Explaining Theological Controversies To Our Atheist Friends

There are times when an employer would almost look unfavorably on a candidate who had direct experience in the industry. The candidate would have learned a certain way of doing things and it would be more difficult to unlearn that approach than it would be to train somebody else. The same general principle can be applied in theological controversies. Sometimes our atheist friends were brought up in Christian homes. When they try to criticize the Christian faith, they might overlook a few careful theological nuances. We might benefit from explaining theological controversies to our atheist friends. I am excluding controversies that many atheists are probably familiar with, such as the age of the earth and interpreting Genesis 1. (If that interests you, please click here for biblical arguments against young earth creationism and here for Noah’s Flood).

Some atheists would react to that just by saying something silly, like “This is like nerds arguing about Star Trek.” But for those atheists who legitimately want to understand where we are coming from, this article should be useful. For those who just want to ascribe unsavory positions to us and attack straw men, this article might not be for you. But a good rule of thumb is that before you can say “I disagree,” you should say “I understand.”

Before beginning, it might be useful to explain the difference between types of theological controversies. Christianity is not a house of cards. It is more like a spider’s web. If you pick out the tertiary strands, the core of the web will remain in tact. Some of these controversies are tertiary and can be conceded by a faithful Christian. Others are more critical. These include the trinity, the incarnation and the resurrection. If any of these are compromised, Christianity would not obtain. So let’s begin explaining theological controversies to our atheist friends.

The Doctrine of The Trinity

If you have had any sort of Christian education, you have probably heard of trinitarian theology. The trinity can be summarized with the proposition that “There is one God who is eternally present in these persons.” This is expressed beautifully in the Nicene Creed. It begins with this proclamation of strict monotheism. If somebody were to suggest that there are three gods, they are espousing something other than the trinity.

Within this one God, there are three real, distinct persons or relationships. We refer to them as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Since the persons are all truly God, they are all equals. It is sort of like this. God is the what. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are the who. So when Jesus became a man, he was truly God. When he prayed, he was praying to the Father. There is a meme that circulates the atheist blogosphere which suggests that Jesus prayed to himself. That is totally misguided. Jesus was God the Son praying to God the Father.

Interestingly, the trinity has functioned as sort of like a measuring stick for Christian denominations. If one denies the trinity, that is the first hint that it is a cult. Groups such as Mormons, Jehovahs Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals all deny the doctrine of the trinity. Typically if you are going to be accepted into orthodoxy and recognized as a true Christian church, you will have to accept the trinity.

The Death of Christ For Our Sins

In 1st Corinthians 15:3-8, the apostle Paul outlined what he described as “the gospel by which you are saved.” It included the death, burial, resurrection and post-mortem appearances of Jesus. A historian will tell you that Jesus died. But the theological additive of death “for our sins” goes beyond that. It gives a more profound meaning to the death of Jesus. All Christians affirm that Christ died for our sins, but there are different ways of understanding the atonement.

As a Protestant, I affirm what is known as substitutionary atonement. This is the doctrine that Christ died in the place of guilty sinners, suffering on their behalf. This view is established by verses such as Isaiah 53:10. The text reads, “But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief.” Similarly, Jesus cited Zechariah 13:7 in Matthew 26:31. The prophecy said, “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered.” So it is actually the Father who is striking his Son.

The model of the atonement commonly held among Roman Catholics is known as Christus Victor. This doctrine states that the Christ defeated the dark forces of the world that imprisoned humanity. He suffered death and then overcame it in his resurrection. You will notice that these two models are not strictly incompatible. One could hold to both. In fact, a faithful Christian could deny one and affirm the other. With that in mind, atheists who criticize the substitutionary model are not criticizing the broadest form of Christianity. The Christian could concede the argument and maintain a firm conviction that the atonement occurred.

Calvinism And Arminianism

This is probably one of the most heated debates within Christendom. It has very emotional implications. As a Calvinist, I believe that God does not fail. When he tries to save someone, he does not have to contend with their will. He changes their will and saves them. It therefore follows that God is not actively trying to save everyone. Beyond that, Christ did not die for everyone.

An illustration might help you understand this point. Imagine an apartment complex. All of the tenants gambled away their rent money. Now imagine that the landlord is pretty wealthy and he could pay their rent for them. But if he paid everybody’s rent, people would think there was no consequence for their actions. So he evicts them. He is absolutely just in evicting the tenants, because they gambled their money away. But imagine now that he chooses to pay the rent for just a few people. That is his prerogative. Nobody could say that he is being unjust because it is his money to do with as he pleases. Calvinism purports that God paid the rent for some and evicted the rest. Arminianism suggests that he paid everybody’s rent and some were too prideful to accept it.

Both of these doctrines have some pretty compelling passages. Romans 9 is the central text for Calvinism. Verse 16 reads, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” Paul goes on to say in verse 18, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” Arminians will usually appeal to passages such as 2nd Peter 3:9, which says that God “desires all to come to repentance.” While this may be compelling at face value, the context tells a different story. Click the linked article if you are interested in learning more.

Faith Alone Or A Lifetime of Faithful Obedience?

This is one of the central dividing lines between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Many Protestants believe that to compromise this issue is literally to compromise the gospel itself. While the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus, justification is the manner in which it is applied to believers. How do we acquire justification? As a Protestant, I believe it comes by faith alone. Once we believe in God’s promises, he legally declares us to be righteous. One of the slogans of the Protestant Reformation is “simultaneously justified and sinner.”

This doctrine is established by passages such as Romans 4:5. The text reads, “To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” There are two important elements here. First, justification does not come by works. Second, the ungodly man is justified. Another seminal text is Ephesians 2:8. It reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. This is not of yourselves, so that no man may boast.”

