The God Debate (Fiction)

Here’s another excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.

A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of Rev. Samuel Hargrove, a famous pastor. Paul is doing his best to evangelize Jim, though Paul’s faith is now wavering. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s house.

Paul came into the kitchen. “You said that Reverend Hargrove and you had worked together, and I mentioned this to Reverend Hargrove.”

“What did he say?”

“That you and he debated a lot. He said that that’s where his passion for apologetics came from.”

“We did debate a lot. Sam liked to win. I took that as a challenge and learned more about apologetics to present the atheist counterpoint. Perhaps I played the role of the freethinker a little too energetically—I like to win as well.”

“But you were a believer then.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t argue from the opponent’s side. You must know his position. Until you do, you don’t completely understand your own.” Jim dried his hands on a towel. “I met a woman in Boston once. The conversation turned to travel, and I asked her where she liked to go. She said, ‘Why should I travel? I’m already there!’ Extraordinary—and yet that’s the way many Christians think. ‘Why should I critique my position or evaluate someone else’s? I’m already there!’ ”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about my own position. It’s hard to admit this, but I’ve been having some doubts.” Paul looked at the floor as he smacked his fist against his thigh. “Just a little.” He looked hard at Jim. “As an atheist, I guess that must please you.”

“Not really.” Jim set the kettle on the stove to boil and walked past Paul to the living room. “I care about the truth.” Jim sat and motioned Paul into his chair. “If you think you have it, I want you to argue as convincingly as you know how. On the other hand, if you find my opinions convincing, you’re welcome to them—they’re free. And if neither of us changes but we can live in a civil manner with each other, then that works as well. Thomas Jefferson said, ‘It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’ ”

Jim walked to a bookshelf and pulled off his Bible. He returned to the sofa, set the Bible on the center table, and slowly flipped through the pages so Paul could see. “This was my approach to truth.” There didn’t seem to be a single page without a handwritten mark. Some notes were small and dense while others were scrawled in large block letters. Some notes were in pencil while others were in various and seemingly arbitrary colors of ink. Some pages had margins full of comments with more on scraps of paper.

“Wait—what did that page say?” Paul pointed at a page.

Jim leafed back, page by page.

“There!” Paul said. In the outside margin of the page, with a dark pen and in capital letters, was written the word “Nonsense.”

“Oh, that,” Jim said. “That’s the book of Job.”

What was next—shopping lists? Drinking songs? Bawdy limericks? “Why would you deface a book of Scripture? And why Job? It’s the book where we see God’s consistent love during hardship.”

“Indeed? Then let me suggest you read that book more closely. God says that he ruined Job without reason—took away his health and money and killed his family. Why? Because he could. That’s not a very helpful book if you’re trying to find God’s love.”

“That’s not what I remember from the book.”

“Sermons rarely tell the complete story of Job. Read it and decide for yourself.”

Paul resolved to do exactly that, but there was a more immediate problem. “I must say, you seem to have treated your Bible rather harshly.”

“I critique what I read, and whether something is wicked or noble, I write what I think.”

“But you can’t treat the Bible that way. It’s a holy book.”

“Who cares? If it’s the truth, then surely it isn’t so fragile that it can be damaged by a nasty comment in the margin. The truth can take whatever punishment I give it. If it can’t, then it’s not worth my regret—or yours.”

“It just seems disrespectful.”

“I treat the claims of Christianity as if they can be tested against logic and reason. I can’t give a philosophy any more respect than that.”

The kettle whistled, and Jim went to the kitchen. He returned with the tea tray and set it on the center table.

“Tell me about your change—how you became a freethinker,” Paul said.

Jim eased back into the sofa. “I left the church in about 1885.”

“Why did you leave?”

“There was a falling out in the church. I wound up on the losing end, and Sam was part of the group that forced me out.”

“That must have been devastating.”

“I felt betrayed, but that’s another story. A few years later, Vive died—it’s been over twenty years now. I was still a Christian then, but struggling. How could God have taken Vive from me? Every Christian who endures the death of a loved one asks the same questions, of course, but it was especially tough since I didn’t have the church community for comfort. I felt very alone.

