Fr. Paul A. F. Castellano
What God are you Presenting?
If you’ve been a Christian for more than 15 minutes you’ve had the opportunity to share your faith and present the Gospel. During any of these moments invariably you’ve encountered someone asking, “Why did God let this happen?” Which is a colloquial way of saying, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”
As a professor who has taught apologetics at every level, from Sunday School to adult education classes, to graduate school I have had to address this issue often.
The issue of course is the so-called “Problem of Evil.” I’m a member of a number of FB pages on theology, philosophy, and apologetics, and lately, I’ve seen numerous posts addressing this question.
The Problem of Evil or in technical parlance, “Theodicy – the justification of God,” is a legitimate question and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as a pagan/atheist attempt to dismiss the Existence of God out of hand.
The nature of God and His attributes do present a challenge to Christians if one takes seriously events in the world that are “difficult” to understand. Now I want you to note that I said the Problem of Evil is a “challenge.” It is not, again in technical parlance, what philosophers call a “defeater.” It doesn’t automatically defeat the argument for God’s existence or Christianity in a broader sense.
When Christians rightfully assert that God is “good,” “omnipotent,” “loving,” “just,” etc., and then are presented with various events in the “world” that are, in the vernacular, “bad or evil,” we must address these apparent challenges and attempt to resolve them.
Historically the Problem of Evil and its first instance of being presented, is attributed to the Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.). Though the most common presentation of the argument used was the one popularized by the Scottish Skeptic David Hume and goes like this:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”
Since Hume’s expression of the argument, there have been numerous reiterations and reformulations such as the “Logical Problem of Evil,” “The Evidential Problem of Evil,” etc. With each reformulation of the argument, Christian thinkers and philosophers have presented rejoinders such as Alvin Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense,” or the “Definitional Problem of Evil” (where the standard of the unbeliever to call anything “good” or “evil” is challenged).
As I was reading some of the recent postings on the discussions of the Problem of Evil, I noticed a slight “flaw” in what we, as Christians, are using to challenge the Problem of Evil which, in fact, actually subtly strengthens the atheistic argument I believe unknowingly. It is this flaw that I want to discuss. I’m not going to present a technical discussion of the Problem of Evil. One can find that in numerous places. I want to look at this flaw in an attempt to hopefully assist others in future apologetic endeavors. I have no illusion that this will destroy or end the discussion. I only hope to make the Christian argument stronger and remove a peg upon which the atheist or agnostic is standing.”
As I was perusing FB I encountered a post dealing with comments by the British broadcaster, director, writer, actor, and comedian, Stephen Fry. Fry is fancied an “intellectual” and was discussing his single prominent reason for being an atheist, i.e., the Problem of Evil. He expressed, in very gory, graphic, and sensational detail, events that he believed provided him sufficient justification for rejecting God’s existence.
What struck me wasn’t his litany of complaints, I’ve heard them all before and he presented nothing new or compelling. On the contrary, what struck me was the feckless and inept responses Christians were giving to Fry’s claims – Christians who were supposed to be “apologists.”
The “flaw” I noticed was a woeful theological understanding of the nature, character, and attributes of God. This is not new, but to see it in this context was striking. In order to defend the existence of God, especially against someone who fancies themselves a “thinker” demands a Christian actually know what the character and attributes of God are! One does not need to be a theologian or philosopher, just familiar with the God whom they worship.
What I began to see is something I’ve identified in other places and that is that Christians do not see God and His attributes in their proper Biblical, Theological context but in the context of Greek philosophy.
This is usually done when Christians (or anyone for that matter) when discussing the “Nature” or attributes of God, do so by identifying them in a hierarchical manner. When one attribute is listed as the “primary,” “most important,” or “first” attribute to the subordination of all the other attributes, Christians have erroneously described who God is and what His nature happens to be.
This is a common trait within pagan thought and is particularly prevalent within Greek philosophy. For instance, just to cite a few examples of this, Zeus was the god of the “sky;” Poseidon was the god of the “seas and rivers;” Demeter was the god of “fruits, herbs, and crops;” Athena was the goddess of “wisdom, science, and justice;” Ares was the god of “violence and war;” and Aphrodite was the goddess of “love.”
Now each of these so-called “gods” had other attributes, but in the Greek pantheon of the gods, these attributes were hierarchically above all of their other attributes.
This essentially was as if they were identifying the gods as a list of their character from highest or first to lowest or last. As if they were “bullet-pointing” their attributes in the form of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on.
However, Christianity does not see God in this manner. For Christianity, the attributes of God are understood in a Hebraic manner such that each attribute is equal to and interconnected equally with all other attributes. R.C. Sproul does a fine job of discussing this in his material on the doctrine of God.
An example would be, if we’re discussing the nature of God we must understand that God’s justice is holy, righteous, merciful, loving, wrathful, etc. Likewise, God’s wrath is just, holy, righteous, loving, merciful, etc. They are all interconnected, all equal. Allow me a childhood illustration to crystalize my point concerning the difference between the Hebrew and Greek concepts. The Hebrew concept of understanding the attributes of God would be something like the following.
