Grasping at straw men

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 10: “Is Jesus the Only Way to God?”)

A lot of people think that faith and agnosticism are mutually exclusive, but they’re not really. In fact, certain forms of agnosticism are not only compatible with faith, in some cases they’re downright essential, as William Lane Craig demonstrates for us today.

Craig frames the problem as a set of premises: (1) God is all-powerful and all-loving, and (2) some people never hear the gospel and are lost. To these first two premises, he adds what he calls the “hidden premises” of religious pluralists (i.e. those who deny that Jesus is the only way to God). These premises are (3) God can create a world in which everyone hears the gospel and is saved and (4) He would prefer such a world. At first glance, those don’t seem too unreasonable, but let’s look at the case he tries to build on them.

Now both of the hidden premises must necessarily be true if the pluralist is to prove the logical incompatibility of 1 and 2.

Whoa, hold it right there. Those aren’t the pluralist’s premises, they’re the premises assigned to the pluralist by Craig. They don’t really capture the essence of the contradiction, and it’s fair to ask if they were even intended to. What Craig is setting up is an artificial framework within which he can appeal to agnosticism as a defense.

The contradiction is inherent in 1 and 2, specifically in the terms “all-powerful” and “all-loving” as opposed to the lost souls in premise 2. If God is truly all-loving, then necessarily He must prefer a creation that maximizes the number of souls that end up in eternal bliss with Him, and that minimizes the number of souls that suffer eternal torment apart from Him. Being all-powerful, He must necessarily be capable of creating such a world, where the minimum number of damned souls is zero. If we claim that the real world contains more damned souls than zero, God is thereby shown to be inconsistent with the claims that He is both all-powerful and all-loving.

Put it another way: premise 1 says that God is all-powerful and all-loving. “All-powerful” means He has all possible power and “all-loving” means He has all possible love. Thus, it cannot be possible for any God to have more power and/or more love. If we can propose a logically coherent God who has more power and/or more love than the Christian God, then the Christian God cannot be all-powerful and all-loving. A God who can create a world in which no souls are damned is a God who has more power and/or love than one who cannot create such a world, and therefore a God who sends any souls to Hell is necessarily not all-powerful and all-loving.

Remember, by the way, that what we’re debating here are the claims made by uninspired men about God. We have no real-world deity whose power and love are subject to direct, objective measurements. We’re looking at the reasonings of men, to see if they’re consistent enough with each other and with reality to qualify for consideration as the truth. And they’re not. What Craig is offering us is not evidence, but mere procto-theology, the ancient art of pulling answers out of your butt in hopes of creating a fiction plausible enough to pass for the truth. People like Craig are taking the story as it has been told thus far, and inventing new narratives to make the whole sound more realistic. It’s an approach shared by theologians, apologists, and professional novelists.

But I digress. The immediate problem with Craig’s approach is that it is trivial to propose alternatives in which nobody goes to Hell and everybody ends up in Heaven. For example, just don’t have a hell. God has the power to not create Hell. If people die unsaved, just annihilate them. There’s no point to an endless existence of suffering anyway, so why prolong it? Far less cruel to not exist than to exist solely for the purpose of experiencing unremitting torment. Dying doesn’t need to be painful.

For that matter, why have a people who need to be “saved” in the first place? Give people immortal spiritual bodies that cannot be harmed (hence no more violence or murder), that need no scarce resources (no more conflict or territorialism), and that have direct, immediate access to the whole truth about any particular topic whenever they need it (no more lying and deception). Make them sexless, like the angels. And so on. No opportunity to sin means no sin. It’s not as though the absence of sin would leave us with no free choices to make. We’d just find ourselves choosing between alternatives that were all good. Let’s call this possibility God’s World.

God’s World gives us the standard against we can evaluate premises 1 and 2. If God creates a world that damns more people than God’s World (i.e. that damns anyone), or that fails to end up with as many people in eternal bliss and fellowship as God’s World (i.e. that fails to save everyone), then God is either not powerful enough to create it, or else He’s not loving enough to prefer it. A God who was willing and able to create God’s World would necessarily be more powerful and/or loving than one that was unwilling or unable to do so, thus contradicting the claim in premise 1 that the Christian God is all-powerful and all-loving. And yet, God’s World isn’t remotely what the real world looks like. Premise 1 (at least) is contradicted by reality. So how does Craig try to weasel out of this problem?

It seems uncontroversial that God could create a world in which everybody hears the gospel. That’s no big deal. But so long as people are free, there’s no guarantee that everybody in such a world would be freely saved. In fact, when you think about it, there’s no reason to think that the balance between saved and lost in such a world would be any better than the balance in the actual world!

Man, I’ve had jobs that sucked, but nothing as bad as this. Here’s William Lane Craig, Christian apologist, a man who has devoted his life to the preaching of the Gospel, telling us that it’s all utterly pointless. The Gospel has so little power to save people that even if you preached it to everyone, everywhere, throughout the entirety of history, it wouldn’t make a significant difference. And that’s a Christian apologist’s assessment of the Gospel’s power to save! That kind of fail is epic enough to rate a 5.0 on the Cecil B. deMille scale.

