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#88 Will God’s Judgement Be More Tolerable for Atheists than for Young Earth Creationists?

December 22, 2008

Doctor Craig,

I would like to know from you if I, as an atheist, am going to be punished by God for not believing in him. If I, after looking objectively at all the evidence, come to the conclusion that I have not arrived here as the result of a divine plan but merely as a consequence of merely materialistic processes, do I deserve to be denied the gift of eternal life? If when coming face to face with God after death, I reveal that this was a position that I honestly came to after much investigation and really trying to understand nature?

I really can't see how God would punish me, if I lead a good, honest, a compassionate life but just feel that this is the only postion that makes sense of the world around me and what I understand about it. This does not seem to me to be worthy of condemnation when I compare my attitude to standards of evidence and investigation to those of some Christians, especially those who hold extremely unreasonably dogmatic positions. If I accept the findings of science, will God punish me but reward those people who reject all scientific evidence and adhere only to scientifically insupportable positions, such as a literal interpretation of Genesis whereby the entire universe was created between 6 and 10 thousand years ago?

I would add to this by saying that many of the advocates of this position, so called Young Earth Creationists, disseminate outright falsehoods and misinformation and everything from astronomy, to geology and biology, any field of science which disagrees with their reading of what they regard as divinely inspired scripture. This is in spite of the fact that almost all of them are completely unqualified to speak on the subjects that they do; if a person does not have a PhD in paeleontology and is not an active member of the paeleontological community then they really have no right at all to speak about the state of the fossil record in public to an audience who is equally unqualified to estimate the veracity of the claims that are made. However I respect the authority of the people working in the fields; when I read Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald Prothero, I respect his views on the fossil record as he has been working in the field for 30 years and has personally examined many of the fossils he talks about. Likewise, when Sean Carroll explains how compelling the DNA evidence for evolution is in The Making of The Fittest, I respect his opinion as he is right at the forefront of modern day biology.

In fact, when I read books on biblical history and compare the evidence for biological evolution according to modern day scientists, to the evidence for a historic event such as the Exodus according to modern day archeologists and historians then it is obvious there is a double standard being shown by some Christians regarding respect for evidence and the authority of people who know what they are talking about. I'm sure many more Christians would accept the Exodus as a historical event than would accept the occurrence of biological evolution.

I really do not see why these people who hold unreasonable, inflexible beliefs deserve to be rewarded for their apparent anti-intellectulism and reluctance to critical examine evidence and apply appropriate levels of scrutiny to various subjects. Will God really reward those who continue to promulgate nonsense, even when scientists point out their errors, and hold back the education of children? People like Ken Ham build museums to show children how dinosaurs lived with humans and all the "kinds", which, however it is defined, amounts to an awful lot of animals, all somehow crammed onto one boat. This is impossibility for so many reasons and yet young kids are taught this. He also 'trains' them to ask their science school teacher the incredibly fatuous question: 'Were you there?' As if human inquiry and scientific investigation can have absolutely no way of competing with 'revealed truth'.

The actions of these people adds to a further unwillingness on my behalf to be associated with them in any way, and just reinforces my conviction that they deserve enternal damnation much more than I do.



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Dr. craig’s response


There are a couple of distinct issues in your question, Adam, that have become entangled and need to be teased apart in order to address them clearly. Please be patient with me, and hear me out as I try to deal with your obviously deeply-felt concerns.

First and foremost is the question, on what basis will God judge human persons? As I read your question, Adam, I thought, "He doesn't understand the Christian doctrine of salvation!" It might surprise you to learn that most Young Earth Creationists would AGREE with you that they deserve eternal damnation at least as much, if not more, than you do. How can this be? Because at the heart of the Christian doctrine of salvation is God's unmerited grace.

This teaching is obscured today by a sort of cultural Christianity which has shaped American culture. Cultural Christianity teaches that if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, then God will forgive your bad deeds and reward you with eternal life in heaven. (How Jesus Christ fits into this picture is unclear—maybe as a living illustration to us of what God is like.) By contrast biblical Christianity teaches that no one is good enough to merit heaven. To be judged on the basis of our deeds would be the worst possible thing that could happen to us, for none of us measures up to God's moral law (perfection). The philosopher Immanuel Kant rightly said that it would take infinite time for man to bring his will into perfect alignment with God's moral standard—and, then, even if somehow he did, he would still remain culpable for the infinite residue of sin he had committed all along the way.

