Sunday, February 26, 2017

A World Without God

Today's New Testament passage (2 Peter 1:16-21) begins, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” So it wasn't just in the modern era that people were picking apart the gospel. In the first century folks who didn't like the Good News were yelling “Fake News!”

There are whole books written about the reliability of our New Testament documents. Without going into great detail, we can say that the text underlying any modern translation is reliable because we literally have thousands of copies of the Greek originals, plus hundreds of copies of translations into other ancient languages, plus quotations of verses and passages in letters of the early church fathers, the successors to the apostles. By scientifically dating and classifying these materials, we can determine the original text.

A modern argument bypasses the documents entirely, claiming that Jesus never lived. If there was no Jesus, then the New Testament is no more relevant than the Sherlock Holmes stories. The subject of these writings would be totally fictional. This was refuted recently by Bible scholar Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. The irony of this is that Ehrman isn't even a believer. But his opinion that Jesus wasn't divine doesn't blind him to the fact that the man did exist.

But ultimately the problem with belief isn't so much an intellectual one as an emotional one. As cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss said, “ I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but I'd much rather live in a universe without one.” Again that's his opinion and he's entitled to it. But it does make me wonder “why?”

I hate quotes without context and I can't find this quote in an interview or a book or a debate. But the sentiment is not unfamiliar. As strange as it may sound to us, there are reasons why people might not want God to exist.

A lot of people think of God primarily as judge, jury and executioner. Without God there are no pesky moral rules. There is no penalty if I want to covet my neighbor's wife or steal someone else's stuff or lie. Well, no eternal penalties. My earthly neighbors might impose penalties on me. But if I get enough power or wealth, I might even be able to escape or diminish what they can do to me. Hitler committed all kinds of crimes but couldn't be tried or imprisoned because he was the nation's leader. Such people really wish there is no God. And if they are right then Hitler committed one of the greatest genocides in history without ever being held accountable.

Other people wouldn't want God to exist because they think that the existence of an all-knowing God means everything is predestined. If God knows what you are going to do before you do it, it's locked in, isn't it? And if it's locked in, if you can't do anything differently, then you have no free will. You are a puppet. That's the argument people often bring up against God's foreknowledge.

The odd thing is that there is a growing number of scientists who believe we don't have free will even if you take God out of the picture. They see us as nothing more than biological machines who are utterly controlled by the laws of physics and biology. Just as a billiard ball has no free will when struck by a cue or another ball, so the atoms and molecules in us must behave in certain ways when acted on by certain forces. Our consciousness is a side effect of our complex brain but in no way determines what we actually do. So you are still a puppet, though not of a personal god but of impersonal forces.

C.S. Lewis had a good response to this about 60 years ago. He said such people are arguing against the very faculty that allows them to argue. If you say you have no free will---well, you had to say that, didn't you? And you can't fault me for arguing the other side, because I similarly am unable to think differently. Which would mean that both atheism and deism are predetermined and there is no use in trying to convince anyone of anything.

It's fairly obvious that if you hold to biological determinism, you should just shut up and let the inevitable work itself out. It also means you can't even take credit for being smart enough to know that things are biologically determined. You couldn't think otherwise.

But are Christians committed to the idea that God predestines absolutely everything? This is something people have written piles of books about, so we really can't get very deeply into the subject here. What we can say is that you can use the Bible to argue for and against free will, not that the term “free will” appears anywhere in its pages. But there are passages that make it seem that God is in control of everything and passages which make it seem that our decisions and actions depend on us. How do we reconcile that?

For the last 3 years I have spent a day or two a week caring for my granddaughter. At first she was basically a cute lump of flesh who ate, slept, peed and pooped. She was, in the words of John Oliver, little more than a labor-intensive houseplant. Controlling her was easy. Once she started moving, control was still possible but increasingly difficult to maintain. When she began crawling and standing, she started objecting to being kept in a play pen. I had two choices. Ignore her crying and keep her in the baby corral, where she was safe, or relinquish a bit of my control and let her have a bit of freedom. That increased the risk that she could disrupt the order of my work-space and destroy things by pulling them down and even hurt herself, primarily by falling on the hard floor rather than the padded bottom of the play pen. I was still a lot smarter and much more powerful than she. I could prevent the worst from happening. I could even reverse my decision and, say, swaddle her so she could not move. But I voluntarily restrained myself from controlling every aspect of her life and gave her some but not absolute freedom.

When we get into this freewill versus predestination debate, we tend to speak in absolutes. We forget, as we often do in theoretical arguments, that there can be gradations and nuances. God can and evidently does voluntarily relinquish some control and give us some freedom. And no human being, in any system of thought, ever has total freedom. Our choices are always limited by what we have learned through the people around us, through our schooling and through our experience, as well as by what is physically and psychologically possible. Some people have wider choices than others by virtue of wealth, education, race and social standing but no one can do anything it comes into their head to do.

So how is it that the Bible can say with such confidence that God will prevail over evil in the end? Think of God as a chess master. Whatever move we make, however non-obvious or even irrational, God already has the counter-moves and a strategy in place that takes into accounts all contingencies. If I were up against Gary Kasparov, it wouldn't matter how much freedom I had; he would still win.

That however leads to another reason people might hope that there is no God. A common argument against God is: look at what a mess the world is. There is murder, famine, rape, war, pedophilia, terrorism, domestic violence, and more. There is injustice and poverty. There is disease and disaster. Some folks say that if there is a God in charge he is either indifferent to us or actively hates us. For them it is simpler to assume there is no god and that chaos reigns.

