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Trouble in Paradise? Michael Martin on Heaven (2003)

Tom Wanchick


In a sampling of his Internet publications,[1] Prof. Michael Martin has argued that, when closely evaluated, the concept of Heaven as historically construed by Christians is found to be a veritable mare's nest of philosophical difficulties and confusions. At best, the idea is implausible; at worst, it is incoherent. Among Dr. Martin's more salient points, are his contentions that the nature of Heaven (as delineated in Scripture and taught in church tradition) is conceptually unintelligible, the utter moral perfection found in heaven conflicts with the renowned Free Will Defense, and, lastly, God's bestowal of heavenly blessings on some humans and not others is unfair. I hope to show that the very arguments in favor of Martin's conclusions are themselves based on either inaccurate or simply imagined assumptions about the Christian concept of afterlife. As such, Martin's considerations entirely fail to make implausible the biblical notion of life everlasting.

Prior to exploring the many-faceted philosophical dimensions of Heaven, however, we might profit from initially taking note of the practical issues, which simultaneously attend to this area. Undoubtedly, the subject of Heaven is brimming with practical import. If Heaven as the Bible envisions it is real, then our lives are radically different in nature than we often recognize. All of sudden, life is not primarily about the here and now but is rather bound up with eternal considerations. Not only is such an insight surprising and perplexing, it can be extraordinarily liberating. Coping with deadly disease or pain, awakening out of bed only to meet that despised job, finding a way to raise your children as upright in a world dead set against such a task. These afflictions and myriad others become, according to the Apostle Paul, a mere "momentary affliction" which is "preparing us for an eternal weight of glory" (II Corinthians 4:16-18). The beauty of Heaven, if rightly attended to, dims the hideousness of the world. Thus, we see that Heaven can be enjoyed even today and not just after we perish. Indeed Christian scholars such as Dallas Willard have written widely on how it is that a person can come to experience eternity in the present. Of such a blessed life, Willard writes:

Having overcome death [Jesus] remains among us. By relying on his word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life into the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life. Caught up in his active rule, our deeds become an element in God's eternal history. They are what God and we do together, making us part of his life and him a part of ours.[2]

There are other respects in which the reality of Heaven transforms our daily sojourns. First, if Heaven exists then we have the potential to aid others in finding this unparalleled gift. We in effect have the privilege of working as God's instruments in bringing people to an eternal life centered around God Himself. It's hard to conceive of any task as magnificent as that. Secondly, on a Christian view, our earthly deeds and actions have the potential to heighten our reward in the hereafter. The New Testament states that we have the ability to store up "an unfailing treasure...where no thief comes near nor moth destroys" (Luke 12:33). Put simplistically, the better we are on earth, the better Heaven will be for us.[3] With this said, we might cast a suspicious eye at Dr. Martin's claims against Heaven. Surely, it would be a shame to dismiss such a wonderful doctrine without objections that were quite formidable. Unless critics like Dr. Martin can provide arguments of that sort, we might well continue to seek life everlasting, our hope left undamaged.

The Nature of Heaven

Dr. Martin leads off his critique with a look at the basic tenets of what he believes to be the traditional account of Heaven as espoused by most Christians throughout church history. He highlights four theses that are allegedly foundational to this doctrine: the permanence thesis, the antiuniversalism thesis, the individual existence thesis, and the reward thesis. I largely agree that such elements are part (or ought to be a part) of any Christian concept of afterlife and I thus see no problem in including them in the concept of Heaven I defend here.

Next, we are supplied several distinct variants of Heaven. Specifically, Dr. Martin brings up three: the immaterial soul variant (where only the immaterial self enters a nonspatial and atemporal heaven upon death), the immediate resurrection variant (the dead corpse is resurrected immediately at death and is taken to a spatial realm--wholly separate from our own--for reward), and the delayed resurrection variant (there is no heaven until the end days when all Christian corpses will be resurrected in this space-time realm and will live out eternity here).[4]

Now I must admit that upon first reading Dr. Martin's work on Heaven I was struck by his list of options here. It is not that Christians universally reject these views; a certain number do believe in them. But still, Dr. Martin's list is glaringly incomplete. For in an exceedingly strange omission, he fails to mention the model of Heaven which the prevailing majority of Christians actually advocate and which is in fact most in line with the biblical text.[5] Allow me to set forth the view--call it the "intermediate state/future resurrection" view (ISFR, for short). Here, the human person has an immaterial self (the soul or mind) and at physical death this immaterial entity enters a heavenly intermediate state. This is an entirely nonphysical existence wherein the human self enjoys unmitigated fellowship with God. The nonbodily state is "intermediate" for it will cease in the last days when the general resurrection of believers (and nonbelievers) commences. Moreland and Habermas summarize the model and note its broad acceptance among Christian scholars:

The majority of theologians have held that at death, a person's soul becomes disembodied and it is translated into an entirely different, nonspatial mode of existence where time is still real. In this state, the person enjoys conscious fellowship with God while waiting for a reunion with a new, resurrected body.[6]

In failing to interact with this model, Dr. Martin in effect presents us with a false dilemma: the afterlife will be spent either entirely embodied or entirely disembodied. What he doesn't understand is that most Christians today and in the past have waded between these horns in holding to something like ISFR. When applied to an eternity that includes this type of unembodied interval preceding a final, bodily resurrection, most of Dr. Martin's criticisms of the nature of Heaven become vacuous.

