Can a Christian marry an atheist or a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu?

I think that the best way to answer the question, “should I marry a non-Christian?”, is to ask whether it makes any difference if your spouse is on board with your plans for your ministry and with your marriage. So let’s take a look at a case where someone famous who chose a Christian wife, and we’ll see how much that decision affected his ministry and his marriage.

I want to draw your attention to a talk on “Vision in Life” given by Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig is the ablest defender of the Christian faith operating today. He has done formal academic debates with all of the best known atheists on major university campuses in front of thousands of university students. This list of atheists and agnostics includes people like Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger. The Hitchens debate took place in an auditorium filled with 5000 students, and many thousands more were watching at churches all over the world. How did Dr. Craig get these opportunities to evangelize on secular university campuses?

Well, he owes a lot of his success to his amazing wife Jan, as we shall see in the summary of his talk on that topic.

The MP3 file is here. (32 minutes)

This talk was Dr. Craig’s chapel address to Biola University students, and he is introduced by his son, John, a Biola University grad.

In the talk, it becomes clear that Bill’s wife Jan plays an enormous role in his success. Indeed, you will see that if it were not for her, he never would have gotten either of his doctorates, or even his second Masters degree. Why was she so supportive of his plans? Because she had the same broad goal of evangelism through scholarship. Let’s see how she encouraged him.

Here is a quotation that occurs about 11 minutes into the talk, as Bill describes the completion of his Bachelor’s degree at Wheaton:

And it was at Wheaton that my vision began to focus on presenting the gospel in the context of giving an intellectual defense of the faith, to appeal not only to the heart but also to the head, as well. And so I determined that I would go on to seminary for further training.

But, my senior year, in chapel, we heard a speaker who challenged us, before going on to further education, to take a couple of years out, and to wring out the sponge, so to speak, that had been soaking up all that knowledge, and to work with university students while we were still about the same age.

And so I joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ for 2 years, and was assigned to Northern Illinois University. And that was where I met my wife Jan. She was a graduate of the University of North Dakota where she had come to faith in Christ. And she had a similar vision for her life of evangelism and discipleship.

And as we worked at NIU together, she with gals and I with the guys, leading students to Christ and discipling them to walk with the Lord, we fell in love. And we decided that we would be more effective if we joined forces and became a team.

It is at this point in the talk where Bill begins to explain just how Jan molded him into the lean, mean debating machine that travels the world striking terror into the hearts of atheists.

Bill’s first story about Jan occurs early after their marriage while he is working on his first Masters degree at Trinity:

And it was also at that time that I began to see what an invaluable asset the Lord had given me in Jan. I remember I came home from classes one day, and found her at the kitchen table with all the catalogs and schedules and papers spread out in front of her and she said, “look! I’ve figured out how you can get two Masters degrees at the same time that it would normally take to get one! All you have to do is take overloads every semester, go to all full-time summer school and do all these other things, and you can do two MAs in the time it takes to do one!”

And I thought, whoa! Are you sure you really want to make the commitment it takes to do this kind of thing? And she said, “Yeah! Go for it!” And it was then I began to see that God had given me a very special woman who was my supporter – my cheerleader – and who really believed in me. And as long as she believed in me, that gave me the confidence to dream bigger dreams, and to take on challenges that I had never thought of before.

In an article on his web site, he talks about how Jan encouraged him to do his first Ph.D:

As graduation from Trinity neared, Jan and I were sitting one evening at the supper table in our little campus apartment, talking about what to do after graduation. Neither of us had any clear leading or inclination of what we should do next.

So Jan said to me, “Well, if money were no object, what would you really like to do next?”

I replied, “If money were no object, what I’d really like to do is go to England and do a doctorate under John Hick.”

“Who’s he?” she asked.

“Oh, he’s this famous British philosopher who’s written extensively on arguments for the existence of God,” I explained. “If I could study with him, I could develop a cosmological argument for God’s existence.”

But it hardly seemed a realistic idea.

The next evening at supper Jan handed me a slip of paper with John Hick’s address on it. “I went to the library today and found out that he’s at the University of Birmingham in England,” she said. “Why don’t you write him a letter and ask him if you can do a doctoral thesis under him on the cosmological argument?”

What a woman! So I did, and to our amazement and delight Professor Hick wrote back saying he’d be very pleased to supervise my doctoral work on that subject. So it was an open door!

And in the same article, he explains how Jan encouraged him to get his second Ph.D:

As Jan and I neared the completion of my doctoral studies in Birmingham, our future path was again unclear to us. I had sent out a number of applications for teaching positions in philosophy at American universities but had received no bites. We didn’t know what to do.

I remember it like yesterday. We were sitting at the supper table in our little house outside Birmingham, and Jan suddenly said to me, “Well, if money were no object, what would you really like to do next?”

I laughed because I remembered how the Lord had used her question to guide us in the past. I had no trouble answering the question. “If money were no object, what I’d really like to do is go to Germany and study under Wolfhart Pannenberg.”

“Who’s he?”

“Oh, he’s this famous German theologian who’s defended the resurrection of Christ historically,” I explained. “If I could study with him, I could develop a historical apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus.”

Our conversation drifted to other subjects, but Jan later told me that my remark had just lit a fire under her. The next day while I was at the university, she slipped away to the library and began to research grants-in-aid for study at German universities. Most of the leads proved to be defunct or otherwise inapplicable to our situation. But there were two grants she found that were possibilities. You can imagine how surprised I was when she sprung them on me!

Both of these Ph.D experiences are also described in the talk. And the talk concludes as follows:

I am so thankful to be married to a woman who is tremendously resourceful, tremendously talented and energetic, who could have pursued an independent career in any number of areas, but instead, she has chose to wed her aspirations to mine, and to make it her goal to make me the most effective person I can be, for Christ. And she has been like my right arm in ministry over these many years. And it is a tremendous privilege to be a team with a person like that.

