Wednesday, April 27, 2011
I reflected on this today while watching my son play baseball. Most of the rules of the game make sense, once the framework of the game is understood. But many are arbitrary. Its three strikes that will get a batter out, not two or four. When the third strike is dropped by the catcher, the batter still has a chance to get to first in some, though not all, leagues. In short, to play effectively, the team must know the particular rules that apply and recognize that they – the members of the team – don’t get to alter the rules. Nor can they decide whether their performance is “good.” Looking at what the ump calls a third strike will still make you "out" regardless of whether you believe it was or not; the ump gets to make the call.
It struck me as odd, then, to realize that this sense of the need to learn and follow "the rules" doesn’t seem to take hold today for the game of “life”, even among those who call themselves Christian. Many, perhaps most, don’t believe in a last Day of Judgment at which, as Jesus said, the wheat would be separated from the chaff. They seem to think that everyone eventually ends up in heaven, because a loving God will see that they are basically “good” and accept them.
But isn’t “good” a standard of performance, like judging whether a pitch is a ball or a strike? And how is one to know if he or she is “good” at all, let alone sufficiently “good” to meet the standard of an infinite and perfect rule-maker? After all, there is no scoreboard to check as we go. Why then is there so little concern, let alone fear, that the rule-maker and ump may take a different view of our performance here on Earth than we do? Why do so many assume that, as to this most important "game" we call life, there are no rules and we are free to do what we like, as long as we don't "hurt" anyone?
Could it be that this affinity for learning and using the rules was in fact left behind in us by God, as a marker calling us back to right relationship with Him? Maybe this sense we have is there to remind us, repeatedly, that there is an ultimate set of rules to which we must, in the end, submit our will if we are to one day be made perfect. His rules are simple: there is only one ultimate Creator, one Sovereign, and that’s Him. That may sound petty to some, but that’s because they don’t fully grasp that awe and adoration are simply what a perfect being merits. The second rule is to love God and to love your neighbor, fully, completely, unselfishly. For without love, freely given and freely received, there is no basis for eternal fellowship with Him. Of course, giving flesh to these rules requires a bit more, and trying to follow them without also putting your trust in Jesus won’t “earn” you anything.
But thinking that there is no rule-maker, or that you can both make up the standard and grade your performance as you go, doesn’t make sense – not as to things that matter here, and not to the ultimate thing that matters the most.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
PleaseConvinceMe Podcast 201
In this podcast, Jim answers the objection that God would send people like Gandhi to Hell (simply because they are not Christians) alongside people like Hitler (who have committed unspeakable atrocities). How can a reasonable and just God be the source of such inequitable punishment? Also Jim answers listener email related to the power of prayer, the importance of evidential apologetics and the grounding for objective morality.
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Sunday, April 24, 2011
Across the globe, Christians of all races, nationalities and cultures mark today as a solemn holy day. Adorning the buildings where Christians gather, and often adorning their persons, the symbol of the cross is everywhere present. The reality behind the cross is quite jarring – it conjures up the vision of a man, beaten and bloody, going to a certain, and gruesome, death, in a manner diabolically calculated to maximize pain and suffering while also depriving the victim of any semblance of human dignity.
Why do we continue to “celebrate” this event? Why do we set apart – make holy – this holiday?
Indeed, as the Bible makes clear, the cross is a "stumbling block" and "foolishness" for those who do not believe, but for those who are called, it is the "power" and "wisdom" of God. Why this is so requires us to understand the idea of atonement, the "balancing of the books" that Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.
Why does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to God, or to us? Doesn’t everyone die, and if so, what makes Christ’s death any different? To answer these questions, we must see our lives from God’s perspective. As a perfect being, He endowed us with free will, which we used to rebel against Him. This created a rift in the relationship, a chasm between God and man. So, why did He make us that way? Why couldn’t He just accept us as we are?
Good questions, and ones we will never fully understand here. But we can glimpse the answer when we consider it from the perspective of love. What makes a loving relationship meaningful is the volitional aspect of it; if love is coerced or bought, it is not love, but something else, something less satisfying, less pleasing. It is only when love is freely given, and when love can be lost, that we truly value it. What we want, in the end, is relationship, and that requires free will, not intelligent robots who perform according to preset programming but are incapable of feeling. And so too with God.
