On several occasions, I’ve heard Christians allude to this or that Christian expert who can out-argue any non-believer and their criticisms of Christianity. The underlying subtext of these claims seems to be: “You can out-argue me, but only because you’re a skilled and intelligent debater. If you get two equally intelligent and skilled debaters in a room, the Christian side will always win because it has the facts to support it.” Lee Strobel is one of those popular Christian authors that Christians point to. I have a copy of Strobel’s “The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity” on my desk, and had once read roughly a third of the book before getting tired of reading his bad arguments.
One of the things Strobel does is write this book like some kind of novel. He’s like some sort of detective, running across the country to get this or that bit of information (even though it’s obvious a phone interview would’ve been just as effective – except for building suspense). His interviews are drastically condensed into this or that bit of “wisdom”, and it’s obvious that his interviews is being recounted through his Christian filters and recollections.
Strobel recounts the stories of Charles Templeton and Billy Graham. They were friends, and Templeton had a crisis of faith – eventually becoming an outspoken agnostic and author (see his book, “Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith”). Graham, on the other hand, couldn’t answer the intellectual problems raised by Templeton, and one night, he falls to his knees and decides to ignore all the doubts and simply believe in Christianity. (I talk about this in an earlier post: “Kurt Wise and the Religious Lobotomy”.) Needless to say, I thought Templeton’s position was the rational intelligent one, and Graham’s decision to simply shut off his brain and believe in religion was (to use Templeton’s words) “intellectual suicide”.
Stobel has an interview with Templeton, who is an old man beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s at this point. Templeton argues that Christianity cannot be true, raising the question of suffering in the world – and one particular example:
“It was a picture of a black woman in Northern Africa,” he explained. “They were experiencing a devastating drought. And she was holding her dead baby in her arms and looking up to heaven with the most forlorn expression. I looked at it and I thought, ‘Is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring Creator when all this woman needed was rain?'”
As he emphasized the word rain, his bushy gray eyebrows shot up and his arms gestured toward heaven as if beckoning for a response.
“How could a loving God do this to that woman?” he implored as he got more animated, moving to the edge of his chair. “Who runs the rain? I don’t; you don’t. He does — or that’s what I thought. But when I saw that photograph, I immediately knew it was not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God. There was no way. Who else but a fiend could destroy a baby and virtually kill its mother with agony — what all that was needed was rain?” (p.16-17)
At the same time, Templeton also expresses great admiration for Jesus:
“He was”, Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings…”
I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.
“Well, yes, he’s the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I … I … I,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, “I know it may sound strange, but I have to say … I adore him!”
as his voice began to crack, “I … miss … him!” (p.21-22)
While Strobel never says it in his book, I couldn’t help but think he was playing on C.S. Lewis’ popular God-shaped-hole idea (google: 66,800 hits) – i.e. creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. In other words, if you desire for a kind, benevolent invisible deity to watch over you – then it must be true that this being exists; if you desire an afterlife for you and your family, then an afterlife – or a way to gain an afterlife – must exist. (C.S. Lewis argument sounds a lot dumber when you put it that way.)
Strobel bemoans the fact that intellectual hurdles (as Templeton argues) stand in the way of believing.
