Is asking “Am I going to Hell?” a good rebuttal to scientific arguments for theism?

A conflict of worldviews
A conflict of worldviews

I want to use this woman’s story to show how sensible atheists reach a belief in God.


I don’t know when I first became a skeptic. It must have been around age 4, when my mother found me arguing with another child at a birthday party: “But how do you know what the Bible says is true?” By age 11, my atheism was so widely known in my middle school that a Christian boy threatened to come to my house and “shoot all the atheists.” My Christian friends in high school avoided talking to me about religion because they anticipated that I would tear down their poorly constructed arguments. And I did.

As I set off in 2008 to begin my freshman year studying government at Harvard (whose motto is Veritas, “Truth”), I could never have expected the change that awaited me.

It was a brisk November when I met John Joseph Porter. Our conversations initially revolved around conservative politics, but soon gravitated toward religion. He wrote an essay for the Ichthus, Harvard’s Christian journal, defending God’s existence. I critiqued it. On campus, we’d argue into the wee hours; when apart, we’d take our arguments to e-mail. Never before had I met a Christian who could respond to my most basic philosophical questions: How does one understand the Bible’s contradictions? Could an omnipotent God make a stone he could not lift? What about the Euthyphro dilemma: Is something good because God declared it so, or does God merely identify the good? To someone like me, with no Christian background, resorting to an answer like “It takes faith” could only be intellectual cowardice. Joseph didn’t do that.

And he did something else: He prodded me on how inconsistent I was as an atheist who nonetheless believed in right and wrong as objective, universal categories. Defenseless, I decided to take a seminar on meta-ethics. After all, atheists had been developing ethical systems for 200-some years. In what I now see as providential, my atheist professor assigned a paper by C. S. Lewis that resolved the Euthyphro dilemma, declaring, “God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.”

Joseph also pushed me on the origins of the universe. I had always believed in the Big Bang. But I was blissfully unaware that the man who first proposed it, Georges Lemaître, was a Catholic priest. And I’d happily ignored the rabbit trail of a problem of what caused the Big Bang, and what caused that cause, and so on.

By Valentine’s Day, I began to believe in God. There was no intellectual shame in being a deist, after all, as I joined the respectable ranks of Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers.

I wouldn’t stay a deist for long. A Catholic friend gave me J. Budziszewski’s book Ask Me Anything, which included the Christian teaching that “love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.” This theme—of love as sacrifice for true good—struck me. The Cross no longer seemed a grotesque symbol of divine sadism, but a remarkable act of love. And Christianity began to look less strangely mythical and more cosmically beautiful.

So, I want to point out the progression of her beliefs from atheist to deist to Christian. First, she listened to the scientific arguments for God’s existence, which took her to deism, which is a variety of theism where God just creates the universe and then doesn’t interfere with it after. Those arguments, the Big Bang and the cosmic fine-tuning, were enough for her to falsify atheism and prove some sort of theism. After that, she remained open to the evidence for Christian theism, and finally got there after looking at other evidence.

But this makes me think of how some of the atheists that I talk to do the exact opposite of what she did. I start off by explaining to them scientific evidence for a Creator and Designer. I explain the mainstream discoveries that confirm an origin of the universe (e.g. – light element abundance predictions and observations), and I cite specific examples of fine-tuning, (e.g. – the gravitational constant). I explain protein sequencing and folding, and calculate the probabilities of getting a protein by chance. I explain the sudden origin of the phyla in the Cambrian explosion, and show why naturalistic explanations fail. I talk about the fine-tuning needed to get galaxies, solar systems and planets to support life. But many of these atheists don’t become deists like the honest atheist in the story. Why not?

