The second big objection to God’s goodness and God’s greatness we are going to look at is atheism. This says that if we have a problem with saying that God is good or that God is great, then the better option is to deny both: to say that God is neither good nor great. In fact, such a God does not exist at all.Note that there are two dimensions to this discussion.
- The requirement for proof of the existence of God and particularly the clash between modern theories about origins and the Bible’s creation account.
- Ethical questions about the God defined and described in the Bible and seen as representative of monotheism. The atheist argument (especially as presented by the new atheists, including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is that the biblical God is not good and not worthy of worship.
A normal theism/atheism debate will focus on the first question, but that’s not my primary concern here as our discussion starts from a different place. Also there’s plenty of both young earth and old earth creationists around who have been getting on with that debate.
Our focus here is more about thinking through the implications of and challenges to the little bit of doctrine we’ve been looking at. So I want to focus primarily on the challenge to God’s goodness.
However, we can’t completely ignore question 1 even in this context. So, before moving on to the specific questions about God’s goodness raised by atheists, we’ll take a brief look at questions to do with proof of his existence.
If God exists why doesn’t he show up and prove it?
This is really about demanding evidence or proof for God’s existence. Classical apologetics talks about these proofs or arguments under headings such as the ontological, teleological and cosmological arguments.
So the argument goes that there must be a greater intelligence to explain the design, beauty and order in the Universe, that the Universe must have come from somewhere and so there must have been a first cause and that if we can conceive of a perfect being, then its very perfection depends upon it actually existing.
Now, there are some significant issues with starting with these arguments and I don’t think that they should be treated as proof in the sense of “here’s the killer evidence.” I say this for three reasons.
- Evidence is usually interpretable and even faced with “evidence” people may choose not to accept that it is telling them what you think it is telling them.
- Something feels wrong with this type of argument by proofs because I end up debating God as a theory/hypothesis – but that’s not what you do with people/friends. You introduce friends to other friends.
- We end up falling far short of where we want to be. The classical arguments don’t get us to the God of the Bible. We conclude with Anthony Flew that there is a higher entity, but exactly what sort of god is that? We are still a long way from the Gospels.
So someone who doesn’t believe in God or want to believe in God is unlikely to be either convinced by the “evidence” or end up in the right place. And I still think that whilst the “goodness” challenge exists then for some people, their immediate response will be “even if you could prove your God exists, I still would not want to meet him.”
However, I think they do provide two important functions. First, of all, they offer an articulation of the assurance that believers have that the God they know and worship is real. Secondly, they help to explain the picture we are building up of a credible narrative for why we are here and who we are where that narrative starts with the creator God.
You see, that’s what we are doing here. We’re attempting to tell the history of why we are here. Now, what historians do is to assemble the most credible story that best explains the data we have.
So if my story or metanarrative is that there is an eternal and personal God who created and sustains the universe, then when I talk about things like evidence of design or the need for a first cause, then those things fit with the story.
Or, take the ontological argument of Anselm. This would look like the weakest of the classical proofs. This is the one that says if we can conceive of a perfect being, then an important aspect of perfection is existence. Now at face value, that just sounds like wish fulfilment. However, properly argued, this “proof” is really about our sense of the transcendent – there must be more than this. Now of course, it could just be wish fulfilment and so it’s not a proof. But it also fits the narrative of a creator God very well. If my natural desires for food, comfort, relationships etc. arise in response to real needs that can be met by real food, comfort, relationships, then why shouldn’t my desire for the transcendent reflect a real need for something/someone more and a need that can really be fulfilled?
Now, I’ve got an alternative story to place alongside the theistic account. This is the idea that we evolved without a personal God being involved. The story starts with a primeval soup of gases and then, something starts to happen, causing chemical reactions and the formation of molecules.  Then one day, something significant happens:
“At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator. It may not be necessarily have been the biggest or most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man, things that are that improbable can be treated for practical purposes as impossible. That is why you will never win a big prize on the football pools. But in our human estimates of what is probable and what is not, we are used to dealing in hundreds of millions of years. If you filled in pools coupons every week for a hundred million years you would very likely win several jackpots.”
