Thought Experiments & Snipers


My housemate, an adamant atheist, relentlessly searches for loopholes in Christianity but has never been able to convince me with his arguments. So it came as a shock two weeks ago when he formulated a thought experiment that shamelessly puts Christians on trial. It runs as follows:

Suppose you are a pedestrian taking a mid-afternoon stroll down the street. Scanning your surroundings, you notice that everyone has his head down, seemingly unaware of the other pedestrians. You then spot a figure standing in the window of an abandoned apartment complex. He has a sniper rifle aimed at a man waiting for the bus a few blocks down. You shudder as you see the red dot emitted by his aiming device jolting about on the back of the man’s head.

In this scenario, would you call out to the man to alert him if doing so had no consequences – besides for the sniper, who would temporarily lose his target? The morally upright person certainly would. If you choose not to alert the man, however, there are two possible reasons:

  1. You are not a moral person.
  2. You do not believe the sniper is really there.

I thought I saw where this was going and mentioned something about the bystander effect, a psychological phenomenon where individuals fail to intervene in an emergency situation because they assume that someone else will help out. My housemate responded that in the thought experiment no one besides you was aware of the perceived threat.

He then applied the thought experiment to Christianity. He noted that Christians are the individuals who perceive the danger of the “sniper” – the danger being eternal damnation. The man waiting at the bus stop is a nonbeliever, and the pedestrians on the sidewalk are a mix of believers and nonbelievers who are for various reasons unaware of the man’s predicament as he waits for the bus.
His logic, then, is as such: if you so-called Christians believe in hell as a place of eternal damnation, the final destination for nonbelievers, it is your moral obligation to boldly proclaim the good news left and right. There should be no justification by the bystander effect. But this doesn’t appear to be what’s happening. Why not? The thought experiment gives two explanations:

  1. Christians have no morals.
  2. Christians do not perceive hell as a threat.

I was struck that he, a non-Christian, was blatantly telling me that evangelism should be on the forefront of my mind. In my defense, I pointed out that the two conclusions were insufficient. Maybe Christians are constantly reaching out to nonbelievers by inviting them to fellowship or loving them in ways that don’t involve barraging them with the gospel. Or perhaps only certain Christians are equipped with the gift of evangelism. But who am I fooling with these excuses? I am the bystander.

While avoiding hell should not be the motive behind following Christ, hell is a horrible reality that many people now face and will face in the future. By failing to take death seriously and to evangelize, not only do I perpetuate ignorance of the Truth, but I also serve as an accomplice to another’s damnation. I also am not loving my neighbor as myself. These are matters of utmost concern: it is a shame that they could ever be taken lightly.


2 thoughts on “Thought Experiments & Snipers

  1. Melody

    Please consider Romans 11:14-15:

    ‘ But how can they call on Him to save them unless they believe in Him?And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?And how can they hear about Him unless someone tells them?And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent?That is what the Scriptures mean when they say ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news’.


  2. One problem with this thought experiment: As you alert the man to his potential doom he potentially might say I don’t see any sniper (or perceived threat)… and since he has been spiritually shot does not feel any impact…

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