If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.
Technically, it is referred to as argumentum ad consequentiam. If there is no God, that is, no god as defined by Christian fundamentalists, then there can be no immortality, and therefore no meaning to life. That would make us sad, which we do not want. Therefore God exists. Not just some vague abstract god, but the God of traditional Christianity.
Churches, particularly within the evangelical community, use this angst as a tool in retaining their membership. My ticket out of this cultic mentality was the concept of hell.
When I experienced being “born again,” when I surrendered to the LORD and accepted Jesus, I felt as if a great weight had been taken off me. I had the sense that all the evil I had done in my life had been canceled, forgiven. It was a very emotional experience, like being dragged out of a burning building or rescued from a sinking ship.
I soon joined a church and began to study the Bible and church doctrine, which was purportedly based solely on biblical teachings. The very first thing I was led to try to understand, an idea that had always bothered me, was the concept of eternal punishment in hell. I was relieved that I needn’t worry about any punishment myself, but it still concerned me that there would be billions of souls who, through rebellion or just lack of understanding, would face eternal torment. I could see no way that eternal punishment is justified, even for the most heinous crimes, much less for lesser offenses.
My first attempt to reconcile this injustice was to conclude that hell must not be eternal. Perfect justice would demand punishment exactly equal to the crimes committed, no less, no more. God’s mercy permitted an out for the saved, who would face no punishment, but all the rest must be burned for their sins, yet only to the measure of the evil they had done. So I imagined, and justified with Bible verses, a hell in which the the burning was actually the souls being destroyed, their amount of pain being exactly equal to what they had inflicted on others.
That satisfied me for some time, and I put my concern on the back burner while I dealt with other studies. But I eventually had to face a problem my concept left unresolved. What is the purpose for that suffering? Why does justice demand punishment for crimes, if there is no chance of redemption? My sense of fairness led me to conclude that the only way it made sense is if there is, in fact, a chance of redemption. The torment souls experience must be the struggle they go through while learning the hard lessons that would lead them to the truth, at which point they would be welcomed into the presence of God.
Yes, that sounds a lot like universalism, but it does leave the option that some souls might forever reject the truth. You have to allow for that “free will” thing, although it seems odd that God would create souls in the first place, who would reject the truth no matter what. In any case, God, knowing all, would know in advance if particular souls would eternally reject him, and he could either destroy them without unnecessary suffering, or not create them in the first place.
All In or Forget It
You may begin to see that this led to problems in relating to my church family, with their view of an inerrant Bible. The Bible says nothing about second chances after death, about hell as an additional school of hard knocks to lead us to heaven. It seems to speak of hell as a one-way trip. It leaves no room for mercy for those who don’t “repent” before the end of their lifespan. My only options were to turn off my thoughts on these matters and accept the traditional teachings, or to regard the Bible in a different way, as a spiritual guide that is somewhat malleable.
I went the second way. I really didn’t have a choice. I am not capable of walling off my beliefs from reality as I perceive it, at least not for more than short periods of time. I am not able to make myself believe something I know to be untrue or irrational. Now, many (fundamentalists) would say that once you admit to the possibility of error in the Bible you begin down the slippery slope toward rejecting it completely. That is a reasonable fear. If you aren’t forced to believe in biblical inerrancy, then you will have to judge the Bible on its own merits. Then you have to admit that it may contain contradictions or even errors in moral teaching. That is in fact what I found, once I knew I could examine it without fear of divine retribution.
I have now slid all the way down that slope, and I find it quite comfortable here on solid ground. I no longer have to walk on the eggshells of religious sensitivities. I am free to see the glory of nature, without having to distort the evidence of my senses to fit nature into some kind of divine plan. Is life absurd, as Craig claims it would be in my worldview? It often is, but not because it is finite, nor because it lacks the threat of eternal punishment and reward.
There is no divine plan. Life can be absurd because absurd things happen. Life can be beautiful and meaningful, because we can make it so, because we can show love and generosity and creativity. Sometimes we can show mercy and tenderness when ugly things happen to others. Sometimes things overwhelm us and people die. And when a person dies, that does not nullify what that person was in life. Things have beginnings and endings, and so do people. That does not take away their meaning, it makes them precious.