Friday, June 30, 2006

I'm answering, I'm answering!

I hope Hellbound Alleee won't mind me responding here, but I get the impression it's not her original material, either. She posted in her blog this Monday "The Questions Christians Can't, or Won't, Answer". I'm hoping to answer them as best I can. Indeed, I may not be able to.

To the Christian (who, of course, believes in hell, and don't give me that seperation from god stuff--you know that's supposed to be terrible suffering as well, otherwise no one would care that they were seperated from your pansy god):
I think you're misunderstanding the Christian concept of "separated from God". Try this metaphor: Imagine driving in your car through the desert. It's 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 50 degrees Celsius), and although it's bad, you're in your air-conditioned car. Then your motor hitches up, and you notice: you're out of gas. Now you're "separated" from your car, and from your air conditioning. It doesn't matter whether or not someone would describe your car as a "pansy" car, you're in for an awful afternoon.

The Christian concept of the world is that it's a potentially cruel and terrible place that's being kept at bay to an extent by the grace of God. Take away God, and that's Hell. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, there's suffering. It's not meanness, it's human choice to reject that grace.
How can you enjoy your afterlife while millions suffer eternal torment in hell? Especially when some of them could be your friends, aquaintances, and family? When so many millions of them are simply regular, "good" people who were in the "wrong religion?" Little children, grandmas, people who have done wonderful things, millions of people who led wonderful lives, suffering in hell because they did not accept Jesus?
Indeed, that is a question most Christians can't answer. How the heck can you be happy when you know people are suffering? Some theologians have suggested that God makes us forget about them, but I don't find that convincing, or even completely reasonable.

A man goes to Hell, and Satan offers him an eternity in one of three rooms. In the first room, people are standing on their heads on hard, rough wood. In the second, people are standing on their heads on a stone floor. In the third, there are people standing on their feet, drinking coffee while knee-deep in shit. The man decides that while they all look bad, the third is far preferable. Satan walks him inside, closes the door and says: okay everyone, coffee break's over; back on your heads!

Did you laugh? Why? It's a story about people suffering. Sure, it's fictional, but then, there are real people suffering in the world right now. Did you know that over 8,000 people die from AIDS every day? How can you laugh while that's happening? Wearing any clothing made in China? It was probably manufactured by the cheap labor of political and religious dissidents. Are you heartless? Sometimes I suspect that, despite the fact I'd like better, Heaven will be much like this life, where we manage to enjoy ourselves despite the fact that elsewhere, suffering is occurring. There is probably more to be said to these questions, but I'm trying to be brief. (By my standards at least.)
Let me clarify: I'm asking about you, and your feelings personally. Will the terrible eternal suffering of others, whether they supposedly "deserve it" or not, whether they were Gandhi or just some 8 year-old child of Buddhists that did nothing in his life but do what 8 year-old kids do, will you be able to sing loud enough to drown out their screams, and pretend everything is perfect the way it is? Is that perfection to you? If you sit outside of a torture chamber while someone's fingernails are being peeled off, will you be perfectly blissful as long as you've got yours? Because, after all, Kiko or Deepa "knew" Jesus and just ignored Him.
Well, I imagine that those who are in Heaven will not be sitting "outside of a torture chamber" like Hell is right in the next room. We'll know it exists, but have no direct knowledge of it. I'm sure people are being tortured as I write this, and will be as the reader reads this, but we have the ability to tune them out because their screams will not be heard, they will only be a thought somewhere in the back of our heads, if at all.

I'm also not convinced by rhetoric that seems to imply that undeserving people will go to Hell. Part of that has to do with a subject I intend to post on sometime soon, but a lot of it has to do with my understanding of the nature of God. It just sounds unfair that God would punish an 8-year-old just for being born into the wrong family. But God IS fair. So I don't believe God will punish that child. Now, is it fair to "punish" anyone at all? That's a bigger question. Maybe I will make a dent in answering it nonetheless as I finish this post.
Why did God/Jesus make the rule? Please justify the morality of eternal suffering for nonbelief. After all, if God made it so, it must be moral, and it must be really easy to figure out why eternal suffering after death is morally justified.
First of all, we're starting with an assumption that I think is not supported. Who said God made the rule? Maybe someone did say it to you, but that's not my point; I ask it in a rhetorical fashion. While some Christians are fond of saying, "God created the universe, so He gets to make the rules," I don't think you'll find such a sentiment in the Bible. Don't get me wrong, God does make many rules, and He does punish people for breaking the rules. I'm simply saying that the reason for God making the rules is not often stated, and we are left to venture guesses. Furthermore, I don't believe that God does make every rule there is, and I suspect this is one that is to some extent beyond Him. (See my post on possible limits to "omnipotence".) Something I have heard said many times that I do think is true is that God does not do actions that are against His basic nature. Whether that is a choice, or something He is bound to by the higher impersonal force of logic, I do not know. But perhaps I will be allowed to slightly rephrase the question and keep the essence of the problem intact.

