Dear Atheist, God punishes you for sin, not lack of belief

In discussing God's judgment, some non-believers look up with puppy dog eyes and ask how a good God could condemn them for simply not being convinced by the evidence. Does that sound like a good God to you? They can't help their unbelief after all, any more than they can help their being tall or short.1 Here's a response:

Dear Non-believer,

You are not being punished for your disbelief.2 On the Christian worldview, you are not an innocent puppy. Your usage of for here is like that of a convicted murderer looking up at a judge with puppy dog eyes, asking how a good judge could condemn him for getting caught or for not escaping or for not having a jail-preventing heart-attack. Granted, without these things he wouldn't go to jail, but they are not the judges reason for sending him to jail.3

It is true that God credits Jesus's righteousness to the “believer” (see the gospel), and that therefore the “believer” is not condemned. But, it does not follow that therefore the non-believer is condemned for not believing, or for not being convinced by the evidence.


  1. The idea that one can control their beliefs, in philosophy, is called “doxastic volunteerism.” On the face of it, doxastic volunteerism is clearly false. Could you believe a pink elephant is in the room with you? Would it help if you were offered $1,000,000 to believe it? Of course not. On the other hand, one can choose to situate one's self in ways conducive to cultivating belief.
  2. Note: I do hold that unbelief is a sin, and that cognitively healthy persons who disbelieve are deceiving themselves. However, atheists raising the complaint in this article are objecting, in particular, to the notion that we are condemned for simply disbelieving, on mere grounds that they would not be condemned if they believed. That is the target of this article's criticism.
  3. To elaborate, the principle being employing by non-believers who reason this way is as follows: For any punisher x, and any person y being punished by x, IF y would have avoided punishment by performing action z, THEN then reason x chose to punish y is that y did not perform z. What's going on? It seems that there is some equivocation over the word “for.” On the one hand, the work being done by “for” is to mark out punisher's reasons for choosing to punish the individual. That's the most natural way to read the statement, and it's the only way in which one might complain against the judge. What good judge would choose to punish the murderer for getting caught (e.g. for failing to wipe his fingerprints from the murder weapon)? On the other hand, there is a nearby interpretation in which the statement has the ring of truth, but underwhich the criticism of God dissolves. On this interpretation, “for” marks out what philosophers sometimes call a “negative cause.” (There is dispute in the metaphysics of causation over whether a negative cause is really an instance of causation, but just to illustrate, one might say Jane negatively causes the house plant to die by not watering it.) In this sense, a non-believers' unbelief negatively causes him to suffer God's judgment. While there may be truth to this, it is irrelevant to casting blame on God, because this has nothing to do with God's reasons for punishing.
    Long story short: God punishes sinners for lying, stealing, raping, and doing other wicked deeds. We've all done them, and insofar as these are held to our account we all deserve God's wrath because of it. However, God in His love has provided a means of grace through Jesus Christ, whereby these deeds will not be held to our account. Individuals who complain about unfairness, because some are able to believe, have fallen under one of two illusions. Either they think that when God gives a gift to one person, that all other persons have a right to that same gift. Or alternatively, they think that no one has really sinned in such a way that deserves God's judgment.

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