Some questions don’t lend themselves to easy answers. That includes the question of God’s existence.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That was certainly the case with my first car. In 1985 I became the proud owner of a 1967 Rambler manufactured by the now-deceased American Motors Corporation (AMC). I paid the princely sum of $200 for my new ride.
The Rambler had what artists today might call a “”distressed”” character. Craggy dents and faded green paint created the air of a battered old battle wagon. Discolored shreds of foam rubber cascaded from the rips in the front seat and gave the interior a vaguely leprous quality. Someone had long ago removed the passenger side windshield wiper, mechanism and all. As for the driver side wiper, it worked a little too well. I never found a way to switch it off. The fuel gauge showed empty even when the tank was full. The red caution light stayed on continuously, as if it was saying, “I’m going to fall apart! Any minute now I’m going to fall apart!”
The engine made an ominous racket that grew louder the more I drove. The sound blended with the constant SWISH SWISH of my lone windshield wiper, creating a chaotic cacophony that would have terrified anyone with a saner soul than mine.
Still, to me the Rambler was beautiful. I came to love its faults and foibles and found practical yet ingenious ways to compensate for its shortcomings. I used a few inches of wire to immobilize the wayward windshield wiper. I stuffed the front seat with newspaper and bandaged over the gaping holes with copious amounts of duct tape. I kept a long stick in the car to insert in the gas tank in lieu of a working fuel gauge. When the tip came back dry I knew it was time to buy more gas. I even persuaded a few young ladies to go on dates with me in the Rambler; though, inexplicably, they invariably declined my invitations for a second date.
So why am I starting a blog post about God with a story about my first car? My point is that sometimes we have few options for how we travel down the roads of life. We take whatever means is handy and make do as best we can. Such was the case with me in 1985. Such is also the case with those who, over the past 20 centuries, have used historic Christianity to address their spiritual needs. An imperfect solution is infinitely better than none at all.
Sooner or later, however, the solution stops working. At that point we must find a newer, better way to get where we need to go. That’s the topic I want to discuss in this post. Let’s see where the journey takes us.
Beating the Odds
In many ways, the Roman Empire was the best thing that happened to the ancient world. The Romans were warlike and cruel, but they were also efficient and intelligent. They raped, pillaged, and plundered in their lust for conquest. After conquering a new territory, however, they transformed it in ways that benefited the people who live there. The Romans brought clean water, public sanitation, paved roads, books, schools, the arts, and, most importantly, law and order with them wherever they went. These enhancements enabled commerce and culture to move freely across the Empire. it was in this rapidly changing, cosmopolitan world that the first Christians found themselves when they began formalizing their ideas about Jesus and the God he preached.
Early church members saw themselves as faithful Jews, not as converts to a new religion. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in their prophetic Scriptures. They hoped their fellow Jews would see things the same way, just as early Muslims thought Christians would accept Mohamed as God’s final and ultimate prophet. In both cases, however, most people decided to stay with their existing faith traditions. So the early church turned away from the Israelites and towards the polytheists who inhabited every corner of the Roman Empire. Among these people they found a warm reception.
Historians have long debated why Christianity spread with such dramatic speed across the Roman empire. Some say its appeal lay within the sense of community it offered. Others believe that the message of a God who regarded all people equally provided a compassionate alternative to Rome’s hierarchical society. For whatever reason, by the early 300s Jesus’s movement was the dominant spiritual force within the empire. The church’s rise to power culminated in Christianity becoming the Empire’s official religion in 380 CE.
Christians of the era greeted the news with euphoria. They and their predecessors had endured centuries of marginalization and bitter persecution at the hands of the Romans. Then, miraculously, they found themselves not only tolerated but welcomed throughout the Empire. To them, the turnabout was the ultimate vindication of their faith. In many ways, however, the church’s newfound status was the result of a deal with the devil, one that would have dire consequences for the future.
