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Friday, May 09, 2008

A Continuing Dialogue with the Opposing Team

The following was WAY too long for a comment, so I thought I'd make post out of it. I recently posted about the apparent rise of atheism. One of the comments came from another truthseeker. I hope he doesn't mind the higher profile response. Here it is in its great bulk:

Hi, Robert

First, welcome to Enter the Door Within. You realize, of course, that posting here may well be the first step on a very “unexpected” adventure. ;-)

But I hope you were using the phrase “Opposing team” in a facetious way, as it seemed. I don't see us as opponents, but rather truth seekers who have, through any number of variables, arrived at different conclusions.

You raise some great points—certainly fair questions—and some of them are foundational issues that we all may face on our faith journeys. I by no means believe that I’ve got it all figured out, but I’ll do my best to address your concerns.

Point 1: The Rise of Atheism
Certainly there could be a myriad of reasons why Atheistic manifestos are becoming bestsellers. I’m not a bit surprised that pollsters have discovered a trend, showing people pulling away from traditional religions. I’m reasonably certain that people are slowly pulling away from many “traditional” ways of doing things. Each generation seems to rebel against the previous, much as teens question the authority, wisdom, and experience of their parents. Of course, in the eventual analysis, leaving traditional ways of doing things does not always turn out to be a very wise thing.

Point 2: Does the Logical Problem of Evil Prove that God Does Not Exist?
This is a bedrock question. On some level, we all probably have questions related to this apparent quandary. I’ll offer my thoughts, but there are several dozen books that answer this question much more comprehensively than I ever could. C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, Phillip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts?, Ravi Zacharias’ The End of Reason, and a myriad of others going all the way back to St. Augustine’s writings analyze the issues with amazing clarity.

But here’s my take: The problem, stated another way is: If God exists, and God is All Good and All Powerful, how can He allow evil in the world? It seems like a simple logic problem: A=B and B=C, so A must be equal to C. But actually, it’s not that simple––not by a longshot. I believe there are at least two fundamental flaws in the question itself.

Flaw 1: We are attempting to understand God with human logic.
If God is all powerful and all knowing, as Christians believe Him to be, what in the world makes us think He will subscribe to our logic? Time and time again, God confounds human logic. Man expected the Messiah to come as a conquering warrior. God came as a child. Man expected God to win a military victory. God won the victory by dieing on a cross. Even in my own life, God has defied logic. I wanted to be a rock star. I ended up a teacher. I had no plans to run a Bible study at my friend’s house, but if I hadn’t, I’d have never me my wife. Biblical examples, historic examples, personal examples show a God who does not need to conform to our logic.

Not a perfect word picture here, but somewhat illuminating: Think of a young child living in a third world country. The child has always loved a particular cow in the village flock. But this cow goes sick with a very infectious disease—one that will spread and eventually kill all the other cattle, eliminating the entire village’s food supply. The child’s father takes the cow out back and kills it. The child is horrified. The act appeared to be the very epitome of evil. How could his father do such a thing?

But the child lacks the wisdom to understand the father’s reasoning. The child’s logic is far too simple to string together the reasons that led the father to his action. If a human father’s wisdom and logic is far above that of a human child, then how much wider is the gulf between mankind’s logic and an all-knowing God?

Flaw 2: We are attempting to define “good” with a human definition.
Using the same reasoning as above, what makes human kind think that it understands the concept of “good?” I mean, sure, we all think we know a good act from a bad act. A good sandwich from a bad sandwich. A good player from a bad player. Good breath from bad breath. But what about real, moral good? How do we know that? Where did this innate knowledge of good and bad come from?

Here’s what I’m getting at: some would say that a Good God cannot allow Evil. There is evil, so therefore God cannot exist. But that implies that there is a static, rock solid measure of good. At this point, the atheist must pause. Because to allow that there is an ultimate good requires a source of ultimate good, and it cannot be manmade. If it were, then anyone’s definition of good would have to suffice. So when a skeptic attempts to accuse God of doing evil, he admits that there is an ultimate measure of good. And in so doing, the skeptic implies that God exists, thus defeating the point at the outset.