Jesus' act of love on the cross - in freely laying down his life - makes no sense until we consider what this act saved us from. Christians believe that God stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against His law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as an eternal and perfect being, demands perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? Separation from Him. Because He is eternal, our separation from Him is also eternal. This place or status of eternal separation from the one perfect being is called Hell.
We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward it. Christians believe that He won’t. That indeed is bad news.
So, how does Jesus getting nailed to a cross saves us? I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, He accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, He is the only man whom God, in his justice, cannot punish. If God punishes Him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and other new atheists accuse Him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells His disciples that no man takes His life. He willingly gives it up.
Why? Because as an eternal being, Jesus is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though He did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”
In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve – punishment that is the necessary and natural byproduct of separation from a perfect being. This solution is the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from such a being.
This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more meaningful and intelligent manner. My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.
But for today anyway, it is enough that we reflect, and give thanks, that on this day so many centuries ago, this perfect plan found perfect execution in the loving sacrifice of our Lord.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
“For gods to be gods they have to be supernatural - agreed? For something to be supernatural it has to exist outside of the universe - agree? Since the universe IS everything, there is nothing outside, there is no 'outside.’ Therefore nothing can be supernatural, which means that any being demonstrating the traits of a god is nothing more than a powerful evolved creature that lives in the same universe as we do, therefore is not a god and not deserving of worship.
I'm on solid ground when I say no gods exist. Disagree? Prove they do.”
With just a bit of reflection, it is apparent that the skeptic has built his conclusion right into his premises. By defining the "universe' to be "everything," and “supernatural” as being "outside the universe," the only possible conclusion is that there is no God. Restating the syllogism, the challenger is saying: To exist, a being must be within the universe. By definition, God is that being which is outside the universe. Therefore, God cannot exist.
The problem with the conclusion is not the logic employed but the accuracy of the premises involved. Why should we assume that the universe is everything, that there is nothing outside of it? The challenger presents no evidence to support his claim, nor does he provide an argument. He simply assumes that the universe is all that there is. This is very shaky ground upon which to build a belief system.
When a Christian refers to the "universe" - at least an "old earth" believer - he is usually referring to the thing that popped into existence from "nothing" some 14 billion years ago. It consists of length, width, depth and time. Perhaps in the first fraction of a second, it also consisted of additional dimensions. There was a before to the universe and there will be an after; otherwise the universe itself would be infinite and eternal, which science tells us it is not. But if time as we know it began with the Big Bang, then this before and after exist in a way in which our minds cannot fully comprehend.
Since a "something" cannot come from a "nothing," this universe needs a source adequate to explain its presence. The source must be immensely powerful, given the size and grandeur of what we see, and immensely intelligent, given the precise mathematical order built into the laws of nature. This source must be artistic, for the universe contains much beauty. But the source, while capable of entering this universe, must exist outside and apart from it; otherwise it would be part of the universe and in need of explanation.
This challenge is not unlike a skeptic who examines a house he comes across. He sees that it is built to precise specifications, that it is functional and that its appearance demonstrates a symmetric elegance. Because he was not present when it was built, and because the present owners acknowledge that they did not build it, he concludes that it must always have existed, that there were no architects, no carpenters, no plumbers.
No rational person would draw such a conclusion, because the existence of precisely built things requires a builder. But, in holding his view, the atheist has abandoned rationality in order to arrive at the place he began.
Monday, April 18, 2011
PleaseConvinceMe Podcast 200
A loving God would never create a place like Hell, would He? Any God that would send people to a place of punishment and torment is unloving by definition, right? In this podcast, Jim responds to these foundational objections to the existence of Hell. In addition, Jim comments on the Harris / Craig debate and answers listener email related to hearing God’s voice.
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“The Christian description of hell generally includes active torments. Separation from the vile being described in the bible, in itself, would be no punishment to me.”
While emotionally charged, this conclusion betrays a lack of meaningful reflection as to what separation from a perfect being would entail. Consider: we are emotional creatures made for relationship. It is only through interacting positively with others that we derive meaning and value and pleasure from our lives. While some may manage the life of a hermit, for the vast majority of human beings, fellowship and community are essential. That is why the love of family resonates with all people, regardless of time, place or culture. It is why the breakup of close relationships is so painful, why the loss of a loved one can lead some to contemplate suicide.