Clearly, the problems with the delayed and immediate resurrection theories are circumvented. The criticisms of the latter are avoided since on ISFR the final resurrection is not immediate. Thus, there will simply be no transmission of bodies to separate spatial realms. Moreover, the main problem with the delayed resurrection view is defeated, as well. He notes that on this model personal identity will be lost somewhere between death and resurrection since it will be impossible for God to reassemble humans so as to retain the numerical identity of their earthly and Heavenly bodies.[7] But on ISFR our bodies are not necessary for preserving personal identity; the existence of the soul suffices for this. And since we never lose our souls on that model (they never go out of existence), nor do we lose our personal identity.[8]

ISFR is also importantly dissimilar to Dr. Martin's immaterial soul variant despite the fact that ISFR includes a period of immateriality. For instance, of his own variant, Martin first wonders, "How would souls move from place to place?" Well, for proponents of the traditional model (ISFR), this query is simply malformed. For that view postulates the intermediate period to be wholly nonspatial, as are souls themselves.[9] We need only observe that in a spaceless realm there will be no places about which to move. As for Martin's complaint that souls on his timeless immaterial soul variant will be unable to participate in essentially temporal mental activity, this does not plague the intermediate state of ISFR either, since, as Moreland and Habermas noted, that state is not without time.[10]

Dr. Martin also ponders of his unembodied variant: "How would [the soul] recognize other souls?" Again, this may in fact be another inapt question for ISFR, as there is no clear biblical indication that such an act will take place in the disembodied portion of that account. At best, we can only be certain that there believers will engage in deep fellowship with and service to Jesus Christ; all else is guesswork.[11] Although I am inclined to side with those holding that human interaction will go on at that time, my point is merely that if such an idea is incoherent or highly implausible, the Christian can simply discard it without much loss so as to salvage the doctrine of Heaven.

But even if we do insist that on ISFR, souls would "recognize" their counterparts, ISFR advocates can still answer Dr. Martin. One evident problem with the criticism is that it is simply a non sequitur. For from the fact (if it is a fact) that we do not comprehend how disembodied souls will be recognized it does not follow that we will therefore be without the ability to so recognize them. We could merely conclude that we do not now understand this unfamiliar process and we will discover more when we arrive in Heaven. Perhaps supporters of Martin will reply that I have overlooked the real rub, however. For it is not just that we lack insight into how we will identify immaterial souls, it is rather that doing so appears impossible. It is a necessary condition of recognizing a thing X that X has characteristics detectable by the senses so as to be recognized empirically. But this argument is really quite poor. Besides having no evidence in its favor, this view conflicts with our common experience, which is replete with the identification of wholly immaterial realities. We do this every time we refer to numbers, sets, properties, etc., all of which are outside time and space.[12] We thus tend to have little problem picking out nonphysical things and the charge that the immateriality of souls makes it impossible for them to be identified is shown to be fanciful. Of course, critics may regroup and say that it is not immaterial realities in general, but immaterial souls in particular that generate the problem. Thus, of all nonphysical realities, souls are among the few that are inherently unrecognizable. But to single out minds or souls in this way begs the question and Dr. Martin or his supporters would have to provide a sound argument for their assertion. Unfortunately, no such argument is to be found.

Christian theists can go still further in their rejoinder, however. For we not only have vast amounts of experience detecting immaterial things in general, but we often consider cases of alleged religious experience to be coherent. And such experiences often involve recognition of a nonphysical person or persons. The vast majority of Christians, for example, have held that they have directly experienced God at some point in their lives.[13] But most of these are not cases of the believer recognizing God by seeing His physical features, as God is incorporeal. Rather, they knew it was God with whom they were interacting despite His being indiscernible by the senses. While Dr. Martin and other naturalists will certainly deny the veridicality of such experiences, it would appear that even most nontheistic philosophers would allow that such an experience is at least possible. If so, however, then we must allow for the possibility that humans could similarly "intuit" the presence of other spiritual beings, including fellow human souls.

I will note that on this point, Dr. Martin cannot demur with me and remain consistent. In his review of Patrick Glynn's book, God: The Evidence, he states that souls, if they exist, could very possibly be endowed with some form of ESP or telepathic powers.[14] But then the answer to whether it could ever be possible for souls to identify other souls seems to become an unfettered 'yes.' For minds or souls could engage one another telepathically.[15]

Lastly, we come to Dr. Martin's curiosity as to what disembodied persons would do all day, since they will be completely without sleep.[16] I guess he believes that a failure to answer this sheds doubt on the plausibility of Heaven. But this argument is as fallacious as the above soul identity problem. The mere fact that we do not know what all of our constant, detailed activities will be in Heaven does not imply that there is no such realm. As I stated previously, while Christians are generally agreed on the content of many future affairs in the intermediate time (e.g., fellowship with Christ, worship of God), it will be conceded that probably we do not know everything that will occur.[17] But, again, why not simply conclude that we shall learn more once we enter that reality? Dr. Martin presents no elaboration on this and the doctrine of Heaven goes unscathed.

Of course, if this is deemed unsatisfactory, then it seems we can just speculate and predict that our days in this interim state will be filled solely with the worship of the triune God and relation with Christ or similar goings on. Thus, we could claim to possibly know what does continually occur there and Dr. Martin's question is simply given a straightforward (albeit tentative) answer.

Blessed Freedom

Given our above analysis, we find that Dr. Martin's considerations against the nature of Heaven create little problem for Christians and, ironically, serve merely to refine to some extent our underdetermined ideas of what that realm will include. But Dr. Martin has more misgivings. He has a second problem with Heaven: its purity or, more specifically, the purity of its inhabitants.

