Unpleasant conversations between atheists and theists

(Mervin Bitikofer) #121

No doubt about this. So as Luca said above, the theists think that God is the only possible answer to such a Gordian knot (meaning literally that the answer is in God’s hands, and not in our hands – we aren’t going to explain to everyone’s or even our own satisfaction how justice works in this life and the next).

That deferral to God can be dangerous too, though, if we use it as an excuse to not do what we ought to do to promote justice here and now in this life. I think atheists have a good point when they accuse theists of engaging in those economics. You are right that we don’t escape the trouble.

I agree with you. Justice (here and now) may mean that a defendant, even a properly remorseful one still has to face the consequences of his actions - the prison time, community service, restitution to the extent possible, etc.

I think it would be pretty rare for anybody with even a fraction of a healthy conscience to just callously murder a bunch of people and then later just “turn on” real remorse as if it was a water faucet. They might be able to put up a great practiced act. I’m sure a lot of psychopaths have a good act down. But there could also be other mental impairments and extenuating circumstances too that brought a person to that point. Psychopaths, sociopaths, and criminals generally are not produced in a cultural vacuum. Suicide/homicide bombers probably suffered grievous family and community loss at the hands of others (or with the help of super-power-funded bombs and weapons) that brought them to their hopeless state of despair and vulnerability to sink into the same morass of violence themselves. What is a proper course of justice for that? The Gordian knot gets ever bigger.

[edits have happened]


I must confess I find these discussions a little weird. Saying “the world would be awful without God” doesn’t prove or disprove his existence, maybe the conclusion is just that the world is indeed awful. That being said, I have to agree with Mervin, truly repentance is not that easy to achieve, and it is still better that an awful person truly repents at the end of its life and don’t get punished than just being like “I regret nothing, I’d do it all again” and still not getting punishment.

(Luca) #123

I have to agree. They seem a little like the things YEC followers say. “I cannot believe my eye could have evolved. Its too complex” but just in a different context. “I cannot believe that the world is as horrible as the atheistic worldview says. Therefore God exists” dont get me wrong i see where you come from. But its not a great argument.

(Phil) #124

What a messy subject.The discussion led me consider how philandering, abusive, or larcenous preachers tearfully confess and ask forgiveness…once they are caught. Such episodes also make for awkward discussions with non-believers, and produce a lot of pain and sorrow. To live justly but love mercy is a tall order.

(Wayne Dawson) #125

This seems to get a little closer to your point actually and I understand maybe a bit better what is troubling you. In some ways, @Mervin_Bitikofer and @Realspiritik have made some important points on that. You also understand that we cannot know so well what is really in someone’s heart.

I realize that evangelicals can evoke some well-deserved, sardonic retorts for their vacuous platitudes. The thing about genuine repentance is that we begin to grasp the evil we have done in God’s sight, we have some real understanding why it is evil, and (maybe more important) we recognize that we are not so different from those who do wrong in this world.

It is not necessarily that we have done some grandiose sin. However, we realize that it was only the barrier of access to opportunity kept us in check, and we could have done worse things than even the putrid vats of scum we pour our judgment out on – given we had that chance. If we were rich, maybe we begin to see that we were just kept out of the path of temptations that people in poverty often experience. Sometimes, that awareness comes from a mild tap on the shoulder, sometimes it means colliding head-on into a brick wall. The thing is, we recognize that we don’t want to do it again, we begin to see the ugliness in our hearts, and we know we need God’s help even to turn around and not fall into the same mistakes again. “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (Ps 51:17)

We don’t completely grasp this in one instant either, at least I certainly did not. We grasp small parts of it. – “Jesus paid it all” … well, yeah, he did, but he didn’t have to pay so much for me as that clown over there. Did you hear what he did? I mean, I’m a sinner, but that? … – We learn as-we-go-forward what Jesus has done and little-by-little we learn to speak idly less-and-less. Yet there is joy in that victory when we can know that because we believed in God, we did not bend to the ways of the world in our own experience of the “valley of darkness”.

