(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 10: “Is Jesus the Only Way to God?”)
There are times when a Christian apologist’s chief task is to so corrupt our reason and morals that we are no longer able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Last week wasn’t too bad; Craig was standing up for Christian particularism as versus religious pluralism, and that would be fine if there were, in fact, one true religion. But to be true, a thing has to be consistent both with itself and with objective reality, and Christianity fails to meet those criteria, as we’ll see in today’s installment.
The problem with Christian particularism, according to Craig, is the Hell with Christianity.
The real problem concerns the fate of unbelievers outside of one’s own particular religious tradition. Christian particularism consigns such persons to hell, which pluralists take to be unconscionable.
He goes on to quote John Hick, his doctoral mentor, who started out a strong Christian, but studied other world religions, and the many similarities his faith had with pagan faiths, and gradually came to see the central elements of Christianity as myths. Hick just couldn’t believe that a loving God “has decreed that only those born within one particular thread of human history shall be saved.” And this, according to Craig, is “the real problem raised by the religious diversity of mankind: the fate of those who stand outside the Christian tradition.”
That’s inconsistency #1. All God would have to do is show up in real life, consistently, personally, and interactively, and there wouldn’t be all these other religions. There might be parties for and against Him, just as their are parties for and against Obama, but there wouldn’t be a diversity of opinion about which God or gods were real. One would be part of real life, the others wouldn’t. This whole ethical dilemma wouldn’t even exist. Everyone would know God was real, and could fairly be held accountable for their response to Him.
Craig’s response to this ethical problem is first of all to try and shift the blame for Hell away from God.
But what exactly is the problem here supposed to be? What’s the problem with holding that salvation is available only through Christ? Is it supposed to be simply that a loving God wouldn’t send people to hell?
I don’t think so. The Bible says that God wills the salvation of every human being: “The Lord is … not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NKJV). Or again, He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4 RSV).
So Craig is saying that God is not willing for anyone to go to hell, and therefore it’s not a problem that He sends people to Hell. Wait, what? Inconsistency #2: a loving God who cannot obtain His own benevolent will, even with infinite wisdom and power. And what’s worse, Craig tries to blame the victims for God’s harsh treatment of them. “Gosh, honey, I really don’t want to hit you, but you keep forcing me to. It’s really your own fault for choosing to provoke me.” Yeah, like that sounds any nobler coming out of God’s mouth than out of the abusive husband’s. Don’t believe me? Here’s Craig sharing God’s version of the abusive husband shtick.
God says through the prophet Ezekiel:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the lord GOD; so turn, and live!…
Here God literally pleads with people to turn back from their self-destructive course of action and be saved.
“I really hate killing you and throwing you in Hell, but Me damn it, you’re just forcing Me to.” As though God were simply powerless to choose to, I don’t know, maybe NOT kill people and throw them in Hell? You know, because He truly wasn’t willing that any should perish?
Thus, in a sense, God doesn’t send anybody to hell… If we make a free and well-informed decision to reject Christ’s sacrifice for our sin, then God has no choice but to give us what we deserve. God will not send us to hell—but we shall send ourselves.
And who decides what we deserve, if not God? Craig is trying really hard to pass the buck here, but when you preach an omnipotent God Who is the creator of literally everything else, you don’t get to appeal to circumstances beyond His control.
Craig has a real problem here, and that is that he himself cannot stomach what the Bible really says about Hell. Read Matthew 25. Read Jesus’ description of God’s attitude towards the unsaved. It’s not, “Oh dear, you’re going to Hell, if only there were something I could do to save you.” God’s attitude can be summed up by two words: “Fuck you.” You pissed Me off, and I am throwing your ass in Hell, and you can stay there. No apologies, no regrets. The God of the Bible absolutely does throw people in Hell, and doesn’t ask for Craig’s approval or consent. Call that Inconsistency #3: Craig has to reinvent damnation before he can defend it.
