Free Will Isn’t Free

You get up on a Saturday morning, get dressed, and throw open the front door. How are you going to spend your day? You can keep things small and routine: visit a friend, go shopping, watch TV. You might also do something epic: take a spontaneous road trip, withdraw your savings and give it to the homeless, start that novel you’ve been talking about for years. The possibilities are seemingly endless!

But they aren’t endless. There are somethings that you are simply not allowed to do, at least not legally or easily. You can’t throw hand grenades at pedestrians. You can’t declare yourself a police officer and start fighting crime. You can’t drive your car onto an airport tarmac.

Is your “free will” restricted by not having every theoretical activity available to you? Perhaps, but is this really a problem? We generally agree as a civilization that, as a whole, we’re better off if individuals don’t have certain options on the table. We might argue about what those options are, but few advocate anarchy as the ideal state of affairs.

Now let’s get into a specific example. Let’s say you’re a young man with a history of violence, and you really have it out for your mother-in-law. You decide to spend your day of endless possibility by going to her church and shooting up the place.

Would anyone have a problem if this man wasn’t given this particular option? If God placed an invisible wall around the church, preventing the man from entering or firing through, would we be any worse off? Indeed, wouldn’t this in fact be a powerful testimony of God’s protection? Imagine if someone got a video of a gun-wielding madman smacking into absolutely nothing!

Instead, in the aftermath of yet another gun massacre, we are forced to assume that God must have his reasons for not interfering – just like in Columbine, Paducah, Killeen, Austin, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Charleston… and on and on.

 

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God Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

This post will be more of an emotional argument than I generally try to employ, but I’ve decided to take a page from the Christian playbook and prey on the victims of a recent tragedy.

The Sutherland Springs church shooting was, on the one hand, yet another in a string of killing sprees that has become such a depressingly mundane part of American life. Not even churches are immune from this kind of tragedy, as we already know from the events in Charleston two years ago.

But aren’t Christians supposed to be special? Isn’t God supposed to be “a very present help in trouble“? What happened to the David’s God, of whom the king declared:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold and my refuge,
my savior; you save me from violence.” (2 Samuel 22:2-3)

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16)

“The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.” (Psalm 121:5,7)

What reassurance is a believer supposed to take from these passages? Why does God include them in his Word if he doesn’t intend to follow through?

If your God lets a deranged maniac waltz into his own house, where he is supposedly present, and gun down his own faithful, not even sparing children – at what point do you consider the possibility that he isn’t really there? Surely if there was ever a time for God to demonstrate his awesome power, it would be in the face of a disturbed man hell-bent on showering his holy place with the blood of his followers.

How will these people go back and worship God in the same place where he failed to protect their family and friends? How will the pastor, whose own daughter was among the deceased, get up and preach about God’s love and compassion?

How would you handle this failure on the part of anyone else? If your security guard allows a robbery to happen, you fire him! If your doctor fails to diagnose an illness, you get a new one! Or do you convince yourself, against the weight of evidence, that these are the best individuals for their respective jobs, to the point of recommending them to those around you?

The Real Miracle Would Be Demonstrating One

At the most recent meeting of the Atheist Christian Book Club, we took a break from books to watch this old debate between Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig. The discussion hinged upon the admissibility of miracles as an explanation for historical events. Craig claimed that, in the case of the resurrection, a miracle was the only explanation that fits the evidence. Ehrman stressed that miracles cannot be addressed by historical methodology as historians cannot presuppose the existence of a particular God.

Ehrman takes to the extreme the colloquial usage of the term “miracle.” He considers miracles as possible but inherently so improbable that almost any other explanation is more likely. This means even the most dubious naturalistic explanation is more plausible than a supernatural one.

This is the challenge to those who wish to prop up ancient miracle stories. Have they ruled out trickery on the part of the miracle worker? Have they ruled out embellishment, even unintentional, on the part of the writer? Have they ruled out an unknown but entirely natural explanation?

Even those who believe Craig’s supernatural explanation for the resurrection do not apply the same thought process to everyday life. If you find your lost keys under the couch with no idea how they got there, do you immediately assume that God put them there? Or do you figure there’s some relatively mundane reason that you don’t happen to know?

Supernatural intervention is an explanation of exclusion, not of evidence. Craig does not support his claims with his own affirmative evidence. Instead, he decides that no sufficient natural evidence has or can be presented to disprove him. Craig’s argument thus becomes an overwrought god of the gaps: he can’t come up with a convincing naturalistic explanation, therefore it must be God.

Craig says it’s entirely plausible that God raised Jesus from the dead, assuming the existence of God. But if we assume one god, why not assume others? Once you start admitting supernatural causes, where do you stop? How do you decide which otherworldly beings interact with our world and which do not? Can you say for sure that it was Jehovah and not Poseidon that gave Jesus the ability to walk on water? Was Jesus raised from the dead by Jehovah or Dionysus? Once you open this can of worms, the worms are all over the place, so you’d better have a damn good reason for touching that lid in the first place.