And what characterizes most relationships? What is it about other human beings that a computer simulation or a pet cannot provide? Many might be tempted to respond that physical intimacy is a large part of the equation. But this is but a lesser part of what is at play: interaction with another mind, the opportunity to get to know another person at a deeper level, to share experiences, to be understood, to grow together. This is what makes a long term relationship so valuable, so rewarding, so difficult to replace – and so devastating when it is lost. Moving a step further, what types of relationships are most valued? Why is it that we are drawn to the individuals like the "most interesting man in the world?”
I submit that it is a particular type of relationship: one characterized by virtues such as loyalty, patience, devotion to the good of the other, selflessness. We are drawn to the good, the excellent, the one capable of great feats, the one willing to share of himself for the good of others. Relationships that move in the other direction – toward increasing selfishness – or involve others who lack any positive qualities usually end in separation, either voluntary as in the case of an amicable divorce, or enforced, as in the case of restraining orders or incarceration.
Now, applying these basic concepts to the eternal, we must take these positive characteristics and begin to multiply them. The best people – the most loyal, virtuous, interesting, stimulating, engaging, exciting people you can imagine – are a mere shadow of their Creator, who embodies all these perfections to an infinite degree. Simply contemplating such a being should make our knees wobble; angering him should make us tremble in terror. But receiving his love, his devotion, his willingness to give us an eternity of joy interacting with him at a deeper and more intimate level? That should make our hearts and souls soar. Words simply fail us in attempting to capture the essence of what this means.
Do you remember your first love, or the way you felt when you beheld your first child? Can you recall the joy of reuniting with your spouse after a period apart? Conversely, can you recall the first time you were homesick, or the first time you experienced the death of a loved one? Now magnify these feelings – not by a hundred, a thousand, or even a billion, but by infinity, and by eternity. The reality of hell - of eternally living this loss of relationship - should begin to emerge. If the “goodness” of the people we love can cause us such torment when we are separated from them, and if that goodness is a mere shadow of the infinite perfection of God, that I shudder to imagine what knowing but not be able to experience God would be like.
The challenger may conclude that “separation from the vile being … would be no punishment to me.” But he has not yet grasped what God is. The Lake of Fire is but a candle to the torment that awaits those who choose to spend eternity isolated from Him.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
So says Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice. His point? That mercy cannot be forced, and that for human beings anyway, it benefits both the one who gives mercy and the one who receives it. This accords with a common definition of mercy: "compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one's power; compassion, pity, or benevolence." We recognize these as good things, as enlightened behavior. So if mercy is good, then unlimited – infinite – mercy must be even better. Right?
Maybe not. In recent posts, however, the argument has been advanced that God's requirement of a “blood sacrifice” shows that he is not infinitely merciful. Infinite mercy, it is claimed, would be mercy not requiring such a sacrifice.
"Since I can forgive without the shedding of blood*, I put it to you that I ammore merciful than YHWH, therefore YHWH is not infinitely merciful since there are those more merciful than he. The idea that YHWH is still forced to punish people means YHWH is not infinitely merciful since the amount of mercy could be increased. That doesn't address the question which is; how can YWHW be infinitely merciful if mere people are demonstrably more merciful? *"Indeed, under the Law everything is purified with the shedding of blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." Heb 9:22"
While it may appear on first glance that the skeptic is on to something, this challenge works only if the meaning of the term “mercy” is not closely examined. Mercy is not a thing like, say, health, for which it may be argued that more of “it” is always better. No, mercy is a freely given gift, from the one in power toward the other, for reasons of compassion or pity. But mercy must also be balanced against other virtues, such as justice. Consider: it was merciful for the Allies to help rebuild their former Nazi foes. But would it have been similarly “merciful” if they had assisted the Nazis before they were defeated? While they still occupied most of Europe? After all, the later mercy came at the price of millions more dead, than would have been the case had peace been declared in 1942. But allowing the Nazi war machine to dominate would not have been good, because assisting such a regime would defeat justice. Any desire to treat mercifully with the Nazis would have to be balanced against the desire for justice, and the greater evil that derives from justice denied.
