All of Us Are Angels, All of Us Are Devils: The Disturbing Truth about You and Me

good nd evil

 

I heard a story this week that shook me to my core. It was part of a documentary about the final days of World War II. The storyteller was a German civilian living in Berlin in 1945. He said that, when the Red army entered the city, some of its soldiers went door-to-door raping German women.

A pair of Russians showed up at his door, demanding to know where his “frau” was. He showed them her body; she had died soon before they arrived.

Upon seeing his deceased wife, the soldiers transformed before the grieving man’s eyes. They knelt in prayer for the woman’s soul. Then they embraced the man, told him how sorry they were for his loss, and left him with as much food as they could spare. Then they went off to find living women to rape.

What horrifies me about this story, besides its sheer brutality, is the way it illustrates how easily human beings can shift from being devils to angels, then to devils once more.
I think this is why people on both ends of the ideological spectrum can, in a matter of moments, change from peaceful human beings to hate-spewing ideologues.

It would comfort me to think that only those on the Right, or on the Left, are capable of these kinds of Jekyll-to-Hyde transformations. Then I could know for sure who is on the side of the angels. Everything would be so much simpler.

Sadly, though, none of us has the luxury of driving a clean line between the villains and the heroes. That’s because all of us are angels. And all of us are devils. That’s a very, very disturbing truth to face.

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Do I Believe in God? That Depends

 

panentheism

Some questions don’t lend themselves to easy answers. That includes the question of God’s existence.

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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:

  1. She’s right. There really is a shadowy, deep-level conspiracy to frame her son for the murders.
  2. 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.

Hitler and Universalism

Hitler

Some people have to go through Hell to get to Heaven.

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Want to know how to annoy Christians? Tell them that everyone who has ever lived will end up in heaven. The idea that divine grace could one day encompass all humanity sends many churchgoers into a rage. I have heard Christians denounce the notion as not only heretical but blasphemous, a doctrine cooked up by the devil himself. Press them on the issue and they will fly into a rage, denouncing you as a false teacher who has no respect for God or for holy Scripture.

This consternation on their part may seem odd, given that Christians profess belief in a God of love. They will tell you over and over that the Almighty gave his Son so that the world could be saved. But the idea that God might accomplish this worthy goal is loathsome. Apparently there’s no joy in going to heaven without the opportunity to snicker at those poor souls who end up in hell. This is known in economic circles as a positional good. You see, owning a Maserati or a mansion is just no fun if everyone else has one too. This angry reaction to other’s good fortune gives keen insight into what’s really going on in the minds of many churchgoers. No wonder Christianity is in trouble.

The opponents of universalism have assembled a range of powerful arguments against the teaching. Some of these objections are based in Scripture, some in philosophy, and others in rhetoric. One of the most effective is the often used appeal to Hitler. “So you think that everyone’s going to go to heaven, do you?” says the outraged Christian. “Well, what about Hitler, huh? Do you think he’ll be there too?”

The objection is valid. Any serious argument for universalism must deal with the ugly truth about human nature. So, in this post, I’m going to tackle the dilemma of Hitler’s evil head on. Let’s see if the idea of universal salvation can withstand the challenge. If not, then it amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking. On the other hand, if it stands up to the test, then universalism is worthy of serious consideration. Let’s begin with a disturbing look at Hitler’s tragic legacy.

The Arch-Fiend of Human History

Adolf Hitler is perhaps the most evil person ever to walk the planet. Statistics can never truly express the horror the Nazi madman and his followers inflicted on countless innocents around the world. But numbers are the only tool I have for giving you a glimpse into the atrocities of which Hitler is guilty. So here are a few sobering facts:

  • Hitler’s Holocaust killed more than 11 million human beings, 6 million of whom were Jewish. Other groups targeted in the so-called “final solution” were pacifists, Gypsies, Communists, and people with mental or physical disabilities. Hundreds of thousands of the victims were children.
  • World War II claimed the lives of more than 60 million people across the globe. Millions more suffered disfiguring injuries, lost their homes, or were forced to live with nightmarish memories that haunted them the rest of their lives. The Nazis were not the sole aggressors in the conflict. But they were its chief architects.
  • Hitler was a sadist who took delight in the misery of others. When an assassination plot against him failed in 1944, he had the conspirators strung up with wire around their necks. The metal cables slowly cut into their flesh, causing them unimaginable pain. Hitler’s assistants filmed the executions. The Führer watched the films over and over, deriving great joy from seeing his victims suffer.
  • When it became obvious that Germany would lose the war, Hitler turned his wrath on his own people, ordering the military to destroy the nation’s remaining infrastructure and food supplies. Refusing to accept responsibility for his own actions, he blamed his faithful followers for being unworthy of his “genius.”

I could go on and on but there’s no point. The idea that this monster could escape punishment for his crimes is morally repugnant. Any form of universalism that denies this fact makes a mockery of justice and deserves nothing but contempt. Of this there is no doubt whatsoever.

