Monday, January 7, 2013

Does Militant Atheism Help Or Hurt Atheists?

As our culture becomes more accepting and hospitable towards atheists, agnostics and the like, there is certainly an increase in what can be described as militant atheism. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for example are described by many as a militant atheists. First, let's clarify exactly what is a militant atheist. From Urban Dictionary, we get several examples:

A militant atheist is one who is hostile towards religion. They differ from moderate atheists because they have the desire to propagate atheism and also hold religion to be harmful. Militant atheism was an integral part of the French Revolution, Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution, and is expresses itself today in the ideas of the New Atheist authors.  
An atheist who has become insufferably elitest. Unlike a majority of most atheists, he has decided that it is his duty to rid the world of all religion. Ironically, he never shuts up religion, putting him into the same level of irritation as most religious fundamentalists.

According to paranoid Christians with a persecution complex, anyone who is openly an atheist and has the gall to express a desire for the same rights and privileges as any other group.

As you can see some of the definitions are humorous, but the second one caught my eye. It doesn't exactly cast the militant atheist in a nice light. Is there truth to this definition of militant atheism and would I consider myself one who fits this description? Well, there definitely is a certain amount of pride with being philosophically and scientifically knowledgeable especially when amongst people who clearly lack any serious knowledge in those departments, but it is better to educate rather than to mock. Also, I definitely would like to spread atheism and see it grow to larger numbers but do not ever see the whole world being rid of religion. I have been accused of talking too much about religion by some friends and being too "intellectual" and pugnacious. I can see how this could be annoying to those who do not want to constantly engage in intellectual battle over whether god exists or not. The key is to surround yourself with others who want to. Other than that, there is a time and place for everything.

Everything in moderation is what I always say. I don't walk around and go up to strangers and proselytize for atheism, but in the right social situation, I do tend to steer the conversation towards matters of religion and philosophy. At work I almost never brought religion up because I knew that it wasn't the right time and place for it. Come to think of it, I never really had a job where the culture was welcoming to controversial topics like religion and politics.

So does being militant about atheism hurt or help the spread of atheism? Well it is hard to say for sure, I guess it all depends on the situation. Sometimes it might help, sometimes it might hurt. I would definitely say that being vocal and open about atheism certainly helps. Simply being open about being an atheist alone can spark very interesting conversations, raise awareness and allow an opportunity to engage in conversation. Atheists are obviously doing something right since atheism has been growing, and religiosity is on the decline. What I'm afraid of is that our recent success may backfire if we start becoming as annoying as street preachers.

It's easy to take pot-shots at the Bible and Koran. While I am not above doing so myself, I am trying to engage in a more sophisticated critique on religion by trying to understand the world's major religions as much as I can, and then picking apart what problems I see in them. For example, I'm not one of those atheists that blames all of the world's problems on religion. Religion certainly causes some problems in the world, but there are plenty of other reasons why people kill and harm each other. I don't think someone can justifiably say that religion is the source of all the world's problems, and by acknowledging that it doesn't in my critique of faith, I think I am helping atheists sound more rational.

I have to admit that I kind of like the times we are living in. It has never been a better time to be an atheist in America. Our country is more secular now that it has ever been and we have a president in the White House who is favorable to our cause and acknowledges us. Given this welcoming playing field, we can't screw it up by becoming as annoying as the Mormons who come knocking on your door to spread the "good news". So no I would never like to see atheists knocking on doors or going up to people in public like theists do. But I fully support atheist student clubs in colleges, and for atheists to be engaged in intellectual discourse with those who hold opposing views. Atheists should remain vocal but remember that there is a time and place for everything.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Few Notes On "The City" & Its Moral Problems

Winter has arrived and the northeastern US has entered its annual deep freeze. This is usually the time when I go into hibernation. I've never really been fond of the cold, but I've learned to appreciate winter more over the years. I noticed that I haven't written about "the city" or anything particularly urban lately. It seems most of my posts these days have been targeting the larger issues strictly regarding atheism and philosophy. But rest assured, issues regarding urban life still concern me.

When it comes to urban issues concerning New York I have always paid attention to the crime rate, and in particular, the homicide rate. In 2011, the last year which I have statistics available, New York City had  515 homicides and non-negligible manslaughters. This is more or less in the same range as the city experienced in the past 10 years. I have heard other cities like Detroit are experiencing record high murder rates that they haven't seen in 20 years. This is very disturbing. We've been hearing that violent crime in the US overall is on the decline, yet it appears there are pockets of the country bucking that trend.

