The Craig-Curley Debate: The Existence of the Christian God

Dr. William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Jan and their two teenage children Charity and John. At the age of sixteen as a junior in high school, he first heard the message of the Christian gospel and yielded his life to Christ. Dr. Craig pursued his undergraduate studies at Wheaton College (B.A. 1971) and graduate studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A. 1974; M.A. 1975), the University of Birmingham (England) (Ph.D. 1977), and the University of Munich (Germany) (D.Theol. 1984). From 1980-86 he taught Philosophy of Religion at Trinity, during which time he and Jan started their family. In 1987 they moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Dr. Craig pursued research at the University of Louvain until 1994.

Dr. Curley's Opening Statement

1. O.K.  I have places I'd rather be tonight.  And my wife certainly has places she'd rather have me tonight.  But I am here to argue against the existence of the Christian God.  I am not here to defend atheism, contrary to the impression Dr. Craig's talk might have given you. Look, I think there are many ways of thinking about God.  And I think some of them are ways I might accept.  I just can't accept the Christian God.

2. When I was a child, I was a Christian.  As I came to be an adult, I came to have doubts about that faith.  For a while I called myself an agnostic.  These doubts led me, while I was in college, to the study of philosophy and its history.  Many of the philosophers I studied were Christians, for whom the rational defense of their religion was very important.  My studies did not lessen my doubts; they increased them.  Now I think there is hardly any chance the Christian religion is true.  'Agnostic' no longer seems the right label, not when we're talking about the Christian God.

3. The usual label for someone who once embraced Christianity and then rejected it is 'heretic.'  I have no objection to that label, now that we've agreed to abolish the death penalty for heresy. (Laughter)

4. What started me on this path was reading the prayer book my mother gave me when I was 16.  At the back were printed the Articles of Religion members of my church, the Episcopal Church, were expected to accept.  I had not read them carefully when I was preparing for confirmation.  Then I was only 13, and there was much I did not understand.  Our minister was a good man:  highly intelligent, cultured, and humane.  At 13, I was content to accept what he told me, simply on his authority.

5. Then, at 16, I read those Articles of Religion, carefully and critically for the first time. I was disturbed that my church accepted predestination.  Before the foundation of the world, the Articles said, God had chosen some vessels for honor and others for dishonor.  So far as I could see, there was as good scriptural foundation for this teaching as there was for any doctrine the church affirmed.  One of the first principles of my church was that no one should be required to believe, as necessary for salvation, any doctrine which could not be proved from scripture.

6. There were also strong philosophical reasons for accepting predestination.  If God is omniscient, if he knows everything, he must have foreknowledge of his creatures' fate.  If he is omnipotent, can do anything, or anything that is logically possible to do, then nothing happens except by his will.  So, if I wind up in Hell, he will have known that from eternity, and he will have willed it from eternity.

7. Predestination is not so widely accepted now as it was when my church was founded in the 16th century.  I find many Christians who reject it.  And I sympathize with them.  Their hearts are in the right place, certainly.  I cannot believe that a just and loving God would create beings he knew––and had predetermined––would spend eternity in hell.  But Christians can reject predestination only at the cost of ignoring the authority of their scriptures and the implications of their theology.

8. Forget predestination.  What about Hell?  That's a different situation.  I see no philosophical reason for believing in an eternal punishment for sinners.  Philosophy is against it.

9. Philosophy teaches that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime.  Let's concede, for the sake of argument, that we are all, in some sense, sinners.  Which of us, looking into his heart, can honestly say that he has never done anything seriously wrong, at least once in his life?  But the doctrine of Hell requires that most of us sinners will suffer eternal torment.

10. In some cases that may be just.  Hitler was responsible for the horrifying deaths of millions of Jews, not to mention gypsies, Slavs, and homosexuals.  Perhaps for crimes of that magnitude eternal punishment can be justified.

11. I am, in the sense I have specified, a sinner.  But, in all candor, I must say that to me my sins seem pretty minor compared to those of Hitler.  I haven't killed anyone, or tortured anyone, or been responsible for anyone's torture or death.  Yet, if the doctrine of hell is correct, I shall be keeping Hitler company in Hell.  No doubt I'm not an impartial judge in this case, but it doesn't seem fair. (Laughter)

12. In spite of these difficulties, Hell was part of the teaching of my church, and is part of the teaching of many Christian churches.  This is no accident.  The doctrine has strong support in the Christian scriptures.

13. Hell, too, is less widely believed in now that it was when my church was founded.  I find many Christians who reject Hell.  Their hearts are in the right place, certainly.  I cannot believe that a just and loving God would consign the majority of his creatures to spend eternity in Hell.  But Christians who reject Hell can do so only at the cost of rejecting also the authority of their scriptures.

14. I conceded, for the sake of argument, that we are all sinners.  Now let me qualify that.  Very likely all of us, in this room, are sinners––provided it's enough, to be a sinner, that once in your life you did something seriously wrong.  But I don't concede that absolutely all humans are sinners.

