Q and A: Could A Failure To Experience God’s Holy Spirit Justify Unbelief?


I have always been fond of William Lane Craig's appeal to personal experiences. A person can know that God exists just by the witness of the Holy Spirit. However, I have wondered if there might be an argument against the existence of God from the failure of the witness of the Holy Spirit.

A Christian might realize that they are not truly saved. They have utterly plunged into sin and they realize that they are so in love with their sin and there is nothing that they can do about it. However, they will recognize that the person who calls on the name of the Lord is supposed to be saved. The pressing question, then, is why they are not saved. Is there something that they have to do to be worthy of salvation? Of course not, salvation is by faith alone. Do they not have enough faith? If not, what is the degree of faith and how does one measure it?

The Bible promises that those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. For the person who has called upon the name of the Lord and is not saved, will this serve as a disconfirmation of the biblical promise? Are they justified in their unbelief at this juncture?



Before I answer your question, Richard, I'll give some background information for my readers on what the inner witness of God’s Holy Spirit is. Philosophers like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga argue that a person can be intellectually justified in believing that Christianity is true apart from having any good arguments or evidence that Christianity is true. This is because belief in God is a properly basic belief. Now what is a properly basic belief? A properly basic belief is a belief that you have that is foundational. You do not believe them because you made an inference from some argument or inferred that it was true because you carefully examined the evidence. Nevertheless, although you hold to these beliefs without first looking at evidence for their truth, you’re still rational to affirm them. Properly Basic beliefs would be like belief in the existence of objective moral truths such as “Torturing a little baby for fun is wrong” and “Nurturing a baby is morally right”, “Taking what doesn’t belong to you is morally wrong.” “Giving to charity is morally right”, and so on. Belief in the external world is also a properly basic truth. You believe that you’re actually sitting there right now reading this blog post, that your sense of sight, hearing, touch, and smell are giving you trustworthy information about the objects around you. You don’t believe these things because you found an argument convincing, yet you believe the external world is real, and you’re epistemologically warranted in so believing.

Craig and Plantinga argue that belief in God is the same way. The Holy Spirit witnesses to the heart of the individual and inwardly confirms that the content of The Bible is true. The individual then acts on that knowledge by placing His faith in Christ and being born again. The inner witness not only confirms that Christianity is true, but also assures the Christian that he is truly saved. This view does have a scriptural basis. Romans 8:16 says The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” and 1 John 4:2-3 says This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.”

Do People Actually Fail To Experience God’s Inner Witness?

Now, Richard, your question is whether if one fails to experience such an inner witness, would that not be a counter argument against God’s existence if an experience would confirm it? Firstly, we have to realize that the issue is an epistemological one, not an ontological one. The inner witness has to do with how one can know God exists. If we didn’t have any good reasons to believe God existed at all, it wouldn’t follow that God did not exist. Rather, it would just mean that we weren’t justified in believing He exists. If a person experiences God’s inner witness, that could be a good reason to believe He existed, but if a person failed to experience such a witness, it wouldn’t mean God didn’t exist, just that he wouldn’t be justified in belief. Now, if they didn’t experience God’s Spirit, would they in fact be justified in unbelief? Well, they I think they might if they in fact did not actually experience God's Spirit. However, I think such a scenario doesn't occur.

As an Arminian-Molinist, I believe God’s Spirit witnesses to all people. The Bible says that God “…is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), that He “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4), for this reason Christ died for the whole world (1 John 2:2). If God wants all people saved, it stands to reason that He would pave the way for all people to believe by sending them grace to enable and draw them to saving faith. After all, belief in His existence is foundational to attaining salvation (see Hebrews 11:6). In fact, this is what Christ said in John 12:32 “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. Given that God’s Spirit witnesses to all people, no one is justified in unbelief. Now, the skeptic may argue that he’s never felt God’s Spirit witness to Him or might argue that we have no way to know whether God’s Spirit is actually witnessing to us, but The Bible teaches that men talk themselves out of belief. Romans 1:18 says people “suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. So it’s likely that people have experienced God’s inner witness but have simply talked themselves into believing that it was just their gut feeling or something. Also, 2 Corinthians 4:4 tells us that Satan (“the god of this world”) has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they won’t perceive the truth. If an unbeliever is having a hard time of talking himself out of belief, the devil is more than glad to help him. Therefore, if a person doesn't think He's ever felt God's Spirit, he is either in self delusion, or he has been deceived by the devil.

