God Almighty, and AWOL

The system “goes to pieces”

The Bible itself sets Christianity up for failure; there is no way that its concept(s) of God can be sustained. The intensive, invasive personal theism advanced by these ancient documents reflects a control-freak deity, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out:

“Religion is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep, who can subject you to total surveillance around the clock every waking and sleeping minute of your life, before you're born and, even worse and where the real fun begins, after you're dead. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true?”

This, indeed, is God as portrayed in the New Testament:

Jesus: Luke 12:6-7: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

God is aware of every sparrow and knows how many hairs you have. “Oh, this is metaphor,” some might say, or “look how much God cares.” But the point seems to be that nothing escapes God’s notice.

Jesus: Mark 3:28-29: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness…”

Paul: Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

What we say and what we believe are closely monitored. Indeed, the concept of prayer, the fervent belief that it works, means that God reads our minds…all seven billion human minds.

Hence, for those who think that Jesus and Paul were right, there can be no doubt about the omniscience of the Christian god. But if this is so, his power and goodness are in jeopardy. It has been well understood for a long time that a good and powerful god who knows about everything cannot escape accountability. If he is aware and in charge, let him act like it!

H. L. Mencken offered this analysis in his Treatise on the Gods (1930):

“The whole Christian system, like every other similar system, goes to pieces upon the problem of evil. Its most adept theologians, attempting to reconcile the Heavenly Father of their theory with the dreadful agonies of man in His world, can only retreat behind Chrysostom’s despairing maxim that ‘a comprehended God is no God.’” (p. 272, 1948 revised edition)

Well, isn’t that a sharp stick in the eye? Why have theologians written thousands of books about God if he (she/it) is beyond comprehension? In their ceaseless output, so many bells and whistles have been piled on; this can happen when you’re trying to explain something that doesn’t actually exist. In the process, the Christian concept of God has become incoherent: it doesn’t make sense. It can’t possibly make sense.

The problem of evil and suffering especially can’t fit into the wished-for Christian god idea. John Loftus backs up Mencken’s declaration:

“If there was ever an empirical refutation of the Christian belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God, the problem of evil is it. It speaks like a megaphone against the existence of God.”

It’s easy to put together a list that goes on for miles: the inexplicable evils, entailing grotesque levels of suffering, that cannot have happened if an attentive, caring god is in charge and on duty. In an article here last year, I discussed the Black Plague in the 14th century: what more proof is needed that God has gone AWOL?

That was so long ago and far away, but a much more recent catastrophe still poisons American life. This is the focus of one of Loftus’ articles, “The Slave Is the Owner’s Property: Christianity and the Savagery of Slavery,” in his 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails.

Do we need to be reminded how savage and brutal slavery was—especially the American version that lasted two and a half centuries? In the opening few pages of the essay, Loftus provides the background, quoting, among others, Peter Kolchin’s 2003 volume, American Slavery, 1618-1877:

“Born in violence, slavery survived by the lash. Beginning with the initial slave trade that tore Africans away from everything they knew and sent them in chains to a distant land to toil for strangers, every stage of master-slave relations depended either directly or indirectly on physical coercion. The routine functioning of Southern farms and plantations rested on the authority of the owners and their representatives, supported by the state, to inflict pain on their human property. Plenty of pain was inflicted.” (p. 158)

Remember: God is watching all of this. Not even a sparrow is forgotten in his sight. God has known the thoughts and anguish—and heard the prayers—of every person who has ever been a slave: this is the New Testament concept of God. Loftus draws the inescapable conclusion: “What I can’t understand is how a perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful God could have tolerated slavery in the world at all.” (p. 161)

But the bitter truth is even worse, as a quote from Frederick Douglass illustrates:

“Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all the slaveowners with whom I have ever met, religious slaveowners are the worst. I have even found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.” (p. 160)

The abolitionists called on their Christian principles to oppose slavery, but they swam against a powerful current, and against seriously defective theology:

“Christianity simply reflects the spirit of the times down through the centuries. But if there really is a transcendent, providential God governing church history, then we would expect the church to have risen above the moral standards of the times. The fact that it didn’t, and does not now, is a clear indicator that there is no transcendent, providential God.” (Loftus, p. 162)

History itself has falsified Christianity.

How can we escape this conclusion, given the horrors that humanity has faced? As Loftus points out: “The greater the need to interfere, the greater the moral responsibility for a perfectly good God to do so.” (p. 163) Apologists attempt to wiggle out of this by insisting that God’s hands are tied by free will. They would have us believe that God can be exonerated because humans do such bad things. But it is incoherent to claim that an all-powerful God is rendered helpless.