Throughout the book, Strobel likes to take on this “I’m a hard-headed journalist” persona. For example, after his interview with Templeton, Strobel recounts a conversation with his wife:
Leslie nodded. “You have been [on the same path as Templeton],” she said. “You’re both writers, you’ve both been skeptics.” Then she added with a smile, “And you’re both too hardheaded to buy into faith until you’re sure it’s not riddled with holes.” (p.29)
And then on the very next page:
I was sincerely interested in determining whether [the most knowledgeable and ardent defenders of Christianity] had rational answers to “The Big Eight [objections to Christianity].” I wanted to give them ample opportunity to spell out their reasoning and evidence in detail so that, in the end, I could evaluate whether their positions made sense. Most of all, I wanted to find out whether God was telling the truth when he said, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (p.30-31)
He constantly reinforces the “I’m a hard-hitting skeptic” idea throughout the book. He acts like he’s going to sincerely ask the hard questions of Christianity, and even raises the stakes by saying things like “I wanted to find out whether God was telling the truth“. Really? At the time the book was published, he had been a Christian for almost 20 years, he’s a pastor who’s authored a bunch of pro-Christian books, a son who’s a biblical studies graduate, and he’s seriously going to ask whether “God was telling the truth”? It’s patently ridiculous. I can’t help but laugh out loud at this kind of faux skepticism (evidently crafted to build credibility and suspense). His whole persona makes sense when you think about his relationship to his audience, though. He’s writing these books for Christians, telling them that he’s not going to pull any punches, and the benefit of this strategy is that the readers get to convince themselves that this no-holds-barred writer gets continually knocked over with the pro-Christian position. I can’t help but imagine a grown man play-fighting with a child. He flexes and grunts, but then feigns shock and surprise as the child “knocks him down” repeatedly. That’s Strobel’s performance in his books.
What are “The Big Eight” objections to Christianity?
* If there’s a loving God, why does this pain-wracked world groan under so much suffering and evil?
* If the miracles of God contradict science, then how can any rational person believe that they’re true?
* If God really created the universe, why does the persuasive evidence of science compel so many to conclude that the unguided process of evolution accounts for life?
* If God is morally pure, how can he sanction the slaughter of innocent children as the Old Testament says he did?
* If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then what about the millions of people who have never heard of him?
* If God cares about the people he created, how could he consign so many of them to an eternity of torture in hell just because they didn’t believe the right things about him?
* If God is the ultimate overseer of the church, why has it been rife with hypocrisy and brutality throughout the ages?
* If I’m still plagued by doubts, then is it still possible to be a Christian?
Objection #1: Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Loving God Cannot
Strobel talks to Peter John Kreeft (Philosophy PhD and author of “Making Sense out of Suffering”), and relays Templeton’s argument involving the African woman suffering from a drought, her dead child still in her arms. Kreeft seizes on Templeton’s words: “I immediately knew it was not possible for this to happen and for there to be a loving God” complaining about the absoluteness of the statement. Admittedly, I thought the same thing about Templeton’s statement the the first time I read it – that it was excessively absolute, and that opened him up for attack. Kreeft says:
“[T]o say there’s no possibility that a loving God who knows far more than we do, including about our future, could possibly tolerate such evil as Templeton sees in Africa — well, that strikes me as intellectually arrogant.”
That took me aback. “Really?” I asked. “How so?”
“How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range goods that we couldn’t foresee?” he asked. … “Look at it this way,” he said. “Would you agree that the difference between us and God is greater than the difference between us and, say, a bear?”
“Okay, then imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear’s confidence, but he can’t do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and that the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn’t realize that this is being done out of compassion. … [The Bear would be] convinced that the hunter was his enemy who was out to cause him suffering and pain. But the bear would be wrong. He reaches this incorrect conclusion because he’s not a human being. … how can anyone be certain that’s not an analogy between us and God?” (p.43-44)
Now, I’ve heard the God-is-to-humans as Humans-are-to-animals analogy used before, and I don’t believe it. The other time I heard this analogy used was in church, where the pastor explained that humans were like a bunch of sparrows caught in a barn, and God had to become a sparrow to show them the way out of the barn. Similarly, God had to become a human in order to teach humans how to live. The major problem with this analogy is this: humans have no common language with animals. We *cannot* communicate with them, except with body language. On the other hand, assuming Christianity is true, then: (1) God is omnipotent – and therefore *can* communicate with us, (2) There are 39 books in the Old Testament which were “written by God”, (3) There are numerous occasions claimed in the Bible where God sends angels to talk to people – and they seem to have *no* problem understanding these angels. On the other hand, bears and sparrows literally have no spoken language. The reason the bear in a trap doesn’t understand is because we cannot communicate with him. The reason we don’t understand suffering is not because we cannot understand God, but because God chooses not to communicate.