The reality of the rise in violent crime largely has to do with areas of the country where the economy has struggled to recover from the economic downturn, and where the economy has been troubled for decades. Detroit in the US is synonymous with exactly what went wrong after WW2. The city's manufacturing based declined and it was never able to recover or successfully diversify its economy. Race riots made almost the entire white population to flee the suburbs, and the US by and large simply just let Detroit rot.

Many years ago I wrote about the hip hop culture's moral problems and I still stand by them today. I understand that for many urban black and Latino folks, times are hard and have been for years. But the crime problem we see is a case where they are largely cutting off their nose despite their face. Things are made worse when a culture gives up, and embraces and nurtures apathy as if it were a virtue. When the formal economy withered away, the drug economy came in to replace it. The very nature of the drug economy means that for some involved in it, it will lead to many incidents of violence. But is this true for all?

Well I can say that I have used illegal drugs many times in my life. I never once got arrested for it, even when I sold it. I have had drug dealers who were reasonably responsible people who were not the kind to get into violent episodes. Why is it that many people can use and even sell drugs without becoming violent? Why is it that others cannot separate violence from drugs?

As a moral thinker I do care about the clear moral implications concerning our violent culture. I don't think we can entirely blame the drug culture, although it is one of many components. Our declining manufacturing base, failed public schools and failed parenting are certainly to blame as well. The debate over whether we should legalize drugs, or at least some drugs, is forcing us to reconsider old beliefs. About half of all Americans believe marijuana should be legalized today, up from about 12 % in 1969. This is certainly a good trend, and I guarantee that much like with gay marriage, we will see in the future more and more states legalize it.

But the issue here is whether legalizing marijuana, or all drugs, would decrease crime and in particular, violent crime. Well it would certainly reduce our prison population, and reduce annual arrests by several hundred thousand. These criminal records act as scarlet letters on many young men, ruining their chances of getting a job and getting careers as they get older. Plus when you arrest many young non-violent drug offenders and put them into prison with hardened criminals, they are more likely to come out in a worse condition than when they went in, and this exacerbates the problem of violent crime. I certainly support the full legalization of marijuana as I know it will reduce prison populations, stop negative cycles of criminality, and end the racist disproportional drug arrests of minorities over whites.

Besides issues with drugs and how its illegality contributes to violent crime, I largely blame America's problem with violence to be a moral defect. Most of our violent crimes are being committed by black and Latino men, who are cloaked in a thug culture that celebrates all the most destructive things as virtues to be aspired to. As long as this persists, any success gained creating jobs and legalizing drugs will be mitigated. I've said it before and I will say it again, unless there is a moral shift amongst our inner city black and Latino populations that learns to appreciate human life and recognizes the harm in the "thug life", we will continue to see them kill themselves, disproportionately fill our prisons and be under represented in our colleges.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Atheism As Defined By Christopher Hitchens

A little over a year ago Christopher Hitchens died of cancer. I remember him as someone who changed my life, and it is occasionally interesting to go back and reread his books and watch his speeches and debates. He often said of atheism that it is not based on the certainty that there is no god or supernatural dimension, but that there hasn't been an argument made by a believer that could with any convincing evidence or authority lead us to believe there is.

In one debate Christopher said:

We don't say on non-truth claims or faith claims that we know when we don't.....atheists do not say that we know there is no god. We say to the contrary, no argument and no evidence has ever been educed that we consider to be persuasive......The same with the afterlife. Of course we don't say that we know there isn't one. We say that we don't know anyone who can bring any reason to think that there is. 

This is an important distinction that atheists must be aware of because we cannot let ourselves become as arrogant as those who say they are certain god and the afterlife do exist. I agree with Hitchens that the atheist position should be one that affirms that no human has ever made a convincing argument or introduced convincing evidence that god exists, and until someone does, it is just another person's matter of opinion.

Now I am aware that there are many theists who also do not say that they know god exists and instead lay claim to a probability tilted in favor that god does exist. I'm fine with that, and I prefer the theist who takes this position over the one who is absolutely certain.