15. I have a granddaughter, whom I love.  She's a sweet girl, but she's seven.  By now she must have committed quite a number of sins.  I know sometimes she doesn't mind her mother very well.  Sometimes she's mean to her baby brother.  I don't find any of this serious enough to deserve eternal punishment.  But perhaps there are sins I don't know about.  In any case, she's not completely innocent.  Probably no child that age is completely innocent.  And Jesus did say that we should be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect.  That's a tough standard.

16. But, when I think about my granddaughter at an earlier age––lying, say, in the neo–natal intensive care unit, where she spent the first few months of her life, with an oxygen tube, and a feeding tube, and a heart monitor all taped to her tiny body––for she was born in the 29th week of my daughter's pregnancy, and weighed less than 3lbs.––then, I cannot think of her, at that stage of her life, as a sinner, deserving of Hell.

17. In the Christian tradition it is normal to baptize infants at an early age because it is believed that they come into the world tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve.  This is the doctrine of original sin.  I cannot believe in original sin.  My granddaughter may be a sinner now, but not when she was in the intensive care unit.

18. Original sin is less widely accepted now than when my church was founded.  I find many Christians who reject original sin.  I sympathize with them.  Their hearts are in the right place, certainly.  But, Christians can reject original sin only at the cost of a substantial reinterpretation of their scriptures and traditions.

19. Consistently with the doctrine of original sin, it is common among Christians to believe that if we are justified, it is by faith in Jesus.  Since we are all sinners, we cannot earn salvation by our works.  But we can be forgiven and treated as if we were righteous.  The mark of our having been forgiven is that God, by an act of grace, gives us faith.

20. This doctrine has implications I find appalling.  It implies that those among us who lack faith in Jesus have not received grace, have not been forgiven, and will, if we continue in that state, go to Hell.  So the doctrine of justification by faith, which has strong support in the Christian scriptures, leads inevitably to exclusivism, to the idea that all who reject Christian doctrine must be damned, no matter how good they may be, by ordinary standards.

21. If God chose the beneficiaries of his grace on the ground of some distinctive merit they possessed, this might not be unfair to those he didn't choose, whom we would presume to lack that merit.  But that would be contrary to the idea of grace, which implies a free gift, not something given to someone who deserves it on account of merit.

22. So usually it is held that God has no reason for choosing some and not others.  He acts quite arbitrarily.  It's a hard and ugly doctrine, this doctrine of grace.  I suppose that if you have already accepted Hell and original sin, you may be grateful for having a shot at salvation–– even if it does seem to be a lottery in which the odds are not on your side.  Of course, if you think you have faith, then you may also think you have won the lottery and you may set aside thoughts about the unlucky losers.

23. Well, so far my objections have been mainly theological; they are objections to teachings whose basis is primarily scriptural rather than philosophical.  The main exception to that generalization is the doctrine of predestination, which has philosophical grounds as well as scriptural grounds.  I know many Christians here tonight will not feel that their understanding of Christianity requires them to accept all these doctrines, either because they have a different interpretation of scripture, or because they do not regard the Christian scriptures as absolutely authoritative in determining their beliefs and conduct.  I've said I think those Christians who adopt a freer attitude toward scripture––and do not feel that their acceptance of Christianity commits them to predestination, or Hell, or original sin, or justification by faith, or exclusivism–– those Christians have their hearts in the right place, I say.  But I also think their feet may be planted on the slippery slope to heresy, and that more conservative Christians, who would accord greater authority to scripture, have a clearer right to call themselves Christians.  How much of traditional Christianity can you reject and still be a Christian?

24. Let's turn now to objections not so scripturally based.  It is common among Christians to believe that God is a personal being, who created the universe, and who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.  Indeed, it is commonly said that God must possess all perfections.

25. Yet we observe that the world this perfect being created has many imperfections: there is much joy in the world; but there is also much suffering, much of it apparently undeserved; and there is sin.  We call these things evil.  How can they exist in a world which owes its origin to a God with the attributes Christians believe their God to possess?

26. The usual response now is to say that though God could have created a world without evil, it was better for him to have created the world he did, in spite of the evils it contains.  The occurrence of those evils was necessary for goods which are even greater.  If God had so created the world that it contained no evil at all, that world would have been less good, all things considered, than it is even with all the evil it contains.  This is called the greater goods defense.

27. The Christian may say:  We humans rightly do many things we expect to cause avoidable harm.  We build a bridge from San Francisco to Marin County, knowing that in the construction some workmen will fall into the water and drown.  We could avoid their deaths by not building the bridge.  But the bridge is a great good.  Given our human limitations, we cannot build it without some people dying a result.  So we build it and accept their deaths as part of the cost of bridging those waters.  And God's permission of evil may also be justified by the greater goods it leads to.

28. An omnipotent being, of course, does not face all the hard choices we do.  If he wants a bridge across those waters, he need only say, "Let there be a bridge."  And there will be.

29. One question the greater goods defense raises is:  what kind of good could be so intimately connected with evil that even an omnipotent being would have to accept the evil, as the price of realizing that good?  And what good could be so great that it would justify such a being's accepting the amount of evil there is in the world as the price of attaining that good?