Many observers see Hitler as unnatural, a demon masquerading in human flesh. There is a certain comfort in this viewpoint. After all, if Hitler was like us, then there’s a possibility that we could be like him. But the unnerving truth is that Hitler was not only human, he was capable of tenderness and compassion. We know this from the following facts:

  • Hitler disliked hunting and could not stand to see animals suffer. Many believe this explains his passionate commitment to vegetarianism.
  • Hitler was kind to many of those who worked for him, especially women. He easily forgave errors committed by his personal secretary, who apparently was not the world’s best typist. She and others later described the dictator as having periods of folksy gentleness that made his moments of sadistic cruelty inexplicable.
  • Hitler loved his mother dearly. Psychologists who have analyzed his personality believe that much of his political career was a twisted attempt to address the suffering he saw his mother endure at the hands of his tyrannical father. Hitler’s sick mind saw the German nation as a noble female and he as the noble knight tasked with protecting her.

None of these facts lessen Hitler’s responsibility for his crimes. But they do paint a complex portrait of the man, one that we dare not ignore. Writing the dictator off as an irredeemable monster is too easy. It allows us to feel better about ourselves by denying our own capacity for evil. But it does nothing to stop another Hitler from rising to power somewhere in the world. So let’s explore the factors that helped to turn what might have otherwise been a good man into an insane monster.

Punishing Others for Our Suffering

It’s a revealing fact that most criminals were abused as children. Part of this is due to genetic factors. But another part is due to the all-too-human tendency to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty. We dislike the fact that environment and upbringing can mold a child into the adult he or she will become. We think this lessens the evildoer’s responsibility for his or her actions. It doesn’t. Instead, it reminds us that whatever we put into the world, whether it’s cruelty or kindness, has effects beyond what we can imagine. Hitler’s abusive father Alois planted seeds of anger in his son at a very early age, ones that would grow into a harvest of rage engulfing the whole world.

So who bears the blame for Adolf Hitler’s sins? Adolf Hitler does, of course. But not just him. Those who scar the souls of the young share the blame for the crimes of their victims. This includes you and I, to the extent that our exploitation and abuse of others twists their minds toward evil. The people we bullied when we were younger might, at this very moment, be harming innocent people for the suffering we inflicted on them years ago. So, if we are determined to bring evildoers to justice, then let us accept our own share of the punishment.

Seeking a Scapegoat

“I’ll tell you the problem with this country. It’s those damn Democrats!”

“I’ll tell you the problem with this country. It’s those damn Republicans!”

“I’ll tell you why I can’t get ahead in life. It’s because of the blacks!”

“I’ll tell you why I can’t get ahead in life. It’s because of white people!”

“I’ll tell you why the factory shut down. It’s those damn Chinese!”

“I’ll tell you why the factory shut down. It’s because of the Capitalists!”

I’m sure you’ve heard people say these things on occasion. Perhaps you’ve even said a few of them yourself. The human mind is drawn towards bigotry because it gives us a focus for our anger. It permits us to imagine ourselves as noble victim of evil oppressors. Bigotry even allows us to imagine a utopia that would exist if only we get rid of those “other people.” For a psychological poison, prejudice can make us feel really good. Perhaps that’s why it never goes away. We enjoy it, though we claim otherwise. It wasn’t just true of Hitler. It’s true of all of us.

The Memory of the Cave

Evolution is a fact. Human beings arose from earlier animals in a chain that stretches back hundreds of millions of years. It’s perfectly fine to say that God was behind this process directing it. But denying evolution is simply not feasible. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. Does this create troubling questions for our preferred beliefs? Yes. But we’ll just have to live with those questions because evolution isn’t going anywhere. It’s a fact of life.

Evolution explains why we’re so passionate about religion, politics, and sports. We evolved to live in tribes because all of us need others to survive. Our survival depends on our ability to form close bonds within our tribe and do battle with competing groups. Our status depends on how high we rise in the tribal power structure. That’s why we admire success and detest failure. That’s why we seek to impress others with our looks or our smarts or our possessions. It’s why we argue with strangers on the Internet. It’s why we imagine a pit of fire that will torture our enemies for eternity. Just below the surface of our civilized demeanor is the same set of primitive instincts that drive our cousins the apes.

If you doubt this, then look into your own heart and remember the things you have thought and said in moments of stress. That is your animal side, or what the Bible calls the “sinful nature,” expressing itself. You may think it could never drive you to commit atrocities. But you’re wrong. All it takes is for us to get a little hungry and a little scared and a little angry. Then the monsters inside us will show themselves. They always do.

“But I’m Not a Bad Person!”

When faced with our capacity for evil, we try to justify ourselves by pointing to our kind words and good intentions. Make no mistake, those things speak well of us. Yes, we’re bad. But we’re not all bad. Sometimes the only thing that makes a person either a saint or a psychopath is a childhood trauma or a random quirk in their DNA. That was true of Adolf Hitler. It’s true of us as well.

