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Belief for fear of hell

Postby Pinko » Wed Aug 29, 2018 6:02 pm

I grew up Christian and recently came to consider myself agnostic. I do not believe the claims of Christianity are likely to be true. I think it is possible that Jesus rose from the dead (in the sense that anything is POSSIBLE), but that it is very unlikely to be true and I believe the natural explanations available for things like the explosion of early Christianity, etc., are much more likely and convincing.

That being said, as I grew up with Christian beliefs, I can't help myself in fearing that I may have it wrong and that I may now be destined to burn in Hell forever. I feel tempted to live the Christian life and repent and ask God for forgiveness, etc., simply because the stakes are so high, because of the risk of Christianity turning out to be true (even though it's next to zero). It seems to me that choosing to believe something (to have faith in something) in order to save yourself from damnation could be rational, and a good "bet" if you will. What are your thoughts on this? Is there some failure in this logic I'm missing? I'm interested to hear what you have to say.
Pinko
 

Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby jimwalton » Wed Aug 29, 2018 6:03 pm

According to the Bible, in contrast to what atheists on this forum may tell you, hell is very real. I don't think it's literal fire; fire is the figure used to portray its awfulness. It's separation from God. The point is not that God wants to torture you, but rather that separation from Him is separation from life, love, peace, etc., so the only other choice is the agony of separation.

After deep examination, I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection is true and the evidence convincing. We can talk about that as you wish.

It sounds as if God is calling you to repentance. Don't be afraid to respond to his work inside you.

You seem to have lost any conviction that Christianity is true. I'd be glad to discuss that with you if you want. I am so convinced it's true I spend my days on this forum convincing people of all the evidence, logic, and meaningfulness of it. We can talk about it if you want.

What you are wrestling with is captured in a philosophical discussion called "Pascal's Wager": If in doubt, should I commit anyway to avoid hell? Pascal, obviously a brilliant 17th-century thinker, posed that for those who choose the way of Jesus, there is much to gain and little to lose. For those who choose against Jesus, there is little to gain and much to lose. He posited that even if Christianity isn't true, the person who follows Christ will live a full, meaningful, and moral life. His "wager" has come under severe criticism by skeptics, atheists, and other philosophers.

Consider two possible ways the world might be: Christianity is true—or there is no God, and at death it all goes black. And consider two possible ways you might live your life: commit to God in a Christian way or don’t. There are, of course, other logical possibilities (practicing other religions, for instance). For now, though, pretend the only two plausible options are Christianity and atheism.

Pascal would then say there are four possible outcomes:
1. You wager for God, and Christianity proves to be true.
2. You wager for God, but atheism proves to be true.
3. You don’t wager for God, but Christianity proves to be true.
4. You don’t wager for God, and atheism proves to be true.
The upshot is this: suppose you think there’s a better chance that Christianity is true than false (whether because of experience, philosophical and historical arguments, a sense of God’s presence, or some combination). If so, then notcommitting to God would be positively irrational. You would be foregoing a greater-than-50/50 chance at the benefits of committing to God if Christianity is true, just for the sake of a less-than-50/50 chance at the relatively minor advantages that come with not committing to God if atheism is true.

According to the standard presentation of Pascal’s wager, you should wager for God even if you think there’s only a tiny chance that Christianity is true, because the value of eternal life is infinite. But this undervalues our God-given power of reason and can lead to dangerous thinking. Consider someone raised in a cult who is almost sure the cult’s teaching is false, but who invokes Pascal and remains out of a fear of hell. That would be a tragic mistake.

Critics are right, then, to reject versions of the wager that urge belief in God simply because of the possible benefits—without looking at evidence. After all, we can’t simply believe in God at will. Suppose I offer you $10,000 to believe there are an even number of hairs on your head. You might reply that belief doesn’t work like that—we don’t control what we believe like we control, say, our arm movements. Moreover, our minds shouldn’t be for sale; we should respect the truth more than that.

But where there are sufficient reasons to think Christianity is plausible, we can choose to commit to God—to seek him through prayer, worship, reading the Bible, fellowship, thinking about religious questions, and striving to live a morally excellent life.

Certainly we must always care about the truth. If we encounter credible objections to anything important we believe, we should take them seriously. But Pascal’s insights show that we should also consider what’s at stake. Just as a husband shouldn’t leave his wife simply because he thinks she might be having an affair, a Christian shouldn’t reject God simply because he thinks there is some evidence Christianity is false.

If I find myself thinking that Christianity might be false, I remember that it might be true, too. Do I want to take a real risk of turning my back on Jesus? Never. Let's talk.
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Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby Swine » Thu Aug 30, 2018 12:35 pm

Christianity might be true, but also the world might be flat, and the rulers of this world might be lizard people, or maybe I am just a brain in a vat in a mad scientist's laboratory. By what mechanism do we weigh the validity of any of these claims? If we, to the best of our ability, test the validity of Christianity and find that it's supernatural claims are completely unjustified, how are we to apply pascals wager?
Swine
 

Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby jimwalton » Thu Aug 30, 2018 12:38 pm

> Christianity might be true, but also the world might be flat, and the rulers of this world might be lizard people, or maybe I am just a brain in a vat in a mad scientist's laboratory.

True. That's why we have to use our reasoning ability, consider the evidence, and infer the most reasonable conclusion. Test all things.

