Theodore Drange Drange Mchugh Drange1

Opening Statement

The Argument from Nonbelief for the Nonexistence of the God of Evangelical Christianity (2003)

Theodore M. Drange

 

Although Chris McHugh and I have discussed the argument from nonbelief (abbreviated ANB) in the past[1], and although he took it up recently as part of his Internet debate with Doug Krueger[2], I shall not presuppose any of that in this debate, but will present the argument from scratch. My position is that ANB provides good objective evidence for the nonexistence of the God of evangelical Christianity.

To formulate ANB, I first provide two definitions:

The gospel message = the proposition that the universe is governed by a single, supreme deity who sent his only son to be the savior of humans by making eternal life possible for them.

Situation S = the situation of all, or almost all, humans from the time of Jesus of Nazareth (to the present) coming to believe the gospel message prior to their physical death.

Using this definition, ANB may be expressed as follows:

  1. If the God of evangelical Christianity (GC) 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 S, i.e., having it among his desires;
  3. not wanting anything else, that conflicts with his desire to bring about S, as strongly as it;
  4. being rational (which implies always acting in accord with his own highest purposes).

  1. If there were to exist a being who has all four properties listed above, then situation S would have to obtain.
  2. But situation S does not obtain. It is not the case that all, or almost all, humans since the time of Jesus have come to believe the gospel message prior to their physical death.
  3. Therefore [from B & C], there does not exist a being who has all four properties listed in premise (A).
  4. Hence [from A & D], GC does not exist.

Comments

GC can be understood to be “the God of the Bible as interpreted by evangelical Christianity.” Evangelical Christianity is that orientation towards the religion which emphasizes at least the following four things: God’s unrestricted love for humanity, God’s desire that all humans be saved, God’s desire that his love for humanity be reciprocated, and the importance of missionary work in spreading the gospel message worldwide. I take GC, thus understood, to be the dominant and most prevalent concept of deity among Christians, at least in the U.S.

Dividing ANB’s premise (A) into four subpremises, we should inquire of each of them whether it receives biblical support. Premise (A1) is supported by the Bible’s repeated claim that God is all-powerful (Gen. 17:1, 35:11; Jer. 32:17,27; Matt. 19:26; Mark 10:27; Luke 1:37; Rev. 1:8, 19:6.) It is clear that he could have brought about situation S, even all things considered.

One way for God to reveal himself to people and thereby bring about situation S would be through religious experiences. But it is unclear just what form the experiences might take. Would people hear inner voices or see visions (like Paul on the road to Damascus)? Or would it be just a kind of feeling that overcomes them? One problem with a feeling is that it seems incapable of delivering thoughts with as much specific content as the gospel message. Hearing inner voices seems more effective in that regard.

A more promising way for God to have gotten the message across might have been by the performance of spectacular miracles. He could have spoken to people in a thunderous voice or used skywriting to proclaim the gospel message worldwide. If there is concern that the use of such miracles would be too intimidating, we need only note that God, being all-powerful, could tailor them so that they have just the right degree of force. For example, 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 thereby have made such a definite place for himself in history that it would have enlightened billions of people coming later about the truth of the gospel message. Such a chain of events would not have intimidated people.

God could also have brought about situation S without resort to spectacular miracles. He could have done it through behind-the-scenes actions. For example, he could have sent out millions of angels, disguised as humans (like the ones at the empty tomb), to preach to people in such a persuasive manner as to get them to believe the gospel message. 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 that it would today contain no unclarity or errors of any sort. Also, it could have contained a large number of very 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 the gospel message. If all that had been done, then situation S would probably have come to obtain.

Furthermore, God could have postponed the sending of his son to, say, (what we call) the year 2000 A.D. He could then have made use of the Internet to advertise the event both before and after its occurrence. People who browse the Web could regularly receive the gospel message, perhaps even if they try to avoid it with “pop-up blockers.” God could also “flame” all and only nonbelievers who are sitting at their computers by warning them of future judgment. There could fall from the sky millions of CDs containing the gospel message, delivered in spectacular colors and sounds. (Of course all this could also take place even if the saving of the world by God’s son had occurred when it was supposed to have occurred, long ago, but in that case other methods would have been needed to enlighten those who lived before the Information Age.) 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. There is no limit to the number of different ways that God could have brought about situation 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 minimal way, meaning only that doing so is among God’s desires. Thus, it is a desire that might be overridden by some other desire, which creates a need for premise (A3). The question might be raised whether God might want situation S without wanting to bring it about himself. Certainly 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 not matter whether 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 the situation himself. Since God is not lazy and is highly motivated, there would in that case be no reason for him not to want to do it. In other words, if there is no counterexample to refute premise (A3), then there is no 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 refute ANB’s premise (A3). All that would be needed, then, in order to support premise (A2) would be arguments to the effect that GC (as described above) has situation S among his desires. There are at least four different arguments to show that.[3] Let us label them “arguments (1)-(4).”