“Then I began noticing natural disasters that God apparently felt were necessary to impose on his favorite creation. One year, a blizzard in the Midwest killed hundreds of people, many of them children. It was called the Schoolhouse Blizzard. There was one Nebraska school—when the stove ran out of wood, the teacher led her students to another building less than a hundred yards away. The blowing snow made visibility so poor that they didn’t make it, and all the children froze to death.” Jim swallowed hard and faltered.

Jim ticked off other disasters that had made an impression, making clear that this wasn’t a period of unusual tragedy, just unusual awareness on his part. “These disasters prodded me. What explained natural evil? I called out to God and got no answer—as if there was no one on the other end of the telephone—and that was when I made those notes in my Bible. I felt abandoned, in agony.”

Paul often felt privileged when parishioners confided their difficulties in him, but he had rarely heard so personal a story.

“Then I began to take seriously the objections from the atheist side,” Jim said. “I knew them well, but I had always assumed that they were wrong. I had never given them a chance. But when I did, I noticed something surprising. The difficult questions in Christianity fell away when approached from the atheist viewpoint. Why do natural disasters happen? Because they just do—there is no conscious cause, no particular message behind them. Why does God answer my prayers but let millions of people die every year from malnutrition or disease? Because there is no God, just an unfeeling and indifferent Nature in which people are hurt sometimes. Why does God answer some of my prayers but not others, even the unselfish ones? Because there is no God to answer prayers, and I just imagined answers. Why is there support for slavery and barbarism in the Bible? Because it was written by ordinary men thousands of years ago and is a reflection of their primitive attitudes, nothing more.”

Jim set the cups on their saucers and swirled the tea in the pot. “It was a revelation—all the convoluted and flimsy rationalization that had been necessary before just vanished. My God hypothesis was a poor explanation of reality, and when I no longer insisted that it was correct and simply followed reality where it led me, things made vastly more sense.”

Continued in part 2.

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  • Ctharrot

    “Why is there support for slavery and barbarism in the Bible? Because it was written by ordinary men thousands of years ago and is a reflection of their primitive attitudes, nothing more.”

    Pretty much (although I kinda object to “primitive,” on account of I’m a PC snowflake). The Bible makes a lot more sense when read as a collection of manmade folklore, mythology, law, history, poetry, theology, propaganda, business correspondence, and fan fiction, rather than as the infallible Word of God. The OT laws, for instance, which we’re told an omnipotent, almighty, loving Creator dictated directly to Moses, didn’t represent some sort of quantum leap of justice. They were roughly as pragmatic, patriarchical, grubby, and gritty as the other law codes of Near East antiquity. Exactly what we’d expect from utterly human authors.

    I still remember sitting in the pews during the interminable, hollered sermons of my youth (two-hour charismatic services every Sunday, yay!), reading the Bible straight though, starting at Genesis 1:1, and being deeply troubled by the brutal and inhumane things done or ordered by Yahweh or his agents. It didn’t make me an atheist overnight, but it might’ve made me an atheist inevitably.

    To his credit, at least my dad didn’t try to BS me when I asked why God was okay with slavery, said there was to be no punishment for beating one’s slave to not-quite-immediate death, and instructed rape victims to marry their predators. (I mean, can you imagine??) “Yeah, son, good question, and I don’t have the answer. Seems pretty terrible, doesn’t it?” Of course we still kept going to service for years. On the bright side, post-church habit always took us to Godfather’s Pizza for lunch and arcade games. (Not a bad way to distract oneself from theological quandaries.)

    • RichardSRussell

      You might try perusing Ruth Hurmence Green’s The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible (1979), in which she details her own journey thru the same thot processes you had.

    • It’s interesting to hear that you objected to OT barbarism as soon as you read it. Some ex-Christians’ stories are more on the lines of, “I’d read the entire Bible a dozen times, and I never noticed that stuff until I started to doubt.”

      • Ctharrot

        Aye. The older I get, the more I grok how it’s human nature to perceive and remember what validates our position, and overlook or outright ignore what doesn’t. “A man hears what he wants to hear, and he disregards the rest,” sang the wise men Paul and Art.