Loftus addresses this head-on:

“Let’s now suppose God cannot interfere with free-will human choices. If he cannot interfere, then Christians should stop all petitionary prayers whenever free-will human actions are involved.

“They should stop praying for safety in their cross-country travels, since reckless drivers have free will, since criminals we meet at highway rest stops have free will, since bungling mechanics with free will may have worked on our vehicles, and since incompetent factory workers with free will have made them. At what point in this process could God ever grant prayer requests for safe travels if doing so involves so many free will choices?

“A whole host of other requests could not be granted either, like getting a job promotion or an award in an art contest or the lover we so desire. Nor can he change the course of anything else in human history.” (p. 163)

Theologians, of course, depending on their personality types, have chosen to emphasize different attributes of God. Some can see no compromise of God’s power, with extreme results:

“If…as Calvinist Christians believe, God’s sovereignly decreed all human history, and along with it slavery, then there is no reason to trust him at all. He would be a malevolent deity, one who couldn’t be trusted enough for us to accept anything he tells us, which completely undermines any supposed revelation in the Bible.” (p. 163)

H. L. Mencken likewise shuddered at the extreme consequences of reveling in God’s power that we find in Calvinism:

“…it reduces the loving Father to a vast magnification of an oriental cadi, imperious, irresponsible, irrational, and beyond all imagining blood-thirsty.” (p. 271, Treatise on the Gods)

But couldn’t God sneak around free will?

On 25 July 2000, a strip of metal fell off a DC-10 passenger jet as it took off from Charles de Gaulle airport. Five minutes later, when a Concorde jet was taking off, the metal strip punctured one of its tires and ruptured a fuel tank. Within seconds, the plane was engulfed in flames and crashed, killing all 109 passengers and crew.

Just a strip of metal. So trivial.

Please, theists, tell us why an all-powerful God, who knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground, couldn’t have arranged a gush of wind to blow away the metal strip. No one would have been the wiser, and so many prayers for a safe journey would have been answered. And please don’t tell us that it’s a mystery that God neglected to do such a little thing; it’s what we would expect of the attentive God you claim is real: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”

Calvinism, no doubt about it, is a chilling brand of Christianity, but others have preferred to rhapsodize about God’s love. This, supposedly, matters more than anything else; hence his failure to stop the Black Plague and slavery can’t be allowed to diminish God’s love and are waved off as mysteries of the faith. This is a way of saying, “We don’t want to think about it.”

But, we wonder, couldn’t God have made his opposition to slavery perfectly clear to humans endowed with free will? Here we collide with another major incoherency of the Christian faith: the Bible, that ultimate guide to morality, inspired by God himself, does not forbid slavery. In a major section of his essay, Loftus addresses this stunning omission—and the appalling scramble of Christian apologists to minimize this failure. He dissects some of the apologist arguments in detail, and concludes: “I am utterly dumbfounded by what faith can lead Christian apologists to say.” (p. 170)

Prohibition of slavery is not included in the Ten Commandments, and there’s nothing about it in the Sermon on the Mount. There are many Bible texts that address the practice of slavery—e.g., what is allowed, what isn’t, and how slaves of different ethnic backgrounds are to be treated. And apologists have tried to interpret these texts in the best possible light; after all, for them it’s a matter of defending the Word of God.

But the Bible fails to meet minimal ethical standards on this issue. Paul’s famous assurance in Galatians 3:28 does not come to the rescue: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

“The problem of making this into a sociopolitical egalitarian text,” Loftus points out, “should be obvious. Paul is merely saying all Christians, whatever their social differences, have an equal standing before God.” (p. 175) The abolition of slavery was the last thing on Paul’s mind: he was confident that all human institutions and governments would soon be erased as Jesus descended through the clouds to establish his kingdom.

The unsustainability of the defective Bible god is clear; Loftus asks:

“…why didn’t [he] unequivocally condemn slavery from the very beginning of humanity, if he exists? He could have consistently said, ‘Thou shalt not enslave human beings of any race or nationality, nor beat them into servitude.’ There is no circumstance where a loving God could ever think it was expedient to allow such an utterly vile institution to exist.” (p. 177)

More abundantly than the folks in the pews can possibly imagine—so it seems—the history of human suffering falsifies the Christian faith; the system goes to pieces. This is a mortal wound: “There is probably no other moral issue in the Bible that deserves our utter disgust with regard to the faith-based claim of the inspiration of the Bible. On this rock alone Christian ethics and faith die.” (Loftus, p. 179)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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