Argument (1). According to the Great Commission, God (via his son) directed missionaries to preach the gospel message to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20) and to all creation (Mark 16:15-16 NIV). Presumably God wanted everyone to believe the gospel message. And he not only wanted the message preached worldwide, 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.[4] Since miracles are works of God, we could say that, in effect, God himself was indirectly starting to bring about situation S. We may infer that getting people to believe the gospel message must have been a high priority for him. This is very strong support for ANB’s premise (A2).

Argument (2). According to St. Paul, God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4 NIV). It is clear that the “truth” includes the gospel message, and certainly evangelical Christianity takes 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 the gospel message, which makes ANB’s premise (A2) true.

Argument (3). According to the Bible and evangelical Christianity, God wants all humans to be saved. There are indeed verses, like the one quoted in argument (2), above, that either state it directly or else point in that direction. (See Matt. 18:12-14; John 12:32; Rom. 5:18, 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:4,6; 2 Peter 3:9.) But the Bible says that in order for people to be saved they must believe in God’s son (Mark 16:15-16; John 3:18,36, 8:21-25, 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; 1 John 5:12), which is usually taken to include accepting him as the savior of the world. Hence, God must want people to believe in his son as the savior of the world, which entails believing the gospel message. Hence, (A2) must be true.

Argument (4). Quite aside from the Bible, evangelical Christians regard God as a being who loves humanity, who wants that love to be reciprocated, and who thereby wants people to be aware of the gospel message, since people’s awareness of the message would help them to reciprocate God’s love for them. In the case of some, it might incline them towards greater morality, which God also desires. Certainly it would provide people with comfort and hope for the future, and since God loves people, he must want them to attain such a benefit. It might be argued, then, that the proposition that God wants humanity to be aware of the truth of the gospel message fits in well with evangelical Christianity’s overall worldview and would therefore be affirmed by evangelical Christians. On that basis, we may infer that God, conceived of in the given way, wants situation S, which makes ANB’s premise (A2) true.

It is important that we now see how ANB’s premise (A3) might be supported. There are three arguments that I would like to consider. Let us label them “arguments (5)-(7).”

Argument (5). As pointed out in argument (1), above, according to the book of Acts, God not only sent out missionaries to spread the gospel worldwide, 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. Furthermore, part of the mission of God’s son to the planet earth was to transmit the truth, which includes the gospel message, to the whole world (John 18:37). 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’ 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. All this supports ANB’s premise (A3).

Argument (6). Argument (3), above, which is sound, 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 humans that outweigh his desire for their redemption and eventual salvation, which (on the exclusivist assumptions of evangelical Christians) calls for situation S. And since God wants everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, as shown in argument (2), we may infer that there is no want on God’s part that would override his desire for situation S. This, then, also provides support for ANB’s premise (A3).

Argument (7). God is commonly regarded to be a perfect being who always wants nothing but the best. It follows that he cannot have a conflict of desires, since there is only one situation that can be the best. This makes ANB’s premise (A3) tautologically true. Whoever rejects that premise is obliged to explain how it is, exactly, that God could have a conflict of desires.

Premise (A4), the last of (A)’s subpremises, claims that God is rational. The point here 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. ANB’s premise (A4) therefore receives excellent biblical support.

Consider now the other steps of ANB. Premise (B) should not be controversial and is here being taken to be a definitional truth. Anyone who doubts it is not understanding it properly. (B) is based on the idea that if there is no way whatever for situation S not to 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 not to 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). Part of what that term means 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, it is impossible for a being who has all four properties cited in premise (A) not to bring about situation S, since that would exhibit irrationality on his part, which would contradict (A4). It seems, then, that, given a full explication of the concept of rationality, premise (B) becomes true by definition.

ANB’s premise (C), which is the proposition from which ANB derives its name, is an empirical fact about our world. Christianity may be the most widespread religion, but it still claims only a minority of the earth’s people (33.5 percent according to the latest World Almanac), which easily suffices to make (C) true.