Atheists are skeptics, it's in our nature. As far back as I can remember, I was questioning the truthfulness of claims made by theists. Knowing this, it is important that we apply our skepticism where ever the lack of certainty without empirical evidence exists.

How To Talk To A Christian: Debating Materialism & Free Will

I live for debate. I really do. One thing I get a real kick out of is challenging theists on their nonsense. I have been debating this ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalist named Daniel for several months now, largely out of entertainment. He writes a blog dealing with Christianity, problems of faith and other things related to his religion. He occasionally attacks atheism and secularism using some of the typical tricks I see and hear theists make all the time. Whenever I can, I try to respond to his posts and call him out on his bullshit. We recently debated determinism's impact on free will and although I'm not a determinist, we were still able to disagree with the overall concept of free will.

On his blog Daniel writes in part of free will and materialism:

The atheist starts out with the presupposition or worldview that there is no spiritual reality, just matter and energy – what you see is what you get. Accordingly, thinking and choosing must also exclusively be a matter of chemical-electrical activity.

This understanding leaves little or no room for freewill...A denial of freewill goes against everything we intuitively know about ourselves and our lives. When I make any decision, like flipping through the TV channels, it seems that I am freely choosing one station over another. Of course, like anyone else, I am subject to powerful biological-genetic forces. Admittedly, I am biologically predisposed to not like loud and glitzy programming. Therefore, some will say, “Well, this proves you’re pre-programmed to make certain choices.”

If our brain chemistry compels all of our choices, then we cannot truly be culpable and responsible moral agents....These ideas mean the destruction of civilization, and the atheists recognize this. Consequently, they are scrambling to resurrect the concept of moral responsibility, which they have undermined.

I wrote back:

Well, a person who becomes an atheist, usually doesn't start out "with the presupposition or worldview that there is no spiritual reality, just matter and energy". Rather, he/she comes to the conclusion that there is no spiritual reality because there is no evidence to support it, and then after that becomes an atheist. That was how it was for me anyway and many atheists that I know who were once religious.

I don't think you mentioned compatiblism here. It is the most popular position for people who identify as naturalists and determinists. Compatiblism says that although all matter in the universe may be determined (hence our lack of free will), since we can never know the future, we can operate under the assumption that the choices we make are not determined, even if it is an illusion.

It's kind of like an actor in a play whose every action and word is known in a script. But the actor doesn't have access to the script, and so when they do or say something, they think they are doing it out of free will, but really they are following along the script. 

I personally am not a determinist, so I do believe we make actions that are not determined by prior events. But, it must be acknowledged that we are all born with predetermined genetics and situations that can push us towards many negative life choices. So, we are hardly complete agents of total free will.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Science Refutes God?

I've been a fan of Professor Lawrence Krauss for years now. He is a theoretical physicist actively engaged in the debate between theism and atheism. His most recent book, A Universe from Nothing, was a best seller that explains just how it is possible that a universe can come from what we think is "nothing". This theory forms the basis many atheists, including myself, use to show how the hand of god is not required to get a universe.

Prof. Krauss recently participated in an Intelligence2  debate arguing on behalf of atheism along with Michael Shermer. He opens the debate debunking the apparent fine tuning of the universe's laws, then shows how Darwin demonstrated that the evolution of life didn't require the hand of god, and finally he argues that a universe that came from precisely nothing, would look exactly like the universe we see and observe today. This is the actual knock down argument that removes the hand of god from his last bastion of hope.

But does this mean science refutes god? I would say that science will never be able to definitively disprove god. Rather, all science actually needs to do, is demonstrate a plausible natural alternative. Science can then show that the hand of god is not required.

One great thing about the Intelligence debates is that they invite the audience to vote before and after the debate so you can see exactly how persuasive the arguments really were. So watch the debate below and ask yourself whether science refutes god.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My Question To William Lane Craig On God's Justice Part 2: My Analysis Of His Response

This is part 2 of my question about god's justice to Dr. William Lane Craig where I will analyze his response, so if you haven't read the question, please go here to read part 1. Dr. Craig did take the time and care to give me a pretty thorough response and I have to say I am quite pleased with it. I still have some disagreements of course with the overall concept behind the god of Christianity and justice so let me analyze his response regarding what I disagree with.

