When God is conceived of as an all-powerful and all-loving deity, many arguments for his nonexistence can be raised. Two of the main ones are the Argument from Evil (hereafter abbreviated AE) and the Argument from Nonbelief (hereafter abbreviated ANB). In what follows, I shall provide precise formulations of those two arguments, make some comments about them, and then try to refute the main defenses (of God’s existence) that might be put forward against ANB, which I consider the stronger of the two. I take ANB to be a sound argument establishing the proposition that God (conceived of in a certain way) does not exist.
1. The Arguments Formulated
- AE: I first define an expression that will be used in the argument:
- Situation L = the situation of the amount of suffering and prema ture death experienced by humans in the world at the present time being significantly less than what it actually is at present. (In other words, if the actual amount, at present, is, say, a total of n units of suffering and premature death, then in situation L that amount would be, at present, significantly less than n units.)
- Then AE, making reference to situation L, can be expressed as follows:
- (A) If God were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):
- (1) being able to bring about situation L, all things considered;
- (2) wanting to bring about situation L, i.e., having it among his desires;
- (3) not wanting anything else that conflicts with his desire to bring about situation L as strongly as it;
- (4) being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).
- (B) If a being who has all four properties listed above were to exist, then situation L would have to obtain.
- (C) But situation L does not obtain. The amount of suffering and unfairness in the world at the present time is not significantly less than what it actually is at present.
- (D) Therefore [from (B) & (C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
- (E) Hence [from (A) & (D)], God does not exist.
- (A) If God were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):
- ANB: To formulate ANB, I put first forward these two definitions:
- Set P = the following three propositions:
- (a) There exists a being who rules the entire universe.
- (b) That being loves humanity.
- (c) Humanity has been provided with an afterlife.
- Situation S = the situation of all, or almost all, humans coming to believe all three propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.
- Using the above definitions, ANB may be expressed as follows:
- (A) If God were to exist, then he would possess all of the following four properties (among others):
- (1) being able to bring about situation S, all things considered;
- (2) wanting to bring about situation S, i.e., having it among his desires;
- (3) not wanting anything else that conflicts with his desire to bring about situation S as strongly as it;
- (4) being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).
- (B) If a being who has all four properties listed above were to exist, then situation S would have to obtain.
- (C) But situation S does not obtain. It is not the case that all, or almost all, humans have come to believe all the propositions of set P by the time of their physical death.
- (D) Therefore [from (B) & (C)], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
- (E) Hence [from (A) & (D)], God does not exist.
2. Comments on AE
The expression “being able, all things considered” in AE’s (and ANB’s) premise (A1) is there taken very literally. It means that there is absolutely nothing to prevent the action, not even chance. Consider, for example, a boy who has on past days done twenty consecutive pushups. Today the issue is raised whether he is able to do merely five consecutive pushups. The obvious answer is yes. If he has done twenty, then (refreshed) he is certainly able to do five. But suppose that, just as he is about to perform the fifth pushup, he is struck by lightning, which prevents him from completing it. We should say of the boy, in retrospect, that he was able to do the five pushups, but he was not able to do them all things considered. When his being struck by lightning is considered, then we must say that under those conditions the boy was not able. Thus, in premise (A1), when God is said to be able to bring about a situation, all things considered, that means that if he were to try to bring it about then there is absolutely nothing which might prevent him from doing it. In other words, if he tries to do the given action, then, necessarily, he does it.
Understood in the above way, AE’s (and ANB’s) premise (A1) is supported by the Bible’s repeated claim that God is all-powerful. Being all-powerful, he would have been able to have brought about situation L, all things considered, as claimed in AE’s premise (A1). There are many ways in which he might have done that. One of them was for him to have made the earth a calmer and more stable planet, with much fewer storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Then there would not occur so much suffering and premature death as a consequence of such natural catastrophes. Another way would have been for God to make people hardier and more resistant to germs and other afflictions. Then there would not occur so much suffering and premature death as a consequence of disease and infirmities. It might be objected that a significant reduction in premature deaths would soon lead to overpopulation and even worse problems. But, being all-powerful, God could have done things to prevent overpopulation in a humane way. For example, while making humans less subject to premature death, he could also have given them genes that make women increasingly less fertile the more times they give birth, thereby preventing very large families. That would bring about situation L in a way that would not introduce additional problems down the road. Still another way for God to have brought about situation L would have been for him to guide mutations in such a way that a greater percentage of them are beneficial to the organism. That would have eliminated much unnecessary suffering that occurred through the centuries. God could also have made organisms, especially humans, smarter than they are. That would have given them a better means for coping with evil than they presently have. In addition, God could have made people more altruistic than they are. Had he done that, there would be much less crime and cruelty in the world than there is. Obviously, there are a great many ways in which God (assuming he exists) could have brought about situation L.
A point needs to be made regarding omnipotence. It might be thought that since God is omnipotent, he cannot have conflicting desires. The term “conflicts” in premise (A3) conveys the idea that it would have been impossible even for God to satisfy both desires simultaneously. But for God, nothing is impossible. Hence, he cannot have such conflicting desires, which makes premise (A3) automatically true.
One defect in this argument is that it paradoxically claims both that God cannot have conflicting wants and that for God nothing is impossible, which seems to be a contradiction. But the more basic defect in the argument is that it interprets “for God, nothing is impossible” in an unrestricted way. Most theologians and philosophers of religion recognize that omnipotence needs to be restricted to what is logically and conceptually possible and to what is consistent with God’s other defining properties. Even the Bible (Tit 1:2; Heb 6:18) says that it is impossible for God to lie. Presumably, if it is part of the very definition of “God” that God never does anything wrong, then it follows that there are actions, namely, wrong ones, which God cannot perform. Thus, God might very well have two desires that logically conflict. If it is logically impossible for both desires to be satisfied, then even a being who is omnipotent (defined in the appropriate way) would be unable to satisfy both of them. And that is how the term “conflicts” in premise (A3) is to be taken.
AE’s premise (A2) might be supported in various ways. First of all, Christianity regards Jesus of Nazareth to have the same attitudes as God, and Jesus is described in the Bible as feeling compassion for the multitudes he encountered with regard to their earthly suffering (Matt. 9:36, 14:14, 15:32; Mark 6:34, 8:2). So if God exists, then he too must feel such compassion, which entails that God must want situation L. Secondly, according to Psalm 145:9, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made”, and according to James 5:11, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” Third, God loves humanity (John 3:16, I John 4:8-16), and the sacrifice of Jesus was supposed to exhibit maximal love (John 15:13). Christianity often describes its God as being “all-loving”, which means that God loves everyone and everything maximally. But part of the concept of love is wanting the best for whoever or whatever the object of love may be. Thus, the God of Christianity must want situation L, at least in the minimal sense that situation L is among his desires. Since most theists regard God to be an all-loving being, they presumably take him to feel some sort of regret about humanity’s great suffering. If A loves B and A is aware of B’s suffering, then A must feel bad about it. That is part of the very meaning of “love”.
But there is a problem here. AE’s premise (A2) maintains, not just that God wants situation L itself, but that he wants to bring it about. Someone could want something which he is able to bring about and yet not want to bring it about himself. For example, I may want my study to be clean and yet not want to clean it myself, since, out of laziness, I want someone else to clean it. Or, alternatively, my wife may want my study to be clean and yet not want to clean it herself. She may instead want me to clean the room because she thinks that for me to do that would help develop my character. Thus, to simply show that God as described in the Bible wants situation L would not in itself establish AE’s premise (A2). I shall try to address this problem.