But there’s still a vital ingredient missing or we’d just have lots of identical molecules around busy cloning each other.
“So we seem to arrive at a large population of identical replicas. But now we must mention an important property of any copying process: it is not perfect. Mistakes will happen.”
Richard Dawkins goes on to explain:
“erratic copying in biological replicators can in a real sense give rise to improvement, and it was essential for the progressive evolution of life that some errors were made.”
Variation in numbers, longevity and stability mean some replicators are better equipped to survive than others. These replicators are found in us now:
“Now they swarm in huge colonies safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous, indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind, and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes and we are their survival machines.”
Now, that’s a fascinating story, but it has a big problem because it starts with time, but fails to give account for eternity. In other words, time and matter came from somewhere. You see, every account of the Universe has got to put that Universe into context – where and when are we in the bigger scheme of things. Every meta-narrative has to deal with what happened before the beginning of space and time. Every story needs to deal with eternity.
Atheists have two real options. The first is that there was a when, when there was nothing, in which case, they’ve still got to explain how that primordial soup turned up. Or alternatively, they’ve got to say that matter itself is eternal, that there’s been some form of energy around in what we might call the “previ-verse.” Now, that sounds very close to pantheism – the idea that God and creation are one and the same. In fact, Dawkins draws a similar sort of conclusion. When dealing with reports of famous scientists supposedly believing in or referring to God, he responds by saying that first of all we want to define what we mean by God. He defines the theist’s God as
“a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them).”
He then distinguishes theism from deism.
“A deist too believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs.”
Then finally he describes pantheism:
“Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings.”
In Dawkins’ view, when people like Einstein and Stephen Hawking refer to God, they do so in the pantheist sense.
“Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking and so are most of those physicists who occasionally slip into the language of religious metaphor.”
He goes on to say that it is the theist God, not the pantheist God, that he has a problem with,
“My title, The God Delusion, does not refer to the God of Einstein and other enlightened scientists of the previous section. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of the book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.”
Now, note that Dawkins’ pantheism is intended to be only metaphorical. He’s not saying that the Universe is divine in the same way that a theist would use the word divine. Mind you, I’m not convinced that a purist pantheist would accept that their understanding of divinity in creation is purely metaphorical either! However, what he is doing is setting up the Universe around us, physical matter, as the ultimate foundational entity.
But the problem hasn’t been dealt with. You see, this account does not make best sense of things like intelligence, emotions, personality, relationships etc. So we’ve either got a dilemma because the cause does not seem to fit the effect, or we have to explain away emotions and intelligence as not really existing at all, which no-one seems quite able to bring themselves round to doing.
So when I’m looking for a credible metanarrative, I don’t find that the “atheistic evolution” story hangs together with credibility. It doesn’t make sense of the things it is meant to make sense of. For example, we talk about “evolutionary progress,” but without a sense that there’s a standard to measure how we are doing against and a goal to go towards. So then the idea of progress becomes meaningless. It’s like taking a walk without either a map or an intended destination. You can’t call that “progress.” It’s just wandering around!
In fact, this is what we’ve seen in recent times. That metanarrative collapsed. If ontologically everything is random, if we are just here by chance, then epistemologically things end up the same way too. We find that we can’t actually tell a story to describe who we are, why we got here and what we are doing. The metanarrative collapses. Stories and even language itself become arbitrary. That’s why you end up with postmodernism.
You see, the story in the end is not about humanity at all, but about these things called genes that replicate and mutate and supposedly do what they need to in order to survive – but no one can actually tell me why these genes should exist or want to keep on existing. There is no meaning to existence. So I think that the other story carries more credibility; I do better to go back to revelation.
Then, supposing that the answer to the question “if God exists, why doesn’t he prove it? – why doesn’t he show up?” is “Well, he has.”
That’s the Christian view of Jesus. God shows up. God becomes man and lives among us. Jesus displays God’s wisdom with his teaching, God’s love with his compassion for us and obedience to his father; Jesus shows God’s power in his miracles. He calms the sea, heals the sick and he himself dies and rises.