1. First, in his initial analysis of my question, Dr. Craig says I fundamentally misunderstand the Christian faith. He says getting into heaven or hell is not the result of the goodness or evil of our actions, rather it is by god's grace, and that nothing we can do merits salvation. He says, "Standing before a holy God of absolute and uncompromising justice, every one of us would be undone....But justice pure and simple would entail the condemnation of every morally responsible human being."

OK, right off the bat I disagree with Dr. Craig here on the idea that we all deserve hell by default and this is actually going to form the central disagreement between us. I do not agree with the masochistic Christian notion that all of us, perhaps even children, deserve eternal conscious torment from our very nature as human beings. Hell is not a natural consequence of anything, its existence is not essential to anything; it is designed by god, who could have instead designed numerous alternatives. So the foundation of Dr. Craig's argument is one I think has no rational justification.

Dr. Craig would of course disagree. He says, "We do deserve to die. That is perfect justice. If God saves any, that is a manifestation of mercy." Well the naturalistic concept of death perhaps differs from Christianity's. Under naturalism, death is a necessary component of life because if living things did not die, the Earth would soon be overpopulated by immortal creatures who would plunder all its resources. I have no problem with death, as I see it not as a matter of justice, but rather physical necessity. But, I do have a problem with the eternal conscious torment of hell as I find it extremely cruel and unnecessarily harmful.

2. A bit later Dr. Craig adds, "So the problem is not really a problem of justice. Rather it’s a problem of love....[god] wants to save as many persons as He can." But Dr. Craig explains the dilemma god is in, being both perfectly just and loving. He says god's justice would condemn everyone to hell, but his love would give everyone mercy and forgiveness. God's solution to this dilemma, Craig explains, is Jesus Christ. It is through Jesus that that the punishment we deserve is given and so we can be scapegoated into heaven. He says, "Jesus the fulfillment of God’s mercy and justice. They meet at the cross: the holiness and the love of God. At the cross we see the justice of God, as Christ bears the punishment for sin that we deserved. But we also see God’s love, as He in the second person of the Trinity voluntarily lays down His life for us."

Now it is amazing how fondly Dr. Craig speaks of Christ. Reading his response I can almost see the tears in his eyes building up as he wrote it. Here I find more to disagree with him about. First, if god truly wanted to save as many persons as he can why would he force us to believe in him on such bad and inadequate evidence? Second, I have my own reservations of the vicarious redemption of Jesus. Not only would such a system allow a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer to be rewarded while his victims are punished, it would absolve anyone of their personal responsibility by placing all their punishment on a single human sacrifice. A gross perversion of justice if there ever was one.

3. Now he takes the case of Jeffrey Dahmer head on. Dr. Craig says "Perfect justice would have condemned that man to eternal perdition. But God loves him and wants to save him...Now what kind of God would it be who refuses his sincere cry for forgiveness? Such a God would not be loving and merciful!" I would say that such a god would be justified in punishing Jeffrey Dahmer, even if he repented. Because otherwise you'd also have to believe Adolph Hilter and Joseph Stalin are worthy of forgiveness in lieu of any punishment. To me justice is giving those what they deserve. Jeffrey Dahmer, who was determined to be mentally sane at his trial, deserved to be punished regardless of whether he was sorry. I certainly believe in forgiveness and mercy to a degree, but not the total surrender of one's deserved punishment through the scapegoating of a human sacrifice. The central tenet of Christianity, the vicarious redemption of Jesus, is I think one of its most disturbing aspects. Imagine the irrationality of being able to steal, rape and kill your way through life, and getting the same punishment as someone who humbly served those in need all their life.

For Jeffrey's victims, Dr. Craig says they were all as deserving of hell as Jeffrey was, irrespective of whether Jeffrey had committed any of his crimes or they had been his victims. The plight of Jeffrey's victims, according to Craig, has no merit over whether they are sent to hell or not. This goes back to the Christian belief that we are all deserving of hell by default, the crux of Dr. Craig's response, which I passionately disagree with.

One can think of many other past atrocities much worse than that which Jeffrey Dahmer's victims had to endure, where the same perversion of justice applies: the Nazi holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition of the New World, to name a few. The perpetrators of those crimes against humanity may have been rewarded by god in the hereafter, while their victims were sent to an even worse fate than the one they experienced in this world.