Build a Better Bible in 3 Easy Steps

Photo: John Snyder

A Christian member of the Atheist Christian Book Club raised an interesting quandary at our last meeting, one which I’ve honestly struggled to address. It goes like this:

Of course atheists don’t believe the Gospels are reliable! If they agree, you say they’re untrustworthy because they copy from each other! But if they disagree, you say they’re untrustworthy because they tell different stories!

A valid point? Maybe on the surface, but let’s dig a little deeper here. What if there was a way to avoid these questions entirely? I’ve already done a post suggesting that maybe God wouldn’t have bothered with a book at all, but let’s say God wanted to leave us a book for reference, or some other reason that only he understands. How could God provide the message he wants to present in the gospels in a way that will not provide additional stumbling blocks or difficulties?

  • Tell the same stories with no contradictions – This is the most obvious idea. Why would God inspire the gospel authors to write incompatible narratives? This is not to say that you can’t have differences in the gospel stories, i.e. you can still tell the same story from different perspectives, or you can have one gospel tell a story that another leaves out. However, contradictions only serve to inhibit understanding; they actively undermine belief in biblical authority, and any god worth his salt would make sure there were none in his magnum opus.
  • Inspire a single, authoritative gospel – It’s hard to have contradictions in a single narrative! This solution may not be as ideal as you don’t have three more gospels which could theoretically provide additional corroboration, but you could also have the account supported by extrabiblical evidence (hell, it would be nice to have this with the current gospels).
  • Combine the book with signs that could only come from God – Here’s an idea that also doesn’t require changing the Bible as it is, it just gives it some extra divine oomph. Anyone remember 90’s PC games and their analog anti-piracy measures? You might have to go to a certain page and count a certain number of words, and that would be the password to allow you access. What if God came to you in a dream and said, “You know that Bible on your shelf? On page 769, the fourth word from the top is ‘Verily.'” If that actually matches, that would be hard to rationalize away, right? How could you coincidentally hallucinate that exact word on that exact page? There may still be skeptics (as there will be for any evidence), but most people would find this hard to explain away.

There you have it! Three easy ways to fix troublesome problems with the Bible. Next time, God should check with me first – I promise to keep my consulting fees reasonable!

Moses Died for Your Sins: An Alternate Timeline

Things are looking grim for the people of Israel. Oppressed by a foreign power, they seek a great leader who will break their chains of bondage. Finally, the man himself arrives! Not only does he perform great miracles, he provides his people instructions on how to live a life pleasing to God.

Jesus Christ? No, the man is Moses, and I would like to propose a way that God could have saved a lot of time (and given us a much more concise Bible) by making Moses the savior of humanity.

Picture the backstory: we’re only a few chapters into the Bible, and sin is already wreaking havoc on God’s creation. God has already tried and failed to cut off the infection by firebombing Sodom and Gomorrah and rebooting all life on Earth with the Great Flood. Is the solution to create a temporary fix which will redeem only one specific people? Why not sent the savior of humanity now, instead of waiting a few thousand years?

In the Bible, Moses speaks to Pharaoh on behalf of his people, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go after ten plagues, but he still pursues them until Moses parts the Red Sea and closes it on the Egyptian army. I’d like to propose an alternate scenario that is essentially similar, but with a few key tweaks.

In my scenario, Moses is the Son of God. His birth narrative in Exodus is already pretty unlikely, floating down the Nile in a basket and allowed to survive when all other Israelite sons were being killed. We just need to make him born of a virgin to give him a truly miraculous origin story.

The story proceeds from there until Moses is grown and makes his escape into Midian. In a classic hero’s journey trope, he encounters God in the burning bush, where he learns of his divine provenance. God then instructs Moses to not only be Israel’s liaison to Pharaoh, but to beseech the Israelites to turn from their sinful ways (as Moses will do in the Sinai anyway) and follow Jehovah only. Moses obeys, performing signs and wonders to prove that God has sent him.

When the time comes for the tenth and final plague, Israel is not spared by painting their doors with blood. Rather, Moses allows himself to be captured by Pharaoh, who has once again had his heart hardened by God. The next morning, Pharaoh executes him, an innocent man, just as the spirit of the Lord passes over Egypt. The firstborn of Israel are spared by Moses’ sacrifice, but the firstborn of Egypt are not. The people of Israel now escape thanks to the distraction.

They proceed to the Red Sea, where they find themselves trapped between the army of Egypt and the water. Suddenly, Moses reappears! He has defeated death, and proceeds to part the Red Sea and allow Israel to pass through, closing it again over the pursuing Egyptians. Safe on the other side, Moses presents God’s message to his people and all of humanity: accept Moses into your heart, repent of your sins and you will be saved.

This alternate scenario solves a number of problems with the overarching biblical narrative. Many stumbling blocks are removed from prospective believers – God never commands genocide, never demands the stoning of homosexuals, never condones slavery or allows slaves to be beaten. You no longer have to cherry pick which Levitical laws are important (gays are bad but blended fabrics are fine?). You no longer have to contrast the vengeful Old Testament God with the loving New Testament God and wonder how an “unchanging” god has changed. Most importantly, millions more souls have the opportunity to be made right with God sooner.