Besides God’s inner witness to people, we have a lot of good arguments and evidence that establish that Christianity is true, tipping the scales in favor of God’s existence.

Even if a person did fail to acknowledge that God’s Holy Spirit was witnessing to him, the overwhelming amount of objective evidence for Christianity’s truth would simply overwhelm any doubts you would have about the subjective experience you think you didn’t receive. Assuming that God is drawing on his heart while he examines the evidence, the evidence could serve to remove any excuse a person might have for not believing.

For example, The Kalam Cosmological Argument employs the law of causality and the origin of the universe to show that the universe was created by a transcendent causal agent. Given that whatever begins to exist has a cause, and that the universe began to exist (as established by the various strands of scientific evidence for The Big Bang Theory, the second law of thermodynamics, and the two philosophical arguments against actual infinites”), it follows that the universe had a cause of its existence. This cause must be a spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, supernatural, uncaused, personal Creator. For my readers not familiar with this argument, check out my blog post “The Kalam Cosmological Argument” or the video presentation I made “Evidence For Divine Creation (Night 1) – The Kalam Cosmological Argument”

Secondly, The Fine Tuning Argument establishes that the laws of physics had been fine tuned to an extraordinary precision at the moment of The Big Bang. The strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, gravity, electromagnetism, dark energy, and other constants and quantities had to be of a just right strength in order for life to be possible in the universe. The odds that any one of these constants or quantities would be of the just right strength is statistically impossible on its own, but when you add them all together, improbability is multiplied by improbability by improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers! Now, I can only imagine 3 possible explanations for why the laws of physics take the values required for life to exist. Either the universe is finely tuned out of physical necessity, it was finely tuned by chance, or it was the result of design. Neither physical necessity nor chance are good explanations for this extraordinary fine tuning, therefore it must have been the result of an Intelligent Designer. For more information on this argument, check out my blog post “The Fine Tuning Argument For God’s Existence (Updated Version)” or the video presentation I made of this argument titled “Evidence For Divine Creation (Night 2) – The Fine Tuning Argument”

Thirdly, not only must the laws of physics be fine tuned for life, but many, many parameters inside a local region of the universe must be just right for life to exist. We must have a moon of the just right size, an Earth of the just right size, the Earth must be of the just right distance from the sun in order to allow for the presence of liquid water, we’ve got to have 4 gas giants of the just right size and distance from the Earth in order to shield us from comets from outside of the solar system, and many more. It’s far too improbable that all of these things should come together by mere happenstance. The most rational conclusion is that our region was crafted by a supreme Creator.

Fourthly, the existence of objective moral values as evidence for God’s existence. I see no reason to believe why one set of behavior should be labeled immoral and another set of behavior labeled moral if atheism were true. If God doesn’t exist, then neither does objective moral values and duties. But since objective moral values and duties do exist, then it follows that God exists. To examine this argument, check out my blog post “The Moral Argument For God’s Existence”

Fifthly, we have excellent historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth believed that He was God incarnate, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. If Jesus claimed to be God, and then He died and rose from the dead, then that is pretty good evidence that He was telling the truth. Why? Because if Jesus claimed to be God but wasn’t, then he was a blasphemer and a heretic, and God would never raise a heretic and a blasphemer from the dead. The resurrection, if it happened, implies that God placed his stamp of approval on Jesus’ 3 year ministry. The resurrection vindicated Jesus’ radical claims for which His enemies condemned Him as a blasphemer. I go into the evidence for Jesus’ radical claims in “The Self Understanding of Jesus”, and I go into the evidence for His death and resurrection in “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 1” and in “The Minimal Facts Case For Jesus’ Resurrection PART 2”. I also debated Nathan Reese on this issue in an hour and a half debate that you can find in the “My Video Debates” section of this site.