Think of the child in the previous example. The na├»ve child believes his father has done evil by killing the cow. But has the father done evil? No, in fact, the father saved all the other cattle and the village full of people besides. In fact, the father has done something very noble. It’s just that the child’s concept of good is insufficient to define the situation. And this is where even the brightest most compassionate human finds his own definition of good: insufficient wisdom, experience, and perspective when compared to an all-knowing God.

Again, we are humans. We do not have all knowledge. We do not know the past or the future (sometimes not even the present) in its entirety. Gandalf said, “Not even the very wise can see all ends.” To be able to see all ends would make us, well…God. So without the ability that God must have, how could we possibly think we know what good is?

In Spite of the Flaws, the Question Needs Answering.
You might reasonably argue at this point that all we have is human logic and a human definition of good. All we have is human understanding. So how can a loving, all powerful, good God, allow evil?

I mean, surely we can all agree that many of the ghastly deeds we hear about on the news are evil. Surely soldiers killing children and raping women is evil. Surely the Holocaust where more than six million Jewish people were murdered, snuffed from the earth as if less than human—surely, the Holocaust was evil. I agree. As an aside, it is grievous to think that since 1973 more than 48 million children have been murdered in abortions. The justification—that these fetuses are not humans—is eerily similar to Hitler’s rationale, and yet so many people think abortion is good, a right even. That’s another topic for another day.

But it leads us again to our own definition of good. It’s what we have to go on. So, how can an all good God allow evil?

First, a preface: if you are hurting because you’ve just lost a loved one; or you’re aghast at the horrible nature of recent headlines; or you’ve just seen first hand the devastation of a natural disaster, no answer I can give—no matter how logical it may be—will sound logical to you. You are too close to the pain. We are emotional creatures, and emotions often cloud thinking.

Answer #1: Evil Exists Because We Brought It On Ourselves
This is the Biblical answer. In the beginning there was no evil in the world. Man and woman were in paradise where there was no pain, fear, or sadness. People lived in direct communion with God. But, this all changed the moment man sinned. That sin, like the blackest, most potent ink poured into clear water, colored the rest of human history with the horrors we call evil. The Bible clearly indicates that ALL of creation, including the environment, is sacked by this poison

Answer #2: Evil Exists Because Real Love Requires Free Will
Dozens of historical scholars including Saint Augustine and C.S. Lewis have advanced this concept, and for me, it makes total sense. God created mankind for relationship with Him. God loves mankind and wants mankind to love back. But love cannot be forced and still be love. God could have created robots smitten with God, but their affection would be hollow. I’d even go so far as to say that for God to create people and force them to love Him…is a perversion of love, the kind that most of us would call evil.

No, God wanted real relationship…real love. In order for mankind to love God, God had to give mankind free will. But free will means that God’s creation could potentially choose not to love. And we did. And we still do. Done anything selfish lately? Yep, me too. So, evil was chosen by mankind because we had a choice and made the wrong choice.

Answer #3: Pain Can Be a Good Thing
I’m about to get on your nerves. Nerves—that’s what I’m getting at. They are the pain receptors of our bodies. We get close to fire, and our nerves warn us that harm will come to use if we continue toward the flame. Would anyone argue that the pain one feels when you get close to fire is evil? Would anyone out there like to get rid of your nerves? I doubt it. There’s actually a very rare disorder where nerves don’t function. It makes life nearly impossible for the poor souls that have the disease.

About five years ago, I lost a good friend. The guy was in his early thirties, as kind as can be, and as strong as an ox. Then, WHAM, brain cancer. He was gone. I got to watch his wife and two little boys grieve. And I have to admit, I was mad at God for taking him. The guy who died, I wasn’t worried about him. He was in heaven. And he was denied maybe what 60 years of life on earth? Not much compared to eternity. No, I was hurting for those left behind.

But what if God, in His infinite wisdom, knew that taking this man would lead many others to believe in Him? What if the eternity of many depended on this one man dying? As it turns out, I would be thunderstruck if anything short of hundreds of people came to believe in Jesus as a direct result of this one man’s passing. If you could have attended the funeral and heard his widow speak, you’d know what I mean.

And let’s not forget the ultimate example of pain turning to good. Jesus. The most innocent man to ever live, God’s son in the flesh—mocked, spat upon, scourged, tortured, and murdered. And yet, God used this horrific event to at last defeat sin and death and offer salvation to ALL of mankind.

