The triumph of heliocentrism over geocentrism marked the beginning of the end of Christianity. Not the end of Christianity as a cultural force or even as a moral force, but the end of Christianity as an intellectually serious way of understanding the world. Its premise is no longer rationally defensible. To claim that the world was created by, and is governed by, a God who loves us is to be in denial. Christianity is disconnected from both cosmological and moral reality, and has been for centuries. This is not to say that it lacks adherents: there are reportedly some 2.4 billion Christians around the world. Like Addie Bundren’s surviving family in As I Lay Dying, they wander through the backcountry, lost and confused, the buzzards circling overhead. They don’t know what to do with the body.
Since the days of Copernicus and Galileo, there have been two major scientific discoveries that Christianity found threatening, and with good reason: far from being at the center of the universe, we are an insignificant dot in the cosmic hinterlands; and far from being specially created beings, separate from the animal kingdom, we are the descendants of primates and, ultimately, of single-celled organisms—one of many products of the never-ending struggle for biological advantage.
The second truth is the one that fundamentalists try so hard to deny, but the first is actually more damaging because it renders implausible the central Christian claim—that God has a deep and abiding love for every human being. If the earth is the center of the universe, a motionless body circled by the heavenly spheres, then it is easy to suppose that God’s attention is focused on us. If, as described in the book of Genesis, we are the apex of Creation, then he must care a great deal about us. But if, instead, we are one infinitesimal part of a galaxy which itself is one among billions—if, far from being center stage, we are just one of innumerable cosmic sideshows—then the notion that he has a special concern for our well-being seems ridiculous: anthropocentrism gone mad.
Geocentrism claimed that the earth was immobile, with the heavenly bodies all revolving around it. It was defended with mathematical and astronomical rigor by Ptolemy, and had the benefit of conforming to our everyday perceptions: it seems clear to us that the earth on which we stand is neither spinning like a top nor speeding through space, just as it seems clear that the sun and moon and stars revolve around us. Over many centuries, however, there were certain kinds of astronomical data that geocentrism had difficulty explaining. So in 1543 Copernicus offered an alternative model. The heliocentric hypothesis—in Greek mythology, Helios was the sun god—argued that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our planetary system. The earth rotated on its axis every 24 hours and revolved around the sun every 365 days. Heliocentrism, however, had its own conceptual difficulties, and for the next seventy years most astronomers rejected it. Then came Galileo’s groundbreaking work on the development of telescopic lenses. The data that they provided, including observations of the phases of Venus, could be explained only under the heliocentric hypothesis.
At this point the Catholic Church, already reeling from Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, stepped in. Regarding the Bible as the inerrant word of God, church leaders cited certain passages from scripture, especially Joshua 10:12-14, where God made the sun stand still in the sky. That meant it was the sun, not the earth, that moved, and to claim otherwise was heretical. Having argued in defense of heliocentrism, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition in Rome. With his age, ill health, declining eyesight, and growing mental distress, he was deeply afraid of being punished, so he renounced and repudiated his former claims. He thereby escaped prison, though he spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest.
The church and the Inquisition had the power to delay the widespread acceptance of heliocentrism, but only marginally. In an era of scientific ferment, neither the words of scripture nor the authority of Rome could stop the tidal wave that was coming. Heliocentrism was the beginning, but only the beginning. The discovery of the laws governing planetary motion, the measurement of interstellar distances, and the demonstration that the sun was just another star—these were followed by the discoveries that there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and that the universe is almost 14 billion years old. Though no one in the seventeenth century could have imagined these latter discoveries, some contemporary observers realized that the cosmic stature of planet Earth was in free fall. Buonamici, a friend and supporter of Galileo, described our abode as a “minuscule terrestrial globe,” while Kepler, even more sharply, said that the earth “is quite despicably small.” Ouch.
The radical reevaluation of the size and age of the universe carried within it, like a seed, the radical reevaluation of our place within that universe. As it became vaster, we became smaller. As it became older, we became younger. Our cosmic significance collapsed like a desiccated pumpkin. With each scientific breakthrough we became less important in the cosmic scheme of things. We became a cipher in space and time. To call humanity a speck would be to overstate our significance. We are a speck of a speck of a speck of a speck. At best.
Placed in the context of the heliocentric theory and the cosmological breakthroughs it spawned, the story of Creation, Revised Factual Version, becomes something like this: the earth, far from being the centerpiece of Creation as suggested in Genesis chapter 1, did not actually come into being until 9.3 billion years after Creation. And if God wanted to make men and women in his image, well, it must not have been high on his cosmic priority list, because that didn’t happen for 13.8 billion years. Genesis says man was created on the sixth day, but in fact we didn’t make an appearance until about the five trillionth day (13.8 billion years x 365 days). The point is not that Genesis is factually incorrect (though of course it is); the point is that Genesis gives us a preeminent place in God’s Creation that we simply didn’t have.
Our spatial position in the Creation is as insignificant as our temporal one. The earth, instead of having a place of cosmic centrality, is one of eight planets orbiting our sun, which is one of at least two hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of at least two hundred billion galaxies in the observable portion of the universe. These are conservative numbers, but even so they suggest a minimum of 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe. To put it another way, we inhabit one of eight planets orbiting one of the universe’s forty sextillion stars.
This is not the cosmos of the ancient Jewish prophets. In the small earth-centered universe they inhabited, God’s devotion to human well-being seemed plausible. But as we moved from a geocentric universe to a heliocentric universe to an expanding universe, that plausibility gradually eroded, worn away over the centuries by wave after wave of cosmological discoveries. The knowledge about the cosmos that we have acquired in the last four hundred years has made Christianity intellectually irrelevant. The notion that the Creator of this incomprehensible vastness is preoccupied with the minutiae of human behaviors and human needs seems absurd. After all, how much attention can the Creator devote to one species on one planet in one solar system when he has forty sextillion such solar systems to oversee? The idea of God watching over each human being with boundless love—guiding us, comforting us, protecting us—is a surviving relic of the earth-centered universe that was debunked and discarded long ago. Christianity is the fossilized remains of a dead cosmology.
The triumph of heliocentrism over geocentrism represented the triumph of the scientific method over appeals to the purported word of God. The patina of divinity could no longer shield the claims of Christianity from rational inquiry. Middle Ages out, Enlightenment in; deference out, skepticism in; scholastics out, scientists in; chalices out, telescopes in. Despite what the books of Genesis and Revelation suggest, we were not around at the beginning of the universe and we will not be around at the end. Perhaps some day the universe will contract and collapse on itself, perhaps not. Either way, it has nothing to do with us. We will be no more important at the end times than we were at the Creation. From the perspective of our planetary home, the end times may come in about a billion years, when overheating caused by chemical changes in the sun will make the earth uninhabitable. In any case, the notion that judgments of human wickedness and righteousness have anything at all to do with the end of the cosmos or the end of time betrays an inflated sense of human importance that is utterly divorced from reality. We are ciphers in the cosmic scheme, and if some day there is a climactic cosmic event, it will have nothing to do with apocalyptic visions generated by mystical prophets on this puny planet. The inconceivable scale of the cosmos has exposed our delusions of grandeur for what they are—delusions. Genesis notwithstanding, we know now that no Creator was so fixated on human affairs as to grant us a place of cosmic centrality. Instead we are denizens of the cosmic backwaters, as insignificant as a colony of microbes clinging to a spinning grain of sand.
The Word of God
Although Galileo was the fulcrum in the erosion of the Christian worldview, he himself was a Christian. He was a devout Catholic in a Catholic country. He believed in God and in the Bible. “Holy Scripture can never lie or err,” Galileo wrote, because it is “the dictation of the Holy Spirit.” Cardinal Bellarmine, a contemporary of Galileo and the leading theologian of his day, agreed. Like Galileo, he studied the heliocentric hypothesis, but he was troubled by its possible deleterious impact on the faith. But on the divine authorship of the Bible there was no tension at all between Galileo and Bellarmine. The words of scripture, Bellarmine wrote, were “said by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of the prophets and the apostles.” Scripture, he declared, “was written as dictated by God”; the sacred writers “wrote the words of God himself.”
The idea that scripture was dictated by God finds powerful visual expression in Rembrandt’s painting St. Matthew and the Angel (1661). In the painting Matthew is composing a manuscript—presumably the Gospel that is attributed to him. He is holding a pen while resting his hand on the paper. He has stopped writing for the moment as he listens intently to an angel standing behind him. The angel has long, thick hair and the look of a delicate boy; he apparently was modeled after Rembrandt’s son Titus. The angel is resting his hand on Matthew’s shoulder; his mouth is inches from Matthew’s ear. The angel is, almost literally, breathing God’s words into Matthew—the same words, presumably, that we read in our Bibles today. This is what divine dictation looks like; this is what it means to say that the Bible is the word of God. Rembrandt was himself a devoted Christian, and his painting gives comfort and confirmation to Christianity. It shows how Galileo and Bellarmine, a half century earlier, might have imagined the act of divine inspiration. The painting reflects the traditional understanding of how Holy Scripture came into being: penned by human hands but authored by God.
Modern church-based formulations reiterate this idea. There’s this, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997): “God is the author of Sacred Scripture…. [The church] ‘accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author.’” And this: “God inspired the human authors of the sacred books…. ‘they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more’” (paragraphs 105 and 106, which themselves quote Dei Verbum [God’s Word], issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965). From a very different segment of modern Christianity, here are statements adopted by evangelical leaders at the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy: “all Scripture is authenticated to us as the permanently authoritative Word of God…. all Scripture is ultimately the product of a single mind, that of God the Holy Spirit” (The Chicago Statement on Biblical Application, 1986). And this: “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration” (The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978).