        Reminds me of a conversation I had with my brother-in-law pastor (Assemblies of God) a couple of years ago. The topic of same-sex relations came up, and he didn’t know that the OT punishment, from the mouth of Yahweh hisownself, was execution. My brother-in-law had been preaching the Good News for a couple of decades, and just never really noticed the inhumane Bad Stuff in any detail.

      • epicurus

        It happens a lot, a questioner on Bart Ehrman’s blog asked why many Christians don’t see the contradictions, inconsistencies etc and Ehrman said it could be because they read it devotionally rather than critically. I never found problems until I read a book on the 5 points of Calvinism, after which I concluded either the bible contradicts itself, or God is evil. After that, I started to see biblical contradictions everywhere in every part of it about every topic.

        • they read it devotionally rather than critically.

          Good point. That parallels Robert Price’s observation about treating the Bible literally but not seriously.

      • al kimeea

        Or the nasty bits are explained away. I was told Deut 28 was about what could happen if you become destitute – you might have to eat your babies. Which isn’t what it says at all, nor can it be construed as a metaphor for the Donner Party. Unless they suffered their fate because of improper worship.

      • TheMountainHumanist

        The easiest dodge is to say: “But that’s under the Law…we’re under Grace.” So why do you keep the OT around if it means nothing to you? “Umm….tradition???”

      • eric

        I think there’s a middle ground. Growing up as a fairly liberal Lutheran, I think I just naturally assumed (call it cultural bias) that the horrific parts of the bible were the man-made parts and the shockingly progressive parts (love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc..) were the god-given parts. It’s not that I didn’t notice the gorey bits, more like I noticed them but didn’t give them any theological weight because I didn’t think they were true or relevant to my faith…until I started losing faith.

        I suspect that’s true of a lot of more liberal believers. They know the gorey bits (and patently ridiculous bits) are there. They just pigeonhole those bits in their minds as the “human” parts of the Bible. This is likely in contrast to more fundie christian youth, who can be swayed by considering those stories, either because they think the entire Bible – gorey bits included – are factually true/revelatory, or because their cultural bias causes them to reject different parts of the book (probably the exact bits I accepted :)).

        • “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

          The pastor should highlight the gory bits just as readily as the good stuff (of which there is precious little IMO).

  • Those horrifying OT storied did a lot toward pushing me down the road of atheism. Learning in college that protestants had summarily chucked out canonized scriptures broke my belief in my church’s teaching of inerrancy of scripture. Anti- LBGTQ bigotry and misogyny pushed me away too. Traveling to other parts of the world and seeing devotion to other religions as well as abject poverty pushed me awsu. Recognizing that Christianity and ancient Judaism were based on blood sacrifice revolted and pushed me away too. The doctrine of hell pushed me away.

    • SparklingMoon,

      Those horrifying OT storied did a lot toward pushing me down the road of atheism.
      ————————————————————————————————–
      Firstly, the Bible was revelation of prophet Moses(as) and of his follower Israel prophets who had been sent for moral and spiritual guidance of twelve tribes of Israel’s children. But the later coming followers of the Bible had changed and entered their own thoughts and teachings in the words of God Almighty . The external and internal evidence no longer support the view, that the record of the Old Testament as we possess it today constitutes the word of God as it was first revealed to Moses and his later coming Israel prophets. The revelation of prophet Moses ”Torah” as it exist today, is not the Torah which was revealed to Moses. For Example we read in Deuteronomy:” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. (6)And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day ( 34:5-6) These verses show clearly that they were composed and added hundreds of years after the time of Moses. It does not stand to reason that God ever addressed Moses, saying, “Nobody knows about your sepulchre unto this day.” Can such words be addressed to a living human being ?Can the words “unto this day” be used in a speech addressed to him ?