30. The usual answer these days is:  freedom.  There must be freedom, if there is to be moral goodness.  And the price of giving humans freedom is that sometimes they will misuse it. Even an omnipotent being can't cause a person to freely do good.  And freedom, with the moral goodness which sometimes results from it, is a good sufficiently great that it makes the evils which also result worth accepting. [This is what is called the free will defense.]

31. There is a problem, of course, about appealing to human freedom to solve the problem of evil when you also believe in predestination and divine foreknowledge.  This is a problem of long standing, which many philosophers have wrestled with.  No solution has gained general acceptance.  If Dr. Craig accepts the doctrines of predestination and divine foreknowledge and also appeals to human freedom to solve the problem of evil, he will have worked out a way of explaining how these things are consistent, and I will listen with interest to that explanation.

32. In the meantime, though, there are other problems about the appeal to freedom. There are evils whose occurrence has no discernible connection with freedom.  Theologians call them natural evils, meaning such things as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, diseases, and so on.  If a deer dies in a forest fire, suffering horribly as it does so, that is an evil.  It is not only human suffering we must take into account, when we are weighing good against evil in this world.

33. Now, if you accept anything like the theory of evolution, you will believe there were other animals on this planet long before humans appeared on the scene.  Many of them must have suffered horribly as their species became extinct.  None of that suffering can be justified as a necessary consequence of permitting humans freedom.  We weren't around then.  So, none of it seems beyond the power of omnipotence to prevent without the loss of that good.

34. Another objection:  The greater goods defense can easily lead to a kind of cost–benefit analysis which is deeply repugnant to our moral sense.  Consider the kind of case which troubled Ivan in Dostoevsky's great novel, The Brothers Karamazov.  A little girl is treated quite brutally by her parents, who beat her because she has done something which made them angry. Perhaps she wets the bed repeatedly, and they think she ought to be old enough to control her bladder.  Or perhaps the father is an alcoholic who abuses his daughter sexually.  The Brothers Karamazov is fiction, but to hear about real cases like this, you need only listen regularly to the 11 o'clock news.

35. The free will defense seems to say, in cases of this kind:  well, it's all very unfortunate, of course, but this is the price we must pay for having freedom.  For the father to have the opportunity to display moral goodness, God must give him the opportunity to choose evil.  You can't have the one opportunity without the other.  And the father's having the opportunity to display moral goodness is such a great good that it outweighs the fact that he chooses evil.

36. But notice who gets the good here.  It's the father.  And notice who suffers the evil. It's the little girl.  Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that the benefit outweighs the cost. Freedom is a very great good.  Still it makes some difference who pays the cost.  Freedom may be a great good, even a good so great that it would outweigh really horrendous suffering.  But justice requires some attention, not only to the net amount of good, after you have subtracted the evil, but also to the way the goods and evils are distributed.  Some distributions just aren't fair.

37. The mention of Ivan Karamazov brings me to my final objection.  Ivan claims that if God does not exist, everything is permissible.  Dr. Craig believes the same thing.  Dostoevsky, speaking through Ivan, may have stated the problem of evil as powerfully as any atheist; but he was himself a Christian, who believed that God must exist if we are to make sense of morality.

38. I think the opposite is true.  I think Christian belief makes morality, as we normally think of it, unintelligible.  Consider the story of Abraham and Isaac.  One day God put Abraham to the test.  He said to Abraham:  "Take your son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering."  God gives no reason for this horrifying command.  And Abraham asks none.  He simply sets out to obey the command.  And he nearly does obey.  He has the knife raised to kill his son, when God sends down an angel to stay his hand.  God then says he is satisfied with Abraham:  "Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me."  In the end God does not actually require the sacrifice.  But he does require that Abraham demonstrate his willingness to carry out the sacrifice.

39. What's the moral of this story?  I suggest it's this: as God's creatures, our highest loyalty must be to God, even if this requires the sacrifice of our deepest human loyalties; God is our Creator, our Lord, and we owe him absolute obedience, no matter what he commands––and he might command anything.  There are no constraints on his will; so we might be required to do anything.  There is no predicting what he might require; and there is nothing to say that his commands will not change from one moment to the next.  At the beginning of the story, God commands Abraham to kill Isaac; in the middle he commands Abraham not to kill Isaac.

40. If there is a God who is liable to command anything; and if our highest loyalty must be to this God, there is no act––save disobedience to God––which we can safely say is out of bounds, no act of a kind which simply must not be done, even rape, to use Dr. Craig's example. If this God exists, and we must obey him unconditionally, then anything whatever might turn out to be permissible.  This view is destructive of morality as we normally think of it.

41. So there you have my opening argument.  I have offered seven objections––seven deadly objections, I would say:  Christian theism is committed to predestination, to Hell, to original sin, to justification by faith, and to exclusivism; it has no good solution to the problem of evil; and it is destructive of morality as we understand it.  These are only some of the objections which make it impossible for me to believe in the Christian God.

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