Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is God's Creation Good?

Christians frequently point to the beauty and elegance of nature as a reflection of the goodness of the creator.  And indeed nature is wondrous in many ways.  But there is a problem: many of the key underlying characteristics that lead to survival and multiplication of posterity are not those that Christians would like to ascribe to God.  These include: deception, predation, sickness, disease, death, fear, pain, poison, starvation, ruthlessness, and so on.  These properties are not simply add-ons to nature, but are deeply embedded in its design and fabric.  Let me illustrate some of these:

Fear and pain.  One of the great evils in this world is to be tormented by fear and pain.  Yet fear and pain play a crucial role in nature, spurring animals to find food and avoid predators.  A gazelle living in fear of mountain lions and wolves will remain alert and has a far better chance of survival than one without this fear.  The fear of the pain of being ripped apart will drive it to flee a pursuer with the last drop of its strength.   Furthermore, when prey are scarce, pangs of hunger will drive a wolf to seek prey with all the strength it can summon.  Fear and pain are like a force of nature, propelling the life cycle onward.

Predation.  Much of the diversity and beauty of nature is a result of each animal being optimized for a niche both in what it eats and in the ways by which it escapes predators.  For instance, panther chameleons are slow-moving tree-climbers that are experts at creeping up on insects and then grabbing them with their tongues that are almost as long as their bodies.  Cheetahs' camouflage and litheness enables them to silently creep up on a herd of impalas and catch one in a high-speed chase.  The impala, on the other hand, with its large eyes seeing in almost all directions and keen ears is highly suited to escaping swift predators.  Without predators, many of the impala's tightly honed features would be superfluous.  If the cheetah ate grass, its features would be superfluous, if not harmful, and it would do much better in a form similar to an impala or a cow.  The key reason for diversity and variety in the animal kingdom is the enormous number of techniques animals have developed both for avoiding being preyed on and for preying on other animals.  The predator-prey relationship is a harsh but necessary component of the beauty of nature.

Death.  Death is an essential part of life for many creatures.  Consider flies.  An apple falls on the ground and a fly lays eggs on it.  The eggs hatch, become maggots and consume the apple.  Once the apple is gone, either the maggots die or they must escape.  Well their plan is to escape by becoming flies which look for more fruit in which to lay eggs.  Imagine flies never died; their numbers would keep increasing with each fruit that fell until the world was 3 feed deep with swarming flies.  But this applies not only to flies, consider caterpillars: they eventually become butterflies whose job is to mate and lay eggs.  Some butterflies have no mouth for eating so living forever is out of the question.  The incredibly elegant and complex reproductive and mating system for animals is based on the inevitability of death.  Without death, any species the reproduced would eventually cover every square inch of the earth's surface.

If nature sings the praises of its Creator, what is it telling us about him?  One must look not only at the love a mother shows her offspring, but also at the cuckoo that kills the other chicks in its nest and the parasitic wasp that lays eggs in a caterpillar that eventually devour the caterpillar alive.  What does it tell us about the Creator that animals (and humans) are designed to suffer fear and pain and to starve and die?  What does it tell us that the winners in the animal kingdom are typically the strongest, fittest, most fertile, most well-camouflaged, most deceitful and most ruthless?  God must value those qualities highly since he made them the criteria for success in his creation.

Now here is the answer that puts all these worries about God to rest.  These bad characteristics are simply a result of The Fall; when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God cursed the creation.  Since then not only have women suffered pain in childbirth and men had to work by the sweat of their hands, but death and pain and all bad things we see entered creation.  So these bad things we see do not reflect God's plan or his original creation, rather they are just his punishment on earth for man's sin.

As a myth this might be a fine solution for taking God off the hook for designing all the cruel ways in which animals kill and devour each other.  But it fails when it claims to be historical or scientific.  It implies that before the fall that the world was good and these cruelties, including death, were absent.   Cheetahs could chase impalas to stay fit, but they better not sink their teeth into their necks.  For that matter, since impalas don't need to fear cheetahs, they could stop looking around them and grow fat eating grass.  It means that flies and caterpillars better not be multiplying.  Actually no animals should mate unless ways of populating other planets were devised.

