Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Every so often I hear someone offer an argument against belief in God that on its surface could be compelling, but once examined, actually works in favor of belief.  This happens when the argument is not carefully thought through.  This is not to say only Atheists or only those advancing ideas against God or belief in God make this mistake.  Everyone is capable of this which is why it is important to avoid sloganeering.  So when I came across someone attempting to dismiss belief in God — that the only reason, or one of the few reasons is fear of the consequences of not believing. I see a few reasons to be critical of this objection.  Is it true that Christians believe in the God they do for fear of the consequences?  If that is true, does it invalidate their belief?  Is it even a poor reason to believe?

I think this objection makes some critical mistakes in its reasoning.  For one, the objection does not address whether believing in God and hell are true beliefs, it simply takes as granted both God and hell are not true.  I do not see how you can invalidate a belief in a thing without demonstrating the thing itself is false.  This argument puts the cart before the horse.  It assumes God and hell are not real, therefore belief in God and fear of hell are not valid reasons to believe in God and hell.

Secondly, it is often said, but sometimes assumed that fear is an illegitimate motivating factor for belief in God.  I am not convinced this is true either.  If hell is a real place, and unless you have a means of escape–belief in Jesus as Savior–this is where you will end up; why is trying to obtain the means of escape invalid?  As I try to think of other scenarios where this objection would be offered, I can not help but to be confirmed in my opinion this complaint against faith is a poor one.  Is fear of lung cancer and death an invalid reason to not take up smoking?  Not everyone who smokes develops lung cancer and dies.  In fact George Burns notoriously smoked cigars nearly his entire life and lived to be 100.  Are doctors are just trying to scare you?  What about the fear of prison, crashing and killing yourself and others as a reason to not drive while drunk?  As we all know, there are people who can drive drunk without getting into motor vehicle accidents or killing anyone.  Are the police  just trying to scare you?  Perhaps doctors and the police are trying to scare you into behaving or believing in a certain way.  But that is not what is important. 

Without addressing the truth of the consequence, and appealing only to the apparent extremeness, the objection itself is meaningless.  Motivation is not what is important.  The motive for belief does not tell you about the truth of a belief.  If lung cancer and death is a real consequence of smoking, then fear of death and cancer are correct fears, and abstaining from smoking is a proper response.  If prison, crashing and injury and death to yourself and others are real consequences of driving drunk, then fear of prison, death and injury are correct fears, and refraining from driving drunk is a proper response.  If hell is a real place, then fear of hell is a correct fear, and faith in a Savior is a proper response.

Comments

  1. “If hell is a real place, then fear of hell is a correct fear, and faith in a Savior is a proper response.” Right on. I would maybe insert “… and if a Savior exists and faith in that Savior will keep one out of hell …” but I think we share the sentiment.

    I’ve actually had several Christian friends insist to me that they’re not afraid of hell, they’re not hoping to get into heaven, they leave that decision up to God and worship only because they love God/Jesus so so much. (Of course they’d prefer heaven over hell, but say they don’t think much about it.) I have trouble believing them, for basically the same reasons as you discuss here. Hell is seriously scary! It’s hard to deny that it would provide any incentive at all.

    The atheist argument against fear of hell, as I understand/understood it, was directed more toward people making Pascal’s wager-type arguments. There’s a version of Christian evangelizing that appeals only, or at least primarily, to fear. “What if you’re wrong? Do you want to go to hell? Just believe, and save your soul!” Your last sentence begins, “If hell is a real place” — which means that fear of hell isn’t a correct fear unless we have good reason to believe in hell in the first place. At the end of the day, whether hell is real (and whether religious beliefs are warranted by facts and evidence in general) is the real question.

    • You’re right, we must have reason to believe hell is a real place in order for us to justify having it govern our beliefs and actions to any degree. Hell being a real place was assumed for sake of this particular argument. I think concepts such as a personal, ontologically eternal, wholly moral, wholly just God existing and objective morality being true are good reasons to believe that a place similar to hell as described in the Bible as being a real place.

      As for Christians not being afraid of hell, I can understand that. After all, if you do not think you are hell bound, what is the concern? As an atheist I’m sure you can agree you have no concern for going to hell, right? But, like you, if I hear of a Christian who does not have even a reverent fear of God’s wrath, that would cause me to scratch my head a bit, I would have to ask a few questions.

  2. If there is a Hell, why does it exist? What is its purpose? Little children who have not yet developed their sense of morality, are punished for doing wrong, but should it not be so, that adults choose to do the right thing because it is right and not out of fear for punishment or hope for reward either? Should it not be obvious to most of us, not to drive while intoxicated by alcohol, because the damage we may cause to other people and ourselves, not because we fear the possible punishment. To not do the wrong thing just out of fear of punishment seems somewhat infantile and self centered.

    Who and on comitting what kind of crime deserves eternal pain? Someone who committed horrible crimes against humanity for an ideology or religion they solemnly believed in? Like a nazi official responsible for thousands of people killed in concentration camps, or a crusader slaying the civillian population of Jerusalem or Carcassonne or maybe a CIA agent performing torture in Guantanamo bay prison? Someone who simply believes in the wrong kind of god? The god of his/her ancestors. Or maybe someone who does not find faith in his/her heart? What is Hell for?

    I think most of my christian friends do not take Hell for real. Christianity is cultural tradition to them. It has certain rituals they perform during their lives, but for Heaven or Hell they seem to give little notice. They remind me, an atheist, in the sense, that they seem to be more concerned of the morality of their actions than the possible rewards or punishments the supernatural may have in stall for them.

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