From Part 2 of this excerpt from my book Cross Examined:
Paul sipped from his cup as he considered Jim’s argument. He was beginning to enjoy this tea—harsh but with a sweet aftertaste. “I heard a story about a woman tending her garden.” Paul wasn’t much for telling jokes, but this one took on a new meaning. “The pastor walks by and says, ‘Isn’t it marvelous what God can do in a garden?’ She wipes the sweat from her forehead and says, ‘You should have seen it when He had it all to Himself.’ ”
Jim stood and let out a whoop. “There’s hope for you yet!” He picked up the tea tray. “Let’s continue in the kitchen.”
“If there is a remotely plausible natural explanation, that is far more believable than a supernatural one. Just take the facts for what they are and don’t force them to fit a Christian presupposition. The Bible was written by a tribe of people thousands of years before modern science. Supernatural explanations were the best they had. Religion is a cultural fossil from a time when society had nothing better.”
Jim showed Paul where he kept the tea. Paul put two fresh spoonsful in the pot while Jim refilled the kettle and set it on to boil.
“I’m impressed by how tidy you keep things,” Paul said. In truth he’d seen only the kitchen, the living room that Jim used as his office, and a hallway with several closed doors, but he was curious about this grand house.
“I maintain things the way Vive liked. She was content for me to keep my office as I wanted, but the rest of the house she kept pristine. Our neighbors had maids but Vive insisted that keeping the house in order was her job.”
Paul felt a wave of sympathy with a bit of pity for this sad recluse. He was keeping his house in order so Vive could return at any moment and be satisfied. Locked away in his luxurious hermitage, this man with his savage intellect and mismatched socks was living in a world of the mind, shielded from outside emotion. But Paul felt strongly drawn to this eccentric man and realized he now thought of Jim as a friend.
Jim stared out the window. Paul shrugged off the weight of the silence to restart the discussion. “What do you think of the other attributes of God—that He’s merciful, just, loving …”
“Loving? Ha! Imagine a man saying to his wife, ‘Darling, I love you more than words can express, and I want you near me forever … but if you ever leave me, so help me, I’ll hunt you down and kill you slowly!’ We are told that God’s love is infinitely deep, far greater than that of a parent for a child, and yet if we don’t believe the right thing, into hell we go for a jolly and exhilarating carnival of torture forever.”
Paul remembered a frequent subject of Samuel’s sermons. “The book of John says, ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ A father offering up his child—it’s the ultimate sacrifice.”
Jim smiled and shook his head. “Jesus’s sacrifice—hugely important to the Christian, but it now seems to me a rather small matter.”
“No!” Paul had listened in awe to too many sermons in which Samuel paid loving attention to the details of Jesus’s death to let this stand. “Jesus died by crucifixion—a horrible, humiliating way to die.”
“And I might die from cancer,” Jim said. “I might suffer from six months of agony before I finally die—agony so great that I would wish I were dead. Six hours of pain on the cross might seem the easier route.”
“You may not understand six hours of pain from crucifixion.”
“And you may not understand six months of pain from cancer.” Jim ran his fingers through his long hair. “Now let’s imagine I go to hell to suffer an eternity of torment. That makes Jesus’s six hours of pain insignificant compared to mine.”
“Still, His death was the height of sacrifice. He’s God. It’s like a human sacrificing himself to benefit an insect.”
“Not a good analogy. Jesus is supposed to have infinite love for humanity, but I don’t see any human having much love for an insect.” Jim placed two clean cups on the tea tray. “The absurdity of the story, of course, is the resurrection. If he died, there’s no miraculous resurrection, and if there’s a resurrection, there’s no sacrifice through death. Miracle or sacrifice—you can’t have it both ways. The Gospels don’t say that he died for our sins but that he had a rough couple of days for our sins. And if we must bear Adam’s sin no matter what we do, why don’t we benefit from the sacrifice that removes it no matter what we do?”
“But the Christian story is unique. Where else do we have a god dying for the benefit of humans?”
“Christianity is unique, just like every religion,” Jim said. “And what about Prometheus?”
Paul had read quite a bit of Greek mythology, but he let Jim continue.
“Prometheus stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humanity. Zeus discovered the crime and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock so that a vulture could eat his liver. Each night, his liver grew back and the next day the vulture would return, day after agonizing day. Now that’s a sacrifice for humanity. Jesus is crucified once and then pops back into existence—rather weak by comparison.”