The skeptic’s challenge refuses to recognize this basic distinction. Instead, we are to believe that if some of thing “x” is good, then an infinite amount of thing “x” is always best. But that depends on what “x” is, and against what “x” is balanced. Take for example the quality of patience. Patience is a virtue. Plugging “patience” in for "x," we would have to conclude that infinite patience is better than finite patience. But infinite patience would result in never taking action. Loyalty is another virtue. Is infinite loyalty to be exalted, even if the person to whom the loyalty is attached has committed offenses which demand punishment?
No, the flaw in the skeptic’s challenge is that he refuses to recognize that these qualities exist in a balance; God’s perfection applies to how these attributes find perfect harmony together, perfect expression. It is not a simple child’s game of counting up the score. To conclude otherwise would be to hold that God’s infinite perfection is in fact a limitation – if he exercises perfect patience, he is trapped into eternal inaction.
But what of the specific challenge: that the skeptic does not require the shedding of blood, which means he is more merciful than God, who does? Has God just been outdone in the area of mercy? The first flaw in the challenger's argument is that he assumes that he has the power to exercise mercy - he says that he does not require any sacrifice to do so. But since the skeptic did not create mankind, and has not been offended by mankind's rebellion, by what right, and through what power, is he to accomplish this forgiveness? Can he also forgive a rapist for the crime committed against some other person? In so stating, the skeptic betrays a profound misunderstanding of what mercy and forgiveness actually involve.
Moreover, the challenge fails to consider why a "blood sacrifice" - Christ, to be more specific - was required. When is blood shed? Usually, this refers to when something is killed. Christianity teaches that the wages of sin is death. When man rebelled, it brought death into the world. Death is the consequence of the rebellion, a consequence which God’s perfect justice demands. But God also provided a solution, which also came through death. Consider: if we never died, we would be eternally separated from God, in bodies that decay with time. Hardly a pleasant prospect. When Christ came into the world, and died after living the perfect life, he offered his life and death as a sacrifice to atone for the guilt of the rest of us. His blood – his sacrifice – is God’s solution to the problem that man’s rebellion created. And His gift is free to all of us – no work is required on our part.
It’s hard to see that as anything other than infinite mercy: He came to set us free and suffered and died in our place. If our free will is keeping us from accepting this unmerited gift, it is hardly God’s lack of “mercy” that is to blame.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
PleaseConvinceMe Podcast 199
In the wake of Rob Bell’s new book, “Love Wins,” many people are beginning to question the nature and existence of Hell and how exactly God decides who must go there. For many, the idea that our temporal, finite sin on earth should deserve an eternal punishment of infinite torment in hell is ridiculously inequitable. Why would God torture infinitely those who have only sinned finitely? Jim addresses this objection and answers listener email.
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Monday, April 11, 2011
The answer, of course, is no, No parent would delight in tormenting his children. And neither does God. But just as human parents must sometimes resort to court orders to keep their children away, so too does God employ the equivalent of an eternal "restraining order." Though not intended this way, the analogy to parental love actually works against the challenger's case, because it makes clear the need, even in the context of what was intended as a loving relationship, for enforced separation to be imposed. Everyday throughout this country, there are parents who are being victimized by their children. In many cases, the children want something that the parent is not able, or willing, to give. Often, the abuse consists of verbal or physical assaults or of some form of theft, and many times the problem is fueled by an underlying drug or alcohol addiction. In many such cases, the abused parent seeks assistance from the police and the courts to have their offspring restrained from contacting them. No doubt this step breaks their heart, but it is often the last resort, the only means by which the parent can safeguard his or her wellbeing. In some, more extreme, cases, the parent's testimony in court might contribute to a conviction which will land the child in prison, sometimes for life. The point is simple enough: love has its limits, and there comes a time when separation from an abuser is the only path that is left. If this causes the child pain, that pain is not "intended" by the parent; it is, instead, an unavoidable consequence of the path set in motion by the child.
Applying this analogy to an eternal setting has its drawbacks. God, of course, cannot be victimized. He has no fear of us, and no need to incarcerate us in order to protect Himself. But He does have the same right to association that we do. When a person uses the free will God has given us to rebel against his Creator, that rebellion need not be ignored by God. Indeed, if God truly is a perfect being, it cannot be ignored. For God to maintain perfect justice, there must be an adequate consequence, an adequate response, to wrong-doing. On earth, that justice often involves incarcerating the wrongdoer, to minimize his ability to continue to use his free will to harm others. Similarly, God makes use of His power to separate those who refuse to accept the gift of life that He offers, an offer He makes on his terms only.