The foundation of Christianity is the claim that the Bible is the word of God. Take that away and the Bible is just another book. Or an anthology, to be more precise, since it is a collection of works written by many people over many centuries. If it were being published today for the first time, it would probably not be called the Holy Bible; likelier titles would be An Anthology of Ancient Jewish Prophets or A Treasury of Old Hebrew Writers or The Best of the Israelite Scribblers. The question is whether the prophets and apostles who wrote it were channeling God. Is the Bible the word of God or the words of men? If the latter, then readers can challenge it just like any other book—approving of one section while criticizing another, judging this verse true and that verse false. But if it is the word of God, it has a completely different status from all other books—its authority unimpeachable, its assertions unquestionable. Alone among books it would be holy. Its divine authorship would make it as perfect and as inerrant as its source. If the Bible is the word of God, then its teachings are his teachings, its narratives his narratives, and its promises his promises.
There’s one thing I’ve noticed about everyone who claims that the Bible is the word of God: they’re all people. Men and women who, like all of us, have at best a tenuous hold on truth. Some of them seem to me pretty smart, others maybe not so much, but they all operate under our common human burdens of limited information and fallible judgment. From Augustine and Aquinas through Galileo and Bellarmine to the preachers and evangelists of today, those who say that the Bible is the word of God are all human. Because of that, their claim is an appropriate object of skepticism and scrutiny. Now if God were to tell me that the Bible is his word, that would be different. Then I’d shut up. (Though not immediately. I’d want to ask him which version and which translation. Plus I’d have some questions of interpretation.) But until I get that divine declaration, and am able to definitively confirm its divine origin, I cannot accept that claim uncritically. Show me the evidence. What reason is there to believe that the Bible is the word of God? I know some people say that, but why should I believe them?
The actual process by which the Bible came into being was much messier, and much more protracted, than Rembrandt’s painting of Matthew would suggest. If the Bible is the word of God, then what stands between us and him is not a solitary angel but legions of anonymous, faceless middlemen. Those who purportedly first heard the voice of God, for one. Infused with the Holy Spirit, they took his words and made them ours. They fashioned tales and teachings, said them aloud, passed them on to others. Then their listeners—well, who knows what they did with them. Perhaps they passed them on to others, the words unchanged; but human memory being what it is, they probably bungled things a bit, altering the words without realizing it. Or maybe these listener-transmitters embellished what they heard, changing this and adding that, omitting what they didn’t like. Perhaps they themselves were infused with the Spirit, perhaps they too heard the divine voice and repeated what they heard. Or perhaps not. In any case, the oral tradition took hold, the process of transmission and transmutation, with the reworking of the tales and teachings going on for generations. Was some of it divinely inspired, all of it, none of it? Who knows? Nothing is transparent, all is opaque—the process is as clear as pitch. At this point, the words existed only in the memories of the speakers and listeners.
Then someone, in most cases unknown to us, took sheets made from papyrus and pens made from reeds and wrote these tales and teachings down. Working from an oral repository that included narratives, poems, and rules of conduct, the writer would cobble them together, weaving these disparate oral strands into one fabric. He too was inspired by the Spirit, we hope; he too heard the voice of God, we hope, but more clearly and more fully than his predecessors. He added what he was inspired to add, omitted what he was inspired to omit, and altered what he was inspired to alter. Another writer, in another community, did likewise. And another and another. In most cases we know little about the individual writers. More than we do about their spiritual forefathers, the creators and transmitters of the oral tradition, but little nonetheless.
After that, editors—scholars call them redactors—took control of the manuscripts. In a few cases (some of the letters attributed to Paul, for example) a work may have been written by one man alone and transmitted to us essentially unedited. That was not typically the case, however. Just as the first writers of scripture consolidated disparate oral strands into one written version, so the first editors of scripture consolidated disparate written strands into one edited version. Presented with a number of different, but related, manuscripts, they pieced these together as well as they could, their editorial decisions always guided, we hope, by divine inspiration. Sometimes they encountered multiple versions of the same story. They might accept one, making editorial changes and additions as the Spirit moved them, while rejecting alternate versions; or they might accept two versions and present them sequentially, as in Genesis chapters 1 and 2; or, as in the account of the Flood, they might take two or more versions and weave them into one narrative, taking some sentences from one, some sentences from another. After possible revisions by subsequent editors, the result would be what we now consider one of the books of the Bible.
Finally, there were the men, again mostly anonymous, who over the centuries decided which books constituted the biblical canon—i.e., these were the books that were really inspired by God. The book of Job in, the book of Enoch out. The Gospel of Mark in, the Gospel of Thomas out. These men separated what was truly the word of God from what merely purported to be. God didn’t say this; God said that. We hope they got it right. Unlike Jesus himself, his followers display boundless faith in the inerrancy of religious authorities. Christians trust that in selecting the books for the Bible, the religious officials of the distant past—the bureaucrats and power brokers of their day—were directed by the Holy Spirit. This belief, however, is made more problematical by the fact that different religious communities disagreed about which books (or portions of books) were canonical. There were competing canons among different religious communities in biblical times, as there are competing canons among different churches today.
So even if there was an element of divine inspiration in the Bible—itself an unprovable claim—there were still innumerable intermediaries between God and the reader. Those who claim that the Bible is the word of God are asking us to believe that of the thousands of mostly anonymous men who over many centuries played a role in cobbling this anthology together, all were infused with, and directed by, the Holy Spirit: the tellers of tales truly heard the voice of God, the writers truly recorded his words, the editors assembled each book precisely as God intended, and the compilers of the canon selected those books, and only those books, that God designated. To regard the Bible as the record of God’s words is to claim that together, countless men, most of them unknown to us, perfectly captured and unerringly conveyed the thoughts and intentions of God.
What reason do I have for accepting this extravagant, grandiose claim? What reason do I have for believing that these oral storytellers, writers, editors, and compilers were the mouthpiece of God? None. I have no reason at all. About most of them we know nothing. Based on the unsupported claim that they are our conduits to God, Christianity asks us to entrust our lives to their words. Some of these ancient men may indeed have been the sages of their time, but to gorge ourselves on their pronouncements, to cite them chapter and verse as though they were the Deity himself, and to blindly accept them as the guideposts of our lives would be to abandon both our capacity for critical thought and our moral obligation to use it.
Memo to Those Who Believe That the Bible Is the Word of God
Christianity claims that the Bible is the word of God. I have been arguing that the process by which the Bible came to be suggests that this claim is both unsupported and implausible. Yet you, like many people, believe it. So I’d like you to try something. Choose any book in the Bible you want, then any chapter from that book, then any verse from that chapter. Here’s the question I’d like you to ask yourself: how do you know that even this one verse, this tiny portion of the Bible, was in fact authored by God—that he directed every step of its historical evolution, so that in its final form it now says exactly what he intended it to say all along? How did you make that determination? What verification process did you go through? What evidence can you provide?
Obviously, ascertaining God’s intentionality with respect to this verse will be a significant challenge. I can’t offer you any guidance on that, however, because I wouldn’t know how to do it myself. But of course, I’m not the one making the claim. It is the responsibility of those who say that this verse is the word of God to substantiate their claim. With every other text that you and I have ever seen—everything from a handwritten note to a published book, from an ancient manuscript to an online article—you and I have presumed that the words and ideas contained therein were produced by human minds. Indeed, this presumption seems so indisputable to us, so obvious, that it goes without saying. But with respect to one text, or one set of texts, the Bible, you are claiming that this is not the case—that although written by human hands and printed by human devices, its words and ideas were produced not by human minds but by the Divine Mind. Since you are the one making this extraordinary claim of singularity, the burden of proof is on you. For the verse you have chosen, you must show that there is good reason to believe that its words and ideas came not from human minds but from the mind of God. Even if you do this, that will be only the tiniest beginning of your labors, because in order to substantiate your assertion that the entire Bible is the word of God, you must undergo the same process of verification for each of its thirty-thousand-plus verses.
I’m going to assume that this is not something you can do. But if you are unable to verify the divine origin of these verses, then why do you believe that the Bible is the word of God? One reason might be that there are particular passages in the Bible—stories or teachings or prophecies—that especially resonate with you, that you really want to regard as ultimate, transcendent truths. In addition, the belief that the Bible is the word of God may serve for you as a psychological anchor—a rock-solid certainty you can always count on, a source of stability in the face of all of life’s doubts and confusions. Beyond that, however, the way that this belief has been transmitted from generation to generation suggests to me a broader, more widely applicable explanation: you believe that the Bible is the word of God because that’s what some people that you trusted told you. Parents, perhaps, or friends, teachers, church leaders, writers, whoever. And why did they believe it? Because that’s what some people that they trusted told them.
The Bible as we know it today was gradually assembled in the first few centuries after Jesus. Who first claimed that this particular compilation of texts was the word of God, and on what basis, and to what end—all this is buried in the deep and impenetrable past. At some point, though, the process of transmission began. People who had no way of verifying the claim that the Bible is the word of God nevertheless passed this claim on to other people who had no way of verifying it, who passed it on to other people who had no way of verifying it, and so on, ad infinitum. Eventually some people passed it on to you, and in all likelihood you too will pass it along, still unverified, to others. Everyone in the chain believes it, though no one in the chain has reason to believe it, other than the say-so of a trusted predecessor.
There is another component to what might be termed the social basis—as opposed to the evidentiary basis—of your belief. The reinforcing power of a community of believers is vitally important to Christianity, as it is to all organized religions. For you that community might be a particular church, or more broadly, a specific denomination, or even the worldwide community of Christians. Whatever Christian communities you find yourself drawn to, you don’t want to lose the sense of belonging and the spiritual sustenance they give you. Your original desire to become a member of such a community, and later, your desire to remain a member, required that you endorse, at least tacitly, a core set of beliefs. In almost all Christian communities, this includes a belief in the divine origins of the Holy Bible. To put it another way, at least part of the reason you believe that the Bible is the word of God is that there is a particular community you want to belong to, and this community presupposes that belief as a condition of membership.
You might respond that you accept this belief on faith, but faith in whom? Unless you received direct revelation from God, informing you that he authored each of the thirty-thousand-plus verses in the Bible, then faith in God has nothing to do with it. What you call faith is a euphemism for your uncritical acceptance of an unverifiable claim. By choosing not to exercise your critical faculties with respect to this claim, you have allowed many of the things that define you as a person—the values you adopt, the choices you make, the future you envision, and your understanding of our place in the universe—to be dictated by people who knew much less about the world than we know now. You say you’ve turned your life over to God, when in fact you’ve turned it over to the faceless men who created the Bible and the faceless men who asserted its divinity.
