Reply to “God and the problem of sincere disbelief”

A friend of mine shared this article with me and a few others this morning. I thought it was a great read. A sad and real story. It was clearly written by someone who had lived among the kind of Christians I am and I know and I love. It did a fair job at representing Christians in a generous and faithful way, as the author sees and hears and understands it. I have friends whom this guy reminds me of: people who know enough about Christianity, and care enough about Christians, to want to speak well of it.

It struck me how honest this guy was about the grief and complicatedness of falling away:

I didn't want to lose my faith. It hurt, a lot

The opening line of novelist Julian Barnes' book Nothing To Be Frightened Of has stuck with me since I first read it almost a decade ago:

I don't believe in God, but I miss him.

And again:

My family has never been anything less than loving towards me, but there have been plenty of times when I've wished I could go to church with them and not feel like an imposter. When I've wished I could say "amen" during grace at a family dinner and actually mean it. When I've wished I could answer my parents' prayers that their prodigal son would return. And most of all, when I've wished I still had the comfort of knowing God is looking out for me.

But what I wanted to reflect on is the two central points this article makes. Two reated things that he found increasingly implausible, that can be summed up in one setence: That not all unbelievers are wicked and purposeful in their unbelief.

First, having grown up in the church he was shocked to find many unbelievers were good people. And second, he was shocked to find they were ambivalent and unpersuaded about the existence of God and the gospel of Jesus.

A few thoughts:

  1. The Bible does sometimes speak in simplistic black and white terms: In apocalyptic literature, the New Testament letters and the teaching of Jesus we are given a sharp distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil, those who love light and those who love darkness. These black and white descriptions remind us that there is one fundamental issue that ultimately defines our lives: whether or not we have faith. Faith upholds us despite our failings. And without faith, even our most noble deeds fall far short. But the Bible doesn't only speak in simplistic black and white terms.
  2. If we only speak in black and white terms, young people will find Christianity increasingly implausible: The Bible also recognises how most evil human fathers seek to give good gifts to their children, that misguided Isarelites are zealous for God (but their zeal is not based on knowledge), that tax collectors love those who love them and so on. The Bible tells stories of the faithful doing wicked things, and the wicked doing noble things which put the faithful to shame (Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20 for example). If young people are only ever fed a diet of 'Christ vs Culture', where The World is demonised in simplistic, cartoonish terms, where no subtlety or nuance or disclaimer is ever uttered — then they will get a shock when they go to university. For they will discover this sub-biblical perspective doesn't match the real world.
  3. If our churches and our families are so coccooned from non-Christians that our kids never interact meaningfully with non-Chrsitians then they will get a shock once they make a friend or two at uni. Thoughtful, gracious but truthful and faithful interaction with real non-Christians will help young people in Christian homes see the gospel truly and clearly and give them confidence that it has something great to say, even to the good, nice, open-minded and intelligent unbeliever.
  4. We need to be clear that Christians can do bad things and atheists do good things. I don't know who's to blame here, the Christian community, or deliberate misunderstanding: probably both. But it is not true to say that Christians are always good people and atheists are always bad people. Christians are forgiven sinners, and while we are regenerated and gradually sanctified, we are not yet glorified and perfected. And atheists remain God's image bearers capable of good and noble things. Many hold to religions and philosophies with high moral ideals. The Bible nowhere teaches that everything Christians do is always good, or that everything atheists do is always bad. Nor does it teach that any given Christian will be morally superior to any given atheist.
  5. We need to spell out the relationship between morality and Christianity and atheism. There is an argument about the relationship between morality, Christianity and atheism, but it is more subtle. It is often misrepresented by academics and punters alike. Perhaps this should tell us we need to be more careful and clear in how we express it? The true argument is: while atheists may do good things, they don't have a consistent philosphical basis for this. On the other hand, when Christians do good things, they do so for very solid religious and philosophical reasons. To put it simply: while Christians don't always act morally, when they do, they are being consistent with their religious beliefs. And the inverse is true: while atheists don't always act immorally, when they do they are not being inconsistent with their atheism.
  6. Condemnation is not in the first place for failure to believe the gospel, but for original rebellion against God, and everything that comes after. A pretty common question runs like this: Why would God send someone to hell for not believing in him? But this question fails to recognise that while there is an additional guilt that comes on those who refuse salvation, this is not our primary guilt before God. We are not guilty for failing to believe in Jesus or even for failing to believe in the existence of God. It is not as if we were all on a neutral moral footing until God decided that he wanted everyone to believe in him, or Jesus or whatever. Rather, we are all, as a unified human race, guilty as rebels before God, in Adam. And even if this is hard to believe, surely even the author of this article would agree that all human beings do plenty of evil in their lifetime? God's gospel and command to believe in Christ comes to us as already guilty people. To reword the question shows how odd it is: "Why would God not save someone who refuses to accept God's offer of salvation?"
  7. Responsibility does not rest solely on each individual being rationally convinced. The article develops a variation on this question about unbelief. Because it says:

It always seemed unconscionable to me that someone could be denied salvation not because of a moral failing, but because they simply disagreed about the evidence for God.

This is where we need to be clear that our condemnation does not depend on individual persuasion. This is clearer if you think about moral guilt: Even if someone claimed that they were unconvinced that murder was wrong, we would hold them guilty if they killed another human being. Morality doesn't require consent to be binding on an individual! So also, God's reality, and our guilt before him, doesn't vanish because we are not sure he's there.

You see we inherit more from Adam than just a share in his guilt and a sinful nature and a mortal body. We are all born into a human society whose ideologies and social patterns make faith and obedience to God implausible or undesirable in various ways. And the mercy of God doesn't just overcome our hard hearts and guilty consciences, but also needs to correct our distorted thinking! Just as God needs to work providentially to ensure I get to hear the gospel spoken, he also needs to work to enable me to be able to give it a hearing.

It is true that the Bible teaches that we reject God because of sin. But it does not follow that this sin is crassly selfaware and defiant. Sin may have set up a whole orientation of life in which I reject God. I have been born into a life that loves darkness on this fundamental level, so that I don't want to come into the light... but I might not even consciously think of 'the light' as light at all!

8. Is talking about the role of sin in unbelief an ad hominem attack? That's what the author of this article claims. That to talk about how unbelief is ulitmately the result of sin is an ad hominem attack. This would be the case if Christians used it as a  justification to not give reasons for their faith or interact with the questions and challenges of unbelievers. But what have I been donig for this whole blog post? And I have no doubt that the author has also encountered plenty of rational arguments for Christian belief. 

But the author is claiming that any mention of sin as a cause for unbelief is an 'ad hominem attack'. But an ad hominem attack is not in and of itself illegitimate. If it is the sum total of an argument, a refusal to deal with substantive issues then an ad hominem argument is a fallacy. If it is pointing to an irrelevant aspect of a person to discredit their arguments, then it is a fallacy. But if one is discussing the various reasons why an individual might hold a belief, it is perfectly legitimate. Because one is no longer simply discussing the merits of the idea in abstract, one is discussing the reasons a particular person holds to a belief. It is naive to think that people form most of their beliefs for purely rational reasons. In fact people can hold true beliefs for inadequate and incorrect reasons, and false beliefs for rational reasons!


A great article, encourage some good reflection, don't you think?

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