the universe, he must be a very complex being.
Though we can’t measure or quantify what forces God might have employed to create the universe, what if we could? Consider the following. Apologist Dr. Hugh Ross believes that the discovery of ten or more dimensions, as predicted by string theory, would be an important discovery about the nature of God. God, he claims, operates “extra-dimensionally.” But what is the probability that there is a being capable of operating “extra-dimensionally”? And suppose that science could tell us more about the nature of God? Wouldn’t option 2 also take on the appearance of “one improbable thing after another”? Giving God “carte blanche” to be or do anything creates the illusion that option 2 is a far simpler explanation than option 1. But it really is not.
I’ve coined a phrase to describe the “fine-tuning” argument. I call it the “astonishment index.” People find the universe, well, astonishing—and rightly so. It is quite amazing that it exists. And the “fine-tuning” argument seems to argue that the more astonishing the universe is, the more unlikely it is to exist without a creator. Thus, Collins seems to be saying that the probability of the universe existing without cause is inversely proportional to the astonishment index. But no matter how high the universe ranks on the astonishment index, God must rank even higher. So the probability that God has no creator must be even lower than the probability that there is no creator of the universe!
Let me give one example offered by Craig: “Dr. Stephen Hawking has calculated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed into a fireball” (p. 77). No doubt this ranks pretty high on the astonishment index; I can see how someone might conclude that the fact that we exist at all points to an intelligent designer. Yet when one contemplates how much power and intelligence would be required to design or control the universe with such precision, it seems that an intelligent designer must rank even higher on the astonishment index. Again, no matter how high the universe ranks on the astonishment index, God must rank even higher. Thus, if the probability of the universe’s existence is exceedingly low given the astonishment index, then the probability of God’s existence would seem to be even lower.
Here Craig takes an “Old Earth” perspective, a point that I will return to in Objection 3. But for the moment, note that someone using the fine-tuning argument (or anthropic principle) as evidence for God must admit that the universe is billions of years old, which is consistent with science, but—at least according to many Christians—contrary to the Bible.
There is one last point I’d like to make here. Craig correctly classifies multiple-universe theories as unfalsifiable, as there is no way for us to know if there are other universes, at least at our current level of scientific knowledge. But introducing God to explain the mystery of the universe is no less unfalsifiable!
The universe is indeed a puzzle. But no matter how finely tuned our universe seems to be, there is no way to determine that a God powerful enough to create such a universe is more likely than pure chance.
Reason #3: God Makes Sense of Objective Moral Values
The issue of objective moral values comes up in Objection 7; I will not cover it here.
Reason #4: God Makes Sense of the Resurrection
Craig quickly reviews some of the common claims regarding alleged historical evidence for the Resurrection. This is a topic which Strobel discusses in far more detail in his companion pieces, The Case for Christ and The Case for the Real Jesus. As such, I will refer the reader to other sources rebutting Strobel’s historical arguments. The Secular Web has a short critique of Strobel’s The Case for Christ by Jeffery Jay Lowder. Earl Doherty has an entire book critiquing Strobel’s The Case for Christ titled Challenging the Verdict. Excerpts from Doherty’s book are available on his site, The Jesus Puzzle.
Reason #5: God Can Immediately Be Experienced
It’s not my place to dismiss the religious experiences of Strobel, Craig, or any other Christian. Lacking their first-hand experiences, it would be presumptuous for me to say anything about what they have experienced. I can only speak for myself, and I seem incapable of “experiencing” God. Many Christians thoughtlessly blame me for this, claiming that I haven’t had enough faith, didn’t try hard enough, or wouldn’t have accepted such experiences even if I had had them. All of these accusations are wide of the mark; they haven’t walked in my shoes. They don’t know how many times I’ve prayed and asked Jesus into my life. Since I don’t go around challenging the validity of Christians’ religious experiences, I would appreciate it if Christians would refrain from passing judgment on my lack thereof.
Strobel and Craig’s evidence for miracles is inadequate. As Craig himself concedes early on in the interview, if miracles occur at all, they lie outside of the domain of science. Thus his attempt to inject miracles into the pool of options for the scientifically minded investigator fail.
Objection 3: Evolution Explains Life, So God Isn’t Needed
(Interview with Dr. Walter Bradley, Ph.D.)
I had to fight my temptation to skip critiquing the chapter on evolution and simply refer the reader to other sources. So many authors have written so much about evolution and “intelligent design” that I fear that anything which I could say would be redundant. But because the evolution-creation “debate” invariably comes up in my discussions with Christians, I will at least offer brief comments on this chapter before referring the reader to other sources for more information.
This chapter conflates the origin of life (abiogenesis) with evolution (the modification of existing life-forms over time). Strobel offers some general criticisms of evolutionary theory in the introductory section of this chapter, but covers these in more detail in his later work, The Case for a Creator. I critique that book in “Another Case Not Made” on the Secular Web, but other good online sources include the Secular Web’s Creationism page and the Talk.Origins archive.
After criticizing evolution, Strobel notes that regardless of whether evolution has occurred since life originated, we still have to explain the origin of life itself (p. 92). Of course, no one denies this; that’s why abiogenesis is a separate topic from evolution. In the interview that follows, Walter Bradley contends that the origin of life cannot be explained naturalistically, and thus life must have had a supernatural origin.
Since the Bradley interview is primarily about abiogenesis, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that evolution is true. Let us further grant that everything which Bradley has to say about abiogenesis here is true, and that scientists are utterly clueless about the origin of life. Nothing which Bradley says makes a good case for a divine origin. For one, as noted in Objection 2, lack of a good explanation is not sufficient cause to invoke the miraculous. If we viewed everything that ever defied explanation as miraculous, the true natural causes of phenomena would never have been discovered.
In the absence of a successful naturalistic explanation, Bradley argues that more faith is required to assume that life had a natural, rather than supernatural, origin. And that atheism requires more faith than belief in God is a popular line recited by apologists. But if evolution provides a naturalistic explanation for all life since the first living things emerged on Earth, does it really require a great leap of faith to believe that the first life-forms also had a naturalistic origin? I suppose that Strobel and Bradley would disagree. But it doesn’t look like a giant leap of faith to me.
Because I know very little about this science, I must leave Bradley’s specific arguments against various theories of abiogenesis to others. But I have to wonder whether a layman reading a chapter in a book by Lee Strobel is ready to competently evaluate research on a topic as complex as abiogenesis. After a few pages of argument by one person (credentialed or not), it is simply disingenuous to lead the reader to believe that he or she now knows everything that needs to be known about abiogenesis. If the study of abiogenesis is as bankrupt as Bradley would have us believe, wouldn’t scientists have given up on it? As it so happens, the science of abiogenesis is far more fruitful and complex than Bradley makes it out to be. See Richard Carrier’s “Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?” on the Secular Web.
Though I’m no expert on either evolution or abiogenesis, I find intelligent design creationism unconvincing for one simple reason: it doesn’t provide consistent, compelling answers to the questions it seeks to answer. To explain why, I need to distinguish between young-Earth creationism (YEC) and old-Earth creationism (OEC).
YEC asserts that the creation account in Genesis is literally true: God created the universe in six twenty-four-hour days roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. YEC adherents produce various arguments against evidence that appears to show that the universe is billions of years old, and generally reject the validity of vast amounts of scientific research.
OEC, on the other hand, acknowledges the validity of scientific evidence for an ancient universe. OEC adherents accept the Genesis account, but interpret portions of it more figuratively. For example, they argue that the “six days” of Genesis are not literally twenty-four-hour days.
I noticed that Strobel did not take an explicit stance on the age of the Earth. Does he—or do his experts—believe in an old Earth, or a young one? I can’t help but think that Strobel’s failure to take a stand was intentional. I’ve found that a lot of Christian authors seem to avoid the question, perhaps to avoid alienating one camp or the other.
Though Strobel doesn’t explicitly take a stand on the issue, the discussions in this chapter clearly imply an old Earth. In fact, Bradley makes use of Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” of years. Perhaps Strobel would reply that it was so obvious that he was taking an old-Earth position that he didn’t feel the need to specifically state it. But in Objection 4 Strobel accepts an argument that is young Earth in nature. He appears to accept young- and old-Earth arguments arbitrarily, using whichever suits his purpose at the time.
In my view, the adherents of OEC and YEC fairly effectively disprove each other. The OEC adherents’ arguments for rejecting YEC are generally sound. The scientific evidence for an ancient universe is very compelling, and OEC adherents have good science behind them on this issue. On the other hand, YEC arguments do, in my view, make a good case that the Bible teaches that the Earth is young. Moreover, as YEC adherents point out, a universe that is billions of years old makes little sense if God’s primary plan was to create a home for man. Therefore, by combining the reasonable arguments of both young- and old-Earth creationists, I conclude that:
- The universe is old.
- The Bible has a young-Earth orientation.
- Both YEC and OEC must be incorrect.
(These issues are discussed in more detail in my The Case for a Creator critique.)
Objection 4: God Isn’t Worthy if He Kills Innocent Children
(Interview with Dr. Norman L. Geisler, Ph.D.)
