And What If There is No Devil

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I’m friends with quite a few people that consider themselves, “spiritual, but not religious.”. Upon further prodding this normally means some form of “New Age” stuff – basically that God is within each of us, and as such we have no need of organized anything.  If God is within, there’s clearly no need for communicating with the “heavens,” or that “divine dimension.”  No, prayer consists of emptying oneself completely of all the “human stuff,” so all that remains is divine.  We effectively become our own god.  Much like those who “cherry pick” what they like to believe is right or wrong, we attend the “church of me.”

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And so with this moral relativism it’s a natural progression to deny the existence of the absolute.  I’m a pretty good person,” or “at least I don’t do such and such” becomes the new standard, and there are no inherent rights and wrongs.  “Don’t judge me” is the new mantra, and we are therefore forbidden to refer to Natural Law.  The best ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, Cumberland and Locke, our own John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and certainly Augustine and Aquinas.  Notice my omission of uniquely religious figures; these are philosophers of genius, who maintained that there is, in fact, absolute right and wrong, irrelevant of cultural and societal norms.  So let’s throw out 2500 years of philosophical contemplation and wisdom, because so many people in modern society find the truth inconvenient, shaming, and esteem lowering.

When the trend of culture, or even within our individual consciences (or lack thereof) has no “standard,” setting the bar for right and wrong becomes completely arbitrary.

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Likewise its quite trendy to deny the existence of “evil.”. I’m not talking about “doing” what society considers “evil things,” or even “being an evil person.”   Again, when we are allowed to “set the bar” in different places, standards of behavior become contrived and arbitrary.

No, I’m actually referring to evil.  Evil is not simply that passive void created in the absence of “good.”. Evil is a very real thing, a very active albeit insidious force that has been just as present as it was two thousand and ten thousand years ago.

And so – Most of us would agree that Oliver Cromwell did evil things when he massacred the Irish civilians in Wexford, and when the suicide bomber boarded the bus full of Israeli children, and when a man in charge of children commits pedaphilia or pederasty.  However, it’s quite different to say there was an evil force guiding and driving these feeble minded to justify what they did.  They aren’t simply confused, brainwashed, or even sick.  Consciously or unconsciously, they participated with something truly sinister.

I’m neither naive nor an an idiot.  I realize the whole idea seems absurd if you don’t believe in the existence of an absolute “good,” and in turn, the existence of God.  Much like Paul’s description of the “foolishness” of the cross to those who believe they will simply perish, but the “Power of God,” to those who are confident of salvation (1Cor 1:18).

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Nor has this moral slide happened suddenly.  It’s been with us forever,  And I think I’ve actually witnessed so many subtle, insidious instances of this slide of my culture before my very eyes.  When I was a little kid, comedian Flip Wilson had us in stitches when his character Geraldine claimed “the devil made me do it” every time she did something wrong, and so it became a laughing matter.  We clearly recognized it as facetious, Geraldine obviously was shirking her own accountability, and caricaturing the devil as a cartoon character.  And who hasn’t conjured up the mental image of “the devil,” with cute little curved horns, a fork, dressed in a red leotard, and joking about the heat.  As a child, I was probably in that costume one Halloween.  You see, of course, the theme here – cartoons, jokes, funny.

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In Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis makes this point much more eloquently than I can, as the elder devil, Wormwood, advises his nephew apprentice:

“The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of some¬thing in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”

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And if there is no Satan, no Prince of Darkness, no “evil spirit,” what of evil?  Is evil a “positive” thing (actually something that exists), or simply the absence of good, a (void)?Clearly evil exists, but is it a “something (a power unto itself),” or a “nothing (like darkness in the absence of light)?”

I suppose being a 14 year old boy in 1973 Missouri when The Exorcist first played (Blatty’s version of real events surrounding a very credible possession in St. Louis, starring Linda Blair) made me really pay attention and fascinated me.  Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I considered the whole premise plausible, and found these otherwise inexplicable events actually faith-strengthening.  And the fact that Catholic priests are called in during these situations, as “the authorities” provides a subliminal affirmation that the Roman Church provides the most dependable road home.

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So, to me, although scary “as hell,” I consider it a real thing.  I realize that philosophers and theologians much smarter than I have also explored this question and come to both conclusions.  Its easy to see how those in Auschwitz, My Lai, and Syria might feel much more confident with such first hand knowledge.  But what about the 12 year old girl who is bullied?  The 15 year old driven to self-destruction because of gay bashing?  The woman beaten to a pulp by her prince every time he drinks?  Is this darkness simply the lack of light?

One of the most emotionally powerful arguments against the existence of God is the “problem of evil.”  People say that if God is all knowing, all powerful, all good, why does evil exist?

