The Work of His Hands
In a last ditch effort to exonerate god for any wrongdoing, we throw the final hail mary: free will. We are told that in the beginning, god created the heavens and the earth. Well, that wasn’t the beginning, even by god’s standards. There were already angels and demons. There had already been a war in heaven. We know this because the serpent was already evil, as we have already pointed out. There were enough beings to have a war. God had already completed at least one cycle of creation before our beginning ever came about.
One thing that was already an aspect of god’s creation was free will. God created free moral beings. In order for morality to exist, there must also be immorality. Good and evil are on the opposite sides of the same moral coin. The logic goes that you can have morally neutral beings or free will beings, but not both in the same being. It also follows that where there is good, evil must be present as an option. There is no such thing as a one sided coin.
God, however, is the exception to this logical rule. God is presented as completely good without any possibility of evil. It is not that he chooses to do no evil: it is that he cannot choose to do evil. It is not within him to lust, or murder, or lie, or any other immoral thing. It is not a part of his nature, nor can he take on such a nature. God can no more be evil than a man could fly under his own power. You just as well ask circles to be square. God is the world’s only one sided coin.
A philosophical question worth asking at this point is would it be possible for god to exactly reproduce himself? Since god is perfect, we assume that everything he creates must also be perfect. If god is good with no possibility of evil, why are his creations not equally good with no possibility of evil? Is it possible for god to make other one sided coins? I think not.
Consider the angels. They were free will beings long before we were created. Look at how that turned out. God ended up with Satan, a war, and a third of his angels arrayed against him. Most of that is based on conjecture and misunderstood scriptures. Who knows what really happened. All we really know, or think we know, is that something went horribly wrong. Suddenly, the all powerful, all knowing, all loving god was surrounded by evil for which he was in no way responsible.
Either god involuntarily lost, or voluntarily surrendered control of his creation. This happened because of the mechanism of free will. God decided to take a walk on the wild side and see what happens if he makes intelligent beings that can make moral decisions for themselves. He further decides to let free will take its course without him forcing moral choices one way or the other. There is one extraordinary aspect of this free will we enjoy. God, himself is a free moral agent that has no capacity for evil, yet he created us as free moral agents with a capacity for evil. He endowed us with a quality that he, himself does not possess. Why, never mind how, would he do such a thing?
I can think of three possible answers. God wanted to exercise his graciousness. He could not do that if his creatures were without fault. Sin must exist so that grace may abound, despite Paul’s attestations to the contrary. Another possibility is that god wanted to give glory to the son, and the son, glory to the father. Think of it as a deified mutual adoration society. The third reason is that god wanted to be loved. Love cannot be forced. It must coexist with the option of rejection. There is some biblical support for all of these options. None of them are fully satisfying. All of them suggest that free will has nothing to do with us and everything to do with god.
Ultimately, free will fails as a theodicy along with all the rest. God is still the author of free will. More than that, he is in control of it. It could even be said that free will does not really exist. It is a matter of sovereignty. Philosophically, there cannot be two beings sharing the same realm, both with absolute sovereignty. What happens when two sovereign wills collide? An unstoppable force can never meet an immovable object lest one ceases to exist.
The bible is all too clear in all too many places that god maintains sovereignty over all of creation. He gives up nothing to us. When necessary, he will overwhelm our will so that his will is done. No matter how many times god says in plain language that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we will not believe it. Even though Paul says that god made some to be flower pots and some to be chamber pots, we will not believe it. Well, I finally believe it. The god of the bible is in control of everyone and everything. There can be no free will defense because there can be no free will outside of god. The illusion of free will is the best we can claim.
In the beginning, god created paradise. There can be no other word for it. Eden was everything that we could ever hope for. We had perfect bodies and minds. We had perfect companionship. We had a perfect home with perfect air and perfect water. We had a perfect occupation. We even had a perfect relationship with god. Why was that not the beginning and end of the story? How could perfection beget imperfection?
Maybe things weren’t so perfect after all.