First of all, given human nature and the state of the world, it is not clear that there was any way for situation L to come to obtain other than for God to bring it about. However, even if there were such a possibility, if indeed God does not want to bring about situation L himself, then there must be some other desire on his part that overrides a desire to bring about situation L. But in that case AE could be refuted on the basis of its premise (A3). And in that case it would not matter much whether we say that (A2) is false as well. On the other hand, if there is no such overriding desire, then there is little difference between God wanting situation L and God wanting to bring about situation L himself. There is reason to say that, with God, the one entails the other. That is, assuming God has no desire that overrides a desire to bring about situation L, since he is not lazy and since his all-loving nature fills him with zeal directed at the object of his love, for God to want situation L is essentially the same as for him to want to bring it about. It would then follow that any arguments showing God to have situation L among his desires would indeed suffice to support AE’s premise (A2) as well.
Given the bifurcation of AE’s premise (A) into (A2) and (A3), and given our understanding of omnipotence as being restricted by (at least) logic, it becomes clear that it is premise (A3) that is the most problematic one of all of them. It is a highly debatable matter whether any good support can be provided for the truth of that premise. That is an issue that I shall not address in the present essay. I shall here leave it as an open question whether or not there is a great deal of force to the Argument from Evil.
Premise (A4) claims that God is rational. The point is that God would not simply abandon one of his goals for no reason. Rather, he would perform whatever actions are called for by a goal that is not overridden by any other goal. The idea that God is rational in this sense is implied throughout Scripture. It is implied by those Biblical verses that declare him to have infinite understanding (Ps. 147:5) and to have created the universe through his wisdom and understanding (Prov. 3:19). It is also implied by verses that say of God that he does what he wants and nothing ever prevents from happening those things that he wants to happen (Isa. 46:9-11; Eph. 1:11). The Bible is largely the story of a ruler of the universe who is eminently rational in having goals and performing actions to bring them about. AE’s premise (A4) therefore receives excellent Biblical support. Christianity and most forms of theism in general do not doubt the truth of (A4).
Premise (B) should not be controversial and is here being taken to be an analytic truth. Anyone who doubts it is probably not understanding it properly. If God is rational and has it among his top (non-overridden) priorities to bring about a certain situation, and is able to bring it about, all things considered, in the sense discussed above, then there is no way for him not to bring it about. Since all conceivable alternatives have been eliminated, it becomes necessary that God bring about the given situation. Another way to put the matter is to say that part of what it means to be “rational” is that if X is rational and X is able to do Y, all things considered, and X wants to do Y without that desire being overridden by any other desire then X does Y. Thus, when the concept of rationality is fully explicated, premise (B) becomes true by definition.
Premise (C), though true, could be false. It is only a contingent fact about the world. It is like the statement “there are not fewer pieces of chalk on the table than there actually are”, where that is referring to some specific number, say, three. Although AE’s premise (C) could be interpreted in a way that makes it necessarily true, the intention in AE is to interpret it in a way that makes it merely contingent. The expression “the amount of suffering that there actually is at present” is to be taken to refer only to a certain specific amount, just as “(the number that) there actually are” in the chalk analogy could be just a way of referring to the number three.
Steps (D) and (E) are conclusions. They follow logically from the preceding steps from which they are derived. Since the argument is valid, the only way to attack it would be at one of its premises. And the one which I think is most vulnerable would be premise (A3). That is all I shall say about AE in this essay. I present it here only as background material for the discussion of ANB, which I regard to be the stronger of the two arguments.
3. Comments on ANB
Assuming that God exists, there are various ways by which he might have brought about situation S. One way would have been direct implantation of the given beliefs (set P) into people’s minds. (A possible Biblical example of belief-implantation might be the case of Adam and Eve.) Closely related to that method would have been the creation of “belief genes” which are passed on from one generation to the next. Infants could be born with the tendency to automatically form a belief in set P as their minds develop. The process could perhaps be aided by the influence of the Holy Spirit within each person.
Another way for God to have gotten the message across would have been by the performance of spectacular miracles. For example, God could have spoken to people in a thunderous voice from the sky or used skywriting to proclaim set P worldwide. In addition, back in the days of Jesus, events could have occurred differently. Instead of appearing only to his followers, the resurrected Christ could have appeared to millions of people, including Pontius Pilate and even Emperor Tiberius and others in Rome. He could have proclaimed the truth of set P before all those people, demonstrating the existence of an afterlife by his own resurrection. He could have made such a definite place for himself in history that it would have enlightened billions of people coming later about the truth of set P.
God could also have brought about situation S without resort to spectacular miracles. He could have done it through non-spectacular, behind-the-scenes actions. For example, he could have sent out millions of angels, disguised as humans, to preach to people in all nations in such a persuasive manner as to get them to believe set P. Another useful action would have been to protect the Bible itself from defects. The writing, copying, and translating of Scripture could have been so carefully guided (say, by angels) that it would today contain no vagueness or ambiguity and no contradictions or errors of any sort. Also, it could have contained a large number of very clear and precise prophecies that then become amazingly fulfilled, with that information noted by neutral observers and widely disseminated. People reading it would have been much more likely to infer that everything in it is true, including set P. If all that had been done, then situation S would probably now obtain. Certainly the way God is depicted in the Bible, he is able to accomplish such things (whether spectacular or not), all things considered, which makes ANB’s premise (A1) true.
One last way for God to bring about situation S worth mentioning is the use of the Internet. Those who browse the World Wide Web could regularly receive set P, perhaps even if they try to avoid it. God could also “flame” all and only nonbelievers who are sitting at their computers by warning them of future judgment. CDS could also fall from the sky (for use by those with CD-ROM drives) containing set P, delivered in spectacular colors and sounds. Modern technology has made it relatively easy for God to get his message out to the world, so much so that we can declare ANB’s premise (A1) to be obviously true. Unlike the problem of evil, the problem of nonbelief is one regarding a certain lack of information, and it is even more easily solvable in the present “Information Age” than it would have been in the distant past.
ANB’s premise (A2) states that if God were to exist then he would want to bring about situation S, where that is to be understood in a kind of minimal way, meaning only that the bringing about of situation S is among God’s desires. So, it is a desire that might be overridden by some other desire, which creates a need for premise (A3). The same relation exists here between premises (A2) and (A3) as was pointed out, above, in connection with AE. There is the issue of whether God might want situation S without wanting to bring it about himself. I would say that if there is some desire on God’s part that overrides a desire to bring about situation S, then ANB’s premise (A3), and ANB along with it, could be thereby refuted. In that case, the issue would be moot: it would matter very little whether or not we declare ANB’s premise (A2) also false. On the other hand, if there is no such overriding desire, then one might very well say that God wanting situation S would be essentially the same as God wanting to bring about situation S. Since God is not lazy and is highly motivated, there would in that case be no reason for him to not want to bring it about. In other words, as with AE and situation L, if you cannot find a counter-example to premise (A3), then you will not find any reason for God to want situation S but not want to bring it about himself.
I shall proceed for the time being on the assumption that there is no overriding desire on God’s part that would suffice to refute ANB’s premise (A3). Given that assumption, all that would be needed in order to support premise (A2) would be arguments to the effect that God has situation S among his desires. There are at least seven different arguments to show that. Let us label them Arguments (1)-(7).
Argument (1). The Bible says that God has commanded people to “believe on the name of his son Jesus Christ” (1Jo 3:23). The way it is usually interpreted, “believing on the name of the son” requires at least awareness of the truth of the propositions of set P. It follows that, having issued the command, God must want people to at least believe those propositions, which means that he wants situation S. And that makes ANB’s premise (A2) true.
Argument (2). There is another Biblical commandment to the effect that people love God maximally (Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30). But loving God maximally (i.e., to an extent that could not possibly be increased) requires that one be aware that God loves humanity and also be aware of all the good that God has done for it. If someone were to love God but not be aware of all the good that God has done for humanity, then it would be possible for such a person to be made aware of all that good and thereby come to love God still more. And being aware of all the good, in turn, requires belief in set P. Hence, again, having issued the given command, God must want people to at least be aware of the truth of set P, which makes ANB’s premise (A2) true.