Therefore, we desperately need a Savior, someone who will rescue us from the moral predicament in which we find ourselves. Jesus is God's provision for our sin. He was called the Lamb of God, not because he was meek and mild, but because he offered his life to God as a sacrificial offering on our behalf. He died in our place, bearing the penalty for our wrong-doing and evil, thereby satisfying the demands of God's moral law and freeing up God's forgiveness toward us.

Hence, salvation can only be received as a gift of God's grace; there's nothing we can do to earn it. That's why the language of "reward" is wholly inappropriate in connection with salvation. You're absolutely correct that Young Earthers don't "deserve to be rewarded for their apparent anti-intellectualism"—or for anything else, for that matter. If they are saved, it is only because they have in humility and contrition accepted the gift of God's grace without merit or effort.

Now what happens to you if you reject God's grace? You fall back on His justice. Do you really think you measure up? When you say, "I really can't see how God would punish me, if I lead a good, honest, a compassionate life," the problem is with that "if." Adam, wake up! How much compassion did you feel when you wrote that last sentence of your letter? I remember when as a non-Christian I first heard the Gospel. I was leading a pretty morally upright life—externally, at least—, and yet when I learned that according to the Bible, I was guilty before God and therefore on my way to hell, I had absolutely no problem believing that. When I looked into my own heart, I saw the blackness within, how everything I did was tainted by selfishness. I knew how wretched I was really was.

I suspect that many people today don't sense their need of a Savior because they've grown so morally complacent that they don't even realize how morally fallen they are. C. S. Lewis once remarked that you never know how bad you are until you have truly tried to be good. Once you do try, earnestly and consistently, then you realize how desperately short you fall. That's why the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, in his poignant analysis of the human predicament, saw that the ethical life, earnestly pursued, leads ultimately to guilt and despair and must be transcended by the spiritual stage in which God's grace is discovered.

So forget about the Young Earth Creationists, Adam! Why let them stand between you and God? Why not receive God's transforming grace yourself and then be better than the Young Earthers? You know that I don't hold their views about the age of the universe. Neither do most evangelical Christians, despite the high profile of their movement in churches. So why not become a Christian and then be a better thinker than they are? (In fact, you just might find that God will do a transforming work in your own heart, replacing what seems to be hatred and resentment toward these folks with a genuine compassion for them.)

That leads to the second question, which gets tangled up with the first: will God condemn me for my unbelief if, after looking objectively at all the evidence, I come to the conclusion that I have not arrived here as the result of a divine plan but merely as a consequence of merely materialistic processes?

This question is an odd one, since what you're asking is, in effect, am I condemned for rejecting God on the basis of a bad argument? For your reason for rejecting God really is a bad argument. You seem to think that belief in evolutionary theory is incompatible with belief in God. (It just occurred to me, Adam, that you're actually a lot closer to the views of Young Earth Creationists than you may realize! How ironic!) But there's nothing about evolutionary theory that implies atheism. (See my article "Naturalism and Intelligent Design," in Intelligent Design, ed. R. Stewart [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007], pp. 58-71.) Suppose the divine plan is that you arrive here through the evolutionary process? How then would scientific evidence for the evolutionary development of life do anything to prove that it was not the result of God's plan? Your difficulty isn't that you've got good objections to theism, Adam, but that you're not thinking deeply enough about these matters.

Still the question remains, suppose I do fail to believe in God because I've been misled by a bad argument into unbelief. Will God condemn me? The question you're really posing here is whether there is such a thing as non-culpable unbelief.

My view is that, ultimately speaking, there is no such thing as non-culpable unbelief. For, first, there is good evidence for theism which is readily accessible to all, such as I share in Reasonable Faith (3rd ed.), and no comparably good argument for atheism. I'd invite you to listen to some of my debates with leading non-believers and just ask yourself objectively, Where does the evidence point? Second, and more importantly, God has not abandoned us to work out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not He exists. Rather His Holy Spirit speaks to the heart of every man, convicting him of sin and drawing him to God. If our hearts are disposed to seek God, then He will be found by us. This may take time. That's why I said that ultimately speaking unbelief is culpable. By the time a person dies, he will have had sufficient opportunity to respond to God's Spirit and be saved. God's bringing you to this website to have your question addressed and, I hope, cleared up, is one step in the process. The question now is, where is your heart? Do you want to know God, if He exists? What concrete steps are you taking to seek Him?

- William Lane Craig