Even as an appeal to agnosticism, it fails. As I mentioned last week, every time a woman has sex, there are tens of millions of potential people who could be conceived, based on the tens of millions of sperm all attempting to fertilize the same egg. And the Creator could easily have designed us so that that number was as high as necessary to produce a reasonable chance of producing that one soul out of billions who would be predestined for salvation (assuming He did such a poor job that we needed redeeming in the first place). All God has to do is bless the right sperm so that the right soul ends up being conceived. An all-powerful and all-loving God could easily arrange things so that every soul was destined for heaven, without the slightest impact on anyone’s free will.

It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. Being all-powerful does not mean having the ability to do the logically impossible. So there’s no guarantee that a possible world in which everyone hears the gospel and is freely saved is feasible for God to create.

This is sheer hand-waving. He’s trying to emphasize the conflict between coercion and free will, as though those were the only two possibilities. Nonsense. All interactions between people involve some degree of compromise between what one person wants and what the other person wants. Coercion is one type of interaction, but persuasion is another, and so are negotiation and cooperation. There’s no reason to insist that an all-powerful God must be limited to coercion alone as the sole means by which He achieves universal salvation.

Besides, who has the final say in what constitutes the criteria for salvation, if not God? You want more people to be saved, don’t be so picky about what qualifies people for salvation. After all, they’re only human, as You should well know. Show a little bit more compassion. Remember that, according to the New Testament, people are only sinning because they’re blinded and driven by their inherent sin nature—they haven’t got a genuinely free will in the first place! If someone can earn damnation just by taking one bite from one fruit, You shouldn’t have to kill somebody to get their salvation back again.

Again, there are all kinds of ways an all-powerful and all-loving God could have improved on what Christians tell us is the actual ratio between the saved and the damned. Craig’s excuse is that we can’t really know that God has enough power to create a world in which all people can be persuaded to freely chose to meet whatever standards He sets for salvation, but such agnosticism is irrelevant. It’s logically possible for God to have enough power and love to do what Craig claims God might not be able to do, which reduces Craig’s argument to claiming that God might not be all-powerful and all-loving. Thus, premise 1 must either be false or be inconsistent with premise 2.

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that there are possible worlds that are feasible for God in which everyone hears the gospel and freely accepts it. Does God’s being all-loving compel Him to prefer one of those worlds over a world in which some persons are lost?

Not necessarily: for the worlds involving universal salvation might have other, overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable. For example, suppose that the only worlds in which everybody freely believes the gospel and is saved are worlds with only a handful of people in them, say three or four. If God were to create any more people, then at least one of them would have freely rejected His grace and been lost. Must He prefer one of these sparsely populated worlds over a world in which multitudes believe in the gospel and are saved, even though that implies that other persons freely reject His grace and are lost?

This is an amazingly bad argument. “Suppose,” Craig says, “that God can’t create sinner-free worlds with more than four people in them.” That’s what he’s saying in a nutshell. Premise 1 says God is all-powerful, but suppose He’s not. Suppose He can’t create more than 4 people per world and have them all freely choose salvation.

Why on earth would we suppose that? Why pick any number as the hard limit how many people an all-powerful God can create before some failure in His foreknowledge leads Him to create one doomed to sin? Again, Craig is trying to hide behind a peculiar and illogical agnosticism. We can’t know that there’s not some arbitrary limit on the number of elect God can create before He has to create a sinner, and we can’t know that this number isn’t less than the already-low number Jesus says will be saved.

And he’s right, we can’t—unless of course God is really all-powerful, and is therefore immune to such artificial limits! It’s not a logical impossibility, it’s just Craig making the assumption that God’s power is limited by some arbitrary and illogical constraint that he pulled out of his butt in order to deny the conflict between premises 1 and 2. Procto-theology saves God’s ass again, whee!

Notice, too, the false dichotomy here: God can either create a world in which none of the four inhabitants go to Hell, or else He can create a world in which most of the billions of inhabitants go to Hell. As an “all-powerful” God, He has those two choices, and none other. Seriously? Ok, fine, let’s discuss the morality of those two options. Which one would a good, moral, loving God prefer? Which is the more moral, loving choice: to have a smaller number of souls in heaven without resorting to sin and evil and eternal cruelty, or to have a larger number of souls in heaven through maximizing the amount of suffering and evil for a vastly greater number of Your own “beloved” children?

This goes back to the question of church fund raising. If you can raise a lot more money by selling addictive drugs than by a safe and legal bake sale, which one would Jesus recommend? This doesn’t even strike me as a terribly perplexing question. Of course a loving God is going to prefer a world in which nobody goes to hell. Who cares if there are only four people in that world? Create that world, save those four people, then create another world with four more. You’re eternal, You can keep doing this forever, and get as many people in heaven as You want, without even one soul ending up in Hell.

I can see why Craig tucked this argument away in the very last pages of his book. There’s a kind of go-for-broke desperation here that seems past all caring. I guess he figured that anybody who made it this far is either swallowing everything, hook line and sinker, or is beyond his power to convince. Given the abysmal quality of his arguments here, it’s kind of sad that there aren’t more people in the latter category.