4. Now Dr. Craig turns to what he thinks might really be bothering me about this scenario: that god chose to create a possible world in which such a scenario could exist rather than one where it couldn't. He challenges me by asking, "What you’d have to show is that there is some other world of free agents feasible for God in which as much good, including people’s salvation, is achieved as in this world but without scenarios such as the one you envision."

Well such a world would, as Dr. Craig later says be one that is the result of lots of conjecture. But taking his question head on, I could imagine a world with free agents who are judged by a god solely by their actions, and not whether they believe certain holy books over others, and who receive their salvation by acts of goodness. The Jeffrey Dahmer scenario would not occur in such a universe.

But truthfully, I have never had much faith in the idea of eternal reward or punishment, or that there is such thing as perfect justice. Any such system is bound to have an unbalanced approach. Perfect justice would have to take into consideration one's genetic predispositions towards certain behaviors, one's environment where they were raised in, and a multitude of other circumstances that affect their moral decision making process. The version of god found in Dr. Craig's Protestantism is thoroughly unconcerned with these variables when it comes to his judgement.

5. Dr. Craig then takes some of my questions head on. I ask him:

How can the scenario above be, not only the work of a "perfect" and "all-loving" deity, but an example of perfect justice that could not possibly be improved upon by any generation of humans, past, present, or future?

He responds in part by saying "You seem to think that the scenario you describe is unilaterally brought about by God. I disagree...No one says that this is an example of perfect justice unimprovable by any generation of human beings. It would be easy to improve on this situation by all the persons’ freely turning to God for salvation."

Here Dr. Craig misses the point. It is not the actions of the victims that I have a problem with, it is this system of divine justice itself that is the problem. The outcome of the scenario in my question is unilaterally brought upon by god because it is god that designed hell and determined it should be everyone's fate by default. As I mentioned earlier, hell is not a natural consequence of anything, it is made and designed by god, and its existence is not essential to have justice.

His idea that the simple act of turning to god would solve all the problems in this scenario is problematic for me too. Let me use an analogy to explain why. Imagine if the Nazis during WW2 had granted mercy only to those Jews who accepted Adolph Hitler as their supreme ruler, and those that didn't went to the death camps. Under this scenario, the holocaust technically could have been averted if every Jew accepted Adolph Hitler. This sick idea of justice is paralleled by Dr. Craig when he tries to justify god's "mercy". But if the Nazis had simply not determined that every Jew is worthy of the death camps by default of their ethnicity, that could have also averted the holocaust. However, during my discussions with Christians I have learned to understand that the masochistic Christian mentality exemplified by people like Dr. Craig, can never accept the idea that all of humanity is not worthy of eternal suffering by default. Believing that we are all deserving of hell is actually a necessary component of Christian dogma because it justifies Jesus' atonement.

6. He then asks himself my question, "Do I truly agree with a notion of justice that would allow a sadistic serial killer off scott-free of divine punishment, when his victims, who pleaded for their lives and were killed without mercy, are now being tortured even worse, while all their cries for mercy go unanswered for all eternity?"

Dr. Craig responds by enthusiastically affirming that yes indeed he is perfectly fine with this version of "justice". True to his Christian roots, he tries to rationalize away the problem at the core of my scenario, by adhering to the belief that we all deserve hell by default, and that we are only saved by acts of mercy from god and that any punishment we deserve was prepaid for by Jesus' sacrifice.

Other Christians I asked this question to have given me similar responses but not in this much detail. I can surely understand how a committed Christian could accept the response given by Dr. Craig. There is no rational justification in believing that a world where all human beings (with the possible exception of the very young and the unborn) are all collectively deserving of eternal suffering and damnation by default due to their species membership. There is no reason why things must be this way because there are so many alternative possible worlds that require much less unnecessary misery to be endured which still allow for humans acting as free agents.

Final Thoughts

Justice is synonymous with fairness. Dr. Craig thinks he's solved the apparent unfairness of my scenario by arguing that having us all being deserving of hell is fair. But rationally, all that does is throw another monkey wrench into an already complex problem because we are then forced to discuss the rational basis why all humans are deserving of hell. Neither of us had time to discuss this and because of that Dr. Craig near the end of his response assumed that I do not refute the default punishment of hell. But I do, and this is the main problem I have with this notion of Christian justice. Unfortunately, given the format of this question and answer scenario, I was unable to cover all my bases and I failed to mention in my question that I disagree with the idea of hell by default. These kind of complex issues related to theology and philosophy can never be fully covered in a simple question and answer format.