Argument (3). A third argument for (A2) is based on the Great Commission, according to which God (via his son) directed missionaries to preach the gospel message to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20) and to every creature (Mark 16:15-16, KJV) or to all creation (NIV). Thus, God must have wanted people to at least believe set P, which is contained within the gospel message. And he not only wanted the message preached to all nations, but expected that to happen (as shown by such verses as Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8, 13:47, 28:28). Furthermore, according to the Book of Acts, God went so far as to empower some of the apostles to perform miracles which would help convince listeners of the truth of the message. Since miracles are works of God, we could say that, in effect, God himself was indirectly starting to bring about situation S. So, getting people to at least believe set P must have been a high priority for him. This is very strong evidence that ANB’s premise (A2) is true.
Argument (4). A fourth argument has to do with the missions of Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist. According to John 18:37, Jesus declared: “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Presumably the truth here referred to includes set P as an important component. It follows that an important part of the mission of Jesus was to testify to the truth of a message that includes set P. And, according to St. Paul, it was God who was working through Christ to reconcile the world to himself (II Cor. 5:19). God, then, must want people to believe the message, and not just the local people to whom Jesus spoke directly, but people all over the world. This may be gathered from the previous chapter in which Jesus indicated that he has sent his disciples into the world (John 17:18) and that the purpose is to make the world aware of the gospel message. In his prayer to his Father, he said, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (verse 21) and “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me” (verse 23). Thus, since God wants his son to testify to the truth of a message which contains set P and wants it to get out to the whole world, ANB’s premise (A2) must be true. As a subsidiary point connected with this argument, the mission of John the Baptist is also relevant. It says in John 1:6-7: “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light [Jesus], so that through him all men might believe.” It is understood that at least part of the object of the belief here referred to is set P. This, then, further supports the claim that God wants all humans to believe set P.
Argument (5). According to St. Paul, God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). As with Argument (4), a good case could be made that the “truth” here referred to includes set P. Certainly Christianity takes it that way. And interpreting it that way, the verse is in effect telling the reader very directly that God wants (among other things) all humans to come to believe set P. He must then want at least situation S. So the inference from that verse to the truth of ANB’s premise (A2) is very direct!
Argument (6). The next argument for (A2) is more controversial. One of its premises is the claim that, according to the Bible, God wants all humans to be saved. There are indeed verses, like the one quoted in Argument (5), above, that either state it directly or else point in that direction. But in order for people to be saved they must believe in God and in his son. But to believe in God and in his son would include believing set P. Hence, God must want people to at least believe set P. Those who don’t are damned. It follows that (A2) must be true.
There are two main objections to this argument. One of them, sometimes raised by Calvinists, is that some verses in the Bible indicate that God does not want all humans to be saved. The other, sometimes raised by inclusivists, is that the Bible is not perfectly clear about the requirements for salvation and some verses suggest that charitable behavior might be sufficient, in which case belief in set P would not be a necessary condition, after all. It appears, then, that the premises of this last argument for (A2) leave some room for doubt.
In defense of Argument (6), it could be pointed out that Biblical scholars disagree about how to interpret the alleged contrary verses, and some of their interpretations favor the argument. Furthermore, most Christians support those interpretations which favor Argument (6). They reject the Calvinist (“double predestination”) idea that God has pre-selected some people for salvation and others for damnation. On the contrary, they regard God as a loving and merciful being who wants all to be saved, at least in the minimal sense of having that as one of his desires. As John Hick put it, the Calvinist idea that God created beings whom he does not want to attain salvation is “diametrically at variance with the dominant spirit of the gospels”. In addition, most Christians are exclusivists and accept the doctrine that belief in God and his son, and thereby set P, is an absolute requirement for salvation.
My conclusion regarding this matter is that, although there are other interpretations of the verses cited above, most Christians would accept the premises of Argument (6). That then allows the argument to provide further Biblical support for premise (A2) of ANB. I concede, though, that Argument (6) remains controversial. Nevertheless, it should be noted that even if that particular argument were rejected, other arguments provide good support for premise (A2). With or without Argument (6), (A2), like ANB’s premise (A1), receives excellent support from the Bible.
Argument (7). Finally, I want to put forward an argument for ANB’s premise (A2) that makes no reference to the Bible. Almost all theists, at least in the U.S., regard God as a being who loves humanity and who wants that love to be reciprocated. So, God, conceived in that way, must want people to be aware that he exists and that, out of love for humanity, he has provided people with an opportunity for a blissful afterlife. It would benefit people to be aware of all that, for it would provide them with comfort and hope for the future. Since God loves people, he must want them to attain such a benefit. Also, awareness of the truth of set P would help people reciprocate God’s love, which God also desires. It follows that he must want them to have such awareness, which in turn makes ANB’s premise (A2) true.
When it comes to ANB’s next premise, (A3), the situation is somewhat different. There are no Biblical verses that support it directly. If (A3) is to receive any support at all from the Bible, it would need to be of an indirect nature. There are two arguments for it that I would like to consider. The first, which I shall label “Argument (8)”, is that Argument (6) is sound and Argument (6) appeals to the matter of people’s eternal destiny. Since there can be nothing regarding humanity of a “weightier” nature than that (Matt. 10:28, 16:26; Mark 8:36-37; Luke 12:15-21), it follows that God can have no wants regarding humanity that outweigh his desire for its redemption and eventual salvation, which (on the exclusivist assumptions of most Christians) call for situation S. And since God wants everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, as shown in Argument (5), we may infer that there is no overriding want on God’s part that would suppress his desire for situation S. This, then, provides some indirect support for ANB’s premise (A3). One objection to this line of reasoning is that it presupposes Argument (6), which has to do with controversial issues regarding salvation. That is admittedly a weakness in it.
There is another kind of indirect support for ANB’s premise (A3) that does not get involved in such issues, which brings me to the second argument. Call it “Argument (9)”. It appeals to the force of earlier arguments, in particular, Arguments (1)-(4), which made no appeal to the concept of salvation. Looking back at Argument (1), we note that, according to the Bible, God has commanded people to believe in his son, which is quite forceful. Although that may not prove it, it does suggest that God’s desire for situation S is not overridden by any other desire. As for Argument (2), according to the Bible, God’s commandment that people love him maximally is described as the greatest of all the commandments (Mt 22:38, Mk 12:29). That too suggests that God wants people to be aware of what he has done for them, which calls for them to believe set P, and that this is not a matter overridden by other considerations. Further, as already pointed out in Argument (3), according to the Bible, God not only sent out missionaries to spread all over the world the gospel message (which includes set P), but also provided some of them with miraculous powers in order to help get their listeners to accept the message. That suggests that situation S must have been such a high priority in God’s mind as not to be overridden by anything else. Finally, Argument (4) has to do with the mission of God’s son to the planet earth, indicating that a large part of that mission was to get a message out to the whole world that includes set P. It is hard to see how God could have any purpose regarding humanity that might override his son’s mission to the planet earth. Evangelical Christians regard Jesus’s mission as the key to human existence and the meaning of life, so it does not seem they could view it as overridden by something else. In summary, Argument (9), then, is the argument that premise (A3), though not directly expressed in the Bible, is nevertheless implied by several Biblical passages, particularly in the very forceful way that premise (A2) is Scripturally supported.
Argument (9) is admittedly inconclusive. Premise (A3) receives no direct explicit support from Scripture. On the other hand, this weakness may not be fatal, first of all because any support, even of an indirect nature, is better than none, and secondly because (A3) is put forward not just as a claim but also as a challenge. It says that if God were to exist, then he would not have a certain type of desire, one which both necessarily conflicts with and also outweighs his desire for situation S. It is certainly a challenge to even conceive of possible candidates for such a specialized desire, for it is hard to understand what God might want from humans as much as their belief in propositions, including set P, on which depends their love and worship of him, and possibly even their own salvation. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible to imply that God might have such a desire. To deny its existence, then, appears not to be such a terribly bold claim. It should be taken as a challenge by anyone who wishes to attack ANB’s premise (A3) to describe a plausible candidate for the specialized desire called for in it.
