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 First Rebuttal

1. O.K.  Well, Dr. Craig's given me a lot to talk about here, and I'm sure I won't be able to talk about all of it.  But I'll do my best to cover as many of the points as I can.  I've got now to respond, not just to his opening statement, but to his first rebuttal, if I can.

2. What's the subject of the debate?  He said, in his opening statement, that it was about the Judeo–Christian God, whether that God exists.  No, actually, what I had insisted on was that we talk about the existence of the Christian God.  It may sound ecumenical and nice to say that Jews and Christians all worship the same God, but that's not true.  Christians, because they recognize the authority of the New Testament, are committed to lots of doctrines Jews aren't committed to, most of the doctrines I talked about.  I framed my opening statement specifically with Christianity in mind.  Judaism and Christianity do have some common problems.  Evil is hard to understand in both religions.  The relation between religion and morality is hard to understand in both religions.  But most of the doctrines I discussed in my opening statement are not doctrines a Jew would feel himself committed to by his Judaism.  I know that a lot of Christians don't feel themselves committed to them either.  But you notice I didn't cite any biblical passages in support of my attributions of those views to the New Testament.  Look, I am perfectly prepared to admit that there are lots of passages in the New Testament that are inconsistent with the passages that John Calvin thought were a basis for ascribing predestination, and original sin, and Hell.  Did he actually deny that Hell exists?  You didn't deny that there is such a thing as Hell, did you?

Dr. Craig: No! (Laughter)

3. No, O.K.––Sorry!  I know we're not supposed to talk to each other in these things. Let's see, where was I?  Look, I am perfectly prepared to believe that the Christian scriptures are inconsistent on these various matters.  I've been studying the history of this stuff for a while, and I know that there are texts on the other side, and I know that it's enormously difficult to try to work out exactly what the teachings of the scriptures are.  If you would like, particularly with the issue of free will and predestination, to have a good look at what the scriptural texts are and how they used to be debated, I recommend that you read an exchange between Luther and Erasmus. Erasmus had written a work defending free will.  Luther wrote a work which he entitled On the Bondage of the Will.  Luther's work was much longer than Erasmus' because he had much more text to support him.  It wasn't only Calvin who held this predestinarian view, it was also Luther. It was also Thomas Aquinas, actually.  If you look at Thomas Aquinas, he holds a doctrine of double–predestination:  People are predestined both to Hell and to Heaven and the numbers are known by God in advance, as they would have to be.  The basis of the doctrine of predestination is, after all, not merely scriptural, it's also philosophical.

4. OK.  Second point:  I am not here to defend atheism.  I'm here to defend rejecting the Christian God.  There are many ways of thinking about God; I'm not prepared to reject them all. Haven't thought hard enough about some of them!  Have thought pretty hard about the Christian God, and I know pretty much what I think about that!

5. Appeals to authority, that's my third point.  Craig makes them very frequently.  And they're necessary, sometimes; they're necessary a lot of the time.  We live in an age when knowledge is rapidly growing, and it leads to specialization.  Really understanding contemporary physics and mathematics takes a lot of work.  So those of us who do not specialize in these areas must rely for our opinions, very largely, on what the people who do specialize tell us.  Some degree of reliance on authority cannot be avoided by anyone trying to form an intelligent view of the world today.  But reliance on authority can be tricky.  Often the authorities disagree.  How, then, do we, who are not knowledgeable about the field, decide which authorities to believe?

6. I'll take two examples of his use of arguments from authority.  He mentioned David Hilbert, that great mathematician.  Perhaps the greatest mathematician of the century, he said. Well, he was a great mathematician, indeed, and, he certainly didn't like the idea of an actual infinite.  He built a whole program in mathematics, the formalist program, on the hope that it would be possible to allow for transfinite arithmetic without incurring the paradoxes of set theory.  You don't know what transfinite arithmetic is or [what] the paradoxes of set theory [are]?  Take a course in the philosophy of mathematics!  We offer one pretty regularly! (Laughter)  His hopes were disappointed, Hilbert's were, because Gödel came along, and he proved his incompleteness theorem:  that the formalist program could not succeed.  At one stage in his life Hilbert did, indeed, say what Dr. Craig says he said; but subsequent developments in mathematics forced him to abandon that view.

7. Second example, Anthony Kenny, of Oxford University, is quoted on the implications of the Big Bang theory.  Kenny did, indeed, say––in a book written 30 years ago, a passing remark of only a few lines, in a book about some 13th century arguments for the existence of God by Thomas Aquinas––hardly a context in which we could expect a measured assessment of the implications of Big Bang cosmology, even as it was understood 30 years ago––Kenny's a philosopher, not a physicist, and it's just possible that he may not understand Big Bang theory very well.  I don't.

8. Next point:  Our concept of God must be coherent, if it is to play the role Craig wants it to.  Craig's arguments have a common structure:  invoke God as a hypothesis to explain something:  the origin of the universe; the complex order of the universe; objective moral values; the resurrection; religious experience.  For a hypothesis to explain a phenomenon, it must be logically consistent.  So before we consider the arguments, we need to ask about the consistency of the hypothesis.  If it turns out to be inconsistent, there's no need to deal with the arguments one by one.

