Christianity, Ten Knockout Punches: Number 1

The easy acceptance of the very terrible

Given what we read in the New Testament, we are entitled to a few expectations about how the world should work—and about God’s involvement in it.

• “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-30)

• “…on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (Romans 2:16)

• “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, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29)

This is intensive, intrusive theism. Nothing in the natural world escapes God’s notice—even birds falling to the ground—and he knows the hair-count of every person. Maybe these are just metaphors? Perhaps, but the intent is to show how closely he watches, how carefully he pays attention. Even to our thoughts: God is inside our heads; he “will judge the secret thoughts of all.” He even monitors everything we say, so that he can catch people blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

We are being spied on. Which would be fine, I suppose, if God took the responsibility—based upon his love and supposed power—that goes along with this supreme nosiness. But given the way the world works—as opposed to what these verses might lead us to hope—God has much to answer for. Jesus had a lot of nerve saying, "Do not be afraid":

“Think about it. A man approaches a school with a loaded assault rifle, intent on mass slaughter. A loving person speaks to him, attempts to help him resolve his problems or to persuade him to stop, and failing that, punches him right in the kisser, and takes away his gun.

“And a loving person with godlike powers could simply turn his bullets into popcorn as they left the gun, or heal with a touch whatever insanity or madness (or by teaching him, cure whatever ignorance) led the man to contemplate the crime. But God does nothing.” (Richard Carrier, Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith, p. 21)

A brief video summary (under five minutes) of this article is here. And here is the most recent video (Episode 9: Who Invented the Last Supper?) in my series of Flash Podcasts, Bible Blunders & Bad Theology.

Carrier wrote this a year before the murder of 20 kids and six adults at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, CT. Surely, even devout Christians who think God has his eye on sparrows, must wonder what’s going on. God couldn’t have done something to stop it? And it need not have been as dramatic as turning bullets into popcorn. How about arranging for the gunman to have an accident on his way to the school; cops show up, discover the rifle—and he’s under arrest. A fender-bender is beyond the powers of the God who parted the Red Sea?

That massacre, by the way, happened 14 December 2012. The nation was traumatized in the run-up to Christmas. How could this be reconciled with a God who has his eye on sparrows? One pious woman, at a Christmas Eve dinner—during grace, no less—referenced the tragedy by saying, “God must have wanted more angels.” I was nauseated to the point of leaving the room. This falls into a category I have labeled, Easy Acceptance of the Very Terrible. “Yes, it’s really bad, but we can’t be caught blaming God for anything.” Christians assume that their god must have reasons for tolerating even the most horrific stuff.

Sixteen years earlier, there was a less offensive stab at this kind of excuse-God theology, after a gunman killed 16 kids and their teacher at a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland. One mourner left flowers outside the school, along with a Teddy Bear to which was attached a note, “13 March 1996, The Day God Overslept.” That was far less offensive than the wants-more-angels excuse: maybe God doesn’t pay attention to sparrows—or kids—after all.

God-Overslept is a compelling image, and it stuck with me. In December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 225,000 people, and the following day when a Catholic colleague remarked how awful it was, I replied, “Yes, God overslept again. ” He looked so stunned, so crestfallen. Apparently his theology could accommodate a good God allowing this to happen: the easy acceptance of the very terrible.

What more evidence do we need that God is not paying attention? John A. Haught, who has written about religious madness (Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness), states the obvious (what else can it be)?

“Horrible occurrences such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that drowned 100,000 children prove clearly that the universe isn’t administered by an all-loving invisible father. No compassionate creator would devise killer earthquakes and hurricanes—or breast cancer for women and leukemia for children—or hawks to rip rabbits apart and pythons to crush pigs and sharks to slaughter seals. A creator who concocted such things would be crueler than people are…It doesn’t disprove the existence of a heartless god, but it wipes out the merciful god of churches.”

Christian amnesia kicks in right away, hence the 2004 tsunami is already a distant memory as the faithful cling to their God-of-the-Sparrows. But much bigger calamities remain beyond their horizons of awareness; events that weigh against God no longer make so much as a dent in their theology.

Listen to Barbara W. Tuchman:

“In October 1347…Genoese trading ships put into the harbor of Messina in Sicily with dead and dying men at the oars…The diseased sailors showed strange black swellings about the size of an egg or an apple in the armpits and groin. The swellings oozed blood and pus and were followed by spreading boils and black blotches on the skin from internal bleeding. The sick suffered severe pain and died quickly within five days of the first symptoms…everything that issued from the body—breath, sweat, blood from the buboes and lungs, bloody urine, and blood-blackened excrement—smelled foul. Depression and despair accompanied their physical symptoms, and before the end ‘death is seen seated on the face.’” (A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, p. 96)

As much as a third of the population between India and Iceland died this way. “In Paris, where the plague lasted through 1349, the reported death rate was 800 a day, in Pisa 500, in Vienna 500 to 600. The total dead in Paris numbered 50,000 or half the population.” (Tuchman, p. 99)

“Ignorance of the cause augmented the sense of horror…The actual plague bacillus, Pasturella pestis, remained undiscovered for another 500 years.” (p. 105) “To the people at large there could be but one explanation—the wrath of God.” (p. 107)

It would seem that, in his infinite wisdom, God had given Western Christendom a thousand pages of Bible without mentioning microbes; in more than a thousand years of answering prayers, he had neglected to provide this crucial information as to why we get sick. In response to the fervent prayers he heard during the plague years, he couldn’t have said, “It’s the fleas, it’s the rats”?

