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 Post-debate Comments

At this stage I will limit my comments to Craig's First Rebuttal.

1–3. The day after the debate a Christian friend of mine who had been in the audience complimented me on my "generosity" in "not using to skewer him Craig's really foolish gesture in excluding Calvinists – of which not a few were in his audience, and thought themselves on his side – from the ranks of bona fide Christians." (email correspondence, identity of the correspondent concealed to preserve confidentiality)

I wish I could claim credit for generosity, but to be honest, the real explanation for my not raising this issue in the way my friend suggested is that in my first rebuttal I was concentrating exclusively on what Craig had said in his opening statement, and by the time I got to my second rebuttal there was so much to object to, and my notes on, and recollection of, what Craig had actually said in his two rebuttals were so sketchy that I could not have done it.

More importantly, though, I'm not sure it would have been quite fair. Craig says he denies the equation of Calvinism with Christianity, and says he is a Christian, but not a Calvinist. The 'good news' of 14 is that "You don't have to be a Calvinist to be a Christian." (my emphasis) This leaves it open that you can be both a Calvinist and a Christian.

Craig could say that Calvinism is not the same thing as Christianity, and still admit, consistently, that Calvinism is a legitimate interpretation of the Christian scriptures – by which I mean, not necessarily a correct interpretation, but one which a careful, unbiased and intelligent reader of those scriptures might well come to. And the real question, I think, is whether Craig would admit this. If he says "no," then he does say something at which Calvinists might properly take offense. If he says "yes," then he concedes that my first line of objection might well apply to Christianity, and not merely to an eccentric misunderstanding of Christianity.

Calvin certainly thought his doctrine of predestination was firmly based in Scripture. (For his arguments, see the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. III, Ch. xxi–xxiv.) And he was able to persuade a great many people that he was right: not only the members of the church in Geneva, but the Huguenots in France, the members of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, the Presbyterians in Scotland, and, of course, those unfortunate Anglicans in England. Many Christians nowadays seem to think that the doctrine of predestination is a Calvinist aberration, not realizing how common it has been in the Christian tradition. Craig's reply encourages that misconception.

In my first rebuttal I referred the curious to Luther's On the Bondage of the Will (tr. & ed. by Philip Watson & B. Drewery, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Library of Christian Classics, Westminster Press, 1969). I also mentioned that St. Thomas Aquinas held the doctrine of predestination. See Summa theologiae, Part I, Qu. 23. Thomas clearly embraces double predestination, i.e., the predestination of both the elect and the reprobate, a position which would seem to have been condemned in advance by the Council of Orange in 529. See Henry Denzinger's The Sources of Catholic Dogma (tr. by Roy Deferrari, from the 30th ed., Herder, 1957, p. 81).

I should have mentioned St. Augustine. See, for example, his treatise On the Predestination of the Saints. Augustine's position is complex, and some have suggested that he thought that only the elect were predestined – this in spite of several passages apparently endorsing double predestination (e.g., in ch. 100 of his Enchiridion, or in the City of God Bk. XV, ch. 1, Bk. XXI, ch. 24). For helpful discussion of these issues, see Christopher Kirwan's Augustine (Routledge, 1989, ch. 7) and John Rist's Augustine (Cambridge, 1994, ch. 7).

So there's quite a tradition in favor of (some form of) predestination among the major Christian theologians up to the Reformation. And this should not be surprising, given the support for predestination in the Christian scriptures. The primary text is Paul's epistle to the Romans. See ch. 8–9, esp. the following passage:

Something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor, Isaac. Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God's purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call), she was told, "The elder shall serve the younger." As it is written, "I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau." What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. (Romans 9:10–16)

I am skeptical that a corporate interpretation of these and similar passages can be made plausible. But even if it could, it would need to be explained how God could have permitted such widespread misunderstanding of his revelation on such a central point.

A more promising way of evading my first objection might be to reject the authority of the letters of St. Paul. It is notable that, for most of the theological doctrines which I object to, the strongest scriptural support tends to be found in those letters, and not in the gospels themselves. Christianity has changed in many ways over the course of its history. A few centuries ago most of the major Christian denominations thought they were committed by their scriptures to denying the Copernican doctrine that the Earth is in motion on its axis and in an orbit around the sun. In the last century, and even today, many Christians believe they are committed by their scriptures to denying the theory of evolution. Some day Christianity may evolve to the point where it is prepared to deny Paul canonical authority. There would be some loss in that, but on the whole I think it would be a development which many non–Christians might applaud. We are not there yet.

