This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Are Souls/spirits dependent on God for existence or not?
I am currently an atheist who is looking for reasons to believe that God exists. I was once a Christian but became an atheist by rationalisation when I realised that I believed simply because I was raised to believe.
I have since become horrified by the implications of the atheistic explanation of life's origin (particularly mindless spontaneous generation), not to mention what it says about human destiny.
I find the concept of God inspiring and want to believe that God exists but continuously encounter obstacles from numerous sources ranging from atheistic materialism to biblical and doctrinal difficulties.
If something is true then it should make sense.
Herewith one of those difficulties.
My understanding of spiritual death and hell is that it is the natural consequence of choosing separation from God who is the source of spiritual life.
I base this on the fact that the bible states that "the wages of sin is death" and other places in the bible where Jesus indicates that he (God) is the source of life.
However hell as consequence, which for some reason cannot be changed after death, (rather than punishment) only seems just and makes sense to me if the soul is indestructible and able to exist independently of God.
Yet my conceptual understanding of God is that He is the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being who sustains the existence of everything. If he stopped sustaining it would not exist.
If that is true then how can anything continue to exist if it is actually separated from omnipotent God? Where can anything be that an omnipresent God is not?
Does this not mean that God is actively sustaining the souls of the damned purely so that they can suffer? For eternity?
Or can even omnipotent God not destroy a soul?
Neither really make sense to me. This is therefore one of the (unfortunately many)things that makes me doubt that the bible is true as much as I want it to be true.
Svalbard and Jan Mayen
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
This is the first correspondence I’ve ever received from Svalbard and Jan Mayen! (Folks, if you don’t know where this is, check it out!
These islands are so close to the North Pole, they make Iceland look like it’s in the tropics!)
Atheism truly is a depressing worldview, Lionel, as even its proponents often admit. We ought to avoid it if we can. But be advised that finding meaning, value, and purpose in life is not the result of merely adding another item (God) to one’s ontological inventory; rather it is a matter of coming into a loving relationship with Him personally.
It’s correct that if something is true, it should be logically consistent and fit the facts of experience. But be careful when you say that it should “make sense” because that may be a person-relative matter. Some things make sense to some people but don’t make sense to others. Something may not make sense to us because we haven’t studied enough or because we have a psychological prejudice. I admire the spirit of humility shown in your question, in that you are ready to ask others about a difficulty you have.
Your understanding of spiritual death and hell as “the natural consequence of choosing separation from God who is the source of spiritual life” is very well put. But I would add that spiritual death and hell are also a punishment. The language of “wages” implies this. To reject God, Who is Goodness itself, is evil and therefore deserving of punishment. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more serious wrong than for created beings to spit in the face of God and turn away from Him. The punishment is to give them the natural consequences of the choice they have taken.
Your understanding of God as “the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being who sustains the existence of everything” is also correct (which is why I’ve worked so hard over the last dozen years to understand God’s relation to abstract objects, such as mathematical objects).
So when it is said that the inhabitants of hell are separated from God, what is meant is that they are relationally separated from Him, not that they are self-existent beings who do not depend ontologically on God. As Paul puts it, they “shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord (literally, the face of the Lord) and from the glory of his might” (II Thessalonians 1.9). God still sustains them in existence but He leaves them alone.
Now this raises the question: if God can destroy a soul, why not just annihilate these people rather than keep them in existence? Some Christians—so-called annihilationists—actually take this viewpoint, arguing that God just obliterates the damned. So the fate of the damned is an in-house debate among Christian believers and shouldn’t be a stumbling block to your becoming a Christian.
But it seems to me that there is an obvious reason why the damned are sustained in existence, namely, punishment. I’ve been reading a lot lately on theories of punishment (did you know this is actually a hot philosophical topic?), about its definition and justification. Over the last half century or so, there has been a renaissance of theories of retributive justice. According to retributivists, people who are guilty of wrong-doing should be punished, not, as consequentialists claim, for purposes of deterrence, sequestration, etc., but because they deserve it. On a retributive theory of justice punishment is therefore good because the wrong-doer gets his just deserts. If that is right, then it is a good thing that God punishes the damned in hell for the evil they have perpetrated. But that requires that He sustain them in existence.
Now this raises the obvious question—perhaps the deeper question that lies behind your difficulty—, how can it be that the damned deserve everlasting punishment? Shouldn’t God at most sustain them in existence for a finite amount of time to administer their punishment and then annihilate them once they have received their full desert? Good question—one that I have addressed elsewhere in this column!