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. Craig's Comments on Dr. Curley's Post–debate Comments

I'm grateful to Prof. Curley and his teaching assistant for the above transcript of our interesting debate.  As I read it, I was struck again by what a key role personal, biographical factors played in Prof. Curley's rejection of the Christian faith.  What he really rejects is Calvinism, not Christianity.  When he does present broader arguments against non–sectarian Christian doctrines (e.g., his formulation of the Problem of Evil and his development of the alleged incompatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom), his arguments are surprisingly weak, evincing little familiarity with the contemporary philosophical discussion of these topics.

1–3.  I was surprised at the post–debate suggestion that I had implied that Calvinists are not Christians!  I think my position was quite clear that Calvinism is but one of the many forms assumed by Christianity, so that one can be a Christian without being a Calvinist.  It would be a logical howler to infer that therefore no Christian can be a Calvinist!  Dr. Curley is quite correct in thinking that Calvinist Christians should be concerned about his objections;  but my point is that these objections provide no reason at all for rejecting Christianity for one who is not a Calvinist.  So I hope that Prof. Curley will reassess his rejection of Christianity, which is largely based on parochial objections that would not trouble the vast majority of Christians either historically or today.

In recent years, I have been impressed with the Molinist solution to problems pertaining to divine sovereignty and human freedom, named for the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina.  Based upon Molina's doctrine of divine "middle knowledge," Molinism provides a stunning treatment of divine prescience, providence, and predestination which preserves both God's sovereignty and man's freedom.  Interested readers might look at my article "Middle Knowledge:  A Calvinist–Arminian Rapprochement?" in The Grace of God, The Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Zondervan, 1989), pp. 141–164.  I would qualify my treatment there only by saying that I did not appreciate the degree to which Arminianism just is Protestant Molinism!

I cannot but smile when Prof. Curley tells us that a more promising way of avoiding his objections is to deny Pauline authority.  This like suggesting decapitation as a cure for headaches!  Fortunately, in the present case there just is no headache at all, unless one is a Calvinist.

Wesleyans like myself cannot be justly accused of Pelagianism (the doctrine that God bestows grace in response to human initiatives to come to Him), since we emphasize the necessity of God's prevenient (if at some point resistible) grace in drawing sinful people to salvation.  Catholics and Protestants agree that God takes the initiative in salvation; but most also hold that justification and salvation also require a human response which is not determined by God.

The bottom line is that if one really wants to place his faith in Christ, he needn't be deterred by the sorts of sectarian objections raised by Prof. Curley.  There are plenty of non–Calvinist options for those who would be biblically faithful Christians.

6.  Do proponents of libertarian freedom therefore deny God's omnipotence?  Not at all, for as both of us agreed in the debate, divine omnipotence does not mean that God can do logical absurdities, such as make a square circle.  And we both agreed that it is logically absurd to make someone freely do something.  Thus, God's inability to make everyone freely believe in Him is no abridgement of omnipotence.  Prof. Curley's simplistic analysis of omnipotence in terms of the necessity of the conditional "If x wills that p, then p," is untenable, for on that definition a person who is essentially capable only of willing to scratch his left ear turns out to be omnipotent!  Readers who are philosophically sophisticated may wish to read the brilliant analysis of omnipotence by Thomas P. Flint and Alfred J. Freddoso, “Maximal Power,” in The Existence and Nature of God (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), pp. 81–113.

8–9.  The doctrine of Hell in no way implies that all the damned will be punished alike.  Indeed, there are indications to the contrary ( Lk. 12. 47–48).