The first hint of imperfection was that man found no companion for himself among the animals. When god corrected that problem, he created another by making a woman that was dumber than a snake. The snake had his mind set against god. That seems like a design flaw. The garden had no security system to keep the devil out. Oh, and one of the trees bearing enticing fruit was forbidden. Perfection is starting to look a little less perfect.
About that tree, why was it there? The garden would have been home to humankind today if not for that tree. Was it really necessary. Eating the fruit gave man knowledge that god did not want him to have. Is that really true? If god did not want man to have the knowledge, why make the knowledge available in the first place? If the knowledge had to exist in some tangible form, why not put it outside of the garden where it could not be found? If it had to be in plain sight, why not make it unattractive? There is simply no explanation for that tree being there at all except to serve as a temptation for evil. As we all know, god tempts no man with evil. Really?
Adam and Eve were set up for failure. They were more innocent than clever. They had a tempter residing in the garden with them. They had an attractive temptation place there by god. They had no hope. As I have already stated, their transgression did not bring sin into the world; god brought it into the world in the form of the serpent. I have no doubt that had Adam and Eve rebuffed the serpent’s advances, god would have sent them a talking orangutan with an even stronger temptation. Make no mistake about it. Eden was no paradise; it was a death trap. Adam and Eve were the first victims. We are their true heirs.
Vessels of Destruction
“For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.
Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”
No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who were made for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.” (Rom 9:17-24 NLT-SE)
This passage sounds way too Jobesque for my money. Here, again, any hope of theodicy has been removed. Like Lee Harvey Oswald, Pharaoh could have been dragged away shouting his last public words, “I’m just a patsy!” God wanted Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened. Can we stop already with the spiritualizing of that term? The bible even tells us why god wanted that outcome. God wanted to make a show of power and make himself world famous.
For this infamy, god pounded the Egyptians mercilessly and killed all their first born sons. Time and again, Pharaoh was convinced to do what was right. Time and again, god hardened his heart so that he did what was wrong. God prepared ten plagues and he was bound and determined to deliver ten plagues. Pharaoh’s repentance be damned. Pharaoh was born and raised up to be a vessel of destruction, and by god, that is what he was going to be.
How did sin enter into the world? God made, and is still making, vessels of destruction. These vessels cause destruction in the world just as they, themselves, are slated for destruction. Why do bad things happen to good people? Because god put bad people there to do bad things to good people. If no people are handy, he will use a Satan. If no Satan is handy, he will do it himself.
Why does he want these things to happen? Perhaps partly, to build your character and prepare you for the next life. If this is prep for what is to come, then count me out of what is to come. Mostly, he does it to magnify his own glory. He will be loved and praised and feared, even if he has to torture and murder almost everyone who has ever lived to accomplish it.
Why does god choose some to be evil? As in the book of Job, the answer is a thundering voice from the whirlwind demanding to know who you think you are to question the almighty god. You’re not even a worm. You are nothing more than a lump of clay. Can it even be called genocide or cruelty if all that is being smashed is a world of clay people? Make no mistake about it. Vessels of destruction are part of the work of his wonderful hands.
Sickness and Suffering
“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:1-3 KJVS)
In some ways, we have come full circle. We are left scratching our heads and trying to puzzle out why sickness and suffering are allowed. In previous chapters, we explored the connection of suffering with sin. We looked at a few ways that suffering is explained in connection with sin. The bible has much to say on the topic and it is all confusing and contradictory. It is little wonder the disciples were confused when they saw the blind man.
They had been taught by their sacred scriptures that suffering came as a result of the sins of the father, generational curses, and the like. Being good Jews and faithful to what they had been taught, they believed it. Unfortunately, they had also been taught that the individual who sinned would be the only one who paid the price for his sin. This was a different and contradictory teaching from the one they had accepted. But, being good Jews who tried to do as the scripture taught, they accepted that teaching as well. Their notion of suffering was a conflation of all the various teachings of scripture, no matter how confusing or contradictory they were.