Our eternal destiny thus lies in our own hands. It’s a matter of our free choice where we shall spend eternity. Those who are lost, therefore, are self-condemned; they separate themselves from God despite God’s will and every effort to save them, and God grieves over their loss.
Let’s count the inconsistencies in these three brief sentences. Inconsistency #4: a misinformed choice is not really free. God does not show up in real life, which limits us to the kind of choices where you either gullibly embrace whatever men tell you about God (and let’s face it, that could be almost anything) or else you stick to the facts, which ends up making you an atheist. If God is real and is hiding from us, His absence is denying us the opportunity to know what our real choices are, and thereby denying us the opportunity to make a truly free choice.
Inconsistency #5: separation. We have not separated ourselves from God. We’re here; God isn’t. It wasn’t skeptics who ascended into Heaven and left Jesus all alone here on the earth. We have no control over God’s willingness and ability to show up in real life. The gap created by His absence is not one we can bridge (not even by credulity and superstition). If God wants to eliminate the separation, it’s up to Him to show up.
Inconsistency #6: every effort to save us? Get real. The most fundamental, trivial, and obvious “effort” would be to show up in real life, tell us that He loves us, and offer us a relationship with Himself. Notice I say “in real life” and “tell us,” not “show up in an ancient legend” and “tell a few guys who died 2,000 years ago.” Does He want to save us, or did He stop caring once the apostles were gone? Show me a tangible effort happening in the real world (as opposed to happening in the superstitious worldview of a self-convincing Christian), and then we’ll talk.
Inconsistency #7: God grieves? Not in the Bible. It makes believers sad because it’s so obviously inconsistent with the idea of God as a genuinely loving Father who really cares whether or not the vast majority of His children suffer for all eternity. But time and again, in the parables of Jesus, the “guilty” are dispatched to their eternal judgment with nary a particle of remorse or regret on the Lord’s part.
William Lane Craig, like many modern Christians, is simply re-writing the doctrine of Hell to try and minimize the obvious inconsistencies in the story. He fails, but the fact that he needs to try is proof in itself that the Gospel is flawed and untrue. There’s no difference between Mohammed thundering across North Africa saying “Convert or face the sword” and Jesus saying “Convert or face Hell” except that Jesus is nastier. Otherwise the argument is the same: believe what I tell you, or get hurt. Trying to find a moral justification for this kind of extortion is simply a waste of time and energy. Or, from another point of view, it’s an apologist’s job security, because the search for a good answer will never end.
In the spirit of the latter view, Craig presses on, trying next to tackle the problem of the injustice inherent in the idea of returning infinite punishment for finite sins. You’re going to love this argument.
We could agree that every individual sin that a person commits deserves only a finite punishment. But it doesn’t follow from this that all of a person’s sins taken together as a whole deserve only a finite punishment. If a person commits an infinite number of sins, then the sum total of all such sins deserves infinite punishment.
Now, of course, nobody commits an infinite number of sins in the earthly life. But what about in the afterlife? Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject Him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense, then, hell is self-perpetuating. In such a case, every sin has a finite punishment, but because sinning goes on forever, so does the punishment.
Assuming God is merciless, of course. Otherwise, since He’s the ultimate arbiter of how much punishment each sin deserves, He could, for example, arrange for the punishment earned to be slightly less than the punishment received, and thus allow His beloved children to eventually escape from the torments of Hell. Or He could simply pardon them—it’s not like He’s going to be impeached for showing too much mercy as Judge. Or, to take it in a different direction, He could simply make them unconscious, or even non-existent. They might not be saved, but at least they’re not being tortured for all eternity, or racking up more punishment. Or again, He could not send them to Hell in the first place. The Bible does say that the wages of sin is death, and the people at the Last Judgment are pretty much all dead, so they’ve paid the penalty already. There’s supposed to be a few wicked people left alive at the Second Coming, but Jesus already has his sword out to slay most of them, so just bump off the rest too, and voilà, the sin is atoned for.