What is the point in summarizing these arguments? Simply to say that even if a failure to perceive God’s Spirit witnessing to you would justify unbelief if that were the only piece of evidence taken into account, such a failure of perception is simply overwhelmed by the arguments and evidence establishing God’s existence. If we were to put the failure to perceive The Holy Spirit’s inner witness on one side of the scale, and the arguments for Christianity on the other, the scales would overwhelmingly tip in favor of God’s existence. You could believe Christianity is true simply on the basis of Natural Theology arguments and the historical case for Jesus’ Resurrection. Now, notice that I said "failure to perceive" God's inner witness. It's not that God doesn't witness to some people, but rather that people either explain the experience away, or when they do experience the witness, a devil comes around to tell them that what they experienced wasn't really God but some neurological phenomenon completely explainable by brain chemistry, or it was a gut feeling, or whatever. However, even if one were to doubt the witness of the Spirit alone, one could still fall back on the objective evidence. 

In my own life, I find that belief grounded in evidence and arguments coupled with the Spirit's inner witness creates a iron clad faith. The two reinforce one another. I rely on both instead of one or the other.

People Who Aren’t Saved Shouldn’t Expect To Experience Witness Of Assurance, Even If They Experience Witness To Christianity’s Truth

Richard, the person you wrote about in your first paragraph sounds to me like a nominal Christian. I’m talking about the one about whom you said “A Christian might realize that they are not truly saved. They have utterly plunged into sin and they realize that they are so in love with their sin and there is nothing that they can do about it. However, they will recognize that the person who calls on the name of the Lord is supposed to be saved. The pressing question, then, is why they are not saved. Is there something that they have to do to be worthy of salvation? Of course not, salvation is by faith alone. Do they not have enough faith? If not, what is the degree of faith and how does one measure it?”

A person who comes to a realization that they’re not truly saved actually is experiencing God’s inner witness, but in the scenario you’re envisioning, The Holy Spirit isn’t telling them that they’re saved or that Christianity is true, but that they’re not right with God. Now, if they believed they were Christians before this realization, it might be that they were either never saved in the first place, or they apostatized (which one you think it is will depend on your soteriological stance). I believe that people are eternally secure. Passages like John 10:28-29, Romans 8:38-39, Philippians 1:6, Ephesians 1:13, and 1 John 2:19 certainly seem to teach that once you’re saved, you’ll always be saved. If that is the case, then in a situation where one appears to fall away from the faith, we must conclude that they were never saved in the first place. But how can this be? Were they lying about being Christians? Did they pretend to believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead the whole time they were attending church? No, I don’t think so. It’s not that so-called apostates were lying about believing Christianity was true. I think people like Charles Templeton and Bart Ehrman, for example, sincerely agreed with the creeds of the church. However, even though they believed THAT Christianity was true, they didn’t place their faith IN Christ to receive salvation.

These people are what I like to call “Nominal Christians”. Other people call them false converts, others call them “Christian Atheists”. They believe that Christianity is true, but they’ve never received The Holy Spirit to be born again. They “believe that God exists but live as if He doesn’t”. I myself used to be this type of person until the Lord got a hold of me at age 17.  

James 2:19 says even the demons believe that God exist, but read Revelation 20:10 to find out what happens to them! Satan believes that God exists, that Jesus is God incarnate, that Jesus died on the cross, that He rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven. Satan believes that God is 3 persons in 1 divine essence. Satan believes all these things, but He’s not saved. Mere intellectual agreement with the creeds isn’t enough to save a person. A person must repent of their sins by placing their faith in Christ and asking Him to regenerate them.

Faith is a two part system. There’s acknowledgement that it’s true, then there’s acting on that knowledge (i.e praying to God for salvation). So, it’s not that they don’t have enough faith, but that they don’t have the right kind of faith. A person in the scenario you’re describing only had the acknowledgment portion of faith, not the trusting in Christ portion. There may be readers here wondering if perhaps they might be nominal Christians. For those people, I advise them to check out my blog post “5 Signs A Person Is A Nominal Christian”  to see whether they’re in the same boat as Satan (i.e believing God exists yet living in rebellion to Him).

I hope this answers your question to your satisfaction, Richard. God bless you.