Encounter Heading: Skeptic's Guide


Does God Condemn
Honest Unbelief?

Part 3 of a Debate
Between Paul Doland and Dennis Jensen

Lee Strobel has written four books in a series:
The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, The Case for a Creator, and The Case for the Real Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2007 respectively). All four I have found to be very effective in arguing their respective claims. Strobel has interviewed various leading scholars in several different fields to present the strongest arguments available for Christianity. He has taken the time to present opposing arguments and claims within his books, so to a considerable degree he has presented possibly the most important pros and cons one would need to consider. But anyone who is honestly searching and evaluating the various religious and secular claims should look at the more developed critiques of Strobel’s arguments as well. Paul Doland claims to have presented one such critique of Strobel’s The Case for Faith, entitled “The Case Against Faith.”

From 2008 and 2010, Doland and I have carried out a debate following from Doland’s critique. References to Doland’s critique and similar critiques and to Doland’s selections from this debate can be found at the end of this article.
The bulk of the entire debate is now available at this link as a PDF. The following portion of the debate looks at the question of whether God would be justified in condemning those who reject Christianity or even belief in God because of honest and reasonable grounds for disbelief.

When quoting Doland or myself or any other speaker/writer, I have placed a number following the speaker’s name or the quotation. The number “1” will follow Strobel or one of his interviewees. Number “2” will follow Doland’s name for his first response to Strobel’s book. Number “3” will follow my name for my response to Doland’s last statement, etc. This will help the reader follow the sometimes extended line of dialogue. I have also underlined those portions of my statements to which Doland has selected to respond. Some references and links are in bold print indicating that the link has yet to be constructed.

Doland4: Let’s play “what if” about Allah. What if Allah is the “one true God”? Now, I know that Jensen’s position is that Allah is the same God as his, its just that some people have a better understanding of Him than others do.

Jensen5: That might be partially true but there is some ambiguity in this claim. You see, we begin with the same basic idea of God, a creator with great power and intelligence and goodness. Then people will begin to make differing claims of this God. One says God spoke to Mohammed (through an angel) and not to Paul, and taught x and not y about God. Another says God spoke to Paul and not to Mohammed, and taught y and not x about God. Are these both the same God? Someone might say no, because they are claiming different things about God. Another might say yes, because they are both claiming the same basic defining characteristics of this God (i.e., a creator with power, intelligence, and goodness). If I talk with Muslims, I assume we are talking about the same God but I would try to give some reason to think that God has not done or taught some of the things they think God has done or taught about God. They do the same for me.

But suppose we go farther. If we begin to chip away at the basic starting definition of God, it becomes even less clear that we are talking about the same being. If someone describes a God who created our world but was also created by a prior God or if God is less than absolutely good, say, I don’t think that I could say this is the same God that I’m talking about.

Doland4: So what if Allah is the One True God and does NOT find Christian beliefs acceptable? To rephrase Jensen’s own question, “How would you respond to this Allah?” I gather he would assert that he would tell Allah he made the best decisions he could at the time. And that is the same answer I would give his God if the situation ever arises. If I ever meet Jensen’s God, I will simply say I made the best decisions I could at the time.

Jensen5: True, I would say this. But my question was intended for a different context. The question “If there is a God and it is not inconceivable that this God has good reason for allowing this suffering, how will I respond to this God?” is the one I said atheists must at one time or another ask themselves. They wouldn’t need to go down a list, “What if the Christian God is the true God? What if the Muslim God is the true God? What if the Mormon God is the true God?” etc. They need only begin with the most basic definition of God, maybe not even that much. The atheist, and everyone else, must ask, “If there is someone who deserves my highest commitment, is good, has the power to allow or inflict suffering or to withhold it and has good reason for allowing this suffering, how would I respond? Would I give my commitment to this one who deserves my commitment?”

But let’s get back to Doland’s very different question. If at death I should find that Islam is true and I find myself standing before Allah in judgment, I would tell Allah that I made the best decision I could as to my beliefs given the information I had. Doland says he would say the same thing. But I would also say that I had called upon God asking that I be given the truth. I had said that I would give God my highest commitment. Would Doland also say this? Because the problem is that merely examining evidence and arguments is not enough. We might have prejudices or biases that sway us to perceive the evidence one way rather than the other. We need to affirm that we would give God our commitment if God deserves our commitment and if God would reveal the truth to us. Might it be that until we do so, God gives us over to our own desired beliefs? As I’ve said before, it is our choices, not our knowledge, that will save of condemn us.

Now if I find myself standing before the God of Islam, my plea may not make any difference anyway. In the most dominant Muslim views, Allah is completely above good and evil. Allah does not need to do anything that a greater good might occur; Allah just does as he wants to. The most righteous and observant Muslims often will say they have no assurance of salvation. I know of one Muslim lady who said she just hoped that when she would die she would catch Allah when he’s in a good mood.

