Reading Time: 5 minutes

From Part 1 of this excerpt from my book Cross Examined:

Jim set the cups on their saucers and swirled the tea in the pot. “It was a revelation—all the convoluted and flimsy rationalization that had been necessary before just vanished. My God hypothesis was a poor explanation of reality, and when I no longer insisted that it was correct and simply followed reality where it led me, things made vastly more sense.”

“Moving from love to nothing is a harsh change,” Paul said. “You must at least agree that the atheist position repels many people.”

“Some do feel that way, but that has nothing to do with whether or not God exists. I have no use for the happy explanation but quite a bit for the correct explanation. You can’t be arguing that it’s disagreeable to imagine that there is no God, so therefore he exists—surely we have higher standards of evidence than that.

“Many Christians admit that the problem of evil is the most difficult problem for Christianity—why God lets bad things happen to good people,” Jim said. “The Greek philosopher Epicurus had an excellent way of putting it. He said that if God is willing to prevent evil but not able, then he is not omnipotent. If he is able but not willing, then he is malevolent. If he is both able and willing, then why is there evil? If he is neither able nor willing, then why call him God?”

“Well, difficulties build character,” Paul said. “My own life started out pretty bad, but it made me who I am.”

“That’s just what an atheist would say—we don’t seek out misfortune, but good can come of it. It’s a simple and workable understanding of the world, and it doesn’t need a supernatural element. But the Christian’s challenge is to make sense of evil permitted by a supernatural being who could stop it in an instant if he wanted to—a tall order.”

“Here’s how Reverend Hargrove explained it to me,” Paul said. “Free will is mandatory in a good world. God could have created us like machines without choice so that we would always do the right thing, but then we wouldn’t be human.” He remembered a metaphor from one of Samuel’s sermons. “What’s the point in walking a maze if there’s a sign pointing the correct direction at every junction?”

Jim dropped the Bible onto the carpet and put his bare feet up on the table where it had been. They were practical feet, ugly with calluses, and they looked like they were rarely confined in shoes. His feet made a sharp contrast with his natty gray trousers. “If God cares so much about free will, I wonder why he allows the free will of the victim to be trampled by the thief or murderer,” Jim said. “And tell me this: does free will exist in heaven?”

“I would think that it must.”

“And does it cause the same problems in heaven that it does here on earth?”

Paul swirled the tea in his cup and watched the dark bits of leaves make patterns in the liquid. “I suppose the spirits in heaven are enlightened. They’d have no desire to do bad things. Otherwise, heaven would have the problems we have here.”

“Then God could give us that enlightenment now.”

“God can’t just give us wisdom. Then we’d have no opportunity to learn. My point about the maze was that a lesson learned is more powerful than a lesson given. Wisdom is more valuable if we earn it.”

“Why is that?” Jim asked. “God could enlighten us with the same lessons as profoundly as if we’d learned them through experience, and no trials would be necessary. If free will is mandatory, why was the enlightenment needed to properly use it reserved for the spirits in heaven? Why would God shortchange us like that? It’s like an automobile without an instruction manual. The God hypothesis is unnecessary and it complicates the explanation. And why does God not show himself? Why not make clear his purpose? Why the mystery, why the test, when he knows the outcome already? Why not just tell us?”

“He did tell us. He told us through Jesus’s ministry.”

“That’s a story, not concrete evidence. What we see, including the legend of Jesus and the emphasis on faith instead of reason, is exactly the kind of thing primitive people would give us. The natural explanation is far more plausible than the existence of a divine maze maker.”

Paul leaned back in his chair. The defensiveness of the past was almost gone. Instead of focusing on his own crumbling argument, Paul reflected on the construction of Jim’s. He tried for another analogy. “I think of life as a school. We learn and then we graduate into heaven.”

“But some fail and go to hell. It’s a poor school that fails such a huge fraction of its students. Isn’t God a skilled enough teacher that everyone could pass?”

Paul fingered the seams on the arm of the chair as another avenue came to mind. “I’ve always found comfort in everyday miracles—not parting the Red Sea, but a child rescued from a fire or a miraculous recovery from illness. Don’t events like that make you stop and think?”

“Good news pleases me as well, but let’s be clear about what causes it. I read in the paper a few weeks ago about a woman whose home was destroyed in April’s earthquake. She lost everything, but charities and the government have given her food, clothes, and a temporary place to live. Do you know what her reaction was? She said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ ”

“And you say that it wasn’t Jesus who helped.”

“Exactly. Give thanks to those who provided the help—the people who have opened their homes to the homeless or fed the hungry. It doesn’t happen often enough, but it happens. People from as far away as Idaho and Washington are still sending bread by train to feed people in San Francisco. The prayer ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is being answered, but by people, not God. We don’t need to invent supernatural beings to explain what we see.”

Paul had seen enough callousness to last a lifetime—and yet, he had seen plenty of generosity, too. “Some would say that Jesus caused those people to do good, that He worked through them.”

“Right, and Santa Claus works through parents. ‘God will provide’ really means that people will provide. It’s amazing how far Christians will go to rationalize a positive role for Jesus. The Creator of the universe apparently stands by to let disaster consume a city, and then his apologists want to credit him with the people cleaning up afterwards. No—I’d rather give people the credit they earned.”

“Many would say that disasters are part of God’s plan—a short-term loss for some greater gain in the future.” Paul surprised himself as he shored up the Samuel side of the argument. He didn’t think it the stronger position, but he wanted to hear Jim’s response.

Jim said, “People don’t say, ‘This disaster must be for the greater good’ and sit back to watch dispassionately. They help where they can. We don’t say, ‘Smallpox is supposed to be deadly and to change that would interfere with God’s plan’—we create vaccines. We don’t say, ‘Injuries are supposed to hurt’ or ‘Bones just break sometimes’—we create laudanum and splints. People talk about how there must be a greater good behind God’s plan so they can salvage the claim that God is good, and yet they don’t hesitate before using modern medicine to help the sick and injured or using charity to help people displaced by a natural disaster. They don’t hesitate a moment before interfering in ‘God’s plan.’ ”

Paul sipped from his cup as he considered Jim’s argument. He was beginning to enjoy this tea—harsh but with a sweet aftertaste. “I heard a story about a woman tending her garden.” Paul wasn’t much for telling jokes, but this one took on a new meaning. “The pastor walks by and says, ‘Isn’t it marvelous what God can do in a garden?’ She wipes the sweat from her forehead and says, ‘You should have seen it when He had it all to Himself.’ ”

Jim stood and let out a whoop. “There’s hope for you yet!” He picked up the tea tray. “Let’s continue in the kitchen.”

Concluded in part 3.

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...