Craig says my position implies that many non–Calvinist churches are "on the slippery slope to heresy." Perhaps they are. Heresy is a tricky notion, now that there is no agreed central authority with the power to determine what constitutes orthodox belief. But back in the days when there was such a central authority, the aforementioned Council of Orange defined the following as orthodox belief:

Man... inherits a nature corrupt in body and soul, and is unable to do anything whatever towards salvation by his natural powers. He has lost all power to turn to God, because sin has so weakened his free will that 'no one is able to love God as he ought, or believe in God, or do anything for God which is good, except the grace of divine mercy come first to him.' (David Christie–Murray, A History of Heresy, Oxford UP, 1989, p. 94)

If the denominations to which Craig refers all agree with his doctrine of free will, then I would judge that by the standards of that church council they are guilty of Pelagianism.

My understanding of the agreement recently reached between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation is that neither of those denominations is currently, in that sense, heretical, as may be seen from the following excerpt from their joint declaration:

All persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation, for as sinners they stand under God's judgment and are incapable of turning themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God's grace. (See the report in the New York Times for 26 June 1998, pp. 1 & 12.)

It may be, of course, that many modern members of those denominations are not in agreement with their leadership, and so would be heretical by the standards which have operated throughout most of the history of Christianity. I think this is very often the case on this and many other issues.

5. This oversimplifies my argument, since I contended that there were both scriptural and philosophical reasons for believing in predestination.

Also, I think that in general, in dealing with the theological objections, Craig represents my argument in a way which doesn't bring out its full force. As a debater, of course, he's under no obligation to present my arguments in the best possible light. But the moderator's opening remarks had claimed that we were all there in pursuit of truth, and that might impose somewhat different obligations.

The general form of the five theological objections is as follows: 1) The Christian scriptures teach some doctrine (predestination, hell, original sin, justification by faith, exclusivism). 2) The doctrine thus taught is an appalling doctrine (either because manifestly false or morally repugnant or both). 3) Therefore, the Christian scriptures are not worthy of credence as a revelation from God. 4) Therefore, the Christian God does not exist (i.e., if there is a god, he is not the God of the Christian scriptures).

The general form of Craig's reply is, not to defend the doctrines, but to deny that the Christian scriptures teach those doctrines, or that they teach them in the form in which I objected to them.

6. Note that the passages cited do not directly contradict predestination by affirming free will. What they directly support is the doctrine of universal salvation. (This is why, in my first rebuttal, I was unclear whether Craig had denied the existence of Hell.) These passages were, of course, perfectly familiar to the traditional theologians who defended predestination.

It appears from this that Craig understands the notion of human freedom in such a way that humans, in virtue of their freedom, have the power to frustrate the will of God. But an omnipotent being would seem to be one whose will cannot be frustrated, one for whom it is true necessarily, that "if he wills that p, then p." (NB: I make it explicit here, lest there be any confusion, that for the purposes of this argument I need only affirm the necessity of the whole conditional, and not of its consequent, p.) So if God creates humans with freedom, he ceases to be omnipotent. Omnipotence would then not be an essential characteristic of God, but one which he has at some times and not others.

7. 'Corporate predestination' doesn't look like predestination at all. At this point (4 August 1998) I have not yet had a chance to look at the book he recommended, Robert Shank's Elect in the Sun. But I am not optimistic that it will make Craig's interpretation of Paul plausible.

8. This is a caricature of my argument. I defined a sinner as someone who has, at least once in his life, done something seriously wrong. I pointed out that on that understanding of the term, there will still be very significant differences of degree of guilt between different sinners. Yet it appears that the doctrine of hell requires all these sinners to be treated alike. This would follow from those texts which condemn the greater part of mankind to hell, such as Matt. 7:13–14, 22:1–14.

Regarding the definition of a sinner: the Christian has two choices, neither of them very attractive. Either he can say that anyone who fails to be perfect is sufficiently sinful to merit eternal damnation, in which case it will be plausible to hold that everyone is in fact a sinner (since no one is perfect), but the doctrine will be much too rigorous from a moral point of view (since any imperfection will be held to merit eternal punishment) – or he can say that it requires more than minor imperfections to be a sinner, in which case the doctrine does not seem too rigorous, though it now becomes extremely implausible to hold that every human is a sinner in the relevant sense. Call the first the perfectionist understanding of sin. I deliberately did not assume that a Christian must embrace a perfectionist understanding of sin, because that seemed to me uncharitable. From what Craig says in 9 it appears that he would embrace perfectionism.

The proposition that the great majority of mankind are condemned to hell is an implication, not only of the scriptural passages cited, but also – so long as the majority of mankind do not have the necessary faith in Christ – of the doctrine that faith in Christ is a necessary and sufficient condition for salvation.