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That drove me to bash my head against the wall for about ten hours, trying to read and understand what the best and brightest for thousands of years have said reconciling the existence of evil with an omnipotent, loving moral God.  From Buddhism, Pessimism and Zoroastrianism to Christian Scientist and Jehovahs Witness.  From Aristotle, Origen and Epicurus to Schopenhauer and Leibniz.  Eckhart, Birmingham, and even Nietzsche.  Gnostics and Deists, Monism and Pragmatism.

Frankly all I learned was that everyone knows that no one knows.  Actually that this is another one of those things that humans just can’t know.  Not that we should stop the great search for truths.  On the contrary, this is exactly why we should continue to learn and explore and dig and think deeply.

I do find myself leaning towards Thomas Aquinas:

The existence of evil functions in the perfection of the whole; the universe would be less perfect if it contained no evil. Thus fire could not exist without the corruption of what it consumes; the wolf must slay the deer in order to live; and if there were no wrongdoing, there would be no need for the virtues of patience and justice. Let’s assume God did author evil in the sense that the corruption of material objects in nature is ordained by Him, as a means for carrying out the design of the universe; and on the other hand, the evil which exists as the consequence of the breach of Divine laws is in the same sense due to Divine appointment; the universe would be less perfect if its laws could be broken without punishment. Thus evil, in one aspect, i.e. as counter-balancing the attraction of sin, has the nature of good. But the evil of sin, though permitted by God, is in no sense due to Him; its cause is the abuse of free will.

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Therein, St. Thomas proposes his explanation (apparently logical and sufficient to him) as to why God permits foreseen moral evil.  Why would God, foreseeing that His creatures would use His gift of free will for their own injury, proceed with the plan, and not keep them (us) from misusing this “gift,” deny the gift altogether?

St. Thomas comes to the realization that God cannot change His mind, since the Divine will is free from the defect of weakness or instability. Such fluidity would be a defect in the Divine nature (and therefore impossible), because if God’s purpose were made dependent on the foreseen free act of any creature, God would thereby sacrifice His own freedom, and would submit Himself to His creatures, thus abdicating His essential supremacy—a thing which is, of course, utterly inconceivable.

In other words, I think, “It is because it He has willed it.”  The great I AM.

IAM

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What if There is No God?

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Yeah, Yeah, I know lots of folks are pretty sure its all a “fairy tale,” and God doesn’t exist.  Although most of the people in “my bubble” are pretty convinced that there is a god, I’m well aware that many seemingly good, nice people do not believe.

In the Mayberry I grew up in, we all did.  And we were all Christians.  I met my first Jew when I was 12, at Camp Zoe – he was singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the roof, and I remember he had a box of candy under his pillow and was really funny, but must have been homesick, because he cried in bed every-night.  A few years later Pentecostal classmate accused me of not being a Christian when she discovered I was Catholic, and I didn’t really have a reply.  I was pretty dumbfounded that she could think such a thing.  But it urged me to do some research so I did have a reply when a similar remark was made at an Amy Grant Concert ten years later.  Only in a college “comparative religion” class was I really forced to consider other world religions, and even atheism.

I got an “A” in the oral argument/debate/logic half of the class, but barely passed the assignment effectively requiring us to “admit” the absence of any proof of god, and that all religions are effectively absurd.  (In fact he used that word).  I spent my thousand words explaining very logically how “absurd” it was to consider such a complicated world as this could exist without a creator directing the very beginning, and the course of nature – evolution, if you like.  I got a C on the thesis, with only a comment that it was a shame that I hadn’t paid any attention to him all year long.  (That kind of arrogance smacks of the recent movie, God’s Not Dead.

Anyway, I’m a big boy, and I realize lots of smart people think they have everything figured out, and so they have no proof for “God.”  I’ve sparred online lots of times, cause although I HATE big confrontations, I still like a well thought out and reasoned dialogue.  But I continue to be floored when someone looks me in the face, and tells me, in person, that they don’t believe in the existence of God.

So there I was last week, in surgery, where I solve most of the world’s problems, when someone (I’ll call her Sara) walks into the conversation I was having with someone else about theology (imagine that!), and matter-of-factly says she doesn’t believe in God.  Nope, she and her brother decided it – they were convinced that there is no God.

So, of course, I was more than a little surprised, and the room was eerily quiet sans life monitoring beeps from three machines.  Finally, my gay technician broke the silence, with an astonished, “REALLY???”  “So you consider yourself an atheist???!!!” She puffed her chest out and reiterated that she was quite sure.  He just stood there shaking his head, saying he wasn’t convinced we had all of Christ’s teachings just right, but he was positive there is a God, and that He helps him constantly.

The best I could come up with was, “So the fact that the existence of God hasn’t been objectively proven to you, is proof enough that there is NOT a god?”  Afraid that I was setting a trap, she hesitatingly said, “Yeah, I guess.”  My mind and my heart wanted to take her a hundred places, with a thousand experiences, seemingly revelations for me.  But in a right-brain/left-brain flash of a second, I realized these were personal revelations, and there would be no possible way any of this information could be useful, or convincing for her.  Pascal’s wager came to mind, but I realized that souls are never saved by winning an argument.  No, besides it was probably also inappropriate banter for an employee/employer type relationship.