If we are going to make this claim, then the focus is going to be on the question “can we be certain that Jesus really did live, die and rise again?” The resurrection becomes the crucial factor (which is what the Gospel writers understand as well).
Now, we know about Jesus and the resurrection through the Gospel accounts, so a subsidiary question will be “can we actually trust those accounts to be reliable?” Space here doesn’t permit a full discussion of the question, but it is worth noting the following.
- External evidence is helpful when seeking to date and get a feel for the reliability of the Gospels. This includes the volume of manuscripts available and their close proximity to the original events which compare favourably with other historical events. It also includes external reference to Gospel authors by other writers.
- Internal evidence that helps us to identify the context in which books were writte. For example, when dating Luke and Acts, we note that Acts finishes prior to Peter and Paul’s deaths. It would be legitimate for the writer to deal with those events without compromising an early dating of them. Therefore, the most likely explanation is that those events had not yet taken place when Luke and Acts were written. Similarly, JAT Robinson has argued that the Gospel and other New Testament writers handling of Jesus’ words concerning Jerusalem and the Temple suggest that they are writing prior to the actual fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
So, we can have a high level of confidence that when we pick up the New Testament, we are dealing with credible eyewitness accounts. Additionally, because of the way those accounts work, there’s strong evidence that we are dealing with genuine, independent eye witnesses with their own accounts to tell, not with a group of people that colluded to concoct a story.
This means that we find each Gospel author making use of each other’s written material. At the same time, they pick up on and emphasise different aspects of the story. They do this in a way that does not contradict, but rather each piece of material supplements and adds to the other.
Now, when we come to the resurrection accounts, some alternative theories have been presented to try and account for the empty tomb. These include
Swoon – Jesus wasn’t really dead when they placed him in the tomb and so revived overnight. This seems unlikely. The Romans had a good track record for executing people and the piercing of Jesus’ side appears to have gone through to his internal organs. Additionally, someone who has been through a crucifixion and just about survived is unlikely to make a convincing resurrected Messiah.
Fraud – That the body was stolen. But by who and to what purpose? It doesn’t really suit the aims of Jesus’ rivals and his supporters stuck quite consistently to their story even under the threat of torture, exile and execution.
Superstition and hallucination – The problem with this is that the women and the disciples are not looking for a resurrected Jesus. In fact, they assume to start with that one of the other explanations is the reason for the disappeared body.
So these alternative explanations have been comprehensively answered over the years. I guess that the final explanation is “myth:” that it’s an attempt to tell a story to explain things and provide the basis for a new religion. Now such an approach assumes a couple of things. First of all, that the accounts were written long after the supposed life of Jesus (see above on this) and that they don’t stand up to the test of historical reliability. In other words, the argument is that the gospel writers did not do a good job of inventing their story; that the stories don’t really match up.
Now, eye witnesses, if they are not colluding, won’t sound exactly the same – but they shouldn’t contradict each other and whilst harmonisation of different eye witness accounts may be difficult, it should not be impossible.
Personally, I think it a strange idea that an editor would clumsily shove together contradictory accounts and in any case, I do think you can put a harmonised version of the whole story together. This would run something along the lines of the following:
Very early in the morning, some women go to the tomb. Mary Magdalene is one of them. It looks like they set off before dawn and dawn is breaking as they arrive. They arrive about the time that the stone is removed. There are angels there. The women run back and tell Peter and John that the stone has been moved and the body gone. Peter and John run to the tomb and witness this.as well. This leads John towards some form of belief, but Peter is still wondering what is going on. Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb and there the angels speak to her – she’s still weeping and in distress, but then, turning around, she meets Jesus. He sends her to speak to the others.
During the day, Jesus appears to two disciples going back to Emmaus and then at some point to Peter. Then he appears to the gathered disciples – collectively referred to as the 11 but without Thomas at this point. They report to Thomas – he does not believe. Jesus appears to all the disciples with Thomas now present.
They are instructed to go to Galilee. This includes a fishing trip and a walk up a mountain where they are commissioned to go and make disciples of all nations. They then return to Jerusalem. Jesus meets them at Bethany. They go out to a hill from where he ascends to Heaven. They return into Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.