> By what mechanism do we weigh the validity of any of these claims?

The same way we test the validity of any claims: Correspondence to reality, weight of evidence, concordant with reason, and plausible explanation.

> If we, to the best of our ability, test the validity of Christianity and find that it's supernatural claims are completely unjustified, how are we to apply pascals wager?

The correct and wisest exercise is not to verify Pascal's wager but rather to test the validity of Christianity by every practical means available.
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Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby Chief Bob » Thu Aug 30, 2018 1:28 pm

> Pascal would then say there are four possible outcomes

What if it is the case that only atheists go to a heaven-like afterlife, and theists go to a hell-like afterlife? With no reason to believe this is any less likely than what is proposed by christianity, immediately we can dismiss Pascal's wager as this new possibility is equal to the original argument and nullifies it. Now, you might want to argue that we do have reasons to believe christianity, but then you actually have to make arguments, rather than relying on "Believe and you get good stuff, or don't and you suffer the consequences".
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Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby jimwalton » Thu Aug 30, 2018 1:28 pm

Our object is to discern the truth, verify it as much as is possible, subscribe to it and live by it. If we need to consider and substantiate the plausibility of the afterlife for theists and atheists, we need to examine any evidence available, people's claims and experiences, and use logic and reason. Of course I do contend I have reasons to believe Christianity, but that wasn't the thrust of this particular post. Thanks for your comment.
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Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby Swine » Thu Aug 30, 2018 2:20 pm

But there are no practical ways of testing the validity of supernatural claims.
Swine
 

Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby jimwalton » Thu Aug 30, 2018 2:20 pm

In some cases there are, but they are still interpretations. For instance...

1. Miracles are still happening today. Those can be examined, and they have been (https://www.amazon.com/Miracles-Credibility-New-Testament-Accounts/dp/0801039525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535652871&sr=8-1&keywords=keener+miracles)

2. The lives of millions of people are radically changed by conversion to Christianity. There can be research into what they used to be like, what they are like now, and what caused the difference.

3. We can examine the issue of prophecy in the Bible with the eyes of a researcher. I mean, the weathermen in my city only get it right about 50% of the time. And no one can predict the outcome of a football game, unless of course you're saying the Browns will lose.

4. We can examine the life of Jesus and the results of his life. The world has been changed, and not just in the formation of a religion.

5. We can discuss the case of the resurrection. It has some material evidence not available in other miracle stories.

6. We can evaluate the reliability of the biblical text to see if these writers were wackos or whether they're on to something.

Those are a few things that come immediately to mind.
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Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby Swine » Sun Sep 02, 2018 2:55 pm

But none of that is investigating the supernatural. It's investigating natural things which some people claim are supernatural. Investigating the impact of belief systems is an endeavor of psychology and sociology, which are not the most concrete of sciences. In science, we can't claim a source without observing the connection. If we can't observe the source, we can't observe the connection. Studying the events of the Bible is studying history, which I don't even think is technically a science at all. We can learn some things by studying ancient texts, be we can't learn things about the supernatural. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
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Re: Belief for fear of hell

Postby jimwalton » Sun Sep 02, 2018 3:01 pm

The problem with investigating the supernatural—really and practically speaking—is "How could you ever tell?" I'm serious about that. It sounds like what you want is that it would take the effort to set up the experiment, agree on methodology, establish a control set, and be able to regular all possible factors to be able to truly determine whether a true miracle verifiably happened. This simply isn't the way God works. Realistically, that means that a person with miracle ability contacts a research organization to find funding, set up the parameters, establish the rules, regulate the control group—and then say, "OK, NOW do your miracle." Say what? That's not how it works.

Then suppose the miracle worker heals a person. Who's to say that somebody isn't going to say, "Well, that would have maybe happened anyway. Maybe their body just did it and the timing was lucky." I'm not trying to be smart aleck, but just wondering how you're ever going to get what you're asking.

Let me give you a real life example. My son, at 19 years old, was suddenly rushed to the hospital with a life-threatening stroke. It was a Sunday evening, he was totally incoherent, and his one side was non-functional. When he talked it was total babel. The doctors said he may not live, and if he did, his functionality might be minimal. His church gathered to pray, and by email and Facebook, people all over the world also prayed. The next morning the church had a special prayer meeting at 6 in the morning. My wife and I went into his room at 9 am on Monday morning. He said to us (I kid you not), "Hi Mom. Hi Dad. What's going on?" I was THERE. I consider this to be miraculous. Later diagnoses identified that the stroke was in his brain stem, where life functions reside. And yet the very next morning, after the prayers of many, he was talking coherently, and today lives a productive life.

I told this story once before once on this forum. Here's the reaction I got: "Yeah, that's not a miracle, dude. Be serious. That's a dude recovering from a stroke like lots and lots of other people do all the time. Be thankful to the medical staff. They're the ones who saved your son."

So who's to ever be able to document miracles in a conclusive way? How would you even do that? If I pray for someone, and they get completely better at that very instance, couldn't people still say, "It would-a happened by itself." "The body is a mysterious thing."

I'm asking for real. When something happens, who could possible say FOR SURE that it was God or that it was just something that happened. So people who believe in God, who know how He works, who pray for a miracle and then see it ascribe it to a miracle. Those who don't believe in God and who don't believe in miracles can easily just blow it off with some excuse, and there's no changing their mind. How can you investigate the supernatural?
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