I enjoyed Strobel’s introduction to this chapter. Strobel notes well that Christians seem to “focus relentlessly on certain appealing aspects of God’s character—his love, his grace, his forgiveness, his compassion, his mercy—but underplay or ignore the biblical passages that seem to reveal more troubling aspects of his character” (p. 114). I couldn’t have said it better myself. Consequently, I was particularly interested in how Strobel and Norman Geisler would tackle this difficult topic.
Strobel begins with a quote from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason: “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the work of a demon, than the word of God.” Geisler responds: “Too bad [Paine] didn’t have a Bible…. Paine is just factually wrong. The Bible doesn’t have any cruel and tortuous executions that God commanded” (p. 116). I find myself wondering if Geisler has a Bible. Several times, Geisler criticizes the King James version (KJV) of the Bible, preferring the New International Version (NIV). Therefore, I will cite the NIV for a few examples of “cruel and tortuous executions” commanded by God:
For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses. [Joshua 11:20 NIV]
As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. [Deuteronomy 20:14-18 NIV]
Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. [Numbers 31:14-18 NIV]
In the Joshua account, God Himself forces the Israeli enemies to wage war, so as to give Himself an excuse to “exterminate them without mercy.” In Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelites to take women and children as “plunder” to be “used.” What exactly does it mean for people to be termed “plunder” and for them to be “used”? Clearly, this at least refers to slavery. And implicitly, God approves of rape as well—of women and children! In Numbers, Moses orders the killing of the boys and nonvirginal women, but tells his soldiers to keep the virgins for themselves. Again, the Bible implicitly approves of rape. (And how were the men supposed to determine who were virgins anyway?) So when Geisler says that Paine is “factually wrong” about the Bible recounting God ordering cruel executions, how am I supposed to take anything else that he says seriously?
Geisler tries to sweep all of this under the rug, arguing that a biblical account of some event doesn’t imply that God condones that event. But this is completely disingenuous, as atrocities are often specifically ordered and condoned by God; I only included a couple of examples above. Frankly, attempting to sweep this under the rug should embarrass Geisler.
The Deuteronomy account reveals something else: God says that He orders killings because He is afraid that the Israelites will learn their enemies’ evil ways. Whatever happened to free will? I thought that God’s people were expected—no, required—to resist the influence of evil. Here God doesn’t trust His people to resist evil, and finds that a good reason to exterminate other people!
Strobel questions Geisler about how a “merciful” God could order the genocide of the Canaanites, and “put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (p. 119). Geisler responds that the mission of the Canaanites was the genocide of the Jews, and that “the destruction of their nation was necessitated by the gravity of their sin.” He argues that the Canaanites were simply beyond salvation. This seems to contradict what I understand to be two fundamental tenants of Christianity—that everyone is loved by God, even if He hates their sin, and that everyone has the potential to see their sins, repent, and be saved. I don’t see how Geisler’s view can be reconciled with the Christian view.
I’m also left wondering how evil the Canaanites could have really been. Geisler says that they “were a persistent and vicious and warring people. To show how reprehensible they were, they had been following the Israelites and had been cowardly slaughtering the most vulnerable among them—the weak, elderly, and disabled who were lagging behind” (p. 119). The Canaanites may very well have been “vicious and warring”; but the Israelites hardly seem any better. And it makes little sense for God, offended by the Canaanite execution of their own weak, elderly, and disabled people, to order the Israelites to kill all of the Canaanites—including the weak, elderly, and disabled among them. And let’s not forget the women and children. And even the animals. We are fortunate that Geisler has so “effectively” demonstrated the moral superiority of the Israelites and their God over those reprehensible Canaanites. Obviously, if genocide is morally wrong, then it is as wrong for the Israelites as it is for anybody else.
I also find myself wondering—regardless of how bad the Canaanites were—what their “cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” could have done to warrant their slaughter. And why is a miracle-working, Almighty God unable to find a better solution than slaughter? Suppose that children happen to live with parents who are drug-dealing terrorists. After punishing the parents, is it morally acceptable to intentionally kill their children as well (and, while we’re at it, their animals, too)? Wouldn’t it be better to find them homes? If so, why doesn’t God order the Israelites to adopt the Canaanite children? For an Almighty God, Yahweh certainly seems rather limited in His ability to come up with solutions other than “kill them all.”
Moreover, while waging a genocidal war some of God’s precious Israelites were surely killed in battle. Couldn’t God have eliminated the Canaanites without risking the lives of Israelites, without all the warring and bloodshed? A one-way force-field could keep the idolaters out without impeding God’s chosen people, for instance, protecting the Holy Land without killing anyone. That seems like a better solution to me. And if God wanted the Canaanites dead, why didn’t he just strike them dead Himself? Again, it seems like God Almighty had plenty of other, better options.
Also note that Geisler’s argument appears inconsistent with Kreeft’s earlier arguments. In Objection 1, Kreeft argued that God uses apparent injustice to realize some eventual greater good. But if so, why did he command the needless slaughter of the Canaanites, no matter how evil they might have been? As usual, Strobel is silent about the apparent inconsistencies between his interviewees’ positions.
Geisler gives the reader yet another excuse: “Under the rules of conduct God had given the Israelites, whenever they went into an enemy city they were to make the people an offer of peace” (p. 122). Well, let’s look at that offer of “peace,” from Geisler’s favored NIV:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. [Deuteronomy 20:10-13 NIV]
My, what a generous peace offer: “Be our slaves or die.” God actually orders slavery! It’s little wonder that Geisler omits this part of God’s “rules of conduct.” Though Geisler repeatedly claims that God is always ready to spare the just, as when He spared Lot, no such condition is given in the Deuteronomy passage above. Rather, God simply tells the Israelites that if this “peace” offer is rejected, kill everybody.
On the slaughter of innocent women and children, Geisler adds: “Consider this: most of the women and children would have fled in advance before the actual fighting began” (p. 122). So “tough luck” for the remainder who didn’t abandon their homes and run for their lives–including those forced to stay behind because of poor health or disability? Besides, these passages don’t seem to indicate a shortage of women and children. In fact, in Numbers Moses was enraged that his men didn’t kill the women and children and orders them to go back and finish the job! It’s fortunate that Geisler has clarified God’s mercy here…
Strobel and Geisler intermix a few other topics within their discussion of the Canaanites. For the remainder of this section, I will discuss each of them separately.
Geisler says: “Nobody is truly innocent. The Bible says in Psalm 51 that we’re all born in sin; that is, with the propensity to rebel and commit wrongdoing” (p. 119). What does it mean for us to be born with a “propensity” to sin? It seems to mean that everyone is born defective! Whose fault is that? If one car brand has a “propensity” to require frequent repairs, then the engineers who designed it, or the production facility that builds it, have produced a shoddy vehicle model. (Of course, cars aren’t said to have free will; but if the doctrine of original sin is true—if we are “born sinners”—then human beings are not free to refrain from sinning. So for cars and people the relevant features are analogous.) Though a customer might “blame” a car for being lousy, he should understand that its propensity for requiring repairs is not the car’s fault, but that of its engineers or manufacturers. How can being born with a “propensity” to sin—or worse, a guarantee to sin, as all men are sinners—be my fault? Perhaps it is Adam and Eve’s fault—but even so, it hardly seems fair to blame me for their mistake. Indeed, why should God design human beings to inherit original sin in the first place? In His limitless power and infinite wisdom, He could have designed them otherwise, could He not? But, so the story goes, He did not, and yet blames human beings for being sinners. Blame the victim! None of this makes any sense.
The Age of Accountability Doctrine
While discussing the acceptability of slaughtering innocent children, Strobel openly wonders how such children could deserve to die. Geisler explains that executing a child is actually an act of mercy, as Isaiah 7:16 reveals that a child who dies before the “age of accountability” goes straight to Heaven (p. 120). The “age of accountability” doctrine raises several questions. First, when exactly does one reach the age of accountability? I’ve never heard a very satisfactory answer to this. Most of the Christians I’ve encountered respond that it differs for each individual and that God knows when you are old enough to be judged. Suppose that that’s true. Nevertheless, one can ask: Has the average 18-year-old passed the age of accountability? When I was in high school, I knew many people with strong religious convictions. I knew some committed Christians and some unrepentant atheists. So I think that most Christians would agree that the average 18-year-old has passed the age of accountability. If you are over 30 years old, though, think back to when you were 18. Do you recall doing things then which you now realize were just boneheaded? Were you really mature enough then to make decisions with eternal consequences? Indeed, is anyone ever that mature in this lifetime? Isn’t maturation a gradual, lifelong process? Isn’t the concept of being immature until one day, when—all of the sudden—you become all grown up and ready to decide your eternal fate, a bit anachronistic?
And if there’s any circumstance in which killing a child would be better than letting that child live, what does that say about the value of life on Earth? Christians frequently claim that atheism degrades the value of human life. But isn’t that precisely what this theology is doing? Doesn’t it imply that children—indeed, everybody—would be better off with no life on Earth, just a better life in Heaven? So isn’t it inescapable that Christianity devalues life on Earth?
