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12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How Can God Be Both Just and Merciful?

After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy
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In the “Does God exist?” debate at Theology Unleashed between theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty (September 17, 2021), we are looking at the nature of good, as well as the problem of evil. Now, as the questions continue, Matt Dillahunty defends his view of the foundations of morality and Michael Egnor explains how justice and mercy can be combined.

Readers may recall that the debate opened with Egnor explaining why, as former atheist, he became a theist. Then Dillahunty explained why, as a former theist, he became an atheist. Michael Egnor then made his opening argument, offering ten proofs for the existence of God. Matt Dillahunty responded in his own opening argument that the propositions were all unfalsifiable. When, in Section 4, it was Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty, Dillahunty was not easily able to recall Aquinas’s First Way (the first logical argument for the existence of God). Then, turning to the origin of the universe, Egnor challenged Dillahunty on the fact, accepted in science, that our universe began in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down). He accused Dillahunty of using science as “a crutch” for his atheism. Then they discussed the Second Oldest Question (after “Why is there something rather than nothing?”) If there is a God, why is there evil?

And then, what is the true origin of our sense of morality? Besides, what if Dillahunty isn’t really an atheist anyway? Egnor has come to doubt that. Egnor and Dillahunty then took questions.The questions included a perennial question, why is there evil?, once again, and Egnor defended the traditional view that evil is absence of good. And now, the foundations of morality and the question of how God can show both justicea nd mercy without contradiction:

A partial transcript, notes, and links to all previous portions of the debate follow:

Matt Dillahunty: Probably my favorite argument to address is the moral argument because there’s been so much discussed about it. I’m not impressed at all by the problem of evil, and I use Divine Hiddenness.

But the various moral arguments are going to come up in every debate. The first handful of debates I did, Morality wasn’t in the title and that’s what we spent most of our time talking about. It seems to be most people’s issues, and it’s really frustrating for people to hear someone say, “Objective morality does not exist as a thing, as something out there on its own.” Instead, morality is something that we construct. We can agree on a foundation. [01:51:00]

Once you have a foundation, just like once you have the rules of chess, you can then make objective assessments, but there’s no objective imperative, no external motivation for someone that can care about wellbeing. It’s unfortunate, so you have to work with the people who do. Mostly, we do, and mostly, we can work together, but you’re going to find people who don’t agree and even if that’s true, irrespective of whether they believe in a god. [01:51:30]

By the way, there’s not a single problem with secular morality that is in any way solved by appealing to a god because you’re just pointing to another foundation that can also be rejected.

Arjuna [podcast host]: This question probably won’t be popular with Matt. Why should someone care about what Matt is not convinced of?

Matt Dillahunty: They shouldn’t. It’s a fine question. This is why I did things a little bit differently here today. I’ve done lots of debates where I point out why I’m not convinced the claim that a god exists has met its burden of proof. That’s an epistemic view of this. Today, people wanted me to take an ontological assessment because the question was does God exist? [01:52:00]

I’m not significant. I’m just a person telling you what I think. If you don’t care what I think, that’s fine. But if you dismiss the position that I have just because you don’t care that I happened to hold it, that would be a mistake on your part, just as it would be a mistake for me to dismiss anything. Dr. Egnor said about any of these arguments from Aquinas just because he said it. [01:52:30]

Legal and law concept statue of Lady Justice with scales of justice

I mean, I don’t even have anything against him. I mean, we just did a debate and things get riled up. We can go out and have a coffee. Well, I don’t drink coffee, but we can go out and do whatever at some point. That’s not what this is. So you shouldn’t care about it because I say it, but if you dismiss it because I say it, that’s a fallacy. That’s a problem too. [01:53:00]

Arjuna: A question for Michael. How do you balance justice with mercy? Can God be truly just and show mercy?