Step (D), the first conclusion in the argument, follows logically from premises (B) and (C). And the final conclusion, step (E), follows logically from steps (A) and (D).[5] Since the conclusions follow logically, the only way to attack ANB would be at one or more of its premises. Of those, I hope to have shown above that only premises (A2) and (A3) leave any room for debate. It is to those two that attention needs to be devoted. If they could be adequately defended, then ANB would pose a most formidable threat to rational belief in the God of evangelical Christianity. I shall proceed to consider two objections to ANB which may be brought in to try to defend God’s existence.

The Expectations Defense (ED)

The argument (ED) goes as follows:

  1. God, as described in the Bible, permitted there to exist much nonbelief in the gospel message.
  2. God is even described as causing people to be nonbelievers.[6]
  3. God could have brought about situation S soon after the Resurrection, but didn’t.
  4. Hence, if the God of the Bible, were to exist, then his desires and motivations would be such that his bringing about of situation S would not be expected.
  5. Hence, premise (A2) or (A3) of ANB can be reasonably doubted.[7]

My main objection to this argument, ED, is that it is invalid. The conclusion, (5), does not follow from intermediate step (4). It is true that there are parts of the Bible that suggest the (Calvinist) idea that God has predestined certain people for salvation and others for damnation. And for that reason, among others, ED’s step (4) can be supported. However, evangelical Christians reject that “double predestination” idea and reinterpret or downplay the verses that support it. They would reject the “uncaring” conception of God that is implied in premises (1)-(3) of ED. 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 the eminent Christian philosopher 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” (Evil and the Love of God, NY: Harper & Row, 1966, p. 379). It is part of my working definition of “evangelical Christians” that they conceive of God as desiring that there be universal salvation. In addition, most of them are exclusivists and accept the doctrine that belief in God’s son in the relevant sense is an absolute requirement for salvation, which makes it all the more imperative that situation S obtain, so far as God’s motivation and overall plan are concerned. Thus, GC (the conception of God that is addressed in ANB and in step 5 of ED) is a quite different deity from the one described in steps 1-4 of ED, and for that reason, step 5 of the argument does not follow from its step 4. ED is a failure.

It is important to understand that there is not a single, consistent conception of God presented in the Bible. For example, God is described in some places as wanting all humans to be saved and in other places as not wanting that. I am not trying to prove the nonexistence of the biblical God where the Bible is taken in any way other than that of evangelical Christians. They emphasize God’s unrestricted love for humanity and his strong desire that everyone be saved, which is incompatible with Calvinism. They emphasize God’s desire for humanity to love him in return, which calls for an awareness of the gospel message on humanity’s part. They emphasize the importance of missionary work to bring about such awareness, which is in perfect harmony with ANB’s description of GC as greatly desiring situation S. It may be that other conceptions of God can be attacked by other atheological arguments, but the version of ANB that is under discussion here is aimed specifically at a deity with the given sorts of motivation. The first four steps of ED, though perhaps in themselves unobjectionable[8], are aimed at some other conception of deity, and are thus irrelevant to ANB. In other words, even if we were to grant the claim in ED that if God as described in the Bible (interpreted in some way) were to exist, then there would be no reason to expect situation S to obtain, that would certainly not be granting that if GC, as described above, were to exist, then there would be no reason to expect situation S to obtain. On the contrary, there very definitely would be excellent reason to expect situation S to obtain. For that reason, ED’s conclusion does not follow.

The Unknown-Purpose Defense (UPD)

This argument (UPD) claims that God has some purpose for permitting all the nonbelief in the gospel message, but it is an unknown purpose so far as humanity is concerned. God wants to prevent or eliminate the nonbelief, i.e., to bring about situation S, but there is something else which conflicts with that desire, something which he 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 ignorant of the truth of the gospel message.[9]

As can be seen, UPD is a direct attack on ANB’s premise (A3) and is, in fact, nothing more than a flat-out denial of it. However, premise (A3) was supported, above, by arguments (5)-(7). Those arguments, then, could be taken to be objections to UPD. Let us see how UPD might be further attacked.

In addition to the usual divine attributes, evangelical Christians ascribe to God the further property of wanting people to love him maximally, or at least greatly. This idea can be used in support of ANB against UPD, and could be called “the Further-properties Objection.” Such a deity must want people to believe the gospel message, since that would increase their awareness of what he has done for humanity and thereby help them to love him. Even if a person unaware of the gospel message were to already love God, 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 that message. Furthermore, 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 advocates of UPD 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” one? It would make no sense for him to do that.

