A Day God Overslept

There have been thousands of such days

One of the major chores of professional Christian apologists—and they’ve been at it for hundreds of years—is to explain why there is so much suffering and evil in our world when a good, caring god is supposedly in charge; indeed, these apologists maintain that their god pays very close attention to everything. Their menu of excuses includes variations on several themes: god punishes sinners—he has to get even, right? Or he allows bad things to happen as a way of testing us, or improving our characters. Also, we wouldn’t truly appreciate all the good that god does if we don’t sometimes experience hardships and suffering. We also hear, when really horrible things happen, that god moves in mysterious ways, and that, as humans, we can’t see the big picture: we can’t grasp his master plans for the world. These are all invitations for the laity to turn off their minds. The apologists are masters of gaslighting, as I mentioned in my article here last week on Dale O’Neal essay in the Loftus anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering.


But on occasion, the professional apologists are put to shame by ordinary church folks who respond to tragedy with practical wisdom: what they feel in their gut. An example of this happened in the wake of the school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland in March, 1996; a gunman killed 16 kids and their teacher. In the days following, many memorial flowers were placed outside the school. And there was a Teddy Bear, with a note attached that received national publicity: “13 March 1996: the day God overslept.”



No fancy, polished, erudite excuses were required: God just wasn’t there, and a layperson captured the truth. It’s likely that the person who wrote this knew Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead, but that’s too drastic. He/she just had to capture the truth that god did nothingMoreover, it would have made no sense to claim that god was punishing the folks in Dunblane for something, or trying to improve their characters. If this was god moving in mysterious ways—well, that’s just too dumb. 


Of course, this crime—16 kids and one teacher being murdered—is dwarfed by so many other tragedies that come to mind. One cleric suggested that the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 225,000 people was his god’s punishment for European tourists wearing bikinis. Most apologists would distance themselves from such silliness, but as they wander around in their labyrinth of excuses, they can’t do much better. They just hope that laypeople won’t think about the disturbing implications. 


I sometimes wonder why I didn’t become an atheist much earlier in my life—and I do chalk it up to not being encouraged to think about the evils that happened when I was young, some of the true horrors in human history. For example, how does theism survive in the wake of the Holocaust? It doesn’t, of course, but apologists won’t hear of it. But who among them would have been willing to show up at Auschwitz to give assurances that the Nazi atrocities were part of a god’s bigger plan? There is one event, however, that bothered me especially, when I was old enough to know what had happened: dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 6 August 1945. There is no consensus even today as to how many people were incinerated in the initial blast, but it could have been 80,000 to 100,000. 


The use of the bomb was strategic, and is understandable from the standpoint of exhausted patience: Germany had surrendered three months earlier, and the memory of Pearl Harbor remained fresh. But the staggering death tolls from Hiroshima and Nagasaki had an impact:


“Such numbers were large, and appear to have had a sobering effect on President Harry S. Truman. After the August 9 Nagasaki raid (which he had no apparent foreknowledge of), he would put a stop to further bombing, telling his cabinet that ‘the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible,’ according to an August 10, 1945, diary entry by then-Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace.” (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 4 August 2020)


But the thought that occurred to me, even as a kid: why not drop the bomb on the countryside, or even in the sea? Wouldn’t that have made the point, without the horrendous death tolls? It was only much later that the theological implications had full impact on my thinking. The Dunblane massacre provoked the thought that god had overslept, so how much more we should be astounded that a caring god—who knows when even a sparrow falls to the ground—couldn’t think of a way to stop the Hiroshima bombing. 


It may be tempting to brush it off as strategic to end World War II, but it’s helpful to keep it personal: real people, ordinary people who were under god’s watchful eye, suffered horribly. One of those classics that should be reread from time to time is John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima.


“Hersey's account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated with New York University's journalism department.” (Wikipedia on Hersey)


I own the 1946 book, but some forty years later, Hersey added a major

chapter, following up on the people whose experiences he had described. The expanded version is available on Kindle. 


The six people whom he chronicles in the book included: Toshinki Sasaki, a clerk who worked in a factory personnel department; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a doctor; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon; Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the pastor of a Methodist church. 


These folks survived because they were far enough away from ground-zero, and they just happened to be shielded by a building or a wall. They were all wounded, and some were buried alive by debris. Everywhere around them was death and devastation. 