Prometheus was fiction, of course, but Paul had nothing to argue that the miracle stories of Jesus were anything different. “But if the sacrifice saves you from hell,” he said, “maybe we should appreciate it and be grateful for it, even if we can’t understand it.”
“Do Bronze Age customs persist so that we need a human sacrifice? If God loves us so deeply and he wants to forgive us, couldn’t he just … forgive us?”
“God can’t just forgive us.”
“Why not? That’s how you do it.”
“What I mean is, He’s the judge, and to forgive us, to simply let our sins go unpunished, would bypass His perfect justice.”
“Then I don’t think much of his ‘perfect justice.’ It’s certainly not the lesson we get from the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father forgives the son even after being wronged by him. If that’s the standard of mercy, why can’t God follow it? And maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’d prefer to see punishment in proportion to the crime. The person whose crime was a white lie shouldn’t get the same punishment as Attila the Hun. No crime deserves an eternal stay in hell.
“And I find the logic behind Jesus’s sacrifice especially opaque. God made mankind imperfect and inherently vulnerable to sin. Living a sinless life is impossible, so hell becomes unavoidable. But God sacrificed Jesus, one of the persons of God, so mankind could go to heaven instead. That is, God sacrificed himself to himself so we could bypass a rule that God made himself and that God deliberately designed us to never be able to meet? I can’t even understand that; I certainly feel no need to praise God for something so nonsensical. We can just as logically curse him for consigning us to hell from birth.”
Paul leaned against the counter and stared at the floor, absorbing these ideas and taking stock of his position. He had crossed a boundary, gradually. Like a wagon almost imperceptibly cresting a large and gently rounded hill, things felt different, and he now realized that he was on the other side. Two drops of rain can land near each other on a mountain ridge, the first flowing down one side, and the second down the other. One eventually finds its way into the Atlantic Ocean and one into the Pacific—a slight initial difference with vast ultimate consequences. He had been on one side of the ridge, and now he was on the other. He had assumed that God existed, and any evidence to the contrary he had reshaped to fit that assumption. But he could do that no longer.
The kettle whistled. Jim filled the pot and carried the tea tray back to the living room with Paul following.
“How’s your chess game?” Paul asked.
“It’s still early, but I’m gaining the upper hand.”
The two men sat and drank tea and traded pleasantries as the afternoon light faded. But as congenial as the environment was, Paul couldn’t relax. He fidgeted in his chair, feeling distracted as he gave increasingly curt responses to Jim’s comments. Finally he turned the conversation to the issue that had been nagging him. “I don’t think I believe anymore.” There—it was out. “I can’t force myself to believe—I need reasons. That’s why I was a quick convert to Reverend Hargrove’s way of thinking—he promised those reasons.” His thoughts seemed muddled, but the words tumbled out more easily now. “I thought that he delivered on that promise . . . but I don’t think so anymore. If the reasons aren’t there, I can’t believe, can I?” Maybe it wasn’t advice he needed as much as support. He didn’t mention that he could never admit this to Samuel. Samuel would be furious.
“You gave up childhood things once you’d outgrown them.”
Paul felt doubtful and said nothing. While in Samuel’s orbit, his belief had kept him in a safe place—confining but comfortable. Jim’s new thinking took him out, away from those confines. He felt as if he were squinting in the bright sun, breathing invigorating but unfamiliar air. Old constraints now appeared ephemeral, even imaginary. There were many possibilities, but it was all so new.
Jim leaned back with his arm on the top of the sofa. “Imagine that a man goes to a doctor. He has been crippled for his entire life and uses crutches. The doctor examines the man and says, ‘Good news—I’ve seen this problem before, and I know how to fix it. After a couple of months of treatment, you’ll be able to walk normally. No more need for those crutches.’ The man hugs his crutches and says, ‘Don’t throw away my crutches, Doc! I couldn’t get along without them.’ But the doctor has no intention of doing so. He heals the patient, and the crutches become unnecessary. The patient throws them away himself.”
“But who are you to say what my crutches are?”
“No one at all. If you think you don’t have crutches, then that’s fine. If you think you do, then you’re the one who will need to discard them. It’s all up to you. Don’t replace Sam as your authority with me. You are the authority.”