I was glad to see Strobel ask Geisler a question that I’ve asked myself many times: “If ultimately it was best for those children to die before the age of accountability because they would go to Heaven, why can’t the same be said about unborn children who are aborted today?” (p. 120). Geisler’s response follows:
First, God doesn’t command anyone today to have an abortion; in fact, it’s contrary to the teachings of the bible. Remember, he’s the only one who can decide to take a life, because he’s the ultimate author of life. Second, today we don’t have a culture that’s as thoroughly corrupt as the Amalekite society. In that society, there was no hope; today, there is hope (pp. 120-121).
I do not find Geisler’s response satisfactory. Regardless of whether or not God commands abortion, according to Geisler’s stated theology, aborted children do go to Heaven. Period. How could it possibly be “bad” for an abortion doctor to send children to Heaven? Standing before God and explaining his earthly actions, an abortion doctor could say: “Everybody I aborted is in Heaven, right? And of those I aborted, if I hadn’t done so, some of them would be in Hell, right? So how, exactly, was it wrong for me to perform abortions?” How could God answer this doctor?
There is a more fundamental question which goes to the heart of the matter. Presumably, X percent of people go to Heaven, and Y percent go to Hell, where both X and Y are greater than 0 and less than 100. As long as Y is greater than 0, the moment a person reaches the age of accountability, probabilistically they have just lost Y percent chance of going to Heaven. Of what possible value is living beyond the age of accountability? Of what use is life on Earth, if it only amounts to a risk to lose salvation? Consider my own deconversion. I find it impossible to have faith in a God who chooses such a bizarre method for determining who goes to Heaven or Hell. But if it turns out that God’s rules indeed require my damnation, given my unbelief, then I would have been far better off if I had died before I had the chance to conclude that His rules are inane.
Take another example: Andrea Yates, the Houstonian mother who drowned her five children to ensure that they would go to Heaven. Presumably, she wanted to kill them before they reached the age of accountability. I believe that she even said that she was willing to go to Hell for her actions, that it was a price she was willing to pay. I’m reminded of the (alleged) sacrifice of Jesus, who went to Hell for three days to save mankind from Hell. So I ask Christians: Did Andrea Yates send her children to Heaven? And if so, why was what she did wrong? After all, she was willing to sacrifice more than Jesus Himself, as her sacrifice is (presumably) eternal, instead of merely three days.
Several Christians have responded that abortion doctors and child killers have wronged because only God is allowed to take human life. Geisler takes a similar line:
People assume that what’s wrong for us, is wrong for God…. God is sovereign over all of life, and he has the right to take it if he wishes. In fact, we tend to forget that God takes the life of every human being. It’s called death. The only question is when, and how, which we have to leave up to him (p. 121).
But as Keith Parsons points out in “Why I Am Not a Christian,” God has no such right:
It strikes me as monstrous to suggest that God would have the right to do anything whatsoever to us. What would give him that right? Surely not his omnipotence, since might does not make right. Is it the alleged fact that God created us? Suppose I were to create a race of sentient androids, fully as capable of suffering as humans. Would I then have the right to inflict capricious cruelty upon them? If Dr. Craig insists that I would, he must be moving in a moral universe that does not intersect my own.
For example, how can we know that God did not order the September 11, 2001 hijackers to fly planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon? Before backpedaling, apologizing, and blaming the terrorists themselves, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said nearly as much when they insisted that God “allowed” the attacks in response to the moral decay of American society. Other pastors continued to maintain that was true without ever recanting. I assume (or hope) that most of the readers of this critique reject the view that God sanctioned the September 11th attacks. But why should I expect this? Because we really know that if God is good, then He could not possibly have ordered the September 11th attacks. But by the same reasoning, He could not possibly have ordered the genocide of the Canaanites, either. If we don’t concede this, how can we say that Falwell and Robertson were wrong?
The Reliability of the Bible
Geisler also offers a few reasons why he feels that the Bible is a reliable source. I will only briefly touch on these points. First, he appeals to archaeological confirmation. He says that many biblical events have been shown to be real, historical events; and if the Bible is historically reliable, we can infer that its depiction of supernatural events is reliable as well.
In brief, this is a poor argument, since real events are often a source of legends. Those living in biblical times probably knew who the kings were and where nearby cities were located. That the Bible accurately records the names of cities and kings, therefore, is hardly surprising. Consider: To someone living a few hundred years from now, a recently discovered video of the movie Titanic might look like a documentary, since many of the events depicted in the movie could conceivably be confirmed by historical records and archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, it would be an error to conclude that all of the events depicted in the movie are historical.
As noted earlier, the historical arguments are covered by Strobel in more detail in his companion works, for which I’ve already provided counter resources (see Objection 2).
Second, Geisler appeals to purported evidence of divine origin, delineating that into three subtopics, the cosmological argument earlier discussed by Craig, the purported confirmation of biblical prophecy, and evidence for miracles. The cosmological argument and miracles have already been sufficiently covered in Objection 2. As far as the prophecy claims, sufficiently refuting them is beyond the scope of this paper, so I’ll defer to the Secular Web’s prophecy page. Suffice it to say, the purported prophecies do not seem to hold up under closer examination.
Most of what Geisler says about miracles is redundant since Craig already covered that topic in Objection 2. But it is notable that Geisler concedes the circularity of concluding that the Bible is the Word of God simply because it says that it is the Word of God, but nevertheless says that biblically attested-to miracles “prove” that the Bible is the Word of God. In other words, by his own definition of a circular argument, that is indeed what he offers!
Geisler approaches errancy by assuming that any explanation which might explain an apparent contradiction in the Bible, no matter how contorted, dissolves that contradiction. The problem with this is that one can always come up with some explanation to dissolve any apparent contradiction. An adequate consideration of errancy, therefore, must do more than show that it is possible that an apparent contradiction isn’t really a genuine one. It must show why an explanation dissolving an apparent contradiction is a better explanation than taking that apparent contradiction to be genuine. Consider the apparent contradiction as to whether there was one angel or two at Jesus’ tomb. Geisler says that if two angels were present, then it’s true that one angel was present. That’s technically correct: it’s possible that two angels were really present, but Matthew only mentioned one. But until Geisler demonstrates that it would be likely for Matthew to report only one when two were present, his explanation isn’t better than simply conceding a contradiction between Matthew’s report of one angel and John’s report of two. Because such issues are covered in more depth elsewhere, I recommend consulting the Secular Web’s Biblical Errancy page, and particularly reading Paul Tobin’s short essay “On Probability and Possibility” on the likelihood that the Bible contains genuine contradictions.
The Pain of Animals
Earlier in the chapter, Strobel asked Geisler about the existence of carnivorous animals, quoting Charles Templeton’s Farewell to God:
The grim and inescapable reality is that all life is predicated on death. Every carnivorous creature must kill and devour other creatures…. How could a loving and omnipotent God create such horrors? Surely it would not be beyond the competence of an omniscient deity to create an animal world that could be sustained without suffering and death (p. 126).
Geisler concedes that God could create such a world, adding that, in fact, he originally did. He quotes Genesis 1:29-30 NIV:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Geisler continues: “God did not appoint animals to be eaten in paradise, and animals weren’t eating each other. The prophet Isaiah said someday God will ‘create new heavens and a new earth’ where ‘the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox'” (p. 126).
What happened to ruin the Garden of Eden’s vegetarian paradise? According to Geisler, Romans 8 reveals that the fall of man caused the change in Creation (p. 126). In other words, because Adam and Eve made one mistake, the entire animal kingdom has to pay the price. But why would God punish or corrupt every form of life on Earth because man erred? Now we learn that, according to Geisler’s theology, not only does man inherit Adam and Eve’s sin as some kind of karmic baggage, but so does the entire animal kingdom. The infinitely wise, all-good Creator of the universe sure holds a grudge, doesn’t He?
As noted in Objection 3, this type of theology is really only consistent with young-Earth creationism. Old-Earth creationism concedes that carnivorous animals roamed the Earth long before man ever appeared. As before, here we find an interviewee answering Strobel’s question in terms requiring YEC, while other interviewees’ responses presuppose OEC. And, as before, Strobel says nothing about the inconsistency. For someone who disdains relativism, Strobel seems a little bit too comfortable with such a “theology of the moment.”
The idea of a straw-eating lion merits a bit of exploration. What would a straw-eating lion be like? First, it would have no need for claws or fangs. Second, herbivorous animals have differently shaped teeth, different saliva pH, different digestive enzymes, different stomach or intestinal design, and so on. Third, a straw-eating lion would not need to be a fast runner, since it would not chase down prey. Such a hypothetical beast wouldn’t merely “eat straw like the ox”—it would practically be an ox!
Similarly, in a vegetarian animal kingdom, what we normally think of as prey animals in our world would not need to be built for speed to escape predators. Animals would have no need for camouflage to hide or ambush, or rapidly darting eyes to detect stealthily approaching predators. But in our omnivorous world, animals do not appear to have ever been completely herbivorous until corrupted by an angry god. Rather, the animal kingdom seems to have the diversity and features that it does precisely because of the predator-prey relationship.
