Some years ago the Jewish philosopher David Shatz wrote an essay titled “The Overexamined Life is not Worth Living.” That title could apply equally to chapter 31 of my 2012 apologetics book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails.
The book features an extended Socratic-styled dialogue between an atheist named Sheridan and a Christian apologist named Randal. And in this chapter, Randal challenges Sheridan with a challenge: decide how you will, but realize that any choice you make involves a risk.
And now without further ado, here is the chapter. Randal is speaking first.
“Okay, imagine that you live in a small town on an island nestled in the shadow of a massive volcano. For several years there have been rumbles and shots of steam and ash as the volcano has continued to threaten an eruption. One day a visitor in a uniform with an identity card marking him as a government official announces in the marketplace that a massive eruption is imminent and that anyone who does not leave the island immediately will be killed by the blast. Unfortunately all the boats are out for a two-week fishing trip and the only way off the island is on this man’s boat. The problem is that by leaving the island you effectively surrender your ownership of your land and house—thus leaving it to be claimed by any squatter who remains on the island.
“Clearly you’ve got to weigh your options carefully. If you leave the island and there is an eruption you’ll save your life, but if you leave and there is no eruption, you’ll lose your home. Conversely, if you stay and there is no eruption then you’re just fine, but if you stay and there is an eruption then you lose your home and your life. This leaves you with a serious dilemma, Sheridan. Do you get on the boat or not?”
“I’d hold back on making a decision so that I could gather more information from the boat owner, run a background check on his credentials, and get a second opinion from some volcanologists.”
“If you have the time.” I reply. “But do you? Since this is my thought experiment, I’ll tell you the answer: you don’t. At present you’re standing on the dock, smoke is curling up in growing plumes above the town, and the line up to get on the boat is growing longer by the minute. You have to make a decision now. So what are you going to do?”
Sheridan is unimpressed. “This sounds exactly like the high pressure evangelism sales tactics I grew up with. ‘Do you know where you’d go if you died tonight?’ You’re just using fear to try to pressure me into making a commitment to Jesus.”
“That’s not my point, Sheridan. I want you to take me seriously when I say that I’m not trying to convert you at this instant. I’m telling you the volcano story for two reasons. The first is that volcanoes are awesome.”
Sheridan’s groan is audible.
“And the second,” I continue, “is to point out that standing on the dock, or sitting on the fence, is not neutral. Whether you go forward, turn back, or stay where you are, you are making a decision. That doesn’t mean you need to let anyone pressure you into a new decision, but it does mean that it’s wrong to think you can just ‘sit on the sidelines’ until you reach whatever level of certainty you’re after. All of us are always in the game. Being a believer in anything brings risks with it, sure, but so does remaining a skeptic. We should be wary of the danger of doubt no less than of belief.”
“Fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that your beliefs are so flimsy. Take the doctrine of the trinity for instance. I take it that’s a pretty important belief for Christians.”
I nod. “Yup, it’s at the core of Christian identity.”
“Exactly. So how can you know that it is true? Maybe it is possible that there is a god. Maybe it’s even more likely than not. But even with that concession you’re still light years from confessing one god in three persons, aren’t you? What kind of mental gymnastics do you have to do to make yourself believe that?”
“Sheridan, I don’t disagree with apportioning your assent to the evidence. But that also means you can still believe those things for which the evidence is not as strong, but perhaps not with the same degree of conviction as some other things. For instance, a Christian could say that his belief in God is quite strong, but his belief that God is triune is less so.”
“Whoa, how can you be a Christian if you doubt the trinity?”
“I didn’t say a person would necessarily be doubting the Trinity. He could accept the proposition ‘God is three persons’. He just wouldn’t accept it with the same degree of certainty that he accepts some other propositions of the faith like ‘God is the most perfect being’ and ‘God is love’. Remember that the Jews were in a covenantal relationship with God without ever believing that God is three persons. This means that at one point in history God revealed himself as one but not yet three. Christians believe that later revelation then expanded and, in some sense, corrected the Israelites’ belief. With that in mind, it would seem to be possible that in the future God might expand and correct Christian beliefs in similar respects. How can we know this isn’t possible?”
Sheridan looks skeptical. “That sounds pretty wishy-washy to me. I’ll make it simple for you: do you believe in the trinity?”
“Of course I do. But it’s a big mistake to think that you need to hold all Christian beliefs with the same level of conviction, as if it’s one hundred percent certainty or not at all. I believe the doctrine of the Trinity, but I could see myself being wrong on that. It’s far harder to see myself being wrong on the existence of God. As for other doctrines, such as the nature and meaning of the Lord’s Supper, I have even less conviction.”
“Same thing with hell I guess, right?”
“It’s true that I’m not sure what to think about the doctrine of hell. I’m pretty sure that eternal conscious torment is not correct, though I could be wrong there, too. And if I am right, I’m not sure whether my present leanings toward annihilationism will be vindicated or whether my hope in the salvation of all might emerge triumphant. The point is that I can inhabit the Christian tradition, and even thrive within it, with all these remaining questions, doubts, and qualifications. To my mind, this isn’t being ‘wishy-washy’. It’s recognizing the complexity of belief. The good news, Sheridan, is that we’re not saved by how many beliefs we get right. We’re saved by being in relationship with God.”
“Right, your ‘acquaintance knowledge’. But beliefs still matter, don’t they?”
“Of course they matter, but salvation isn’t a matter of simply getting a certain number of correct answers on a multiple choice exam. It’s a complex process of moving into relationship with that being than which none greater can be conceived. And I believe that this being is the triune God who accomplished a redemptive work in Christ. That’s the boat I chose to board.”
“Well I’m staying on the dock. I’m not deciding anything until all the evidence is in. And if I get buried in a lava flow, then so be it.”