Second Rebuttal (2004)
My opponent in this debate, Chris McHugh (CM), apparently has three main objections to the argument from nonbelief (ANB), which is the argument that I presented in my opening statement. They are: (1) the expectations defense, (2) his claim that ANB’s premise (A3) is unsupported, and (3) a version of what I have called “the afterlife defense.” I shall take up all three objections and show that they are complete failures.
I: The Expectations Defense (ED)
The argument goes as follows:
- If ANB’s premise A were true, then, if GC were to exist, he would not hold back in his efforts to bring about situation S.
- If GC were to exist, then he would hold back in his efforts to bring about situation S.
- Hence, ANB’s premise A is not true.
CM makes several false claims about this argument. He says it is essentially different from the version of ED that I discussed in my opening statement, but I do not find that to be so. He says that it has the form of a modus tollens, but in fact it does not. Finally, he says the argument is valid, but I claim that it is invalid, and for the very same reason that the version of ED that I had discussed is invalid. Let me say more about that.
The term “GC” appears in each premise of ED, but does not mean the same thing in both premises. The argument is invalid because it commits the Fallacy of Equivocation. In the first premise, “GC” must refer to the same deity as does ANB. But what is that deity? As spelled out in my opening statement, “GC” is to be taken to refer to the God of evangelical Christianity, where “evangelical Christianity” is defined as “that orientation which emphasizes: 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.” ED’s first premise, taking “GC” in that way, is true.
In ED’s second premise, however, the term “GC” is not taken in the given way. It refers, instead, to the God of the Bible, interpreted in a way different from the way evangelical Christians interpret it. CM seems not to have grasped the point that I made in my opening statement: that God is described in different places in the Bible in quite different ways. In some verses it is said or implied that God wants all humans to be saved, whereas in other verses it is implied that he does not want that. Also, in some verses the apostles’ work in converting their listeners to Christianity is implied to be a very high priority with God, whereas in other verses that work is implied not to be such a high priority. Evangelical Christians have a concept of God that emphasizes the first set of verses in each case and downplays the second set. That is the concept of God appealed to in premise 1 of ED and referred to in ANB as “GC.” However, the concept of God that is appealed to in premise 2 of ED emphasizes the second set of verses in each case and downplays the first set. There are thus two quite different concepts of deity involved. The premise-1 deity is totally caring and very much concerned about the evangelization of humans, i.e., getting them to be aware of the truth of the gospel message. In contrast, the premise-2 deity seems uncaring and has little or no concern about the evangelization of humans. Evangelical Christians would not embrace premise 2 or the concept of a God who holds back in his efforts to get people to be aware of the “good news,” i.e., the truth of the gospel message. So, the use of the term “GC” in premise 2 is incorrect. That term was introduced in ANB specifically to stand for the God of evangelical Christianity, and it is clear that in ED’s premise 2 it is not being used in that way. Perhaps what premise 2 says is true of some deity, described somewhere in the Bible, but it is not true of the God of evangelical Christianity. Because of the equivocation that occurs in ED, the argument is invalid.
II: Support for ANB’s Premise (A3)
CM says, “The other properties given in premise A receive strong scriptural support, but (A3) not only receives no support from the Bible, but is incompatible with the notion that God chose human missionaries to preach the gospel.” He is mistaken on both scores. (A3) does receive some support from the Bible and also is quite compatible with the notion that God chose human missionaries to preach the gospel. Taking the latter point first, we need only note that God could have empowered missionaries to perform miracles in order to get their listeners to believe the gospel message. Such a methodology on God’s part would have been quite effective and could easily have brought about situation S.
CM’s first point, about “no support,” is also mistaken. In my opening statement, I presented two biblical arguments for (A3). My argument (5) points out that the truth of (A3) is suggested by biblical verses according to which God actually empowered apostles to perform miracles in order to get their listeners to accept the gospel message. CM claims that such verses are offset by other verses which indicate that God permitted the apostles to encounter grave difficulties. But he does not give a single biblical reference to support this claim. Perhaps the reason is that even where the apostles were harassed or arrested, God sometimes intervened and led them to safety, which tends to defeat the point. (See, e.g., Acts 5:18-20 and 12:6-17.) Furthermore, none of the thousands of people who actually witnessed the apostles’ miracles were among those who persecuted them. That, too, counteracts CM’s point. Where the miracles were performed, they were efficacious.