In summary, God is all good. And He is the only one who can fully define “good.” God makes no evil, but evil exists because mankind has chosen it. Even so, God can use even the most horrifying evils and use it for multiplied good.

Point 3: About the Flood
You made the comment, “I've learned that when Christians quote non-Christians it's best to do a little digging because often the quotes are taken out of context, come from a very dated or obscure source, or refer to something else entirely.”

I reject this claim utterly in that you point it at Christians. If ANYONE quotes anyone, it’s best to do a little digging because all too often people are misquoted. Seriously, before you buy into any written or spoken word, check the sources.

Here are some links concerning the possibility of a worldwide flood:

As to whether Carrington referred to the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, I can’t be sure. There are many creation scientists who believe that the worldwide flood of Noah and the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction Event are one and the same. The huge numbers of years (65 million years ago) may not be accurate at all. Most radiometric dating systems are somewhat questionable. Here’s a good article that explains the basics of dating methods and the potential problems.

Point 4: Appeals to Authority
You wrote: “Appeals to one's authority are not very convincing. There are others, many perhaps with deeper credentials, who take a different view.” There is always someone else with better credentials. That does not necessarily discount what I have to say. In the end, you need to do your own homework. And…in the end, you’ll end up agreeing or disagreeing with a lot of opinions of a lot of people. Much of what we’re arguing here ends up being metaphysical and therefore, unproveable. In other words, no one can categorically prove or disprove the existence of God. No one can categorically prove that creation or evolution happened. To have such knowledge would make us very nearly gods ourselves. That does not mean there is no evidence to consider and draw conclusions. That’s what this discussion is really about: evidence and conclusions.

Point 5: False Dichotomy?
I wrote: “The problem is, either people don't want to do the research because it steals time from their lifestyle --or-- they don't want to believe their findings because it impacts their lifestyle.—referring to the potential rationales employed by people who do not believe in God.”

You wrote: “This is a false dichotomy and is firmly debunked by the many, many individuals who were Christians and became atheists or something else. A number of these former Christians were highly educated apologists who studied the theology for years before deciding it just wasn't true.”

As it reads in my original text, it is a false dichotomy. That is: two choices presented as an either/or when there are actually other possibilities. But actually, what I intended is potential theories as to why some people do not believe. I really don’t think most people to the research. I can tell you personally that many of the people with whom I’ve had theological discussions certainly did not delve into the matter as deeply as I have—by their own admission. My question to all people who do not dig deeper into the existence of God is this: This is potentially the most important decision you will ever make and could impact not just this life but eternity, SO why aren’t you expending every ounce of effort to examine the evidence?

Point 6: Choosing to Believe
Here’s where you lost me, Sir Robert. I was arguing that choosing to believe something must not be based on “how we want it to be.” I might really want my favorite team to win the Super Bowl, and I might really want to celebrate their victory. But if I choose to celebrate the victory when my team DIDN’T win, then I’m guilty of folly.

I wrote: “Choosing not to believe in God in this way is akin to being starving but refusing to eat because you feel sure someone else in the world might also starve.”

You wrote: “One hears this argument frequently from Christians, but would it convince you if "God" was replaced with "Allah" or "Zeus"?

I stand by my assertion that belief, especially belief on the magnitude of Theology, cannot be based on wishful thinking. We examine the evidence: historical, archeological, scientific, empirical, experiential, and we choose. I certainly wouldn't be convinced by other gods because I don't believe the evidence is nearly as compelling for other gods.

Point 7: Atheism and Agnosticism
I don’t wish to argue semantics, and maybe there’s a gradation you meant to better explain, but your definitions of these two terms are incorrect.

I wrote: "Agnosticism is a little different than atheism in that agnostics do not deny that there could be a god. They just don't know for sure and won't put a name to this god if there is one.”

You wrote: “Actually, this describes atheism. The agnostic position is more akin to "I just don't know."

I’m sure that definitions to these terms vary depending on the person who is using them, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an atheist is someone who denies the existence of god. An agnostic claims there may be a god but that it is impossible to know for sure.

Until our next dialogue…