God Said What?
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose for the moment that I’m wrong about this and that the Bible is indeed the word of God. If that’s true, then nowhere do his words shine through more clearly than in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. These books consist of laws that God handed down to Moses, who in turn proclaimed them to the people of Israel (Lev 1:1-2 & 21:1; Deut 1:3 & 30:8). They offer insights into God’s character by revealing some of his values, concerns, and attitudes.
Behold the words of God:
“If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deut 25:11-12). [All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.]
Comment: This is a God who covers all the possibilities. Perhaps 300,000 years passed from the dawn of Homo sapiens to the issuance of this decree, and obviously God used that time well, preparing a legal code that would address all conceivable eventualities. And while I’m all for protecting male genitalia, I can’t help but admire the wife’s moxie, and I wish that God, in his wisdom, had gone a little easier on her. Then again, his moral judgments are unerring, mine are not.
If a soldier “becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission,” he must leave the camp, wash himself, and not return until after the next sunset (Deut 23:10-11).
Comment: Apparently no potential scenario is too insignificant to merit the Creator’s attention. Unfortunately, he doesn’t say how this impropriety should be detected. Is it based on the honor system, with each man self-reporting when he has some inadvertent squirting? Or should the authorities conduct surprise bed checks in the middle of the night, with some lowly soldier assigned the thankless task of checking the inside of everyone’s underpants for sticky residue? God doesn’t tell us. Perhaps he decided that discussing such details would not be in keeping with divine dignity. In any case, we should praise him for bringing the problem to our attention and instructing us on the appropriate consequences.
If a newly married couple consummates their marriage, and afterward the man claims he did not find evidence of his bride’s virginity, then the cloth on which they lay will be taken to the elders of the town. If the cloth is not bloodstained, that will be considered evidence that she was not a virgin. “Then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death” (Deut 22:13-21).
Comment: We should not imagine for a moment that the process described here was designed by cruel, patriarchal, or misogynistic men. On the contrary, it was decreed by God himself. However appalling the process may seem to you initially, remember that between you and God, only one of you is morally perfect and infinitely wise.
You may acquire male and female slaves from the nations around you and from the aliens residing with you. “You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property” (Lev 25:44-46). In the book of Exodus, God handed down this decree to Moses: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property” (Ex 21:20-21).
Comment: Keep in mind that these endorsements of slavery did not spring from the biases or interests of the Israelite leaders or property owners of the time. If that were the case, then we could dismiss them as nothing more than a reflection of outdated cultural norms. But these verses were not authored by Israelite leaders or property owners or writers; they were authored by God. They are the edicts of a perfectly just and infinitely loving Creator.
With respect to the altar in God’s sanctuary, no priest “who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles…. he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries” (Lev 21:17-23).
Comment: Clearly, God did not want any blind hunchbacks with crushed testicles profaning his altar. Some people would say that a rule like this was the product of less enlightened times, that today we are more tolerant and more inclusive. But this rule was not the product of the times, it was the product of God, the eternal being whose goodness knows no limits.
The book of Deuteronomy describes what will happen if the nation of Israel “will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees.” In that case, “the Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought…they shall pursue you until you perish.” The Lord will also “afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind.” But there’s more, much more: pestilence, locusts, enslavement, thirst, nakedness, failing eyes, a trembling heart, and a sense of dread that never leaves you. You will be besieged by the enemy, and in your desperation “you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters.” Mothers will secretly eat “even the afterbirth that comes out from between [their] thighs.” And how does the Lord feel about these events? “Just as the Lord took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction” (Deut 28:15-68).
Comment: Indeed, the Lord’s delight is almost palpable. He seems to be reveling in the specificity and the sheer breadth of the agonies he will inflict. Fortunately, we need have no qualms about the appropriateness of the punishments, not even a moment’s unease, for these are the decrees of an infinitely merciful God.
The Bible is positively bursting with passages like these—passages that, to my mind, fall somewhere along the spectrum between head-scratching and jaw-dropping. My incredulity is based partly on the words themselves, partly on the realization that many people regard them as the word of God.
Oh, the things that God thinks about! The things that concern him! You might suppose that having created forty sextillion solar systems and having watched their remarkable evolution over fourteen billion years, God would think only about great and cosmic matters. On the contrary, this is a God who gets down in the weeds, who lays down the law at the micro level. You think he doesn’t worry about aggressive women squeezing the testicles of vulnerable men? Wrong! You think he couldn’t care less about our nocturnal emissions? Dead wrong! You think he doesn’t care about the proper way to test brides for virginal vaginal bleeding? Wrong again! If you suppose that the Creator of this immense and spectacular cosmos would not concern himself with the minutiae of human affairs, try slogging through the dietary laws he laid down in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In addition to his other fine qualities—his grandeur, his power, his righteousness—God’s attention to detail is a wonder to behold.
Even with the demise of the geocentric model, Christians and Jews continue to assume that God is fixated on human beings—our conduct, our transgressions, and our destiny. They believe that out of the billions of galaxies he created, God focused his attention on one (ours, the Milky Way), then on one of the billions of solar systems in that galaxy (ours again, revolving around the sun), then on one planet in that solar system (ours, the planet Earth), and then on one species inhabiting that planet (ours, Homo sapiens). Finally, God gave special attention to the people of Israel, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; it is you the Lord has chosen out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut 14:2). He wanted their behavior to be governed by the code of conduct that he himself devised, and he made sure that this code did not overlook the trials and tribulations of manhood. Perhaps he noticed that men’s testicular health had long suffered at the hands of overly zealous wives coming to the aid of their hapless husbands in an overly forceful way. God must have decided that only a stern decree from him could stem the horrific tide of female-inflicted emasculations. So Moses, acting on instructions from God, spoke to the Israelites about this and many other matters. When Moses announced this divine decree for the first time, you can almost see the men in the audience nudging each other and nodding their heads in approval. It’s about time God spoke up for us, they must have been thinking.
One thing that is noteworthy about decrees like these is that their purported author, God, is incorporeal. This is an attribute I will discuss in greater detail later on, but for now what matters is that the God of Judaism and Christianity has no body, no sex, no genitals. So we might wonder why he is so attuned to issues of male genitalia.
The mystery disappears, however, if we postulate that these decrees did not come from God at all. Ask yourself who was most likely to care about the problems they addressed. Who do you really think was worried about nighttime ejaculations sapping a soldier’s fighting spirit? Who do you really think was worried about a groom’s manhood being mocked by a previous visitor to his bride’s nether regions? Who do you really think was worried about a man’s crown jewels being in the painful grip of a strong-handed woman? To put it another way, who do you think was the likelier source of these decrees—a bodiless, asexual being who has forty sextillion solar systems to oversee, or a bunch of men who were worried about assorted threats to their masculine self-image? Which attribution of authorship seems more credible to you?
To me the answer is obvious: the Creator of the cosmos would not regard squeezed testicles, nocturnal emissions, and bridal virginity as burning issues that required divine input. Thou shalt not murder? Yeah, he might say that. Thou shalt not ejaculate while sleeping? I don’t think so. Men, on the other hand, would love to legislate on such matters, especially if they could throw in some draconian punishments. To compel compliance, however, human decrees might not be enough; they might need the imprimatur of divinity. By claiming that their decrees were not the words of men but the words of God, the men who devised these decrees could endow them with an authoritative force they otherwise would have lacked. If you can convince people that your words are actually God’s words, deference and obedience are more likely to follow.
The other three selections given at the beginning of this section raise a different question: if these are indeed the word of God, what do they say about his moral stature? Think about what God purportedly said in these passages, as opposed to what he could have said. With respect to the enslavement of foreigners and resident aliens, God could have said this: “Today I issue a commandment to you. All the slaves that you have, you must release. I made all human beings in my image. For you to force any person into bondage shows contempt for him and contempt for me.” Instead God said this: “When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.” With respect to who can approach his altar, God could have said this: “I do not judge a man on his ailments, I judge him on his righteousness. Any priest whose heart is good is welcome at my altar, regardless of his infirmities.” Instead he said this: a priest who is blind or lame or has a mutilated face “shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries.” With respect to the consequences if the people of Israel do not observe all of God’s commandments and decrees, God could have said this: “If you violate the covenant I made with you, you will not keep the land I gave you in expectation of your obedience.” Instead he said this: you will not keep this land, and I “will afflict you with” consumption, fever, inflammation, fiery heat and drought, boils, ulcers, scurvy, madness, blindness, pestilence, enslavement, and cannibalism.
The next time you look at a Bible, imagine this is what you see: that in the margins, God has initialed each of its thirty-thousand-plus verses. “I approved this verse”—that’s what his initialing tells you. When Christianity claims that the Bible is the word of God, it’s saying the same thing: that all these verses, all these decrees, were approved by God. Yet Christianity also claims that God is a morally perfect being and the source of the moral law. But whoever issued the decrees regarding the enslavement of foreigners, the infirmities of priests, and the torments that will be inflicted on the people of Israel is neither just nor compassionate nor merciful. I don’t know any Christian who would claim that these are the words and sentiments of a morally perfect being, or that we should look to them for moral guidance. That leaves two possibilities: either Christianity is wrong and God is not morally perfect, or Christianity is wrong and the Bible is not the word of God. Either these are his words and they show that God has significant moral deficiencies, or they are not his words and the Bible is just another book written by flawed human beings.
If pressed on the point, I think most Christians would opt for a variation of the latter: God is perfect but the Bible isn’t. Most verses in the Bible were indeed inspired by God, they might say, but in some instances human writers or editors with their own agendas, their own cultural biases, and their own moral shortcomings substituted their words and sentiments for God’s. That position, however, draws Christians into the quicksand of scriptural selectivity. By what clear and consistent criteria can we distinguish between passages that were authored by God and those that were not? How can we distinguish between verses that were truly inspired and those that only purport to be? Should each Christian simply select the verses that accord with her own beliefs, designate these as the inspired ones, and dismiss the rest as the product not of God but of imperfect and often shortsighted human beings? In actuality, I think that is what most Christians probably do most of the time. The Bible then becomes a sort of theological buffet, with each diner having her own opinions on which dishes were prepared by the Divine Chef and which were prepared by human imposters.
