Are all atheists wicked fools hurtling towards hell?

Atheism: a consoling delusion for people who can't handle the reality of God's existence.
The “atheistic delusion”? Is this a fair and intellectually responsible look at the situation?

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser wrote a very relevant post about some widespread harmful beliefs held by many Christians in America.

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Randal Rauser

A few days ago Jeff Lowder of “The Secular Outpost” started a new series on “stupid atheist memes”. His first installment was:

If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

Four years ago I did my own series along similar lines titled “How to Confound Christians with Bad Arguments.” The first installment was: “Compare Santa to Jesus.” Needless to say, naming and shaming this kind of ignorance is an important way to maintain the health of a belief community.

While I think it is worthwhile to point out the problematic memes in another belief community, it is even better to commit some time to pointing out the problems in your own community. And that’s why I’m doubly appreciative for Jeff’s new series.

I have always aimed to do the same thing by extending at least as much criticism to elements within my own belief community as I direct outside it. As a case in point, in a few weeks my new book will be in the marketplace. In Is the Atheist My Neighbor? I launch a book-length critique of a particularly pernicious Christian meme, namely the idea that deep-down atheists really do believe in God and they are sinfully suppressing this belief so that they may live with impunity.  I believe this is a very harmful meme which has left much misunderstanding, pain, and suffering in its wake. (Incidentally, the book also features an interview with Jeff Lowder. Bonus!)

So how ought we to respond to harmful memes? Must we always speak out against them? The Book of Common Prayer includes the following confession: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Note in this confession that there are two distinct sins. Yes, there is the sin of commission, namely those things we have done. But there are also the sins of omission, those things we ought to have done but failed to do. To propagate memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice within your belief community constitutes a sin (or if you prefer, an “error” or “indiscretion”) of commission. But to fail to censure memes of ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice also constitutes a sin, namely a sin of omission.

In other words, there is no neutral place to stand with respect to this pernicious nonsense. Can you imagine the impact if every time one of these memes was posted or tweeted a chorus would rise up in indignation? Things would begin to change pretty quickly. To sum up, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.

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My interaction with an atheist

Epicurus wrote an interesting comment:

I look forward to reading the book. I’ve always felt that Christians are trapped and must believe that non christians are suppressing belief because of Paul’s writings and attitudes on the matter.
It will be interesting to read Randal’s examination of the topic.

To which I answered:

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Lotharson

Not all Christians believe in Biblical inerrancy.

What’s more, Paul can be quite ambiguous on that very topic.

Saint Paul redacting one of his numerous letters.
The Apostle Paul writing one of his numerous letters.

“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are
storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the GENTILE. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

A straightforward interpretation of this passage would be that Paul did believe that HEATHENS were able to strive for good works, thereby inheriting immortality.

Consider further this parable of Jesus:

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you
gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the
least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I
was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you
did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after
me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

White-dressed Jesus, sheep, malovelent goats
Jesus, the sheep and the goats

Were the righteous ones people who put their faith in Jesus during this lifetime and were “saved by grace”?

I think it’s a terribly convoluted interpretation of this passage.

A likely interpretation is that Jesus (and possibly also Paul) believed in a kind of virtue ethics according to which salvation comes through the cultivation of a just and humble Christ-like personality while sincerely acknowledging one’s sins and need for salvation.

Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more.

I certainly know quite a few atheists who are much closer to the spirit of Christ than many of his followers.

Cheers.

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Epicurus
“Therefore, I do think it is quite possible for a Christian to believe that many persons dying as atheists will inherit eternal life whereas self-righteous bigots of all kinds will be no more”.That all sounds fine, but what do you do with verses that suggest differently? Because you don’t believe in inerrancy you can ignore them and use the ones you like?
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Lotharson

Hi.
My point was that, at the very least, Christians aren’t compelled to have such an attitude towards atheists.
While the Bible can often speak with conflicting voices, I do not think we can find anything telling us unambiguously that unbelievers are immoral but many things clearly asserting the contrary.

I grant your general point, however.
It would be terribly question-begging to base doctrines on verses we arbitrarily pick and choose, once we’ve already concluded that the Biblical Canon isn’t internally coherent.

Ultimately, I base my faith on God defined as the greatest Being which can exist.