The Fruits of Victory
It’s impossible to know for sure what inspired the empire to make peace with Christianity. However, most scholars believe that the move was motivated by pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons. By the late 300s the Western Empire was falling apart. The emperors gambled that a single, unified religion could give their subjects a badly needed sense of unity. They were right. The church kept European society united from the fall of the Western Empire till the dawning of the Renaissance 1000 years later. It preserved and fostered the arts and learning throughout the Dark Ages and into modernity.
Of course, wherever there’s power there’s also ambition. By the 400s Christians were murdering each other over arcane theological squabbles. The beliefs that emerged from these bloody theological struggles are an odd mishmash of Greco-Roman philosophy and biblical teachings. Here are some examples:
- God is a unity made up of three co-eternal, co-equal, co-omnipotent persons who share the same essence but possess distinct personalities. This God created the universe from nothing, rules over it with absolute sovereignty, endows human beings with immortal souls, and afflicts wrongdoers with natural disasters, horrible diseases, and everlasting damnation.
- God the Father, the leader of this divine triad, sent God the Son to earth, in the form of Jesus, to suffer and die. Jesus’s death placated the Father’s anger towards humans who become Christians.
- God exists outside of time and space, yet he is also able to act inside of time and space. He knows the future with utter certainty. Yet, paradoxically, humans retain free will to chart their own course in life.
- God created humanity from Adam and Eve, who might have lived in paradise forever had they avoided eating from a tree of forbidden fruit. All the world’s troubles flow from this single act of disobedience.
- God’s character is revealed in the text of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. These writings present a coherent, consistent picture of the deity.
That is a (very) brief summation of the historic Christian doctrine of God. Thinking people have long voiced concerns about its intellectual coherence. Here are some of the myriad problems they note:
- A plain reading of the text indicates that the New Testament authors disagreed with each other on many key theological points. This causes monumental problems for those who claim that the Bible presents a consistent view of God.
- Compounding this problem is the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures, known to most Christians as the Old Testament, present multiple views of God’s nature. In early texts the Almighty is a vindictive creature who destroys people for small infractions. We even read that God tried to kill Moses for being uncircumcised (Exodus 4:24-26). The Old Testament God changes his mind, loses his temper, and expresses shock and surprise. These are strange qualities indeed for a being who possesses limitless knowledge and power.
- The Bible fails to explain how Jesus’s death redeems humanity. Why doesn’t God simply forgive us from the boundless limits of his grace and mercy? Why did he demand the sacrifice of an innocent person?
- If God knows the future, then free will is an illusion. We can only do what we are destined to do. If that is the case, then what basis does God have for condemning us?
These problems seem deadly to the Christian position. But is it possible to resolve them? Let’s consider that question.
Apologetics to the Rescue
Apologetics is the theological discipline that seeks to defend Christianity against its critics. As you can imagine, Christian apologists have never lacked for work over the past 2000 years. They have marshaled an impressive series of responses to the objections listed above. Here are some examles:
- The alleged contradictions in the biblical text disappear once the reader applies sound interpretive principles. For example, a Christian apologist could say that, when Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I,” he means this in a positional sense. To illustrate: a military general’s rank makes him positionally greater than those he commands. But this doesn’t mean the general is inherently superior to those under his leadership.
- The problems become thornier when one considers the radical disconnect between the God described in the early Hebrew Scriptures and those of later texts. Nonetheless, apologists have made some attempts at resolving these problems. Some say that the descriptions of God changing his mind, hating human beings, playing favorites among his children, and so on are simply figures of speech.
- Christians have tried to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with humanity’s free will in many ways. Some of their solutions posit that God exists outside of time, making the claim that he knows what we will do in the future incoherent. It’s impossible to apply terms like “past” and “future” to a timeless being.
- Some have posed alternate interpretations for how Jesus’s death accomplishes the church’s redemption. For example, some say that the crucifixion was a ransom paid to to the devil to free humanity from Satan’s dominion.
Many of these arguments sound formidable on the surface. However, closer examination reveals their fatal weaknesses. For example, most of them commit a logical fallacy known as special pleading. Let me explain what that means.
