I received a letter not long ago from a believer with serious doubts. Science, he felt, had made believing in a variety of Biblical accounts seem foolish. The virgin birth, the trinity, the parting of the Red Sea, Noah’s Arc… the list went on and on. Only a fool could believe that such things actually occurred. Or so he felt. His greatest objection he reserved for Hell – he could not accept that his atheist friends, some of the “nicest” people he knows, could be destined for eternal torment.
I began my response by acknowledging the impossibility of “arguing” him out of his doubts. Instead, I tried to put his doubts into perspective. I could see, having engaged this argument many times in the past, what was the crux of his difficulty in believing – he had accepted uncritically the skeptic’s belief in the impossibility of miracles. The logic is as simple as it is sound: if miracles are impossible, then miraculous events such as those listed above could not have happened. So, my approach was to help him to see the effect of the unspoken premise behind his assertions.
There are two basic possibilities when it comes to assessing the universe and the fact that we happen to be alive in it and able to ask the kinds of questions that we are asking. Either naturalism is true – and nature is all there is, with rules that are inviolable – or there is a Creator who transcends nature and set things in motion some 15 billion years ago in what scientists refer to as the big bang event. My review of the evidence available – and here I mean science and reason, not the teachings of the Bible – leads me, at the very least, to question the plausibility of naturalistic explanations. Believing that a creator exists does not require me to reject evolution; there is no doubt that both living beings and non-living things change over time. But I have yet to see explanations of how something arose from nothing; how life emerged from inert material; how intelligence arose from unthinking matter. I have yet to see a materialistic explanation for the appreciation of beauty, the elegance of music and math, the existence of truth and morality. These things must be explained. They cannot be taken for granted. From a human perspective, they are in every sense of the word “miraculous.” Consequently, while I may not fully understand the virgin birth doctrine, or how the Red Sea was parted, or how countless people emerged from an original couple, I can see that such things are mere child’s play for a being capable of creating our universe. CS Lewis explains this argument in great detail in his book Miracles. The point, in short, is that complete knowledge of the how and why of everything is neither possible nor necessary, any more than I need to fully understand how this computer I am writing on works for it to be real and useful to me. It is enough, for our purposes, to realize that the conclusion “God is” is considerably more logical than the conclusion that he definitely does not exist.
Moving to the question of Hell, I challenged yet another unspoken assumption – that heaven is a reward for “nice” people. If an atheist is nice, he should go there, because fairness demands it. He asked that I not use the Bible in my response and indeed I don’t need to when I address this argument. Looking at the nature of creation, at the way things work in this world, I quickly conclude that being “nice” doesn’t seem to make any difference. For example, a nice person stepping off a ledge by mistake will be hurt by gravity the same way that a bad person wanting to commit suicide, or hurt someone else, is. Moreover, being nice is a moral judgment that presupposes I know what “nice” and “bad” are. Even people we view as evil will defend their behavior as being “nice” – just to a different group. Perhaps they are being nice to their own “tribe” or “people,” or perhaps to themselves, but in the end, without God to ground good and evil, the whole notion of “nice” falls apart. That his atheist friends may make for great neighbors tells me very little about how God views them.
So, how does one make sense of Hell. The argument, in short, begins with the recognition that God gave us free will, and we rebelled against him. If a loved one in your life rebelled and insisted on taking things from you, or living with you against your wishes, the law would provide you a restraining order. You have the right to separate yourself from those with whom you do not wish to associate. The same is true for the Creator. That place of separation is Hell. We all deserve it, because none of us on our own is “nice” enough to satisfy perfect “niceness.” But God will correct that, if we consent to it. He will not override our consent, just as a surgeon who could save us will not override our consent by strapping us to a table and operating when we say no. Hell makes perfect sense when the backdrop is considered. God gives people what they ask for – union with him on his terms if they want, or separation from him if they insist on shaking their fist at him. How he plays this out in each individual life is for God, and that person, to work out. Looking in from the outside, I cannot judge whether God is being “fair” because I don’t have God’s knowledge. I can only deal with my own situation. I know that I am in need of a savior and my “goodness” won’t cut it. None of us is that good. That’s why the gospel has always been considered the “good news.” It does for us what we cannot do ourselves.
Understanding how unspoken premises operate will not force the challenger to change his views. But it may help them to see that their conclusions are not as well supported as they originally thought.
Posted by Al Serrato