I understand the cynicism. Many police officers are cynical because they hear of lots of people who suddenly “believe in Jesus” when the jail door slams. – Oh, yeah, “praise the Lord”, … hmm – but I think this gets a bit into @Mervin_Bitikofer 's point. You can be junk bond king for a while, you can make lots of money on shorts and derivatives, mapping out things where you expect them to go, … until they don’t. It looks to me like a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride. But just like this kind of gambling in investment, consider what Genghis Khan once said about pleasure: The greatest pleasure is “to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet — to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women. That is best.” (I see that the motives in his heart were to do a lot of “good” in the world.) Maybe there could be a genuine death-bed conversion here, but it is hard to imagine for a mind like that.

Repentance itself only God can know, and, unlike us, God cannot be fooled or mocked. (The excuses we make for people in the world do not count at the face of God.) Moreover, even if there were a genuine death-bed conversion, at minimum, from God’s bird’s-eye-view of history and ultimate grasp of meaning, a genuine change would have to occur, or such is just cheap theater for the masses of the world. I understand your cynicism, but we are talking about God, not what man does or the excuses man rationalizes away. This is the court of the almighty God where nothing is hidden and the secret motives of our hearts cannot be shrouded by pretense or demeanor or suit-and-tie, or whatever.

The only just punishment that could be brought down on a man like Khan would be one that God decides and delivers. How about people who have accomplished even greater evil than the Assyrians (of old), the Khans and the like … what demonstration of real justice could man possibly do? A fair judge at the end of the age is all we really have to resolve such unspeakable and unfathomable crimes – and, by the way, often carried out and supported by many.

Of course, I do speak here as one who believes in God and believes that there is purpose; that life is a gift that we should not abuse, there is meaning in doing right independent of how the world views power and responsibility, and this can in some way be discerned. At least if any part of this is approaching the truth, then I can really appreciate that hymn that goes

“When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be,
when we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing shout the victory.”

– it may be a simple-mind song in some ways, but more-and-more, I can only say “indeed!”

I think @Realspiritik also makes a good point about learning forgiveness. I still struggle with great difficulty with forgiveness myself. Small things I easily let go of, but it is hard when someone (or some people) have cost me something very big. We sometimes have to carry the cross for a long time, and the people who have been so rotten couldn’t even care less for what they have done. Forgiveness can only come out of our heart when we realize of what Jesus had to do even for us. We’ve also cost God dearly; sometimes with our stupidity, sometimes with our hubris, sometimes with our uselessly idle mouth, sometimes with our pride, sometimes with our envy, and so on. But if we understand what Jesus has done to forgive us, we can begin to let go.

What we should want and pray is that people genuinely repent and turn to God because then they will stop being workers of iniquity and strife; rather than be like a Khan and eventually be given over to the worst of our own selves and meet the Almighty at the other end. Only God, in God’s blessed timing, can bring about repentance. Likewise, only God can deliver justice is merciful and fair.

– by Grace we proceed
[some edits for spelling errors, grammar, redaction and clarifying minor points]

[PS. I notice from some posts that occurred in the meantime that perhaps some of this was “preaching to the choir”. Someone who genuinely repents would surely demonstrate a life worthy of that repentance, whether the judge lets the person go free or makes the person spend time in jail. Repentance does mean accepting the judgment in this world too. Perhaps when their kids visit them in prison, they would instruct them in ways that would keep them out of that world. Perhaps when they get out of prison, they dedicate their lives to doing things that help keep the next generation from ending up there. If you really understand who you are, there is a change. It will not persuade everyone, but that is partly their problem with unforgiveness. You’ve got to start paying attention to what God wants you to do, and stop listening to other people’s cheap gossip … and also realize that you’re on a journey that will not always have the wind blowing at your back and the sun shining.]

