I’ve been reading an interview with outspoken atheist comedian Bill Maher in the Atlantic. The interviewer asked him a question about God and his answer was intriguing to me. The question was along the lines of Pascal’s Wager: “What if you’re wrong and you’re dooming yourself to hell? Do you ever worry about that?” Here is Maher’s response:
Of all the reasons to be religious, that is one of the dumber ones. What if I’m wrong? If it’s the God of the Old Testament, I am so f***ed already and so are you and everybody else. A more psychopathic character you will not find in all of fiction. Just the idea that people worshiped the God of this Bible is insane… As far as the question of how do we know? No, we don’t know. Am I a billion percent sure. Nobody is a billion percent sure of anything. But I am pretty sure that it’s not that God had a son. You know, he’s this orb of perfect energy, this powerful beyond imagination, but he’s got kids… So you know we don’t know the answers but the answer to that is not to make up stories. If you don’t know something, just say I don’t know. That’s your gospel right there. The gospel of “I don’t know”… I don’t know what happens when I die, and I don’t care.
Reading this makes me sad because of the way the conversation has been framed. I’m struck first by what he said about the God of the Old Testament. He’s responding to a caricature, but it’s a very widely disseminated caricature. If the God the fundamentalists believe in is the real God, then I agree with Maher: we’re all f***ed (except for the fundamentalists). I wouldn’t make the cut, and I’m a pastor. It doesn’t matter that I’ve prayed Jesus into my heart multiple times and spent every Monday fasting and talking to Him. Because if my conversion were legitimate, then I would zealously agree with all the fundamentalist doctrine and I would rejoice at the thought that God is being glorified by torturing my kind, soft-spoken atheist grandfather in hell forever instead of holding out hope that I’ll somehow see him again.
The thing is I’m suspicious that a lot of fundamentalist belief is driven by the need to one-up each other in how hard-core they are and thus establish their credibility with each other. The meaner your God is, the less possibility there is that anyone can accuse you of being a “worldly liberal,” which is the most dreadful thing that you could possibly be called. The tragic byproduct of this chest-thumping competition is the ammunition it gives to the “fundamentalist” atheist echo chamber who are likewise trying to one-up each other and prove their credibility through their disdain for religion. It’s similar to the relationship between the US and Iran. The Iranian president has to talk tough to play to his conservative base, and the US has to bend over backwards to appease the evangelical Zionist lobby, which is why there will never be peace in the Middle East until the fundamentalists on both sides lose their political power.
In any case, it’s a tragedy to me that this is the way the question of religion is framed for Bill Maher and people like him. Pascal’s Wager is fourth-grade level thinking as is the intelligence-insulting, self-interest-appealing “eternal fire insurance” approach to the gospel. I really get tired of Christians sneering at modern secularism and gleefully celebrating the 20th century demise of the myth of progress with the disasters created by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others like them. As horrible as those tragedies were, they don’t prove that Victorian England at the advent of the industrial age was a better society to be poor in than 21st century America. If we have any integrity, we have to own up to the sober reality that the same forces that secularized the US rapidly in the last half of the 20th century also made things much better for gay people, women, and people of color, and that white evangelical Christians remain an obstacle to the continual improvement of the lives of each of these categories of people, which doesn’t mean that secularism hasn’t also caused a lot of damage. It’s a completely mixed bag.
I don’t mourn the fact that birth control has completely transformed women’s career prospects today over what they were sixty years ago, even though I mourn the hyper-sexualized culture that our monstrous capitalist economy has created and made so much money from. Of course I would probably claim that the Western secularism that has done some good is really a renegade branch of Christianity, rebels who are no more beyond the pale for us than apostate Samaritans and traitorous tax collectors were to faithful 1st century Jews. I’m sure Maher would be irritated by that characterization but he’s built whatever ethical system he follows from the legacy of mostly Judeo-Christian values that continue to permeate within our culture unanchored from their originating story, within which the same values are found in greater potency.
