Maybe the Atheists Are Right

Theology Thursday

Most of the atheists–or atheistically-leaning agnostics, who I’m just going to call atheists because it’s quicker–I have ever known (and I have indeed had some dearly beloved atheists in my real life in the past, and a couple currently reading this here blog) have quite detailed ideas about the God or gods they don’t/can’t/prefer not to believe in. I find this fact intriguing in its own right, but the other thing that has been fascinating me lately is that, at least among the atheists with whom I’ve spoken about this, their God that they don’t believe in is pretty similar across the board. At least as far as I know, none of these people know each other, so it’s not like they’ve gotten together and come up with a Doctrine on the Non-Existence of God. Together, anyway. I think there are some atheists out there who are pretty active theologians, and preach their particular theology, even though they might resent me for putting it that way.

Here’s something else. Most atheists I know object to God on multiple bases, but almost universally The Problem of Evil comes into play. What’s interesting to me is that, though God’s love is usually called into question in these discussions, in my experience His sovereignty never is.

We can, and probably should, discuss The Problem of Evil here at some point, and the existence of God in general, and we sort of by negation talked about God’s love last week. But what’s been exercising me lately is this whole idea that God is sovereign, and if He is, what exactly that means. I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of Mr Pink, but that doesn’t mean that everything he says is wrong or untrue–and the bizarre thing is that the God my atheist friends describe sounds an awful lot like the one Pink talks about.

At some point in the last century, some pastor started saying to self-professed atheists, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.  I probably don’t believe in him either.” (I looked this up and saw it attributed to some guy named Forrest Church–who, ironically considering the people who quote him, was a Unitarian Universalist minister–but I don’t really know for sure.) Evangelicals picked it up, and would talk to each other smugly about inserting this quote into conversations they had on airplanes, say, with people who (possibly foolishly) confessed to them that they didn’t believe in God. (Probably–given personal experience, and to be fair to the Evangelicals, in most cases the “confession” was more of a rant. It’s hard not to be a little smug after you’ve had a go at shutting down one of those–particularly if you succeeded.)

I myself used to think that was quite a clever little rejoinder, and I suspect many Western Christians really no longer do believe in the God the atheists deny, but I’m starting to wonder if, at least to some extent, the God the atheists object to is the real God after all. I think there are Christian (“Christian”?) extremists who get all charged up by the wrath of God and I know others who (like Pink) become extremely dogmatic that God is sovereign over (read micromanages) everything–eg., not only does the Father know when the sparrow falls and how many hairs you have (or don’t have) on your head, but He specifically planned it. I think it’s possible to lose the full picture of God when His sovereignty is the only attribute you focus on, and I think atheistic caricatures of His wrath (“I can’t go into your church–lightning will strike it”) are absurdist and likewise unhelpful, but the fact is, the Bible does teach that God is sovereign, and also holy, and speaking for myself and also from observations of other Christians I know and love, I think the general tendency nowadays is to downplay God’s sovereignty.

Probably part of this comes from absorbing secular humanism–I think Judeo-Christianity actually is the reason humanism developed; before it (and around it), worldviews didn’t allow pride of place to humans–but God dignified humanity by taking it on himself in Jesus and providing a way for us to unite with Him. Secular humanism hangs onto the dignity but takes out God, but I think Christians can subtly accede to such a mindset and develop delusions of the grandeur of our own free will. (Our free will is another topic for another blogpost.) Another reason to downplay God’s sovereignty comes, I think, when we object to what He’s doing around us–or when someone else does. We feel like we have to stand up for God, and bizarrely, have decided that the best way to do this is to imply that He isn’t as directly involved in the world as whoever is accusing Him thinks He is. This “technique” doesn’t clear up anything, however. It just creates other problems.

