This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Why do you try to persuade nonbelievers that naturalism is unlivable and depressing when you argue that non-Christians will be eternally tormented for not believing in the right kind of god? I'm not asking you why it's just for nonbelievers to be tormented forever; I find your answers wrong for reasons that are beside the point here. I'm asking why you seem to think we should be more disturbed by the idea that our lives lack "objective, ultimate" meaning than by the idea that we and our loved ones would be tormented forever and ever. It communicates that you'd rather live in a world where I and my loved ones will be tormented forever than in a world that doesn't care about you, and I just can't see how that is supposed to be effective at reaching out to nonbelievers. Of course, if hell is real, we should all want to know that it is and what if anything can help us avoid it. We shouldn't conclude that hell isn't real just because that worldview is horrifying and unlivable. But if we agree on that, why do you use the exact same tactic against naturalism?
William Lane Craig's Response
What an odd question, Robin! The short answer is that in explaining the meaninglessness of life given naturalism, one is showing the naturalist the logical consequences of his own view, not the logical consequences of a view he doesn’t hold (viz., the Christian view). The unbeliever won’t be concerned about the prospect of hell unless he comes to have some reason to think that Christianity is true. By contrast, he already holds to naturalism, and therefore showing him the horrible consequences and unlivability of his own view might well shake him, whereas he may just dismiss warnings of hell.
So I certainly do not think “we should be more disturbed by the idea that our lives lack ‘objective, ultimate’ meaning than by the idea that we and our loved ones would be tormented forever and ever”! Far from it! But precisely to help the unbeliever avoid eternal torment, we present to him reasons that he will accept for calling into question his worldview.
Moreover, I am not using the tactic of arguing that naturalism is false “because that worldview is horrifying and unlivable.” I’m quite explicit about that. For example, in On Guard, I write:
So what do we do now? It seems to me that in light of the consequences of how we answer the question of God’s existence, it is imperative that we go back to square one and ask what reasons there are for believing in God’s existence or not. For maybe the atheist is wrong. Maybe God exists after all. I know, I know: none of what we’ve said gives us grounds for thinking that God does exist.
But my aim in this chapter is more modest than that. I only hope to have gotten you to think about these issues, to realize that the question of God’s existence has profound consequences for our lives and that therefore we cannot afford to be indifferent about it. What I’ve at least done is to clearly spell out the alternatives. If God does not exist, then life is futile. If God does exist, then life is meaningful. Only the second of these two alternatives enables us to live happily and consistently. Therefore, it makes a huge difference whether God exists, a difference we should care about.
Who cares? You should.
I trust that you’ll agree, Robin, that there is no attempt here on my part to argue that because atheism is horrifying and unlivable, it is not true.
As for the charge that my argument “communicates that you'd rather live in a world where I and my loved ones will be tormented forever than in a world that doesn't care about you,” I’m sorry if anyone has so seriously misunderstood my argument. I can only present my argument as clearly as I can and try to correct such misunderstandings of it. Fortunately, I’ve never before encountered anyone who thinks that the argument communicates what you allege. Rather what I’ve found over the years “to be effective at reaching out to nonbelievers” is to show them that their own worldview is unlivable.
The only sense I can make of your question is to claim that inviting the unbeliever to believe in hell as the alternative to a meaningless life is like inviting him to jump out of the frying pan into the fire! But that’s not the choice the argument presents. The choice rather is between theism and non-theism. The argument invites him merely to reconsider the evidence that God exists. The question of one’s eternal desert doesn’t come up until much later down the line, once we’ve considered arguments for God’s existence and the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. At that juncture, we’ll remind him, if necessary, of your point that “We shouldn't conclude that hell isn't real just because that worldview is horrifying and unlivable.”
This Q & A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.