How much better it would be if Christians dropped the whole charade and treated the Bible for what it is: an ancient, voluminous anthology created by people, probably almost entirely men, mostly Jewish, but with other Near Eastern and Mediterranean influences as well, with some really fine parts and some not-so-fine parts, the quality varying greatly from book to book, sometimes chapter to chapter, just as you would expect with an anthology that had many human authors and no divine ones, and that for this reason contains a number of historical errors and ideological inconsistencies, the wide variations in attitudes and ethics and theology being exactly what you would anticipate when literally thousands of men, including the oral storytellers who started it all, made their own contributions to this theological-historical-literary buffet over a period of more than a thousand years, each of them reciting or writing or editing in the context of his own time and place, each of them shaped by his culture and his historical circumstances, generating a multiplicity of viewpoints that demand extreme dialectical contortions from anyone who is determined to maintain the fiction that it all fits together perfectly because it all emanates from its one true source, God, when in fact the end product is nothing like what it would be if each verse had been authored by an omniscient and morally perfect being.
Readers, all readers, should bring to the Bible the same critical eye that we would bring to any other compilation of texts, celebrating what we think should be celebrated, criticizing what we think should be criticized, but above all dropping the imprimatur of divinity and evaluating the book on its merits. We should ask of the Bible the same sort of questions we ask of other religious texts. How does it see our place in the world? What emotional or theological or characterological insights does it offer? How do we understand and evaluate its moral teachings? Where is it supported by known facts, and where does it deviate from them? But if, instead of approaching the Bible with a genuine spirit of inquiry, you read it with your conclusion already fixed and unshakable—before me is the truth, absolute and indisputable—then you are barricading yourself in a bunker of dogmatism, closing yourself off to counterarguments and facts you don’t want to hear, and reading every verse through the filter of its purported divinity. Instead of being open to the text that is actually before you, you will be twisting and distorting it in a thousand ways in order to uphold the unsupported claim on which you have staked your life and your identity.
Why God Doesn’t Care about Us
Christianity asserts that the Creator is eternal and incorporeal. Eternal in this context means he always has been and always will be; he was not created and he cannot die. Incorporeal means he has no body; he is immaterial; he is not made up of molecules and atoms and particles. As Jesus said, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Or in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “God is not a body… It is impossible that matter should exist in God” (Summa Theologica, I, Q.3, Art. 1-2).
There are some common-sense reasons to think that a Creator would have to be immaterial. For one thing, as the creator of matter, he cannot himself be made of matter; otherwise its existence would have preceded his own. Also, a corporeal being, no matter how powerful, would have so many points of vulnerability that he would almost certainly be mortal. Given the right environmental forces or environmental deprivations, any physical object or biological organism can be destroyed. Finally, it’s hard to imagine that a material being—who himself necessarily occupies only a limited amount of space—could summon and control the immense forces that would be needed to create the universe from nothing.[Note: Christianity regards God as having no body. God therefore has no reproductive organs, and in that sense is neither male nor female, neither he nor she. But because the Christian God is a person, not a thing, using the pronoun it when referring to God would be even more misleading. I have instead opted for what I think is the best of an imperfect set of choices, and will refer to God as he, in keeping with the pronoun that Christianity itself uses in reference to its God.]
For the sake of argument, let’s accept these claims of Christianity. Let’s assume, in other words, that the universe was created by a personal God, and that he is eternal and incorporeal. If these premises are true, however, I think they imply a God who is both oblivious to human and animal suffering, and is amoral.
Incorporeality certainly has its benefits—an incorporeal being can never be sick or hungry or injured—but it also imposes significant experiential limitations. There are vast realms of feeling and doing that are open to a human being but closed to a bodiless being. The God of Christianity will never know the beauty of a sunset or the sights and sounds and smells of the ocean or the look and feel of wood or stone. These experiences are rooted in sensations; eliminate the sensations and you eliminate the experiences. An incorporeal God lacks the sensory infrastructure that makes sentient beings sentient: he has no pain receptors in the skin, no pleasure centers in the brain. This means there is much about humans and animals that God simply cannot fathom. All the pleasures, pains, feelings, and emotions that derive from our physiology—and are there any that don’t?—are inaccessible to God. He can’t understand what he is incapable of experiencing.
The limitations of an eternal, incorporeal being also extend to the moral realm, as explained in the following set of claims. In this discussion, pain refers to physical pain, especially in its more extreme forms, where our health and even our life may be in danger. But it is worth noting that even what we call mental or emotional pain—like anxiety, depression, or grief—is also inextricably bound to our physiology. Strong physical sensations are at the heart of how we experience these emotions, so it’s not clear that an incorporeal being could feel these kinds of pains either.
Claim #1: God (here meaning the eternal, incorporeal Creator described above) has never felt, and indeed cannot feel, physical pain. This follows from the definition of incorporeal. And because he is not susceptible to either pain or death, he cannot fear them. This claim is consistent with the traditional Christian doctrine that God by his very nature is impassible—which, among other things, means he is incapable of suffering or of experiencing pain.
Claim #2: Sentient creatures (i.e., animals and people) frequently feel physical pain. This can range from mild to severe, and includes experiences like hunger, thirst, heat, cold, soreness, injury, sickness, etc. Further, we are afraid of experiences like these because we know both how painful they can be and how much they can harm us. In the case of humans, we also know what it means to die, and are afraid of this as well.
Claim #3: God cannot empathize with sentient creatures in their feelings of pain and fear. Empathy means the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. It means we can imagine how she feels, having had similar or analogous experiences ourselves. When we empathize with a person or an animal in distress, we imagine ourselves in her position; we imagine the pain and fear she must be feeling. But God, having never experienced such feelings, cannot imagine them in others. We have been there; he has not. When we see the suffering of others, we wince. But God cannot wince.
Claim #4: God is indifferent to the suffering of his creatures. It is because we know how pain and fear feel in us, and can imagine how they feel in others, that we recognize them as evils, and try to protect ourselves and others from them. But a Creator who knows nothing of pain and fear would have no reason to protect us from them. Because he has never had such feelings himself, he cannot discern them in others; and what he cannot discern, he is necessarily indifferent to. A Creator who has never felt pain would see no difference between driving a nail into a board and driving it into a man’s hand. In a forest fire, the screams of an animal being burned alive would matter no more to him than the crackling of dead twigs. They’re both just sound waves to him.
Claim #5: God is amoral. If God hated to see us in distress, and wanted to protect us from suffering, we would describe him as morally good. If he wanted to hurt us and took pleasure in our suffering, we would describe him as evil or immoral. But God is neither of these. Suffering does not even register with him; it is a subjective state of which he knows nothing. He cannot be blamed for allowing his creatures to suffer because he does not know that they suffer. A God who has no awareness of suffering is necessarily amoral.
If an eternal and incorporeal Creator does in fact exist, he lives in a bubble of invulnerability, a pain-free zone where harms and dangers are unknown. But it is only outside this bubble, among vulnerable beings, that empathy and caring can arise.
A Taxonomy of Arguments
The above argument is deductive, and claims that a God who is eternal and incorporeal is necessarily indifferent to human and animal suffering. The cosmological argument given earlier, on the other hand, is inductive; it is empirical in nature, and draws inferences from the facts of the universe. A more familiar inductive argument is rooted in ethics. Just look around you, this argument goes: from the killing of a terrified young gazelle by jackals, to the fatal abuse of a scared, lonely child, to the horrors of the Holocaust—no loving God, no God who cared about us, would allow this kind of suffering to go on.
These arguments against the existence of a loving God can can be characterized by content and type: 1) Ethical, inductive—see my essay, “The Myth of a Loving God.” 2) Cosmological, inductive—in “Heliocentrism Killed Christianity.” 3) Theological, deductive—in “Why God Doesn’t Care about Us.”
A God’s-Eye View of a Child’s Death
Earlier I offered some reasons for believing that if there is a Creator, he is immaterial. However, the assertion of divine immateriality has problems of its own. Two claims are relevant here: 1) Christianity claims that an immaterial being created the material universe. 2) Christianity also claims that since the Creation, this immaterial being has been aware, at every moment, of every event that is occurring in this inconceivably vast universe. These two claims regarding purported interactions between the material and the immaterial generate what might be termed how-is-this-possible questions. How could an immaterial being create matter? How could an immaterial being then control this matter in the ways that would be required in order to produce the universe he intended? Finally, how could an immaterial being then observe the events of the material universe with no sensory means of doing so (eyes, for example)? As I suggested earlier, an immaterial being cannot observe or see or watch anything, in the most literal senses of those words. For an immaterial being to somehow discern or apprehend or be aware of the objects and events in a material universe, he must do so in some mysterious, non-visual, non-sensory way. However, for the sake of argument I am going to assume that these two Christian claims are true, because I want to focus on a different question. Supposing that an immaterial Creator could somehow observe or discern the objects and events of the universe, how would he understand these objects and events? Specifically, how would he understand human beings?
If the universe had a Creator, then everything that exists in the universe today is an indirect product of his act of Creation. More precisely, it is a product of what we call the laws of physics and chemistry, laws that were set in motion at the Creation. In that context, a biological organism—anything from a bacterium to a flower to a bird to a human being—is just a particular kind of complex physicochemical entity, one that is capable of growth and development and reproduction. A biological organism is a functional whole that repeatedly carries out multiple physicochemical processes that together perpetuate its existence as a functional whole. From that vantage point, a God’s-eye view of a child might look something like this:
“An immature human is a biological organism, as is a bacterium. Like a bacterium, a human can perform certain functions if it is in a certain kind of environment, is not subjected to certain environmental intrusions, and receives certain nutrients from the environment. If these conditions are not met, it will cease functioning as a biological whole. The functions performed by a human are more complex than the functions performed by a bacterium. Functions of a bacterium include movement and metabolism. Additional functions of a human include brain activity and blood circulation. Every day on the planet Earth, some bacteria commence biological functioning, while other bacteria cease biological functioning. Also every day on the planet Earth, some immature humans commence biological functioning, while other immature humans cease biological functioning.”