“Dr. Fujii hardly had time to think that he was dying before he realized that he was alive, squeezed tightly by two long timbers in a V across his chest, like a morsel suspended between two huge chopsticks—held upright, so that he could not move, with his head miraculously above water and his torso and legs in it. The remains of his hospital were all around him in a mad assortment of splintered lumber and materials for the relief of pain. His left shoulder hurt terribly. His glasses were gone.” (Hiroshima, pp. 15-16)


But the bomb wasn’t all. God’s absence continued:


“Early in September, it began to rain, steadily and heavily. The river rose. On September 17th, there came a cloudburst and then a typhoon, and the water crept higher and higher…in Hiroshima, the flood took up where the bomb had left off—swept away bridges that had survived the blast, washed out streets, undermined foundations of buildings that still stood—and ten miles to the west, the Ono Army Hospital, where a team of experts from Kyoto Imperial University was studying the delayed affliction of the patients, suddenly slid down a beautiful, pine-dark mountainside into the Inland Sea and drowned most of the investigators and their mysteriously diseased patients alike.”  (Hiroshima, pp. 93-94)


Hersey’s book is high impact because its focus is the calamity that befell people who were just going about their business on 6 August 1945. Think of your own friends and neighbors, and how you might manage to “keep the faith” if they were visited with such horrendous suffering. How is god exonerated? In fact, I’m sure belief in god takes a hit when tragedy and pain hit close to home. Yes, by all means, read/study the works of philosophers and ethicists who have pondered the issue of suffering; but this Hersey classic helps to make it real. 


Miss Susaki, the personnel clerk, who suffered horribly for a long time from her injuries, had occasion to challenge Father Kleinsorge on Catholic theology:


“‘If your God is so good and kind, how can he let people suffer like this?’ She made a gesture which took in her shrunken leg, the other patients in her room, and Hiroshima as a whole. ‘My child,’ Father Kleinsorge said, ‘man is not now in the condition God intended. He has fallen from grace through sin.’” (Hiroshima, p. 109) 


But this falls far short of getting his god off the hook. Why in the world would this god have set up humans in this world with such an inclination to sin? That begs the question of initial design flaws. Which means that apologists have had to step up their game, with the arsenal of excuses that I mentioned at the outset. But such horrendous suffering—human and animal—thoroughly nullifies the concept of a caring, competent, powerful god. The homework on this includes the 2021 Loftus anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering.  


Sometimes amateur theologians make matters even worse. Francis Collins, by any measure an extraordinary scientist, in 2007 published The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. This book fell far short of citing reliable, verifiable, objective data in support of his god idea. He floated the concept, based on touchy-feely texts in the New Testament, that god wants to have fellowship with all his creatures. He spoke nonsense fantasy:


“If God exists, and seeks to have fellowship with sentient beings like ourselves, and can handle the challenge of interacting with 6 billion of us currently on this planet and countless others who have gone before us, it is not clear why it would be beyond His abilities to interact with similar creatures on a few other planets or, for that matter, a few million other planets. It would, of course, be of great interest to discover whether such creatures in other parts of the universe also possess the Moral Law, given its importance in our own perception of the nature of God.” (The Language of God, p. 71)


Did god really crave fellowship with the thousands of people he allowed to be incinerated on 6 August 1945? Collins seems to have assumed that the “nature of God” includes awareness of “moral law” derived from this deity. But as so many serious thinkers have pointed out, the god presented in the Bible falls so far short, by any measure, of moral excellence—in both the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, how can this god’s moral conscience be defended when so much suffering has happened on his watch? If this god is so moral, how can his absence—so many, many times when he overslept—be defended? The incoherence of Christian theology is stunning. 


God has no means to alter the thinking of gunmen who want to shoot up schools? It was beyond his power to change the mind of Adolph Hitler? Countless religious fanatics over the centuries have killed in god’s name—with no divine intervention. Absolutely, these are major design flaws. 


In case apologists want to fall back on the free will defense (“it’s not god’s fault, it’s ours), consider this reality from the post-Hiroshima-Nagasaki world. Hibakusha (literally “person affected by a bomb”) came to be the term for people who were directly impacted by the explosions. In his last chapter added forty years later, Hersey wrote this:


“…it was evident by 1950 that the incidence of leukemia in hibakusha was much higher than normal; among those who had been exposed within one kilometer of the hypocenter, the incidence was reported to be between ten and fifty times above the norm. Over the years, the appearance of ‘purple spots,’ tiny surface hemorrhages symptomatic of leukemia, came to be dreaded by hibakusha. And, later on, other forms of cancer besides leukemia, with longer periods of latency, were showing up at higher than normal rates: carcinomas of the thyroid, the lungs, the breast, the salivary glands, the stomach, the liver, the urinary tract, and the male and female reproductive organs. Some survivors—even children—were developing what were called A-bomb cataracts. Some exposed children were growing up stunted, and one of the most shocking findings was that some children who had been in their mothers’ womb at the time of the bombing were born with heads smaller than normal.” (Kindle, p. 104)


With no infringement whatever of free will, a caring, competent, all-powerful god could have worked silent, unseen miracles to eliminate these conditions. How can this god’s absence not be overwhelmingly obvious? No, god didn’t oversleep. No, god didn’t die. Reliable, verifiable, objective data demonstrating the existence of a god has never been found. 




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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