Dr. Martin makes this complaint: if Christian believers posit that there will be both complete moral freedom and complete moral purity in Heaven, then it is apparent that defenders of the standard logical argument from evil (most famously, Mackie) were correct that there is a world actualizable by God where all morally free creatures are morally unblemished. In short, given this traditional depiction of the Christian Heaven, the famed Free Will Defense must be abandoned--a devastating outcome for Christian apologetics.

Being a rather important claim, we do well to venture further into Dr. Martin's arguments on this point. He declares that, "If God could have actualized a world with free will in which Heaven is an essential part, it is difficult to see why He did not actualize a world with free will that is heavenly in its entirety."[18] For Dr. Martin, then, these two statements are prima facie irreconcilable:

(I) God can actualize a world where some free creatures eventually reach a state of complete moral purity.

(II) God cannot actualize a world where all free creatures are completely morally pure.

We can interpret Dr. Martin here in one of two ways. On one hand, he may be contending that (I) and (II) are logically incompatible in the sense that one cannot affirm them both without contradiction. Or, alternatively, he might maintain that given (I), (II) is quite improbable, in which case the plausibility of the Free Will Defense is undermined.

What if we take Dr. Martin to be asserting that the two propositions are logically in conflict? Well, the initial problem with this is that the two are not explicitly contradictory. One can consistently maintain that God cannot feasibly actualize a world that is heavenly in its entirety, while He can actualize a world that is only partly heavenly. However, Dr. Martin might go on and attempt to supply a third proposition that in conjunction with (I) and (II) will show these premises logically incompatible. That proposition can be cashed out as such:

(I*) If God can actualize a world where some free creatures ultimately attain moral purity, then He can actualize a world where all free creatures are always morally perfect.

Immediately, we see the shortcomings of such an attempt to demonstrate this incompatibility. In order for (I*) to do this, it must fulfill some rather stringent conditions. In particular, any such statement must be either necessary or essential to Christianity or a logical outcome of propositions that are. But (I*) so construed falls resoundingly short of this requirement. And those who see this are in no way intellectually deficient.[19]

So there is no real promise in showing a logical contradiction among these tenets. Possibly, however, Dr. Martin is setting forth a mere inductive argument for the thesis that the perfect freedom in Heaven makes it probable that God could actualize a world where all free creatures are exempt from moral imperfection.

Now the inductive inference from God's ability to actualize a world containing a heavenly segment to His ability to actualize a wholly heavenly world works only if we have adequate grounds for estimating that given the ability to do one, the ability to do the other will follow. But is this estimate plausible?

It seems that in employing the assumptions found in FWD concerning God and His relation to counterfactuals of human freedom, we can show that this estimate is without warrant. (Oddly then, the resources required to overcome Martin's objection to FWD could be found in FWD itself.) Interestingly, FWD appears closely aligned with a Molinist interpretation of divine foreknowledge. A storied and oft-discussed position, Molinism derives its name from 16th century Jesuit theologian, Luis de Molina whose brilliant work in this area has gone to solve a wide range of theological conundrums.[20]

Molinists hold that there are in fact true statements about what a person will or will not freely do in any possible circumstances he or she is in (including future circumstances). The truth-value of these counterfactuals in no way depends on God but He nonetheless knows them essentially. Take an example of such truths from Martin's own work:

(4) If Smith were offered a bribe, then he would have accepted.

(5) If Smith were offered a bribe, then he would have refused.

Martin recognizes that on Plantinga's Molinist-like FWD, if (4) is true then it would be impossible for God to actualize the world where Smith refused the bribe.[21] But interestingly even this small example teaches an important lesson: what worlds God can actualize will depend on what counterfactuals of freedom are true. This is especially so on Molinism since on that model, God knows all true counterfactuals even prior to His creation of the world. Thus, before His creative act, He would be forced to "work with" these facts in order to come to a feasible world. Dr. Martin's argument therefore seems to reduce to the claim that if the set of all true counterfactuals allowed God to create a world with a heavenly segment, it is probable that it would have allowed a wholly heavenly world, as well.

But now we can see the presumptuousness of Dr. Martin's inductive argument. Surely, he makes an unjustified inference, for we as mere finite knowers are in no epistemic position to make such judgments about counterfactual truths. Thus, from our limited perspective it appears just as plausible to say that the counterfactuals that God had to take into account were conducive only to allowing a Heaven preceded by a premortem existence marred by sin and evil. Perhaps there was no feasible combination of such counterfactuals that would allow a morally untainted world. Christians can simply conclude that this is perhaps the best God could do. There is no reason to go further and assert that if God found a way to actualize a world with a heavenly portion, then He could have actualized a world entirely free from moral evil. Or if there is a reason to think so, Martin never supplies it.[22]

No doubt some will reject the Molinist view in favor of other theological perspectives. But objections to Molinism have so far been anything but convincing and its proponents have in fact shown it quite defensible. Molinism at least is coherent and not clearly implausible. It therefore remains a viable position.

Moreover, even if the treatment I give here is somehow without credence, Dr. Martin's argument is still not out of the proverbial woods. Philosopher James Sennett, for instance, has recently written an article on this very topic of Heaven's freedom, offering a retort quite distinct from my own and which in no way relies on Molinist ideas.[23] Thus far, Sennett's treatment has not been refuted. With regard to this alleged dilemma of heavenly free will, then, we must admit that the ball is in Dr. Martin's court.