After hearing Dr. Craig's response I better understand the Christian concept of god's justice, but I still do not agree with it. I have been arguing for years that Christianity is a product of mankind's masochistic imagination, and the response I got from Dr. Craig only confirms this even more. If to be a Christian requires one to accept the perverted notion of justice that Dr. Craig and other Christians have argued for, whereby we all are worthy of eternal suffering, then I want nothing to do with it. I cannot accept the idea that every human being is worthy of never ending suffering and torture. Such a masochistic concept is a perversion of justice and fairness, and no doubt in my mind the product of men suffering from inferiority complexes. I would not want to live in a universe where such is the case, and I have reservations about anyone who does.

Of course I accept that the universe does not have to exist in such a way where it conforms to what I want. I will ultimately have to accept whatever reality has in store for me. Dr. Craig is a clever man who's entire life is spend arguing for and defending Christianity. I don't think he has all the satisfactory answers needed to explain the problems of his faith, but he does a very good job trying. I will give him that.

My problem with Christian justice is both emotional and intellectual as I have outlined in my analysis of Dr. Craig's response. Emotionally, I wouldn't want reward and punishment to depend solely on acceptance of Jesus, in fact I wouldn't want consciousness to exist eternally at all. I'd prefer a system where there is no eternal rewards and punishments, where people are motivated to do good based on knowing it positively benefits those affected by it. Intellectually, believing we all deserve hell has no necessary rational basis since many other alternatives could exist that still allow for human free will, and where salvation could depend on performing acts of goodness towards others. Hell is therefore chosen by god, and a system of justice that sentences all people regardless of their actions to hell is one born out of cruelty. Finally, if how good or bad we behave has no effect on whether we go to heaven or hell, that means a person can knowingly live a life harming others, and still expect to be rewarded eternally. This can be used to justify any level of evil acts from rape to genocide.

Further reading on arguments against god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The Fine Tuning Argument
Objective Morality Without God
Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good from God?" A Debate Review
Refuting William Lane Craig: The Moral Argument
The Logically Implausible God
The Logically Implausible God Part 2
God, Time & Creation: More Problems For William Lane Craig
The Ontological Argument: Putting the Absurd Where it Belongs

My Question To William Lane Craig On God's Justice Part 1

A few months back I asked Dr. William Lane Craig a question regarding divine justice through his website It is a question that I have posed to many theists over the years that has never quite been answered to my satisfaction. So considering Dr. Craig's reputation as one of the best apologists for Christianity, I thought I would pose the question to him to see just how good he is. Well I have to say that his response contains many standard Christian ideas that I expected to hear but he did lay them out very detailed and thoughtful. So I want to reiterate my question here and his response in this blog, and then analyze his response in part 2 of this post.

My question is regarding the idea of divine justice in Christianity. I've always been confused with the Christian concept of "justice". It seems that Christian justice (at least its Protestant stripes) is not really concerned with whether or not you lived a moral life, but is solely concerned with whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. So people culpable of acts of extreme evil can be rewarded with heaven through the mere act of repentance, while others responsible for no such acts of evil could get the eternal punishment of hell. This always bothered me, and so I asked Dr. Craig a question about it and luckily, he responded. His long, detailed response is a rather interesting insight into the Christian concepts surrounding god's judgement and so will my critique of it. So please read my question and his response below.