Of course, this is a selective way of looking at the world. In fact, it is heavily influenced by the news motto “If it bleeds, it leads.” Humans have a bias towards noticing the negative. Despite these truly awful things, if we look we can see lots of good in this world as well. Many more people are born than die. Death from infectious diseases and cardiovascular disease has fallen worldwide. Child mortality is declining by 3.7% a year. In general people's lives are getting longer, with global life expectancy going from an average of 46.7 years in 1990 to 59.3 years in 2013. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty, that is, on $1.25 a day or less, has been cut in half in the last 25 years, going from 36% to 15%. And those living on $1.90 a day has fallen from 1.9 billion people to 702 million. The growing awareness of rape and domestic violence will hopefully have the kind of impact awareness of the causes of heart disease and certain cancers have had on those scourges.

Ah, you may object, but that is due entirely to human effort. It didn't require God. The problem with that line of thought is that those human efforts were originated by and insinuated into our modern culture by religion. In the beginning of civilization, medicine and religion were intertwined. People went to temples in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece for healing. The Romans built places to take care of sick soldiers, gladiators and slaves, in other words, those they valued, but it was the acceptance of Christianity that caused an expansion of caring for all the ill. Saint Sampson, a doctor of Constantiople, and Bishop Basil of Caesarea built some of the earliest hospitals, with doctors, nurses, medical libraries, and training programs.

In the same way, the church has been on the forefront of efforts to help the poor and feed the hungry. Governments and non-profits and international organizations have only recently taken on the work that the church has always done and is still doing. But without God there is little incentive for people to do what the good Samaritan did—take care of those who are not family and friends. Why help those we don't know and who cannot benefit us? They are not productive citizens. Only the conviction that we are in fact our brother's keeper stands in the way of those in power pulling aid from the poor and sick.

Let's go back to my granddaughter. I give her some freedom within the confines of the church. I will forbid her to touch certain things and get into certain places, like the utility closet or the secretary's office. I keep the door to the outside world locked. And she is fine with that so far. But she's just shy of 3. What would you call it if I kept her locked in here when she's 23? Prison. I wouldn't have to worry about her getting into drugs, or dating bad boys, or getting in a car accident. She would be safe. That's good, right? I doubt she would see it that way. Instead of a cozy paradise, she would see it as a form of hell. So my choice is that as she grows up, I give her more freedom, trusting that she will learn to use it wisely.

For God to prevent us from doing any of the awful things we do, he would have to imprison us in some way. He would have to put some kind of mental or emotional shock collar on us. He would have to infantilize us or incapacitate us so we could not possibly do wrong. He would have to take away our free will. And so we are back to a situation in which we are puppets, or perhaps robots. And such a system would make love impossible because we wouldn't be able to freely choose to love God and our neighbor.

God is love. Love is only possible if you can choose to love or not. In God's wisdom he has decided that we needed this much freedom if we were to be able to truly choose to love him and others and ourselves. Some people make the wrong choice. We might see the cost as too high but that's because we only see this life. When people die, that is the end of their activity in this world. If this is the only life we have, then yes, God must be either indifferent or a monster.

On the internet I read an imagined dialogue between two twins in a womb. Because this was the only environment they knew, the idea of birth was scary. One twin saw it as a catastrophe because in the womb there was warmth and food and it was not too bright. Birth would mean the end of the life it had always known. The idea that in 9 short months it would be expelled from the womb was a disaster in its mind.

The other twin felt that there might be another world outside the womb. And it longed to meet and embrace the mother. The first twin doubted the existence of the mother because it couldn't see any other person in the womb beside themselves. And it couldn't imagine what it couldn't see.

Then the contradictions start. Their world narrows. They are powerless to resist being pushed down the birth canal. It is painful and scary and who knows what is on the other side. One twin undergoes the painful, bloody process of birth in terror and despair, the other in hope.

If this is the only world, then when we leave it our life is indeed a tragedy. If there is another world, however, one bigger and better than this one, if there is a life that lasts infinitely longer than the handful of decades we get in this one, then as Paul says, “...our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) One of the wonderful features of this life is that we can remember that we suffered physical pain, but we cannot literally re-experience that pain. I remember my first car accident, when I was 5, back when kids could sit in the front seat and there was no such thing as a seat belt. I can remember hitting the dashboard and what it was like to have so much blood flowing from my eyebrow that I thought I had lost an eye. I can remember how scary it was to be strapped down in the ambulance and on the exam table in the emergency room and how the hypodermic needle the doctor stuck into my face looked like it was 3 feet long. But I don't re-feel the pain. 57 years later, recalling it doesn't disturb me.

Whatever pain and suffering we undergo in our brief life here will recede into a faint memory in our eternal life. God will give us new and better bodies in a new and better world, with new and endless adventures with our family and friends and with the God who is love. And that's hard for us to imagine. But so was my post-second-accident life, walking on partly metal legs, with no cane and no pain. I can't wait until the Great Physician gets his hands on me and takes away the allergies and the food intolerances and the character defects. Some more hair would be nice too.

As I get older, I see that what we students and followers of Jesus offer the world above all else is hope. Hope that things don't have to stay the way they are, that our past doesn't have to determine our future, that we do have a choice and can make a difference, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a loving parent to hold us and comfort us and wipe away all our tears and fears and pain. If we manifest that hope in our lives, maybe more people will stop wishing there wasn't a God and want to meet and love and follow him instead. 

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