An ambitious post title, to be sure. When I would get a really hard question in grad school, often I could “get inside the head” (actually the mind) of the professor and guess “what the answer would look like,” even though I couldn’t actually compute the answer as the Japanese guys could.
I feel a similar way when some of you post excellent criticisms of my Christian views every week on this blog. I understand why you are unsatisfied with my attempted responses, but at the same time I am still confident that I am right and that one day, this will all make perfect sense. In the present post, I want to sketch what the answers will probably “look like.”
For starters, I want to note that atheists/agnostics often present me with two contradictory complaints. On the one hand, they demand that I explain every last action of the God of the Bible, and justify it, rather than simply accepting “on faith” that God is good by definition. On the other hand, whenever I talk about the nature of God, they tell me I am incredibly arrogant for thinking I could possibly understand the mind and attributes of such a being, if He existed.
There is no problem here for the Christian. I haven’t deduced the Christian worldview from reflecting on the nature of existence and the human condition. No, doing that can lead you into despair.
On the contrary, the reason we Christians think we know a thing or two about God is that He told us.
Remember, one of my primary arguments in my first “Why I am a Christian” post was that I would never have designed Christianity. It does sound absurd when you first encounter it, and process it using the standards of this world. When I was an atheist and was getting ready to write the definitive treatise, I thought I had a pretty snappy argument that would go like this:
Let’s put aside all of the physical impossibilities of the Biblical accounts–Jesus walking on water, feeding 5,000 people, and so on. The thing that’s really nonsensical about Christianity is the motivations of the chief characters. We can suspend disbelief and watch The Matrix or some other movie, so long as the characters’ actions make sense. But the God of the Bible behaves completely irrationally. He starts out, furious at humans for their sinful ways, and is going to cast them all into eternal hellfire. But, after He sends His Son and we murder Him, then God forgives us our sins and lets us into heaven. That doesn’t make any sense.
I recently went to a Bible study where an Eastern Orthodox guy led the presentation. The next day, three of us (who were all Protestants) were discussing the worldview of these folks, because I had no idea of the various sects and their tenets. (Note that I am just reporting what my friend told me; I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the description.) My friend said that these guys, though Christian, nonetheless rejected (our interpretations of) the doctrines of Original Sin, of predestination, and of salvation through faith alone.
I pointed out that this was internally consistent. In other words, if you rejected the idea that we are all guilty sinners by our very nature because of Adam and Eve’s transgression, then it makes sense that each person has to earn his or salvation through works, and we can’t know who will get a passing grade until after we observe the person’s actions in life.
This issue of consistency affects the atheist/agnostic critics of my worldview as well. I think a lot of people would argue like this, “Holy cow those fundamentalist Protestants are out there. Not only do they think rapists and murderers can get into heaven, so long as they ‘accept Jesus’ two seconds before they die, but they also think that a guy who ate a forbidden fruit thousands of years ago, somehow affects my guilt or innocence. Talk about compounding error with yet more error!”
But actually, these two views go hand-in-hand. It’s precisely because of Original Sin, that you can’t try really hard and live a life pleasing to God. By your very nature, you were born a corrupt, sinful being. And that’s why only Jesus’ work can save you.
Taking the God Hypothesis Seriously
Sometimes I get frustrated arguing with atheists/agnostics because they don’t take my worldview to its logical conclusion. For example, some libertarians keep trying to prove to me that God is a thief, murderer, etc. because of His actions in the Old Testament in particular.
But hold on a second. If God really did create the entire physical universe de novo, then by standard libertarian ethics He owns everything. (I have never been convinced by attempts to prove self-ownership as the default position. I agree that they sound nice and intuitive with regard to human beings vis-a-vis each other, but ultimately every such argument I’ve seen is ad hoc. Indeed, Gene Callahan and I pointed out that this is one of the reasons Hoppe’s celebrated argument fails: He doesn’t deal with the possibility of a God creating everything.) And note that this doesn’t work at the human level: Your parents don’t own you, because they really didn’t create you in the same sense that Christians believe God created everything. (Also, their parents would own them, and so on.)
For a specific illustration, consider Avram’s rejection of my views of heaven and hell in a comment on a previous post. He wrote (edited slightly):
Let’s say some really cool kid, who is otherwise really nice and does all these great things decides to have a party. Rumors start circulating that it’s gonna be the best party ever. When you get to the kid’s house with some of your friends the kid says, “I have just created the best party ever known to this world, now before you come in you have to declare me as the best person ever, your owner, your sovereign and king for all eternity, now say I am your god.” Well you’d think this guy has problems, because that’s a pretty petty way to get people to say nice things about you.