I am not a "perfectionist, " as Prof. Curley defines the term, since I think that only God is perfect.  We must distinguish between innocence and perfection.  A person may be morally innocent (e.g., man prior to the Fall) without being morally perfect.  Human beings are sinners in the sense that we are no longer morally innocent, having broken God's moral law.  Again, Scripture allows a good deal of latitude for developing a doctrine of how sin and punishment are to be related.  I'm inclined to think that condemnation results, not so much from individual sins we commit, such as lying, losing one's temper, having a wicked thought, etc., as from being in a state of sin, refusing to accept God's forgiveness and spurning His grace.  Such a sin of refusal of God's grace does seem to be a great leveler when it comes to our guilt before God.  But, as I say, this is an open question, which Christian philosophers would do well to explore more deeply.  Interested readers may care to read my debate with Dr. Ray Bradley "Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" on this site.

10–11.  As for original sin, this is again a doctrine on which Christians themselves have disagreements.  Fortunately, the issue needn't be adjudicated here, for what Prof. Curley finds objectionable in the doctrine is infant damnation, which I (with most theologians) deny is implied by that doctrine.  Nowhere in Scripture is such a doctrine taught or implied.  Prof. Curley fails to distinguish between sinfulness and accountability.  Even if all human beings are sinful regardless of age, only those who have the mental capacity to  respond to God's grace may be held accountable.  God's saving grace may be applied to children and the mentally retarded who lack the capacity to consciously appropriate His forgiveness.   Certainly, difficult questions arise here, which Christian philosophers would do well to tackle, but the point remains that these are open questions, which need not deter someone from embracing Christ as his own.

Even the practice of infant baptism testifies to the fact that infants needn't consciously act in order to be recipients of God's grace.  Moreover, Prof. Curley doesn't seem to appreciate that many Christian denominations which practice infant baptism (including his own former denomination) do not regard the act as conferring salvation and many others (with whom I agree) reject the practice altogether as unscriptural. 

12–13. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is not at all incoherent.  God offers His salvation via various avenues of general and special revelation to all persons, and they  are free to accept or reject it.  (See my articles on Christian Particularism at this site.)  A better analogy than Dr. Curley's would be a governor's offering to prisoners on death row a pardon.  If a prisoner accepts the pardon, he goes free.  But if he refuses the pardon (as apparently actually happened once), then he has to be executed.  The pardon is made to all, and now our fate lies in our own hands.  Will we accept or reject God's pardon?

15.  Prof. Curley claims that he is not defending the logical version of the Problem of Evil.  But his development of the argument belies his claim.  In particular Plantinga argues that all natural evil could be due to moral evil perpetuated by demonic beings.  So natural evil is not logically incompatible with God's goodness and omnipotence.  So what does Prof. Curley mean when he says 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"?  I don't see the relevance of this remark to Plantinga's Free Will Defense, which does not appeal to human freedom to justify natural evil.  If Prof. Curley means that natural evil renders God's existence improbable, then he hasn't even begun to deal with all the responses that have been offered to that claim.  (See, for example, the transcript of my debate with Corey Washington "Does God Exist?" on this site, especially the post–debate comments, as well as my taped debate with Eric Dayton on "Do Suffering and Evil Disprove God?")

18–19.  With respect to Prof. Curley's re–formulated argument against divine command morality, it should be noted that many Christian ethicists do not adopt any form of divine command theory, so that they would regard his premiss (1) as false.  I trust that non–Christian readers are by now getting the picture that becoming a Christian does not put you into a doctrinaire, intellectual box.  The Christian theological tradition is extremely rich and variegated.  While united on the essentials, such as the doctrines expressed in the ecumenical creeds accepted by all the broad branches of Christendom, Christian theology not only has room for, but enthusiastically welcomes, various attempts to unfold God's truth.  Ours is, as St. Anselm said, a faith that seeks understanding.

That being said, since I myself do find divine command morality the most plausible meta–ethical theory, I see the defect in Prof. Curley's argument to lie in his premiss (3).  His claim that "anything whatever might turn out to be obligatory" is predicated on the assumption that God can command just anything.  But while certain divine command theorists ("voluntarists") take this view, many or most do not.  Rather they see the divine commands as expressions of and therefore constrained by the divine nature.  In a fine treatment of this issue William Alston explains,

God plays the role that is usually assigned by objectivists to Platonic ideas.  Lovingness is good, not because of the Platonic existence of a general principle, but because God, the supreme standard of goodness is loving. . . . If God is essentially good, then there will be nothing arbitrary about his commands; indeed, it will be metaphysically necessary that He issue these commands ("What Eurthypro Should Have Said," in Philosophy of Religion: a Reader and Guide, ed. Wm. L. Craig [Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming).