And you young men, I would encourage you, if you marry, to find a gal who shares your vision, not some independent vision, but who is interested in aligning herself with you, and pursuing together a common vision and goal that will draw you [together], so that you will avoid the growing separateness that so often creeps into marriages.

And now you know the rest of Bill’s story. The person you marry will have an enormous influence on the impact you will have for Christ and his Kingdom. It is up to you to decide whether that influence is going to be positive or negative, by deciding if you will marry, and if you do marry, by deciding whom you will marry. If you marry a non-Christian, you cannot expect to achieve the same things for God as you can with someone who accepts your core convictions and is willing to sacrifice their happiness so that God can be made happier.

You may also be interested in this talk given by William Lane Craig, entitled “Healthy Relationships” (National Faculty Leadership Conf. 2008) (audio here) In that talk, he offers advice to Christians who want to have a marriage that is consistent with their Christian faith.

6 thoughts on “Can a Christian marry an atheist or a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu?”

  1. Good discussion. I was just going to say NO!, especially given Paul’s discussion in 2 Cor. 6.

    What’s really fascinating about that section is that Paul cites the Old Testament, saying that God called out a people that were to be separate and holy to Him. And why is this important? Paul notes that while God was among Israel in the past, He is now personally with us, since we are temples of the living God.

    Therefore we must be clean and dedicated to God, and marrying an unbeliever does not allow this, since what can there be in common between the temple of God and the temple of idols.

    It’s amazing to me how many women’s lives at my church would have been spared pain and suffering if they had just followed this prescription.

    1. Thanks for this comment, MC. I think that we need to think through the Bible’s bare statement of rules and boundaries in the context of having a service-oriented relationship with God. If God is my client, then I am going to try to plan out and execute a life that gives him what he wants.

      Think of software engineering. Development of a project proceeds in phases. First, the client states the requirements. Then the developers make a design to achieve it. Then the developer creates the product. Christians today are bypassing the design phase of their lives. They read the requirements in the Bible, then they bumble their way through life without any wisdom, which comes from reading, research, politics and structured experience acquisition. It’s like we want to reduce Christianity to fideism and then wash our hands of the responsibility for the inevitable failure, because God has a mysterious will. We read the Bible for comfort and amusement, then make decisions to achieve happiness instead of results, then we say that failure is God’s will. Nonsense.

      1. If I understand you correctly, you are noting that if someone just sees a rule laid down, and doesn’t understand why it is there, then it seems rationally incoherent, and therefore mysterious. Then, if a rule/command/etc. seems to have no reason, then it can’t be that important. And it just follows that the person will reason that they don’t need to follow rules that have no reason and aren’t important.

        I would note two things with respect to this. First, I agree with you, that we need to show the rational basis for God’s plan: either through rational intuition or experimental science (i.e. here’s what happens when you don’t follow God’s plan – your life/someone else’s life gets screwed up in the following objectively verifiable ways…)

        Second, when in doubt, even if you don’t have a good reason, you should stick to what the Bible says. It contains all we need to live, and you will be rewarded for following. Thus, in the end, if you don’t follow the Bible’s precepts, you aren’t really committing fideism, since that would mean that you do have faith. When you unrepentently disobey the Bible’s clear teaching, you are just demonstrating your lack of faith.

        Of course, overall, fideism is not the way to approach belief in God. It can too easily lead to abandoning God and the Bible since one’s faith will be too shallow to withstand temptations, etc.

        1. I agree with both parts. I think it’s rational to do the second part if you have a few examples of the first part, because not everything can be tested that’s in the Bible. I think that people who subscribe to fideism make Christianity make themselves vulnerable to peer pressure. Look what happened to the brittle fundamentalist Dan Barker.

  2. Great read ! This is a fantastic example of a “help mate” or “ezer/azar” in the Hebrew. The study of word is worth investigation since it is has a manifold meanings in the scriptures.
    – God is referred to Jehovah Ezer (THE LORD MY HELP)
    – Builder of walls ( meant as a support or a buttress to a wall), protector

    I found this and it is a worthwhile read

    Azar (5826) means to protect, aid, help, succor, support, give material or nonmaterial encouragement. Azar often refers to aid in the form of military assistance and in many instances refers to help from Jehovah.

    Webster says to help means to aid, to assist, to succour (see below), to lend strength or means towards effecting a purpose. To relieve; to cure, or to mitigate pain or disease. To remedy; to change for the better.

    The Septuagint translates ‘azar most often with the word group that includes boáo, boetheo, boethos, all conveying the general idea of running to the aid of one who cries out for help

    While the concept of a helpmate is a scorned by feminized Western Christian women – God is referred to as our “Azar”

    1. I understand & agree with you, but from my own experience, I think every relationship is unique. My 20 years marriage, being unevenly yoked with an agnostic Gentile, raised in a Presbyterian family & church ended in a painful divorce. However, I honestly believe that old cliche, ‘God works in mysterious ways’. My mother insisted I go to a local chuch that had a weekly group called SAM/single adult ministries. Any singles going through the divorce process at that time, had to attend & complete the class “Divorce Recovery”, then could chose their choice class in the future, at this Christian Support Group. To make a long story short, at a Bible study class, I met/fell in love with/& married my 2nd husband; the only Jewish person in this support group of 40 people! Dating & marriage equaled the happiest 15 years of my life! He died in 2009 & I know in my heart that Jesus brought us together. He accepted Jesus at a Messianic Seder in 2005, totally a surprise to me that evening. I know he is now with the Lord. I didn’t know what a good husband & happy marriage was until those 15 years, I believe were a true gift from God, for both of us.

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