Geisler happens to be touching on a subject that is important to me. Throughout the many years I struggled to figure out what I believe–including Christianity, Buddhism, and atheism–I tried to remain a Christian, but the irrationality of Christianity made it very difficult for me. But during my Christian period, I was influenced by some vegetarian speakers on animal abuse in factory farms. I didn’t know whether or not there was a God, but if there was, I concluded, He must find factory farming abhorrent. I was comforted to find some Christian and Jewish literature claiming biblical support for such a position (including some of the same scripture Geisler quotes). But I knew that most Christians and Jews believe that either God doesn’t care what we do to animals, or that He actually encourages us to use them however we see fit. This incongruence was probably one of the more prominent reasons why I stopped struggling to accept Christianity.
Nevertheless, a small but growing number of Christians and Jews see man as caretaker of Creation, not its exploiter. I would encourage Christians to read, for instance, Is God a Vegetarian? by Richard Young and Carol Adams. The authors conclude that Jesus was not a vegetarian, despite some recent attempts to reinvent him as such. But they also find vegetarianism preferable to its rejection and conclude that God would have to find factory farms contemptible. Likewise, I would encourage Jews (as well as Christians) to read Judaism and Vegetarianism by Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D.
Geisler himself seems to echo similar sentiments: “As far as animals are concerned, we have to remember that the bible clearly forbids their abuse. Christians should oppose any mistreatment of animals” (p. 126). Though I’m glad to hear that we agree on this, I’d like to see Geisler and other Christians become more vocal in opposing factory farming. For if Geisler buys meat from most popular stores and restaurants, then he is not living by his own words. And as the Bible itself says:
Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth. (Genesis 9:16)
Objection 5: It’s Offensive to Claim Jesus is the Only Way to God
(Interview with Ravi Zacharias, D.D., LL.D)
Is it unfair for Christians to claim exclusive knowledge of religious truth? According to Ravi Zacharias, since most religions claim such exclusivity, to single out Christianity and fault it for this is unfair (p. 149). And it is certainly true that Christianity is not the only religion to claim exclusive knowledge of religious truth. But Christianity does claim exclusivity (e.g., see John 3:18), raising all sorts of legitimate questions. For instance, is any religion exclusively true? These are the kinds of questions raised in chapter 5.
Strobel raises several questions that revolve around the idea that all religions are true, or at least capture part of the truth. As Strobel notes, many people assert that all religions “[t]each the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of humankind” (p. 154), and thus conclude that no one religion is the only correct one. But Zacharias responds that the tenets of the major religions are vastly different and thus cannot all be even partially correct. For example, contrary to what most people believe, some religions do not teach the “fatherhood of God.”
According to John Hick, who Strobel proceeds to quote, various religions are culturally conditioned responses to the “Real” (p. 154). Zacharias responds: “Hick’s explanation ignores the possibility that God would reveal himself, and therefore we can have knowledge of who he is…. But the Bible says God did reveal himself” (p. 155). But if God did reveal Himself, why hasn’t He revealed Himself to everybody throughout human history? Though Strobel and Zacharias try to muster up some sort of response (which I will turn to shortly), I ultimately find this question to be unanswerable. Clearly God has not revealed the Christian Gospel to everybody.
Strobel uses Gandhi a few times as an example of an apparently good man who wasn’t a Christian, asking what his fate might have been. Zacharias replies:
Abraham asked God in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah whether he was going to let the righteous die with the unrighteous, and it was wonderful how Abraham answered his own question. He said, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ This means we can be absolutely confident that whatever God does in the case of Gandhi or any other person, he will do what is right (p. 157).
Consistent with this reply, when asked specifically if Gandhi was “redeemed,” Zacharias responds that Gandhi’s fate would be up to God. I understand that Zacharias has to give deference to God to be the judge. But his response conveniently avoids answering the question, and his reluctance to “speculate” forces one to wonder if what Zacharias thinks that God did in Gandhi’s case was truly right.
In response to the common objection that many people have never even had the opportunity to hear the gospel, Zacharias says: “God knows where we will be born and raised, and he puts us in a position where we might seek him. We are clearly told that wherever we live in whatever culture, in whatever nation—he is within reach of every one of us” (p. 161). But if God is within everyone’s reach regardless of culture, then what was the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the biblical account of which evidently is not available to everyone who ever has or shall live?
Zacharias recounts the story of a Muslim woman who, without understanding why, called out to Jesus, then later converted to Christianity (p. 161). I take it that Zacharias counts this rather atypical occurrence as evidence that God transcends religious and cultural barriers. Of course, one can find similar examples preceding conversions to other religions: Cat Stevens, for instance, claims to have heard Allah before converting to Islam. Such anecdotes hardly constitute evidence of divine action. People convert from one religion to another (or to or from atheism) all of the time. Though Christians like Strobel are happy to claim conversions to their side as evidence for Christianity, they conveniently don’t consider conversions away from Christianity as evidence against it.
Moreover, this sort of argument seems to contradict Zacharias’ earlier argument against John Hick’s thesis that all religions are culturally conditioned responses to the “Real.” On the one hand, Zacharias rejects Hick’s thesis; but on the other, he accepts the related thesis that God is within everyone’s reach regardless of culture. But that doesn’t sit well with the presumed need for conversion to Christianity specifically in order to attain salvation. Zacharias appears forced to assert ultimately contradictory ideas: on the one hand, that Christianity is the only real truth, and that no other religion even comes close to being the real truth; and, on the other hand, that those raised in non-Christian cultures nevertheless have access to “the truth.” I do not see how these ideas can be reconciled. Is Christianity “true” or not? Is knowledge of “the truth” important to God, or not? Are other religions distinctly false, or not? Zacharias answers all of these questions in the affirmative, yet still believes that those who accept other religions are within the reach of God. Which is it?
Consider those who were taught, but rightly rejected, Greek mythology, concluding that Zeus and the pantheon of Greek gods did not exist. How, exactly, was God within the reach of these people?
What is the value of going to church, or of learning about Christianity? Either learning about Christianity helps one to choose the right path, or it doesn’t. If it is helpful, then those who are deprived of that learning opportunity by historical or geographical accident are grossly disadvantaged when it comes to attaining salvation. If it is not helpful, then learning about Christianity is pointless. Zacharias must choose one; but he, and Christians generally, appear to want it both ways. They want to claim that learning about Christianity helps people, while at the same time denying that not learning about it hurts them. I don’t think that they can have it both ways.
At the end of the day, all of these questions about non-Christians really boil down to one: how does one become saved? Interestingly, not even Christians can seem to come to a consensus on this; see, for example, the Secular Web article “Christian Salvation?” by B. Steven Matthies. This lack of consensus among Christians is particularly damaging to the Christian case. For it implies that God cannot effectively communicate the most important thing that a person needs to know–how to avoid Hell–to even His own followers.
But what does Zacharias think is required in order to be saved? His answer seems to be found when he says: “The worst thing to do is to say to God that you don’t need him…. So the question is, ‘Have I come to the realization that I’ve fallen short of God’s perfect standard and, therefore, apart from the grace of God, I have no possibility of being with him in heaven?'” (p. 159). As poetic and comforting as that may sound, what does it really mean? I honestly do not know. For one, if the main criterion for attaining salvation is recognizing that one falls short of the perfection of God, what is the purpose of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which the Methodist, Lutheran, and Catholic services I’ve attended underscore? If that were the main criterion, wouldn’t any monotheistic religion that teaches that man is inferior to God, at least for the purpose of attaining salvation, be essentially the same as Christianity? Yet Zacharias denies that any other religion even comes close to Christianity when it comes to capturing the truth. Though he stresses the importance of Jesus, Jesus plays no role in his explanation of what one must do in order to be saved. I find this very confusing.
Strobel’s next question is why, if Christianity is true, it hasn’t “triumphed” over other religions (p. 163). Unfortunately, Zacharias’ response is both arrogant and pretentious, boasting his religion’s superiority over all others while essentially painting the members of other religions as cowards for failing to accept Christianity. Any follower of any other religion would likely be highly offended by Zacharias’ condescending attitude.
Zacharias continues extolling how tough it is to be a Christian, and how much easier it is to follow other religions. At this point I wish I had the opportunity to ask him once more about Gandhi: “Sure, Gandhi’s fate is up to God, but if you had to bet on whether he was saved or damned, which way would you bet?” Of course, Zacharias can’t actually say that Gandhi is currently rotting in Hell (or will do so after Judgment Day). But that is a clear implication of his theology. Zacharias goes on to say that those who are truly seeking God will find him, as God will lead the way, and that Christianity is the only true religion; and he reiterates how “easy” it is, by comparison, to follow non-Christian religions. The implication, then, is that if Gandhi was “really” spiritual, and really could pass muster as a tough Christian, he would have converted to Christianity. But, aside from that non sequitur, Zacharias gives us no reason to doubt Gandhi’s apparent spirituality and strength of character. Conceivably, some morally strong, spiritual persons who genuinely want to connect with God are simply not led to Christianity. And if that’s true, then most of Zacharias’ arguments must be wrong—it’s as simple as that.