In the end, I think this is a hope which cannot be proven through rational arguments. Neither can atheism or materialism.
(Many mainstream Christians in Europe consider “faith” as an existential decision to hope in God rather than as a set of knowledge claims).

I also think, however, that EVERY belief system must be grounded through unproven presuppositions.

Consider for example the possibility that we are living in a simulation which was created ten minutes ago.

Brain in a vat:
A brain in a vat: what if we’re all deluded?

I’ve no doubt that (almost) all of us find this completely absurd on an emotional level.

Yet I do not think that you can show this to be rationally implausible without begging the question in one way or the other.
(You can try to prove me wrong if you so wish).

Ooops, I might have gotten a bit too far from the original topic 🙂

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Epicurus
I want to agree with you, but when I read things like Romans 1:18-32, or Psalm 14:1, etc, I can’t
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My interaction with a Conservative Evangelical

A little bit later, a Conservative Protestant criticised my views on salvation:
Rob

So you’re advocating Pelagianism? There’s no need to go that far.

Rom 2 is tricky. Thee point isn’t salvation by works. If you read the whole chapter, the gist is to jolt Jews out of complacency in thinking that they can sin and be saved, merely because they possess the Torah as a birthright, and that many gentiles are actually closer to heaven than they.

As to the sheep/goats parable, note the word “brethren”. This does not refer to generic acts of charity, but to good deeds done to Christians, so the doer would in some sense be considered Christian (ex. he who gives a cup of cold water, etc.)

None of this contradicts Rom 1, which seems to suggest that unbelievers hold (“suppress”) the knowledge of God’s existence, out of base motives.

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Lotharson

Hi Rob.

I could as well say that Roman 1 is “tricky” and use Roman 2 to interpret it as meaning the collective sin of the culture rather than that of all individuals belonging to it.

Suppose that both Jesus and Paul believed that the deepest truth of the universe is that you have to believe in Christ on this side of the grave in order to be saved.

I think they would have said something like that:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For you did put your faith in me before entering the grave

Roman 2:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed. 6 IF He “will repay each person according to what they have done.”, WE WILL ALL BE DAMNED. 7 To those who CONSCIOUSLY BELIEVED IN HIS SON DURING THEIR LIFETIME, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who DID NOT BELIEVE IN HIM: first for the Jew, then
for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good THROUGH BELIEVING IN HIM: first for the Jew, then for the gentile. 11 For God does not show favouritism.”

The fact that Jesus and Paul used very different words and phrases is a terrible fit to the classical Protestant view of salvation.

At the very least, I think that what I described earlier is a not unlikely view of salvation in the New Testament, regardless of whether or not you call it “Pelagianism“.

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I might add that Rob’s answers are pretty far-fetched in other respects as well.
While Paul’s main point in Roman 2 was certainly to criticise a belief in Jewish supremacy, the way he expressed himself makes it pretty likely he believed that humble heathens striving for a righteous life will inherit immortality and glory.
So, Rob’s remark concerning Paul’s main intention while writing this fails to engage with my reasoning.
As for Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Rob’s argumentation sounds really bizarre to my subjective ears. It appears to go like this
1) The word “Brethren” in the parable refers to “Christians in need”
2) Thus, those who inherit salvation are those who helped Christians in need
3) A person helps a Christian in need if and only if she is herself a Christian
4) Therefore, all Christians will go to heaven whereas all unbelievers will go to hell.
 That’s the only way I can make sense of it.
While I cannot judge Rob as a person, I think that this particular argument wasn’t particularly convincing.
1′) As Jesus taught this, there wasn’t yet any Christian around and it seems quite clear that “Brethren” referred to his fellow Jews trying to do the will of this Father while he was preaching  in Israel. And whenever “doing the will of the Father” is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, it means good works towards God and one’s neighbour and not faith in Him as the only possible “fire insurance”.
3′) involves that, whenever confronted with a Christian in need, all Christians will help the person in question whereas all non-Christians will selfishly refuse to do so. This is truly an extraordinary claim which can be all too easily refuted by reading testimonies of Christians in areas of armed conflict.
Saying that these passages teach “salvation by faith only” nonetheless means that Paul and Jesus were quite sloppy in their choice of words and examples. Given their extreme ambiguity, it would have been then quite legitimate for the Church before (and after) Luther to interpret this in good conscience and perfectly legitimately as supporting the “false teaching” of salvation by works.
This comes over as a desperate attempt at salvaging one’s dogmas no matter what.
 