9. Astonishing! It was no part of my argument to claim that "Minor sins do not deserve eternal punishment." Nevertheless, Craig goes out of his way to reject that proposition. If he thinks minor sins do deserve eternal punishment, I can understand why he would not want to defend that view in a public forum. Perhaps he misspoke himself here. But there is a strain of perfectionism in Christian thought, as illustrated by Jesus' injunction: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) Cf. Matt. 19:16–30 (a story told also in Mark 10:17–27 and Luke 18:18–30).

10. The argument Craig attributes to me looks like an obvious non sequitur. I think the argument I actually offered was a better argument: 1) The doctrine of original sin holds that, since the fall of Adam, all human beings come into the world tainted by his sin (where this 'taint' is understood to be serious enough that, in the absence of grace, the sinner would merit eternal damnation). 2) The Christian scriptures teach the doctrine of original sin. 3) The doctrine of original sin, so understood, is an appalling doctrine (the idea that one man's sin might be transmitted to all his descendants is morally repugnant – the doctrine that all humans are sinners in the requisite sense seems manifestly false). 4) Therefore, the Christian scriptures are not worthy of credence as a revelation from God. 5) Therefore, the Christian God does not exist (i.e., if there is a god, he is not the God of the Christian scriptures).

11. Craig informs us that he does not believe in infant damnation. I am gratified to learn that. But I wish he had addressed the central issue I raised: whether someone who is committed to the Christian scriptures as an authoritative revelation from God is obliged to accept original sin?

I know of no passage in the Christian scriptures which explicitly teaches infant damnation. Nevertheless, the principal text which teaches original sin (Romans 3–5, esp. 5:12–21) is sufficiently explicit about the universality of sin that most Christians, historically, have taken it to imply that, in the absence of a special act of grace, infants will be damned, just like any other sinner: "Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned..." (Romans 5:12)

That is one major reason, historically, for the practice of infant baptism. See Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2nd ed., 1997, pp. 423–26, 514–18.) I can understand why a modern Christian would prefer to forget these unpleasant aspects of the history of his religion. But it is less than candid to pretend that a doctrine with such a long history had no scriptural foundation.

12. Again, my usual complaint about the formulation of the argument attributed to me. I would say that, if God arbitrarily chose some for the gift of justifying faith, and arbitrarily excluded others, that would be, not merely unfair, but grossly unfair. And the proper conclusion would be that the Christian scriptures are not credible as a divine revelation (on the presumption that any being who is worthy of the love and obedience the Christian scriptures demand must be just).

13. This seems absolutely incoherent to me. Craig denies that the faith is bestowed arbitrarily, and affirms that it is bestowed as a free gift, which the person who receives the gift has done nothing to merit. But if the person who receives the gift is not distinguished from the person who doesn't by some difference of merit, then favoring the one over the other seems to be exactly what I meant by an arbitrary action.

Suppose I, as a teacher, have two students whose work is equal in merit. To preserve the theological parallel, we'll suppose they both deserve to fail. I give one student an A, and fail the other. If that's not acting arbitrarily, I don't know what is. I can understand the student who gets the A being grateful for my mercy. But I would not like to defend my actions to the student whom I failed.

I suggested above (in my comments on 1–3 of Craig's first rebuttal) that most of the theological doctrines which I find most objectionable in traditional Christianity tend to find their primary textual support in the letters of St. Paul. The doctrine of justification by faith looks like an exception, since it has support not only in Paul (Romans 3:21–4:25, 10:9–13), but also in the gospels: notably in Mark (9:23, 16:15–16), Luke (8:9–15), and numerous passages in John (3:16–18, 6:29–40, 11:25–26, 12:44–50).

Since there are also passages in the gospels which suggest a doctrine of justification by works (e.g., the perfectionist passages noted above, in comment on Craig's 9, or Matt. 16:27), I conjecture that Pauline teaching may have influenced the way the gospel authors represented the teaching of Jesus. If we accept Raymond Brown's chronology (in his Introduction to the New Testament, Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1997), Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans at least 10 years before the earliest of the gospels.

Perhaps even the doctrine of predestination is an exception to that general statement. At any rate there does seem to be support for predestination in passages like John 6:35–40 and 60–65.

15. Craig seems to have confused me with J. L. Mackie here. He represents me as posing the problem of evil in what philosophers of religion call its 'logical' form, i.e., as holding that the existence of any evil at all is logically incompatible with the existence of a God having the attributes Christians normally attribute to God (specifically, being all powerful and all good). The classic article here is Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence" (Mind 1955, pp. 200–12, and widely reprinted, e.g., in the collection The Problem of Evil, ed. by Marilyn and Robert Adams, Oxford, 1990). Many people believe that Alvin Plantinga effectively refuted Mackie in his book God, Freedom & Evil (Eerdmans, 1974).