What is the purpose of the rule? What explains the need for suffering as a result of mere nonbelief? I hope that this is an acceptable rephrasing, although I still have a slight issue with the word "nonbelief" to clear up. I don't think nonbelief is the real issue. I think the real issue is having enough information to understand to some extent the nature of God, and refusing to acknowledge Him as an act of rebellion. Actually, if you look through the Bible, you see a lot of people who believe in God, but get in trouble because they simply don't do what is right. Why was it wrong for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit? They certainly believed in God, since they were on speaking terms with Him. The act of eating the fruit was in essence saying, "God, I know you said not to do this, but I think I know better." That's rejection of God, not mere nonbelief. Hell is not God saying, "I've decided that by this arbitrary rule I'm going to hate you and do mean things to you." Hell is God saying, "If you really are so determined to make your own decisions and live your life without me, then by all means, I don't want to force you."
Now, I say this knowing that nonbelief does not cause suffering in life, because I am an atheist, and I am a very happy person.
Whoever the original author of this piece is (is it Bob Smith? I thought his site was great (but not for the easily offended, I personally loved the very cool dressup games and "sticker attack" video), but can't find the article there and don't have audio right now), I wonder how he can be happy while people are being tortured? That's just me being a smartass...
I also know that belief, in life, does not prevent suffering (or the cause of suffering.)
Right. A very important point. Don't let anyone tell you that the purpose of Christianity is to reduce your suffering in the current life. While I said before--as many others have--that I think part of its purpose is to goad one to reduce the suffering of others, the main purpose of Christianity is not to make yourself feel better.
Therefore, the suffering must come after death (if you can figure that one out).
It's simple. The idea (which is not unique to the Christian world-view by any means) is that death is just a passing from this stage of life into another. The nature of the suffering that may come is, I think, pretty well explained above in my desert metaphor.
So that's why you guys had to create the idea of hell. I mean, come on, many people who do not believe in your fantasy are perfectly happy in their own fantasies, or reality. So you had to create this idea that otherworldly Lord-Of-The-Rings-Style imps to inflict. Ta Da! The non-belief itself didn't make me suffer. God had to make it so beings he created hurt me.
Well, if you're talking about the medieval concept of Hell as this fiery cave deep in the earth where red imps with horns and pitchforks giggle while they rip out your intestines, then I'd have to agree. I think that the Church of those days decided that they needed some stronger incentives to convince the pagan masses that there was a good reason to convert, so they made up these ideas and sold them to the general public. It's unfortunate that we haven't grown out of that concept, because not only does the Bible give virtually no support for that picture of Hell, but as far as I know, the Catholic Church is no longer promoting it either (if indeed they ever were in any official capacity). But that doesn't mean Hell as a more abstract concept does not exist at all.
Now that you think you've justified it, tell me why those who vote for the losing presidential candidate should not be tortured right now.
This cracks me up. I think there are two mistaken concepts at the heart of this. First of all, there is the concept that God is torturing people because He's some sort of "bad winner". Imagine Jesus sitting in a throne up in the sky, thinking, "Oh, ME! I can't believe what I'm seeing! As soon as I finish kicking the butt of Satan at the battle of Armageddon, I'm going to turn right around and kick the butt of everybody who didn't like me best of all; that'll show 'em who's boss!" Once again, God loves people, and only wants to have what's best for them. But He also respects their personal choices, and if they choose being separated from Him, then He allows them to be. If you think that's not a problem at all, then I guess you have no reason to become a Christian, do you?