ANB’s premise (A4) is exactly the same as AE’s premise (A4). It is the only step, aside from the conclusion, that both arguments share. As was pointed out in the discussion of AE, premise (A4) receives excellent Biblical support and to deny it would be totally outside the conceptual framework of Christianity. It would be hard to find any theist anywhere who would deny God’s rationality.
Let us now consider the other steps of ANB. For reasons analogous to those given in connection with AE, premise (B) is true by definition and should not be controversial. It is based on the idea that if there is no way whatever for situation S to not obtain then S must obtain. And, given that there exists a being who possesses all four properties listed in premise (A), every possible way for situation S to not obtain has been ruled out, so situation S would have to obtain. Another way to view the matter is in terms of the definition of “rational” as it appears in premise (A4). As pointed out earlier in connection with AE, given the truth of all of premise (A), premise (B) comes to be true just in virtue of the definition of “rational” as used in premise (A4). That is, for a being who has all four properties cited in premise (A) to not bring about situation S would exhibit irrationality on his part, which would contradict (A4), so that is logically impossible. Whoever doubts premise (B) is not understanding it properly.
Like AE’s premise (C), ANB’s premise (C) is an empirical fact about our world. Probably less than half the people in the world believe all three propositions of set P. In any case, there are billions of them who do not. (C) is the proposition from which the Argument from Nonbelief derives its name. Note that the Argument from Nonbelief is also an argument for nonbelief in that it aims to prove the nonexistence of God. Thus, it is both “from nonbelief” and also “for nonbelief”, which may suggest circularity. However, the circularity is avoided when the two types of “nonbelief” are specified. The argument proceeds from the fact of widespread nonbelief in set P, as one of its premises, to a proposition which expresses nonbelief in God, as its conclusion. There is no circularity there.
Step (D) is the first conclusion in the argument. As in the case of AE, it follows logically from premises (B) and (C) by the logical rule known as modus tollens. The final conclusion, step (E), also follows logically. As with AE, premise (A) entails the proposition that if God exists, then there would exist a being who has all four properties (1)-(4). And that proposition, together with (D), logically entails the final conclusion, (E), by modus tollens.
As with AE, when all the support for all the premises is included, ANB needs to be classified as an inductive argument. If a distinction were drawn between a “deductive problem of nonbelief” and an “inductive problem of nonbelief”, then ANB would be addressing the latter, not the former. It is an evidential argument, not intended to be conclusive, since the support for its premises is of an inductive or evidential sort. However, ANB itself, disregarding the support for its premises, is a deductive argument, and in my opinion, sound.
Since the conclusions of ANB follow logically from its premises, the only way to attack it would be at one or more of the premises. Dividing (A) into four, there are a total of six premises to be considered: (A1), (A2), (A3), (A4), (B), and (C). Of these, I hope to have shown above that only (A2) and (A3) leave room for debate. The others seem to be non-controversial. And of the two premises about which there may be some debate, (A2) strikes me as the one that is more clearly true, not only being extremely well supported within the Bible but also being regarded as intuitively correct by a majority of theists. Although I shall later consider a challenge to (A2), let us first look at defenses of God’s existence that attack ANB’s premise (A3).
4. The Free-will Defense
According to this objection, which may be called “the Free-Will Defense” or FWD for short, premise (A3) of ANB is false because there is something that God wants even more strongly than situation S and that is the free formation of proper theistic belief. God wants people to come to believe the propositions of set P freely and not as the result of any sort of coercion. He knows that people would indeed believe those propositions if he were to directly implant the belief in their minds or else perform spectacular miracles before them. But for him to do that would interfere with their free will, which he definitely does not want to happen. Since God’s desire that humans retain their free will outweighs his desire for situation S, it follows that premise (A3) is false, which makes ANB unsound.
There are many objections to FWD. First and foremost, assuming that God wants to avoid interfering with people’s free will, it is not clear that that desire actually conflicts with his desire for situation S. Why should showing things to people interfere with their free will? People want to know the truth. It would seem, then, that to show them things would not interfere with their will, but would conform to it. Even direct implantation of belief into a person’s mind need not interfere with his/her free will. If that person were to want true beliefs and not care how the beliefs are obtained, then for God to directly implant true beliefs into his/her mind would not interfere with, but would rather comply with, the person’s free will. An analogy would be God making a large unexpected direct deposit into someone’s bank account. It would make the person quite pleased and would not at all interfere with his/her free will. Furthermore, as was explained previously in Section I, there are many different ways by which God might bring about situation S. It is not necessary for him to use either direct implantation or spectacular miracles. He could accomplish it through relatively ordinary means. It would be ludicrous to claim that free will has to be interfered with whenever anyone is shown anything. People have their beliefs affected every day by what they read and hear, and their free will remains intact. Finally, even the performance of spectacular miracles need not cause such interference. People want to know the truth. They particularly want to be shown how the world is really set up. To perform miracles for them would only conform to or comply with that desire. It would therefore not interfere with their free will. Hence, FWD fails to attack premise (A3) of ANB because it fails to present a desire on God’s part that conflicts with his desire for situation S. That failure makes the Free-Will Defense actually irrelevant to premise (A3).
Even if there were people whose free will would be interfered with by God showing them things, it would seem that such people would be benefitted by coming to know how things really are. Quite apart from the issue of salvation, just being aware that there is a God who loves humanity and who has provided an afterlife for it would bring comfort and hope to people. A loving God would certainly want them to have such comfort and hope. So, even if it were granted that showing things to some people interferes with their free will, FWD would still not work well, for it has not made clear why God should refrain from showing them things of which they ought to be aware. Such “interference with free will” seems to be just what such people need to get “straightened out”.
There is a further objection concerning God’s motivation. FWD seems to claim that God wants people to believe the propositions of set P in an irrational way, without good evidence. But why would he want that? Why would a rational being create people in his own image and then hope that they become irrational? Furthermore, it is not clear just how people are supposed to arrive at the propositions of set P in the absence of good evidence. Is picking the right religion just a matter of lucky guesswork? Is salvation a kind of cosmic lottery? Why would God want to be involved in such an operation?
Sometimes the claim is made that, according to the Bible, God really does want people to believe things without evidence. Usually cited for this are the words of the resurrected Christ to no-longer-doubting Thomas: “because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Also, Peter praises those who believe in Jesus without seeing him (I Peter 1:8). But the message here may not be that God wants people to believe things without any evidence whatever. It may be, rather, that there are other forms of evidence than seeing, such as, for example, the testimony of friends. Perhaps God is simply indicating that he approves of belief based on the testimony of others. Note that, earlier, the resurrected Christ had upbraided some of his disciples for not trusting the testimony of other disciples (Mark 16:14). His words to Thomas may have been just a continuation of that theme. Thus, it is not clear that God desires irrational belief on the part of humans, nor is it clear why he should want that, if indeed he does.
As another objection to FWD, even if it were true that showing people things interferes with their free will, that seems not to have been a very important consideration for God. According to the Bible, he did many things, some of them quite spectacular, in order to cause observers to have certain beliefs. An advocate of the argument needs to explain why God was willing to do such things in the past but is no longer willing to do them in the present.