Then, along comes Jesus. They see a situation that might help clear up the confusion. With both feet firmly planted, they ask Jesus which theodicy is right. Jesus once again takes their legs out from under them. In no uncertain terms, Jesus says that neither theodicy is correct. This man is blind so that god can show his power. If, in fact, the man was born blind for that purpose, then it was god who made him blind. It was not human nature or original sin or the fall or the devil or free will. It was the work of god’s hand.
God produces sickness and suffering so that his power can be made manifest. Well, I say his sick little plan has failed. Where is the manifestation of his power? I see plenty of sickness and suffering. Where is his mighty hand of deliverance? Also, does it matter? God is the doctor who goes into a perfectly healthy village in a third world country. He releases a virus into the population and kills many and causes all but his favorites to suffer. At some point, he declares that he has the cure. All it will cost is the love, devotion, obedience, and praise of the villagers. For a select few, he doles out the vaccine: only enough to treat them, never enough to cure them. This mad doctor is both the cause and the cure of all the problems in the village.
According to Jesus, god is that mad doctor. He causes people to be sick and afflicted. He brings people down with disease and disgrace. Sometimes these things are used as a punishment for when you get out of line. Other times it is a test for when you have been righteous. Still other times it is for no reason, as with Job. In all cases, it is so god can strut his stuff in his own time and way.
Well, I want to opt out. I don’t want to be a patsy. I don’t want to be a pawn in the cosmic game. I don’t want to be a poker chip in a cosmic bet. I don’t want to spend a lifetime of suffering just to bring some form of glory to such a god. I just want to live my life and be left alone by all of the cosmic bullies. But, of course, that is not an option. I must either cower before the might of god and, if I am lucky, life forever with him in heaven. Or, the unspeakable alternative.
The Second Death
“He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”” (Rev 21:6-8 NIV)
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, ‘where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.’” (Mark 9:43-48 NLT-SE)
Either you enter into the kingdom, or you are sent to hell: a place where the maggots do not die and the fire never goes out. It is the second death, as if the first death wasn’t bad enough. When Adam sinned this brought physical death into the world according to some views of the story. We were originally meant to live forever. From the day that Adam bit the fruit, he and all his kin were condemned to death.
And what a death it was.
In a since, the whole world died. One might say the whole world went to hell. Not only is death a reality, it is a hellish reality. Consider the countless ways we die. Starvation, exsanguination, evisceration, asphyxiation, strangulation, deprivation, cannibalization, death by bullet, blade, and beating, slow, lingering, torturous deaths, fire, falling, fear, all these and more should compose enough horrifyingly hideous hells to satiate the most diabolically dreaded deity. Unfortunately, it is still not enough. The god of the bible requires even more.
Depending on your interpretation of scripture, your after death milage may vary. For many, hell is the flaming eternity that awaits those who did not please god. What is the crime that brings you to this end? It might be anything from telling a lie to picking the wrong denomination. Misunderstanding some fine point of doctrine may well be enough to do the trick. You thought you were heaven bound all the way up to the point when you opened your eyes and found yourself burning in hell. Turns out the formula you used for your baptism was slightly off. Oh, well, you deserve what you get.
As it turns out, your death by pancreatic cancer is not death enough. Smoked yourself to an emphysema end? Not good enough, I say, not good enough! Drank your way into a cirrhosis sendoff? Did depression lead you to your doom? Have I got bad news for you; that was only the first death. Unless you are one of the precious few who found their way into the narrow gate, there is a second death awaiting you. You will be raised up from the first death and given a new body: one that can hold together under unspeakable, endless torment. If that does not make you want to praise the name of Jesus, then I don’t know what will.
I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I was baptized when I was seven, but I knew, and accepted the basic tenets of the Christian faith long before that. I drank it in with my mother’s milk. I grew up hearing the sermons of my father who was a preacher for most of my childhood. I was one of three exceptionally talented sons. It was not long before I took my rightful place in the pulpit.