Perhaps Prof. Curley would say that on such a theory God's commands are not "the ultimate basis for morality," but His nature is.  All right; then his premiss (1) is false:  the ultimate basis for morality is not a divine command in that sense. 

20. Such a theory does not compromise God's freedom, if we understand libertarian freedom, as Harry Frankfurt suggests, in terms of one's choices not being causally determined.  The reason we still need God's commands in such a theory is that they furnish a source of moral obligation for us.  One of the problems with Platonism is that even if it supplies a standard of goodness, it lacks any basis for moral duty, for actions' being right or wrong for us.  One of the greatest strengths of divine command morality is that it furnishes a perspicuous basis for moral obligation.  For more on this see the transcript of my debate with Prof. Richard Taylor "Can We Be Good without God:  Is the Basis of Morality Natural or Supernatural?" on this site.

21. But then what about God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac?  Did God have the right to command such a thing and was Abraham morally obligated to obey?  I am inclined simply to bite the bullet and say, "Yes, God did have the right and Abraham was so obligated."  The uncomfortableness of this answer can perhaps be mitigated by the realization that God has the right to do certain things that would be immoral for a human person to do on his own initiative.  For example,  I do not have the right to kill another innocent person.  But God, as the author and giver of life, has that prerogative.  If He should choose to strike me dead right now, that is His right.  (Notice how opponents of capital punishment, for example, will often say to its proponents, "Who do you think you are to play God?")  Thus, Abraham would not have the right on his own initiative to take Isaac's life, for that would be murder.  But if God should command Abraham to take Isaac's life, then the situation is different because Abraham is now no longer acting on his own but rather as the agent of God.  God does not have the ability to command Abraham to commit murder; but God does have the ability to command Abraham to do something (viz., kill Isaac) which would have been murder had God not commanded it, i.e., if Abraham had undertaken the act on his own initiative in the absence of a divine command.  This seems to me to be a coherent solution to the problem.  

The case of Abraham and Isaac is, as I say,  the exception that proves the rule.  God doesn't normally issue such extraordinary commands, and so we should be highly sceptical of someone who says, "God has commanded me to kill so–and–so!"   I do not mean in Prof. Curley's words that "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."  Rather I mean that normally God doesn't command us to do anything which is such that, in the absence of a divine command, it would be morally wrong for us to do; the case of Abraham and Isaac is presented in Scripture as a highly unusual case.

I do think that these same considerations are relevant for the case of the destruction of the Canaanites at God's command.  The Israeli armies were acting as God's agents to carry out God's judgement upon desperately corrupt nations which God had spared for 400 years until their wickedness made them ripe for judgement.  Later God would also judge Israel by means of destruction by the pagan armies of Assyria and Babylon.  In commanding the Israeli army to utterly exterminate the Canaanites, God was commanding them to do something, which in the absence of a divine command, they would have had no right to do.  God had, however, morally sufficient reasons for issuing such an extraordinary command, namely to preserve Israel from apostasy through infection with Canaanite religion.  Israel did not in fact obey God's command, and as a result Israel did succumb repeatedly to apostasy, which finally brought the judgement of God upon Israel itself.  All of this is admittedly very disconcerting, but it is a reminder that a holy God may not pass comfortably into our modern Western concept of God as the big Sugar Daddy in the sky.

These are difficult questions; but consider the alternative:  moral nihilism.  Prof. Curley never succeds in explaining how or why objective moral values would exist in the absence of God. 

Nor has he, for that matter, come even close to rebutting the several arguments offered in the debate in defense of Christian theism.  On balance, then, I think that the case for Christian theism is more plausible than the case against it.

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