I believe that honestly leaving every Biblical text speak for itself instead of imposing a predefined pattern on it leads to two important conclusions:
A) The Bible is not inerrant: it can clearly speak with conflicting voices
B) The large majority of texts go against major doctrines held by Conservative Protestants. Indeed,
they’re at odds with the doctrine of hell understood as eternal conscious torment
they fail to teach that God cursed us all with a sinful nature because our first parents ate the wrong fruit.
– they’re at odds with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and grace alone (as seen in this post)
they’re at odds with the belief that homosexuality is a far more serious sin than failing to help the poor.
and I could add many others.

Conclusion

So, this was doubtlessly a terribly chaotic post 🙂
During these two interactions, I obviously touched on a lot of topics. I hope that my readers have found some of this interesting, regardless of whether they’re Christians, atheists or belong to an entirely different species altogether.

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The confessions of a heretical progressive

At Patheos Progressive Christian, united Methodist minister Morgan Guyton wrote an interesting post I reacted to.

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Why white Christians need to listen to Amos and Isaiah

“But let justice roll down like waters; and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24 is a verse that gets thrown around a lot in times of protest like the most recent unrest in Baltimore. Taken by itself, this verse is pretty innocuous. Who’s opposed to the idea of justice and righteousness? But it becomes a very different message when we read it in context, starting with verse 21:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Do you hear what God is telling the Israelites through Amos? He hates their worship. He hates their inspiring, accessible sermon series on Biblical living. He hates it when they go on and on about how much he deserves to be praised. He hates their relevant pop culture video clips. He hates the way that the pianist plays softly under the preacher’s prayer. He hates their smiles and their Jesus jukes. He hates their exhibitionist false humility.

Why does God hate these things? Because they have not produced justice. Old Testament prophets like Amos are unanimous in their declaration that worship without justice is a mockery to God. Isaiah 1:12-17  says the same thing:

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

What if God is actually angry, just not for the things we want him to be angry about and not at the people we want him to be angry at? Many Christians who like to talk about an angry God define sin in such a way that they could never be the objects of God’s wrath. But what if God is angry at us, the people who love to sing happy songs about him and talk about how grateful and humble we are? What if the rage in Baltimore this past week is part of how God is articulating his wrath against the church that’s supposed to be fighting injustice? If Amos and Isaiah were alive today, they wouldn’t have any qualms about naming the Baltimore riots as a sign of God’s wrath.

I’m not saying that the individuals who burn down buildings aren’t committing sins by doing so. But I do believe the collective rage that has exploded into violence is an expression of God’s wrath. When truth and human dignity have been violated repeatedly in millions of ways as they have in the lives of our country’s black community, God’s wrath is kindled.

To understand this, we have to recognize that God’s hatred of sin comes from a place of solidarity with victims, not sanctimony about law. That’s what Jesus teaches us over and over again in his debates with the Pharisees. God does not hate imperfection and rule-breaking on account of his ego as a lawmaker. God hates it when our collective idolatry and selfishness cultivate a world order that crushes the most vulnerable. Worshiping God is supposed to help us get over ourselves and purge our hearts of the idols and selfish agendas that make us aloof to injustice.

The problem is that worship for privileged people too often becomes an indirect form of self-congratulation just like it was for the people Amos and Isaiah were yelling at thousands of years ago. The more that I go on and on about how good God is, the more likely it is that I’m doing it to show other people how good I am at talking about God’s goodness. Even sitting through “tough” sermons about sin can make me feel even more satisfied with myself for having a dour, sober perspective about the wickedness of humanity rather than convicting me personally into true repentance and humility.

If worship is doing what it’s supposed to do, it’s supposed to melt me. It’s supposed to leave me the opposite of self-satisfied. It’s not supposed to produce a snide scoffer, but a heart that is wounded by God’s mercy and burdened by the need to share it with others. I wonder what Amos and Isaiah would say about the self-satisfied scorn that so many white Christians have been spewing out into social media in response to the rage in Baltimore. What would they say about the efficacy of our worship? Would they tell us to “trample [God’s] courts no more”?

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While agreeing with almost everything he wrote, I couldn’t help but express my frustration with what I view as the selective moral indignation of the progressive crowd.

Here was our exchange.