That's Not Fair

In his final offensive against Heaven, Dr. Martin tries to explain why rewarding Heaven to some humans and denying it to others is an unfair practice not befitting a perfectly good God.

To begin, he entertains the idea that God simply selects some people to allow into Heaven for no reason at all. He disdains such a selection process and finds it to be unfair. Now I rather disagree with Dr. Martin's analysis on this score since on the Christian view, Heaven is a gift from God of which no human is deserving and in fact all humans emphatically deserve to go without. If we are not owed eternal life, however, then we cannot rightly demand a chance at eternal life (even if others who are undeserving are in fact given this). Beggars cannot be choosers. With this said, there is nonetheless a problem for any Christian holding that God arbitrarily selects the denizens of Heaven. For while such an act would not be unfair on God's part, it would seem to be in conflict with His loving nature. It seems false that an infinite Being who loves His creatures equally (as the Bible claims of God) would somehow pick some over others for Heavenly reward and with no justifying reason. If any god would do this, surely it will not be the God who is love.[24]

However, none of this need long distract the Christian theist, as typically Christians hold that God specifically places into Heaven those who trust in Christ as Messiah. It is the remainder that is excluded. And such a selection is far from arbitrary.

But, undaunted, Dr. Martin deems this last practice likewise unethical for alternative reasons. He ponders, what about those who have never been exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? After all, "Millions of people through no fault of their own have never heard of Jesus...These people's failure to believe is hardly grounds for punishment, that is lack of reward.'' In response, notice the unwarranted supposition contained in the criticism: Why should we believe that these persons' failing to hear the Gospel is of no fault of their own? Of course, most of them, being unaware of Christianity in the first place, have not explicitly or deliberately avoided Christian teaching per se. But explicitly doing so is seemingly unnecessary. In order for Christians to undercut Martin's argument, they can hold that, possibly, those who never come across the Gospel are people who, if provided the Gospel message, would eschew it anyway. God then may not find it important for such persons to hear the Gospel. Thus, it would be their disposition towards rejecting God that ultimately brings about their own ignorance of God and His message of saving faith. In essence, the inclination towards wickedness and ungodliness ultimately drives their separation from Him. It would not be shocking, then, if they finally attain permanentseparation from God, or Hell.

Let us put aside, then, those who are ignorant of the Christian faith. What about those who have been exposed to the evidence for and against Christianity and have found Christianity wanting? The evidence after all, declares Dr. Martin, is not in Christianity's favor. And, at any rate, even if the evidence for Christianity is compelling, multitudes may inadvertently misevaluate the evidence and thereby miss the truth of Christian theism. But why would God punish people for simply not having proper insight into the relevant issues?

There is at least one major shortcoming in this sort of argument: namely, biblical Christians simply reject the idea that some people are never given sufficient evidence for Christian theism. Even if this evidence is not available in the form of philosophic or scientific data, this won't much matter, as the most valuable confirmation of God's reality is not found in these places, anyway. Instead, the Bible instructs us that the most telling indicator of God's existence is provided in the personal testimony of the Holy Spirit with the human spirit. Paul K. Moser has emphasized in recent work just how this interaction with God's Spirit can ultimately become the most robust of Christian evidences.[25] Moreover, it cannot be complained that some people never have a chance at gaining this evidence, since according to Scripture, the Holy Spirit offers its testimony to us all and it is only through willful rejection that we fail to obtain His assurance.

Of course, Dr. Martin will have none of this. He anticipates this appeal to the Holy Spirit and explains that he has refuted it in his Infidels essay on William Lane Craig's "Holy Spirit epistemology."[26] I, for one, find this claim erroneous since even if Dr. Martin has overturned Dr. Craig's work in this area that hardly shows biblical statements on the role of the Holy Spirit false or unwarranted. The literature is full of work concerning the Holy Spirit and His role and refuting merely one scholar's take does not nullify the rest. In any case, we might well wonder whether Dr. Martin has offered unassailable criticisms of Dr. Craig here. In taking Dr. Martin's criticisms one at a time, I fail to see that he has. Allow me to review his points:

(i) The nature of the experience is unspecified -- This objection just seems factually mistaken as Craig and other commentators do in fact describe at least partially the nature of this experience. For instance, Craig notes that the experience is one wherein the subject is provided deep assurance of the truths of his faith and the apprehension of such facts as "I am a child of God."[27] Moreover, since Craig follows closely the New Testament details regarding such an experience, we can understand the nature of the experience through a reading a of the relevant New Testament passages.[28] Nevertheless, even if the objection is true, it does nothing to disprove the claim that the Holy Spirit testifies to all human persons. The Christian could just maintain that if one has the experience and attends to it appropriately, then one will inevitably know that one has experienced God. This follows from the fact that the experience will be unmistakable and indubitable. Thus one will know it is God in back of the experience regardless of whether or not one knows in advance what the content of the experience will be. That the nature of the experience is unspecified beforehand is therefore unimportant.

(ii) There is no reason to believe everyone has had an experience of the Holy Spirit -- Again, this allegation, even if true (and I believe it's false[29]) in no way undermines Craig's claims about the Holy Spirit. To repeat a well-worn idiom: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Simply because we don't have reason to believe that the Holy Spirit testifies universally, that does not mean we must reject that proposition. Maybe Dr. Martin will say that if there were such a widespread experience of God, then we would find abundantly more evidence for that fact than what we do actually find. Then the lack of evidence does give us reason to discount this allegedly global experience. The problem is that Dr. Martin never provides grounds for thinking we should find this sort of evidence given the truth of "Holy Spirit epistemology."