Moving from the general to the specific, consider the case of a child living in poverty in Chad. Suppose that after a period of declining health, she dies as a result of malnutrition. Here is how an aid worker might report her death: “Today another malnourished toddler died in Chad. Her last days were marked by hunger and suffering, and by the agony of her parents. This is a tragedy—for the child, for her parents, for her community, for humanity. The grief that we all felt at her death was compounded by the realization that it could have been prevented. The international community cannot let this go on, day after day, tragedy after tragedy.”
But the perspective of mortal, corporeal creatures like us would be nothing like the perspective of an eternal, incorporeal Creator. Having never experienced pain or fear or suffering himself, he would be unable to discern these subjective states in others. He would know nothing of the language of grief and loss; he would know only the language of functionality. His view of the child’s death would be as dispassionate as a scientist’s view of a bacteriological event in a petri dish. “Today an immature human ceased biological functioning,” God might report. “This happened because it did not receive sufficient nutrients from the environment to sustain its physicochemical processes. Inside the body of the no-longer-functioning human, trillions of bacteria continue to function. Their colonies are flourishing, evolving, and spreading. This is part of the never-ending fecundity of Creation.” From God’s point of view, a child dying due to insufficient calories is no more tragic than a bacterium dying due to insufficient carbon. When a functional entity is deprived of the nutrients it requires, it stops functioning.
God Has No Idea What You’re Thinking or Feeling
My argument that an eternal, incorporeal God could not care about our suffering because he would be incapable of understanding pain and fear—this is part of a larger claim, that a Creator God like this could not understand our interior lives at all. He would have no access to our thoughts and feelings, because he would be inherently unable to think what we think or feel what we feel. You can’t translate the language of finite beings into the language of an infinite being.
This contradicts the biblical claim that God knows exactly what’s going on in our heads and hearts. “Only you know what is in every human heart,” Solomon said to God in a prayer (1 Kings 8:39). David expressed a related idea when speaking to the people of Israel: “The Lord searches every mind, and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). A psalm attributed to David elaborates on this: “You discern my thoughts from far away…. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely” (Psalms 139:2-4). Jesus, too, affirmed this belief, when challenging the Pharisees: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). Scripture depicts God as a sort of divine mind reader, or more than that, a mind-and-heart reader.
God’s purported ability to read our hearts and minds is one of Christianity’s strongest selling points. Do you think you’re alone? You’re not. God never leaves your side. Do you think no one understands you? God does. If you’re paralyzed with worry, he knows this. If you harbor hopes you could never say out loud, he knows this too. The assurance that God knows our every thought and feeling, when combined with the assurance that his love for us has no bounds, provides spiritual balm for our feelings of loneliness and isolation. In Christian efforts to spread the faith, these assurances are godsends.
The ability to discern the secrets of our hearts and minds could be a useful attribute for God to have. It would allow him to perform certain divine functions—especially those that an actual Creator might have no interest in, but that the authors of the Bible clearly wanted to assign to him. Both the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) and the New Testament describe a strong spiritual connection between God and man, and the idea that God has a direct line to our heart is a vital part of this connection. It suggests that he understands our struggles and our dreams. In our pain he comforts us, in our confusion he enlightens us, in our grief he consoles us, in our loneliness he embraces us.
Judgment is another one of God’s biblically-assigned responsibilities. He will separate the righteous from the unrighteous. You may escape human justice, but you can’t escape God’s. He knows not just what you’re doing but what you’re thinking. If you put on the appearance of piety but harbor malice in your heart, God will know. Iago may fool Othello, but he can’t fool God. God reads his heart like a book.
To the authors of the Bible, God was like a spiritual X-ray machine, seeing everything in our hearts and minds. But however useful it might be for God to possess this power, it’s not plausible to claim that he does. The Creator of the universe may understand the particles and chemicals we are made of, and the laws of physics and chemistry that govern them, but an eternal, incorporeal being could not understand how we think and feel because that requires an experiential foundation he cannot have. Our experiences as sentient physical beings and as members of a social community would be utterly alien to him. Given the experiential disconnect, he would find our desires and motivations impenetrable. The way we experience the world is so radically different from the way an incorporeal Creator would experience the world that our interior lives would be completely opaque to him. Our thoughts and feelings are written in a language he cannot read. God may understand the objectivity of his creations, but he cannot understand their subjectivity. He cannot understand what it is like to be them.
I have already explained why I think an incorporeal Creator God could not understand our pains and our fears, but the same argument applies to every thought and feeling that derives from our physical existence. Suppose, for example, that I am feeling a strong sexual desire. Since God “knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalms 44:21), he presumably knows this. But sexual desire is completely outside the experience of an incorporeal being; he has no way to relate to it. How could a bodiless, sexless, hormone-free being possibly understand sexual desire? Even if God, as the great chemist of the cosmos, were able to detect certain kinds of physiological and neurological changes in me, he would have no way of knowing that these add up to sexual desire because he doesn’t know what sexual desire—or indeed any physical desire—even is. Having never experienced it, God knows nothing of its power, its urgency, or its significance. To discern the relevant physiological activity would be to observe everything but understand nothing. God would be observing objectively what can only be understood subjectively. If you haven’t felt it, you just don’t get it.
Incorporeality would create an impassable barrier between God and ourselves, rendering him unable to access our interior lives. Our thoughts and feelings are inextricably tied to our experiences as corporeal beings. But God has no such experiences. A being who has never seen anything, never heard anything, and never touched anything, a being who has never felt pain or fear or desire, has no idea what’s going on in our heads.
To God, our social existence would be as impenetrable as our bodily existence. As humans, we are members of complex social orders that generate a myriad of thoughts and feelings. But because God has never been a member of such a social order, those thoughts and feelings would be incomprehensible to him.
God cannot be a member of a social community. A social community is a group of relative equals who have common needs and interests. But the God posited by Christianity has no equals, and there is no group with whom he shares a set of common needs and interests. It’s not like there’s a bunch of creators who get together every Friday night at their favorite black hole, down a few beers, and grouse about the irritating unpredictabilities of quarks and how much space their expanding galaxies are taking up. In terms of socialization, an eternal, incorporeal Creator is nothing like us. He doesn’t need to join a social community for the sake of mutual protection, companionship, and well-being. He doesn’t need parents to raise him, teachers to teach him, doctors to heal him, friends to help him, or colleagues to work with him. He doesn’t need anyone. He’s God, for heaven’s sake. He’s self-sufficient, he’s self-contained, he is the One and Only. His singularity is profound.
By contrast, the mutual interdependence of humans gives us an entirely different frame of reference. There is no way to bridge that experiential divide. So many of our emotions, desires, dreams, and frustrations spring from our membership in a social community. For us, social life is at the center of our experiences and our identity, whereas God has no social life at all. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this difference when considering God’s ability—or more accurately, inability—to understand our interior lives. The fact that we are social beings while he is not is as important as the fact that we are corporeal beings while he is not. Put those two differences together and it means that God and humans share almost no commonalities in what they do, think, or feel. And that absence of commonality makes him incapable of understanding our inner lives and our experiences.
Given God’s experiential limitations, he could not comprehend the intricacies of social dynamics. Still, as I think about feelings that can arise only within a social context, I wonder what it would be like to try to explain these to him.
Me: The thing is, God, there’s only one of you, but there’s a whole bunch of us, and because of that we think about a lot of things that you don’t think about and we feel a lot of things that you don’t feel. For instance, we’re always comparing ourselves to other people, and…
God: What does comparing mean?
Me: That means I look at other people’s lives and I look at my life, and I try to understand in what ways their lives are similar to mine and in what ways they’re different. Because when you’re part of a group and you’re interacting with other people all the time, you naturally want to know about their lives, although sometimes that causes problems, and…
God: Why would knowing about their lives cause problems?
Me: Well, it might make you covetous or bitter or…
God: What does it mean to be covetous or bitter?
Me: Okay, well, forget about those words, I shouldn’t have used them. You’re not ready for those concepts yet. We’ll come back to them when your understanding of socially-generated emotions is a little more, uh, sophisticated. Let me start over, and I’ll give you a specific example and maybe that’ll make things clearer for you. Like I said, we’re always comparing ourselves to other people, so let’s say I know this guy, and he’s highly esteemed by the people around us, whereas I, well, I’m sort of a nobody, and that bothers me because…
God: What does esteemed mean?
Me: That means people have a high opinion of him, they respect him and what he has to say, maybe because he’s really smart, or he’s accomplished a great deal in his life, or he has an important job, or…
God: Why do people care what he’s done?
Me: Well, because he’s somebody special, he’s got status, and if you live in a group, social status is a big deal, and…
God: The Creator doesn’t live in a group.
Me: No, I know you don’t, but…
God: The Creator’s living situation is unique.
Me: Yes, I understand that. You basically live on your own metaphysical island, but human beings don’t live on metaphysical islands, we live in societies, and for us status is a big thing because we care what people think about us, that matters a lot, and…
God: The Creator doesn’t care what people think about him.
Me: Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I suppose if I was the Creator of the universe I wouldn’t care either, but the way you’re built is completely different from the way we’re built, because when you’re part of a community you do care about that. If you live with people and interact with them and need them for a thousand different things, you damn sure care what they think about you. But anyway, to get back to my example, let’s say this guy I know is highly esteemed, whereas I’m considered sort of ordinary, and that bothers me, and…
God: What does bothers mean?
Me: That means I don’t like it, it’s frustrating, it makes me mad, because he’s a somebody and I’d like to be a somebody too, but I feel like a nobody, and…
God: What is a somebody?
Me: A somebody is someone important, it means people treat you like you matter, but if you’re a nobody, people don’t think you matter very much, you’re not very important, and…
God: The Creator doesn’t care about being a somebody.