I used to attend a Lutheran church whose minister I spoke with many times. He said that in his younger days he was a fundamentalist, but now completely rejects the traditional Christian tenet that salvation depends on faith in God. In his view, that sort of theology does exactly the opposite of what it claims to do. Though many Christians claim that this doctrine takes salvation out of man’s hands and puts it into God’s hands, it actually does the opposite. It puts salvation in the hands of the individual, and in the hands of those who teach Christianity. This minister says that he would now turn away from a God that “throws away souls.” He says that he understands that, to a fundamentalist, he is the worst kind of heretic—a man of the Church teaching false doctrine. But if there is a God, I feel fairly confident that He must be more like the God that my Lutheran minister believes in than the one that Strobel and Zacharias accept.
Objection 6: A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell
(Interview with Dr. J. P. Moreland, Ph.D.)
Like many chapters, the chapter on Hell begins with promise. When Strobel introduces objections to the doctrine of hell, he is often very candid about how troublesome they are. Nevertheless, I ultimately found the chapter extraordinarily frustrating to read, as it was fraught with logical errors too numerous to completely detail.
Here J. P. Moreland asserts that Hell is not quite what some “fire and brimstone” preachers teach. He says that the use of the word fire in the Bible is figurative—there is no fire, burning, or torturing. Rather, “The punishment of hell is separation from God, bringing shame, anguish and regret…. The pain that’s suffered will be due to the sorrow from the final, ultimate, unending banishment from God, his kingdom, and the good life for which we were created in the first place” (pp. 174-75). Strobel interjects that some might see Moreland as soft-pedaling Hell. But Moreland insists that this is not so, emphasizing that “Hell is the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person” (p. 177).
How, then, does a person end up in Hell? Before answering this question, Moreland argues that it is actually compassionate of God to send people to Hell! He says:
You have to understand that people’s character is not formed by decisions all at once, but by thousands of little choices each day without even knowing about it. Each day we’re preparing ourselves for either being with God and his people and valuing the things he values, or choosing not to engage with those things…. If people do not fall passionately in love with him, then to force them to have to be around him forever—doing the kinds of things that people who love him would want to do—would be utterly uncomfortable (p. 177).
This justification for sending a person into “the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person” is wholly inadequate. First, by definition “the worst possible situation” entails that any other situation would be better. Intentionally and unnecessarily putting a person in the worst kind of harm’s way simply cannot be “merciful”; these notions are contradictory. How could it possibly be “merciful” for God to eternally foreclose the possibility that a person may change his mind? In any other human endeavor or interest, we leave this possibility open. But God does not. If you don’t want to be with God at the moment of your death, then you can never be with Him. How is this “merciful”?
Second, if it is compassionate to send people who don’t want to be around God to Hell, then why aren’t those in Hell allowed to exercise their free will and do whatever they want to do? It seems to me that a loving God would allow those who do not want to be around (or serve) Him to do something else, not force a false dilemma: “Either be in my presence and serve me, or experience eternal shame, anguish, and regret with no possibility of escape.” And if God is not actively punishing people in Hell, then how is Hell “the worst possible situation” for them? Moreland makes it sound like Hell should actually be a great place to go and “do your thing.”
Third, if those sent to Hell regret throwing away the only alternative eternal life available to them, then apparently they would like to be with God. How can someone who is sent to Hell for not wanting to be around God actually be unhappy about not being around God? This just doesn’t make any sense.
Finally, if Moreland’s justification is correct, then what is the value of evangelism? That is, if those in Hell are those who would rather be in Hell than with God in Heaven, then what is the point of evangelizing in order to “save” them? Why try to talk people who don’t want to be with God into being with God? Perhaps Moreland would answer that evangelists hope to reach people who really, deep down, would like to be with God. But that answer implies that such people might end up trapped in Hell despite really wanting to be with God. If there is no such possibility, evangelism has no point, making evangelizing books like The Case for Faith a complete waste of time. And if there is such a possibility, then Moreland’s justification cannot succeed.
The justifiability of sending people to Hell concerned Strobel so much that he offered a separate set of subobjections to the doctrine. I will now cover each of these in turn.
Subobjection 1: How Can God Send Children to Hell?
Moreland simply denies that God sends children to Hell. Since he does not specify how children are saved, I can only guess that he accepts the “age of accountability” doctrine, which I already critiqued in Objection 4. Therefore, I will move on to the next subobjection.
Subobjection 2: Why Does Everyone Suffer the Same In Hell?
According to Moreland, while there are different levels of suffering in Hell, all suffer mightily there. Since the justifiability of any amount of horrific suffering in Hell is what is problematic, however, this entire discussion seems rather pointless.
Subobjection 3: Why Are People Punished Infinitely for Finite Crimes?
Because the amount of time it takes to commit a crime is not a function of that crime’s severity, Moreland argues, the amount of punishment meted out in return for a crime is unrelated to the time it took it commit it (p. 181). And that is certainly a legitimate point. Nevertheless, the severity of a punishment should clearly be related to the severity of the crime it reprises. That punishment should be commensurate with the crime is an explicit Christian tenet (e.g., see Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-20); but an infinite punishment (such as that which we find in Hell) could not possibly be commensurate with a finite crime.
Subobjection 4: Couldn’t God Force Everyone to Go to Heaven?
Here Moreland repeats his assertion that God doesn’t want to force people to be with Him if they don’t want to. But, again, this contradicts the notion that those in Hell are unhappy about being separated from God. Like Strobel, Moreland seems a bit too content to accept a “theology of the moment” that changes with every question.
Subobjection 5: Why Doesn’t God Just Snuff People Out?
Given the apparently more humane option of annihilating the unsaved, rather than eternally tormenting them, why would God choose eternal torment? According to Moreland, God “refuses to snuff out a creature made in his own image” because such a creature has “intrinsic value” (p. 183). Instead, God punishes beings of “intrinsic value” for all eternity? He sends creatures “made in his own image” to Hell? How is that “morally superior,” as Moreland claims? What school of “morality” is this?
Given a choice between not existing at all, or existing in eternal torment, who would choose eternal torment? How can eternal torment possibly be “morally superior” to nonexistence? At the very least, wouldn’t giving the condemned a choice between eternal torment and nonexistence be “morally superior” to automatically damning them to eternal misery?
Subobjection 6: How Can Hell Exist alongside Heaven?
If Heaven is a place with “no more tears,” Strobel asks, why are there no tears for those in Hell (p. 185)? Moreland says that the people in Heaven realize that Hell is protecting their “intrinsic value.” But, regardless of the validity of any such abstract principles, it is difficult to reconcile (to say the least) experiencing eternal bliss with the full knowledge that your dearest loved ones are trapped, with absolutely no hope of escape, in “the worst possible situation that could ever happen to a person” (p. 177). Perhaps some of those in Heaven, at least, value the eternal fate of their loved ones far more than they value their intrinsic worth, or fail to see how releasing their loved ones from Hell would do anything to threaten that worth. How could God rest assured that those in Heaven would not feel the slightest bit of sadness if, despite their requests, he refused to ever release their loved ones from Hell?
Subobjection 7: Why Didn’t God Create Only Those He Knew Would Follow Him?
If God is unlimited in his goodness, power, and knowledge, why didn’t He simply refrain from creating those individuals that He knew would end up in Hell in the first place? I find Moreland’s response to this rather natural objection extremely bizarre. First, Moreland concedes that God probably could have created only those that He knew would follow Him, but only if He just wanted to create a few people—maybe “four, six or seven people,” he says (p. 186). (Interestingly, Moreland is silent about God’s inability to predict even the behavior of just two people—Adam and Eve—in the Genesis account.) Moreland elaborates, adding that “once God starts to create more people, it becomes more difficult to create the people who would choose him and not create the people who wouldn’t” (p. 186). But how can anything ever be “more difficult” for the omnipotent, omniscient Creator of the universe? Christians usually grant that, even given omnipotence, there are things that God can do (anything that is logically possible), and there are things that He cannot do (logically impossible things, like making a round square); but there is no gray area where some things are “more difficult” for God to do than others. In short, there are things God can do, there are things God cannot do, but nothing could be “more difficult” for God to do. Moreland demonstrates no logical contradiction in the notion that God could create only those who would follow Him, whatever their numbers; consequently, God either could have done this, or He isn’t omnipotent and omniscient.
And where does Moreland get his estimate of “four, six or seven people”? At eight people, does it become too complicated for an omniscient God to determine their eternal destinies ahead of time? And if the interactions of eight or more people somehow make it too complicated for an omniscient God to know whether each of them would follow Him, why didn’t God just make billions of Earth-like planets, creating only “four, six or seven” sterile people per planet? Moreland’s God has the most bizarre limitations!
Moreland uses the movie Back to the Future as an analogy: “Remember how they went back in time, changed one small detail, and then when they returned to the future the entire town was completely changed? I think there is an element of truth to that” (p. 187). On this much we agree. Though it is impossible to test, since we cannot travel backward in time, logic dictates that even the smallest change in a causal chain can result in a dramatic difference further down the line.