I had an old friend drop into my office a couple of months ago, having just left the funeral of a 15-year-old boy, to tell me that things like the death of minors were the reason he “couldn’t believe.” (He must have gone nuts after Newtown, CT–but then, we all sort of did). I’m not very good at thinking on my feet, and also, in years past the two of us had had so many arguments about this sort of thing that I didn’t feel like I had anything else to say that he could hear, even though I felt extremely sad about the death of this boy and my friend’s struggle to cope with it. That, I guess, is my excuse for why I didn’t ask him what, in particular, his objection was: did He think God made that boy die, or was he upset that God didn’t stop it, or . . . ? Then another (Christian) friend of mine wrote a blogpost about some issues he was struggling over and in my comment, I said the following:

I’ve been thinking a lot of about the Mary/Martha/Lazarus story. I think that story well-illustrates that sometimes things happen outside of God’s true and original design and intention, and which break His heart (“Jesus wept . . . and crying out with a loud voice . . .”), but He doesn’t step in to stop them (He waited 4 days until the guy was really dead) even though He could have–because whether the specific event was part of His plan or not, He had a bigger, overarching plan which couldn’t, in this broken world, have happened without the sorrow, horror and despair happening first.

Does this make God complicit in our misery? I don’t know. Sometimes I think so. I just don’t think it’s ever outside of His love for us. I believe that God loves each of us individually and is personally involved in our individual stories, but I also believe that His love goes beyond those little stories and that He is writing a much bigger one than we’ll ever see in this lifetime, and that His love is much bigger than we’ll ever comprehend in this lifetime.

Sometimes the plotpoints, therefore, are going to get rather far beyond us, and that’s when we hit the pivot where we decide if this is going to tip us toward God or away from Him–if we’re going to hide in the house and miss the miracle (as Mary almost did), or say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and then in the next breath, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” As Martha did.

I understand the objection that says if God willfully allows such tragedy, what’s to trust? But I think the answer comes in the trusting–and that’s when we see that God loves us, mourns with us, has experienced tragedy like us, and is the only one who can make any good come out of it.

I’m not committing to a statement of faith here about God’s sovereignty and the extent to which it dictates everything that happens in the universe. I’m still trying to sort it out in my head. What I am saying is that maybe the atheists’ hunch that the God they can’t believe in has a little more involvement in the stuff we Christians try to acquit Him of, isn’t so far off. There are more words to say about how He can be a good God in light of this, and probably some of that has to do with that leap of trust I mentioned above, but for now I’m just considering that maybe Christians (and this is a generalisation–there are plenty of Christians who do this already all the time) need to think and pray a little more deeply about how to talk about God in a way that is truthful about who He really is, instead of just trying to get him off the hook because the implications are too much work to sort out, or are too uncomfortable.

The fish - a Christian symbol

The fish – a Christian symbol

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24 thoughts on “Maybe the Atheists Are Right

  1. Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice.”
    My husband says, “The best dungeon-master in the world would roll a lot of dice and ignore them all.” (I’m not sure if you have the cultural touchstones to understand that, but I think it applies to God.)
    I think that God chose everything and designed everything. I do think He gave us free will, and obviously some things result from that. But if He is not sovereign, He is not God. I don’t think that there are details too petty for Him or situations He can’t fix… and He will make all things new.

    I don’t think that God is not Good, though. I think our perspectives are just too limited to see everything. There are things in this life that I do not think I’m ever going to thank God for–but in Heaven I don’t think they will matter. The things that are horribly wrong with this world will be things that are right in Heaven. The things that are broken will be repaired. Families torn apart will be reunited. People will be made whole again. God who loves us will be with us forever, and forever is longer than we can comprehend. Every wound will be a healing, every loss will be a reunion, every longing will be fulfilled in Him. It will make sense or maybe it won’t have to and the fact that this life does not make sense, that there is evil and suffering and we long for its end rather than accepting it shows that heaven needs to exist.

      • It’d be fun but my ministry is right here.
        It was kind of awesome when one time in Sunday school Pete and I were referred to as one of the couples that had been to seminary…. (we haven’t)
        The wonderful thing about the Bible (and many other Christian resources) is that you can access them without a special school or training… Wish the same were true of say, medical school resources.

        • Heh–yeah, really. And you’re right of course, but I still think there’s a value in coming together with other believers to really get into the “nitty gritty” of things in a way you can’t (usually) in a regular church situation.

    • Thanks, Mark. And . . . you’re not kidding. That post took me almost all my free time yesterday! (Which might be why it’s been rattling around in my brain for over a month and I still haven’t posted it until now . . . !)

  2. I’ve a couple of observations. If your partner arranged things so that you would have to guess about how much and in what ways they loved you, you would quickly decide that they don’t. Every time that you include the words “I think god’s love….” You have admitted to yourself that you don’t know love from your god because you have to guess at what it is like.