(Wayne Dawson) #126

I don’t use this as an argument for the existence of God. The world could be just rotten, the wicked will win in the end and probably the best thing to do is carve out some niche somewhere in which we can get by with a minimum of trouble and maybe have the blessing to raise another generation. (Or alternatively, if you have the capacity, be even more brutal than the people you contend with.) If that is what it is, well, that is what it is; deal with it.

The thing here is that these are faith statements of world view. One world view is that we assume there is this God who is just and we are held accountable for the malfeasance we comment on the things we were granted stewardship over. The other view is that (said facetiously) “you’re on your own pal”. There are very good reasons to conclude that “we are on our own”. I think if we assume that there is only “stuff”, this conclusion is probably correct. But I chose to believe there is something more, and because (I assume that) there is something more, something more is required than just to “live by bread alone”.

– by Grace we proceed,
[edits: always those pesky spelling errors and grammar mishaps that I cannot see even after several readings … ]

(Wayne Dawson) #127

Indeed it’s a tall order.

It is easy to want to think that a fallen preacher was just a hoodwinking swindler – especially the money part. One of the interesting things about the early books of the old testament is the portrayal of many biblical characters as human. Samson had a big libido but a small brain. Saul wavered under the pressure of public opinion. Abraham lied about his wife. Noah got drunk and made a fool of himself. Moses got frustrated. Jeremiah got frustrated with God. We are born with strengths and weaknesses, and all our life, we have to humbly understand that there are some things we really can do, and some things we really cannot.

To the extent that a preacher who has done something corrupt understands the reason for failure and desires and takes steps to reform, I am not sure that we should judge too harshly. I guess it is true (and this I say to myself as well), when we think that we would have done better, we haven’t really understood anything yet. My typical sign off applies.

(John Dalton) #128

The atheist view may not be the most beautiful thing in this field of thought but I think one must say it gains major points for elegance :slight_smile:

It’s confusing to me if belief is involved here at all. If everything was simply based on deeds that would be pretty understandable. Christianity does seem to have a complex mix of contradictory themes at work. It’s not the easiest thing for anyone to understand, I feel comfortable in saying. I’m not sure Christianity would exist without the concept that redemption was available to anyone who wants it, no matter what their previous life had been. Nevertheless, correct me if I’m wrong, it doesn’t seem anyone here thinks there’s a golden ticket that’s going to assure anyone eternal life in paradise (I can’t see how I would think there could be either.) Well, I guess we just have to do the best we can in the end.

(Wayne Dawson) #129

If elegance is defined narrowly as “simplicity”. Such a model is “simple”. God did say that the creation was “good”. A creator can also make an elegant creation and still be a creator.

(John Dalton) #130

Perhaps elegance is in the eye of the beholder :slight_smile: But I would agree with simplicity.

(Wayne Dawson) #131

I’m actually not so clear what you mean by a “golden ticket”. Strangely, if I understand this question correctly, I would argue that it is the seemingly simple act of accepting Jesus. It is unquestionably undeserved and unearned salvation. It’s like Naaman dunking himself in the Jordan River (2K 5:9-14). Maybe the word is ridiculously scandalous. The thing is, as we grow in our faith, we also come to understand that we cannot earn our way into heaven. We are all people of unclean lips, even the best of us, and I surely don’t qualify there.

– by Grace we proceed

(John Dalton) #132

Maybe that wasn’t the best term for me to use; I didn’t mean to be irreverent. Yes, I think you understand me based on what you say here. It seems to me that there’s a significant stream of Christian thought that the simple act of accepting Jesus as one’s savior ensures that one will be in paradise. I can’t look right now but I’m under the impression that there’s support in scripture for that view. I think you’re saying here that it’s not that simple, am I right?

(Jennifer Thomas) #133

This discussion has evolved into something quite nuanced and complex, with questions being raised in respectful ways about the most fundamental aspects of human existence. A good discussion.

@T_aquaticus has summed it up pretty well by saying, “Either way, I think atheists and theists are both faced with a Gordian knot when it comes to justice, evil doers, and forgiveness.”