The second assumption, the one that's a little more subtle, is that the suggestion given is not already a reality on some level. Behold: the tortures of the damned! All around, ever since the disaster that was the 2000 election, I've seen people with bumper stickers and t-shirts claiming "Bush is not my President!" Well, if you're a U.S. citizen, then let me say "Sorry" because he is. I didn't vote for him myself, but I don't understand the apologies, the denials, etc. Apparently, many, many of those who did not vote for Bush feel that they ARE being tortured, and that they are being separated from a government that serves their need. (On the latter part, they may be correct.)
Tell me why you shouldn't beat your wife, burn her with cigarettes, throw her down the stairs and humiliate her.
Because that would be mean, cruel and disrespectful. I'm not sure what this has to do with the issue of Hell, though. I see as more like I find out my wife has been cheating on me, so I divorce her and toss her out of the house with nothing. It probably still would be considered mean, but many would understand what I considered my justification.
Tell me why, if a child talks back to you, that you shouldn't lock him in a closet for days and let him sit in his own filth. And then rape him when he comes out.
Because that's not the way you ought to treat a child. Most likely even most parents who spank wouldn't consider that a spanking offense. Punishment may be merited, but certainly not to that degree.
After all, if God saw fit to make that happen, if Jesus made it so, you should do the same thing. Correct? Justify it.
No. God, in that He is a being far above us moreso than even a parent is over a child, has a different set of standards to live by. There are many aspects of God's character that we are to emulate as Christians, but one thing that Jesus does say is "judge not". God is the judge, we are not. The government has the right to put criminals behind bars, we do not. My neighbor has a right to discipline their child in the way they see fit, I do not (although I do with my own children).
I'll be waiting.
Your questions are answered. You may not like my answers, but they are answered. Thank you for the mental stimulation; whether anyone likes my answers or not, I think I learned a few things about my own beliefs in writing them.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The curse of verbosity

I was reading an interview today--the subject is not important--in which somebody said about web content that one of the most important things is regular updates. So, I was reminded of something I already know: I suck at blogging.

Sure, there are no hard and fast rules about what makes for a good blog, but I think we all do know that when you start posting to your personal blog of random ramblings with a frequency of about once a month or so, there aren't too many people who are going to bother to keep track of what you're saying. What the heck is my problem?

I just have to write things the way that feels comfortable for me, and apparently what feels comfortable is something around two pages long. All in all, that's not a bad amount for a quick read on a daily basis, I think. I'd be glad to follow a blog that had that sort of content; heck, I follow mine regularly!

The real problem is that I fell a bit of stress when times get busy for me. I've been dealing with health issues, work issues, family issues, etc. and it's hard to feel like I've got the time to sit down and put together two pages of coherent thought on a daily basis. It's death to blogging.

In any case, I'm not sure why I'm writing this other than to complain/apologize to any readers who happen through here wondering if I'm ever going to update. Yeah, I got some material in the works, and I'm sure I'll get it up one of these days.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Don't fear the reaper

"If I were an atheist, I don't know why I wouldn't just kill myself," the speaker declared. People in the crowd shouted back incredulous responses, and the tone of the whole open-air discussion made a poor turn. It was years back when I was in college, and the speaker was a professional evangelist/apologeticist who at the time had a great deal to do with myself eventually becoming a Christian, despite a number of things he said that day that were offensive to many in the crowd, even myself.

The thing is, though, that particular statement did not offend me. In a way, it was something that I had contemplated myself at times. The odd thing about so many religions (and I'm including atheism under that umbrella for the sake of this discussion, whether proper to do so or not) is that from a certain perspective, it seems like suicide is the ultimate logical expression of faith. Nonetheless, as a subject that is sort of a subset of the ideas in my previous post on , it is interesting that people of just about all religions are, contrary to this, far from likely to commit suicide.

While far from the first time the concept was presented to me, the example from Buddhism may be the best. See, the central idea behind Buddhism (of the standard non-Tibetan variety) is actually a very atheistic one. An enlightened Buddhist will come to realize that God does not exist, material possessions are not important, and in fact, their own sense of self is essentially an illusion. The true goal then, is to realize that this world is nothing but illusory suffering, and to become released from it by denying its existence. The logical question that is often asked by non-Buddhists is, if the goal is to release yourself from the illusory suffering of this imagined material plane of existence, wouldn't the easy thing be to just kill yourself? After all, (non-Tibetan) Buddhists don't believe in reincarnation, so suffering would simply cease, right?