(iii) There is no reason to believe these experiences veridical or unmistakable -- Dr. Martin writes that since our ordinary experiences are invariably fallible, then we have prima facie reason for thinking an experience with God's Spirit would be the same. I find at least two problems with this argument. For one, it seems untrue to say that none of our experiences are infallible. Many philosophers have observed that our experience of our own thoughts, for example, has this feature.[30] Similarly, others have noted that certain aspects of our experience of time are incorrigible. It would thus not be surprising if God has provided us with infallible knowledge in one more area. And this leads to my next point: All the Christian needs to maintain is that God, in his omnipotence, could provide humans a specific faculty such that in the proper context, a human will have an indubitable experience of His Spirit. In short, if God exists, then He can provide humans this sort of knowledge.

(iv) Holy Spirit epistemology is committed to a dubious strong doxastic voluntarism -- Dr. Martin states that if Dr. Craig's religious epistemology is true, then some form of strong doxastic voluntarism has to be true. He bases this assumption on Dr. Craig's belief (derived from a direct reading of the New Testament) that the reason nontheists do not know Christianity to be true is because they reject what is taught to them through the Holy Spirit. Dr. Martin goes on to conclude that, since this form of voluntarism is false, it follows that Craig's religious epistemology is false, too. Dr. Martin's criticism here does contain a germ of truth: if Craig is correct, then our wills do play some part in what we believe, at least when it comes to our stance on Christian theism. But this fact is compatible with the falsity of strong doxastic voluntarism, if the latter is taken to mean that we simply pick and choose our beliefs in the way we choose chocolate over vanilla. Craig's view requires no such presumption, as one can hold that our wills affect our beliefs even if we do not deliberately select what we believe. In fact, we see this played out in our common experience regularly. The American black community saw an innocent man in O.J. Simpson despite the fact that all evidence pointed against him. Everyone knows that the neighbor boy is an irascible brat--except his parents. While these people do not typically deliberately pick their beliefs at will, nor can it be said that they are without responsibility for what they believe. In such cases, the prejudices and desires of the knower muddle what should be known. They lack knowledge not because they have chosen false beliefs, but because they have irresponsibly neglected to reject biases and prejudices that lead to false beliefs. Proponents of Dr. Craig's views on the Holy Spirit can say that this is what occurs in a human's ignorance of God. Indeed, that humans will have the sort of disposition to lead to this ignorance is explicitly taught by Jesus when He says men "love darkness rather than the light," and that this attitude is a sufficient condition for failing to see God's presence. The truth of this diagnosis of humanity can be gleaned not only from the pages of history, but also from Dr. Martin's own writings as he himself has remarked on mankind's propensity to be profoundly "ungod-like" and deeply evil.[31]

(v)The inexplicable irrational nature and distribution of belief-- Lastly, Dr. Martin contends that Craig's account makes it wholly mysterious as to why so many people in the world deliberately choose to reject a "manifest and obvious" revelation of God. Dr. Martin writes,

[Craig] assumes not only that disbelief in Christianity is an action rather than something beyond our control, but that it involves the actor knowingly and irrationally rejecting what will bring about his or her ultimate salvation.[32]

But this attack is simply centered on a misconception, for as we saw above, Craig's views on the Holy Spirit in no way presume a strong doxastic voluntarism. Thus, contrary to Dr. Martin's assumptions, we are not speaking of a case where a person knows he is experiencing the Holy Spirit and that his salvation hangs in the balance and nonetheless simply says, "I don't want that." Rather, it is closer to a scenario where a person is implicitly opposed to a position and in his rigidity simply blinds himself to the abundant evidence for that very position. As I noted, we see this, for instance, when a biased parent fails to see her child's blatant mischievousness. Maybe Dr. Martin will follow up by saying that this brings about a new absurdity: it presumes that most humans are implicitly opposed to fellowship with God through salvation. But what part of this is absurd? It is hard to specify anything. Even more, as we just highlighted, according to even Dr. Martin, humans are profoundly out of touch with God's purposes. But then the idea that humans are disposed to rejecting God is not only not absurd but in fact seems quite justified by the sociological evidence.

Dr. Martin goes on to extend this line of criticism to the "temporal and geographical distribution of Christian belief." On the historical side, he states that "before the rise of Christianity everyone was inexplicably irrational in that they had an experience of the Christian God but irrationally decided not to believe." Besides the fact that it again relies on unjustified assumptions about the human condition, as well as the Christian view of belief formation, one obvious problem with this objection is that Christians reject the idea that pre-Christian peoples were uniformly unsaved. As if Christians believe that Moses or Abraham are in Hell? Not at all; on a Christian theology, sincere Jews of the ages before Christ were saved. But then we find that those living in eras prior to Christ were in the same situation as us today: some accepted the Holy Spirit's draw and others did not. As we saw earlier, there is nothing problematic about this idea.