The existence of the Gordian knot isn’t in question. All major world religions exist as a way to help families and communities deal with the problems of the Gordian knot. Atheism (as opposed to the mere uncertainty of agnosticism) has its own way of understanding how to deal with the Gordian knot.

The question that matters (for the purpose of creating moral lives and moral communities) is whether an individual can be a “good person” even when he or she thinks there’s no chance of being caught. Plato raised this question in The Republic, Book II, with a thought experiment known as “The Ring of Gyges.”.

Human morality isn’t worth a d**n if it’s only on paper. We see this reality played out over and over in countries that have a formal constitution and a formal code of laws that mean nothing to tyrants intent on breaking the moral spirit (i.e. the conscience) of their own citizens. Moral hypocrisy of this sort was a major concern for Jesus.

What Christianity and Judaism both offer is a way to achieve a “living morality” that doesn’t break when the going gets tough. It’s like a tree that has strong roots. It may have to bend to survive the strong winds around it, but, if it’s healthy, it can survive the worst of storms.

Being able to make the right moral choice when the going gets tough lies at the heart of the spiritual experience Christians call “redemption.” There’s really nothing like the feeling of looking in the mirror after you’ve made the right moral choice and saying to yourself and God, “I like myself today.”

There’s no doubt that if you want to know what the path of a “living morality” feels like, you have to choose it, and you have to exercise the self-discipline of continuing to choose it each time a difficult moral dilemma rears its ugly head. Many Christians don’t like this part of Jesus’ message (the hard work part, that is). But Jesus himself seems to have believed that the feeling of being in right relationship with God is worth the trouble.

As @wkdawson and @Mervin_Bitikofer and @jpm have pointed out, this path isn’t easy. But Christians believe that, with God’s help, it’s possible.

The historical evidence of some Christians doing the right thing during the worst of storms suggests that if you can hang onto your conscience and refuse to succumb to the temptations of “the Ring of Gyges,” you can help bring some healing to the Gordian knot.

God bless.

Edited because I forgot to include Mervin’s name. Sorry, Mervin!

(Wayne Dawson) #134

Well, the issue of salvation is scandalously that simple.
(Acts 16:30-32)
30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.

(Romans 10:8-10)
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”[a] that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: 9 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

The hard part is following Jesus in the real world. It is not like we just say “Oh yeah, I believe”, and then continue on in our lives as though nothing has changed. You must “believe in your heart” not just say with your mouth. And if you believe in your heart, it does mean identifying with Jesus. The people you look up to, you try to do as they do.

– by Grace we proceed

(Luca) #135

But accepting Jesus as saviour isnt just saying: sure Jesus lived and resurrected. And get on with your usual way of life.
Accepting Jesus means doing the above and by doing that you Change the way you live. Try to sin less etc. I think God will know when someone is honest in their belief or not.

I agree with Wayne.


At least for with this atheist, it wouldn’t be an awkward discussion at all. Christians are people too, and they make human mistakes. I have never read anywhere in the Bible where it says that becoming a Christian makes you incapable of doing wrong. It only becomes a problem when Christians (present company excluded, of course) start to judge atheists, making such claims as atheists would be better people if they were Christians.


I will admit that I have to keep my eyes from rolling at times when people start rolling out those platitudes. Thankfully, there are places where thoughtful discussions can take place with well meaning and reflective people, so I thank you for your replies.

I fully understand where you are coming from. Atheists, on the other hand, have a much wider field of view (for better or worse). We see all religions and all human cultures, and it makes for some interesting inner conversations. What about people who kill others in the name of their beliefs, who fully believe that what they are doing is just and consistent with what God wants? What about those who live a life of utter compassion and selflessness, but just happen to worship the wrong god, or happen to offer gifts to the wrong idol? What about those who have never heard of Jesus, but still treat others kindly? What is their fate? Is that justice?