Finally, the claim that God has non-interference with human free will as a very high priority is not well supported in Scripture. According to the Bible, God killed millions of people. Surely that interfered with their free will, considering that they did not want to die. Furthermore, the Bible suggests that God knows the future and predestines people’s fates. That, too, may interfere with human free will. In addition, there are many obstacles to free will in our present world (famine, mental retardation, grave diseases, premature death, etc.) and God does little or nothing to prevent them. This is not conclusive proof that God does not have human free will as a high priority, but it does count against it. It is at least another difficulty for the Free-Will Defense. Considering these many objections, the argument seems not to work very well. Let us turn to a different defense against ANB.
5. The Testing Defense
The idea behind what might be called “The Testing Defense”, or TD for short, is that God permits so much nonbelief among people in order to somehow test them. It might be objected at the outset that God need not test people, for he already knows everything (as stated in I John 3:20). The Bible says repeatedly that God and his son know everything there is to know about people. On the other hand, God is also said to have tested Abraham (Gen. 22:1,12) and the Israelites (Deut. 8:2, 13:3), perhaps also Adam and Eve. Could it be that tests are performed on people, not for God to find out anything, but for others to be shown? For example, Job was tested (Job 1:8-12, 2:3-6), but it was not for God to learn anything about Job but to prove something to Satan. Perhaps God’s omniscience need not be a barrier to testing in general. People may be tested for the benefit of angels or saints or other onlookers. Or it may be to demonstrate to the people themselves their own defects. TD is the argument that premise (A3) of ANB is false because there is something that conflicts with situation S which God wants even more than situation S, and that is to test people.
The question to be raised is how the performing of tests might conflict with situation S. There are two versions of TD. According to one version, the evidence for the propositions of set P is inadequate, and what is being tested is people’s inclination to believe those propositions despite the inadequate evidence. If God were to provide additional evidence for set P, thereby making the evidence adequate, then that would necessarily upset such a test. When the argument is put in that way, it becomes closely related to FWD, and encounters some of the same objections. Why, for example, should God, who is rational, create people in his own image, but then hope that they believe things irrationally, without adequate evidence? I shall not pursue this version.
The second version of TD is the one usually appealed to by evangelical Christians. It is a mainstay in the revivals of the evangelist Billy Graham, who urges people to “make a decision for Christ”. According to the second version, the evidence for set P is already quite adequate. The historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection and for the accuracy of the New Testament in general, from which set P may be inferred, is certainly sufficient and is readily available to anyone who wants to know the truth. Hence, people who do not believe set P must be refusing to believe because of some spiritual defect, such as false pride (sometimes referred to in the Bible as “a hardening of the heart”). God wants such people to be discerned and identified, perhaps so they can be weeded out on the Day of Judgment, and it is for that purpose that the tests are performed. But if God were to supply still additional evidence for set P, then, first of all, it would probably be futile (as suggested in John 12:37 and Luke 16:31). Secondly, even if it were not futile but were actually so overwhelming as to surmount people’s false pride and thereby get them to believe set P, then that would make it too hard to discern and identify people with the spiritual defect of false pride. So the tests would necessarily be upset, which God does not want. Since God’s desire that the tests not be upset both conflicts with and outweighs his desire for situation S, it follows that premise (A3) of ANB is false.
There are many objections to this second version of TD. One obvious one is that there really is no good evidence for set P, even its proposition (a). The alleged historical accuracy of the New Testament is totally unconvincing. Therefore, the argument’s claim that such evidence exists is erroneous.
But even if there were good evidence for all the propositions of set P, it is clear that billions of people in the world are unaware of it. Nor are they in any good position, barring divine intervention, to become aware of it. Their cultural circumstances prevent it. Thus, the claim made in TD that the evidence for set P is “readily available” to everyone is also clearly erroneous.
Consider now those people who have ready access to the New Testament and any other documents or evidence that may be relevant to the truth of set P. If they do not believe set P, does it have to be because they are “refusing to believe” due to something like false pride? Certainly not. One alternate explanation is that they simply find the documents or evidence unconvincing. There is nothing about the Bible that clearly shows it to be true. A neutral observer has no reason to accept Christianity over the many other religions.
Furthermore, even if there were clear evidence which shows set P to be true, it may be that people have simply not reasoned correctly about the matter. They may never have managed to “put two and two together”. Their failure to believe set P could be due to an honest mistake in their thinking about God and the afterlife. Therefore, the claim made in TD that all nonbelievers in set P must suffer from some “spiritual defect” is clearly wrong.
The whole idea of a worldwide test is fraught with difficulty. Millions of people die too young or are too ill or retarded to be properly tested. The lives of many revolve solely around the struggle for survival. Thus, the world is far from being ideally suited for the purpose of testing humans. That in itself is good reason to deny that God is involved in any such testing process or has it as a high priority.
If there were any test going on of the sort described, it would be very unfair to non-theists and to people in non-Western traditions. Most people have powerful inducements to stick with the belief system of the family they were born into. It would be unfair to punish those with the “wrong” religion for not rebelling and switching to one which accepts set P. To suggest that God is engaged in such a practice runs totally contrary to his being just and loving, which are properties attributed to him by most theists, at least in the U.S.
A further problem with the testing idea is that it fails to clarify how strongly one must hold the relevant beliefs in order to pass the test. Suppose someone believes the first proposition of set P but has a little doubt about the second and third. After all, the concept of a loving God who has provided humanity with an afterlife is not one given in experience or intuitively obvious. Someone could easily have some doubt in that area. Would such a person necessarily fail the test? The whole area of belief-tests seems filled with unclarity and conceptual snares.
If God really were interested in identifying people who refuse to believe set P, then he ought to have made the evidence for set P quite good and quite convincing. It is only then that the reason for nonbelief would have to be something other than “unconvincing evidence”. So it is only by providing a lot more evidence for set P than there already is that God could reasonably perform the sort of tests that TD attributes to him. What this shows is that there is no real conflict between God’s desire for situation S and his alleged desire that people’s false pride be revealed. God could have gone ahead and provided a tremendous amount of evidence for all three propositions of set P, enough to cause almost all people to accept them, and then see who the “holdouts” are. The ones who still do not believe set P after all that may very well be “refusing to believe”. In that way, God could have both of his desires fulfilled: he could have situation S and also perform the sort of test described in TD. Since those desires do not really conflict, it is proven that TD is actually irrelevant to premise (A3) of ANB and clearly does not refute it.
6. A Recent Use of TD
In an essay entitled “Why Isn’t the Evidence Clearer?“, John A. Bloom has tried to explain, from a Christian perspective, why God has not presented humanity with clearer evidence for the truth of such propositions as those in set P. On p. 3 Bloom says the following:
[T]he God of the Bible is in no way dependent upon mankind even for love or worship. That He reveals Himself at all is for our benefit, not His.
But even if He reveals evidence of Himself only to benefit us, why isn’t He more forthright about it? This much seems clear: If He made His presence or the evidence too obvious, it would interfere with His demonstration, which is intended to draw out or reveal the true inner character of mankind. … He is restraining Himself in order to demonstrate to human beings something about our inner character, or tendency to evil. We might call this “the Sheriff in the tavern” principle — people tend to be good when they think they are being watched by an authority. If a sheriff wants to find out or reveal who the troublemakers are in a tavern, he must either hide or appear to be an ineffective wimp, otherwise the bad guys will behave as well as everyone else. …
Of course God is not running an experiment because He already knows the outcome. It is more like a demonstration with the results saved for Judgment Day.
Bloom seems to think that nonbelievers behave in wicked ways and God (like the sheriff in the tavern) wants to “catch them in the act”. So God stays hidden because if the nonbelievers were to learn of his existence they would mend their ways and behave morally.
The obvious objection is that nonbelievers are no more wicked than believers. There is no “act” to “catch” them in. No one has ever produced any evidence whatever that Christians (or theists generally) behave in a more moral manner than do non-Christians (or non-theists).
