Can we choose what we believe?
Isn´t it interesting how the same argument can be very powerful and persuasive for some people while being completely uninteresting for others? The problem of evil is one of the most powerful arguments against the existence of an all-loving God for many Atheists, but I never cared much about it. I´m not sure why, maybe because I never believed in a God anyway, for other reasons, so speculations about what an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God would or would not do always seemed kind of moot to me. But nevertheless, I recently thought about the problem of evil when I had a discussion with our local young earth creationist JohnM. And I think I came up with an unusual variety of the problem of evil (I´m pretty sure that others came up with similar arguments before, but if so – I haven´t seen it or have forgotten about it, feel free to point out other varieties of this argument in the comments).
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:18-20 (NIV)
What the apostle Paul is writing here would be proven wrong by the existence of just one honest Atheist. Either every single Atheist on this planet is lying about his beliefs – actually believing in the existence of God but denying it, or Paul was making stuff up. If the Christian God indeed does exist (and is omnibenevolent), this statement by Paul has to be 100% true and accurate however, let me explain why.
Whether you believe in libertarian free will or not, it is immediately obvious that what you believe in is not a choice. If you disagree – are you sure that you could simply choose out of the blue to genuinely believe in something ? Are you sure that you could just decide to genuinely believe that the moon is made out of green cheese? Are you sure that you could just decide to genuinely believe that 2+2=42? Are you sure that you could just decide to genuinely believe that Elvis Presley was resurrected from the dead? You can´t. Try it if you don´t believe me.
Our belief-forming mechanisms operate subconsciously. You can of course change your mind on things, by reading, hearing new arguments, seeing new evidence, discussing it with others and so on – but you can´t just choose one of your beliefs, and start to genuinely believe in its negation out of the blue. And the accuracy of a claim has very little to do with the easiness of persuading you that the claim is indeed accurate. Our minds employ many heuristics and if you understand these heuristics, you can easily convince many people to believe in the most absurd claims. This is frequently exploited by con-artists and Scientology is a very good example for that.
What does all that mean for the problem of evil? It means that you cannot simply decide to genuinely believe in the divinity of Jesus. You could be persuaded by arguments or by thinking about the issue, but you can´t just choose to believe it. How could an omnibenevolent God allow such a situation? An omnipotent God could easily create a world in which Romans 1:18-20 would be true – a world in which God´s existence and the divinity of Jesus are as obvious as the existence of your biological parents. But he did not (unless you believe that every single Atheist actually does believe in God and simply lies about it).
There are many different beliefs about hell from the literal fire-and-brimstone-eternal-conscious-torture hell over annihilationism to hell just being a metaphor. But which interpretation of hell a Christian has does not really matter, all that matters is that believing in Jesus is somehow good for you – and that seems to be something that all Christians can agree on. So, no matter which interpretation of hell, if the Christian God exists, he punishes people who do not believe in him for something that they could not choose to do otherwise.
When I raised this point in a discussion with JohnM, he tried various approaches to weasel himself out of the issue. For example by insisting that salvation requires “putting your trust in Jesus” and this would be something that everyone could choose to do, he tried to illustrate this with an example:
I’m out shopping, on a bicycle. I need to go into a store, and I can’t bring my bike. A man walks up to me, and offer me to hold the bicycle for me, while I’m inside. I decide to put my trust in him, and accept his offe ( I believe in him being sincere ).
But when I come out, he has run off with my bike. Now, I have good evidence that he is not to be trusted.. So I go out to buy a new bicycle, and return to shop, to get what I came for in the first place. When I arrive at the shop, there is the man again, and he says that he’s really sorry about having stolen my bike. And again he offers me to hold the bicycle, while I’m inside shopping. So…
Could I believe this man? Despite having doubts about the trustworthiness of this man, and having considerable evidence that he can’t be trusted, could I actually decide to give him a second chance, and choose to believe in him being sincere, this time around?
This objection however is moot. If you do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, there is no motivation to “put your trust in him” and if you don´t believe in his resurrection as well, there is no one trust, because you don´t believe that he exists anymore. You cannot “trust” someone if you don´t believe that this someone exists! JohnM seemed to realize this and ultimately tried to argue along the line that Atheists are actually aware of God´s existence and are just lying about it:
That is the bible’s definition of “atheism”. Dishonest fools who deny what is clearly seen in creation.
Does this make sense? The logical conclusion of this belief is, that Atheists are fully aware that an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God exists but choose to deny that, no matter the consequences. The absurdity of this belief should be obvious (but apparently is not to people like JohnM).