Now, he could argue that the bear isn’t smart enough to understand, just as humans aren’t smart enough to understand God’s reasons for permitting suffering, but that argument is undercut by the fact that God could simply tell people “Don’t worry, I have a reason” without trying to spell out the deeper reasons. That wouldn’t require much brain power to understand, and I’m quite certain humans are capable of comprehending it. Instead, we get silence. To get around this problem, he could argue that God’s silence and our confusion in the face of suffering is essential for bringing about the (assumed) long-term benefit. It’s a “test of faith”, some might argue, although that argument doesn’t make much sense when we’re talking about the suffering of non-Christians.
At this point, I should point out the fact that what Strobel is looking for, and what I am looking for are two different things. Strobel is looking for a loophole so that the existence of evil does not disprove God’s existence. What I am looking for is to find the most reasonable explanation of the existence of evil. My explanation: that God doesn’t exist, or God doesn’t care seems to make the most sense of the situation. Out different positions can be illustrated by this scene from Dumb and Dumber:
Lloyd: What are the chances of a guy like you and a girl like me… ending up together?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million.
Lloyd: So you’re telling me there’s a chance.
Stobel is Lloyd. He’s not looking for the most reasonable explanation. He’s just looking for a way to argue against the claim that evil completely eliminates the possibility of the Christian God’s existence. For Strobel, there is a vast difference between “one in a million” and “impossible”.
Personally, I don’t actually buy this argument. I call it like I see it, and I shouldn’t be expected to take “hidden variables” into my calculation that are going to make everything better (i.e. in the afterlife, where none of us can see). To claim that everything gets made better by a benevolent deity in some place no one can see is as thin as claiming that a malevolent deity is giving us a decent life on earth so that we will truly be horrified by our pain and suffering in the afterlife.
Kreeft goes on:
“Only in a world where faith is difficult can faith exist. I don’t have faith in two plus two equals four or in the noonday sun… You have to make an effort of faith to find [God]… And if that weren’t so, if there were something more or less than clues, it’s difficult for me to understand how we could really be free to make a choice about him… If we had no evidence at all, you could never get there. God gives us just enough evidence so that those who want him can have him.” (p.44)
This is simply ridiculous. It could just as easily be said by a cultist arguing for the divinity of David Koresh. Hey – Koresh isn’t going to do some miracles to prove his divinity; you have to have faith; he gives you just enough evidence, etc. – thereby putting the ball in your court when it legitimately belongs in theirs. It’s a great strategy for any false religion or cult because it absolves them of actually presenting good evidence. Further, why must we be free to “make a choice about him”? I think the primary issue here is obedience. Someone could know God exists, and yet be disobedient. Somehow, Kreeft manages to conflate “free will” with deciding whether or not the Christian God exists. Further, according to the Bible, God literally took away many people’s uncertainty about his existence; plenty of Biblical figures allegedly had encounters with God or angels.
But, then Kreeft really goes off the deep end:
“Besides, the evidence of evil and suffering can go both ways — it can actually be used in favor of God. … If Templeton is right in responding to these events with outrage, that presupposes there really is a difference between good and evil. The fact that he’s using the standard of good to judge evil — the fact that he’s saying quite rightly that this horrible suffering isn’t what ought to be — means that he has a notion of what ought to be; that this notion corresponds to something real; and that there is, therefore, a reality called the Supreme Good. Well, that’s another name for God.”