There is another problem too: the fossil record clearly records the death of animals for hundreds of millions of years.  That is far longer than anyone would claim humans were around, and far before the fall.  And life and death back then was surely no pain-free picnic.  A fossil (right) that struck me, in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has been kept in the same pose in which it was excavated showing the dinosaur's neck arched back in its death throes, perhaps as it is buried alive in burning ashes.  And no one can tell me animals didn't suffer pain when chomped in half by the enormous teeth of a TRex or belly slashed open by a deinonychus.    For that matter, what kind of loving, caring creator would bestow an enormous dagger on the foot of a deinonychus?  What was God thinking he would do with it?

It is clear that nature as a whole does not now, nor has in the past, embodied the loving, caring, self-sacrificial  ideals we would like to ascribe to God.  Rather, if it were an intelligent mind that devised the deceitful and brutal ways for animals to catch, kill and eat each other, that mind certainly lacks empathy and care for the downtrodden and weak.  And perhaps taking an intelligent mind out of the creation equation provides hope.  We don't have to accept that humans are doomed to be cruel or evil by nature.  Rather the intelligent minds are now, us!  We have an ability to reason and to empathize with those that suffer.  We do not have to model society after the survival of the fittest model.  Instead, perhaps dignity, freedom and compassion can replace eat-or-be-eaten.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Problem of Hell and Honesty

The doctrine of hell is certainly a key component of Christianity.  Being "saved" means, in large part, being rescued from eternal damnation.  What motivates many in doing evangelism is saving the "lost" peoples of the world from being being cast into the flames of hell.

But hell creates problems for Christians too.  Are good people who are not Christians going to hell?  What about the millions, if not billions, of people who have not even heard the gospel -- will God torment them for eternity in hell?  Would a good, loving God send someone to hell because he was born in a Muslim community where he never heard the gospel?  What about babies, children, mentally-handicapped that are unable to "accept Jesus into their hearts".  Are they doomed?

There are plenty of Christian answers to questions like these.  One goes like this: God's justice requires that he punish people for their sins, and the punishment for sin is hell.  The problem with this is that surely a just punishment must be in some way commensurate with the crime.  But a punishment lasting eternity, is a punishment far beyond anything we can conceive, and far beyond any sin that a two-year old, or five-year old, or 20-year old or even the worst person you can image, could commit.  Surely it is not justice that forces God to dole out eternal punishment.

Another answer is that Hell is simply the consequence of sin. It is not like justice but more like gravity; we are all pulled down.  Only God can rescue us and he has provided a way for us to escape via belief in and submission to Jesus.  One might then ask, why does God require people be privy to this special knowledge in order to be saved?  What is going to happen to all the people who have never heard or who are mentally unable to understand?  If one is consistent, then one must conclude that they get shipped off to hell when they die.  It also makes one question God's goodness if he is populating this world with millions of people who he knows are never going to hear the Gospel and so are doomed to burn in hell for eternity.

But probably the answer that is most popular among Evangelicals is we get what we choose.  That is the theme of C. S. Lewis's book "The Great Divorce". Those that seek God, what is good and what is true, get to be with him for eternity (including for example the pagan God-fearer).  On the other hand, those that run away from God and seek evil, are banished from his presence for eternity (i.e. hell).  It is a nice resolution in the sense that what can be more fair than getting what you truly want, and it addresses the problem of those who haven't heard the Gospel.  The problem with this argument is that a key assumption is invalid; namely that pursuing God is equivalent to pursuing what is good and true.  Let me make this personal.  I am dedicated to seeking what is true and what is good.  And through my searching, (as reflected by others posts on this blog), I have concluded that the God presented in the Bible and taught by Christians is not good.  Furthermore, weighing the evidence as objectively as I can, I have concluded that this God does not exist.  So, if I am to be honest in pursuing what is good and true, I must reject the God of the gospels.  But according to most Christian doctrines, that would send me to hell.  The only way I can think of getting around this (as Pascal might advise me), would be to believe something I have carefully concluded is not true.   But surely there is something wrong if escaping hell requires me to be dishonest.

Now that I have finished this post, it occurs to me that I have repeated some of the themes of an earlier post.  Perhaps what is bugging me even more than hell, which I no longer believe in due to the reasoning above, is this: Christians are imbued with a feeling (and plenty of teaching) that the true Christian is honest whereas even the thoughtful non-believer is either dishonest or deluded.  However, I believe that careful analysis will show that very often the opposite is true.