Proper Motives for Faith
Dear Dr. Craig:
Please forgive the prologue, but I think it's important to give a quick summary of how and why I've reached this point in my life. My father is a retired minister, and I attended church (and Christian school) my entire life, but like many of my PK friends, I've abandoned my faith--actually, I don't think I ever had it. But I am still searching. My parents are good people, and I respect my dad a great deal, as he has been a great role model and has lived out his beliefs. He had a rather remarkable conversion experience as an adult, and I only give this background, as it has much to do with my primary question dealing with how and why people are "saved."
I've read and viewed just about everything on reasonablefaith.org over the past 3 years, including all your debates, and I actually attended your debate with Sam Harris at Notre Dame. I've listened to this debate about 10 time since, and I'm still troubled with many issues, but one continues to stand out, since it truly takes me back to my own so-called conversion as a 5-year old child. At one point during the debate, Sam Harris characterized salvation as people grabbing on to a sort of "fire insurance," which, after a year of thinking about this, I think is a very apt description. You responded with the following:
"You don't believe in God to avoid going to Hell. Belief in God isn't some kind of fire insurance. You believe in God because God, as the supreme Good, is the appropriate object of adoration and love. He is Goodness itself, to be desired for its own sake. And so the fulfillment of human existence is to be found in relation to God. It's because of who God is and his moral worth that he is worthy of worship. It has nothing to do with avoiding Hell, or promoting your own well-being."
So, for those who "get saved" because they've been scared out of their minds about hell, are they truly saved? Must they all feel as you described above? I grew up in hell-fire and brimstone churches, and as a 5-year old child, terrified of hearing about hell 4 times a week, I prayed to God "asking Jesus into my heart." What other "choice" did I really have? What child wants to burn (or adult)? And I probably prayed the prayer another 100 times as a terrified child. And now, my wife, who has been a believer her entire life, and she takes our 7-year-old son to church faithfully, and he's just like I was! He's terrified of hell and prays the prayer or raises his hand every time someone gives the old "alter call." And I know why: because he's terrified of burning in hell! Who wouldn't be! I have no idea what to tell him, and I just go along, agreeing with all of the Bible stories that I've been told and that he's now hearing--and it's killing me, because I've come to the place where I don't believe any of it.
I apologize for taking so long to get to my question, but I think it's important to mention these things as it helps me frame these constant thoughts. So, keeping in mind your statement from the debate, that salvation isn't (or shouldn't be) fire insurance, what if there was no hell, or heaven--just nothingness after death? If going to heaven should not be the desire, and the fear of hell should not cause one to desire "insurance" from it, what's the point? Who among us is exactly and perfectly altruistic? Or would do or act a certain way without benefit? We all do things to produce/receive and even to avoid a specific result. And as you say, the only reason to get saved should be because: "You believe in God, as the supreme Good...worthy of worship...fulfillment of human existence...etc", but what if when you die, there's nothing? That's it. How can all of your worship, morality, etc. have meant ANYTHING? After all, you didn't do it all because of heaven; you were supposed to accept Christ for the reasons you stated, so heaven/hell should have nothing to do with it. Right?
Given my 30 years in the church, and my own ongoing experience and struggle, I contend that there are a great many who are trying to avoid hell? I would say, if people were honest, most would admit to this. I have a good many other questions and doubts, but your statement in this debate continues to haunt me. I think mostly because Harris' statement it so accurately described my (and many others') childhood conversion experiences. So how exactly does a person make himself not want to avoid hell and only desire to worship and have a relationship with the only worthy God? Please help...
Your personal situation and struggle, Mark, illustrate poignantly why it is important that we think rightly about God. I am so glad that you’ve grasped and reflected on how different is the motivation for belief in God that I described, which represents the classical Christian tradition, than the frightful caricature painted by Sam Harris. I hope that you can have the strength to embrace in all its beauty and wonder this new vision of God as the Highest Good, which to know is the fulfillment of human existence.
So, you ask, are those who "get saved" because they've been scared out of their minds about hell truly saved? Sure! Why not? We are saved by God’s grace through faith, and I see no reason to think that a frightened person cannot have genuine faith. One could be motivated, for example, by fear of punishment which he believes to be justly deserved. In any case, none of us has a perfect theology, and having one isn’t a requirement of salvation.
The person who continually raises his hand or goes forward at the altar call has a problem with assurance of a salvation, not with the doctrine of hell. You should give your boy instruction in sound doctrine, teaching him about regeneration, the indwelling and filling of the Holy Spirit, justification and forgiveness, all that he as a child of God is heir to in Christ. There is no reason for this treadmill he’s on. Listen to my Defenders podcasts on these subjects if you don’t know them yourself. Maybe you ought to read aloud to your son after dinner, a little each night, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to help him see the journey he’s on to the Celestial City. He can forget about hell. He’s not on that road.
So, you ask, if there were no heaven or hell, then what would be the point? The question is misplaced because “going to heaven” just IS the knowledge of God, prolonged into eternity, that is the fulfillment of human existence that I was talking about. The purpose of life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. So the relevant question you should ask is, “If there were no hell, then what would be the point?” And that’s easy to answer: the point remains to know God. Indeed, some Christian theologians think that there is no everlasting hell, that God just annihilates the unsaved. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t see that if they were right that would materially affect the motivation for believing in God.
You ask, who among us is perfectly altruistic? None of us, of course! So what? You don’t have to have perfect motives in order to be saved.
But why are you raising this question anyway? I thought your difficulty was that believing out of fear of hell was not a healthy motivation for believing in God. So you ought to rejoice that there is a better one! You need to shed your negative image of God and your negative motivations and see Him as supremely Good and loving, and then you will be drawn to Him.
So how exactly does a person make himself not want to avoid hell and only desire to worship and have a relationship with the only worthy God? You don’t have to make yourself not want to avoid hell. Any right-thinking person would want to avoid such a fate. So don’t worry about that. Rather strive to have another, stronger, positive motivation as well which supersedes it, namely, the desire to know God. So how do we do that? Well, the first thing is absorbing deeply the correct doctrine of God. Once we really grasp Who God is and what He is like, we’ll be drawn to Him. So study carefully and patiently the Defenders podcasts on Doctrine of God. Read J. I. Packer’s marvelous book Knowing God. Take your time. You’ve got a lot of negative emotions to slough off. Second, get to know Jesus of Nazareth as described in the Gospels. Jesus is a tremendously attractive figure. God is like him. Finally, meditate on all that God in Christ has done for you. Think of His love for you that drove Him to the extremity of the cross. Think of His pardon of all your sins, of making you His child, of eternal life. When you rightly understand these things, your heart will be filled with gratitude.
I really hope that God will do a work in your heart to replace these negative emotions with proper, positive emotions borne out of a correct understanding of God.