Hello Dr. Craig,
My question is about divine justice. You describe God as being essentially kind, fair, and compassionate, but I do not see how his justice can be exemplified with scenarios like this:
Suppose a serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer enjoys a lifestyle torturing, killing and cannibalizing people for fun. He eventually gets caught and goes to prison. In prison he becomes a born-again Christian and all this sins are absolved from him. He then gets killed and goes to heaven since the mere act of conversion into Christianity cleanses him of all previous wrong doings. Some of this victims however were not Christian when they were murdered and so they go to hell when they die. So not only are the murder victims tortured and murdered in this world, they get sent to hell to be tortured even worse, but now it is forever, while their murderer enjoys everlasting peace in heaven.
I have never had a Christian explain to me how this scenario above, is not only the work of a "perfect" and "all-loving" deity, but that this is an example of perfect justice that could not possibly be improved upon by any generation of humans, past, present of future. In other words, if the God of the Bible is inherently perfect, compassionate and just, why would he allow a serial killer into heaven but his victims suffer in hell eternally, when the only thing separating them (aside from the fact the victims never tortured and killed people) is the killer's conversion to Christianity in prison just before he died?
The objection I have is that this is not an act of perfect justice, and that the Christian God is merely being defined as perfect/kind/fair/compassionate etc which to me is just wordplay since his record shows otherwise. The only answer I have yet to hear, is that we all are deserving hell, and only those who submit to God are given mercy, even if they are serial killers. So I have to ask you, with all due respect, if you truly agree with this notion of justice, that would allow a sadistic serial killer off scott-free of divine punishment, when his victims, who pleaded for their lives and were killed without mercy, are now being tortured even worse, all while their cries for mercy will go unanswered for all eternity?
Thank you for your time.
United States
Your question is one that arouses deep emotions, Mike. Since you have stated it dispassionately, for which I commend you, I ask you to consider my response dispassionately as well.
I think your question is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Many, if not most, people think that Christianity teaches that salvation from sin and from eternal separation from God is the result of something we do--for example, loving one’s neighbor as oneself or doing to others as we would have them do to us or believing in Jesus--as a result of which God rewards us with forgiveness and eternal life. This is a terrible mistake. What biblical Christianity teaches, as the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther came to see, after years of vainly struggling to earn God’s approval, is that salvation is wholly by God’s grace. That means God’s unmerited favor. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness and merit eternal life. The Bible says that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags compared to God’s awesome holiness. No one could stand before God and justifiably say, “I deserve your favor, I’ve earned your forgiveness, and I’ve merited eternal life!” What that implies is that if God were perfectly just and that were the end of the story, every human being would be lost. Standing before a holy God of absolute and uncompromising justice, every one of us would be undone.
That’s why your question gets off on the wrong foot right from the start: you frame the question as a matter of justice. But justice pure and simple would entail the condemnation of every morally responsible human being. If God chose to save any at all, that would be mercy on His part. Those who were condemned could not complain that they were unjustly punished, for they got what they deserved.
There’s a riveting scene in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the Count saves from execution one of two condemned prisoners. The other prisoner, seeing his fellow prisoner set free, suddenly begins to scream and struggle, saying that he, too, should be set free, that the other prisoner is no less guilty than himself, that it is unfair for other to be freed and him to die. He is dragged to the block and executed. The Count remarks on how odd it is that so long as his fellow man was being condemned along with him, he was content to be executed, recognizing that he deserved his sentence. But as soon as the other was shown mercy, suddenly he began to cry of injustice, as though he no longer deserved to die.
We do deserve to die. That is perfect justice. If God saves any, that is a manifestation of mercy.
So the problem is not really a problem of justice. Rather it’s a problem of love. The Bible says that God is as loving as He is holy. As His justice flows from His holiness, so His mercy flows from His love. Since He is loving, He wants to save as many persons as He can. The Bible says, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2.4). In particular, it says that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but wants the wicked to turn to Him and live (Ezekiel 8.23).
So how can God be both perfectly just and perfectly loving? How can He show mercy without compromising His justice? How can He show justice without compromising His love? Both are essential to His nature. Neither can be compromised. His holiness demands justice, punishment for sin rightly deserved. His love demands mercy, forgiveness and pardon for the offender. What is God to do in this dilemma?
The answer is Jesus Christ. He is the fulfillment of God’s mercy and justice. They meet at the cross: the holiness and the love of God. At the cross we see the justice of God, as Christ bears the punishment for sin that we deserved. But we also see God’s love, as He in the second person of the Trinity voluntarily lays down His life for us. Christ is the embodiment of God’s justice and mercy.