Never Trust God to Do a Man’s Job

One of the most damning realizations of my deconversion was that, despite my years of prayer, of studying scripture, of earnestly seeking to draw closer to God, I was no closer at all. I had never heard the voice of God like some claimed to have heard. I had no miraculous experiences, no unbelievable coincidences, nothing that seemed out of course for a workaday life. I prayed for things, and sometimes I got what I asked for, sometimes I didn’t. It was as if the act of praying had no influence on the results of the prayers. Sure, I gave God credit for a lot of things, but stepping back I wondered where exactly God was acting in these situations.

For example, when my wife and I bought a house, our friends and family praised God for his favor in providing us with this wonderful house. Even as a Christian at the time, I wondered where God fit into the process. Did God save our money for us? Did God contact the realtor for us? Did God sort through dozens of listings, visit house after house, make the phone calls, fill out the paperwork? Why is God being given the credit for our hard work?

How many Christians go to the doctor when sick? Why don’t they do as James says:

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. [James 5:14-15]

That’s the Bible’s prescription for your ills. You may as well throw away your antibiotics, your insulin, your heart medication, your Viagra. Take off your casts, your splints, your hearing aids, your glasses, and stumble blind and deaf, guided by your faith alone!

But what if you do this and you don’t get better. Is that God’s fault? He’s in control here. He could heal you in a second if he wanted to – wouldn’t even break a sweat. Will you blame God for your ills? Or will you assume God has a bigger plan in play, that somehow your suffering, even if it leads to your death, will somehow result in a greater good?

Christians tend to “see God moving” in retrospect through the rosy filter of confirmation bias. They assume that any trifling benefit came directly from God while completely ignoring the times when God has failed to move, either in their own lives or the lives of others. The situations where Christians find comfort believing that “God is in control” are the same situations that would be avoided if God was actually controlling things. Why does God help people find their car keys but not a route to work that will avoid that horrific accident?

Christians regularly pray for the sick to be healed. If the person gets better, hooray! God (not modern medicine or highly- trained doctors or the body’s own immune system) has healed them. But what if they don’t get better? What if they suffer a horrible, painful, unnecessary death? This might be looked at as “God taking them home” or “God’s higher purpose,” but it is rarely looked at as “God choosing for unknown reasons not to expend the tiniest bit of his supposedly limitless power.”

Seemingly, God chooses to bless people but never chooses to curse them. This does not hold up to reality. He may not directly cause suffering, but he consistently causes suffering indirectly by not using his unlimited power and foreknowledge to prevent harm.

Would we graciously thank a doctor who didn’t use every tool in his arsenal to cure our loved ones? If a sick man could be cured by a simple penicillin shot, what would we think of a doctor who refused to administer it? To paraphrase the Simpsons, God is the cause of and solution to all life’s problems.

Pop Quiz, Hot Shot

1. Which creation story sounds the most plausible?

  1. The gods fashion man unsuccessfully first from mud, then from wood, and finally succeed with corn and corn meal
  2. A god fashions the first humans from clay mixed with the flesh and blood of a deceased god
  3. A god fashions the first human from clay, and another god breathes life into it
  4. A god fashions the first man from the dust of the earth, and then fashions the first woman from a rib of the man

2. Which flood story sounds most likely?

  1. A great flood lasting generations is abated with the assistance of various supernatural creatures
  2. A great flood lasting several years is survived by one man on a giant boat containing all animals and plants
  3. A great flood lasting several days is survived by one man, one woman, and a multitude of babies on a massive canoe
  4. A great flood lasting forty days is survived by one family on a boat containing sets of every animal

3. Which miracle most likely occurred?

  1. A man multiplies the yield of date trees to help someone pay off their father’s debts
  2. A man produces fire from one side of his body and water from the other
  3. A man cures his immobilized leg and arm by sprinkling them with water
  4. A man feeds a crowd of thousands using only five loaves of bread and two fish

4. Which is the most believable afterlife destination?

  1. Islands of fertile soil, bountiful produce, and fair winds
  2. A massive hall with a roof made from golden shields and an endless supply of mead
  3. A paradise of palaces filled with sensual delights, including delicious food and drink
  4. A city with golden streets, gates of pearl, jasper walls, and jeweled foundations

Why should we believe the Jewish/Christian account of creation and not the Mayan, Babylonian, or Greek versions? Why should we believe the Jewish/Christian flood narrative and not the Chinese, Hindu, or Squamish accounts? Why should we accept the miracles of Jesus and not those of Muhammad, Buddha, or Sathya Sai Baba? Why aim for the Christian heaven and not the Greek, Norse, or Muslim variants?

Growing up Christian, I was raised hearing certain stories in church and naively accepting them. This stores didn’t seem strange until I stepped back and viewed Christianity in the context of other world religions. When you realize your faith has its fanciful tales, and other faiths have their fanciful tales, you start wondering which is actually true – or if none are true.
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