While considering how a small change in a person’s life could alter whether that person is saved or damned, Moreland introduces the term “alternate chains” (p. 187)—better known as “alternate timelines” among Star Trek fans—to describe the alternate possibilities following the modification of events. Moreland speculates, for example, that whether or not his father got a job in Illinois might determine whether or not he would have been lost, but also whether or not five other people would be saved:
The simple fact of the matter is that we are impacted by observing other people. Suppose, for example, that when I was a little boy God gave my parents the choice to move to Illinois as opposed to staying in Missouri. Let’s say there was a Christian neighbor who was a hypocrite, and I observed this man and chose because of his life to say ‘no’ to the gospel the rest of my life. Now suppose that people at work looked at how obnoxious I was and five people become followers of Christ. Well, if we go to Illinois, we get one person lost—me—but five people are redeemed…. Do you see? It’s a Back to the Future scenario. When God chooses to create somebody, he or she has an impact on other people’s choices and it might be that they have an impact on their decisions to trust Christ or not (p. 187).
The basic idea here, that small changes in people’s lives can eventually lead to large changes in the lives of large numbers of people, is sound. But Moreland’s application of that idea to the question of why God did not create only those who would follow Him is not sound. According to Moreland, God was balancing alternate timelines when deciding which people to create:
When God is making these judgments, his purpose is not to keep as many people out of hell as possible. His goal is to get as many people in heaven as possible. And it may be, sadly enough, that he’s going to have to allow some more people who will choose to go to hell to be created in order to get a larger number of people who will choose to go to heaven (p. 187).
This line of reasoning is problematic for quite a few reasons:
- Where does the Bible say anything even remotely like the notion that God balances alternate chains or timelines? The idea appears to be pure invention on Moreland’s part without a shred of scriptural support.
- Why is God limited by interactions between people? And even if such interactions were problematic for God for some incomprehensible reason, why didn’t God simply create a few sterile individuals per planet, or do something similar, as suggested earlier? On the face of it, an omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the universe should be capable of solving such problems.
- Moreland’s explanation that God has “difficulty” balancing alternate timelines entails (contrary to Christian theology) that God is not an omnipotent and omniscient being, for such an unlimited being should be (by definition) capable of doing anything that isn’t logically impossible. Since it is evidently not logically impossible to balance timelines such that everyone is saved and no one is lost, an omnipotent and omniscient God could have realized such a world. I find it ironic that Christians often complain that skeptics put human limitations on God when they themselves do so quite regularly.
- Moreland’s examples of alternate chains shows that some people who are lost in our timeline could have been saved in another timeline. Nevertheless, Moreland claims, our actual timeline must be the one in which the most number of people who could be saved are saved. Whatever the value of this claim, it conflicts with Moreland’s central justification for the existence of Hell. For it concedes that some people who are in Hell in our actual timeline would have been in Heaven if God had realized a different one. And that entails, as noted earlier, that some people who should end up in Heaven—and would, if they were simply given the opportunity to take the right path—will nevertheless wind up trapped in Hell forever, with no possibility of escape. Indeed, Moreland has already admitted (in the “job in Illinois” example) that he himself might be destined for Hell if God had chosen another timeline. And regardless of whether or not the timeline actualized by God really does save the maximum number of people that could be saved, Moreland’s response entails that whether or not you end up in Hell depends entirely on what timeline God chose to actualize. In other words, it is ultimately God’s fault, not yours, if you end up in Hell! For you didn’t choose the timeline in which you were created and ultimately damned; God did. (Note the relevance of what moral philosophers call “the problem of moral luck” to this point.)
- Moreland’s theology makes one’s free choices entirely irrelevant to one’s fate after death. God juggled alternative timelines in His mind and actualized the one that He wanted. Even if we have free will, we make different free choices in different timelines leading to different fates after death. God makes sure that the timeline that He wants to actualize is actualized, and we have no say in the matter.
This entire discussion raises a more fundamental issue: Why did God create this world at all? According to Moreland (and, I believe, most modern Christian apologists), God has known for all eternity who would be saved, and who would be lost. If, for example, Moreland is going to be saved, God has known this since the beginning of time. But then why arrange Moreland’s birth, death, and migration to Heaven? Why not just place him in Heaven to begin with? I anticipate that the standard Christian response would be either (1) Moreland has work to do here on Earth or (2) Moreland will need his earthly memories in Heaven. But if Moreland’s ultimate purpose on Earth is to save people for Christ, as Christianity claims, God could have simply created those very people directly in Heaven, since He already knows who they will be. Any earthly work on Moreland’s part, then, isn’t really necessary in order to fulfill God’s purposes. And if Moreland needs his earthly memories in Heaven (and God knows what these will be), God could have simply created Moreland in Heaven with divinely implanted memories already in place. The bottom line: it is extremely implausible that an omniscient and omnipotent God, who already knows everything that ever was, is, will be, or even could be, would nevertheless actually need to see us play out our parts.
But let us return to Moreland’s remaining arguments in this rather peculiar discussion. According to Moreland, lost people might incidentally influence others to choose the right path and become saved. So those who “reject” God may be instrumental in helping other people get to Heaven, and yet their only “reward” for this is eternal damnation? Is God content to simply use lost people during their earthly lives and then throw them away after death? Doesn’t this smack of sadism? Is the Christian God no better than Satan? Is God incapable of coming up with a better way to influence people to choose Christ and thereby be saved?
Interestingly, Moreland’s discussion concedes that whether or not a person accepts Christ is humanly unpredictable, as it depends upon chance environmental factors like who a person meets and talks to and one’s general life experiences. In my experience, Christians typically deny this, holding instead that the only relevant factor in a person’s decision to accept or reject Christ is one’s own free choice. I tend to agree with many of the points brought up here in connection with Moreland’s Back to the Future analogy, but I don’t think that these points justify the existence of Hell. For instance, it is plausible that a person might accept Christ based entirely on, by chance, meeting a bad non-Christian or a good Christian. But how could that—God fixing whether I do or do not meet someone who will decisively influence my choice—possibly be a rational method for determining my soul’s eternal fate?
Could Moreland’s arguments possibly be as inane as I am making them out to be? In a word, yes. But I encourage readers who suspect that I am twisting the interviewee’s words (here or elsewhere) to consult The Case for Faith itself to allay any such concerns. All that I’ve added to this discussion is that irrationally making such inescapable randomness (or timeline-fixed determinism, depending on how you look at it) the basis of a person’s salvation or damnation is not befitting an infinitely wise Creator of the universe, and thus it is dubious that such a being would ever implement such a plan.
Subobjection 8: Why Doesn’t God Give People a Second Chance?
On why God doesn’t offer second chances after death, Moreland says:
This question assumes God didn’t do everything he could do before people died, and I reject that. God does everything he can to give people a chance and there will not be a single person who will be able to say to God, ‘if you had just not allowed me to die prematurely, if you’d have given me another twelve months, I know I would have made that decision’ (p. 188).
It is stunning how blatantly this response contradicts what Moreland just said in his answer to subobjection 7, where those (including Moreland himself) who are saved and those who are not varies depending on which timeline God actualizes. How can God do everything he can possibly do in this life to save a person who ultimately winds up in Hell if, on an alternative timeline, that person would not have been damned because of alternative circumstances in this life? If different circumstances in this life could have led to a lost person’s salvation, then it is clearly false that there’s no chance that a person could die before making the right choice. Given that Moreland momentarily ago argued that God may have to let some people go to Hell in order to maximize the number of people that go to Heaven, it would at least be more consistent for him to now say that God must let some people die “prematurely” in order to maximize the total number of people saved. But that response blatantly contradicts Moreland’s assertion that “there will not be a single person who will be able to say to God, ‘if you had just not allowed me to die prematurely … I know I would have made that decision [that saved me]'” [emphasis mine].
According to Moreland’s own theology, if those who accepted Christianity today had died yesterday, they’d be in Hell. So how can Moreland justifiably claim to know that no one has ever died prematurely? Once again, when backed into a corner to defend the indefensible (the justifiability of Hell), Moreland grasps at a “theology of the moment” rather than honestly conceding defeat. It’s little wonder that he can’t keep his story straight from one moment to the next.
If God gave people another chance after death, Moreland asks, then what is the point of life on Earth? Good question! What is the point of life on Earth? A billion years from now, are Christians going to be sitting in Heaven talking about the time that an aunt died? How could brief mortal experiences be useful in any way to an immortal being in Heaven? After all, if the Christian account of the afterlife is correct, then those who die as children presumably do just fine in Heaven without ever having lived a full mortal experience. So what value is a full mortal experience? Thus, if Heaven is as desirable as Christians say it is, logic dictates that everyone would be better off if they died before the “age of accountability” so that they could live forever in Heaven.
Subobjection 9: Isn’t Reincarnation More Rational Than Hell?
Moreland’s treatment of reincarnation primarily dispels scenarios where individuals are reborn as nonhuman animals. Moreland objects, for instance, that transmigration between species denies that any property makes human beings distinctively human: “Just like being even is essential to the number two, so being human is essential to me—and reincarnation says that what is essential to me isn’t really essential at all” (p. 190). I have no complaint here.
However, the same point undermines belief in any sort of life after death. For if what is “essential” to human beings is our biological, mortal nature, then there would be nothing to recognize as our immortal selves after death. This argument is developed in detail in (atheist-turned-deist) Antony Flew’s Merely Mortal? Can You Survive Your Own Death?