Now there are afew of things to note here.
- That each account does not name all the people or give all the details – but there’s consistency. For example, there are multiple women with Mary Magdalene standing out as a notable representative (it’s possible even in John’s gospel that Mary’s use of “we” refers to the women together. Although John does not list all the women, that does not mean that they were absent.
- That in some places there are multiple options for the exact chronology of events. For example, it’s possible that Matthew tells us about one conversation with angels and it’s later repeated to Mary, but it’s also possible that all the women return to the tomb with Mary and that Matthew concentrates the story down so that he doesn’t over distinguish between the first visit to the tomb and the second.
- That the different accounts give different amounts of space and detail so some things will get summarised up in different ways. This can be seen in an analysis of the amount of detail that each author goes into. A quick word count using the NIV version shows that each writer’s account gives the following amount of space to the Resurrection story.
- Matthew 435 words
- Mark 186 words
- Luke Acts 1326 words
- John 1,455 words
- That none of the accounts give a full description of everything that happens. For example, the appearance to Peter is alluded to, but not described and then there’s the 500 witnesses that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 15.
So a little bit of work and thinking may be needed from the reader in piecing together the eye witnesses, but notice that at no point does one account contradict the others. They complement each other.
So, returning to our best fit meta-narrative, we can say that there’s an eternal and personal God who made, orders and looks after this world. That this world shows all the hallmarks of design, order, beauty that you would expect if a good God had made it. That this good God shows up consistently through history and is not at a distance, but interacts with his creation – most notably in the person of Jesus who demonstrates power over creation, weather, sickness, resources and authority over life and death itself. We also see that we human beings recognise in ourselves an inner longing for something greater and beyond ourselves. We are aware of eternity. We are designed to worship.
The point is that this world view works. The story is consistent and coherent and the truth claims associated enable us to make sense of the big questions we ask including:
Where did this world come from?
Why am I here?
Is there more than this?
Do I have purpose/a future?
Which leads us into the second part of the discussion – is the God revealed in Scripture good or malign?
 NB We will also come back to it later on when we look at the question of creation.
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 14.
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 15.
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 16.
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 16.
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 17.
 Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 20.
 This leads into a more detailed discussion around The Big Bang and when, how, if the Universe had a start point. So for example, Stephen Hawking tends to talk about the Universe as finite but without a boundary -similar to how we think about the earth in terms of space. His explanations are a little difficult to pin down -maybe because he is still working through a thought process and maybe because that thought process is of one very clever quantum physicist! So there seems to be a tension within his own thinking with the start of time in some sense at the big time and the Universe in some sense being self- existence. We of course have the challenge of the world renowned physicist accommodating their language to communicate with the likes of me. So for example, when Hawking talks about time being finite but unbounded like the Earth, then I think “quite. Of course you can walk around the world without falling off of it. However that doesn’t mean there isn’t something beyond it. The earth being finite sits in a context and there is something beyond.” This is probably something for greater discussion when we move to the Creation theme in due course. (c.f. http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-origin-of-the-universe.html and http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-beginning-of-time.html both cited 16-04-2016).
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 39.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 39.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 39.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 40.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 41.
 NB For interest, see the very interesting discussion around Carston Peter Theide & Matthew D’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus (1994) and Carston Peter Thiede, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish origins of Christianity (2003). The debate and discussion that followed these publications demonstrates the challenge of evaluating and interpreting evidence including archaeological data.
 See for example, JAT Robinson, Redating The New Testament (London. SCM, 1976).
 For a fuller discussion of this question check out FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents are they Reliable (1943) and Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (1987).
 There appear to be a couple of common sources underpinning the text of what we call the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke). Some scholars refer to a hypothetical source called Q though whether or not this was a specific collection of writings or simply reflects that either Matthew or Luke had access to the other’s account is debatable. Additionally, both Matthew and Luke appear to make use Mark’s material though it is not simply a case of copying across.
 She is possibly accompanied by the other women – see later comments and notes.