I was a skilled orator and an even better singer and musician. My career in the church was a sure thing. My future was well established. There were, however, a few bumps along the way. I grew up in the conservative, mainline churches of Christ: the non-instrumental variety. Mine was an order of strict adherence to the literal interpretation of scripture.
We took a high view of scripture. We believed that every word was inspired by the holy spirit of the godhead. Each jot and tittle was chosen by god and carefully preserved through time. The bible was not just the inspired word of god in a general way; it was a magic book. Somehow, all the right words were put into a canon of scripture. The process was a human process in appearance only. Behind the scenes, god was working it all out just the way he wanted it.
I was not only convinced of the infallibility of the bible, but also of the infallibility of my understanding of the bible. My denomination was not merely some organization created by men. Rather, it was the one, true outpost of the kingdom of god in this world. Only those who believed as I did were a part of the eternal kingdom and bound for heaven. Everyone else was merely a vessel of destruction good only for hell’s kindling.
We had very particular beliefs and understandings about what the bible had to say. We thought that there was a biblical answer to every conceivable question. No matter how pedestrian the inquiry, the bible had something to say about it. There was only one right answer to any question. Choosing the wrong answer put you outside the fellowship. We always taught doctrine in one, clear, unified voice. We were always of the same mind and the same judgement.
Except, we weren’t.
We disagreed about many things. Not only did we disagree, we divided. We would spit congregations over issues such as whether there should be a kitchen in the church building. I personally caused more scandal over leading songs without wearing a tie than I care to recall. Should women wear hats at all times in the assembly? Be careful how you answer. The wrong answer could send you straight to hell.
I was in my late teens when I realized that something was badly wrong with my denomination. Not long after that, I realized that there was also something badly wrong with me. I was starting to seriously question some of the issues that my church took for granted. I gave everything a second look. By my early twenties, I became convinced that the church of Christ position on instrumental music in worship was just plain wrong.
That may not seem like a major issue to you. But to me, instrumental music was a salvific issue. Actually, everything was a salvific issue. The fact that I had been wrong about that my whole life was a discovery that rocked my world. I never recovered from it. I could never again honestly consider myself a member of the mainline church of Christ. Had I made that public, that would have been tantamount to revoking my membership in the kingdom of heaven.
It didn’t take long before the entire doctrinal house of cards that I inherited came tumbling down. If we were wrong about that, then we could be wrong about anything. If we could be wrong about anything, then we could be wrong about everything. I soon came to the conclusion that we, in fact, were wrong about almost everything. I still hung on to my respect for scripture. My belief that we were wrong did not come from a casual disregard of the word. Rather, it came from a careful study of the word. Our own bible had condemned us.
It would be some time before I started questioning the authority and accuracy of scripture. When I did, I was faced with some nagging questions that just would not go away. Why does the bible appear to contradict itself in numerous places? Why does one writer seem to teach different things in different places? Why does the new testament seem to teach a different moral law than the old? Who really wrote the book of Hebrews? How, exactly, did we end up with the sixty-six books of the canon? Where are the original documents of the bible? They don’t exist? How, then, can we be certain we have made all the right guesses? If the evidence shows that some of the books of the bible were written pseudonymously, should we stop using them? Once the floodgates were opened, there was nothing to stop the torrent of questions. Worse yet, we didn’t seem to have any answers other than the stock “Shut up, kid!”
I did eventually shut up, but I didn’t stop searching for answers. Truth was more important to me than faith. The more truth I found, the less faith I had. I learned to distrust the religious establishment, as all perspectives coming from that quarter were biased. I also found all other perspectives to be hopelessly biased as well. It seemed that very few people were actually concerned with the truth. They were more interested in selling books and maintaining their power bases. There were few people who were willing to embrace an inconvenient truth. For a long time, I wasn’t either.
Now, I find myself near the end of a long and arduous faith journey. At the end of this journey, I find that I am at the end of my faith. I am angry and bitter. I have been lied to for my whole life by people, most of whom, had the best of intentions. I don’t know if they were wrong about everything, but they were certainly wrong about a lot of things. They were wrong about enough things so that I consider all the voices of my past completely lacking in credibility. I will never again be the victim of someone else’s faith.