Well, the enlightened person realizes that this is false. If your material and mental self is but an illusion, then aren't you kowtowing to the power of that illusion to solve the problem by material means? Maybe if you could simply cease to live that might be acceptable, but to, say, take an illusory knife and slit your illusory throat? It's not the terminology a Buddhist would use, but that would be admitting defeat. In fact, the true Buddhas that have been enlightened realized that leaving the physical plane was not as great a thing to do as to stay and teach others that have not yet found enlightenment! Oddly enough, although this seems self-sacrificing, I wonder if an enlightened Buddhist would agree, since there is no "self" to sacrifice.

Which hints at the state of affairs for a Christian, both on an individual scale, and on a grander one. If going to Heaven to be with Jesus is the greatest thing a Christian can attain, then why not kill yourself after you give your life to Him? In the Bible, Paul addresses the matter (although the passage is not discussing suicide, but execution):

"For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me." -Philippians 1:21-26
Yes, while it seems a Christian might desire to die, the fact is, we remain because there is still work to be done here on earth, and it wouldn't be right to take the "easy" way out. Some religious leaders have claimed that a suicide cannot go to Heaven, since that would be a type of murder, and one that can't be repented of. I don't think this is true, but one can see a certain arrogance in the idea of claiming to be a follower of Christ and deciding on God's behalf when it's your time to go to Heaven.

And as I said, this is also perhaps a reason for the long delay before the "second coming" of Christ. I've heard many a pastor say that every day Jesus delays His return, many, many more people have a chance to turn to Him and be saved. (It may beg the question that if indeed this is so good, why would Christ ever return? No matter for this discussion.)

A Hindu, or member of some other religion that does believe in reincarnation might also be tempted to leave a life of suffering to re-enter with a blank slate, but most belief systems that include reincarnation don't include the idea of being born with a blank slate, but must reap the rewards of your past life, so ending one life with a selfish and violent act is not likely to put you in a better place.

So, back to the atheist, the one that started the discussion. Why is it that I (and the speaker) say an atheist might desire suicide? Well, the world is full of suffering and strife (a belief common to all the religions mentioned here) and one of the main things we strive for in this life is to escape from this (ditto here). If you truly believe there is nothing, absolutely nothing in store for us after this life, then why not simply go to oblivion? I've always thought, why would an atheist be afraid of dying? Ceasing to exist couldn't possibly hurt, right?

The counter-argument that I think would be the most popular is that since there is no afterlife, then this life is all we have. Why give up everything for nothing? There seems to be some reason in this, certainly, but then, well... Maybe it's a bit of a linguistic problem rather than a real problem, but if you cease to exist, then there is no "you" to have lost any "life". Really, you can't lose your life, can you? You can only stop being you in a very final manner by cutting off your life. You don't cut it off from yourself, but from everyone else, because you're not there after life exists. So is life what you have, or what you are? Either way, is anything really lost to you?

So why do atheists not long for death? Do atheists, like Buddhists, want to keep living to spread the atheistic Gospel to the masses? Or is it merely a biological directive built into us by evolution that tells us to keep existing as long as we can, so that we can keep the chance to propagate our genetic materials in one way or another? Maybe the atheists are the right ones, and it's more straightforward to them. The rest of us need to invent reasons why we want to live, while they simply know that we want to live just because it's human nature.

You know, there's a big part of me that doesn't want to publish this post. It's probably vain conceit on my part, but I fear I may drive some atheist somewhere to kill themselves, which I certainly don't want to do. Most likely, any atheists that read this will either laugh at it, or be somewhat offended, or maybe they'll give me better answers to my questions and make me feel like an idiot (it's not hard to do, and I wish more people would tell me I'm full of it--and why--just so I know people are reading this). But whatever people do in response to this or any other blog, I hope they find a reason to live, whatever it may be.

But also, don't be afraid.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Fudging the cosmic balance sheet

Although I sometimes plan out these posts in advance, I think some of my best posts are the ones I come up with at random on the way to work in the morning. Well that, and an excess of caffeine surely doesn't hurt.

So, I was thinking about one of the most common theodicies there is, at least as far as I have seen them, and something about it struck me as odd. It's often argued that the real problem with balancing out God's goodness with the existence of evil in the world is that it may not be possible (even for a supposedly "omnipotent" deity*) to create a universe that has goodness without also creating evil along with it. Some people have problems with that, perhaps partially due to technicalities inherent within the concept of omnipotence, or perhaps due to simply not accepting this as true. Most people, however, seem to either accept this as true, or suspect that it may possibly be true. I definitely fall into the latter camp.