Jensen7: And people are not condemned for making mistakes, they are condemned for knowingly rejecting God and God’s offer of salvation.

Doland8: Am I supposed to believe everything I hear? And if you say no, I shouldn’t believe everything, but I should believe this particular thing because there is good evidence for it; even if you are right, then I am making a mistake by misreading the evidence. So I would be sent to hell because of a mistake.

Jensen9: People are not condemned for what they know but for what they choose. The person who says, “God, I want to know if you are there. I’ll give you all that you ask of me, all that you deserve from me, if you let me know”—that person will find out. It doesn’t matter how poor you think our evidence is so long as you are willing to accept a good answer when God gives you one and so long as you seek this God who deserves your commitment. Just be willing to suspend your judgment and hatred enough to say this to God (because some of your statements sound as though you really do hate God).

So I should rephrase my statement you were responding to. People are condemned for knowingly rejecting God and God’s offer of salvation but they are also condemned for willfully rejecting a hypothetical God on just the possibility that there really is a good God who deserves their commitment. [Added 27Sp14]

It may seem that more is needed at this point.
The Bible claims that we need to seek God with all of our heart and will. If one can barely get beyond a begrudging, “Okay, God, if you’re there I might accept you if you give me a good explanation for all my questions, but you’ve gotta do some pretty good talking,” that person will have a hard time reaching any kind of longing desire for God. One needs to just be willing to suspend one’s judgments enough to accept that there might be good explanations (I’ve tried to give some though I doubt that you’ve found them to be very persuasive). Once you reach that point of suspending judgment, then you’ve got a chance. That’s when one can say, “God, I don’t even want to want you, but I choose to want you.” If someone can just do that, if someone can simply tell God they don’t even will to choose God, but they choose to will it, then God can give that person a desire that will lead to the discovery.

Doesn’t it make sense to think that just on the possibility that there is a good creator God and source of all existence that we should be condemned if we do not seek this God. To reject this God, even to merely ignore this God, would be among the most horrible of evils.

Doland10: [To the first underlined sentence in Jensen9 above.] I’ve done all that, please read my autobiographical info on my site. http://www.caseagainstfaith.com/other_stuff/PaulJacobsen.htm.

Jensen11: But do you still do it? John 7:17 does not put a time limit on this test. As I’ve said before, if you continue to say this to God and actually mean it, even if in this life you never do get the answer you want, you will find your answer. I think the discover-only-in-the-next-life type experiences are the exception, but I cannot rule out their possibility.

I think there is one other factor Doland needs to consider before his request or search can hope to be effective. He needs to have the humility to avoid blasphemy. Suppose the God who commanded the Levites to kill those in the camp who were worshiping the golden calf is the God he should be seeking? Will Doland have the humility to say I don’t know that you don’t have the right to take our lives when you desire; I don’t know that you don’t have the right to enforce justice; I don’t know that they didn’t deserve this from the evil they committed; I don’t know that they will still never find you and know the eternal joy of knowing and loving you; I don’t know that a greater good will not come after your judgment is complete? (Even if they did not deserve the judgment God brought upon them, Doland does not know that this God did not have good reason for doing this and will not recompense all undeserved suffering.) God is not merely looking to see Doland’s choices to seek God, God is looking to see his choices and prejudices concerning what God must or must not do and must be like. Yes, God must be good, but to dictate all that God must do or not do to express that goodness will often go beyond reasonable limits for critics like Doland. [Paragraph added 4Mr15.]

Doland10: [Responding to second underlined sentence group in Jensen9 above.] What, specifically, is inherently wrong with disbelieving something before getting good answers? Basically you are saying that you really need to have a strong desire to believe before even beginning. What if a Mormon said to you that you need to really want to believe Mormonism before God will reveal to you the truth of Mormonism? Would you sign up for that? No.

Jensen11: What is “inherently wrong with disbelieving something before getting good answers” is that it is irrational. One should rather withhold making a conclusion. One should say, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’m open to any answer, negative or positive, if or when it comes.”

Yes, one needs a strong desire to believe in God before even beginning. But reread the rest of that paragraph. One isn’t without hope who does not happen to have that desire. One needs a will to at least seek that desire in order to begin the search. Just asking God for merely the desire is enough to start. It’s not our desires or our knowledge that matters, what matters first and foremost is our choice.

Seeking a desire for God is not necessarily the same as desiring that any particular religion or belief be true. For example, there is no inherent need for desiring to be married to one or a dozen women for eternity, or that Yahweh be a human who evolved to a god. But if we accept as the starting definition for God that this be one who deserves our highest commitment, then we have an obligation to seek such a God and to seek to determine whether such a being exists. But more than that, on the possibility that there be such a God, we really should desire and will to seek this God.