Amazingly, we’re going to need at least one more part to try and cover all the fallacies and self-deceptions Craig offers us as proof that Jesus is the only way to God. Stay tuned.

6 Responses to “Grasping at straw men”

  1. fatalotti Says:

    I don’t even think an all-powerful God could have saved this book. Good job absolutely dismantling everything he’s put in this book!

  2. JohnMWhite Says:

    This really is astounding. I cannot believe the following Craig has developed, and that he is seen as a premier apologist, when his reasoning is just so bad. His compulsive flailing to justify his core presupposition, come hell or high water, is sad to behold. I thought Lewis was bad, but at least a little brain power was required to deal with some of his arguments.

    I actually feel some sympathy for Craig – he is the product of his environment. Unfortunately, his environment is one that is again turning its back on education, the pursuit of knowledge and free inquiry, and looking to simply cheerlead fellow believers who say the right things and tick the right boxes. We see it in the US Republican party in particular, where the candidates were essentially forced to adopt precisely the same positions on every policy in order to be seen as pure. In this all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us thinking, Craig likely is not meeting any internal challenge whatsoever and his barely-baked apologetics are not tested under any scrutiny because all that matters is the conclusion – that there is a god and it’s the one these people happen to believe in. Then, bolstered by popular support in his own circles, he merrily produces these arguments for a more critical audience and seems utterly perplexed that they don’t work.

    Speaking of which, has anyone heard of the new book that’s out called “Godforsaken” by Dinesh D’Souza? I read a portion of it in the book store, intrigued by the testimonials on the back that uniformly declared it the book atheists had been waiting for – a direct answer to their criticisms of god, on their own turf. Typically, it’s not. All I found was strikingly similar to Craig’s arguments – that there are things god simply cannot do, and seemingly deliberate mischaracterisations of his opponents’ views. D’Souza, for instance, claimed that atheists who argue that there can be no justification for eternal torture in hell claim to be personally deserving of eternal reward in heaven. The argument is, of course, that god is perfectly justified in condemning people to eternal torture in hell because they also have the chance to achieve eternal bliss if they play by the rules. Except I’ve never heard of an atheist who said that anybody deserved eternal reward, particularly not themselves (nice strawman and ad hominem at once) and often the criticism of hell follows on to argue that heaven, or anything eternal, will eventually be dull and torturous anyway.

    Just curious if anyone had seen the book around, or critiques of it. It was a bit disappointing to look through it and find more of the same, particularly when it was ostensibly aimed at converting non-believers. Does the book get any better? Is this (and Craig) really the best they’ve got?

  3. Rick Says:

    Wow. WLC just gets worse with every chapter. He is so completely blinded that he doesn’t even understand the problem between “all-powerful” and “some people never hear the gospel”. So “all-powerful” means really crappy marketing department.. Even people in hell got AOL CDs in the 90s. If hearing the gospel is the most important thing possible for each and every human being, then god sure as hell isn’t all-powerful if some people never hear it. Much easier to imaging god as an all-powerful, malevolent being, who just loves to watch the suffering.

  4. Duke of Omnium Says:

    “Procto-theology” is a great neologism, and one that I intend to steal a lot.

  5. chaos-engineer Says:

    About this bit:

    It seems uncontroversial that God could create a world in which everybody hears the gospel. That’s no big deal. But so long as people are free, there’s no guarantee that everybody in such a world would be freely saved. In fact, when you think about it, there’s no reason to think that the balance between saved and lost in such a world would be any better than the balance in the actual world!

    Craig’s God seems like a bit of a racist. No one who lived in North or South America before around 1500AD had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, so apparently God thinks “those people” were so morally inferior that hearing the Gospel wouldn’t have done any of them any good.

    Honestly, I could do better than this! I’d go with, “God wants everyone to be saved, so if a person doesn’t hear a convincing version of the Gospel in life, then we can assume that God will give them a split-second course on it at the moment of their death. God only allows people to be born if he knows they’ll freely choose to be saved. The bits of the Bible dealing with Hell are theoretical, and describe what would happen to anybody that freely chose to go there.” (This isn’t original with me. C. S. Lewis used it in “The Last Battle”, except for the part about everyone choosing to be saved.)

  6. John Says:

    Here’s one take on why the argument that a world with universal salvation cannot have overriding deficiencies:

    The optimal world is one in which all people in said world are freely saved, or freely never choose to sin in the first place.

    Once Craig starts to bring numbers in to explain a deficiency in a logically possible world, we get into a case of one of his favorite absurdities – an infinite regress! Once the number of people in heaven determine what is the optimal world for god, the only number that can satisfy the desire to be the “greatest of all possible worlds” is infinity. But Craig can not have actual infinities exist. Further Christian theology shows that there will not be an infinite number of humans, that the world as we know it (along with reproduction of new humans) will end after a finite time.

    As it is, Craig can’t even argue that a majority of people in the actual world will be saved since that goes against what the bible teaches about salvation, the road to damnation being wide and filled with many, but the path to salvation being narrow and filled with few, etc.

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