Martin also writes that, "if Craig is correct, everyone has had an experience of the Holy Spirit. One has to assume, then, that people in certain geographical regions are more irrational than people in other regions" and he finds this implausible. Now in a sense the assertion that non-Christians are irrational in rejecting the Holy Spirit is misleading. For rejecting God and Heaven is not irrational for someone who in fact doesn't prefer God or Heaven. And I have noted repeatedly that the disposition of most human persons is in fact in conflict with the type of attitude that prefers God. But still this does not answer the other question as to why Christian belief has the sort of geographical spread that it does. Well, in reply to that issue, I again allude to God's providence. What if in coming to the optimal number of saved and damned humans, God had to providentially order the world such that the patterns of belief we find resulted? In effect, it appears to me that Dr. Martin might have the order of explanation reversed: he seems to presume that a person's rejection or acceptance of Christian faith will depend largely on where he or she lives or is raised. But what if the tables are turned? Maybe God places people in specific places based upon what their reaction to Him would be. This in fact is the biblical view (Acts 17:24-27). Thus, it may be that grouping people in this way was the most economic way for God to achieve His goals. There seems to be nothing obviously wrong about this view. At any rate, it seems no less plausible than Dr. Martin's unsupported assumption that salvific belief will be evenly distributed globally if God exists.

We thus find that Dr. Martin's objections to this kind of Christian epistemology are largely mistaken. As such, Christians can justifiably hold that even if the scientific or philosophical or historical evidence for Christianity is unimpressive or nonexistent, this still does not mean that people have an excuse for rejecting the truth of the Gospel. For if the Holy Spirit works in the way the New Testament teaches, then there is in fact enough evidence for Christian theism on offer for all people, even if it is not propositional in nature.

But notice that even the strict Christian evidentialist who demands historical or philosophic evidence (rather than experiential evidence like that of the Holy Spirit) to justify Christian belief can escape Dr. Martin's criticisms here. For one can simply hold that God has provided a sort of evidential data that, while exhibited in the natural and moral realms accessible to us all, stands out only for those devoid of specific biases or modes of thought set against God Himself. Indeed, that God would provide this type of general revelation (if He were to provide general revelation at all) is precisely what Christian thinkers have taught for centuries. The comments of Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans are typical when he writes:

In the case of religion, the personal condition of the knower has a great impact on the knowledge to be gained. The person who wants to know can find evidence; the person who wants to be ignorant of God can be successful as well.[33]

If theists are correct in this regard, then it will be true that, as the New Testament states, one must have the "eyes to see" God and His work before one will have any real chance to find evidence for God. Again, the simple fact is that, most people seemingly do not have these sorts of inclinations. It is no surprise then that many people do not see powerful evidence for God's reality. Not only does this account work as an undercutting defeater of Dr. Martin's argument, but there is also good reason to find this view of the nature of theistic evidence true. It explains rather well how two people of virtually equal intellectual stature and educational background in these areas can come to vastly different conclusions on these issues. This happens all the time in academic disputes. As an example, Dr. Martin finds that all of the evidence favors atheism whereas many fine theistic philosophers have found precisely the opposite.[34] What else could explain this better than the differing psychological or subterranean factors of the subjects involved?

In sum, Dr. Martin's conclusion does not follow from his premises. That many people do not see good evidence for theism is no indicator that there really is no good evidence for theism. Indeed, if lack of belief in a position is indicative of that position's lack of evidence then Dr. Martin's naturalism should be labeled evidentially deficient, as the great majority of mankind has rejected naturalism as false.

So we find that in his third assault on the Christian Heaven, Dr. Martin does not succeed in demonstrating the unethical nature of salvation. There is no reason to think that God has somehow shortchanged some all the while placating others. Heaven is a divine gift finally given to those who accept God's gracious self-sacrifice and forgiveness shown on the Cross. And it may well be the case that all of us are given ample opportunity to find this road to eternity. The real question is, Will we take the road that God has provided?


At the outset, I noted that if Heaven exists, then our lives are radically better than most of us would have imagined. Indeed if that realm is factual, our often dreary lives could as a result become flooded with joy and hope. Despite his efforts to the contrary, I do not see that Dr. Martin has given any good reason to abandon hope that Heaven might exist.

He writes that Heaven is problematic conceptually, but his arguments are aimed largely at conceptions of Heaven that the vast majority of the Christian community would reject. And even those that are relevant are less than impressive.

His claim that the perfect moral freedom found in Heaven intensifies the problem of evil is based on epistemic assumptions that no finite thinker can plausibly make. Given a Molinist viewpoint on divine foreknowledge, it may be the case that a world containing a premortem state of sin preceding a beatific realm of bliss was the most feasible for God to actualize.

Finally, Dr. Martin, in arguing that the route to Heaven is favorable only to those in certain regions, times, or circumstances fails to understand the Christian view of the evidence for God. The best evidence could very well be available to all in the form of the Holy Spirit's testimony. Dr. Martin's considerations against this claim are refutable. Moreover, on Christian theism, even the propositional evidence for God is not subject to Martin's arguments. For one can hold that such revelation (if it exists at all) will be ambiguous or in fact seemingly nonexistent for the insincere seeker. We have noted that most humans (as implied by even Dr. Martin) are insincere in this respect.

To summarize, if Dr. Martin wishes to uphold his thesis that Heaven is without philosophical merit, he needs to revamp his arguments--for, to date, none of them work.


[1] Michael Martin, "Problems With Heaven," 1997 (
He gives many of the same arguments in his 2002 essay, "Is Christianity Absurd?" (

[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p.27.

[3] This insight goes to refute an important assertion made by Dr. Martin in his book Atheism, Meaning, and Morality. He writes:

[S]ome parts of the New Testament assume that the purpose of heaven is not to reward people whose earthly lives and behavior warrants it; rather heaven is a gift of God's love for their faith in Jesus that is completely unmerited. In this view whether or not one ends up in heaven may have little to do with whether one has fulfilled one's moral obligations according to Christian theism. If such a view became widespread it would certainly undermine the motivational force of belief in divine punishment or rewards. [Atheism, Meaning, and Morality (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002), 178.]