Me: Okay, that’s fine, although when you’re the Creator, you’re sort of a somebody by default, whether you care about it or not. But no, I get your point, status isn’t something you think about. But suppose things were different, suppose you weren’t the only God but instead there were a bunch of gods and you were just one of them, like one of the Greek gods, I bet you’d care then, your thinking would be completely different, you’d want to stand out in some way, and…
God: You say what cannot be. I am the Creator. There can be no other.
Me: Right, umm, I get that, I just thought an analogy might help you understand. But maybe not… Anyway, I’m trying to explain to you that with people, because we live in a group, each of us wants to stand out, we want to be noticed, and if we aren’t, if we feel like we’re nobody, then we get resentful, and…
God: What does resentful mean?
Me: Well, in the example I’m talking about, it would mean I’m really angry, I don’t think it’s fair, because people treat this other guy like he’s someone special, but they don’t treat me like that, and I start to hate him, and…
God: What does hate mean?
Me: It means he makes me mad, I wish something bad would happen to him, and…
God: Why do you hate him?
Me: Because I’d like to feel important but I don’t, and then I see him, and everyone acts like he is important, and that eats away at me, because guys like him get all the breaks, and…
God: What are the breaks?
Me: Well, that just means life isn’t fair, and…
God: What does fair mean?
Me: Well, when I say life isn’t fair, I mean—hey, you know what, let’s forget about that, we can’t get into all the injustices of the world right now. The point is, I’ve been trying to explain this one feeling to you—it’s what we call envy—and there are lots of things people might feel envious about, but basically envy means that there’s something you want but can’t get, and you see someone else who has this thing, and you hate him because he has it and you don’t. Does that make sense to you?
God: The Creator has no wants. The Creator doesn’t care what people have.
Me: Yeah, okay… Umm, maybe we should try to talk about some other feelings now, because many people expect you to understand what’s going on in their hearts and minds, so there are other socially-generated feelings I’d like to discuss with you, especially ones that I think will be particularly hard for you to relate to, like ambition and competitiveness and friendship and attachment and group loyalties and greed and lust and embarrassment and guilt and…
God: People have lots of unnecessary feelings.
Me: Well, yeah, I guess from your perspective we do, but you have to remember that each human being is just one person among many, that’s what it means to be part of a social community, and that fundamental fact of our lives by itself generates a profusion of thoughts and feelings that you wouldn’t have, and…
God: The Creator is not one among many. There can be no other creators.
Me: Yes, I understand that, and…
God: The Creator is just plain One.
Me: Yes, I understand that too.
In addition to the corporeal/incorporeal and social/asocial dichotomies, there is another experiential chasm between ourselves and God that would only add to his inability to understand our thoughts and feelings. The powers and knowledge that God had to have in order to create the universe are, from our point of view, almost unimaginable. To claim that a Creator God would necessarily be omnipotent and omniscient is, to my mind, an instance of theological overreach—a subject I’ll return to later—but there’s no question that compared to our meager powers, his are immense. God has never experienced the kinds of limitations that, for us, are an inescapable part of daily life. Any time reality does not conform to our desires, it is a reminder of how limited our powers are. So many of our thoughts and feelings revolve around daily frustrations, unanticipated setbacks, life-altering disappointments, and burdens large and small. But a God who could call the universe into being through an act of will—think of that! he called the universe into being through an act of will!—knows nothing of these.
Consider a few scenarios in which personal limitations of various kinds generate thoughts and feelings that are characteristically human.
First, suppose I have bills piling up and I’m feeling stressed out. I can’t stop worrying. I have to pay the bills but right now that’s impossible: I don’t have the money.
How would the Creator, with his 24/7 monitoring of my heart and mind, react to this? His reaction—assuming he had any interest at all in my emotional and financial struggles, which I doubt—might be something like this: “What does worrying mean? What does impossible mean? What is stress?”
Or suppose I’m feeling discouraged because my work isn’t going well. I’m working as hard as I can but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. It’s really got me down, it’s depressing.
Here is how the Creator might react: “What does discouraged mean? What does depressing mean? How can work not go well?”
Finally, suppose I can’t decide whether to move across the country to be near my father. Suppose that his health and memory are declining and I feel responsible for him, but I have a job that means a lot to me and friends I’m close to, and I’d hate to leave all that behind. I’m really confused, I don’t know what to do.
But the Creator would find all this incomprehensible: “What does confused mean? How can a person not know what to do? What does it mean to feel responsible for someone?”
All of my thoughts and feelings in these cases are triggered by some limitation in my personal powers or knowledge. I wish I could make my bills go away through an act of will, but I can’t. I wish I could ensure that my work always felt gratifying and productive, but I can’t. I wish I could eliminate all conflicts between family responsibilities and personal desires, but I can’t. To us these limitations seem ordinary and unremarkable, the kind we deal with all the time. But to a supremely powerful God who created the cosmos out of nothing, such thoughts and feelings would be completely alien—the product of experiences he’s never had. And if, while monitoring our hearts and minds, he encountered these sentiments, he wouldn’t know what to make of them. Anxiety, stress, discouragement, depression, confusion, indecision—the emotional terrain we know so well would be foreign territory to him.
Both Judaism and Christianity assume that God wants to read our hearts and minds—that he actually takes an interest in every fleeting feeling, every half-formed thought that almost eight billion people are spewing out at every moment of every day. There is no evidentiary basis for this assumption, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s true.
Judaism and Christianity also assume that God has the ability to do this. They assume that in some unspecified way he is able to burrow into my brain, where he can, at a minimum, do the following: he can somehow access something akin to a real-time transcript of all the sentences and (mostly) sentence fragments that my brain incessantly cranks out; he can somehow see (though he has no eyes) all of the images that are constantly popping into my head (coming, at any given moment, from either my eyes, my memory, or my imagination) and that are essential in understanding who or what my thought-words are even referring to; and he can somehow measure all of my important physiological markers (blood pressure, heart rate, hormone levels, and the like), which will hopefully indicate whether the aforesaid words and images are accompanied by desire or anger or affection or fear or any one of dozens of other possible feeling-states. Finally, God would somehow have to weave all these disparate bits of data into a coherent formulation of my thoughts and feelings of the moment. Again, there is no evidentiary basis for claiming that the Creator has, and chooses to exercise, these magical powers—but after all, he’s God, so let’s say that this too is true.
If we posit, then, that God has both the desire and the ability to burrow into our brains, and if he exercises this ability as rigorously as scripture implies, what sort of life would he have? I envision God in his heavenly throne, diligent beyond all measure but beleaguered beyond all reckoning, listening in, like a telephone operator of old, on a gigantic party line from the planet Earth, hearing the inner voices of almost eight billion people (in God knows how many languages and dialects) streaming simultaneously through his enormous headset. He has to keep all these voices straight, not get them mixed up, and at the same time he has to somehow discern (utilizing his miraculous non-visual, non-sensory powers of observation) everything that each of these eight billion people is doing—every conversation, every action great or small, every subtle but revealing facial expression—because all of this, too, may shed light on the workings of our hearts and minds. How agonizing it must be for God to listen to this din, eight billion hearts and minds all jabbering at once, how positively maddening it must be for a being who purportedly knows things effortlessly and with perfect clarity to be bombarded with this absolute hailstorm of human ignorance, confusion, and duplicity. And as if listening to billions of befuddled earthlings weren’t enough, God must simultaneously monitor the other forty sextillion solar systems he created, presumably including whatever mind-reading of alien space creatures his oversight might require.
With respect to humans at least, what would make God’s task especially daunting is how jumbled and disordered our hearts and minds so often are. Earlier I discussed envy, and the difficulty God might have in understanding this feeling, but so much of the time our hearts and minds offer no single, clear thought or feeling for God to read. We are by nature ambivalent beings, full of doubts and vacillations and contradictions, our minds cycling through an endless succession of assertions followed by retractions followed by reassertions followed by revisions followed by caveats; and this whole ungodly process—all of this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand stuff, all of this yes, no, and maybe—none of it would make a bit of sense to the Clearheaded and Decisive One. Faced with the thicket of contradictory impulses that is so much a part of our inner lives, the incorporeal, asocial Creator probably couldn’t understand a single one of these, much less the tortured way we lurch from one to another to another. It’s hard enough for us to understand the meanderings of the human heart, but God would be absolutely lost.
Imagine if you suddenly had no physical existence in the world, you knew you would live forever, and you were not a member of any human community—not a family, not a workplace, not a country, not even Homo sapiens. In that situation, what would you do, what would you think about, what would you care about? Instantly, almost all of the thoughts, concerns, desires, hopes, and fears that you now have would vanish. None of these would have any meaning at all in your newfound mode of existence. Think of all the thoughts and feelings that drift through your consciousness every day—then imagine how many of them would survive, how many would still be relevant, if you suddenly became a non-physical, non-mortal, non-social being. Virtually none of them, I suspect. And if you had never been a physical, mortal, social being, you would never have harbored these thoughts and feelings, and they would be so disconnected from life as you experience it that you would find them incomprehensible.
According to both scripture and Christian theology, God can read our minds and hearts, he understands our thoughts and feelings. And why not? Like us, God is a person, a self-conscious being. And he made us in his image, so there must be significant commonalities. He’s sort of like us…except he has no body. And he’s sort of like us…except he is not part of a community. And he’s sort of like us…except he has immense powers. But not having a body, and not being part of a community, and not being profoundly limited in his powers means he’s nothing like us. Almost all of what we think and feel is connected in one way or another with these features of our existence; take them away, and there’s not much left. A being who has not experienced them cannot understand, in any meaningful way, what is going on in our hearts and minds. He is, literally, clueless.
The Attributes of God
For the sake of argument, I have assumed that there is indeed a personal Creator God—i.e., a being who possesses consciousness and acts with purpose, and who created the universe. As I discussed in “Why God Doesn’t Care about Us,” such a God is generally presumed to have at least two additional attributes. Because he existed when the universe did not, he is presumed to be eternal; and because he existed when matter did not, he is presumed to be incorporeal. It seems reasonable to infer that a being who created the universe would have these qualities.