But I did not present Mackie's version of the argument. I never asserted either of the premises Craig labels as crucial (2 & 3). Nor does it seem to me that I assumed them without stating them. In fact, I conceded the essential point in Plantinga's reply to Mackie, viz., that God's existence is not logically incompatible with the existence of evil, since it is logically possible that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being might have a morally satisfactory reason for permitting evil, might need to permit evil in order to achieve some greater good. (See my discussion of the greater goods defense.)

My version of the argument emphasized that the good which Plantinga suggests might justify the occurrence of evil – human freedom – does not look as though it can justify much of the evil which occurs. In particular, it does not look as though it can justify the great suffering of animals before the emergence of humans or the frequently inequitable ways good and evil are distributed in the world after the emergence of humans. (This is all, of course, on the assumption that human freedom really is consistent with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient being. At this stage I'm conceding that for the sake of the argument, but I think it still remains to be shown.)

Apparently Craig couldn't respond to the argument I actually made, and so decided to retread Plantinga's response to Mackie.

18. If you want to summarize my argument in a series of propositions that make it look like a syllogism, this would be a better summary: 1) The doctrine (often advocated by Christians) that God's existence is a necessary presupposition of morality apparently implies that the ultimate basis for morality is a divine command. 2) If the ultimate basis for morality is a divine command, then our fundamental moral obligation is to obey God, no matter what he commands. 3) If our fundamental obligation is to obey God, no matter what he commands, then anything whatever might turn out to be obligatory, depending on what he chooses to command. 4) If anything whatever might turn out to be obligatory, then the common view that there are some things (like killing innocent children) which are simply wrong is false. 5) But that common view is not false. 6) Therefore, God's existence is not a necessary presupposition of morality. (And, we might add, the Christian scriptures, to the extent that they teach that we have an unconditional duty to obey God, are not credible as divine revelation).

19. The argument I've presented in the preceding , as comment on Craig's 18, looks valid to me. Any valid argument can be made to look invalid by giving an inadequate account of its structure.

20. The argument here seems to be: 1) God is essentially morally perfect (loving, holy, compassionate, just, etc.). 2) A being who is essentially morally perfect cannot command anything which is inherently immoral (i.e., God necessarily commands acts which are at least consistent with morality). 3) Therefore, God is not liable to command anything whatever.

One difficulty with this argument is that if you assume that God's commands flow necessarily from his nature, then it looks as though you may be compromising God's freedom. We need to have it explained how God's actions can be both free and necessary.

Another difficulty: If certain actions are inherently immoral (that being the reason why we can be confident that a morally perfect being would not command them), then it does not look as though we need God's prohibition to make them immoral.

21. I am quite mystified by this . What does Craig mean when he says that the case of Abraham and Isaac is "the exception that proves the rule"? Presumably (given the preceding ) the rule Craig wants to prove is: God never commands anything immoral. He doesn't question the truth of the Biblical story which says that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. But if he thinks God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, and thinks that God never commands anything wrong, then I would suppose he was committed to holding that it would not have been wrong for Abraham to obey God's command by sacrificing his son. That would be a consistent view, even if it leads to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion.

But I don't think he really wants to say that. He seems to regard that command as an exception, by which I can only suppose he means: normally God does not command us to do anything wrong; it's only occasionally that he does that, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac; so most of the time we'll be all right if we obey God's commands. And I don't understand how this can be consistent with the contention of 20: that God necessarily commands things which are consistent with his essentially moral nature.

It's an interesting question, of course, how exceptional the case of Abraham and Isaac is. For the most part I have no objection to the Ten Commandments. But within two chapters of the pronouncement of those commandments in Deuteronomy 5 come some others which are not so easy to accept. I refer to those laying down the rules for what some commentators, with what seems to be unintentional irony, call 'holy war,' and what we might more naturally call 'genocide' – i.e., Deuteronomy 7 and its prescriptions as to how the people of Israel are to treat the Canaanites when they succeed in conquering them: "you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy." (Deut. 7:1–2; see also the more detailed commandments in Deut. 20:1–20)

The subsequent history of the chosen people reveals how they interpreted these commands, and with what diligence they obeyed them (e.g., as requiring the slaughter of non–combatants, including women, the elderly and children – see Joshua 6:15–21, 10:28, 11:10–11). Observe also what divine penalties they suffered when they rebelled against the commandments (1 Samuel 15). There is a stimulating discussion of these matters in Gerd Lüdemann's The Unholy in Holy Scripture (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).

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