Well I think the same about your god, Jesus. If he were really a merciful god, he would leave the doors to heaven open for anyone to come in as they like. When they are in there they would have to do by his rules of course but there is no (good) reason to restrict access to people who don’t announce you as their ruler, that’s just petty.
Notice the part I put in bold. Avram totally concedes that when you are on Jesus’ property or “in His house,” you have to abide by His rules. Avram has no problem with that. But Avram seems to think that when you are on earth, you are on territory where God’s rule have no jurisdiction. Yet God created the earth too. You are always on God’s property, living as a guest at His pleasure, and thus subject to His rules–even according to standard libertarian principles.
Furthermore, the reason the hypothetical kid sounds like a jerk is that the kid is not our ruler or god. But if the kid instead said, “In order to come into this house, I expect that you call me by my name Bill–rather than calling me Jake, which for some reason a lot of people do–and don’t go around to the other guests saying I don’t really exist,” that might be a little odd, but it wouldn’t sound as bad as Avram’s hypothetical kid.
Well, if Jesus actually IS our savior and we actually DO need Him for our salvation, then it’s not obviously petty for Him to expect us to utter true statements.
God as Author
Lately I’ve been thinking through these apparent paradoxes by an analogy to a fiction author. Quick: Who is the architect for Winston’s torture in 1984? Why, it’s O’Brien of course, or perhaps Big Brother if you want to look at it that way.
Ah but are you so sure? The person who actually decided to have Winston tortured was George Orwell. In the context of the story of 1984, O’Brien had free will. He chose to commit many crimes. But it’s also a true statement to say O’Brien was an instrument mechanically carrying out the will of George Orwell, who was trying to teach people something with his tale.
That’s “how the answer will look,” I submit, when we die and all things become clear. Our minds right now can’t comprehend the actual nature of our existence and of God, for obvious reasons. But after death, for those of us who choose to be in communion with the Lord, we will see exactly why He told His story (history) the way He did. And of course it will be a beautiful, incredible story, infinitely better than anything humans could create–for the simple reason that all human stories are subplots within God’s overarching story, in the same way Stephen King sometimes has his characters write novels inside his novels.
Last point for today: On the issue of salvation, I stand behind what I said before:
…I disagree strongly that an agnostic who helps little old ladies across the street and doesn’t use the f-word is “a good person.” Yes, he might be good compared to most other humans, but he’s far from perfect. And until you contemplate the life of Jesus, and the standard He set for us (both in His commands and His actions), you don’t even realize how badly you are playing the game of life.
So this is why the most important “act” or “work” you can do in this life, isn’t to refrain from homicide (as I think many agnostics believe). Rather, the most important thing is for you to humble yourself and admit you have a problem. Then you can start improving, and ironically you will end up living a much better life (even according to conventional standards) once you do that.
I think in God’s value system, somebody who did something really bad, but has sincerely repented and understands just how bad it was, is a “better person” at this moment than the person who did a litany of lesser offenses, but now offers no apology for them and in fact is outraged at the very idea that a God might hold him in judgment. And I have to say that this seems eminently fair to me.
I think I found a good way to make my case. Consider the following clip, and I want you to actually watch it through (there are some surprises to keep you interested):
Now then: If Vader hadn’t been injured, and escaped with Luke back to Endor, I agree that he would have to face the legal consequences of his actions. Luke couldn’t just say, “It’s OK everybody, my father is back. All is forgiven.” No, there would be lots of problems with a legal system that worked like that, such as the problem that humans can’t really judge the hearts of others, and so wouldn’t be able to distinguish genuine repentance from a cynical ploy to escape punishment.
However, since Vader died, that’s not the issue. At the end of the movie, we see that the spirit of Anakin Skywalker is in communion with his old friends, Yoda and Obi Wan. Clearly, the message is that at the last moment, Anakin turned back to good. He renounced his horrible crimes, he realized the awful things he had done because of his seduction by the Dark Side, and he turned his life around before it was too late. So that’s why he gets to spend eternity hanging out with the good guys.
Are you agnostics and atheists telling me that this strikes you as repugnant? Do you think George Lucas is being too soft on murderers here? Don’t forget, Vader blew up a whole planet and tortured Han Solo.