The same cannot be said of two other qualities that are frequently attributed to the Creator: omnipotence and omniscience. I previously characterized these attributions as theological overreach. From the act of Creation we can infer that the Creator has immense powers and knowledge, but not that he is all-powerful or all-knowing. There is a difference between claiming that he has immense but definable powers and knowledge—namely, those that would be required in order to create the universe—and claiming that he can do absolutely anything and knows absolutely everything. The fact that he has extraordinary creative powers does not mean that he has every power imaginable. The power to create the universe in no way implies the power to read hearts and minds.
Christians are among those who attribute omnipotence and omniscience to God. Doing so provides ready-made justification for other claims they would like to make. How do Christians know that God has unlimited power over the forces of nature, including the power to contravene its normal operations? Well, he’s omnipotent, isn’t he? How do they know he is aware of everything that happens in the universe? Well, he’s omniscient, isn’t he? How do they know he has power over life and death, over the afterlife, and over the final destiny of humanity and the world? Because he’s omnipotent! And how do they know he understands our every thought and feeling? Because he’s omniscient! If, in the context of a theological debate, it is rhetorically useful to claim that God has some fanciful, magical power—well, why not? Once we attribute omnipotence and omniscience to the Creator, then his powers and knowledge are limited only by the speaker’s imagination: God can do anything I say he can and he knows everything I say he knows. For Christianity, claims of God’s omnipotence and omniscience have become a theological crutch.
Although the act of Creation does not give grounds for claiming that the Creator is omnipotent and omniscient, it does give grounds for claiming that he has immense powers and knowledge, just as it gives grounds for claiming that he is eternal and incorporeal. In the delineation of divine attributes, we could stop there. That would leave us with a minimalist notion of a monotheistic God, one who created the universe, who set it in motion, but since then has not necessarily been involved in its operations or intervened in its affairs. Christianity, of course, would never settle for a bare-bones deity like this. Like Judaism, Christianity envisions a God who not only created the universe but has played a continuing role in its unfolding events. It describes a God whose involvement in human affairs is deep and multifaceted, which in turn requires additional divine attributes. But the farther Christianity strays from the minimalist notion of a Creator God, the more dubious these purported attributes become.
If you ask a Christian why she believes in God, her initial answer might be something like this: “Isn’t it obvious? Just look around you. The world had to come from somewhere; someone had to create it.” The inference from the existence of the universe to a personal causal agent is questionable, I think, but right now I’m focusing on something else. The God that her argument implies is nothing more than a bare-bones Creator God; it falls far short of the Christian God she wants to believe in. Christians sometimes confuse the two, assuming that if they’ve given an argument for the existence of the former, they’ve given an argument for the existence of the latter. But they haven’t. On the contrary, the central problem with Christianity arises after the postulating of a Creator God—namely, in the additional attributes that it assigns to him, especially those that pertain to his role in our lives.
For example, Christians say that God loves us, that he is just and merciful, that he can read our hearts and minds, that he has a plan for our lives, and so on. How might such assertions be justified? I said earlier that it would be reasonable to infer that a Creator God is eternal and incorporeal. The supposition that his existence preceded the existence of the material universe suggests that he may have these attributes, that he is bound neither by time nor by matter. But to say that he would be just or loving is fundamentally different, because attributes like these cannot be inferred merely from the presumption that he created the universe. In other words, we could easily imagine a Creator who did not possess these attributes. So even if you think that there is good reason to believe in a Creator, that by itself says nothing about his moral qualities. There is nothing inherent in the concept of a Creator God that would require him to be just or loving; he could easily be the opposite. Someone could create a beautiful painting but be a real jerk.
So even if we posit the existence of a Creator God, we cannot infer from this that he is just or loving. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. To show that he is, Christians must look to the world for evidence; they must provide facts and observations that support their characterization. The challenge for Christians is this: by examining the world around us, can they provide evidence that God has the attributes they say he has?
If I wanted to persuade you that a particular person—let’s call her Claire—could be characterized as just, I would do so through inductive reasoning. I would amass a relevant set of facts—regarding actions she had taken, behaviors she had exhibited, things she had said—that seemed to me to exemplify what we mean by a just person. And if Claire had been accused of significant injustices, I would try to show either that she hadn’t done the alleged actions, or that those actions were, in fact, just. The Judeo-Christian claim that God is just requires a similar defense. Proponents must first explain which actions or events (or which categories of actions or events) can properly be attributed to God, and which cannot. They must then show that the actions or events that can be attributed to God conform to what we mean by just. To show that God is just, proponents must do both of these things.
Consider a couple of representative scriptural claims regarding God’s justice. There are general claims like this: “his work is perfect, and all his ways are just” (Deut 32:4). And more specific claims like this: God “executes justice for the oppressed…[and] gives food to the hungry…. but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalms 146:7-9). Of course, making grand assertions is one thing; providing good reasons to believe them is another.
The claim that God brings justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, and ruin to the wicked makes him sound like one fine fellow, although my own observations of the world suggest that God must exercise these powers only on select occasions. As for the assertion that God’s “work is perfect, and all his ways are just”—well, no one could accuse this writer of being insufficiently ambitious in his claims. I only wish that the book of Deuteronomy had included an expansive footnote providing all the facts and observations, inferences and arguments, upon which these conclusions were built.
To show that Claire is a just person, we first need to know what actions can be attributed to her. We need to have a clear sense of what she has done in her life, what actions she is responsible for. The same would be true with regard to any other character trait we say she exhibits—that she is generous (or selfish), honest (or dishonest), cautious (or impulsive), and so on. Until we have clarity as to what she has done, we cannot show that the things she has done consistently conform to the purported attribute.
Anyone who wants to present a credible case for God’s justice must proceed from the same starting point. He must begin by answering two questions: What exactly does God do in the world? And how do you know that? In order to show that God’s actions can consistently be described as just, Christians must first identify which actions and events can properly be attributed to him. This is obviously much more difficult with God than it is with a human being—difficult to the point of impossibility, I think. If we are trying to determine whether Claire did or did not do a particular action, usually the most important sources of information would be what she herself says about the action in question, and what other people saw her do or heard her say that might be relevant. But in determining whether God did or did not do a particular action, these critical sources of information are not available to us. God doesn’t tell us what role, if any, he had in a particular event, and no witnesses can recount what they saw him do or heard him say. God’s incorporeality may have its advantages, but it means we rarely, if ever, know what he’s doing. Unless God is parting the Red Sea or calling out from a burning bush, we really don’t know what he’s up to. He is an invisible force pulling cosmic strings from the void.
Sometimes we hear someone say that God intervened in a particular event—that at the last moment he changed a person’s heart, for example, or altered a bullet’s trajectory—and that if he hadn’t intervened, the outcome would have been different. “God was watching over me,” someone might say after escaping a dangerous situation. Someone else might respond, “There’s no evidence of divine intervention; the event was simply a product of the laws of physics and the decisions that people made.” My sympathies are with the latter position, although admittedly I cannot prove that God did not intervene in a particular event. But this only affirms the larger point: even if we assume the existence of a Creator God, we have no reliable way of determining whether he intervenes in the events of the cosmos, and if so, when he intervenes. Maybe God invisibly intervenes in many events; maybe he invisibly intervenes in none. His purported interventions can be neither proven nor disproven. Indeed, we would almost have to be omniscient ourselves to know the nature and extent of God’s interventions. But without having reasonable clarity about what God does and does not do, we cannot even begin the process of determining whether he is consistently just, consistently unjust, or somewhere in between.
In addition to our lack of essential empirical information, there are two ethical conundrums that make it nearly impossible to evaluate God in terms of justice. 1) As the Creator, God set the natural world in motion and, according to Christianity, retains power over it. Does that make him responsible for the devastation it causes? To children, for example. The forces of nature kill children in so many ways—drought, disease, earthquakes, and floods, to mention a few. Is God, as the author of nature, morally responsible for the deaths of these innocent children? If so, how does that affect our assessment of his justice? 2) If someone has the power to prevent a terrible injustice, but fails to do so, we would consider him morally negligent. Does this also apply to God? Every day around the world there are deadly, irreparable injustices that God, through his intervention, could have prevented, but didn’t. Suppose, for example, that a child is murdered. Christians claim that God is omnipotent, and therefore had the power to save the child. Yet he chose not to intervene. Does God therefore bear partial responsibility for the child’s death, and if so, how does that affect our assessment of his justice? (For a fuller discussion of cases like these, see my essay, “The Myth of a Loving God.”)
The knowledge that would be required in order to make a well-informed determination of how just or unjust God is is almost unfathomable. Because God’s actions are hidden from view, the things that we would need to know are inherently unknowable. The same problem would arise with respect to other claims that Christians routinely make about God—that he is merciful, that he has a plan for our lives, and so on. We just don’t have the information that would be needed to verify these claims. So even if we assume the existence of a Creator God, the claims that Christians make about his moral attributes and his role in our lives are unsupportable. There is an unbridgeable gap between the grandiosity of their claims and the paucity of their evidence.
If these claims about God cannot be established through our observations of the world, then their defense depends upon another kind of argument, an argument from authority. We believe these claims are true because someone we trust says they are true. Sometimes the trusted source is a particular person or persons, but usually these persons themselves cite a higher authority: scripture is not only the source of these claims, it also provides the grounds for their justification. Christian writers and speakers typically point to specific biblical verses to show that, yes, God does indeed have the attribute in question. But the force of this argument depends upon the Bible being the word of God, which again shows how critical this claim is to Christianity. If there is no good reason to believe this, then these scriptural assertions regarding the moral qualities of God become nothing more than unsubstantiated claims made by a lot of ancient, mostly anonymous men who lived in an age that was rife with myths and superstitions.
The argument in defense of such attributions is then reduced to this: I say that God is loving and just, and the way I prove that is by quoting some other guy who said that God is loving and just. Because that proves it, right?