Another further property of God is that of having done the following three things: (1) he sent his son to “testify to the truth” (of the gospel message); (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.[10] The question is: why would God do those things if he had some purpose which overrides his desire to bring about situation S? The advocate of UPD owes us an answer here. It might be suggested that there is an answer but God has not revealed it. Nor has he revealed the purpose for all the secrecy surrounding the matter or even that there exist such purposes. But this makes God appear irrational. Scripture says that God really does want “all men to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and that Jesus came to earth to “testify to the truth” (John 18:37). So it would be irrational for God to be so secretive and to withhold the truth from humanity. But it is contrary to God’s nature to be irrational. Hence, UPD is shown to be quite weak. It becomes utterly implausible when confronted by these further divine properties.[11]

Another objection to UPD is that the idea of God on which it is based makes an appeal to mystery. But hypotheses which appeal to mystery are incompatible with explanation. And it is important to evangelical 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 mystery and “unknown purposes” would be counterproductive and out of place there. This could be called “the Explanation Objection.”

So much, then, for UPD. Many other objections to it, as well as to other defenses against ANB, can be raised. The best presentation of all that appears in the book Nonbelief & Evil.[12] More will emerge on these issues as the debate unfolds. I trust that I have given Mr. McHugh enough to work on. My claim, again, is that ANB is a powerful argument for the nonexistence of that specific deity which may be called the God of evangelical Christianity. If McHugh wants to defend ED, what he needs to show is not how situation S would be unexpected given the existence of the biblical God conceived in some way or other, but rather, how situation S would be unexpected given the existence of a deity who has unrestricted love for humanity, a desire that all humans be saved, a desire that his love for humanity be reciprocated, and who regards it of vital importance that missionaries spread the gospel message worldwide. And if McHugh wants to defend UPD, what he needs to do is first to refute arguments (5)-(7), which aim to support ANB’s premise (A3), and then to refute the many other objections to UPD, including the Further-properties and Explanation Objections, which are mentioned above. I look forward to seeing his response.

Notes

[1] In response to my book Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), Mr. McHugh wrote a critique, “A Refutation of Drange’s Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief,” Philo 5, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2002), 94-102, to which I wrote a reply, “McHugh’s Expectations Dashed,” Philo 5, no. 2 (Fall-Winter 2002), 242-248.

[2] The debate appears on the Secular Web.

[3] In my book Nonbelief & Evil, chapter 2, I present seven such arguments. I here shorten it to four for space considerations.

[4] Acts 3:6-18, 5:12-16, 9:33-42, 13:7-12, 14:1-11, 28:3-6.

[5] 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, as presented here and disregarding the support for its premises, is a deductive argument, and (as I argue) one that is sound.

[6] Prov. 16:4; John 12:40; Rom. 9:18; 2 Thess. 2:11-12. Also, Jesus spoke in parables so that not everyone would understand him and thereby get saved (Matt. 13:10-15; Mark 4:11-12; Luke 8:10).

[7] In past discussions of ANB (see notes 1 & 2, above), Mr. McHugh put forward an argument very similar to this one.

[8] I think that there is also some room for debate regarding the first four steps of ED, but it is not necessary to quibble over such details. The main point is that those steps aim at one conception of deity, whereas ANB is directed at a quite different conception of deity.

[9] McHugh suggested UPD in the First Rebuttal of his debate with Doug Krueger. (See note 2.) He said, “there must be some unknown overriding reason why [God] has chosen to allow [unbelief].” Thus, both of the defenses that I discuss here, ED and UPD, are related to McHugh’s past work on the subject.

[10] Some say that having human missionaries do the job was more important to God than the result itself. But that is very peculiar and makes God appear irrational. Christians normally say that God issued the Great Commission because he wanted the gospel message spread to all nations. They regard the final result to be most important. To claim that it wasn’t the result but the process itself that was most important to God would leave the question “Why?” How could worldwide awareness of the gospel message be secondary to the missionaries’ activity, seeing that such awareness helps bring about both people’s love towards God and their own salvation, the very things that God presumably most wants.

[11] As a further point that is related to both ANB and UPD, certainly if GC were to exist, then it would not be expected that a new religion (Islam) would come along that would overtake Christianity in its convert-winning rate. And it would be expected that the God of the Bible would have thoroughly enlightened his own chosen people (the Jews) that their awaited Messiah had arrived. Evangelical Christianity cannot adequately explain either the existence of Islam or why so many Jews in the first century did not convert to Christianity. The most plausible hypothesis appears to be that its deity simply does not exist.

[12] Another place where several of those objections are presented is in my Internet Infidels article “The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief” on the Secular Web, but the book contains a much fuller treatment of them.


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Copyright ©2003 Theodore M. Drange. The electronic version is copyright ©2003 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Theodore M. Drange. All rights reserved.