9. Well, Anthony Kenny, actually, whom he quoted on the theistic implications of Big Bang theory, in a more recent book, The God of the Philosophers, writes as follows––this is the beginning of the concluding chapter of his book:

If the argument of the previous chapters has been correct, then there is no such being as the God of traditional, natural theology.   The concept of God propounded by scholastic theologians and rationalist philosophers is an incoherent one.   If God is to be omniscient, I have argued, then he cannot be immutable.  If God is to have infallible knowledge of future human actions, then determinism must be true.  If God is to escape responsibility for human wickedness, then determinism must be false.  Hence, in the notion of a God who foresees all sins but is the author of none, there lurks a contradiction.

Kenny, it seems to me, is moving away from Christianity, in so far as he takes that position.

10. But, you might, if you want to pursue this issue further, have a look at a book [called The Coherence of Theism] by Richard Swinburne, who's still firmly in the Christian camp––so he thinks––but who (on pages 180–183 of that book, which is the conclusion of his chapter on omniscience) argues that in order to really understand, not merely human freedom, but also divine freedom, it's necessary to restrict God's omniscience, and to assume that God does not have foreknowledge either of human actions, or of his own future actions.

11. My opening statement pointed out further difficulties in the coherence of the Christian concept of God.  Is predestination consistent with God's justice and love?  Of course, if you reject predestination, you won't find a problem here.  But then you've got to make sure that you've dealt not only with scriptural arguments for predestination, but also with the philosophical arguments for predestination.  Is justice consistent with making no distinction among sinners?  Is justice consistent with excusing some people from their due punishment for no reason at all?

12. Here's one more problem of coherence.  Dr. Craig holds that God is both timeless and personal; that because God is timeless he must be personal.  The only way a timeless God could create an effect in time would be if God were a personal agent, freely choosing to create without prior determining conditions.  Now the notion of a timeless personal agent who chooses to create an effect in time is incoherent if that agent is, as Dr. Craig's God is supposed to be, omnipotent.  If an omnipotent being chooses to create an effect, his choice should be sufficient to bring about the effect.  If he is timeless, this choice must have been his will from eternity.  But the effect is not supposed to be eternal.  How can the will be sufficient for the effect, and the will be eternal, and the effect not be eternal?  I leave that for Dr. Craig to explain.

13. Even the idea of a timeless person––forget about the fact that this timeless personal must create effects in time––even the idea of a timeless person is deeply problematic.  What is it to be timeless?  Well, it means that no temporal predicates apply to the timeless entity.  So no change is possible.  A timeless being must be immutable.  What is it to be a person?  Well, that involves at least having beliefs and desires.  How can a perfect being have desires?  To have a desire is to be in need of something which you hope to attain in the future.  But a perfect being cannot be in need of anything.

14. Again, a person must be capable of interacting with other people, as the biblical God does.  But a timeless person could not interact with other people because that would imply that it would have to change.  The whole theology is riddled with contradictions.

15. Well, although I don't think that I actually am required to do so by the logic of my argument––because if what I have said about the inconsistency about the concept of God is correct, there is no need really to ask further whether God is a satisfactory explanation of these various phenomena which are so mysterious––nevertheless, I think I should say something about some of the arguments that Dr. Craig made, because I know you won't be satisfied unless I do.

16. So, Dr. Craig thinks the universe must have a finite past because an actual infinite is impossible.  If the past were infinite, there would be an actual infinite.  He owes us an explanation, I think, of how you can deny that there's an actual infinite and still believe in God, who is supposed to be, as I understand it, both infinite and actual.  I'm sure he has an answer to that.  I'm sure he will have an answer to every objection that I raise.  Whether they will be good answers, well, that is for you to decide at the appropriate time.

17. Now I already discussed his strange attempt to use the authority of David Hilbert to establish the proposition that there can't be an actual infinite.  But consider the question on its merits, setting aside the authority of famous mathematicians.  If it were logically impossible for there to be an actual infinite, then it would be a necessary truth that Euclidean geometry does not describe actual space.  But this is not a necessary truth.  It is a contingent empirical issue, to be decided by determining whether the best overall scientific theory is one which incorporates a Euclidean or a non–Euclidean geometry.  It used to be thought, prior to the 19th century, that the only possible geometry for space was Euclidean.  And, then, in the 19th century mathematicians discovered that there were alternative geometries, non–Euclidean geometries which made different assumptions about space.  And so it became a question how do we decide between these.  And the answer that most physicists and philosophers of physics nowadays accept, I think, is:  which one works best in the context of the overall physical theory.  So it can't be decided a priori whether Euclidean geometry describes the space in which we live.

Well, let's see, How much time do I have?

Dr. Larson: You need to stop.

Dr. Curley: I need to stop now. (Laughter)

Dr. Larson: Yes, please.

Dr. Curley: I'll be back. (Laughter)

Dr. Larson: Dr. Craig.  Be quiet please, we need to proceed.  Dr. Craig.

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