Besides, people aren’t like that. Look at the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was repentant, and begging for mercy, not defying God. One of the main themes of Hell is that you’re sorry you’re there and you want to get out. Great literature notwithstanding, it would indeed be better to serve in heaven than to rule in hell. If Hell were as bad as the Bible says, sooner or later everyone would figure out that resistance was futile, and would submit. The idea of perpetual rebellion is a myth that’s not consistent with human nature as it exists in the real world. A merciful and loving God would use punishment to achieve correction, not to create self-perpetuating sin.
Second, why think that every sin does have only a finite punishment? We could agree that sins like theft, lying, adultery, and so forth are only of finite consequence and so deserve only a finite punishment. But, in a sense, these sins aren’t what separates someone from God. For Christ has died for those sins; the penalty for those sins has been paid. One has only to accept Christ as Savior to be completely free and cleansed of those sins.
But the refusal to accept Christ and His sacrifice seems to be a sin of a different order altogether. For this sin repudiates God’s provision for sin and so decisively separates someone from God and His salvation. To reject Christ is to reject God Himself. And in light of who God is, this is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore plausibly deserves infinite punishment. We should not, therefore, think of hell primarily as a punishment for the array of sins of finite consequence that we’ve committed, but as the just penalty for a sin of infinite consequence, namely the rejection of God Himself.
You see what I mean about the chief task of apologetics being to so confuse our reason and morals that we can no longer distinguish between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Here’s William Lane Craig facing one of the major inconsistencies in the Christian Gospel, and rather than acknowledging that such inconsistencies are a sure sign of falsehood, he tries to lose us in a shifting quagmire of unfounded redefinitions and arbitrary ad hoc suppositions, in order to cloud our ability to discern what justice really is. Why is infinite punishment justified? Because the sin has infinite consequence. Why does the sin have infinite consequence? Because it leads to infinite punishment. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Notice how he re-writes the Gospel. According to the Bible, Jesus died to pay the penalty for all sin, not just finite sin. If a failure to believe in God constitutes an entirely different class of sin, one that is not covered by the blood of Jesus, then Christians are screwed too. They may believe now, but there have been times when they did not believe (and times when they’ve doubted even after believing, which is why Craig is writing this book). Millions of Christians will tell you that rejecting God is not forever, because they themselves used to reject Him. To say that such sins lie outside Christ’s atonement is to imply that Christians are being saved with unforgiven sins. And if God can save those whose sins are not forgiven, then as a loving Father He ought to be saving the rest of His children as well, forgiven or not. The alternative is to damn everyone, repentant or not.
But the bigger problem with Craig’s attempt to dance around this inconsistency is his idea of which sins are worse. Things like theft, lying, adultery and so on are wrong because they do harm. Simply failing to believe in God is not, in itself, a harmful act. There are millions of people in the world who neither know nor care that I exist, and I am not in the least harmed by their lack of belief in me. How much more is Almighty God above any possibility of suffering harm at the hands of men! Unbelief is not only a lesser sin, it’s not a sin at all, especially given that the reason for our unbelief is God’s own failure to show up in real life. If He’s truly offended by our failure to see Him while He’s hiding, then why hide?
In a way, though, Craig is telling us something true and important, because there’s one kind of God that can be harmed by unbelief: the imaginary kind. Gods who are brought into existence by the imagination and superstition of men, and whose continued (subjective) existence depends on the continued belief of men, can indeed be harmed by unbelief. Fictitious deities, once forgotten, cease to have any existence at all.
So maybe Craig has a point. Maybe his God is vulnerable to the harmful effects of skepticism and the reality-based worldview. Maybe there’s a reason why, when he tries to cover up one inconsistency in the Gospel, two more inconsistencies pop up. Maybe his God only exists within the mental confines of his own particular, personal (and at times unscriptural) worldview. That would explain why his God, Who’s allegedly not willing for anyone to perish, turns out to be sending people to Hell just for failing to see Him when He doesn’t show up. No matter how you try to spin it, that is a seriously messed-up doctrine. And yet, without a Hell to be saved from, what do you need a Savior for?