The Case of the Miscreant Son and the Loving Mother
“I know what the jury thinks,” says Sally with tears in her eyes. “But my boy is no ax murderer. He couldn’t do such horrible things!”
“But, Mrs. Jones,” says the reporter, “the prosecution produced video evidence of your son hacking those people to death. They found his bloodstains and fingerprints on the weapon. Then there’s the fact he confessed!”
“First of all,” says Sally, taking on the air of a skilled defense attorney, “I know three scientists who say bloodstain and fingerprint analysis are unreliable. The whole case could be a plot to get some rich celebrity off the hook. As for your so-called ‘video evidence,’ my husband and I looked at those recordings. Neither of us thinks the guy in those images is our son. Sure, the two men have the same facial characteristics. But that’s true of millions of people.”
“Yes,” says the reporter, “but your son admits the crime. He even bragged about it!”
“Ah-ha!” says Sally, “See, that proves he’s innocent for sure! I know my boy. He always blushes when he lies. And he sure as hell wasn’t blushing when he confessed! Either the police tortured him into confessing or he’s taking the blame to protect somebody he cares about. Those are the only sensible explanations.”
Let’s say you’re watching this exchange. You’ve never met Sally and your only knowledge of the crime is what you’ve seen on TV. What do you think is the more likely interpretation of her claims:
- She’s right. There really is a shadowy, deep-level conspiracy to frame her son for the murders.
- Her son is guilty as hell and she’s just being a devoted mother.
I’m guessing most of you favor the second option. That’s because you’re looking at the matter objectively. Yes, it’s possible the mother’s claims are true. It’s also possible that all of us are trapped in the Matrix waiting for Keanu Reeves to rescue us. But that doesn’t mean we should believe in the Matrix, in the innocence of Sally’s son, or in historic Christian claims.
An Appeal to Common Sense
To be fair, most thoughtful, intelligent Christians don’t try to prove their beliefs using apologetics. They seek only to demonstrate that Christianity might be true. But, as I’ve already said, simply because something is possible doesn’t make it actual. Now let’s look at the claims of historic Christianity with this in mind:
- What’s the most likely explanation for the Bible’s contradictory claims? Is it reasonable to believe that God inspired the contradictions in a well-intention effort to express himself more clearly? Or is it more likely that the Bible contradicts itself because the authors disagreed with each other?
- What’s the more likely interpretation of the crucifixion? Is it rational to believe it was part of a cosmic plan to get us off the hook with God? Or is it more sensible to believe that early Christians told themselves develop these theories as a way of finding meaning in their leader’s death?
- Is it rational to believe, without proof, that a man got up and started walking around three days after he died? Or should we assume the story was invented by early Christians?
- How should we understand the problem of God’s foreknowledge and human free will? Should we believe that God is able to act within space and time while also existing outside of time and space? Or does it make more sense to say that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, timeless God in the first place?
- What about the Trinity? Should we accept the church’s complex arguments for its veracity? Or should we say that there is no Trinity and that early Christians got a little carried away with their theological speculations?
In each case, the simpler explanation is also the more rational one. The reason millions of people disagree is because they’re emotionally invested in their Savior, just as Sally Jones is emotionally invested in her son. This doesn’t mean Christians are evil or stupid. It simply means they’re human. We shouldn’t resent or ridicule them for clinging to their beliefs. At the same time, we shouldn’t accept those beliefs without sufficient grounds for doing so.
Is Atheism the Answer?
Given the problems with historic Christianity, many observers believe the best course of action is to throw out all forms of religion and adopt a purely materialist worldview. I can understand and appreciate their perspective. So-called “Christians” have caused a great deal of pain over the last 2000 years. But this is only part of the story. People of faith have also made enormous contributions to art, literature, philanthropy, and, yes, science. Christianity’s history is a complex picture that defies simplistic analyses.
