Is Christianity Wishful Thinking?

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by Shane Scott

In my last article I mentioned that I had recently engaged in a very lengthy and (hopefully) profitable discussion on Facebook with some friends of mine who are atheists/agnostics. I want to continue exploring some of the issues that arose during that conversation.

The way the discussion actually got started is that a friend of mine in Sweden who is quite militant in his atheism posted a link to a video explaining what the “afterlife” means to people like him. (Essentially, it means living on in the memory and energy you leave behind). But he prefaced the link with a comment to the effect that Christianity has never offered any rational basis for faith. Instead, he said that people believe in Christianity because: “It’s a comforting thought, hence people WANT to believe. It’s as simple as that.”WishfulThinking-01

In other words, Christian faith is a blind leap based on nothing other than the comforting dream that there might be a heaven. It is wishful thinking, driven by emotion rather than reason.

What are we to make of this assertion?

First, as I explained in the previous article, Christianity is not simply a blind leap of faith. It is a decision to trust in God and follow Jesus on the basis of evidence. To be quite blunt, I was certain that my friend had no clue what any of the ancient and venerable arguments for the existence of God even were, and our subsequent discussion only confirmed this point. This is sadly typical of the bloated rhetoric found in the “New Atheist” literature. Utterly ignorant of the classic arguments formulated by great thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and others, they obliviously assert such arguments don’t exist. Yet you can see the outlines for these arguments in Paul’s statements to the pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:16-17), as well as in his indictment of Gentile idolatry in Romans (Romans 1:18-22).

Second, while Christianity does not consist of wishful thinking, it certainly does place a great emphasis on hope. In fact, the New Testament writers deliberately contrast Christianity and the hope of the resurrection and life everlasting with the utter absence of hope found in paganism. Christians, Paul says, do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But even here, that hope is not based on simple whimsy. Why do Christians have such hope? “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). The Christian hope is based on the resurrection of Jesus, a claim that is rooted in the historical facts of Jesus’ death, burial, empty tomb, and resurrection appearances.

Third, Christianity is not the only belief system that is susceptible to the charge of wishful thinking. Consider this admission by atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

“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.” (The Last Word, p. 130)

Nagel doesn’t believe in God because he hopes there isn’t a God. He would prefer a world of no accountability, where the motto would be the same as that of the pagans Paul quoted in 1 Corinthians 15:32: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say what you will, but Nagel’s atheism is not based on pure reason and logic. There is a degree of wishful thinking influencing his beliefs as well. “I don’t want there to be a God,” says Nagel.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am sure that a philosopher of Thomas Nagel’s stature could provide intellectual reasons for his lack of faith. But in addition to those matters of reason, it is also clear that emotion and volition are involved as well. And that’s the case with faith in God, too. It involves the mind, the heart, and the will (Matthew 22:37). That doesn’t make faith suspect – it makes it human.