This inference is mistaken. The Bible implies that Heaven is rewarded to us primarily based upon our faith in Christ (rather than through good works), but that our moral deeds help determine the eventual richness of that reward. But then the doctrine of salvation by faith clearly does not take away from Heaven's moral motivational force, as the prospect of heightened treasures in Heaven could just as easily ground our striving for upright behavior.

[4] The terms "immediate resurrection variant" and "delayed resurrection variant" are my own, as Dr. Martin did not formally name these models in his paper.

[5] In his book, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting (Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), New Testament scholar, John Cooper masterfully demonstrates that the model I defend in this essay is the most well-attested biblically. See also, J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae, Body & Soul (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), ch. 1.

[6] J.P. Moreland and Gary Habermas, Immortality: The Other Side of Death(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 110.

[7] I should mention that while the delayed resurrection and immediate resurrection variants are less plausible (both philosophically and biblically) than the view defended in this paper, they or approaches similar to them do seem to have more going for them than what Dr. Martin allows.

In fact, many of the objections Dr. Martin sets forth for these models have been given updated, sophisticated answers, which he ignores. See Trenton Merricks, "How to Live Forever Without Saving Your Soul"; Kevin Corcoran, "Physical Persons and Postmortem Survival without Temporal Gaps"; and Stephen T. Davis, "Physicalism and Resurrection"; in Soul, Body, and Survival ed. Kevin Corcoran, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[8] One might complain that ISFR itself runs headlong into this same puzzle: How can God reassemble us such that we have the same body in Heaven as we did on earth? In reply, it should be noted first that even if this is an anomaly for ISFR it is one of far less seriousness than it is for the immediate or delayed resurrection views. On the latter, our personal identities rely on our bodily identities: if bodily identity cannot be preserved, identity itself is obliterated. But as I noted in-text, on ISFR, bodily identity is not necessary for personal identity.

But the question of reassembly may not be much of a problem, anyway. To begin with, the Scriptures do not explicitly require a reassembly view. Stephen T. Davis comments of an ISFR model without reassembly: "It seems to me a possible Christian view of resurrection, and can fit smoothly with the other aspects of the traditional notion [of temporary disembodiment]." Davis goes on to state that verses such as 1 Corinthians 15:42-43 seem to corroborate the reassembly position, but that there are other acceptable readings of such texts. ["The Resurrection of the Dead," in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 528.].

Secondly, even if bodily reassembly is the Scriptural view, it is hard to see why this is problematic. Regarding the situation mentioned by Dr. Martin where a person's atoms "become parts of bodies of people who are now living," this seems fairly easily resolved. I again refer to Davis: "All that is required is that God consistently follow some sort of identity-preserving policy for what to do with the shared atoms." ("Physicalism and Resurrection," 235) Davis mentions policies like that suggested by Augustine where God gives the atoms to the one "who first possessed them (and will presumably use new atoms to fill in the empty spaces in the body of the one who later possessed the shared atoms). Lots of other policies seem possible." ("Physicalism and Resurrection," 236).

[9] A substance dualist who believes souls are spatial (e.g., William Hasker) could hold that upon death the soul simply exits the spatial realm.

[10] There are some other problems with Dr. Martin's contention at this point. First, it is not the case that timelessness precludes mentality. The possibility of a timeless person who has thought, intentionality, etc. has been ably defended in recent literature, especially by advocates of a timeless model of divine existence. See Brian Leftow, Time and Eternity. Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 285-290; William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 79-86; idem. "Divine Timelessness and Personhood," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 43 (1998): 109-124; Paul Helm, Eternal God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 64-65.

Secondly, advocates of an atemporal intermediate state (though I know of no such advocates) could posit that in this state, mental activity as we now participate in will not occur. For example, one could hold that this period is one where the believer is caught in the awe-inspiring presence of God thus enjoying a pristine, albeit foreign existence. Craig explains how an atemporal mode could be one of immense joy: might be an unembodied existence consisting of the contemplation of God or of the beatific vision of Christ. Such an enraptured, changeless state would be a state of supreme blessedness and so hardly inferior to our transitory, temporal existence and the finite goods made available through it. [Craig, "Response to Critics," in God & Time: Four Views ed. Gregory Ganssle (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001) p. 176]

Here we might say that the human person simply does not engage in thought over time, but timelessly attends to the reality and vision of Christ. The absence of our typical mental workings would not conflict with our personhood since it seems that actually taking part in these kinds of mental activities is not necessary for being a person. Rather what seems necessary (and sufficient) is the capacity to engage in them. This is why those who are comatose or unconscious remain persons even though they do not actually engage in most mental processes. Since a timeless being can have such capacities, it follows that a timeless being could be personal.

[11] This along with the fact that the intermediate state will be a more enjoyable existence than earthly life is "all we really know from the Bible on this subject" and "anything else would be speculative." [Moreland and Habermas, 117].

This leads to a related, more general point about biblical descriptions of Heaven in general (and not just the intermediate state): they are incomplete. Hence, Paul's comment after visiting Paradise, that he had seen things there that he would not share with others (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). See Moreland and Habermas 1992, 265, n. 2.

[12] If one believes these entities to be mere conventions having no real ontological status, then we could alternatively conclude this: if abstract entities existed, then we would be capable of recognizing them. But even this is enough to show that it is possible to identify incorporeal realities.

[13] For a captivating and powerful glimpse into the life of one woman who had continual interaction with the God of Christianity, see the writings of Nazi concentration camp survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place (Bantam Books: 1984); cf. Tramp for the Lord (Jove Books: 1983).