Unfortunately, concerning reincarnation between humans, Moreland says little more than that Christ did not teach it and thus it must be false. But he could’ve said much more here. For example, the primary reason that I find reincarnation implausible is that if you don’t learn from your past mistakes as your memories are erased between incarnations, what is the point of being reincarnated? My big complaint here is that Moreland is silent about whether reincarnation between humans would at least be a better option than Hell, the very question he was supposed to answer.
Overall, I found Moreland’s responses to every objection posed to him in Objection 6 to be weak at best and preposterous at worst. Though Moreland denies it, I think he really is soft-pedaling Hell. His attempt to make two apparently irreconcilable goals cohere seems remarkably forced: on the one hand, he wants to paint Hell as a bad place to be sent, while on the other, he wants to avoid painting God as vindictive for sending people there. But the attempted reconciliation he produces fails miserably. I can only conclude that any God who sends people to Hell is unworthy of worship.
Objection 7: Church History Is Littered with Oppression and Violence
(Interview with Dr. John D. Woodbridge, Ph.D.)
Of all the chapters in this book, I found the one on violence in the name of Christianity to be the most difficult one to respond to. Some of the warmest, kindest people I know are Christians, so I don’t want to fall into the trap of stereotyping all Christians on the basis of a few. So I’ve tried to be careful in how I word my responses so as to avoid any such misunderstandings.
John Woodbridge frequently points out the good deeds that Christians have performed in this chapter, and I can attest to such Christian charity myself. In fact, I have fond memories of the Methodist church I attended for about ten years as part of a singles group. Though I first started attending for dating purposes, the group became much more than a singles club to me. The fellowship and friendship I received kept me coming back until I finally joined the church and attended its services for several years. So I have no reason to doubt that Christians have done much good.
Nevertheless, like most apologists, Woodbridge excuses Christianity for the evils performed by misguided Christians, while simultaneously giving Christianity full credit for any good that happens to have been done by Christians. Likewise, he blames atheism for the evils of a few atheists, while never crediting atheism with any good that atheists happen to have done. Such a blatant double standard marks the height of hypocrisy to me.
Among the good things produced by Christians, Woodbridge lists contributions to art, music, and architecture, among other things. But followers of non-Christian religions—and, yes, even atheists—have made similar contributions. Since Woodbridge offers no reason to think that equally good contributions would not have been produced had these Christians been followers of some other religion (or none at all), it’s not clear how much credit (if any) Christianity per se deserves for these contributions to society.
Strobel makes a list of five “sins of the church”: the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, exploitation by missionaries, and anti-Semitism. Woodbridge concedes that all of these things are regrettable blots on the Christian faith, but nevertheless tries to deflect the blame from “true Christianity.” And I will acknowledge that at least most of Christ’s teachings in the Bible, such as extolling feeding the hungry or caring for the poor, are incompatible with those “sins of the church.” Even so, his response is problematic given that there is no single, universally understood definition of “true Christianity.” Indeed, as already noted, there isn’t even a Christian consensus on such a fundamentally important issue as how to attain salvation. (Again, see the Secular Web article “Christian Salvation?,” where one can review the multitudes of positions Christians have argued.)
This sort of poor reasoning has become so common that it has been dubbed the “no true Scotsman fallacy“:
Suppose I assert that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge. You counter this by pointing out that your friend Angus likes sugar with his porridge. I then say “Ah, yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
Obviously the original assertion about Scotsmen has been challenged quite well, but in attempting to shore it up the speaker uses an ad hoc change combined with a shifted meaning of the words from the original.
When confronted by the immoral actions of some Christians, many Christians simply deny that the perpetrators were Christians at all. A Christian, by definition, is someone who believes that Jesus Christ is the Savior. Plenty of people who have believed that have done very bad things. For example, though Christians often deny it, Adolph Hitler was a Christian. One might try to say that Hitler wasn’t a “true Christian,” but such claims don’t change his affiliation.
A big problem for Woodbridge’s response to the five “sins of the church” is that every one of them can be justified through Christian scripture, especially if you include the Old Testament. For instance, though Woodbridge characterizes the Salem witch trials as a “terrible episode,” he says that he believes that witches do exist (p. 209), and the Old Testament does mandate the execution of witches or sorcerers:
Do not allow a sorceress to live. [Exodus 22:18 NIV]
A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads. [Leviticus 20:27 NIV]
If Woodbridge believes that there are effectual witches and that we should accept the Bible’s mandates, and the Bible mandates that witches should be executed, how can he oppose the execution of witches? How can he accept the existence of effectual witches and the authority of the Bible and describe the witch trials as a “terrible episode”? As far as I can tell, his admission that the witch trials were a disgraceful sham amounts to a concession that we should not believe everything that the Bible says. And if that’s the case, what possible reason could he have to believe in effectual witches?
Most Christians would probably respond that the biblical mandate to execute witches no longer applies. They may argue that the Old Testament—God’s old covenant—still has historical value, but it was superseded when the New Testament was written. Christianity seems to have a rather uneasy relationship with the Old Testament, where parts of it seem to be required for Christianity, such as the alleged Messianic prophecies. Yet Christians try hard to downplay parts of the Old Testament that they don’t like. Indeed, how much importance we should place on various Old Testament teachings is quite ambiguous—every Christian seems to give a different answer. For example, relying on a blatant pick-and-choose methodology, many Christians cite Leviticus as the source of their view that homosexuality is an “abomination,” yet disregard what it says about executing witches.
And in any case, even if Old Testament law is no longer valid, when could murdering witches ever possibly have been the right thing to do? Many Christians sweep passages mandating such disagreeable acts under the rug without ever considering whether those acts could ever be reasonable. Consider Deuteronomy 22, which presumes that a woman who is raped but does not cry out “really” consents to sex and consequently should be stoned to death. Was there ever a time when that rule could have been reasonable? Of course not!
Though he might downplay them, no doubt Woodbridge (like most Christians) would concede many differences of opinion within the Christian Church. He would probably insist, however, that regardless of these differences, “true Christianity” requires compassion and peaceful, loving behavior. But even this is not clear, for in Matthew 10:34 (NIV) Jesus says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Of course, most Christians do not interpret this passage as an impetus to instigate war, but prefer to interpret it as a warning that war is inevitable since there will always be enemies of Christianity. Nevertheless, it is quite natural to read it as a warmongering passage; and who is to say what a “true Christian” interpretation of it is? After all, as discussed in Objection 4, God Himself orders wars in the Old Testament. It’s easy to see how a person reading this passage could conclude that God wants the enemies of His people exterminated, and consequently feel obligated to hasten that extermination. And who is to say that that isn’t what “true Christianity” requires?
Woodbridge not only grants that there is much evil in the world, but believes that the restraining power of the Holy Spirit keeps the world from deteriorating even further:
Can you imagine what the world would be like if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn? I mean, talk about your local horror show! It’s bad enough the way things are now, but if the restraining power of the Holy Spirit were not here, then the horrible side of life would emerge even more graphically than it already does (p. 218).
This sort of view strikes me as senseless. Presumably, the sort of evil “restrained” by the Holy Spirit is so-called moral evil, evil caused by the (bad) free choices of human beings. But if we have free will, how can the Holy Spirit “restrain”—i.e., contain or interfere with—how we choose to act at all? And if the Holy Spirit has license to “restrain” evil at all, then why can’t the Holy Spirit restrain all evil? Can the Holy Spirit restrain or prevent evil altogether—yes or no?
Woodbridge goes on to claim that atheism denigrates the value of human life. If there is no God, he says, then we are just byproducts of natural forces with no intrinsic or eternal value. I’ve struggled with this question myself. I once overheard another atheist say, asking “What is the meaning of life?” is like asking “What is the meaning of a cup of coffee?” There is no meaning; it just is. I can understand if such a viewpoint isn’t particularly appealing. I can understand if some might say, “That’s exactly right from an atheist perspective!” and thus conclude that atheism indeed does denigrate the value of human life.
However, if that is the line of argument that a Christian wants to take, he/she should tread carefully, as Christianity is at least as denigrating of the value of human life. From a Christian perspective, life on Earth is of no intrinsic value; it is simply a “necessary evil” one must endure in order to get to Heaven. Recall how, in Objection 4, Geisler claimed that the Canaanite children slaughtered by the Israelites were better off dead since they died before the age of accountability, and thus received a “free pass” into Heaven. What could be a more denigrating view than that? Both theistic and atheistic points of view can be used to denigrate human life. But the extent to which a belief system values human life is, of course, no measure of what’s real. Thus, whether atheism or Christianity denigrate the value of human life is really immaterial to whether either of them are true.
Next, Woodbridge argues that in order for there to be any absolute standard of morality at all, God must define that standard. He proceeds to fault the ‘inherent amorality’ of atheism for the murderous regimes of Hitler and Stalin: “Given the lack of framework in atheism for making moral decisions, it’s easy to see why the world has experienced the horrors of these regimes. Where there’s no absolute moral standard, raw power often wins” (p. 217). The erroneous attribution of atheism to Hitler aside, I tend to agree that, in principle, it would be better if there were a nonhuman source for moral standards. So my response here is basically the same as that in Objection 1: I too am uncomfortable with the notion that morality is merely a human invention; but at the same time, I see no evidence that it is anything more than this.