One group of verses point to God’s great desire that the apostles succeed in their efforts at evangelization, whereas other verses possibly suggest God’s lack of concern regarding the matter. The fact that there exists the second group of verses certainly does not entail that there is not also the first group! As an analogy, there could be both eyewitness testimony that X shot Y and other eyewitness testimony that X did not shoot Y. Each side in the case is supported by good evidence. The first set of testimony definitely exists and the fact that there is also the other testimony does not negate that fact. Analogously, despite the verses cited by CM, my argument (5) is quite correct in its presentation of biblical support for ANB’s premise (A3).
My argument (6) also shows biblical support for ANB’s premise (A3). There are many verses which imply the Christian exclusivist principle that knowledge and acceptance of the gospel message are necessary for salvation. Thus, since GC strongly desires that everyone be saved, he must also strongly desire that everyone accept the gospel message, which calls for situation S. According to scripture, there is nothing more important to a person than salvation. That implies that there is nothing which overrides GC’s desire for people’s acceptance of the gospel, which in turn supports (A3). CM has not put forth anything to get around this argument. Although he indicates that he himself does not accept the evangelicals’ principle of Christian exclusivism, that is irrelevant. ANB pertains to GC, the God of evangelical Christians. It is only their view of the requirements for salvation that matters here.
My argument (7), which makes no overt appeal to the Bible, also supports (A3). (A3) says that if GC were to exist then he would not have a desire which conflicts with and overrides his desire to bring about situation S. Obviously, that can be false only if GC does have a desire which conflicts with his desire for S, hence only if he has conflicting desires. The argument is that it is impossible for GC, a perfect being who wants only the best, to have conflicting desires, and so (A3) can’t be false. CM claims that, for (A3) to be false, GC need only have a “hierarchy of desires,” not necessarily a conflict in desires. It is clear that he needs to go back and read (A3) again, for he seems to have lost sight of what it says.
CM suggests the analogy of a man who desires to win a debate only if his position is true, claiming that the situation is similar with GC, who desires to bring about situation S only if some condition were to obtain. Well, does that condition, whatever it might be, obtain? Presumably not. So, by CM’s own reasoning, GC does not desire to bring about situation S. But that would contradict ANB’s (well-supported) premise (A2), which CM has already indicated he accepts. Thus, CM’s reasoning here leads to inconsistency on his part. Furthermore, although CM’s analogy is put forward as an example where a person has only a “hierarchy of desires,” there is a way to represent the situation as a conflict of desires. The man in question desires both: (1) to win the debate, and (2) to state a truth to the audience. If his position were true, there would be no conflict between these desires. However, if his position were false, there definitely would be a conflict. And if the man were to become aware of that situation, he would need to choose between: (a) still trying to win the debate despite his false position and (b) giving up the debate by confessing the truth to the audience. Choice (a) would put desire (1) ahead of desire (2), and choice (b) would put (2) ahead of (1). In the given situation, there would clearly be a conflict of desires there. Clearly, CM has not come to grips with my argument (7).
It turns out that CM has not adequately dealt with any of my three arguments that support ANB’s premise (A3). He says, “if the God of Christianity exists, then His desire to bring about S is overridden by some higher concern.” We want to know what that concern might possibly be. CM, please tell us! He also writes: “The question of why a maximally loving being like GC would allow unbelief in the gospel message is a matter of further theological discussion.” How might such discussion go? What options are there apart from simply concluding that GC does not exist? Thus, far, CM has not provided a single one! If he were to maintain that no human knows why GC permits so much nonbelief, then he would be falling back on the unknown-purpose defense (UPD), which is refuted in my opening statement. But CM does not try to defend UPD against any of the objections raised there. In the end, his declaration that ANB’s premise (A3) is false is mere empty assertion, totally unsupported by anything whatsoever.
III: The Afterlife Defense (AD)
CM says, “It may be that God gives unbelievers all the information they need … after the time of their physical death.” In another place he says, “Those who never heard of Jesus before their physical death may have a chance to accept or reject Christ … after the time of their death.” I call this “the afterlife defense” (AD).
I deal with AD in chapter 9 of my book. At least two objections can be raised against it. First, AD seems to be in conflict with scripture. The Bible says, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2) and “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Evangelical Christians usually interpret these verses to mean that there is no chance to accept or reject Christ after the time of one’s physical death. As the biblical scholar John Sanders says, “In Roman Catholic theology and in most Protestant thought, it is assumed that death ends our period of probation and seals our destinies.” Such an assumption is made by Thomas Aquinas, among other noted theologians. It is surprising that CM, a staunch Catholic, would appeal to AD. Another point is that, arguably, AD implies that most people will eventually be saved, since the unevangelized would be given a chance in the afterlife to accept Christ. However, that conflicts with Jesus’s own teaching that very few people will be saved (Matt. 7:13-14, Luke 13:23-24). CM needs to try to reconcile AD with the Bible and with Christian theology.
