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#735 The Culpability of Unbelief

June 07, 2021

I have some comments on Mr. Craig’s answer to Question of the Week #728. From within the Christian point of view, it is not possible that someone be presented with the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, and Jesus and fail to be convinced of its truth, unless one suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. A troubling question to ask is why, given the stakes, God allows people to do this --- surely free will isn’t worth eternal suffering --- but let’s leave that aside.

For someone like myself, who thinks Christianity is about as plausible as Mormonism or Islam, whether there exists a God who wants to communicate with me is itself an open question. I will instinctually wonder whether any feeling or powerful sentiment I experience is really a communication from the divine, or just another aspect of my psychology. After all, my brain is constantly creating extremely intricate experiences, dreams, sensations and emotions that we don’t normally attribute to the divine. How, exactly, can I distinguish between the leading of Jesus and a trick of neurology? For example, I once seriously thought that I had a religiously meaningful experience in church, but a few days later had the same experience listening to a good rock song. Was that song divine, or was the experience never divine in the first place? I think the latter.

Mr. Craig’s answer seems to be that anyone who hears the gospel and doesn’t believe it is at fault; they must be consciously rejecting God because they want to be sinful. Now, to me, this just looks like a classic cultish explanation for why so many people don’t agree with him. If you believe, that’s because you’re a good person, and if you don’t, it’s because you are a bad person. You don’t want to be a bad person, do you? For the Christian, this kind of explanation sets up a powerful psychological block to the idea Christian beliefs are questionable because they lack plausibility. If you have serious doubts, it’s because something is wrong with you (maybe secret sins or inexorable defects like self-esteem) --- not because the beliefs are wrong. (Christians are primed to accept this kind of thing, since a core teaching of the religion is that humans are dirty, sinful, evil, and can’t trust themselves.) This is, literally, textbook manipulation, and we don’t normally take manipulative tactics as evidence of veridicality in other contexts.

As a matter of piety, it is not possible that reality contradict the sayings of Jesus. It cannot be, from the Christian point of view, that a person would earnestly, honestly, piously, and openly seek God, and come away unconvinced. But there is no evidence that the dynamics of conversion (or deconversion) are what Mr. Craig says they are. We just have to take Jesus at his word, apparently.

But that is the question, are the utterances of Jesus in the Bible, or of Muhammed in the Koran, or Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon, communications from God? I see no reason to think so. I’ve never been presented with anything I knew (or took to be) to be God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. I have heard the Gospel many times over at this point. I don’t believe it at all. But I also never ‘made a decision’ to reject it. I never chose to reject Islam and Mormonism either; like Christianity they just don’t connect with anything in my experience and thinking that would lead me to believe they are accurate descriptions of reality. But Mr. Craig will just have to say that I’m lying. Ironically, this tends to confirm my belief that Christianity doesn’t have much to say about the real world, since it doesn't describe what I experience. But I can never prove that to the Christians, can I? How convenient. (For them.)


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Dr. craig’s response


In order to get beyond the negative tone of your letter, Jon, I’ve reflected on it for a couple of days, asking myself, What is the actual point that he is getting at? You say that “whether there exists a God who wants to communicate with me is itself an open question,” and I presume that you are also open as well to that God’s being the Christian God. So what’s the problem?

After thinking about it, I believe that the problem you’re raising is what philosophers call “the culpability of unbelief.” I myself think that unbelief is a sin and therefore the unbeliever is culpable for it. Others, like yourself, disagree. You think that unbelief may be non-culpable.

So I assume that what you found objectionable in my QoW #728 is the following claim:

Jesus promised, “If any man’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7.17). Here Jesus says that someone who is honestly seeking God and who confronts Jesus’ teaching will know that his teaching is indeed from God. It follows that anyone who does not recognize that fact does not really want to do God’s will.

You’re sceptical of this claim and, not surprisingly, personally offended by it, since it has the implication that you are, at least at this point in your life, precisely such a person, someone who does not really want to do God’s will.

But is that so implausible, Jon? Do you want to do God’s will? I see little in your letter that evinces a desire to know God, if He exists, any sort of spiritual hunger and thirst, any yearning or seeking after God. Instead, I see sarcasm, hardness of heart, hostility, and lack of intellectual curiosity. I see little evidence that you fit your description of a person who “earnestly, honestly, piously, and openly seek[s] God, and come[s] away unconvinced.” Instead you seem to fit pretty well the description of what Paul calls the “natural man” that I gave in QoW #728: a person “in a state of alienation and rebellion against God, dead in his sins, [who] therefore does not seek but rather resists God.”