      This sort of editing is not confined to the Book of Moses. Other books of the Bible also suffer the same fate. In Joshua (24:29) we read:”And it came to pass after these things, that Joshua the son of Nun,the servant of the Lord,died,being an hundred and ten years old”. Similarly in Job (42:17) it is written : “So Job died, being old and full of days.” From these quotations it is quite obvious that the book of Joshua was not recorded by Joshua and the book of Job was not recorded by Job. They were instead the compilations of persons who came later, and who compiled these books from what they heard from other people. It is possible also that the Prophets whose teachings are recorded in the Bible collected the word of God as it was received by them, but the records left by them could not endure the ravages of time, and when they became extinct the people who came after wrote them again from their memory, and in doing so entered many of their own thoughts and judgements into them.

      Secondly , in Old Testament readers find some teachings hard as in comparison to the teachings of New Testament. Actually, the teachings of both Old Testament and New Testament , were for the people of Israel as Jesus was also an Israel prophet. Those prophets of Israel, Moses to Jesus, had given all teachings of guidance to their people but some of them stressed more to one or other teachings to fulfil the requirement of their reform. Mirza Ghulam Ahmed has explained in his writings that ‘the fault does not lie with the Torah but with the capabilities of their people. The Jewish people, with whom prophet Moses (peace be upon him) was concerned, had lived as slaves under the Pharaohs for four hundred years and experienced such severe persecution that they had become ignorant of the essence of equity and justice. It is obvious that if a ruler —who is also a teacher and mentor— is just, his justice will be reflected in the hearts of his subjects and they will naturally incline towards justice, civility and decency. But if he happens to be a tyrant, his subjects will also become cruel and oppressive and most of them will lose their sense of justice.

      This is what happened to the Israelites. Having lived for so long under the despotic rule of the Pharaohs and suffered all kinds of persecution, they lost the true spirit of justice. The primary obligation of Moses(as) was to teach them justice. This is why the Torah contained verses that laid so much stress on ensuring justice and equity. Of course, there are verses in the Torah which teach compassion but on closer analysis they only serve to protect the boundaries of justice and to curb unreasonable passions and vindictiveness.

      But the purpose behind the teaching of compassion contained in the Gospel, which lays overwhelming stress on forgiveness and avoiding retribution, is very different. A close look at the Gospel shows that it addressed people who lacked the virtue of forbearance and forgiveness and it desired that their hearts should not be eager to take revenge but that they should exercise patience, forbearance, forgiveness and clemency. This was because, by the time of Jesus(as), the moral condition of the Jews had greatly deteriorated. Litigation and vendetta had exceeded all limits and, under the pretext of upholding the rules of justice, they had completely lost the virtue of mercy and forgiveness. The teachings brought by the Gospel were thus specific to a particular time and people. But they did not present the true picture of the Divine law.

      • Greg G.

        Firstly, the Bible was revelation of prophet Moses

        Egyptian archaeology shows that the Israelis were never in Egypt in large numbers. There was never a large population who spent 40 years in the desert. Israeli archaeology shows that the Hebrews were just a sect of Canaanites. There was no Exodus so there was no Moses. If your belief system is founded on that, you need a new one.

        • SparklingMoon,

          Israeli archaeology shows that the Hebrews were just a sect of Canaanites. There was no Exodus so there was no Moses.
          ————————————————————
          The History of Middle East stamps that there was Moses and other prophets had appeared in this area. The existence of Arabs and people of Israel, in the area of Middle East, had been told by God Almighty to Abraham and it was revealed to prophet Moses in Torah. We read in the Bible that about five thousand years ago God Almighty made some promises with prophet Abraham and with his progeny. For example:

          ”And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing … and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3).

          And again (Genesis 13:15): For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.

          Further on (Genesis 17:16), we are told that Abraham’s wife Sarah
          also was promised a son: ”And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.

          And about his son Ishmael God Almighty told to Abraham: (Genesis 17:20-22): And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee (refers to Abraham’s prayer in Genesis 17:18—“O that Ishmael might live before thee”): Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.

          The History of middle East confirms that all these promises were fulfilled. God Almighty promised Abraham that He would multiply and bless his progeny.The land of Canaan was given over to the sons of Abraham and the progeny of Ismael and Isaac multiplied exceedingly . According to this promise, the sons of Isaac were
          established over Canaan and the sons of Ishmael over Arabia

          First from the progeny of Isaac arose the Prophets, Moses, David, Ezekiel, Daniel and Jesus. For two thousand years they ruled over Canaan. Their hold on it was never really abolished, though for a short time it became weak. After the seventh century A.D. the sons of Ishmael, instead, became its political and spiritual leaders.