That sounded suspiciously like philosophical sleight of hand. Warily, I summarized Kreeft’s point to see if I understood it. “You mean that unintentionally Templeton may be testifying to the reality of God because by recognizing evil he’s assuming there’s an objective standard on which it’s based?” (p.46)
I’m often confounded by the stupidity that theists will confidently assert when talking about religion. It’s like they drop a good 50 points off of their IQ whenever they talk about it. Other than the fact that he’s essentially arguing that empathy cannot exist unless there is a supremely good deity in charge, the most obvious problem is that you can’t talk about God being good unless there is an objective concept of “good” which exists independently of God. But, if objective concepts of good and evil exist independently of God, then God isn’t the standard, and God’s existence makes no difference to our concepts of good and evil whatsoever. Essentially what Kreeft is arguing here is “might makes right”: good is whatever God says it is – an argument that undergraduate students debunk as an exercise in philosophy class. When Strobel says that it “sounded suspiciously like philosophical sleight of hand”, that’s because it is philosophical sleight of hand.
“Are there any other ways in which you believe evil works against atheism?” I asked.
“Yes, there are,” he replied. “If there is no Creator an therefore no moment of creation, then everything is the result of evolution. If there was no beginning or first cause, then the universe must have always existed. That means the universe has been evolving for an infinite amount of time — and, by now, everything should already be perfect. There would have been plenty of time for evolution to have finished and evil to have been vanquished. But there still is evil and suffering and imperfection — and that proves the atheist wrong about the universe.” (p.47)
Yikes. And this guy is a philosophy professor? No wonder so many people reject evolution – they are completely clueless about what it is and what it means. Evolution is not concerned with “morality” or the elimination of evil in the universe, and the mechanism of evolution will never lead to perfection or eliminate evil. Further, even if we were to assume an infinitely old universe, that doesn’t imply that evolution has has been working for an infinite amount of time. While I’m not asserting this to be true, consider the possibility that the universe goes through cycles of expansion and collapse. If we assume collapse results in the elimination of all life, then the universe could be infinitely old, and yet, evolutionary mechanisms would only work for X billion years before being reset by the “Big Crunch”.
“Then atheism,’ I said, “is an inadequate answer to the problem of evil?”
“It’s an easy answer — maybe, if I may use the word, a cheap answer,” he said. “Atheism is cheap on people, because it snobbishly says nine out of ten people through history have been wrong about God and have had a lie at the core of their hearts.”
“Think about that. How is it possible that over ninety percent of all the human beings who have ever lived — usually in far more painful circumstances than we — could believe in God? The objective evidence, just looking at the balance of pleasure and suffering in the world, would not seem to justify believing in an absolutely good God. Yet this has been almost universally believed. (p.47-48)
What craziness. Atheism is “snobbishness”? Just because a majority of people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true, and saying they are wrong doesn’t make you a “snob” or that your viewpoint is “cheap on people”. People also believed the earth was flat, diseases were caused by demons, etc. Could you imagine this guy living in the time of Galileo? He’d be standing there talking about Galileo’s “snobbery” for asserting that everyone was wrong about geocentrism. I think there are good psychological explanations for the spread of the “benevolent God” religions. Further, what he says is factually incorrect. He claims that over 90% of all the people who have ever lived believed in an absolutely good God. Really? There’s the Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Zoroastrians who believe in a benevolent God. That’s slightly more than half of the global population. Hindus are polytheists. Buddhists are agnostic about gods, but say that gods can’t help you achieve enlightenment anyway. The majority of China and Russia is atheist or agnostic. Further, the Christian-Muslim-Jewish religions are currently at their peak. If you stepped back two thousand years into the past, you can only count Jews and Zoroastrians – which might be in the single-digits as a percentage of global population. To say that over 90% of the people who ever lived believed in “an absolutely good God”, is flat-out wrong.
So far, Strobel has been doing exactly what I described in the beginning of this post: raising virtually no objections at all to Kreeft’s arguments, yet Strobel wants people to take him seriously as a tough-minded skeptic. Remember, the words of Strobel’s wife earlier? “And you’re both too hardheaded to buy into faith until you’re sure it’s not riddled with holes.” Yeah, right. Apparently, Strobel never met a Christian argument he didn’t like. Strobel loves to paint himself as a skeptic, but actions speak far louder than words.