On the other hand, many believe that justification is wrought by a lifetime of faithful obedience. Scholars such as Dr. NT Wright suggest that we are not looking at the broader context of Paul’s message. He appeals to passages such as Romans 2:12-14, which says “It is not the hearers of the Law who are justified, but the doers of the Law.”

But this is pretty compatible with justification by faith alone. It is here that another branch of the doctrine emerges. We also believe that when a person is justified, she will become more like Christ. Her desires will change and she will walk in righteousness. Accordingly, she will be a good person. So justification is by faith alone, but that faith is accompanied by works. But the works do not justify. They prove that the individual is in the faith.

The Eternal Debate Over Hell

Typically when people think about Hell, they think of the Pagan underworld known as Hades. This is a torture chamber decorated with demons, flames, undying worms and the enraged screams of the condemned. A lot of the modern thoughts about Hell has emerged from medieval art. But some believe Hell is a consuming fire that literally destroys. The person who is condemned to Hell is literally annihilated and cast out of existence.

The annihilationist will draw support from verses such as Romans 6:23. This passage tells us that “The wage of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Yet everybody dies. Since this is contrasted against eternal life, we should think of this death not merely as earthly death but eternal death. I do not know if we should apply strange meanings to the word. The text says death. There is no Greek lexicon that would define that would as “being kept alive in fire.” Another significant passage is 2nd Thessalonians 1:9, which reads “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” Since God is omnipresent, there is nowhere they could go that is away from his presence except out of existence.

But there are pretty strong passages on the other side of the debate. The cardinal passage is Matthew 25:46. It says, “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Typically, they will draw your attention to the parallel between eternal punishment and eternal life, insisting that the word eternal means the same thing in both contexts. Of course, annihilationists would simply respond that they believe in an eternal punishment as well; it is literally a punishment that you cannot come back from. The argument takes its strongest form when you look at verse 41. Their punishment is originally prepared for “the devil and his angels.” If you cross-reference that with Revelation 20:10, it becomes interesting. It says of the devil and the beast, “They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” This is the only verse in Scripture that refers to eternal, conscious torment.

Both of these views are pretty plausible. I think annihilationism has better interpretations of the relevant passages, but both are available to faithful Christians.

Is Scripture Inerrant Or Infallible?

Christians believe that the Bible is God’s word. But there are actually different ways of thinking about this. Some models of inspiration actually allow for contradictions. This raises the distinction between inerrancy and infallibility.

If the text is inerrant, that entails that it contains absolutely no errors, whether historical, scientific or in the background details. This would be my personal view. Proponents usually argue that if the Bible is God’s word, then God cannot err and therefore the Bible must be without error.

But while I do not think that the Bible does err, I think it could potentially err. The infallibility model is perfectly coherent. Advocates will propose that so long as God’s fundamental message gets across, it does not really matter if there are errors in the background details or matters of science. Both of these views are available to faithful Christians.

The Relationship Between Sovereignty And Freedom

Some atheists will pose problems about human freedom and divine sovereignty. For example, if God is really in charge, then what is the point of prayer? Everything happens according to his divine plan. So our prayers are either superfluous or will conflict with his plan. But this is a little more nuanced than that objection lets on. I actually think that sovereignty in the strictest sense in divine determinism. But I also think determinism is compatible with freedom.

Determinism is the doctrine that God determines all things, whether good or evil. Opponents will typically raise the obvious question: how can that preserve freedom or moral responsibility? Well, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt applied an interesting thought experiment that illuminates this issue. Imagine a scientist is a Christian and he implants electrodes in your brain. Every time you read a book by an atheist, the electrodes go off and compel you to do something else. But when you want to read a book by a Christian, the electrodes are inactive. So in this case, you would freely choose to read a book by a Christian despite that you do not have any other options. It could therefore be that determinism is compatible with human freedom.

On the other hand, many Christians believe in a more libertarian model of freedom. Libertarian freedom is the doctrine that our choices are not causally determined and come from the human will. There are no electrodes at all. Some advocates of this view will put it within a larger philosophical framework, such as Molinism. Molinism is the doctrine that God puts men in situations where he knows they will freely choose to do his will. Molinists believe this view retains both divine sovereignty and human freedom. They will typically interpret passages in the Bible about predestination with that framework in mind.

Another common view of predestination is Simple Foreknowledge Arminianism. This view would reject both Molinism and determinism. On this model, God did not know what humanity would do until after he created them. When confronted with passages about God’s predestining evil, they will simply say that he reacted to evil by using it for his good purposes. All three of these views are available to faithful Christians.

A view that would be on the outskirts of orthodoxy is known as Open Theism. Open Theism is the doctrine that God cannot know the future. It would be sort of like God being unable to create a square circle. It is just logically impossible. There are basically two reasons for this. First, they believe that God’s knowledge of the future would conflict with free human choices. Second, future events do not presently exist, so there is no object to ground that knowledge. Open Theism would be confronted by passages such as Isaiah 46:10, which reads “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure'”.

Explaining Theological Controversies To Our Atheist Friends

I have met a few atheists who were interested in theology. They might take it up as a personal hobby or because they genuinely want to understand what others believe. No matter what your reasons or even if you are not an atheist, I hope this overview has been helpful. Christian theology has a lot of nuances. There is a long intellectual history within the Christian church. I only scratched the surface of the trinity and did not even mention the incarnation. If you want to learn more, a good introductory work is Philosophical Foundations For A Christian Worldview by JP Moreland and William Lane Craig.

Recommended Reading:
How Do You Know The Bible Is God’s Word?
Can A Universe Emerge From Absolutely Nothing?