Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.
There are many arguments for and against belief in a higher power, some stronger than others.
For me, the biggest push towards atheism was the inherent characteristics God is supposed to possess. We talked some in last week's column about how I struggled with the problem of evil and suffering in the world--part of that struggle was because of God's characteristics.
There are three in particular that give me pause when I look at the world around me:
- omniscient: God knows all
- omnipotent: God is all-powerful
- good: God is all good
- just: God is just
These four characteristics, when looked at in the context of the world that I exist in, were difficult to swallow--and remain so.
Omniscient: If God knows all, why is there suffering?
God knows all. He knows what happened yesterday, what is happening right now, and what will happen tomorrow...the day after...1,000 years from now. Every day that has ever been or that ever will be--God knows it.
Whence, then, comes suffering?
If God knows about it, why do we suffer? Why not prevent suffering in advance? That would seem like the kindest way to deal with humanity.
But it goes further than that. To say that God has all the perfect knowledge, is to say that God has no need to learn.
To say that God is omniscient is to say that He possesses perfect knowledge and therefore has no need to learn. But it is more: it is to say that God has never learned and cannot learn.
That's a quote from A. W. Tozer from Knowledge of the Holy.
The crux of my issue with this concept is, believe it or not, doctrinal. We are created in the image of God...and yet, we are born with this insatiable lust to know, to learn. There is not a person alive that doesn't want seek knowledge of some sort, and the defining characteristic of that seeking is not to have the knowledge, but to attain it. To find it. It's not having the knowledge that is pleasurable to us. It is learning it.
This is one of our foundational characteristics as human beings. I saw wonder on my newborns' faces, when they looked up at me moments after birth when laid on my stomach. "Who are you?" their eyes said. "What is this?"
And yet, God misses this characteristic. This spiritual, if I've ever seen one, characteristic is missing from God's character. If we are created in his image--and I was continually assured that that meant spiritually--how can he be missing this ability to learn and love learning?
I have seen people try to explain this by using parenting. As a parent, you watch your child wonder and it delights you. But even this has a logical flaw.
I'm a parent. I'm watching my kids wonder, and I love every moment of it. But I also still seek out knowledge myself. I learn things, and purposefully introduce them to my children. It's amazing. That drive to wonder and learn isn't wiped out in me--it's something that I enjoy sharing with my children.
Omnipotent: If God is all-powerful, why is there suffering?
God is all-powerful. He can make anything happen, no matter how improbable. No matter how impossible.
And yet, we find ourselves circling back to the same question: Why, then, does suffering happen?
If God is all-powerful, one would think he could stop the suffering at any moment. For instance, right now Yazidis in Iraq face extinction for their religious beliefs. Couldn't an all-powerful god simply scoop them up and place them somewhere? Couldn't he change the hearts of those that seek to kill in the name of religion? Those that supposedly kill in his name?
Mark Twain had thoughts on God and suffering. He used the example of sleeping sickness, which he believed that no man in the world would fail to cure if he found himself to have the power to do so. But Twain said:
To find the one person who has no pity for him you must go to heaven; to find the one person who is able to heal him and can't be persuaded to do it, you must go to the same place.This raises a double question when you combine the characteristics of all-knowing and all-powerful. Not only does he know about all suffering, but he has the power to fix it.
So why doesn't he?
Good: If God is good, why is there suffering?
God is good. This is indisputable. If God were not good, he would also not be worth worshipping, one would hope.
We are taught that God only wants the best for us. Why, then, suffering?
I know, I sound like a broken record, but hear me out. I'm a mom. I worked hard to craft two healthy kids. I took precautions to eat well, to exercise, while I was pregnant. I tried to live healthily, to remember to take my prenatal vitamins, to avoid substances that could be harmful. Today, I believe myself to be a good mom.
I would never allow my children to suffer. I proactively try to prevent their suffering in any way that I can. The thought of their suffering is torment to me--just the thought.
And yet, God willingly allows us to suffer. Every day.
Wa-hut? Willingly allows us? How do you come to that conclusion, Kayla Sue? That's crazy talk!
Well, I read the Bible. Specifically Job:
6 One day the angels[a] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan[b] also came with them.
7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.
10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.
11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.These verses are preceded by verses that show Job was a holy man, who committed no sins. They are succeeded by verses that say that he loses everything, including his ten children.
Because God is good? I find it difficult to believe.
Just: If God is just, why is there suffering?
God is just. He values law and order, and he exacts punishment for people that break the law or don't accept him.
God's concept of justice is very black and white--there is no gray. You are innocent or guilty. No extenuating circumstances.
In Exodus 12, God decides to make sure the world will always remember him. He does this by murdering large numbers of people:
29 At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well.
30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.God does this AFTER he hardens pharaoh's heart...multiple times. God hardens his heart...and then punishes the whole country for his decisions.
In 2 Samuel 12, God is angry with David...so he sentences David's wives to be raped:
11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight.
12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”In Jeremiah 6, God will punish men by taking all of their property...including their wives:
12 Their houses will be turned over to others,I don't see a just god in these actions. Truth be told, I see a power-hungry psychopath in these.
together with their fields and their wives,
when I stretch out my hand
against those who live in the land,”
declares the Lord.
Wrapping It Up
Each one of these was devastating to my faith, and none of the answers I tried were satisfactory to me. When you add them up, it became very difficult to see how a god like this was worthy of my worship, in any way, shape or form.
I was unable to reconcile the truth of the world with a god whose characteristics belie that truth. It was not an easy path, and I explored so many answer along the way. I learned so much about myself and my then-faith.
I will finish with a famous quote from Epicurus, one that sums up my thought process perfectly:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both willing and able?
Whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?