Well, the reason why not is because they interrupt the stream of scientific evidence coming out of my mouth and they start to ask me questions that have nothing to do with what we can know through science. See, evangelism is like building a house. You have to start with the foundation, the walls, the plumbing, the electricity, etc., but you can’t know all the specific details about furniture and decorations at the beginning. But militant atheists don’t care that you are able to establish the foundations of Christian theism – they want to jump right to the very fine-grained details, and use that to justify not not building anything at all. Just as you are proving all the main planks of a theistic worldview with science, they start asking “am I going to Hell?” and telling you “God is immoral for killing Canaanite children”, etc. They want to stop the construction of the house by demanding that you build everything at once. But, it is much easier to accept miracles like the virgin birth if you have a God who created the universe first. The foundation comes first, it makes the later stuff easier to do.

So rather than adjust their worldview to the strong scientific evidence, and then leave the puzzling about Hell and Old Testament history for later, they want to refute the good scientific arguments with “Am I going to Hell?”. How does complaining about Hell and unanswered prayer a response to scientific evidence? It’s not! But I think that this does explain why atheists remain atheists in the face of all the scientific evidence against naturalism. They insulate their worldview from the progress of science by focusing on their emotional disappointment that they are not God and that God isn’t doing what they want him to do. That’s the real issue. Authority and autonomy. In my experience, they are usually not accountable to science, although there are, thank God, exceptions to that rule.

6 thoughts on “Is asking “Am I going to Hell?” a good rebuttal to scientific arguments for theism?”

  1. Yes, indeed, WK – you nailed the reason quite well: the Cosmic Authority Problem:

    “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time.” — Professor Thomas Nagel, NYU

    Now, I think the puzzle of which atheists will someday follow the evidence to conversion and which will not is partly answered by the question of intellectual honesty and authentic open-mindedness. Is the atheist a truth seeker or not. If, like I once was, he is, then I believe that he will indeed convert to the Relationship rooted in reality. And, interestingly, the Bible verifies this thought:

    “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:7-8

  2. Even more easy and important is to always and simply just ask, “well why do you want to go to Heaven if you don’t love God?” Its like telling me I’m not going to get to go to Disneyland if I hate and want nothing to do with Mickey Mouse. The question does not make sense when an atheist asks it, because they fail to understand that Heaven is really the full manifested presence of God. If you don’t want that, then Heaven would be Hell.

  3. One issue is that arguments from empirical evidence are inductive and thus always underdetermined. As such an atheist can always cry “God of the Gaps!” For there could always be a “natural” explanation and conjuring gods is just a non productive, lazy, lack of imagination that serves little purpose. Just because a non ‘God did it’ explanation hasn’t been found yet doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
    However, this same ‘skip the foundations to complain about the conclusions’ phenomena can be seen in other types of inquiries. I know you don’t like philosophy. I myself am a physicist but find philosophy inescapable. One thing I like about philosophy is, if done correctly, if the premises are true then the conclusions necessarily follow since it’s deductive, like mathematics. What’s funny is that you can get an atheist to agree that premises are logical and necessary… until they realize where you’re going with the analysis and all of a sudden they start complaining about everything! You’ll get responses like, “this doesn’t prove that the Christian God is the correct one!” for a basic argument for the existence of God.
    That doesn’t prove there’s not a God and the argument isn’t meant to show which god is the ‘correct’ one. If the argument holds then atheism is false and yet they feel like they’ve won the argument and that there is no God by complaining about step 10 when we’re still on step 1.

    1. I agree with you – that is why I like philosophy too, although it can be used with both inductive and deductive arguments, in my view. Here are a few of the philosophical foundations I have seen presented that are needed to get science off of the ground: there exists an external world; the external world operates in an orderly fashion; the external world is knowable; truth exists; the laws of logic exist; our cognitive and sensory tools are reliable enough to discover truth and form rational beliefs; language can be adequately used to describe the external world; some form of ethical values exist in which to perform science in a valid way; nature has some uniformity to it; induction and numbers exist; etc. So, it seems to me that, regardless, we are using philosophy – whether explicitly or implicitly. Now WK is going to ban me from his site, because I ruined his Christmas. :-)

      Speaking of which, Merry Christmas to you, WK, and to all of the readers of your wonderful blog!

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