Is Unbelief Culpable?
Dear Dr. Craig,
I am a brazilian Christian. Your work for the kingdom has been a tremendous help to me in my spiritual life.
I believe God exists, but I am troubled with a question.
Christians are supposed to think that God will punish atheists for choosing not to believe. But how can an sincere atheist be blamed for not believing? I don't think belief is a choice.
Suppose your friends push you to believe in Santa Claus. Could you force yourself to believe in Santa? At most you can act like a believer, but you will never be a sincere believer. Therefore you will be a hypocrite!
Now suppose Santa Claus "asks" you to suffer for him. If you do not believe in Santa, will you have enough motivation for endure suffering for him? Can you be blamed for give up suffering for Santa?
Jesus asks the believer to do more then suffer for him. Christ asks the believer to hate his own life in this world (John 12.25). Now how can an atheist have enough motivation for obeying Christ if he even not believes in Jesus?
If an sincere atheist thinks God is a fairy tale, how can he be blamed? If belief is not a choice, no one can be blamed for not believing. It seems absurd to punish an atheist for being an atheist like it is absurd to punish a dog for being a dog.
How should we respond to this objection?
I find that contemporary atheists take great umbrage at the biblical claim that God holds people to be morally culpable for their unbelief. They want to maintain their unbelief in God without accepting the responsibility for it. This attitude enables them to reject God with impunity.
Now we can agree that a person cannot be held morally responsible for failing to discharge a duty of which he is uninformed. So the entire question is: are people sufficiently informed to be held morally responsible for failing to believe in God? The biblical answer to that question is unequivocal. First, God has provided a revelation of Himself in nature that is sufficiently clear for all cognitively normal persons to know that God exists. Paul writes to the Roman church:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1. 18-21).
In Paul’s view God’s properties, His eternal power and deity, are clearly revealed in creation, so that people who fail to believe in an eternal, powerful Creator of the world are without excuse. Indeed, Paul says that they actually do know that God exists, but they suppress this truth because of their unrighteousness. As result they become so clouded in their thinking that they may actually deceive themselves into thinking that they are open-minded inquirers honestly pursuing the truth. The human capacity for rationalization and self-deception, I’m sure we’ve all observed, is very great, indeed, and in the biblical view atheists are prey to it.
Second, wholly apart from God’s revelation in nature is the inner witness which the Holy Spirit bears to the great truths of the Gospel, including, I should say, the fact that God exists. Anyone who fails to believe in God by the end of his lifetime does so only by a stubborn resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing that person to a knowledge of God. On the biblical view people are not like innocent, lost lambs wandering helplessly without a guide. Rather they are determined rebels whose wills are set against God and who must be subdued by God’s Spirit.
The difference, then, between God and Santa Claus, is that (i) there is good evidence in support of God’s existence which is evident to all, and (ii) there is an objective witness of God’s Spirit which warrants belief in Christian truths. Of course, the unbeliever will deny that there is such evidence and such a witness of the Spirit. Fine; we Christians disagree with them about that. We think they’re mistaken. That’s why we engage them in dialogue, to show them that the evidence is sufficient and that their objections are weak.
Contrary to what you say, Wagner, on the biblical view, unbelief is a choice. It is a choice to resist the force of the evidence and the drawing of God’s Holy Spirit. The unbeliever is like someone dying of a fatal disease who refuses to believe the medical evidence concerning the efficacy of a proffered cure and who rejects the testimony of his doctor to it and who, as a result, suffers the consequence of his own stubbornness. He has no one to blame but himself.
Atheists and agnostics are not like dogs. They are persons created in the image of God, endowed with freedom of the will, and pursued by a loving Heavenly Father who yearns to reconcile them with Himself. Their unbelief is culpable because it is maintained in the face of the evidence and in defiance of the Holy Spirit.