This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Despite my skepticism I continue to listen to your podcasts, which I appreciate and find stimulating.
I have a question about faith.
Without faith all you have are cold rational arguments and silence, which, in the face of the ubiquity of human suffering and need, are at least as liable to repel as nurture belief. It makes it seem that God does not care. Christians tend to respond with: "But Jesus shared in human suffering on the Cross, which shows that God does care.". Maybe, though it assumes the Resurrection happened, which is moot. But why have some sufferings at all? Many types of suffering just seem pointless. What's the use of dementia or child cancer for example? Then the Christian is apt to respond with something like: "God moves in mysterious ways.", which is another way of saying: "Just have faith". But then this raises the question: "Why have faith in the first place?", which really can only be answered pragmatically, i.e. because it's some sort of consolation. But then the only rational discussion left is: why would God require faith — an apparently arbitrary commodity related intimately to upbringing and personal experiences — for Christian belief? If God is unable or unwilling to bestow faith on everyone then it can have no ultimate importance: it may be a consolation in this life, but such an arbitrary choice can not, if God is just, determine one's eternal fate.
For me, God's total silence inclines me away from religion, or at least keeps me at arm's length from what looks like a coping strategy or even a mere lifestyle choice rather than indubitable truth. Is my reasoning good here or is there another more rationally persuasive way of looking at faith?
William Lane Craig’s Response
Thanks for your question, Grant! I’m glad that you continue to listen to our podcasts and to weigh what is said.
It seems to me that your question exhibits a lot of inner tensions — pulling in opposite directions at the same time — making it difficult to find a coherent view.
For example, your opening two sentences make it appear that you think that apologetic arguments on behalf of Christian theism are ineffective and actually counterproductive. I don’t at all agree — since the heartwarming testimonials we receive every week bear witness to the arguments’ effectiveness — but let’s hear you out.
You note that Christians might respond to the claim that God does not care about our suffering by pointing to Christ’s substitutionary suffering on our behalf. Pretty good answer I think! But then you suddenly reverse course and rather than denying the point, complain, “Maybe, though it assumes the Resurrection happened, which is moot.” Wait a minute! To say that Jesus’ resurrection is moot is to say that its facticity is disputed. But then we’re back to those cold and rational arguments you already dismissed! You dismiss the arguments as uncaring and then complain about the lack of arguments. If you think that the arguments are no good, then you need to engage with the arguments that New Testament scholars have offered on behalf of Jesus’ resurrection, not simply dismiss their approach as uncaring.
Next you switch course and turn to the problem of evil. Again, you can’t raise an intellectual objection to Christian theism based on evil while disallowing the Christian’s intellectual response to the problem of evil because it seems uncaring. (I myself have been careful to distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil, since the answer to the former may indeed appear dry and uncaring to a person who is suffering emotionally from the problem.) For a “cold rational” response to the problem of evil, see my chapter in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. The atheist has to prove that it is either impossible or highly improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils in the world, a burden of proof so heavy that no atheist has been able to sustain it.
You say that the Christian is apt to respond by saying, “God moves in mysterious ways,” which you equate with saying, “Just have faith.” I don’t think that those statements are at all equivalent; but, again, let that pass. You reject this response because it raises the question: “Why have faith in the first place?” You assert that this question “can only be answered pragmatically.” Whoa! Why do you think that? I’d say that he answered rationally by giving those arguments in favor of Christian faith that you have already dismissed as cold, rational, and uncaring. The only reason you give for disregarding these arguments is emotional. Even if you were right about the emotional impact of such arguments, that would do absolutely nothing to show that they are insufficient to ground faith rationally.
Do you see what I mean about the inner tension in your question? On the one hand you dismiss the arguments, not because they are unsound, but because they are emotionally unsatisfying, but then on the other hand you turn around and complain about the lack of sound arguments.
Then you claim, “the only rational discussion left is: why would God require faith. . . for Christian belief?” Hold on! “Rational discussion?” That’s what you rejected in your first sentence as “cold rational arguments.” You can’t engage in rational discussion if you rule out your discussion partner’s using cold, rational arguments. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it, too.
The answer to your question is that God wants to have a free, loving response on our part to His love. That is why God is “unwilling to bestow faith on everyone.” He doesn’t engage in divine coercion, treating us like puppets by pulling our strings. He has given you free will to respond to His gracious initiatives, and He has borne witness to the truth of the Christian faith both by His own inner witness of the Holy Spirit and by objective external evidence.
Your complaint that faith is “an apparently arbitrary commodity related intimately to upbringing and personal experiences” fails to reckon with the facts that (i) even within the parameters of such a soft determinism, we have sufficient freedom to respond to God in a morally significant way (there is no sociological or psychological profile of people who come to Christian belief), and (ii) even those personal experiences and upbringing are under the sovereign control of a God who wants you to come to faith (“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17.26-27). If you choose not to place your faith in God, it is only because you reject Him and His every effort to save you.
Your reaction to “God's total silence” of keeping “at arm’s length” from religion paradoxically ensures that God will seem silent to you! You push Him away and then complain that He is not speaking to you! Again, the tension! God is, in fact, speaking to you, e.g., through those podcasts you mentioned. You have but to listen and to heed.
Finally, in your final question, “Is my reasoning good here or is there another more rationally persuasive way of looking at faith?” We again see the inner tension I speak of. You rely on “reasoning” and want to find a “rationally persuasive way of looking at faith.” That’s great! But then, when offered such arguments, you cannot consistently reject them because they are cold, rational, and uncaring. Faith may be rationally grounded in good arguments, as I have sought to show in my writings and debates. You need to give those arguments a fighting chance.
This Q & A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig’s website.