In a recent conversation with Adam Hazzard I wrote:
“The Christian doctrine of hell is the doctrine that some people culpably and knowingly choose not to be in relationship with God.”
To be sure, hell is not only that, but it is at least that. It is most emphatically not the claim that God tricks people into hell, as I pointed out last year in this article.
Adam replied like this:
“And since atheists don’t do this, I assume atheists don’t go to hell for their atheism. Correct?”
There are a couple points I’d like to make in response to this. First, Adam overlooks the fact of culpable non-belief. In other words, a person can be held culpable for failing to believe something. Indeed, this is a point so trivial, and yet so important, as to be overlooked in a discussion like this.
Let’s say, for example, that Reggie is a soldier who is arrested after he massacred all the civilians in a village. Reggie is put on trial in a military court and in his defense he explains “Your honor, I’m innocent of wrong-doing because I don’t believe it is wrong to massacre civilians.”
The fact that Reggie really does believe this does nothing to establish his innocence. If he believes it is okay to massacre civilians then he is culpable for holding a false belief.
I recognize that already at this point I will have lost some of my audience. They will be irate thinking I have compared the belief that no God exists to the belief that civilians can be massacred. But I didn’t make that comparison. Rather, the point of the illustration is simply this: people can be culpable for believing some things and failing to believe other things. In such cases the earnestness of one’s convictions is not a defense.
I’ll make one more point in this brief response to Adam. Not all atheists are the same. I make the point at some length in chapter 10 of my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think. And based on those differences it is quite reasonable for an inclusivist Christian to apportion his hopefulness to the salvation of specific atheists with respect to the degree of openness (as opposed to hostility) they demonstrate toward God.
For example, in 1994 I saw a debate between William Lane Craig and Henry Morgentaler at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. During the Q&A Morgentaler was asked “Mr. Morgentaler, if it could be shown to you that God does exist, would you bow to him?”
Morgentaler responded with visible disdain by saying “No, I would bow to no one.” Morgentaler is an atheist, but he is also insistent that if God does exist, he wants nothing to do with God.
So what would you have God do with someone like Morgentaler? Suppress his free will and force him to repent?
Since this exchange many atheists have taken to calling themselves “anti-theists” and many of these are insistent that if God exists then they want nothing to do with God. Isn’t it possible that these folk know what they’re talking about? Isn’t it possible that they really don’t want to have anything to do with God? And isn’t it possible that God just might respect their decision?
As C.S. Lewis famous observed:
On the other hand, there are those who struggle mightily with faith. They hope there is a God and they’ve cried out “Lord I want to believe. If you’re there, help my unbelief.” They’ve listened carefully but have as yet to hear that response they seek. These “reluctant atheists” are a very different type from the anti-theistic atheists.
So we’re left with the anti-theistic atheist and the reluctant atheist. It is perfectly reasonable to think that of these two the latter is more likely to end up in a saving relationship with God in Jesus Christ.