Now some people claim they find that hard to grasp in the abstract. I should desire and want to seek this God just on the possibility that such a being exists? No, there is more to it than just that. It is a matter of desiring that which can fulfill our very being.
That we clearly should seek. On the possibility that there is One who made us, and who couldn’t make us without our being such that we cannot have fulfillment without knowing and loving this creator, on that possibility we should desire and desire to discover such a being. So desiring God and desiring that God be there are very different from desiring that any other particular belief be true. And the fact that one might have this desire for God needs to be carefully kept from being a factor in bringing one to any particular belief. It is the evidence that should persuade us, not any desire to believe in this God.

You say that you have called upon God and now you disbelieve because God has never answered you. Maybe there are some other reasons you disbelieve but I think that is the gist of what you have said. It sounds as though you are saying that you would believe still if God were to somehow show himself to you, speak to you, etc. Would you? Or would you just explain it away like you did my friend’s experience in which she felt a presence in her otherwise empty room? What would you say to a voice that tells you that this is God? What if the same voice told you this was the one who told the Levites to go through their camp and kill everyone who was worshiping the golden calf? You said this was clearly evil of this God. Would just the fact that God spoke to you remove your belief that God is evil? Would it give you reason to believe or would there still be objections stopping you from believing in this God? Would you be willing to even start choosing to desire this God if you still thought this God were evil? These are questions you have to seriously answer before you can begin to seek God again.

Doland10: [continuing Doland10 above.] Essentially you are making rational thought and reasonable skepticism as an evil boogieman. And yet you would employ the same rational thought and skepticism to anybody else’s fantastical claims. You just make an exception for YOUR God.

Jensen11: I am rather making irrational skepticism, certainly not rational thought, the evil boogieman. A rational skepticism, withholding a definite conclusion pending good evidence, is needed for almost any religious and anti-religious claims. That is what I have done.

Please do not misunderstand my previous statements (my previous Jensen11). If God is evil, one should not seek such a God. If God deserves our commitment, then God must be good. But if there is such a God, that does not mean this God could not command the Levites to kill those who had committed this horrible evil. [Added 27Sp14.]

Doland2: If God gave people another chance after death, Moreland asks, then what is the point of life on Earth? Good question! What is the point of life on Earth? A billion years from now, are Christians going to be sitting in Heaven discussing their earthly lives, such as the time when an aunt died? How could brief mortal experiences be useful in any way to an immortal being in Heaven?

Jensen3: As I have said earlier, the point of life on earth is to have a place, an environment, in which one can choose for or against God without being forced by the evidence to believe or disbelieve. There is sufficient evidence for one to be justified in believing and sufficient to allow one to persuade oneself to disbelieve if one does not want to believe. Soul building can only occur in such an environment because only here can we be tested and refined into creatures who take on more of the image and nature of God or tested with the option of choosing against God. Moreland’s point is that the purpose of life on earth is to have such an environment in which we could so freely choose. Doland chooses to ignore this quite obvious point and assume there is no purpose to human life on earth given the Christian view.

Doland4: Translated into English, there is insufficient evidence, period. And it’s not a crime if I want more evidence for something than you do.

Jensen5: No, that’s not what I said. I did not say that there is insufficient evidence. There is enough evidence that any rational person should believe. But if you don’t want to believe, there is enough lack of evidence that one can take it as insufficient evidence to believe, though one cannot do so rationally. It may not be as much as some people would want but it is still sufficient for any rational person to believe.

There is sufficient counter evidence that is ambiguous enough that those who desire to see it as sufficient counter evidence for belief can do so. But one is not rationally justified in taking it as sufficient counter evidence. One has to persuade oneself that it is, but not on rational grounds. Doland may claim that he has insufficient evidence for belief, but he cannot claim that I said that.

The above can be found in the complete PDF on pages 22-24, 105-110, 388-389.


Revisions and alterations were added and noted in brackets within or at the ends of the some of my paragraphs. These were added primarily to add clarification. Any new material Doland has not seen should not be seen as part of the debate proper. They are added merely to give new information relevant to the debate.


Paul Doland’s critique of Strobel’s
The Case for Faith, is entitled “The Case Against Faith.” See also J. P. Holding’s critique of Doland’s article. Paul also has gone under the pseudonym Paul Jacobsen and is addressed in Holding’s critique by that name. At his web site, Doland has other critiques of Strobel’s series the reader might wish to look at. One may also look at Doland’s articles containing portions of this debate (obscenities and all).

Doland’s reporting of the debate

If the reader looks at Doland’s web site, one may find it interesting how feasible some of Doland’s arguments appear at first sight when he makes sure most of my responses are not included. Even without my responses, the plausibility of some of his statements will easily be lost once the reader takes the time to think carefully about them. In the reproduction of the full debate, I have edited out some of the excessive repetition found in the original, but I have included all of the arguments. No points Doland had considered important have been omitted.


Introducing Encounter / Hot Issues / Content