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.

**************
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?
********
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🙂

******
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
***************

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.

******
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“.

**********
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.

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

4 thoughts on “Are all atheists wicked fools hurtling towards hell?

  1. Well, maybe I’m stupid, but I believe we are all children of God, created in his image. Jesus, being the creator, would of course refer to people in general as his brethren. Or, am I missing something exotic? We are to love God and love our neighbors. Not everyone knows or understands the Christian god, but certainly honors that god by living generous and compassionate lives. Again, I could just be stupid.

    • Thanks for your comment!
      You’re certainly not stupid🙂
      I completely agree with what you said about honouring God by loving our neighbour.
      I think that, in that specific context, Jesus was most likely thinking on his fellow Jews struggling with poverty, disability and oppression.
      But even if he didn’t, that wouldn’t change anything to the fact that this passage doesn’t teach salvation by faith owing to the reasons I give in 3′).
      Cheers!

  2. What is the purpose of life? Why did God create us? I am an atheist btw.
    If God KNOWS that I am going to be born and be an atheist, why bother giving me life. Also a soul doesn’t exist.

    So you CANNOT go to Hell or Heaven. There is no afterlife because there is no soul. The delusion of a soul is actually your MIND. not your “spirit”. This has been tested. Your consciousness comes from your BRAIN CELLS, and when they die (when you die), you will die. Your memories and all you ever done would vanish.

    This has been tested as well. A person was drowning (which kills brain cells) and when he was saved, he was a completely different person than before. He had mental trauma, and couldn’t think clearly. And most of his memories disappeared. His conscenceness was “damaged”. Also people did some tests with braincells and are currently trying to understand the MIND. The mind is one of the most mysterious things in the world. We cannot comprehend it. (But this doesn’t mean it is made by god, just because we CAN’T understand it. That is simply foolish.)

    God has also never been proven so this article makes no sense. People claimed to see god, but others haven’t. And if these claims are true it is impossible to know, because other religious people claimed the same thing.

    You only have ONE life. I recommend you convert to atheism to REALLY understand the world for what it is, with at least the time you still have to live. And enjoy it.

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