She said lots of people have tried to show her the error in her thinking, but this apparently just seem to strengthen her resolve.  “Yeah, ha ha, I’ll probably get sent to hell, but I just don’t believe it.  When you die, its over.  That’s it.  Nothing after.”  I was horrified at the thought.  Really?  Nothing after?  Then what’s the point?  Indeed, there would be no point.

I told her, my own leanings were closer to, “we choose” to be in God’s presence, or to be away from Him, based on our beliefs and how we live our lives.  It seemed like a good starting place to begin, and end this conversation.  To plant a few seeds, and do my best to “act” like a Christian.  Isn’t that the best evangelizing?  So they’ll “know we are Christians by our love.”

But then Sara continued, “But why does everyone have to shove their religion down my throat?”  Glad that I, in fact, had elected not to do that, I mused.  But then I replied to her question.

“Suppose you and some others you really care about, your family, were all exposed to Ebola, and the cure had been discovered, and was available in Sikeston, MO, and free to anyone who got there in time.  Well you know where Sikeston is, because you have a map.  You’re convinced the map is accurate, and so, again, you are positive that you know how to get to Sikeston.  Isn’t it loving to tell your family how to get there?  In fact, wouldn’t you be a selfish jerk if you saw someone headed on the wrong road, towards Dallas, or New York?  They might be able to get to Sikeston via these other places, but isn’t it most loving and compassionate to share your knowledge with people you care about?”

Before she could doubt the accuracy of the map, I quickly added, “Whether or not it can be proven that the map is correct is irrelevant; you asked why someone might be compelled to ‘shove their religion down someone else’s throat.’  Even if they’re wrong, they’re doing it out of love.  They want to save someone else’s life, and they personally are positive they know where the cure is.  They might have even taken the same road, and even “gone to Dallas,” only to realize they were so fortunate to get a “do-over.”  Many don’t.  So it makes it a bit easier to “swallow” when we realize it’s really out of love that this is done, and that you’d be a bit of a jerk if you didn’t care enough to share.

Why not “live and let live,” and “coexist?”  Suppose you see your neighbor pull out of his driveway with his coffee-cup or phone on the roof of his car.  Don’t you care enough about him to wave and yell at him?

This conversation was “about a week ago,” and clearly I’m still thinking about it.  What exactly is our level of responsibility to our “neighbors?”  Do we let them head towards Dallas, when they may die of “the virus” before they realize there’s nothing there to save them?  Do we let the coffee cup smash to the ground?  And who, exactly is  my neighbor?

I read a FB post a few days ago condemning “imposing our religions” on our children.  “Let them wait until they’re adults, and can decide for themselves.”  I’m so thankful my parents did such a horrible thing to us, so I could in turn do so to my own.  I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that “imposing my parent’s religion” saved my son Cullen’s eternal life.  Indeed, at the end of the day, at the end of our days, nothing else matters.  That’s the point.

But what makes me squirm, and probably why I’m sitting down on a Friday night with a couple of IPAs in front of the keyboard, is another question.  It’s nothing new, and I’ve read much more intelligent people than myself discourse about it.  What if someone could and did prove that there is no god.  How would that affect life?  Clearly I have no idea how others would respond, but how would I respond?

I mean, really – do I try my hardest to be a good person and to live a loving life only because Jesus of Nazareth was killed for telling me to do so?  Is His staying on the cross to bleedout and suffocate the epitome of self-sacrifice as an example that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s own life for those who hate?  Or what if the Discovery Channel’s special a few years ago really had opened a tomb and found Jesus’ bones?  Would this be “proof” that He did not resurrect and ascend?  Or what if Paulkovich is right and Jesus never even existed as a historical figure?

Clearly I’m convinced these are absurd assertions.  Paulkovich is an engineer, and probably reasonably intelligent, but from what I’ve read, no smarter than me, and definitely dwarfed by two thousand years of theologians who have devoted lifetimes to prove, and many attempted to disprove, this very thing.  And what of the thousands of early Christians, especially the apostles who were killed because they refused to recant the story.  Don’t you think even one would have if it had all just been a big lie?  And if even one did admit to the big lie, wouldn’t other religions of that day (and this day) have held them up as “proof?”

But again, let’s just, for argument sake, query this.  What if someone could and did prove that there is no god.  Is it a coincidence that every civilization and every culture has an idea of god?  Why is this so important to humans?  Is there this “space” inside each of us that only God can fill, and so we do our best to do so?  Is it relevant that Christianity is the only world religion based on a real historical person?

How would I respond?  How would you?  Is it even possible for someone of deep faith to imagine their world without?  And what is our responsibility to others?  Are we truly “in it alone?”  Or are we our brother’s keepers?

I always post all comments, but please be civil and respectful.

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