Well, it's an interesting position to argue from, and while it may have merit from an entirely philosophical point of view, it occurred to me that this is rather more like a deist theodicy than a true Christian theodicy. I fear that it can often be the case for Christians that when one wishes to discuss theology, the larger discussion on an abstract level can lose sight of the more important specifics of the Christian faith. Can a person remain a faithful Christian and argue a theodicy that states as a premise that evil is necessary?

Yes, normally we tend to understand this in terms of free will. If there exist beings (humans particularly) that have the ability to choose freely between actions that may be good or evil, it simply seems to follow that sometimes evil will be chosen. Indeed, that's the premise that Christian understanding of evil rests on: that Original Sin is a sort of disease that spread upon all the face of creation due to an evil choice by a single man. Biblically and doctrinally, that's a given, and a necessary part of our understanding of the nature of evil.

The problem arises when one looks at the Biblical nature of God and the picture of creation as a whole. Sin and evil entered the world by the sin of one man, right? Then does that not suggest that before Adam's sin, the world was entirely without evil? Isn't there a sort of understanding as well that at the end of time, either at Jesus' return or 1,000 years thereafter (depending your eschatological calendar) that God will make all things new and there will be a world without sin, evil and suffering? It may sound nice in practice, but in the scope of our theodicy, there is a problem, isn't there?

If God created the world perfect, why could it not stay perfect? Indeed, if it was perfect, then it is shown that goodness can exist without evil. If it's a matter of free will opening the door for evil, and somehow free will with accompanying evil is a greater good than no evil without free will, then what does that say about the supposedly perfect world that is to come? Does God take away our free will? Even after Original Sin, God is apparently taking away all vestiges of evil. If this is possible, then why wait to do it? Yes, I know there are fairly coherent arguments about God's desire to save as many souls as He can before ending this present phase of existence, but where does that leave our theodicy?

Most likely, I'm missing something that should be obvious. I just don't see it, though, or perhaps I am facing a gross misunderstanding of Biblical eschatology. Anyone want to share thoughts on this?

(* In a thread on the SAB discussion board some time ago (now long-gone), I was discussing the nature of omnipotence, and in the end, decided that the best way to clarify the nature of a reasonable omnipotence was to coin the term "quasiomnipotence". It seemed to many that if God is truly omnipotent, then He would not be limited by logic. I argued that if God is not limited by logic, then truly anything becomes possible, and all discussions of God reduce to nonsense. For instance, God can make Himself not exist, or He can make evil cease to exist while simultaneously allowing it to continue existence, since logic does not constrain Him. Thus, I define a "quasiomnipotent" being as limited, but only by the boundaries of logic. The true nature of "quasiomnipotence" may need much discussion, but it gives a more reasonable starting point.)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The atheist Christian?

Just a quick note to point you to the first of several guest-posts I will be making over at "", an atheism blog on which I have been a fairly regular reader and commentor. I have no idea why they invited me to post, nor why I accepted the invitation, but there it is.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Challenge to atheists: prove God exists

Okay, this is essentially a reprint of the post below, but that one doesn't show up on Technorati right, and someone (Wade, whose new atheist blog is here, so give him some traffic) commented that the challenge was actually worded a little vaguely. To review, I have had many atheists/skeptics claim that if God really wants us to believe in Him, He ought to give "undeniable" proof of His existence. My contention is that there is no such thing as "undeniable proof". My challenge to skeptics who wish to make such an accusation is to come up with a hypothetical example of what such proof would look like. Remember, this is not just proof that you personally find acceptable (there are already about a couple billion people who seem to have that), but proof that nobody could deny. Either of the following would be permissable:

1: Give a hypothetical undeniable proof for the existence of an intelligent being that created the universe with a purpose in mind.

2: Give a hypothetical undeniable proof of the existence of the God of the Bible. Complete adherence to all facts presented in the Bible is not necessary, but the following aspects must be shown: omniscience, "quasiomnipotence" (that is, absolute power over matter, space and time, but not neccesarily over logical foundations of truth), absolute benevolence, and is the inspiration for (if not the actual author of) the Bible. Actually, it need not be the Bible, one could substitue the Quran or some other Holy Book of a major religion that has a fairly well-defined concept of the deity(s) within it.

I once asked an atheist, "If God pushed the sky aside as though it were a curtain, stuck His head down throught the gap and waved, saying, 'Hi, I'm up here!' would you be convinced that God exists?" He pondered and replied, "No, I'd probably think it was an hallucination." I actually admired him for his honesty.