So “What will you do with Christ?” becomes life’s greatest question. In him you find God’s grace and undeserved pardon. All we can do is gratefully receive the gift of God’s grace. If you reject him, you fall back on God’s justice, and He must give you what you deserve.
So let’s apply these principles to the Jeffrey Dahmer case. Perfect justice would have condemned that man to eternal perdition. But God loves him and wants to save him. Christ has died for his sins. In the scenario you describe this man comes to see the evil of his ways and turns to God in sincere repentance for all he has done. Now what kind of God would it be who refuses his sincere cry for forgiveness? Such a God would not be loving and merciful! Clearly, a loving God would rejoice that someone so lost would see the error of his ways and turn to Him for forgiveness.
So we can lay the Dahmer case to rest. We all agree that a truly loving God would pardon and save him. Bringing Dahmer into the story is an extraneous element that has no effect upon God’s treatment of someone else.
Now turn to the case of his victims. Precisely the same principles apply. They do not merit God’s forgiveness. If God gave them perfect justice, they would all be lost. But God loves them and wants to save as many as He can, short of violating their free will. Those who accept His grace will be saved; those who reject it will, tragically, be lost. The horrible tragedy of unbelief, I think, is that some people, having had a terrible lot in life, compound their misery by rejecting the God who loves them and who is their only hope of happiness. The case of unbelievers is tragic, horribly tragic! But it is a tragedy that they bring upon themselves by rejecting the grace and love of God.
Now, of course, it’s tempting to augment your story by adding elements, e.g., “What if some hadn’t heard the Gospel?” “What if some had heard only a perversion of the Gospel?” “What if some were children or mentally incompetent?” But then those would be the questions to ask, questions about the providence of God, which I’ve tried to answer elsewhere from a middle knowledge perspective. Those are separate questions in their own right. But your question doesn’t raise any particular problem, at least intellectually speaking. Its force is purely emotional, borne out of the admittedly tragic situation you describe.
Now maybe your difficulty, Mike, is not God’s alleged differential treatment of the persons involved (I hope to have explained that they are not treated differentially), but rather that the whole wretched scenario ought not to have been actualized by God. God should have chosen some other world feasible for Him which didn’t include this scenario. But this is just the old problem of evil. What you’d have to show is that there is some other world of free agents feasible for God in which as much good, including people’s salvation, is achieved as in this world but without scenarios such as the one you envision. That’s pure conjecture. I think you can see why I say that this is an emotional problem, not an intellectual problem.
So let me respond more specifically to your questions:
How can the scenario above be, not only the work of a "perfect" and "all-loving" deity, but an example of perfect justice that could not possibly be improved upon by any generation of humans, past, present, or future? God in this scenario is both perfectly just and perfectly loving, for no sin goes unpunished and His grace is freely offered to all who would accept it. You seem to think that the scenario you describe is unilaterally brought about by God. I disagree. There are several free agents involved, whose choices must be respected, and the scenario is a complex intersection of the free choices of these agents. God will save as many of these people as He can without violating their free will. No one says that this is an example of perfect justice unimprovable by any generation of human beings. It would be easy to improve on this situation by all the persons’ freely turning to God for salvation. But God does all He can to save as many as is feasible, given their free choices.
Why would God allow a serial killer into heaven but his victims to suffer in hell eternally, when the only thing separating them is the killer's conversion to Christianity in prison just before he died? An all-loving God would not refuse to forgive a serial killer who sincerely repents and turns to God for forgiveness. Similarly, God will save any of the victims who repent of their sins and trust Him for salvation. Every person’s salvation lies in his own hands.
Do I truly agree with a notion of justice that would allow a sadistic serial killer off scott-free of divine punishment, when his victims, who pleaded for their lives and were killed without mercy, are now being tortured even worse, while all their cries for mercy go unanswered for all eternity? This question is pejoratively put. Of course, I think that God would readily and joyously forgive a serial killer who repents and turns to Him for forgiveness! Absolutely! But it is not as though there is no divine punishment of his sins. There is divine punishment for the serial killer’s sins, but it was borne by Christ. As for those of the killer’s victims who rejected the grace of God in their lives, they have freely chosen to resist God’s every effort to save them and so, contrary to His will, have separated themselves from Him forever. I see no reason at all to think, as you imagine, that the damned in hell cry to God for mercy. On the contrary, my reading of Scripture suggests that the damned become even more hardened and more implacable in their hatred of God for His punishment of them (Revelation 16.11, 21).
Mike, I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t refute the Christians who have told you that we all deserve hell but that God’s grace is available to all who will freely accept it. You just repudiate their answer. But then the problem is emotional, not intellectual.

Continue to part 2 my analysis of his response.


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