As shown in the above quotation, Bloom seems to think that if God were to provide more evidence of his existence then that would have an effect on nonbelievers. But in another passage (p. 4) he says the following:
Would the performance of an undeniable miracle in a scoffer’s presence be enough? However impressive such feats would be, the records of history show that most people choose to ignore whatever evidence they have, no matter how clear it may be. …
From the human perspective, why isn’t the evidence clearer? Because God knows, and has already demonstrated, that no matter how clear He makes the evidence, it will never be sufficient for some. More evidence by itself will not convince people whose minds are already emotionally attached to an opposing view, because people are not always rational.
Bloom seems oblivious to the contradiction here: that for God to provide nonbelievers with more evidence of his existence would affect them (just as the presence of the sheriff in the tavern would affect the potential troublemakers) and yet (because of the irrational close-mindedness of nonbelievers) such action on God’s part would not affect them. Not knowing which of the contradictory propositions to assert, Bloom asserts them both!
Another contradiction has to do with whether or not the existing evidence (for set P) is already sufficient to enlighten nonbelievers. [This connects with the two different versions of TD mentioned above at the beginning of Section 5.] Not knowing what to say, Bloom says both things! In the quote above, he says that the evidence is not sufficient (because of the nonbelievers’ irrational close-mindedness). But elsewhere in the essay (pp. 4-5), he says:
Some people will repent on seeing even a low level of evidence; for others a higher level is required. Some people will get much more evidence than is needed to convert others but still not repent. Despite the varying levels of evidence to which people are exposed throughout various times and cultures, God states that He has given each person enough so that they know better than to continue doing evil. …
God provides sufficient evidence for self-centered people.
Thus, Bloom contradicts himself, saying in one place that the existing evidence is sufficient for nonbelievers and in another place that it is not sufficient.
If the evidence is sufficient, then why are there so many nonbelievers? The very fact that they do not believe shows that whatever evidence they had was not sufficient. On the other hand, if they have not been provided with sufficient evidence, then it seems unfair to punish them. Instead of punishing them, an omnibenevolent deity should seek to enlighten them. After all, as Bloom himself says earlier, God reveals himself to people strictly for their benefit, not his.
All the objections raised against TD in Section 5, above, apply against Bloom’s statement of it. He says that the Bible itself provides good evidence for the Christian God, but that claim has been thoroughly refuted. Even if there were such evidence out there, it is clear that many, if not most, people are unaware of it (as Bloom himself seems to grant by his reference, above, to “various times and cultures”), so to punish such nonbelievers would be totally unfair. Finally, even if Bloom were right and nonbelievers are in an irrational “state of denial” regarding the evidence for the God of Christianity, he still owes us an explanation for why such a deity would want to punish such people. What they would seem to need, instead, is some sort of treatment for their irrationality. Maybe they could use a good course in critical thinking, for they seem not to know what is best for themselves.
The Testing Defense is encountered every now and then, as shown by the Bloom essay, and it has a slight connection with the popular Pascal’s Wager idea. But the notion that billions of people are somehow aware of the propositions of set P but are “refusing to believe” them is just too far-fetched to take seriously. And the idea that God is more interested in “catching” such people than in curing them of their ignorance is also too unreasonable to accept. It is clear that some other sort of defense is needed against the Argument from Nonbelief.
7. The Afterlife Defense
The objection here is that it is ANB’s premise (A2) that is false, after all, because God is really not interested in situation S, but rather, a future situation somewhat like S. It is a situation in which everyone will believe the propositions of set P, but most of the people will have come to believe them in an afterlife rather than prior to their physical death, as specified in situation S. Since it is this other situation that God wants, and not situation S, the argument’s premise (A2) is false. Let us call this objection to ANB “The Afterlife Defense” or AD for short. It is a defense of God’s existence which appeals to the idea of a future society in which God, or his son, reigns as king and in which everyone believes all three propositions of set P (or knows them, as an advocate would put it). People who died without having been sufficiently enlightened about the gospel will be resurrected at the time of the future kingdom and given another opportunity “to come to the knowledge of the truth”. Because of this, God does not want situation S, which relates only to belief prior to physical death. And so, premise (A2) of ANB is false.
There are several objections to AD. First of all, there are conceptual problems with the idea of a general resurrection of the dead in which people somehow come back to life in new bodies and can nevertheless be identified as the people they were prior to death. This is a large topic in itself, and we need not pursue it here. It should just be noted that many are not convinced that such an afterlife is even conceptually possible.
A second objection is that AD has no basis in Scripture and may even conflict with it regarding the doctrine of salvation. The argument claims that some people will not attain salvation by what they do or believe in this life, but rather, by what they do and believe in the next life. It is only in the afterlife that they will come to believe in God and the afterlife and thereby meet that important requirement for salvation. But the Bible does not say anything about such a possibility, and, in fact, some verses seem to conflict with it. The Bible says, “Now is the day of salvation” (II Cor. 6:2) and “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This seems to require that the criteria for salvation be satisfied in this life and leaves no room for anyone coming to satisfy them after having been resurrected into the next life.
The third objection is closely related to the second one. If AD were correct, then just about everyone will eventually attain salvation. People who are aware of having become resurrected and who are at that time preached to by angels and given the opportunity for salvation are not likely to let such an opportunity slip by. Yet, according to the Bible, Jesus himself said that very few people will be saved (Matt. 7:14, Luke 13:23-24). So, here is still another place where the argument seems to conflict with Scripture.
The fourth objection to AD is that it seems to be incompatible with the Great Commission. Why should it be important to God to have missionaries go forth to spread the gospel to all nations, beginning at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, if people will receive another chance at such education in the afterlife? Presumably they would learn the truth of the gospel much more readily than under past or present conditions, for they would presumably be aware that they are in an afterlife, which in itself would make an enormous difference. Why should missionaries struggle to convince people of the gospel message in this life when the same job could be accomplished effortlessly (say by angels) in the next life? AD has no good answer. Until some answer is given, the argument appears incompatible with the importance placed upon the Great Commission.
The fifth objection is similar to the fourth one. There is a great mystery surrounding AD. Why should God set up the world in such a way that there is a prior period when people are pretty much left on their own, followed by a kingdom-period in which God or his son reigns? What is the purpose of it all, especially if people can become resurrected from the one period to the other and have the more important portion of their existence, including satisfaction of the criteria for salvation, during the second period? Why even bother with the earlier period? The argument leaves all this unanswered, and that is still another reason to regard it unsatisfactory.
Finally, there is excellent support for premise (A2) of ANB, as shown above in Arguments (1)-(7). AD has done nothing to undermine that support. For that reason alone, it ought to be rejected, but the above objections to AD also render it untenable. It appears that the only way to attack ANB is through its premise (A3). Let us turn, then, to a consideration of another objection to the argument that accepts its premise (A2) but rejects its premise (A3).
8. The Unknown-purpose Defense
According to the Free-will Defense, God is afraid that bringing about situation S would interfere with people’s free will, which he wants to avoid. And according to the Testing Defense, he is testing people as regards their beliefs and wants to avoid upsetting the tests. Both of these might be called “Known-purpose Defenses” of God’s existence against ANB. I here exclude the Afterlife Defense, because it does not put forward any purpose for nonbelief but merely belittles it. Both of the Known-purpose Defenses against ANB have been shown above to be failures.
This brings us to a defense that cannot be so easily refuted, the Unknown-purpose Defense, or UPD for short. According to UPD, God does have some purpose for permitting all the nonbelief in set P, but it is an unknown purpose so far as humanity is concerned. Contrary to the suggestion made in the Afterlife Defense, God does want to prevent or eliminate the nonbelief, i.e., to bring about situation S. But there is something else that necessarily conflicts with that desire, something which God wants even more than to bring about situation S. If we were to learn what that “something else” is, then we would fully understand why God has permitted so many people to live their earthly lives without any awareness of the truth of set P.
