April 20, 2009
Atheism: A Philosophy without Hope?
Hello Dr. Craig,
I read your article “Does God Exist” and in it you stated this:
“If God does not exist, then we must ultimately live without hope. If there is no God, then there is ultimately no hope for deliverance from the shortcomings of our finite existence.”
I have to simply disagree with this. I think as an atheist one can certainly live with tremendous hope. I mean if there is no God then there is no ultimate accountability. No fear going before a Just and Holy God to give an account of one’s life. One can live the life of their choosing as a result of this, with no fear of retribution. This is hope to the atheist.
Can you refute this kind of hope?
Well, Bill, yours is certainly a novel defense of the atheist’s hope: hope of escaping the judgement of God! I must concede that the atheist may--indeed, must--hope that he will not fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10.31)!
But that doesn’t really negate what I said. I identified specific senses in which atheism is a philosophy without hope:
2. If God does not exist, then we must ultimately live without hope. If there is no God, then there is ultimately no hope for deliverance from the shortcomings of our finite existence.
For example, there is no hope for deliverance from evil. Although many people ask how God could create a world involving so much evil, by far most of the suffering in the world is due to man’s own inhumanity to man. The horror of two world wars during the last century effectively destroyed the 19th century’s naive optimism about human progress. If God does not exist, then we are locked without hope in a world filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering, and there is no hope for deliverance from evil.
Or again, if there is no God, there is no hope of deliverance from aging, disease, and death. Although it may be hard for you as university students to contemplate, the sober fact is that unless you die young, someday you—you yourself—will be an old man or an old woman, fighting a losing battle with aging, struggling against the inevitable advance of deterioration, disease, perhaps senility. And finally and inevitably you will die. There is no afterlife beyond the grave. Atheism is thus a philosophy without hope.
Notice that I’m talking about the shortcomings of our finite existence. I identify two in particular: (i) evil and (ii) aging, disease, and death. It seems to me that atheism is hopeless in these matters. In a famous passage, the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell lamented,
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; . . . that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.1
Sartre, Camus, and many other atheists have eloquently expressed the despair to which atheism leads. In this sense atheism is hopeless.
Ironically, Christianity, by contrast, not only provides hope of deliverance from evil and from aging, disease, and death, but it also furnishes the hope which you yourself cherish: deliverance from the hands of a just and holy God. This was Martin Luther’s great insight. The same righteousness of God that wrought his condemnation as a sinner outside of Christ, that very same righteousness became the source of salvation for him as one who by faith is united with Christ. For when you trust Christ as your Savior and Lord, God reckons to your account Christ’s righteousness. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8.1).
Thus any hope the atheist might entertain is enjoyed many times over by the Christian, for we enjoy, not merely escape from judgement, but positive salvation. You might say that Christians thereby give up being able to act with impunity, as the atheist can. Granted; but, Bill, I wouldn’t want to act that way! When you come to Christ, God changes your desires so that you want to live a righteous and blameless life. The Bible says that the fruit of God’s Spirit’s filling your life is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5. 22). Think about that list of personal virtues. Isn’t that really the kind of person you’d like to be?
One final point: you’ve described the atheist’s hope. How firm is that hope? How well-founded is it? Most atheists I’ve talked to admit that atheism cannot be proven; indeed, many insist on it. But then how do you know atheism is true? The Christian’s hope is firmly founded, not only on the witness of the Holy Spirit, but on the arguments of natural theology and the evidence for Jesus and his resurrection. But the atheist’s hope is by his own admission without strong foundation. So what if your hope is ill-founded? What if you’re wrong?
1 Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, eds., Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), p. 67.