Many atheists respond by saying that religion rarely inspires works of charity. Richard Dawkins takes this position in his book The God Delusion, where he says that good people will still be good if religion disappears. Problem is, the people who actually perform these marvelous works of charity say just the opposite. They credit their faith with inspiring their good works. Is it rational to believe that Dawkins understands these people better than they understand themselves? Or is it more likely that Dawkins is simply an anti-religious bigot? I opt for the second conclusion. After all, atheists have plenty of blood on their own hands. Just look at the history of the French Revolution or 20th century Communist regimes. Unbelievers are just as prone to committing injustices and atrocities as believers. All they need is a convenient excuse.
This is hard for many religious skeptics to accept. We like to believe that our tribe is noble and pure and it’s those “other people” who cause the world’s problems. In truth, however, we all have a penchant for evil. The real difference between “us” and “them” is the rationalizations we use to justify our misdeeds. Whether we slaughter people in the name of the Blessed Virgin or in the name of reason and science makes precious little difference to our victims. They’re equally dead either way.
Evolution, Einstein, and the Anthropic Principle
There’s no doubt that historic Christianity suffered a deadly blow at the hands of Charles Darwin. Christian theology has always depended on belief in a literal Adam and Eve to explain the presence of sin and evil in the world. And, yes, there have been a handful of thinkers throughout the centuries who interpreted the Genesis story metaphorically. For the most part, however, the church has taken the fable as a genuine historical account. But it’s not historical; it’s simply not. Life on earth assumed its current forms through an evolutionary process that has been going on for hundreds of millions of years, not through a divine act of creation that occurred a few thousand years ago. This is settled fact. To those who have their doubts, I recommend this book to those who have lingering doubts about this issue.
This doesn’t mean that science has explained the universe from a purely materialistic, cause-and-effect viewpoint, however. To the contrary, quantum physics shows us a world that defies causality and common sense. This fact caused Einstein endless frustration. He spent the last decades of his life trying in vain to refute what the subatomic world tells us about reality. This book provides an excellent summary of his struggles to fit the universe into his preconceptions. If a man of his obvious genius could be foiled by his prejudices, how much more is this true of us? We’re not as smart as we think we are. That includes scientists and skeptics.
Compounding the problem for materialists is the Anthropic Principle, which shows that our universe seems amazingly fine tuned for life. This observation drives many scientists crazy because it seems to indicate the universe was created with a purpose in mind, bringing us right back to the idea of a creator God. The standard atheistic response to the Anthropic Principle is to suggest that our universe is merely one of countless trillions of parallel universes, each slightly different from the others. Thus, its life-friendly qualities are merely a lucky roll of the dice. This idea suffers from the same drawbacks as the God hypothesis. Both theories rely on unobservable phenomena, setting each outside the realm of science.
95% of the Universe Is Missing
Claims that humanity has figured out how reality works rest on the belief that we are able to observe the universe and draw conclusions from those observations. That’s why dark matter and dark energy are so alarming. As this article shows, 95% of the universe is made up of stuff we can’t study because it’s invisible to our eyes and our most sensitive scientific instruments. We know that dark energy and dark matter affect gravity; and that’s all we know about them. This mans that, at best, we’ve figured out how 5% of the universe works. The rest of creation remains shrouded in mystery. That leaves us plenty of room for reasoned exploration of spiritual topics. God is far from dead. She simply looks a lot different than we thought. Our task is to clear away the cobwebs of the past, so that we may gain a more rational view of what a Divine Being might be like.
Nothing Lasts Forever, Not Even a 1967 Rambler
I wish I still owned my beloved Rambler. But I don’t. Over time its mechanical problems made it undrivable. But just because I gave up my first car doesn’t mean I quit driving altogether. I switched to a more reliable vehicle, one that got me where I was going without the need for wire or duct tape.
It’s time for people of faith to make a similar switch. There’s no doubt that most church teachings are untenable. But claiming that atheism is the only rational alternative to historic Christianity is a false dilemma. Many forms of spirituality exist in perfect harmony with science and reason. I’ll explore these concepts in future posts. You’re welcome to join me.