I will only accept the answers that I can understand and figure out for myself. I am a voracious reader with above average intelligence and a heart and passion for the truth wherever it leads. If the designer/creator of this universe wrote a book that gives me definitive instructions on how to live my life, then he did a poor job of transmitting the information. There is nothing magical about the bible, or any other holy book I have encountered. God has the power to make himself known. Let him do so and I will believe. He supposedly did it for others; he can do it for me.
Till then, I will maintain my belief in a powerful being who is the first mover in our universe. All of nature seems to proclaim such a being exists, or existed. Religion, however, is another matter entirely. It seems that religion is man’s attempt to understand more about the first mover than he has chosen to reveal of himself. Religion also has been used as a tool to control and manipulate other people. Nothing in nature demands religion. No special revelation has convinced me of its veracity. If there be a sacred call to religious piety, I have not heard it. I reject your religion and replace it with none of my own.
Instead, I will take what has been clearly revealed to me of life, love, and liberty. There is information about morality and goodness written in the heart of every human being. We sometimes disagree on the details, but by and large, we agree on the major issues. When a society goes too far off the path of general revelation, the rest of the world eventually steps in to correct the situation.
I believe in good and evil, but not as substances or ideas or personifications apart from humanity. I have no reason to believe that there is a moral god that is actively working to bring about good in this world. If there is such a god, he is failing miserably. I do not believe in eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth where everything comes up roses. If god could not create free will beings that would not choose sin this time, what makes me think he can do any better the next time? No, it is time to put myth and monsters to bed once and for all.
There is one book of the bible that I find useful and full of practical wisdom. It is the book of Ecclesiastes. It declares that this life is all there is. Ultimately, all is vanity. Enjoy the wife of your youth, eat good food, drink good wine, live life to the fullest without worrying over much about things beyond our knowledge or control. This is my creed.
I do not seek to change your mind or convert you to my way of thinking. Religion is largely a benign drug. It can even have positive side effects. If you find comfort in the myth of a loving god who walks with you in your struggles, then be comforted. If stories of hell fire scare you straight, then all the better for society. If Jesus’ message of loving your neighbor is the only thing that makes you take notice of the needy, then I’m all for it.
As for me, I have heard enough bedtime stories to last a lifetime. I do not need a loving god to walk with me through my struggles. I need a god who will protect me from the forces that cause my struggles. I do not need a hell to scare me straight. The IRS is sufficient for that task. I know exactly who my neighbor is. If god wanted to take care of them, he would not be relying on someone like me for the job. I am without power or resources. He holds the whole world in his hands and orders the events of our lives. I will do my part as a human being, but I refuse to try and do his job.
I do not require any sacred, magic books to tell me how to live my life to the fullest. I have seen the results of those who try and live their lives according to sacred books. They start wars or are the victim of wars. They oppress the helpless or are themselves oppressed. They try to control the lives and choices of others when they cannot even control their own lives or make good choices. They have just as much divorce and family issues. They are just as addicted to the poisons of this world. They are just as greedy for money, sex, and power as anyone else. I find no magic in the magic book. I find only men and women doing their best to figure out the unknown and living their lives the best way they can.
Finally, it should be said that I am not closed to new discoveries. I embrace new knowledge. I crave it. If the god of the bible exists and I have misread him, I humbly apologize for my misapprehension. I boldly invite him to make himself known in a way that I can understand.
I do believe there is a god. I see no evidence of any continuing activity by god that suggests he is interested in a personal and loving relationship with his creation. I see no clear instructions for life other than that which one might call general revelation. Perhaps a road to Damascus experience is somewhere in my future. If so, I will shout it from the mountain tops. Until then, I look forward to seeing what life is like for me without Jehovah, Yahweh, Elohim. Somehow I suspect that nothing will change. It is hard to notice the absence of that which was never there.