Second, there is the problem of explaining why God would set up the world in such a way that most people go through their earthly lives ignorant of him and the gospel message. What would be the meaning of such lives? They seem to serve no purpose so far as the Bible and Christian theology are concerned. CM owes us an answer here. He also needs to explain how the work of missionaries around the world could still be of vital importance (as evangelical Christians maintain) even though the people whom the missionaries fail to reach will be enlightened (and given the chance to be saved) after they die.
Finally, it should be pointed out that AD is an attack on ANB’s premise (A2), not (A3). As such, it is inconsistent with CM’s earlier claim that ANB’s premise A is correct except for (A3). In effect, CM is contradicting himself, first granting that (A2) is correct and well supported by the Bible, but then advocating an argument (AD) which attacks it. If CM is to go all the way with AD, then he will need to deal with all the alleged support for ANB’s premise (A2) and show how, in the end, none of it is genuine.
My overall conclusion is that all three objections to ANB put forward by CM in his first rebuttal are total failures. ANB does indeed present strong evidence for the nonexistence of the God of evangelical Christianity.
 Modus tollens is the form “P → Q, ~Q, so ~P.” For ED to have that form, its second premise would need to read “It is not the case that if GC were to exist then he would not hold back in his efforts to bring about situation S.” If the “if-then” in ED’s premise 2 were interpreted as material implication, then the premise would definitely not be equivalent to that statement. Furthermore, on that interpretation, logic would declare the whole argument invalid, as seen by the fact (demonstrable by truth tables) that if ANB’s premise A were true and GC does not exist, then both premises of ED would be true while its conclusion would be false. CM presumably intends to take the “if-then” in some way other than material implication, but neglected to inform us of that.
 If CM were to insist that he does indeed intend the term “GC” in ED’s premise 2 to refer to the God of evangelical Christianity, then I would simply argue that the premise is false. That deity does not have the hypothetical property ascribed to it in that premise. This would be an alternate way of attacking ED.
 As pointed out in my opening statement, that was supposed to have actually been done in the case of some of the early apostles. Note 4 supplied these biblical references: Acts 3:6-18, 5:12-16, 9:33-42, 13:7-12, 14:1-11, 28:3-6.
 Part of CM’s difficulty is that he confuses “God will bring about S himself” with “God will bring about S directly.” ANB only advocates the former, not the latter. When God empowered missionaries to perform miracles, he was, in effect, starting to bring about S himself, but he was not doing it directly, but by means of the missionaries.
 Some of the verses are cited in my argument (3): Mark 16:15-16; John 3:18,36, 8:21-25, 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; 1 John 5:12. Such biblical teaching has led most evangelical Christians to maintain that people who fail to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior cannot be saved, and that is the main reason why worldwide evangelization by Christian missionaries is so important. (Why else might it be important?) CM fails to discuss any of the relevant verses. He also fails to explain how the work of missionaries might still be important even on the assumption that belief in Jesus is not needed for salvation.
 CM is more of an exclusivist in his opening statement, where he claims (at the end) that people must accept Jesus Christ as their savior or else be “doomed to the consequences of their sins.” Evangelical Christianity would applaud that claim.
 In the same two places where CM suggests AD, he also suggests what might be called the “at-death defense,” which is the idea that unbelievers find out the truth and are given the chance to accept Christ at the moment of death.
What could this possibly mean? How might the dying person accept or reject Christ without being observed doing so? Does he do so just in his mind? Also, how much time is involved in the process of the dying person: (1) receiving the relevant information (such as “The religion or belief system by which you lived your entire life is erroneous and the truth of the matter is as follows…”), (2) being given the choice to “accept Christ” or “reject Christ” (whatever that is supposed to mean), (3) mulling it over in his mind, and then (4) making his decision, one way or the other? Normally, such a series of events would require at least months to be at all feasible. How could they all occur within a few seconds? What if the death is very sudden, as in a crash or explosion? How might that work? What if the person is a child or mentally retarded or in excruciating pain at the time of death? Without answers to such questions, the “at-death defense” makes no sense whatever.
 Nonbelief & Evil (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998).
 John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 46.
Copyright ©2004 Theodore M. Drange. The electronic version is copyright ©2004 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Theodore M. Drange. All rights reserved.