The wish is father to the thought. The God that Christians worship is not the offspring of reality; he is the offspring of desire. He is not the outgrowth of what they see in the world; he is the outgrowth of what they want. He is their theological wish list. Why settle for a bare-bones Creator God when you can, by assertion alone, have so much more? Christians want God to be just, so they say he is. They want him to love us, so they say he does. Christianity is in the deity-making business, but it approaches this enterprise with a specific methodology. It does not begin with the facts of the world, then tailor its deity according to what those facts could plausibly justify. Instead, Christianity has an entirely different mission: to give humanity the God it thinks we need. So it has fashioned a God who will speak to our spiritual longings, even while he tells us, in no uncertain terms, to behave. Shall we say that God loves each of us, that in our loneliness and our despair he will always be with us? Absolutely! A God like that gives us hope and lifts our spirits; we would follow him anywhere. And shall we say that he has a plan for us, and is always there to guide us? You bet! You’ll never walk alone! And that God is just? And merciful? And kind? Yes! Yes! Yes! And that he knows our every thought and feeling? Without a doubt! And that one day he will judge us all? You better believe it! So do what he says; otherwise it’ll be goodbye salvation, hello damnation! And so it goes: like over-caffeinated shoppers at a midnight sale, Christian writers and preachers race down the theological aisles, cramming their shopping carts with divine attributes they think we cannot do without.
Christians demand too much of their God, wanting him to possess every perfection the human mind can conceive of. The union of desire and imagination has engendered this theological construct, a perfect loving Creator—and sure, who’d say no to that, it’d be swell—but that’s all it is, a theological construct, because there’s no evidentiary reason to believe that such a being exists: no data from the universe supports it. For Christianity, a mere Creator God would be a meager sort of deity. It’s not enough that he created everything that is; God also has to be all-knowing and all-powerful and loving and just, he has to be our Heavenly Father, the progenitor of the moral law, and the guarantor of eternal life. But it’s all too much, God can’t live up to the hype. The poor old guy is buckling under the weight of everything that Christians want him to be.
A Bouquet of Jesuses
Jesus is a Rorschach test. Those who purport to promulgate his message see what they want to see in him: he becomes the personification of what they, by virtue of their temperaments or their needs or their own moral codes, already believe.
Whatever Jesus ye seek, ye shall find. Do you want an exemplar of love and healing, someone who comforts the afflicted, forgives us when we stray, and offers the prospect of eternal life? Then Jesus is your man. Or would you prefer a warrior and a rebel, someone who provokes the authorities, rails against accepted norms and values, and prophesies doom and torments for the wicked? In that case, too, Jesus is your man. Whatever you want him to be—whatever temperamental inclinations you want him to embody, whatever political or cultural outlook you want him to endorse, whatever hopes you want him to affirm—you can find scriptural justification for your position. Through your selection of verses and the interpretation you give them, you can paint a portrait of Jesus that pleases you. The Gospels provide enough raw data for a profusion of Jesuses, and from this rich, colorful bouquet you can pluck the one that is closest to your heart.
The Gospels offer such wild swings in emotion and tone, and such an abundance of conflicting messages, enigmatic proclamations, ambiguous parables, and narrative riches, that by focusing on those verses that particularly resonate with you, while setting aside those that make you uncomfortable, you can easily generate the Jesus of your choice. Here are some of his enduring characterizations.
Jesus Is the Way to Eternal Life
People who think you die and that’s it, that’s all there is—I don’t know how they get through the day. You have to have hope. We can’t just die and that’s it. I want to see everybody again, I want to be with them, and this time they’ll never leave. I know they’re with Jesus now, my mom and dad, all the friends I’ve lost, and Sam—my sad, sad dog. I want to see them so much. Lazarus had been dead four days, and his sister Mary was weeping. When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. And Jesus too began to weep—that’s the thing, Jesus wept also. Saddened and upset, he went to the tomb and told Lazarus to rise, and he rose. Can you imagine Mary’s joy when she saw her brother, the brother she thought she had lost forever? How tightly she must have held him! Many, many people saw Lazarus raised from the dead, and they became followers of Jesus. Would Jesus cry for Mary in her grief, but not cry for me in mine? I don’t believe that. You can see how genuine was his sorrow, how real his power. A story that beautiful has to be true. Jesus will be there for all of us, if only we believe. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. To say goodbye to life forever, to say goodbye to everyone I love forever—I couldn’t bear such sadness. But to pass from this life to life without end—what a blessing! Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. Sometimes that’s the only thing that keeps me going—knowing that some day soon we’ll be together again. How hard I will hug everyone, how long I will hold them!
(John 11:33 and 3:16, and Luke 10:20)
Jesus Warns of Eternal Torments
Repent, assholes. You think there are no rules, you think you can do whatever you want, you think there’s no reckoning? Payback is coming, pal. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Jesus is a warrior and it’s warriors he’s looking for. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Sow discord and division, he says to us; repudiate the ways of the world. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Man, this guy speaks my language; I’d follow him anywhere. I’m a warrior for God: I’d die for God and I’d damn sure kill for God. Every day I go to war against the temptations of Satan. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out…. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. That’s discipline, pal, stomp your lusts into the ground and live by the damn rules. But that’s not for you, is it? You mock the rules, you defy God, you fornicate, you think I’m a sucker. You brood of vipers!… You blind fools! Judgment Day is coming and it’s going to be nasty, it’s going to be nice. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! I love Jesus—you can almost hear the exultation in his voice. And why not? Righteous retribution is a joy to contemplate. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What a show that will be—and it will last forever! Who’s laughing now, assholes? Nothing is as beautiful as justice.
(Matthew 23:13 and 10:34, Luke 14:26, Matthew 5:29-30, 12:34, 23:17, 11:21, and 13:41-42)
Jesus Knows Our Suffering
Life is a hard, hard road. This world is a burden, it weighs you down. But you got to keep going. Maybe things look better for a while but that won’t last. Heartbreak is coming, or cruel misfortune, or deep, deep discouragement. Look at Jesus: abandoned, reviled, and mocked. That night in Gethsemane—has ever a man felt more alone? He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. Jesus saw his fate and was filled with foreboding. He prayed for deliverance—once, twice, three times—while his companions slumbered. In the dark of night he prayed, abandoned and alone, dreading what was to come, hoping against hope for a reprieve. The next day, nails were driven through the palms of his hands—the pain is unimaginable, a horror beyond words—and later, on the cross, near death, his body hanging by those nails, he felt that even his Father had abandoned him. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I love Jesus—he suffered so deeply and he cast his lot with sufferers. In his despair we see reflections of our own. Blessed are the persecuted and the reviled, he said, and those who mourn, but he could just as well have added, and the lonely and the dispossessed—he speaks to all of us. When it seems like there’s no place to go, no comfort to be found, he calls to us. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
(Matthew 26:37-40, 27:46, 5:4-11, and 11:28)
Jesus Is Love
Sometimes we make things too complicated. Love one another. That’s it. Just love one another. When we do that, life is a blessing, even when bad things happen. Help everyone who is in need; never turn your back on anyone. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Don’t put walls between yourself and others. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Let everyone into your heart. Hostility can take so many forms—we criticize, we judge, we hold grudges. Am I so good, that I find fault with others? Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? A mob brought a woman who had committed adultery to Jesus, they wanted to stone her, like she was so bad and they were so good. Couldn’t they see their own failings? Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Our faces get so ugly when we’re angry—everything red and bulging and hateful. When someone is mad at me, I feel so worthless. And when I’m mad at someone else, it’s like, what am I doing? How can I attack him like that? Because being angry at someone is like attacking him in your heart. We can’t carry that inside us; let it go. Forgive one another. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
(Matthew 25:35-36, 5:44, and 7:3, John 8:7, and Matthew 5:9)
Jesus Spurns Worldly Wealth
We live in a sick society. Materialism is everything. No matter what we have, we always want more. We’re pigging out—on food and everything else. Toys without end, amen. Amazon is life and life is Amazon, and the only question is, What will you buy today? Enough already! That’s what Jesus said, but who’s listening? Start grubbing after money and it takes over your life. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talked about the seeds that fell among thorns, and the thorns choked them. These are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. Look within, not without—that’s where the real treasures are. A man came to Jesus and asked how he could have eternal life. Jesus responded that he must first follow the commandments, but even then one thing would be lacking. “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. What do you really care about, material goods or spiritual goods? Make a decision! You cannot serve God and mammon. You envy the rich, don’t you—you covet their goods, you want their lives, you seethe over their damnable luck. But it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. You think you aren’t rich, you think this doesn’t apply to you? Think again! A middle-class suburbanite today has more toys and more comforts than the richest of the rich in Jesus’s time ever dreamed of. And what’s worse, this suburbanite is lusting for more. Give your money to people who really need it and quit buying all this crap. Man does not live by crap alone.
(Mark 4:18-19, Matthew 19:21-22, 6:24, and 19:24)
Here is an argument that religious conservatives often make: “Secular progressives believe that rights come from the government. But if the government gives us our rights, it can also take them away. We, on the other hand, believe that rights come not from the government but from God, so no one can take them away.”
But this is a straw man. The secular position is not that rights come from the government, but that they come from human nature. Rights are those protections that all human beings, by virtue of being human, need in order to flourish: the right to speak their minds, to make their own choices, to be free from persecution, and so on. Rights are not a gift from the government, retractable at will; they are the societal conditions that our nature requires.
Christians often claim that their view of the world is God-centered, while the worldview of nonbelievers is man-centered, a product of hubris and self-interest. Yet it is the Bible that depicts man as the centerpiece of Creation, and it was the church that aggressively defended the claim that our home, the earth, was the center of the universe: everything revolves around us. Many of the core beliefs of Christians are clearly self-serving, marked not by humility but by arrogance:
Could any set of tenets be more transparently anthropocentric, male-centric, and Christian-centric?
Puffed up with self-importance, we imagine that God’s fixation on one young species on one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in all the immensity of the cosmos will continue to the end. The Antichrist, the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, heaven and hell—one way or another, it’s all about us. Us! The megalomania takes your breath away. We are cosmic nothings, yet the end times are all about us. If there is a God, what in the world does he think about our eschatological fantasies? Is he laughing his head off at our delusions of grandeur? Is he shaking his head sadly at our self-deceptions? Or, most plausible of all, does he simply not give a whit about us or the nonsense we construct?[Written 2016-2021.]