For those who have died in rebellion, no further chance is offered them. Eternally "restrained" from fellowship with God, they experience eternity aware of all that they have lost. Consider: what make life livable are not money and toys and success. While these things are sought after, they would mean nothing if a person were utterly alone. That’s why solitary confinement is so destructive to the human mind, and so punitive. No, it is human companionship - relationship - that brings joy to life. Conversely, the loss of relationship, in whatever form it might take, can lead to depression and in some extreme cases even suicide.
But every relationship on earth involves a flawed human being, one who does not embody perfection and is therefore a mere shadow of the Being that does. When we begin to consider the joy of love, or conversely the agony of the loss of a loved one, and multiply that experience not by millions or billions, but by infinity itself, we may begin to see why human writers, even divinely inspired ones, cannot quite grasp the horror of the thought. A lake of fire would seem tame by contrast.
But this place of suffering is internal,self-centered, self-focused. An eternity of caring only about oneself, apart and alone and without hope of reunification with the source of love. It is not a place where God inflicts torture, but rather one in which infinite torment awaits on the far side of the abyss. God derives no pleasure when He acts to restrain an unrepentent sinner. Indeed, He provides an alternative - a means of salvation - to all. For those who refuse His gift, they will have only themselves - literally, and eternally - to blame.
Thursday, April 07, 2011
"God is perfectly just, and yet he sentences the imperfect humans he created to infinite suffering in hell for finite sins. Clearly, a limited offense does not warrant unlimited punishment. God's sentencing of the imperfect humans to an eternity in hell for a mere mortal lifetime of sin is infinitely more unjust than this punishment. The absurd injustice of this infinite punishment is even greater when we consider that the ultimate source of human imperfection is the God who created them."
The challenger contends that a "limited" offense does not warrant unlimited, or eternal, punishment. Such punishment, he concludes, would constitute a greater injustice than the "mere mortal lifetime of sin." For many people, including perhaps a majority of "believers," this argument is accepted uncritically. But upon closer examination, it is apparent that the conclusion the challenger draws is based upon a misunderstanding of what "just" punishment entails.
The first step in the analysis must be to consider the nature of the "sovereign" against whom the crime is committed. If I commit a crime in California, state authorities in Colorado could not impose punishment. Their laws have not been broken. To be just, the laws of the sovereign must be made known. Although "ignorance of the law" is not an excuse, a fair system makes known its laws, so that they can have the intended effect: to shape behavior by encouraging the good and discouraging the bad. State authorities are by nature limited and flawed. The scheme of law they pass reflects that the lawmakers cannot expect perfection.
But who is the lawmaker that can sentence us to this "eternal" punishment? It is, of course, an eternal being, and more importantly, an eternal being who embodies and comprises perfection. That he would separate himself from a creation in rebellion is hardly unjust. And if separation from God is in fact the "hell" of which we speak - the agony of seeing but not being able to experience the joy of his presence - then those who reject his gift are in store for an eternity of this experience. This is not a sentencing choice that a capricious lawmaker has conjured up, but the necessary consequence of 1) living eternally and 2) being eternally separated from the source of perfection.
When California enacts "three strikes" legislation, the sovereign has made known that there are offenses which carry with them a punishment of life imprisonment - separation for the rest of one's life from the society that has been victimized by the offender's behavior. The third strike might be a relatively minor offense, one that on its own would not merit such a sentence, but coming as it does after a series of more serious violations, it tips the scales in such a way that this conclusion - that separation is warranted - becomes just.
Re-examining the challenger's conclusion in light of these reflections reveals what is at play: the challenger has ignored the fact that a single offense, committed against an eternal and perfect being, is sufficient in his mind to justify separation from him. But of course it is worse than that, for we humans in rebellion have racked upon sin upon sin, offense upon offense. But, the challenger complains, is there no proportionality between the offense and the type of punishment? Can't God come up with a lighter punishment?
Again, this misunderstands the nature of the problem. God is not devising ever more wicked ways of inflicting punishment on us, hoping to make hell as torturous a place as possible. The punishment of hell is, simply, the natural consequence - the byproduct - of being separated from God. God does nothing more than that, but unfortunately for us, this is experienced as torment.
