Q: Does God punish, either in this life or in an afterlife, those who do not believe he exists? — J in Wilmington, North Carolina
A: Thanks, J. Your question is whether atheism is a sin and not just a mistaken belief. The difference between a mistake and a sin is that a mistake is just a wrong conclusion from the evidence at hand while a sin is a willful rebellion against those facts. You can, for example, make a mistake in driving to your in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving dinner because you inadvertently made a wrong turn on the way. That is a mistake. If you purposely drive the wrong way, however, so that you miss the dinner and the uncomfortable political conversations that follow the pie, that is a sin. You knew the right way and chose to ignore it.
There are mistakes and sins we can make while driving to God as well. Let’s examine the theological traffic. I am making the case here that atheism is either a mistake or a sin. That is for you, dear J, and my dear readers, to decide individually. Atheists make the case that no credible evidence supports the belief in God much less a God who created the universe and everyone in it.
Here’s how the main arguments for and against God break down:
For: The order in the universe is so perfect it requires an orderer.
Against: Earthquakes, famines, diseases and black holes show more chaos than order in the world.
For: Something had to begin the universe, or we would be trapped in an infinite series of causes. That beginner of the universe, who was not itself begun, is God.
Against: The universe could have been created by a Big Bang that started everything without God.
For: Our morality comes from the Bible and the Bible, in large measure, comes from God. Without it we have no moral code by which to live our lives. Our virtue is proof of a good God.
Against: Many people who do not believe in God live virtuous lives. Many cultures that have never been exposed to the Bible live virtuous lives. There are parts of the Bible that are not virtuous.
As for me, I believe the arguments for a good Creator God are superior to the arguments for nothing.
Earthquakes and such are examples of order not chaos. They are the perfect working of a living and ordered world. Carbon and gravity are the same on Earth as at the edge of the universe. That perfect order was created by God, the perfect orderer.
The Big Bang Theory may be right, but it does not explain where the matter came from that went bang. Something created it that was itself not created. That something is God.
As just one example, the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us is given in the Bible in Leviticus 19:18 and quoted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31. This religious fundament of morality appears in every major religion, then appeared in secular philosophies. Is this bleed-over from religious morality into secular morality an accident? I think not. God’s revelation is the foundation of the moral universe.
In short, I stand with Einstein who asked about the universe, “Could so great a symphony have no conductor?
So, if it is reasonable that God exists, denying this is a mistake in thinking. If a person believes in God and denies it out of anger or despair is that more than a mistake? Perhaps. But even if it is a sin, would God punish it?
Because all proofs for God are more than guesses but less than absolute, I consider all denials of God’s existence to be mistakes, not sins. Therefore, I cannot believe that God will punish, either in this life or the next, anyone who cannot come to accept a belief in God’s existence. Rather, I believe that upon arriving at the world to come after the death of our bodies there are going to be some really surprised atheists.
A final reason I believe that God will not punish a lack of belief in God is that belief can fade in and out. Belief is not a permanent fixture of our mind. On some days belief is easy, on other days it is very hard. How could God decide on which day to judge us?
In sum, belief in God is an invitation not a threat. It is followed by joyous love not cruel punishment. What the ultimate truth is will be known someday, but that is not today.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.