So what about what Maher says about God having a son? How can an “orb of perfect energy powerful beyond imagination” have a child? Good question! Maher’s right. It doesn’t make sense. The reason it’s so easy for many Christians to believe is because they’ve made God into an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere. If Jesus’ story is obviously credible, then there’s nothing incredible about it. If we could actually look at the universe with fresh eyes, it is in-credible to think that whoever made all that was fully incarnated into some guy who was walking around two thousand years ago. I believe it of course, but why should we act like it’s the most simple, obvious thing in the world? It’s a ridiculous claim.
The reason I believe Jesus is the Son of God is not because I think Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and all the other Christian apologists have made a slam dunk case for Jesus that only idiots wouldn’t agree with. I wish I could say that David Bentley Hart makes a better case with his Experience of God but his mean-spirited snobbery sabotages whatever intellectual sophistication he brings to the table (which makes me think he mostly wrote it to his fawning First Things reader base so they could enjoy scoffing together at the stupid atheists that Hart won’t lower himself to actually engage directly). The reason I believe Jesus is everything the Bible claims about him is simply because I have encountered the living resurrected Christ in my personal life. And His story is the most beautiful way of explaining the world that I have found. I got bullied as a kid; Jesus got bullied as a messiah. His cross and resurrection are vindication for everyone who has ever been picked on. Instead of being the status quo-validating baptism of suburban values that it’s become, Christianity is supposed to be afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I could go on and on, but you’ll just have to read my other posts.
Maher says if you don’t know, don’t make up a story, just admit that you don’t know. He should talk to Greg Boyd, who doesn’t have any problem with doubt. I’ll admit that I don’t know for sure whether I’ll find out when I die that the Buddhists were actually right about the structure of reality. I can’t get my head around how a physically resurrected life after death would work since life and death are so inextricably linked in biology. That kind of hangup might be something to ridicule for simple-minded people who don’t think about details like the whale’s stomach acid in the story of Jonah or the logistical problem Noah would have faced to fit into a boat the size of a football field several million species of animals whose natural existence depends upon a food chain that involves eating each other. In whatever case, it doesn’t matter to me that parts of the story don’t make sense except that I need to have the integrity to admit that they don’t.
Bottom line is that they’re all part of the world’s most beautiful story and I’m all in. I believe in the communion of the saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Most of all, I believe that whoever created all this is a God whose nature is perfect love. If somehow we’re wrong about some detail that the Muslims have right, the God I’ve talked to for the past 36 years is not going to say, “GAR!!! Infidels! Now I will burn you forever.” He told me to seek and I would find and knock and the door would be opened to me, and I’ve sought Him out and knocked on His door with all the sincerity I could muster, so I’m standing on that promise.
I don’t know why God tells a fundamentalist like John Piper what He tells John when John prays sincerely with all of his heart, but I don’t believe John has been talking to a demon all this time just because I find some of his teachings to be harmful and ugly. If God is able to accommodate the vastly different journeys that John Piper and I are on, then maybe He’s also been on a deep undercover mission to atheists like Bill Maher saying, “Fine, you don’t believe in my story, I’m not going to fold my arms and scowl at you; I’m going to sneak in the back door of your hearts with spiritual fruit that has the ‘God’ label scratched off so that I can shape you for coming to my eternal party anyway.”
I don’t have the authority to tell God to let Bill Maher and the atheists into heaven. Neither do the fundamentalists get to tell Him they’ll be mortally offended and do a sit-in at the pearly gates if He operates with a grace that doesn’t abide by their interpretation of its limits. I believe that God is perfectly good, not just in a mechanistic, error-free sense but in the sense of being perfectly benevolent toward each and every one of His creatures. Whatever God does will be right and it will be much wiser and more perfect than the clunky wooden caricatures that fundamentalism puts forward to represent “divine justice” or anything I could come up with either, for that matter. God’s justice is infinitely nuanced beyond our comprehension, not just infinitely picky.
So I’m just going to keep listening to God and keep telling the beautiful story He gives me to tell. It’s okay with me for God to give the fundamentalists a different version of His story if what I’ve heard from Him simply doesn’t work for the way they’re wired, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let their gospel be the only one that atheists like Bill Maher get to hear.