The $64,000 Question about God


Three temples of abrahamic religions on the white background

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, author of books such as “Happiness Is a Serious Problem” and “The Ten Commandments,” and founder of Prager University, which produces short videos on important social issues from a conservative perspective. Prager is one of only a handful of conservative figures I can actually listen to these days.

Prager, a Jew, is that rare media voice advocating belief in God and moral clarity. His respect for evangelical Christians comes through loud and clear. In fact, Prager respects people with all sorts of beliefs—but that respect doesn’t preclude him from asking them some tough questions every now and again.

In recent months, Prager has issued a terrific challenge to atheists. Before digging into the minutia of their arguments against God’s existence, he asks: “Do you hope you are right or wrong?” This is the $64,000 question. It bypasses the supposed intellectual reasons for their atheism and goes right for the moral jugular—their motives.

“I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong,” Prager explains. “It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality—right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe—murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.”

He adds, “A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.”

On Prager’s radio program I’ve heard him describe such people as sick—and he’s right. They are morally sick.

Once I moderated a debate between the late Christopher Hitchens, a take-no-prisoners atheist, and several Christian apologists. They argued the topic, “Does the God of Christianity Exist, and What Difference Does It Make?” I found the response of Hitch, as his friends called him, to be eye-opening. This intelligent atheist considered God (as understood by Christians) to be a celestial despot who is always waiting for an infraction from the people He made in order to throw them into hell. All Hitchens wanted from the universe was to be left alone, and too bad for the weak and helpless among us. Sick indeed.

Hitchens was one atheist who hoped he was right. Such an attitude has been with humanity ever since Adam and Eve sinned and hid from God in the Garden. Many of us want God to leave us alone so that we can pursue our own agendas without divine interference. Some atheists have been honest enough to admit this.

Aldous Huxley confessed, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do. For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”

Of course, “sexual freedom” isn’t the only reason people today hope that God doesn’t exist, but it is a potent one. There are many others, but they all lead to the same tragic destination—spiritual ruin. Many among us hope against hope that there is no God, no meaning, and no moral order. Such people want to be left alone to do what they want, no matter what.

C. S. Lewis reminded us that this defiance takes us not to heaven, but to hell. “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end,” Lewis said; “that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” It truly pains me to say that I believe hell contains many rebels, atheist and otherwise, who would not leave that place of torment even if they could. They would rather, as Milton said, “reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.”

But what kind God are we talking about, and what kind of heaven? Prager generously says that anyone who believes (1) in the God of Israel, (2) that God judges our moral actions, and (3) in the God who gave the Ten Commandments . . . believes in the same God—including both Christians, who believe in the Trinity, and Muslims and Jews, who don’t. What does this brand of monotheism shared by different faiths look like in the real world?

Several years ago, I found myself in a passionate discussion with a prominent Orthodox rabbi from Chicago who took strong exception to my stated belief that everyone, including Jews, needs to hear the good news about Jesus. In a series of discussions, I learned a great deal about historic Christian anti-Semitism and why followers of Christ must listen humbly and sometimes apologize to our Jewish friends. It was sobering to hear their side of the story. Eventually our debate found its way onto the airwaves of WGN and the radio program of Milt Rosenberg.

With his customary directness, Rosenberg asked me a question that he asked most of his Christian guests when a religious topic was at hand: “Do you think I’m going to hell?” Talk about being put on the spot!

I replied something like, “Well, if C. S. Lewis is right that the doors of hell are locked on the inside, and if heaven is about worshiping Jesus as Lord and God, would you even want to go to heaven?” The question, I believe, is not whether I think Jews are going to hell. It is whether Jews want to go to heaven if believing in Jesus is the price of admission.

Sadly, I received no answer that night, but the question remains. Let me put it this way: Do Jews who reject Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah hope that they’re right or wrong?

I’m not talking about the esteem that many Jews have for Jesus, who, after all, was a fellow Jew. “No other figure—spiritual, philosophical, political or intellectual—has had a greater impact on human history,” said Norman Cousins, the former editor of the Saturday Review. “To belong to a people that produced Jesus is to share in a distinction of vast dimension and meaning.”

I’m speaking of something deeper than esteem. I want to know whether Jews who reject Jesus as their Savior embrace the consequences, not just for themselves, but for the world. Would most Jews be happy or sad if Jesus were not the Savior, did not rise from the dead, and therefore did not offer forgiveness for our sins and a sure path to heaven for all who believe, including Jews?

During the centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was the Jewish people, after all, who whispered in their Scriptures about the hope of physical resurrection. This whisper became a shout on a certain Sunday morning just outside Jerusalem two millennia ago: “He is risen!” Do most Jews really hope that there is no resurrection after all? What a sad and hopeless world that would be.

As Paul, the self-proclaimed Hebrew of Hebrews, said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Obviously, the lamentable and horrifying persecution of Jews by sinfully misguided Christians down through the centuries adds a huge burden of emotional weight to the question, but it does not change the essential issue.

Dennis Prager is asking a profound moral question: Do you hope you’re right or wrong? It’s a question that all of us, Jew and Gentile, must face.

Image courtesy of Ojimorena at Thinkstock by Getty Images.

Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is Editor at Large for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and for Christianity Today. With Jerry Root, he is the co-author of “The Sacrament of Evangelism.”

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