I also understand that these questions have no easy answers, and I certainly don’t expect them to be answered in this thread. However, these are the thoughts that go through an atheists mind as it relates to the whole “God will judge you” conversation. I wouldn’t call these unpleasant conversations at all, but they are thought provoking. Perhaps some atheists will unfairly mock Christians for not having the answers to these questions, but there are many more atheists out there who won’t. I would say that Christians and theists shouldn’t be afraid of these conversations at all.

(Wayne Dawson) #138

At least for myself, I don’t think we are so different here.

I live in Japan where the percentage of Christians is less than 1%. I’ve lived here some 20 years plus in total; so I have really gotten to know some Japanese during this time. Certainly surviving here this long, it means that some people here have helped me. It has been a good education because every myth I ever had about Japan and Japanese (and about America and Americans) has been basically busted during this time. It is not like I never encounter Hollywood stereotypes, but they are the exception and I realize that I’ve met typical “Americans” like that too. It is always more complicated when we get out of the armchair and actually go to the place and find out about the people we talked about in that seat. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.

At any rate, thinking that more than 99% of the Japanese are going to hell (including people who have helped me when I got played, which has been more than once), that is quite sobering. Moreover, in a lot of places in Asia, including Japan and China, Christianity is viewed as “foreign”. This word “foreign” should be understood somewhat closer to something like how being Catholic or Protestant in the wrong place was during the reformation – though at least your life is not at risk here. Though I can only vaguely express this impression, there is a kind of national identity and way to show that identity and Christianity is placed largely outside of that. Fortunately, in Japan, at least we have the freedom to assemble. I say this mostly to make clear that I recognize that I have been most helped by some people in that 99% class; i.e., the “reprobates” (hiss).

I also sense similar yearning when I discuss these subjects with people who are more religiously inclined; though the Buddhist model of ultimate reality is very different from the Judeo-Christian one.I don’t know how God deals with these things, I don’t presume to know, and I am glad I do not have to make any those kinds of decisions.

Being an intellectual and a scientist to boot, it is clear that I don’t fit perfectly in the church with all the doctrine things. For me, this journey began with a strange epiphany moment. That doesn’t necessarily prove anything either, I realize. So why do I go on in Jesus’ name? Whereas I have learned the hard way that religion does not always bring out the better of me and I have made some regrettable mistakes, I follow Jesus because I think Godly things can only come out of our hearts when the word of God is really written there. Rationality and logic are powerful tools, but they only work when the world is functioning rationally and logically. When that stops, I don’t know how I would resist evil or even recognize it unless I could hear God’s quiet whisper in the earthquakes, storms and raging fires of a world gone mad. Knowing God is there with me means I am not alone. It doesn’t mean I will not break, but I don’t see any other way for myself. Maybe to put it in a very different “foreign” language, Jesus is a kind of “bosatsu” (菩薩). [Now maybe it is clear that “foreign” happens in both directions; not just a national identity, but a linguistic one as well.]

– by Grace we proceed.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #139

Jesus does not give an easy answer, but He gives the answer in this parable.

Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV2011)
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.
24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.
25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’
27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.
33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’
34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

(Luke) #140

Here’s a tough one. What kind of god is silent to my prayers throughout my whole life while I was having my family friends and world stripped away from me or when my mental state was crushed into the mud and the person that went to church and was faithful was destroyed. He was nowhere to be seen until my faith finally broke and I decided not to waste my time believing in something that would never help me. Then after I gave up and focused on myself everyone wants to tell me to thank god for my success out of such a dark place? The grueling hard work I put on my back to raise out of that horrible situation and become relevant and even a public figure at a young age? So he’s gone through the thick of it but he’s back to claim the result of MY work? God has never spoken to me he’s never given me a sign or helped me like everyone says I should just sit back and trust him to do. No god made me who I am today I did that and a god who put every odd against me on the way doesn’t deserve exaultation for what I still managed to create. So that’s my question: What kind of god vanishes when I need him but comes back to claim my glory when I survive.