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Hi Morgan.
I just discovered your blog.
Theologically speaking, I’m pretty progressive since I not only reject Biblical inerrancy but also believe that the Bible isn’t necessarily always more inspired than books outside it.
I’m also completely disgusted by the obsession of Conservative Evangelicals with homosexuality while they find it perfectly fine that poor children do not receive a decent healthcare from the State.
(A concept I developed here).

I completely agree with the general principles about social justice you evoked.

I’ve also no doubt at all that a strong anti-black racism among American law enforcement officials is still alive and well in 2015.

Anti-black racism: people killed by the police accoring to their ethnicity.
Anti-black racism: Given their much smaller proportion in the American population, Afro-Americans are disproportionately killed while not attacking in comparison to Americans of European descent.
It is horrendously shameful this is still the case at the dawn of the third millennium.

But I fear that often times Western liberals can be as callous, self-righteous and harmful as Conservatives.

One perfect example is their widespread belief in the legitimacy of collective punishment which is a logical consequence of their belief in unconditional positive discrimination, the idea that a female person should be favoured over a male person and a black one over a white one, regardless of the life conditions of the two individuals in question.

As I once explained, I think this can lead to quite wicked decisions if their respective well-being isn’t taken into consideration.
I think it is profoundly wrong to disadvantage a very poor man against a wealthy female because the former isn’t born with two X chromosomes.
I think it is profoundly wrong to disadvantage a very poor white person against a wealthy black person because the former isn’t born with the genes responsible for a black pigmentation.

I strongly believe that liberals defending the morality of these actions are NOT “fighting injustice” and rescuing the oppressed.

I believe that if there is to be any positive discrimination at all, it should be based on wealth and well-being and not on factors not directly related to the suffering of the persons.

American scholar Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote a long paper about this:

Another related liberal injustice is the systematic refusal to recognise the existence of racial hatred against white people and/or to condemn it.

While I cannot speak about modern America, I can say that acts of racial violence targeting innocent white folks are very real in France.

ve
Whilst it isn’t institutionalised, anti-white violence is real. For the sake of the victims, such acts need to be exposed and condemned as racial hatred. Nobody is morally guilty for having the same skin colour as slave traders.

I think that the very worst thing liberals can do consists of misusing such tragedies affecting black people as a justification for the suffering of innocent white persons.
Western liberals need to listen to the prophet Ezekiel who remind us that “the child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”
By acting in this way, they’re upholding a vicious circle of hatred and planting the seeds of the destruction of us all.

What frustrates me enormously is that some “progressives” I explain my views to call me a “white supremacist” even if they know absolutely nothing about me.

I’m a Germanic Frenchman and after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve been loudly saiying that many Muslims find this appalling as well and that we should absolutely overcome the temptation to lump them together with militant fundamentalists.
I often stand for the right of Muslim women to wear a headscarf in the public sphere and in enterprises if they choose to.

I hardly know any “other” white supremacist who acts in such a manner.

I find it a real pity that instead of challenging any ideas getting in the way of justice, political progressivism has degenerated into the unconditional adherence to a set of dogmas with no tolerance towards heretics such as myself.

I did not write all these things as a criticism of your blog post but rather as an expression of my frustration with the progressive movement as a whole .

I find that the ideas you convey here are really excellent and I’ll surely take a look at other posts you wrote.

My only concern would be the choice of your title.
I agree that white American Christians are more likely to ignore problems of social justice than Christians with an Afro-American background owing to historical and cultural factors.

But is it really true that, on a worldwide scale, white Christians tend to neglect their duties towards the poor much more often than non-white Christians (keeping Jesus’ parable about the poor widow in mind)?
I haven’t seen any evidence showing this.

Finally, it is worth noting that my criticism of liberal biases is not akin to downplaying the extent of the atrocities American blacks still suffer from.

Here is the answer of Morgan.

Thanks for your thoughtful engagement. The title was my weakest point. I wasn’t sure who needed to read Amos exactly. I think we all do.

And my final reply.

Thanks for your quick answer!

I understand you had very good intentions. I think this might unfortunately lead to prejudices against white persons not having this despicable mentality.

I greatly appreciate your humility.
Be blessed.

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I was very glad that our exchange remained so friendly. I think that things might have unfolded in a very different direction if I had started out using a culture-war rhetoric. I really think that kindness and humility are two essential moral features which help one not cause or ramp up heated and loveless arguments.

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