UPD is a direct attack on ANB’s premise (A3). In fact, it is not anything more than a flat-out denial of it. UPD has both an actualist and a possibilist version. According to the latter, ANB is possibly unsound and therefore fails as a conclusive proof of God’s nonexistence. That is, ANB needs to establish that God cannot possibly have any purpose which would falsify its premise (A3), but this is something that it has failed to do. This is a point that might plausibly be made by someone totally neutral on the issue. It is a point that advocates of ANB (ANBers) are willing to grant. The objection to the possibilist version of UPD is that it is too weak to function as a defense of God’s existence by most theists. Since they want to affirm the existence of the particular sort of deity against which ANB is raised, they need to show that ANB is definitely unsound, not just possibly unsound. For that reason, it is only the actualist version that is relevant in the present context of discussion. In what follows, then, I shall take “UPD” to refer only to its actualist version.
A Burden-of-proof Objection can be raised against UPD. Advocates of UPD (UPDers) are making a specific existence claim: there actually exists a divine purpose for permitting all the nonbelief in set P that there is in the world. So they have the burden of showing that such a purpose really does exist, a burden which they have not at all fulfilled. But they may try to sidestep this objection by applying it against their opponents. Since ANBers are trying to prove or establish something (even though their proof is not intended to be conclusive), they also have a certain burden of proof: to show that each of their premises is indeed true. The issue comes down to whether there is any controversial step in ANB which ANBers have failed to adequately support, thereby failing to fulfill the burden of proof that is upon them. If so, then UPDers can seize that point in an attempt to sidestep the Burden-of-proof Objection raised against their own existence claim. The main candidate for such a step is again premise (A3) according to which God does not have any purpose which necessarily conflicts with and outweighs his desire to bring about situation S.
In Section 3, above, Arguments (8) and (9) were put forward in support of ANB’s premise (A3). Argument (8) presupposes Argument (6), which appeals to the exclusivist idea that people who do not believe set P by the time they die will end up damned. According to (8), since situation S pertains to people’s eternal destiny and there cannot be anything more important than that, God cannot have any purpose which overrides his desire to bring about situation S, which makes premise (A3) true. Of course, the exclusivist presupposition behind that mode of reasoning might be challenged, though it is important to note that most Christians accept it.
The other argument used to support ANB’s premise (A3) was Argument (9), which appeals to the forcefulness of Arguments (1)-(4). In the case of Arguments (1) & (2), the idea is that since God commanded all people to love him maximally and to believe in his son, which requires believing set P, he cannot have purposes which override his desire for situation S. Also, the maximal love commandment is said to be the greatest of all the commandments (Mark 12:28-30), which indicates that this is not a matter to be overridden by other considerations. And in the case of Argument (3), the idea is that since God actually empowered some of the apostles to perform miracles in order for them to spread the gospel message (which includes the propositions of set P), it is unlikely that he has purposes which override his desire that the message be spread. Finally, in the case of Argument (4), the idea is that since Jesus declared that his purpose in coming into the world was to testify to the truth (which presumably includes set P), it is not possible that God would have some other purpose which overrides the spreading of belief in set P. All of this, then, is good Scriptural support (albeit of an indirect nature) for ANB’s premise (A3).
Thus, the fact of the matter is that there is good support for ANB’s premise (A3) whereas there is absolutely none for the existence claim within (the actualist version of) UPD. Because of that, ANB does clearly satisfy the burden-of-proof requirement placed upon it, whereas UPD does not. UPD therefore succumbs to the Burden-of-proof Objection.
I would like to develop at length another objection to UPD which I shall call the “Further-properties Objection”. Christians usually ascribe to God the property of wanting people to love him maximally. Such a deity must want people to believe set P, since that would increase their awareness of what he has done for humanity and thereby help them to love him maximally. If a person who is not aware of the truth of set P were to love God, then he would come to love God still more if he were to become aware of it; so God must want people to be aware of the truth of set P. Furthermore, as shown previously, the fact that, according to Scripture, God actually commanded people to love him maximally and called that his greatest commandment can also be used to support ANB’s premise (A3). What can UPDers say in opposition? If God really does have the sort of overriding purpose that they say he has, then why did he issue the “maximal love” commandment and call it his “greatest” commandment? It would make no sense for him to do that. Consider an analogy. Suppose my class is divided into two groups of students, those I want to have certain information, X, and those I don’t want to have X because of some overriding consideration. Then I order them all to perform task T and even inform them that that is my most important order. But performing task T requires having information X. I think that I could here quite properly be said to be irrational. It would make no sense for me to order people to do something I really want them to do where for them to do it requires having information which I do not want them to have. This is very much like the situation in which UPDers place God. They concede that he wants all of us to love him maximally and has even ordered us to do so as his “greatest” commandment. But for us to do that, we need to be aware of set P. Then the UPDers claim that there is some unknown divine purpose which overrides God’s desire to make us aware of set P. If God has such an overriding purpose, then why should he issue the given commandment? We can’t understand it. UPD makes God appear irrational.
Another reason for God to reveal to humanity his purpose for permitting so much nonbelief in set P (or at least the fact that he has such a purpose) would be to provide ammunition which would refute ANB’s premise (A3) and thereby ANB itself. That would help eradicate whatever nonbelief there may be that was based upon ANB, something God would like to see happen if he were to exist. No doubt there is in the world more nonbelief based on AE than on ANB, but that may change in the future. In any case, it would behoove God to nip ANB-based nonbelief in the bud. His failure to do so is a sign of irrationality. Or, rather, it is a sign of his nonexistence, since God is by definition rational.
Another property of God as usually conceived (beyond the usual ones and in addition to the property mentioned above) is that of having done the following three things: (1) he sent his son to “testify to the truth” (of set P); (2) he directed missionaries (by way of his son) to spread the gospel message to all nations; and (3) he even empowered some of the missionaries with the ability to perform miracles in order to help them get the message across. According to what might be called “the Great-Commission Reply”, that only shows that God wanted situation S, not that he wanted to bring it about himself. Having human missionaries do the job was more important to God than the result itself. But that in itself is very peculiar. When Christians try to explain why God issued the Great Commission, they normally think the reason to be that God wanted the gospel message spread to all nations. That is, they regard the final result to be what is of main importance. To claim that it wasn’t the result but the process itself that was most important to God would leave many questions: In particular, why? Why should having humans bring about the result be more important than the result itself? One result here would be worldwide awareness of set P. How could that be secondary in God’s priorities to the activity of the missionaries? And why did God stop empowering missionaries with the ability to perform miracles? They would have been much more likely to succeed in fulfilling the Great Commission if they had retained that power and if still more of them had it. Also, why did God permit the Bible to become defective (containing contradictions and factual errors, etc., as shown by various essays on the Secular Web)? To put the matter in a more general way, why hasn’t God done more to help his missionaries spread belief in set P? If he really wanted them to succeed in their assigned task, then he should have done more to assist them.
UPD could be brought in here. It might be said that there are answers to all these questions, but humanity is unaware of them. For some reason, God has not revealed the answers. Nor has he revealed the purpose for all the secrecy surrounding the matter or even that there exists such a purpose. There are at least two objections to this sort of move. First, there is no reason to cling to the Great-Commission Reply if one is going to appeal to UPD. One may just as well say that we do not know any of God’s purposes regarding the widespread nonbelief in set P and let it go at that. There is nothing in Scripture to warrant connecting such purposes with the Great Commission. To do so is pure speculation. The second objection is that here again UPD makes God appear irrational. The situation is like that with human suffering except that the present framework is more constricted. It is clearer from Scripture that God really does want “all men to come to a knowledge of the truth” than that he wants any reduction in earthly suffering. Jesus himself declared that he came to earth to “testify to the truth”. And so the “unknown purpose” idea has less conceptual space in which to operate.