Finally, God embodies infinite perfection, so rather than sinning against another human being, who himself has flaws and needs forgiveness, these offenses are against a being who is infinitely holy. Considered this way, eternal separation from God starts to make a bit more sense. The good news, of course, is that God is also infinitely merciful. Knowing that we cannot solve this problem on our own, he solved it for us and made that salvation available to everyone. Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfectly balanced. It seems to be a just and elegant solution to our problem.
But what of the challenger's further indictment of God for creating imperfect human beings and then punishing them for being imperfect? This conclusion also rests on faulty reasoning. God created beings with free will and each of us chooses to use our free will to defy Him. As the creator, he has the right to respond to that rebellion, by separating himself from us. Consider how you might react if you built a robot to clean the bathroom and he eventually refused, claiming that he wished to be served rather than to serve. You could easily unplug him, or disassemble him, because as his creator you would have that prerogative. So too with God. We get what we deserve - eternal separation from Him - because we do not choose to obey His wishes. Rather than condemning God for this, the smarter move is to thank Him for also providing us the solution.
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
PleaseConvinceMe Podcast 198
Is God a liar? Is He the source of deceptive spirits? In this episode, Jim answers the skeptic’s objection that Yahweh lies or uses deceptive spirits to deceive people in the Bible. Jim also discusses Multiverse Theory and answers listener email related to Christian exclusivity and religious pluralism.
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Monday, April 04, 2011
You claim your God is omniscient. When he created the universe, he saw the sufferings which humans would endure as a result of the sin of those original humans. Surely he would have known that it would have been better for those humans to never have been born (in fact, the Bible says this very thing), and surely this all-compassionate deity would have foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering...or alternatively only create those humans who will freely choose God, and eliminate the possibility of their suffering.
This challenge has much intuitive appeal. We all rail against the suffering that each of us must face, to varying degrees, as our lives progress. We realize the fragility of our human condition, and how inhospitable this creation seems to be to flesh and blood human beings. It is frightening, indeed, to think of all the ways that our lives can be tragically altered, or ended. But does the harshness of this reality “prove” that God is not "good"?
The first step in responding to this challenge is to get a better idea of what is meant by "good." Generally speaking, "good" is a measure of quality; how a thing or an idea measures up to a standard of performance. A "good" knife is one that appropiately performs its function, or its intended use. A "good" person is one that lives up to a standard of behavior. But how can one determine what that standard should be? For example, any time two opposing forces are in conflict, whether they are teams, or armies or ideas, the quality of the outcome will be decided from the perspective of the party involved. For instance, the American victory in World War II was a "good" outcome for Western democracy, but a decidedly "bad" outcome for those who staked their future fortunes on the Nazis. A good outcome for my son's baseball team is when the other side loses. Generally speaking, then, a "win" is good for the winner and bad for the loser.
With this basic distinction in mind, it would seem that, at least preliminarily, answering whether it was "better" to have "foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering" would depend on the person being asked. For those spending eternity in heaven with a God of infinite power, He certainly did the right thing in creating us and in giving us this opportunity. Infinite and eternal joy and fulfillment versus, well, oblivion - that's not a difficult choice. By contrast, for the person suffering torment in hell, realizing that he will spend eternity aware of, but separated from, this awesome being, it will probably seem "better" that man was never created.
But let's take it to a deeper level. How does one decide which of two sides is right in claiming that a successful outcome according to their desires is an objectively "good" outcome. For example, the Nazis deemed victory in Europe a good outcome. Would their victory actually have made Nazi domination of Europe a "good" result? The purpose of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after World War II was to establish that crimes against humanity had been committed. The underlying premise was that the "good" accomplished by the Allies was not a subjective good, i.e. we're glad we won and you lost, but an objective good, i.e. Nazi officials were guilty of conduct that was objectively bad, and therefore justly punished. The premise of the trials was that such objective knowledge of good was available to us, and not that the might of the victor makes right. But how can this objective assessment be made, if each side can claim that "good" is what suits them?
This, of course, is a frequent argument of the theist. While an atheist can be moral, he cannot ground his morality, because only the existence of a transcendent being provides the basis for judging objectively the "good" or "evil" of conduct here. Without such a judge, the atheist's conclusions are mere opinions, mere statements of likes or dislikes. By that standard, the challenger is left saying that having people end up in hell displeases him. To conclude that allowing anyone to suffer in hell is worse than not creating at all, the atheist must appeal to a standard of right and wrong, a standard of goodness. But what is that standard?