Astute philosophical defenses of theistic religious experience can be found in William Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press: 1991); Keith Yandell, The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993); R. Douglas Geivett, "The Evidential Value of Religious Experience," in The Rationality of Theism ed. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser (London: Routledge, 2003), 175-204.

[14] Michael Martin, "Review of Patrick Glynn's: God the Evidence," (

[15] One might hold that humans currently have such a capacity for interacting with other human persons, but that this capacity will be exercised only when we reach unembodied existence. Likewise, an acorn has the capacity to become a full-fledged tree, but it will be unable to develop this capacity outside of the correct environment (e.g., if put in a freezer rather than placed in soil and watered). If this idea does not satiate, we could postulate that God perhaps provides us this ability upon our entering the intermediate realm.

Alternative possibilities for soul identification are available, as well. For instance, some philosophers have held to Idealism, the view that all of reality is immaterial even though it seems material in our experience. The theist could hypothesize that the intermediate state is like this. Thus, we would recognize persons as we do in our earthly lives for they would look to us like regular embodied humans. Yet they (like all else in the intermediate realm) would in fact be purely immaterial. Moreland and Habermas suggest this in Immortality: The Other Side of Death, 119.

[16] Martin, "Problems With Heaven," 1.

[17] Refer to note 11.

[18] Martin, "Problems With Heaven," 2.

[19] Alvin Plantinga outlines these parameters in "Self-Profile," in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James Tomberlin and Peter Van Inwagen, Profiles 5 (Dordecht: D. Reidel, 1985), 39-40.

[20] Fine expositions of Molinism can be found in, Thomas Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); William Lane Craig, Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom: the Coherence of Theism I: Omniscience, Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 19 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1990); idem. The Only Wise God (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000); Alfred J. Freddoso, "On Divine Middle Knowledge," in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 257-264.

[21] Martin, Michael, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 375.

[22] William Lane Craig highlights this same issue in his, "Men Moved by the Holy Spirit Spoke From God (2 Peter:1.21): A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Biblical Inspiration," Philosophia Christi NS 1 (1999): 45-82. On moral perfection in Heaven and earth, see Craig's debate with Raymond Bradley, "Could a Loving God Send People to Hell?" ( The topic also receives attention in Paul Copan, That's Just Your Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001).

[23] James Sennett, "Is There Freedom in Heaven?," Faith and Philosophy 16 (1999): 69-82.

[24] On this see, William Lane Craig, "Middle Knowledge and Christian Exclusivism," Sophia 34 (1995): 120-139.

[25] See Paul K. Moser, "Cognitive Inspiration and Knowledge of God," in The Rationality of Theism, 55-71; "Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding," in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 120-149; Why Isn't God More Obvious (Norcross, GA: RZIM, 2000).

[26] Michael Martin, "Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology," 1997 (

[27] See, William Lane Craig, "Classical Apologetics," in Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 29-36.

[28] Paul K. Moser nicely describes these details. See his work cited in note 25. See also, Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 200.

[29] One significant piece of evidence for the reality of the Holy Spirit's testimony is the fact that billions of believers throughout the ages have allegedly experienced it. For more on this kind of evidence see the works in note 25.

[30] Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul (Rev. Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 62-84.

[31] Dr. Martin speaks of the pervasive evil in humans, for instance, in his writings on the problem of evil. Regarding his comments that humans are radically ungod-like, see his, "Copan's Critique of Atheistic Objective Morality," Philosophia Christi Series 2, 2/1 (2000), 88.

In the exchange with Fernandes, Dr. Martin rails against the idea that nonbelievers somehow cannot see the evidence for Christianity while believers can. He states that this would require that such people have a "spiritual defect" that apparently Christians don't have. However, Dr. Martin says, there's no reason to believe non-Christians have such a defect. ("Theism vs. Atheism: Opening Statement,"

But Dr. Martin's argument here is wrongheaded. The Christian need not claim that nonbelievers have some spiritual problem to which Christians are immune. Rather they could simply posit that all humans suffer from a disposition to turn from God and that this in effect dulls them to the presence of God. But while Christians ultimately turn away from this inclination (to some extent), nonbelievers do not. It's not clear what is implausible about this account.

[32] Martin, "Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology," 1.

[33] C. Stephen Evans, "The Mystery of Persons and Belief in God," (

[34] It's interesting that Dr. Martin himself appears to hold conflicting ideas about what counts as good evidence for theism. He often utilizes the Humean argument against theistic proofs which essentially states that even if, say, the cosmological argument were sound, it does not prove theism, since its conclusion is compatible with rival supernatural views (e.g., polytheism). He believes this is a consideration against all theistic arguments (see his, "The Gap in Theistic Arguments,"

But in some places Dr. Martin seems to undermine this line of thought. In debating Fernandes, he claims: "it makes no sense to suppose that a rational God would create human beings in his own image and yet expect them to believe in Him without strong evidence" ("Theism vs. Atheism: Opening Statement"). All right; but what then constitutes strong evidence? Martin lists things like God speaking from the heavens or God communicating via prime-time TV. But these evidences themselves have a "gap"; nontheistic explanations are certainly compatible with their occurrence (e.g., God's TV appearance could be explained as a programming glitch or a trick played on us by extraterrestrials). However, if Dr. Martin does not apply his standard Humean argument to these evidences, how can he consistently do so against sound theistic arguments? If the former are indicative of theism, surely so are the latter.

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