    You have rightly addressed sovereignty, questioning the wisdom of NT Christians or humanist Christians who wish to separate their faith from the OT. Their basic premise sounds like “Well, I know he used to be a mass murderer with some psyche issues, but he apologized and it’s all okay now”.

    I don’t think that believers ask enough questions. Here are some to consider:
    1) Why would a god create humanity and doom them to a world of pain and evil and then promise a perfect world for them later if they are good when he could have created that in the first place, and who in fact will supposedly let them into a perfect world (heaven). This is one of the most offensive things about god of Abraham. The pain and evil in this world is done on purpose.

    2) A being that knows all knowledge a priori would know what the world of humans would be like. If he answers prayers to intervene then his vision of the future prior to creating man would have been wrong. This makes him logically incapable of answering prayers. That is to say that god’s plan for you was to live to this point where your 15 year old son dies horribly and then sit back and watch it happen and do nothing about it. An omniscient god cannot ‘not know’ about it. He supposed to have known about it before he created the universe. This is not the problem of evil question. This is a why create humans if you know you will have to do this? What kind of being does that, deliberately creates a state of pain, evil, and misery?

    These and other problems are particularly difficult when you consider that the attributes of the god of Abraham are inconsistent with each other and with logic and reason. These arguments strip that being of god like qualities until you either do not believe he exists or that being is no longer god-like and so is not worthy of worship. While all thought is open to discussion, it is quite fair to call the god of Abraham the progenitor of all pain, suffering, and evil in human experience. All of this is said without even cracking open the holy text. Once you do that the situation gets worse for believers. Where they want to say their bible is evidence for god’s existence, it is fair to say that it is evidence that their god is the most vile creature humanity has ever known.

    but he apologized so it’s all okay now…. right?

    • I’m not unfamiliar with these objections, and they’re fairly compelling, though I think they’re missing something. I want to talk about this but I don’t want to come across as flippant, so you might need to give me a little while to formulate a response.

      That said–if other readers want to have a crack at this, go for it!

    • The past 4-odd thousand years of history are such a tiny snippet of eternity…
      There is death. There is suffering. It sucks.
      But if there were no suffering, how would we understand what good was? How would we know things were good?
      If this world is all there is, why do we long for something better?

      The more I think about it, the more I think that the reason the pain and brokenness is here is to be healed.
      God is not sitting idly above us… God weeps with us. God knows full well what it is like to lose a child far too young to violence… and every child that lived was His too.
      But for those who die in Christ–and I think that includes children–God also sees the immeasurable joy they know in their new Home.

      • This is exactly what bugs me.
        “But if there were no suffering, how would we understand what good was? How would we know things were good?”

        This is exactly what the garden was supposed to be like and exactly what we are told heaven is like. Your statement supports the idea that god himself arranged it so we would be kicked out of the garden. Your thought here means we should have justification for all this pain and suffering that is not original sin. You say it’s so we know what is good, yet your god did not start us that way and promises to not end that way. What then is the purpose of making it look like our fault? Is it so the imaginary god’s inability to fix things is never questioned?

        You ‘think’ it includes children, but you can’t be certain can you? That book leaves a lot ot be desired. You have to interpret a lot of things and make a lot of guesses. This is not what we would expect from a loving parent.

    • No disrespect intended but is not your second point a glass half full or glass half empty problem?
      I look at life and I see many tragic and fearful things, but at the same time I see many many more glorious lovely things.
      Just the ability to love and be loved like a mother and her child, or the warmth of the sun on us (especially lately here in New Hampshire).
      I could go on listing the good and the bad as could you but I would submit that God started with the best, to your first point, in the garden and gave man choice. The choice is where evil came from.
      I think it is also important to keep in mind that not all pain is bad or evil. When I learned to ski there was a lot of pain, not evil pain but the pain of trial and error that is unfortunately required for us to learn. When we touch something hot there is pain, which in this case is a consequence of an unwise action where you brain is telling us to stop so more damage is not done to our hand.

      I have a 17 year old daughter that drives. One of the things I have been working through in my head is what if she was tragically killed in a car wreck.
      My answer always comes back to a matter of thanks, faith and perspective. God has blessed my with her for 17 years so far and have loved them all. God could have saved me that pain of the loss by not giving me the 17 years in the first place. But would not trade those 17 years+ for anything. So then you ask, “why does not God let her stay longer her longer to …. ”. Well if heaven is as advertised, no evil or pain, then she is better off there then here, and I know I will see here again. What is left is my selfishness as I ask the “not fair” to me questions.