Michael Egnor: Wow. That’s a very, very, very profound question. The Christian answer to that is that Christ’s atonement on the cross accomplished both justice and mercy. That is that God is infinitely good and all sin is unjust in God’s eyes. God is also infinitely merciful. It seems at first that there’s just no way that those two conditions could be satisfied, mercy and justice. Remarkably, the Lord’s atonement on the cross is a way to sacrifice. All right? It is a way to satisfy both justice and mercy. It’s one of the reasons why I love Christ. [01:54:00]

Matt Dillahunty: I think you may have been set up a little bit there because that’s an argument that I’ve made many times — and I think somebody just wants to me hear say it — is that justice means getting what you deserve and mercy means getting what you don’t deserve. So there is a conflict there.

While Michael’s free to believe that what Jesus did somehow magically satisfies that, obviously, not only do I not think that happened but I don’t see that it resolves the issue. But if he’s convinced it’s resolved, the issue and justice and mercy were both met. [01:54:30]

Michael Egnor: Yeah. It’s one of the things about Christianity that took my breath away when I finally understood that that is a way of resolving the problem — the dichotomy between justice and mercy.

Virgin Mary close up. A mother of mercy

Matt Dillahunty: I wish somebody could explain it. I mean, I appreciate the fact that you understand it, but people could not understand the Trinity all the time too, and we never get an explanation of that that makes sense. [01:55:00]

Michael Egnor: I think understanding God’s purposes with great rigor is an awfully difficult thing to do because I’m kind of like a little insect compared to my creator. But the way I understand it is that God is wholly good and that He does not tolerate evil, at least does not tolerate it in a moral sense. Yet, He is also full of loving. Both of these qualities are essentially infinite. [01:55:30]

So how do you reconcile these two things? How do you do always the right thing to people who are doing the wrong things all the time? The Christian answer to it is that He came here Himself and he paid our debt for us. All we are asked is to love and have faith in Him. So we unite ourselves to Him and we obtain our righteousness through Him. [01:56:00]

Matt Dillahunty: That doesn’t do anything to actually explain it in a way that, where it makes sense. I get it. I’ve heard those same sermons before.

Next: From the audience: Do scientists agree that singularities can be part of science? Or are they supernatural?

The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:

Two chess knights facing away from each other
  1. Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
  2. A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
  3. Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
  4. Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
  5. Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
  6. Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
    If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
  7. Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
    Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
  8. Does morality really exist? If so, does it come from God? Matt Dillahunty now challenges Michael Egnor: There is no way to know whether a moral doctrine represents any reality apart from belief. Michael Egnor insists that a moral law exists independently of varying opinions. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that has always been the traditional view worldwide.
  9. Michael Egnor explains why Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist. Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true. Egnor: I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. They don’t live like atheists. They live like theists.
  10. Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty now take questions… For example, “ What is Mr. Egnor’s best evidence of any god that would make me believe?” Key questions turned on whether abstractions like “right” or wrong “wrong” represent realities. It’s the perennial realism vs. nominalism question again.
  11. Is evil in the world simply the absence of good? Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time. Many traditional philosophers have held that evil is the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light. It has no independent existence.
  12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?
  13. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: Are singularities a part of science? Also, an audience member asks the debaters: Does atheism make better predictions than theism? Dillahunty denies that atheism is a single position; Egnor responds that that is a suspect claim because atheist positions are quite predictable.
  14. Debate: Is morality a mere emotion that we project on others? Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed. Michael Egnor argues that God created the universe, imperfect in relation to himself, out of an excess of love — perhaps so that we all have some type of being.
  15. Debate: How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?? In the broken window analogy, the brick becomes a cause simultaneously with the shattered glass becoming an effect. In the wrap-up, Egnor restates that atheism is not really an argument, just ignorance, and Dillahunty restates that Egnor was attacking him personally.

You may also wish to read these pieces by Michael Egnor:

Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.

The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.

Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.

Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.


Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism.

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12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How Can God Be Both Just and Merciful?