Woodbridge’s reference to an “absolute moral standard”—presumably provided by Christianity—merits more exploration. For instance, does Christianity actually provide absolute moral standards? Consider a trivial example: Is hip-shaking morally acceptable? When Elvis Presley began publicly shaking his hips in 1950s America, many Christians at the time believed that this behavior was unacceptable. Indeed, Elvis was heavily criticized as destroying the moral fabric of the society of the time—all over a bit of hip-shaking. Yet today many Christians (including preachers) idolize Elvis and would be surprised to learn that hip-shaking was ever considered to be morally problematic. In the period of a generation or two, most Christians have moved from regarding hip-shaking as some horrible moral menace to seeing it as unproblematic.
A more serious example is whether it is morally acceptable to execute alleged witches. The Bible clearly mandates the execution of witches, even though few Christians take the Bible’s mandate seriously anymore. In fact, Christians generally argue that with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the introduction of the New Testament, God made a new covenant that, from then on, entailed the unacceptability of certain Old Testament mandates, including the mandate to execute witches. Ironically, despite this position, few Christians would concede that God might decide to make yet another testament superseding the New Testament. But there is a more serious problem here. If right and wrong only “exist” at God’s discretion, then moral absolutes don’t really exist at all. For God could (and indeed did), on this view, change what is or isn’t moral at His discretion; consequently, moral standards wouldn’t be absolute at all.
Another example is divorce. Most Christian churches today teach something contrary to what New Testament scripture says about divorce: namely, that divorce is only acceptable when one’s wife is the one who commits adultery (see Matthew 5:32). What Christians have considered to be acceptable grounds for divorce has changed substantially over the centuries. Of course, Christians could argue that we are bound by absolute moral standards through God’s covenant, but that we simply haven’t discerned precisely what those standards are. But at the very least, this response shows that God hasn’t clearly communicated the moral standards that He wants human beings to follow even to his own followers. Church doctrine on such issues appears to have more to do with adapting to changing social conditions than with moving closer to what God has wanted all along.
Of course, there may be universal moral standards that we have simply failed to implement or even discern. But such bare moral realism doesn’t get us very far. Sincere Christians and others argue for a multitude of positions on moral issues like divorce, homosexuality, and abortion. If there are universal moral standards that God wants us to follow, surely He would see to it that we know what those standards are. Yet time and time again, Christian scripture has been used to advocate positions that most Christians now find morally unacceptable, such as slavery or prohibitions on interracial marriage or a woman’s right to vote. And our inability to come to a consensus on universal moral standards is at least suggestive: perhaps we can’t agree because such standards don’t really exist.
If there are universal moral standards that God wants us to follow and that we can’t discern without revelation, what is more incredible still is that God would leave billions of people throughout history without any means to determine what those standards are (let alone how to be saved) simply because they didn’t have access to a Bible. Billions of people still probably don’t have access to one today. And those who do (and profess to believe it) can’t even figure out exactly what it is that it reveals!
As I said at the outset, most of the Christians that I know are fine people. But I’ve come to realize that, like Woodbridge, the Christians that I admire simply ignore 99% of what the Bible tells them—such as the mandate to execute witches. As far as I can tell, if there is any such thing as “true Christianity,” the Christians who followed its precepts are the ones who participated in the five “sins of the church”—not the Christians (like Woodbridge) who condemn them.
Objection 8: I Still Have Doubts, So I Can’t Be a Christian
(Interview with Lynn Anderson, D.Min.)
The discussion in the final chapter essentially concludes that it is natural for all Christians to have their doubts from time to time. As innocuous as that may sound, I actually find it rather confounding. Some atheists claim that there are no true agnostics; you either believe that God exists or that He doesn’t. Here Lynn Anderson seems to be arguing the opposite—that everyone is an agnostic. (Note: I am using “agnostic” in the colloquial sense, meaning a fence-sitter—someone who is undecided.) Though I’m much more sympathetic to Anderson’s view, I’m left wondering how much doubt is “acceptable” for a Christian. And this leads me back to my response to Objection 5: Just what does one have to do or believe in order to be saved? What divides the saved from the unsaved?
An inescapable conclusion, it seems to me, is that issues of faith are not so black and white. There is an entire spectrum of belief from those who are utterly certain that God exists to those who are fully convinced that He does not. Consider what I’ve come to call a person’s “spiritual quotient”–a number indicating where in that spectrum of belief a person’s confidence lies. Let’s say that 0 represents certainty that God does not exist and 100 represents certainty that He does. Perhaps God, if there is a God, wouldn’t assign each person a number like this, but surely He would have some way to judge the confidence of a person’s belief in Him. So if you’re uncomfortable with “putting a number on faith,” think of the “spiritual quotient” as nothing more than shorthand for where one lies on the continuum between disbelief and belief.
Now consider that out of everyone who has ever lived, there would be millions (if not billions) of people occupying every level of faith on that continuum, from 0 to 100. Where on that continuum between doubt and faith would one have to be in order to be saved? If a “spiritual quotient” of 80 is required in order to get into Heaven, how many millions of people at 79 are damned for eternity? Imagine walking up to the Pearly Gates after you die only to hear St. Peter say: “Sorry, you scored a 79.” And then Maxwell Smart chimes in, “Missed it by that much!”
Sarcasm aside, don’t I have a valid point? Perhaps another example would be clearer. Imagine the different attitudes of two apparently similar men, “Easter Christians” who generally only attend church for holidays like Easter and Christmas. The first attends church only because he thinks that he is supposed to do so, and pays little attention to sermons when he is there. The second man is ashamed that he does not attend more often, and listens carefully to sermons in order to try to get some meaning out of them when he does attend. The second man knows that he should be giving fair time to God; the first man couldn’t care less about his church attendance. Shortly after one of these holidays, both of them die unexpectedly. During their judgments after death, God decides to condemn the first man to Hell, but in His mercy spares the second one. Setting aside the problematic nature of sending anyone to Hell in the first place, is God’s judgment reasonable in this case? Well, consider that, had these two men died a month later, they could have easily reversed roles by then. Like Moreland’s “job in Illinois” scenario, something could have happened which caused the first man to reconsider how often he attends church, while different circumstances could have led the second man to drift even further away from his faith. A simple change of circumstances could have very well reversed their eternal fates. But then how could God’s decision to condemn one of them be reasonable?
Of course, some readers might think that neither of these men should have been saved, and some might think that neither should have been condemned. But regardless of what level of faith you think that God might require in order to be saved, millions (if not billions) of people would fall just shy of the mark. How could it be fair for God to use such a sharp divide, sending people to eternal Hell who, by chance, happened to be one point away from the minimum spiritual quotient? Once again, just what does it take for a person to be saved?
In his introduction to The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel lists what he feels are the “Big Eight Conundrums” (or Objections) to the Christian faith. Though I can think of other “conundrums,” Strobel does select a fair set of challenging ones. In fact, his “Big Eight Conundrums” cover many of the questions that I continually asked myself when I was still a Christian. And Strobel generally does a good job of both introducing the objections and explaining why so many people have so much difficulty with them. I have to give him credit where credit is due.
Yet, as well done as some parts seem to be, the further that we progress into the book, the more it starts to feel calculated. It is a slick, well-oiled schtick to impress at least his target audience—believers looking for reassurance in their faith. And if that schtick happens to work on some nonbelievers and fence-sitters, all the better, I suppose. But it’s not believable that he actually thinks that he is “digging deep for the actual truth” when, time and again, he lobs softball questions and accepts weak answers. And, mind you, these softball questions were only even addressed to people that he knows will say, in effect, “Indeed, Lee, it is all true.”
By the time we reach the conclusion, Strobel concedes that not every reader will be convinced by every argument presented in the book. But he seems to hope that most readers will be swayed by at least a fair number of the arguments. Even if you can’t find a satisfying answer to every question that you have, he says, you should base your faith on the answers that you do find satisfactory. He urges his readers to have faith that any of their remaining questions will be answered in the fullness of time. But, ironically, the more I contemplated the objections posed in The Case for Faith, the less satisfying I found the responses to them presented there. For every single objection that Strobel raised, I found the answers to be weak at best, and often simply preposterous. I can only conclude that Strobel presented very little of a case for faith. Perhaps he actually provided a case against faith.
 Corey Washington, “Washington’s Third Rebuttal” (1995) in The Craig-Washington Debate: Does God Exist? The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/corey_washington/craig-washington/washington4.html>.
 Paul Doland, “The Implausibility of Satan” (2003). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/the-implausibility-of-satan-310.html>.
 David L. Wilson, “Nonphysical Souls Would Violate Physical Laws” in The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death (pp. 349-367), ed. Michael Martin & Keith Augustine (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
 Keith Parsons, “Why I Am Not a Christian” (2000). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/keith_parsons/whynotchristian.html>.
 Austin Cline, “The No True Scotsman Fallacy” (2019). ThoughtCo. website. <https://www.thoughtco.com/the-no-true-scotsman-fallacy-250339>.
 John Patrick Michael Murphy, “The Religion of Hitler” (1998). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/john_murphy/religionofhitler.html>.
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