          The strongest historical evidence consists of stable national
          traditions. For hundreds of years the people in Middle East regard themselves as descendants of Ishmael and Isaac no other people in the world so regard themselves. Better evidence than this there cannot be.

        • Greg G.

          The History of Middle East stamps that there was Moses and other prophets had appeared in this area. The existence of Arabs and people of Israel, in the area of Middle East, had been told by God Almighty to Abraham and it was revealed to prophet Moses in Torah. We read in the Bible that about five thousand years ago God Almighty made some promises with prophet Abraham and with his progeny.

          That is mythology. Lots of cultures had myths about their origins back then. Few are based on facts. They didn’t know where the sun went at night. They made up stories.

          It’s the 21st century already.

        • SparklingMoon,

          That is mythology. Lots of cultures had myths about their origins back then.
          ————————————————————–

          Firstly, God Almighty has endowed man with the faculty of reason, which, like a lamp, shows him the right path and dispels his doubts and misconceptions. It is an extremely useful and essential faculty and a great blessing. Nonetheless, it has one major flaw: it cannot, on its own, take us to the level of absolute certainty with respect to the true nature of things, for absolute certainty consists in knowing things as they actually are. Perfect certainty, whereby we rise from the level of ‘should be’ to that of ‘is’ is only achieved when reason finds an ally that is capable of confirming its speculative reasoning and bringing it into the realm of perceptible facts.

          The Ever-Merciful and Noble God, who desires to lead man to the level of absolute certainty, has fulfilled this need by providing human reason with many allies. Reason can have different allies from occasion to occasion, but they are no more than three as far as the limitations of reason allow. To illustrate: If the testimony of reason relates to perceptible objects that can be seen, heard, smelled or touched, the ally that helps it to reach the stage of certainty is called observation or experience. If the testimony of reason relates to events that happen or have happened in various ages and places, it finds another ally in the form of historical books, writings, letters and other records, which, like observation, bring clarity to the hazy light of reason, such that only a fool or madman will doubt them.

          If the testimony of reason relates to metaphysical phenomena, which we can not see with our eyes, hear with our ears, touch with our hands, or substantiate through historical records, then a third ally comes to the aid of reason. This is known as divine revelation.

          Secondly, to trust and have faith in others, unless there is a genuine reason for suspicion, is a part of human nature. Anyone who is unduly suspicious and distrustful is considered insane. Undue suspicion is thus a kind of madness that every reasonable person should do his best to avoid. God has invested man with the faculty of trust in the same way as He has ingrained truth and righteousness in his nature, so that one does not want to tell a lie or do evil unless prompted to do so. Had man not been blessed with a trusting nature, he would have been deprived of all the benefits of truthfulness and righteousness upon which rest the entire fabric of society and culture, and on which all domestic and national affairs are poised. (Ruhanikhazain)

        • Paul B. Lot

          Nonetheless, it has one major flaw: it cannot, on its own, take us to the level of absolute certainty with respect to the true nature of things, for absolute certainty consists in knowing things as they actually are. Perfect certainty, whereby we rise from the level of ‘should be’ to that of ‘is’ is only achieved when reason finds an ally that is capable of confirming its speculative reasoning and bringing it into the realm of perceptible facts.

          There is no such thing as the underlined.

        • Steven Watson

          I don’t have to be unduly anything to see you are quite obviously a loony.

  • Max Doubt

    Here’s what the Patheos cover page for the non-religious blogs has looked like since Tuesday. If there’s anyone left who doesn’t think the Patheos web developers have their heads up their asses, this ought to help you understand…

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/93e37d23cda9d43ad971d6a0e046044b2bed1d4de18dce3658d82f9959ec35dc.jpg

    • al kimeea

      It was far easier before The Change to browse all the blogs and pick somethng that looked interesting. And you knew it was fresh fruit.