Christians can at least make sense of this standard: it is for the creator to decide. Given his perfect knowledge, he is in a better position to judge which is a better outcome. Indeed, challenging God in this fashion seeems rather presumptuous. The creator of this universe is obviously immensely intelligent and powerful. That we should decide what He should do in creating - how he should go about assigning a value to competing options - makes about as much sense as my dog giving me advice on careers or on moral issues. Without the proper frame of reference, a proper sense of humility should prevent us from telling God how he should have approached his creative work.
In the end, foregoing creation would not have been a "good" solution for the many individuals who responded to God's gift and are, or will be, experiencing eternity in His presence. When you combine this with the realization that people who are separated from God are separated by their own choice and not simply chosen at random, then it would not be fair to deprive so many of such joy when those who have refused God's gift have done so willfully.
If there was one thing my Environmental Science professor hoped for us to get through our heads, it was that "there is no AWAY." We build high smokestacks to get our air pollution to blow over the mountains. We flush our toilets and send the waste down the drain. We bag up our garbage, have it collected and buried in landfills, and build parks on top of it. We pay our "experts" to handle what we don't want to deal with. All these efforts help us feel we've dealt with our problem. Yet, somewhere in our soil, our air, our water, or that of our kids and grandkids, most of our pollution still exists.
I suggest that we are prone to employing this "out of sight, out of mind" tactic in the spiritual sphere, as well. The God of the Bible's attributes - perfect, infinite, and self-existent (to name just a few) - are impossible for our finite human minds to fully grasp, so many of us would reject him and invent an idol. Mormon religion founder Joseph Smith imagined a god that was easier to deal with, on the surface level. He said God grew up on an earth like ours and eventually progressed on to godhood by becoming sinless. God had a god who did the same, and so on and so forth with the gods before him. Worthy Mormons will be given as long as it takes in their post-earth lives to work up to god-like perfection, and keep the system going.
While this scenario seems interesting, and perhaps even viable at first, has it not pushed the problem of an unfathomable being further away while leaving the ultimate questions unanswered? Does the Mormon know what came first? Was it a human that evolved from dirt on a planet somewhere, righteously figured out the laws of godhood and perfectly obeyed them, and then went on to instill a system of humans, planets, and god-making? If so, how did the first planet get there, how did it produce a human, and where did the laws come from? Or was it a god that came first? If so, where did he come from? In my experience, the Mormon feels no need to ponder these questions, because the issues are not near enough to worry about.
The folks who don't want to believe in the existence of God have adopted similar "solutions." The theory of evolution cannot explain how life arose from nothing, or how complicated order arose from disorder, so it pushes the problem billions of years into the past. Even many of those who well understand the sophisticated computer-code-like nature of DNA, and KNOW we could not have evolved, still desire to get around the Intelligent Designer. Secular scientists Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins, for example, would reportedly rather theorize about how life on earth came from another planet - via aliens or asteroids - than acquiesce, "God did it." Have these "experts" answered the big questions or just pushed them away? Do they know where the aliens came from? Do they know why did they put us here? Did the aliens have a purpose for our existence? Do we go to Mars when we die?
I have many friends and family for whom "science" is a god. They believe, as is propagated in our schools and on TV, that the evidence we have confirms the idea that humankind evolved over much, much time. But isn't it possible that those persons who are responsible for these conclusions simply cannot or do not want to believe in God? Is it possible that they look at the evidence and see only as much as they want to imagine? Is it not possible they are attempting to push the questions science cannot answer... away?
YHWH has answered the big questions. He says in His Word that before time, space, and matter existed, He IS. He created all of this by Himself; and He Himself is beyond the limits of our imagination. We exist to have the opportunity to enjoy Him and have fellowship with Him; we are free to choose otherwise, as well. His perfect justice demands payment for our sin; He also knew we would sin and devised a plan to redeem us -- He took our penalty upon Himself. Those of us who accept Jesus's substitutionary payment and choose Him as Lord and Savior will live eternally in heaven when we die -- heaven being "with God." All of YHWH's answers may still be hard for us to comprehend, and many of us will be unwilling to accept them. But these are His answers. Will we listen to Him, or continue to think we have dealt with the issues by having sent them away?