Does this qualify as wise management of human affairs? But God’s credibility took a hit. Here is Tuchman’s killer paragraph:

“Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of the age of submission came into sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.” (p. 129, emphasis added)

But many minds do remain shut. If we ask most Christians today how they reconcile their God-is-good faith with this 14th century calamity, will we hear articulate answers—anything deeper than ‘it’s a mystery’? Don’t bother consulting the professional apologists. Not too long ago, one of them, here on the DC blog, said that the staggering total of those killed by the Black Plague amounted to just a small percentage of the human population that has ever lived. Problem solved! The failure of God’s compassion: ignored, forgiven. Easy acceptance of the very terrible.

Humanity’s Other Scourge

Can we blame God for war? Disease would seem to be his domain, but apologists welcome the free will excuse as they survey battlefield carnage: sinful, wicked humankind—defying God—has to take the blame for war. But, of course, they’re wrong. It’s not at all that simple; aggression necessary for survival has been built into our brains by evolution.

At the very least, couldn’t God set a good example? The Bible displays a cruel, warlike God, who fails basic anger management; he drowns humanity almost at the outset. The Old Testament prophets thundered endlessly about the destruction that sin would bring. Yahweh commissioned the Israelites to pursue a scorched-earth policy in conquering the Promised Land, and when the Son of Man comes on the clouds, there will be more suffering than at the time of Noah. Jesus himself is given script about coming, not to bring peace but a sword. “Onward Christian soldiers” finds its justification in the Bible.

But why would God’s hands be tied once wars have begun? Why would he tolerate a Thirty-Years War—good grief, thirty years—especially one fueled by religious hatreds? We’re asked to believe that God “inspired” a thousand pages of Bible, i.e., he controlled and directed minds to create scripture; but he had no power to get people to change their minds about fighting and killing each other? To give them hints that killing each other over theology is immoral? Please, apologists, get your story straight about God’s power. Don’t you even want it to make sense?

Surely God was even complicit in the American Civil War: his Holy Word was used to justify slavery. Each side knew that it had God on its side. God had no means to let some people know they were on the wrong side?

The early 20th century provides a frightful example of horrendous moral and natural evil coinciding. John Loftus has noted the absence of the God-of-sparrows:

“In the same year that World War I ended in 1918, which was a very good year, the most devastating plague hit the world in which 20-40 million more human beings suffered and died cruel deaths. On the heels of the most horrific example of moral suffering comes the most horrific example of natural suffering. God is good, right? Bullshit! God did nothing in either case. His only excuse is that he doesn't exist.” (Debunking Christianity Blog, Nov 12, 2018) As pious folks adore their loving God, does the flu pandemic even register? But even if does—so what?—the adoration continues: the easy acceptance of the very terrible.

Back to God’s Undisputed Domain

Are Christians willing to let gene mutation—in the great evolutional scheme of things—take the blame for thousands of genetic diseases? If they deny that evolution is real, then the Intelligent Designer has to be responsible. Even those who accept evolution are often confident that God has the power to knock out disease—such is intensive, intrusive theism—otherwise, why pray fervently for God to act? Indeed, why would God need to be coaxed?

One of the most agonizing aspects of human existence is mental illness. Here the suffering has been immense, for so many centuries. Only in very recent times have we begun to understand disorders of the mind, to develop treatments and medications. So much human anguish has taken place under God’s watchful eye! Why no interventions, no revelations? And why would a good God represent mental illness as demon possession in his holy book?

Let me revisit James Haught’s comment, “…no compassionate creator would devise …hawks to rip rabbits apart and pythons to crush pigs and sharks to slaughter seals. A creator who concocted such things would be crueler than people are.” Animal suffering has been the rule on this planet far, far longer than human suffering. Would a responsible agent have designed it this way?

There’s a lot of evidence to indicate otherwise.

“So Christians,” Richard Carrier points out, “feel compelled to contrive more ad hoc excuses to explain away the evidence—more speculations about free will, or ‘mysterious plans,’ or a desire to test us or increase opportunities for us to do good, and a whole line of other stuff like that. And yet Christians again have no evidence any of these excuses are actually true. They simply ‘make them up’ in order to explain away their theory.” (Carrier, Why I Am Not a Christian, p. 22)

Despite this modus operandi, Christian apologetics remains a robust industry. There’s a huge bureaucracy—including millions of salaries—to keep in place, trying to sustain the ancient Jesus mystery cult in which so many people have intense emotional investment.

Speaking of the classical world, Richard Tarnas observed that “…Christianity bequeathed to it members a pervasive sense of a personal God’s direct interest in human affairs and vital concern for every human soul…” (The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, p. 116). That was the gimmick, reinforced by many Bible texts, not just those quoted at the outset.

But this view of the world has been falsified. The idea that a compassionate God pays careful attention to each one of us is indefensible. The strong evidence of human experience is that the Cosmos is indifferent. Ratcheting up denial—feeling Jesus in your heart, for example—is a pathetic coping strategy.

We really don’t need more knockout punches, do we? But there are nine more to come.

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.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.