God cannot excuse the evil that humanity commits. Nor can he abandon the good that exists inside every human heart. So what does he do with someone who was capable of compassion but inflicted unimaginable suffering? Well, I’m not God. So I can’t say for sure. But the following is what I picture Hitler facing in the afterlife:

  • He will experience every moment of pain and suffering and despair his victim endured. He will see his ribs jutting out from his emaciated body as he starves to death. He will feel his fingers and toes snap off because they’re frozen. He will feel his throat parched and swollen as his body cries out for a drop of water. He will know what it’s like to see the ones he loves butchered in front of him. He will understand the misery and hopelessness of everyone he consigned to a concentration camp. He will feel the bullets that struck down soldiers on both sides of the war. He will suffer the aching loneliness of the survivors who looked back on the family members they lost.
  • He will have no excuses to hide behind. He will look into the mirror and see all of the ugliness inside his soul. He will not be able to turn away. He will realize that his own sins made those of his father look insignificant.
  • He will suffer these horrors for billions upon billions of years, till at last he lowers his head in repentance and says, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Then and only then will he start down the long, long road to redemption.

Hitler will burn in Hell, yes. But the torments of Hell are not forever. Even for him they will eventually end, and the fragments of goodness within him will blossom like a rose tended by a loving and ever-patient gardener. The memories of his misdeeds will be with him always, but so will the joy he feels as he atones for his sins with an eternity of service to others. In that way, he will find salvation.

You and I are destined for much the same fate. We bear the blame for our sins, both those we commit and those we inspire others to commit. We will all face the truth about ourselves, the things we find so easy to rationalize in this life. We will suffer the fires of Hell, the fires we ourselves kindle. But, in the end, the fires will burn themselves out, justice will be swallowed up by love, and all of God’s children will come home.

Who Cares About the Trinity?

Who Cares about the trinity- (1)

Does it make sense to argue about questions we can’t answer? Or should we agree to disagree?

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Theology is like alcohol. It’s fine in moderation. Overindulge, however, and the results are sometimes catastrophic. Take the doctrine of the Trinity for example. This single topic has led to countless arguments over the centuries, along with a fair amount of bloodshed. For orthodox Christians, the idea of a triune God is a settled issue backed by the weight of history and the consensus of biblical and theological scholarship. But, for many progressive Christians, not to mention Muslims and Jews, the doctrine is wrongheaded at best and blasphemous at its worst.

This is not to say that the Trinity isn’t worth discussing; it is. But, before we do so, we

Continue reading “Who Cares About the Trinity?”

How to Talk about Faith, No Matter What You Believe

How to talk about faith

Finding the truth about the big questions of life starts with admitting the truth about ourselves.

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Have you ever heard a discussion like this one?

PERSON ONE: “There’s no God and anyone with a lick of sense knows it!”

PERSON TWO: “Then where did the world come from, genius?”

PERSON ONE: “From evolution, of course, you religious fanatic!”

PERSON TWO: “Evolution is a lie, you idiot! The Bible says God made the world!”

PERSON ONE: “You Christians make me sick!”

PERSON TWO: “You atheists make ME sick!” Continue reading “How to Talk about Faith, No Matter What You Believe”

Does the Matrix Explain the Problem of Evil?

Matrix (2)

Does God have a choice about whether to allow evil in the world? Perhaps not.

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE: In this post I refer to God as “He.” This is not because I believe the Almighty has genitals but simply out of longstanding habit and the need for simplicity. You’re welcome to substitute another term such as “She” or “It” or simply “God” if you like. You won’t offend me in the slightest.

When I was at my local library yesterday I couldn’t help but notice the plentiful supply of books that claim to either prove or debunk the existence of God. It seems there is an endless demand for books that give people reasons, or at least excuses, to cling to their pet beliefs. Perhaps that’s why both Tim LaHaye and Richard Dawkins are bestselling authors.

I have read enough of these books over the years to predict the directions their arguments will take. Believers inevitably trot out the argument from design, which says that the universe is too complex to be a fluke. They also propose various solutions to the problem of evil, such as the importance of human free will. In the end they side with Leibnitz is claiming that ours is the best of all possible worlds and was crafted by an all-powerful Entity; i.e. God.

Continue reading “Does the Matrix Explain the Problem of Evil?”

The Old Testament is a Tragedy. What’s Wrong with That?

Old Testament

The Old Testament is Remarkably Similar to the Form of Literature Known as “Tragedy”

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Last summer I committed myself to reading through the Old Testament for the first time in 30 years. I was curious how I would react to the text now that I no longer care about forcing it to fit the straitjacket of fundamentalist theology. Also, I wanted to see for myself if the biblical writings are as barbaric as their detractors claim.

As of today I am almost finished with Second Chronicles, which in the standard Protestant arrangement sits near the end of the historical books just before Ezra. I have a lot of reading yet to do, of course.  Nonetheless, I am ready to share several conclusions:

Continue reading “The Old Testament is a Tragedy. What’s Wrong with That?”