Now lest you think that you don’t fit that description, let me clear up some misunderstandings. I do not believe and nothing I’ve said implies you’re “lying.” I have no doubt of your sincerity. But you yourself know that people can be self-deceived, just as you think Christians are. I have never said nor do I believe that anyone who hears the Gospel and fails to believe it “must be consciously rejecting God because they want to be sinful.” Conscious rejection is not required for unbelief, nor is wanting to be sinful (as opposed to just being sinful).  Nor am I claiming that at some point you “‘made a decision’ to reject” the Gospel. Failure to believe the Gospel is enough to isolate you from God. I would not deny and am not surprised that Christianity just doesn’t “connect with anything in my experience and thinking that would lead me to believe” that Christianity is an accurate description of reality. Not seeking God or even exploring the arguments and evidence in support of Christian theism, you’ve isolated yourself from such factors, so of course there’s nothing in your experience and thinking that leads you to believe that Christian theism is true.

The real question you need to ask, Jon, is whether Jesus’ claim that his teaching is from God is credible and true. If we have good reason to think that Jesus was who he claimed to be, then we have good reason to accept his teaching that unbelief is culpable. Now there are two ways to go about finding an answer to that question:

(1) To investigate the arguments and evidences in support of Christian theism. At Reasonable Faith we have made available abundant resources to assist you in your search. Your statement that you find Christianity “about as plausible as Mormonism or Islam” suggests to me that you have not yet familiarized yourself with the arguments and evidence (do you realize what Mormonism actually teaches?!), and I’d encourage you to do so, so as to come to an informed conclusion. I think there are good reasons to think that God exists and has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus, so that Jesus was who he claimed to be.

(2) To begin earnestly and humbly to seek God, engaging in sincere, heartfelt prayer, Bible reading, and worship services. You’re deeply sceptical of this latter approach because you fear that any feeling or powerful sentiment you might have might be “just another aspect of my psychology.” Sure, it could be; there are lots of counterfeit experiences in the world. But that does not preclude that there are also veridical experiences, and you should not cut yourself off from them for fear of the counterfeits. Someone who wonders how to tell true love from a feeling of infatuation had better not be sceptical of all such feelings, lest he cut himself off from finding true love out of fear of a counterfeit. I get the impression that you carry some emotional scars from negative experiences in the church, so you should be careful lest such emotional barriers come between you and God. Psychology cuts both ways.

I believe that in the end Christian experience carries the marks of its own veridicality, but never mind: you can always check your experiences against the objective arguments and evidence mentioned in (1). Christianity offers you a consonance of evidence and personal experience. If (1) and (2) support Christian theism, then Jesus’ claim about the culpability of unbelief is credible. God is not to blame for unbelief, for He does all that He can, short of removing our free will, to draw people to Himself; rather the defect lies in our failure to respond to Him.

Does my position on the culpability of unbelief make me a manipulative cultist? To think so would be illogical. Just because cultists say that someone who disagrees with their position is at fault doesn’t imply that anyone who says something similar is a cultist. That would be like reasoning

1. Cowards refuse to fight for what they believe.
2. Quakers refuse to fight for what they believe.
3. Therefore, Quakers are cowards.

Such reasoning is illogical. Similarly, it’s illogical to infer that because manipulative cultists say some of the same things Christians do, therefore Christians are manipulative cultists. Indeed, we should expect counterfeits to resemble in many ways the real thing.

So, as you say, Jon, the question is, is Christianity a communication from God? Is it the real thing? I have given abundant evidence in my published work that it is and have defended this claim in public debates with Christianity’s most celebrated detractors. If, indeed, Christianity is from God, then we should give heed to Jesus when he says, “If any man’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”

I’m hopeful for you, Jon, because despite your assertion that Christianity doesn’t connect with anything in your experience and thinking and that you do not believe in it at all, nevertheless you’re reading my Questions of the Week and you took the time and trouble to write a lengthy letter to me about your misgivings. God may be more at work in your life than you realize!

- William Lane Craig