The present objection to UPD is what I call “the Further-properties Objection”. On the basis of both Scripture and the usual theistic conception of God in the U.S., it ascribes to God the further divine properties of (1) wanting (even commanding) all humans to love him maximally and (2) having sent his son and missionaries to spread the gospel message worldwide. The argument is that UPD becomes utterly implausible when confronted by these further properties.
Still another argument could be brought up against those Christians who are exclusivists. According to Scripture, God wants everyone to be saved. But exclusivists say that salvation is denied those who fail to believe set P. So this must provide God with powerful motivation to bring about situation S (or universal belief in set P). How could he have a purpose which overrides that? As the Bible implies, there is nothing more important, so far as humanity is concerned, than salvation (Matt. 16:26, Mark 8:36). The conceptual space here for an unknown divine purpose is exceedingly limited. Yet UPDers might still try to interject their appeal to mystery. We would like to ask them: how could humanity develop a soteriology (a theory about salvation) if there lurks in the conceptual background some unknown divine purpose that pretty well upsets whatever Christians think they have learned about salvation from Scripture? In the end, the appeal to UPD would cause exclusivist Christians to regard God as remote, hidden, and mysterious. Not much could be said about salvation with such unknown purpose(s) in the background. Much of the evangelical missionary effort would thereby be undermined, for exclusivist missionaries with the UPD outlook could not answer questions about salvation. They would have to say things like “That is not for us to know”, which would run counter to the missionary message of “Here is the truth!”
Even some evangelical Christians find that exclusivism depicts God as irrational and that seems right. A deity who wants all humans to be saved but who permits 2/3 of them to be damned for lack of information essential to salvation appears to be quite irrational or insane. This can be regarded as an extension of the Further-properties Objection. When God is viewed as having the further property of wanting all humans to be saved, exclusivism is shown to be so implausible that not even UPD can rescue it. To appeal to UPD within that context would undermine the missionary effort and thus be inimical to evangelicalism. What I have tried to show is that it is utterly irrational for Christians to appeal to UPD, especially if they espouse an exclusivist soteriology. Even without exclusivism, I regard the Further-properties Objection to refute UPD within the context of Christianity or any similar theistic religion.
Still other objections to UPD might be put forward. Consider the following worldviews, call them “AH” and “UH” (for the “agnostic hypothesis” and “unknown-purpose hypothesis”):
- Part I: At least one of the following disjuncts is true:
- (1) there is no divine power of any sort that rules the universe, or
- (2) there is such a power but it is not in the form of a single personal being, or
- (3) there is such a being but he or she is not both all-powerful and all-knowing, or
- (4) the being is not completely rational, or
- (5) the being does not have a strong desire to bring about universal awareness of the truth of set P among humans, or
- (6) the being does not desire that humans love him or her greatly.
- Part II: There is no anomaly or mystery surrounding the fact that at least half of all humans in the world lack an awareness of the truth of set P.
- Part I: At least one of the following disjuncts is true:
- Part I: All of the following are true:
- (1) there is some sort of divine power that rules the universe, and
- (2) that power is in the form of a single personal being, and
- (3) he (i.e., said being) is all-powerful and all-knowing, and
- (4) he is completely rational, and
- (5) he has a strong desire to bring about universal awareness of the truth of set P among humans [and even sent his son to “testify” to it and commanded missionaries to spread the message worldwide, even empowering some of them to perform miracles in order to accomplish that], and
- (6) he has some overriding purpose for permitting the great lack of awareness of the truth of set P that exists among humans, a purpose unknown to humanity, which if known would fully explain it, and
- (7) in addition, he has some purpose for all the secrecy surrounding the purpose mentioned [in (6), above], also unknown to humanity, which if known would fully explain both that secrecy and all the secrecy surrounding itself [i.e., this purpose mentioned in (7)], and
- (8) he strongly desires that all humans love him maximally [even commanding them to do so and calling that his “greatest” commandment].
- Part II: Part I gives rise to an anomaly or mystery surrounding the great lack of awareness of the truth of set P that exists in the world and the secrecy surrounding the purposes mentioned in (6) and (7), because, not only is humanity ignorant of those purposes, but it seems impossible, given the being’s properties mentioned in (3)-(5) & (8), that he might have such purposes and permit humanity to be ignorant of them.
- Part I: All of the following are true:
The reason for formulating conjunct (5) in UH in terms of God wanting to bring about the awareness rather than in terms of God simply wanting the awareness itself is that in the context of UPD we are assuming that the Great-Commission Reply and all other Known-purpose Defenses have been abandoned. The UPDer has backed down on all those battles and has come to concede that, as claimed in ANB’s premise (A2), God must want to bring about situation S. The battle line, then, is totally at premise (A3).
The reason for mentioning God’s desire for humanity’s love [disjunct (6) in AH and conjunct (8) in UH] is that it creates an anomaly when conjoined with items (6) and (7) in UH. A god who strongly desires that humanity love him maximally should not have purposes which he keeps hidden from humanity. Such secrets only create a obstacle to the desired love. It might be claimed that the purposes are not kept secret from us but are simply beyond our comprehension. But even if that were so, God could at least reveal to humanity that the purposes exist. He could have had passages inserted into Scripture which reveal that he has purposes which are beyond our comprehension, such that, if we could understand them, they would clarify for us why he permits so much nonbelief in set P. That would go far towards removing the obstacle in question. But because God did not reveal to humanity even the existence of any of the relevant purposes, the anomaly remains.
Between AH and UH, UH appears to have the lower a priori probability because of the logical structure of the two hypotheses. AH is a huge disjunction and UH is a huge conjunction. The only way for the conjunction to be as likely or more likely true than the disjunction would be for the individual conjuncts to have a much higher probability than that for the individual disjuncts. But that is not the case. There is no reason whatever to regard the conjuncts as more probable than the disjuncts, especially since each of the conjuncts is itself highly problematic and controversial. Thus, all things considered, AH is the more reasonable hypothesis to accept.
Furthermore, AH is more reasonable than UH because it is not confronted by any anomaly, whereas UH is. In other words, AH does not make any appeal to mystery, whereas UH does. Hypotheses which appeal to mystery defeat the purpose of explanation itself. Also, it is important to Christianity’s missionary effort to be able to put forward explanations for phenomena. The missionaries need to show their listeners that Christianity can explain things better than rival worldviews. So the appeal to divine mysteries and “unknown purposes” would be counter-productive and out of place there. Furthermore, not only does UH appeal to mystery, but it creates a much greater mystery than the initial fact to be explained (which was the widespread nonbelief in set P). The greater mystery is the anomaly mentioned in UH’s Part II. That is still another reason to reject it, especially within the context of Christianity. Since AH is clearly the preferable hypothesis or worldview, it is reasonable to accept it as the better supported position. It would be reasonable, then, not only to reject UPD, but to deny the existence of the God of Christianity as well.
One main thesis of this essay is that AE is not the only important atheological argument around. There is another contender to take on God’s existence and that is ANB. Both arguments are very strong, especially in the context of Christianity. The problem of nonbelief and the problem of evil are parallel problems in the philosophy of religion and should receive parallel treatment within it.
A second main thesis is that the problem of nonbelief is an even greater difficulty for theism, and especially Christianity, than is the problem of evil. When AE and ANB are applied specifically to the God of Christianity, ANB is a stronger, more forceful, and more cogent argument for their conclusion (that that god does not exist) than is AE. There is Biblical evidence that if the God of Christianity were to exist then he would have a great concern about humanity’s widespread lack of belief in set P. There is also Biblical evidence that if that deity were to exist then he would have a great concern about humanity’s earthly suffering. But the former evidence is stronger than the latter evidence. Hence, the widespread absence of such belief among humans is a better reason to deny the existence of that type of deity than is the widespread earthly suffering among humans.