      Not sure this answers anything as much as it is just my reaction to what you said for what it is worth

      • Hey Mike! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. (I’m still working through my own response to this, but . . . now I may not have to! I’m not sure I have much different to say . . . )

      • No disrespect taken or intended. The problem with god giving man a choice is 1) woman was an afterthought – how can that be if you are omniscient? Second, the fruit of the tree was “knowledge of good and evil” so without that knowledge god did not give Adam a choice, he simply ordered an ignorant being (small child?) to not touch that thing over there because if he does that will be the day he dies. Of course, Adam likely had no idea what death is as he had not yet experienced it before. That’s right, god lied to Adam. When you call this a choice it is much like calling it a choice when you sit your 14 month old on the kitchen counter and sternly tell them not to touch the hot stove burner… then walk away and wait for them to touch it and burn their hand so you can punish them… and all their children for eternity.

        Secondly, no matter how much you believe in heaven, you do not ‘KNOW’ that it exists. Your assertions about the ‘blessing’ of 17+ years is futile for those that lose a 4 month old or a 4 day old. Are those 4 days or 4 months a blessing too? Is that god’s punishment for something you did wrong or didn’t do right? Did god come down and tell you how lucky you were to have those 4 days, or is that something you make up in your mind to put your mind at ease in recovery from such a tragic shock? What kind of blessing is it for a woman who suffers the tragic grief and pain of a stillborn child? Is that god punishing her or maybe her mother for being bad at some point in their lives?

        before you answer. If this is just a case of ‘bad things’ happen sometimes then why is there need of a god?

      • Adam and Eve were not ignorant 14 month olds. They were given one simple prohibition that they fully understood since Eve repeated it back to the serpent. But they choose to believe Satan and believe God was holding out on them.

        As for your second paragraph there is a reason I used the word faith before.

        You said that I do not “KNOW” heaven exists. I would tell you that I do know. I can’t prove it to you? And your response, I suspect, will sound something like, “this is just pie in the sky” or I am naive. But there are things in life that you cannot prove but you know are true. I know I love my wife and she loves me, same with my children. But I cannot prove that either, but that does not make them untrue. I do know heaven exists and God exists and the God of the Bible is a kind, compassionate, loving God. I know there is evil in the world we are the cause that. I know when tragedy strikes God is there to comfort me because he has in the past. I know when tragedy or illness strike again, and it will, God will be there for me. There is nothing I trust more than God, my wife, whom I trust and love, is only human and will fail me at times where God will never fail me. Because I trust Him, I trust that His purpose in allowing any tragedy is more important than my immediate comfort or happiness.

        The perfect creator of the universe condescends to have a relationship with me a wretched sinner that deserves nothing but death. I can’t understand why He bothers, but am ecstatic that He does. Because He did this am I supposed to accept/expect only good (things that make me happy) in my life?

        I am sure this sounds crazy to you but that is faith in God.

        Which brings me back to my perspective an maybe this is the bottom line…
        I could look forward and expect the good things of life
        But I choose to look back at the immeasurable blessing I have had and anything else gravy
        Because I don’t deserve any of it.

  3. As Job put it “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” As, more recently, put by singer/songwriter Peter Furler “Lord I don’t know where all this is going, or how it all works out. Lead me to peace that is past understanding.” And as Jesus put it “I bring you my peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

  4. well said Jen..I almost didn’t read because of the title..I am so weary of defending my beliefs that I find myself just not saying anything..evangelism (which I used to be proud of) has become a word that embarrasses me..I think it the end of an era and maybe at this point in humanity it is a good thing…after all, everyone knows who Jesus is, it’s what you do with that knowledge..In fact, all religions believe that he was a good man until good Friday. Those 3 days are what separate us from others..now to go watch my dvred Grey’s Anatomy to rest my brain..

    • Heh. I wondered if you were going to post and read. I think there’s always a place for sharing about Jesus, but it probably does need to look a little different these days. And I suspect “conversion” doesn’t always look like 1950’s evangelicalism told us it would . . .

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