As a child growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, we used to go to Carnivals. In those Carnivals, amidst the rides, attractions, refreshments, and events there were these booths. These booths would allow the guests to pay a little money (this was the 60s after all, things were less expensive) and purchase a plain white rectangular or square piece of cardboard. The carny would then place the white piece of cardboard on a horizontal centrifugal spinner. He would turn the spinner on and the white cardboard would begin to rotate quickly. We would then pick up a squirt bottle of a particular color and squeeze a drop onto the spinning cardboard. We would do this over and over with each of the colors we chose.
When our time was up, the carny would remove the cardboard which was now bursting with all of the colors we used but they were all mixed and together in a kaleidoscope of intermingled colors where we couldn’t tell where one began and the other ended. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it presents the correct image. This is the Hebrew concept of God’s attributes.
It’s at this point where I began to notice what I’ve called the “flaw.” Christians become so overwhelmed when confronted with the problem of evil they try as hard as they can to present a counterproposal. In that attempt, they identify one particular and specific attribute of God to defend God’s nature and character and elevate it above all His other attributes. What they do is cite the fact that “God is love,” in an attempt to mitigate the existential difficulty of the criticism leveled against the goodness of God’s character for allowing evil.
There are two elements to this flaw I’ve seen. One is, that this could be considered simply a practical error. In an attempt to present an apologetic answer, the Christian uses God is love, in a practical way to defuse the challenge to God’s character. The other is an overarching and pervasive theological error that exists in evangelical theology.
It's important, at this point to understand what I’m saying. I’m NOT arguing that GOD IS NOT LOVE. On the contrary, Scripture makes that very clear. However, if we examine Scripture (and it doesn’t even require “deep” research), we can see the Scripture presents numerous attributes of God in the predicate position. Consider “some” (as you might imagine there are hundreds of other references I could've included) of the following verses and notice that they all come after the intransitive verb, is in the statement God is:
NKJ Deuteronomy 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, …
NKJ Deuteronomy 6:15 (for the LORD your God is a jealous God …),
NKJ Job 36:5 "Behold, God is mighty, …
NKJ Job 36:26 "Behold, God is great, …
NKJ Psalm 7:11 God is a just judge, …
NKJ Psalm 47:7 For God is the King of all the earth; …
NKJ Psalm 68:20 Our God is the God of salvation; …
NKJ Psalm 99:9 …For the LORD our God is holy.
NKJ John 4:24 "God is Spirit, …
NKJ 2 Corinthians 1:18 But as God is faithful, …
NKJ Hebrews 12:29 For our God is a consuming fire.
NKJ 1 John 1:5 … God is light …
NKJ 1 John 4:8 … God is love.
Pay close attention. These are only “some” of the attributes of God. Notice I haven’t included such attributes as sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. Each of these can be said to be a predicate of God’s character – God is omnipotent, God is sovereign, God is omniscient, etc. Therefore, to set any of these attributes above the others is to deviate from a Hebraic understanding of the nature of God and fall into the flaw of a Greek philosophic understanding of the nature of God.
There is an additional difficulty with this type of representation of who God is. Not only does it fall into Greek philosophy, but it also directly ignores significant statements that Scripture makes about who God is. Once again citing R.C. Sproul, Sproul has shown that part of Rabbinic tradition (as we do as well today) is the concept of emphasis, particularly in the teaching of Jesus.
Note the parables of Jesus and not the times when He says, “Verily I say to you” or “Verily, Verily is say to you.” This is to what Sproul is referring concerning Rabbinic emphasis. If something is important and the speaker, i.e., Jesus, wants His audience to pay particular attention and listen closely He will repeat His opening remarks – hence, “Verily, verily.”
This is a comparative manner of speech. It is comparing one thing with a lesser thing in the realm of importance for the sake of the audience. We use this today in underlining, bolding, italicizing, and inserting some sort of device to draw attention to the point we’re attempting to make.
However, if one wants to point out that what they are going to say is so important that it rises to the superlative sense, Scripture would indicate this by repeating it 3 x’s and there is only one attribute of God that is presented in this manner in Scripture and it occurs this way twice and that is holiness.
NKJ Isaiah 6:3 And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!"
NKJ Revelation 4:8 The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!"
Pause for a moment here. It is critical to understand I’m not attempting to contradict myself by making holiness the primary or most important attribute of God. What I’m pointing out is that even Scripture doesn’t elevate love to the superlative level when discussing God’s attributes. Holiness, along with love, justice, mercy, etc., MUST be understood and be presented when engaging in an apologetic encounter.
Final Observation and Suggestion:
Now that I’ve brought this up, what is to be done and why is it a concern? First, let me demonstrate the concern. Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th-century atheist developed what he called an “anthropological philosophy.” He was incredibly influential during this period with such luminaries as Darwin, Marx, Freud, Engels, the musician Richard Wagner, and none other than the ”arch-atheist” of his day, Friedrich Nietzsche.
Feuerbach is famous for making the following claim:
“God did not, as the Bible says, make man in His image; on the contrary man, as I have shown in The Essence of Christianity, made God in his image.”
This assertion has made hay for almost 200 years and is still proffered today as an argument against Christianity. A simply reading of the Gospels and a rudimentary understanding of religious anthropology in comparison with Christianity refutes Feuerbach’s assertion. All one has to do is pick up the most basic introduction to apologetics or theology to refute this argument.
HOWEVER, there is an element of truth to this, and here is the connection to what I’ve mentioned above. When someone incorrectly presents a Greek philosophical understanding of God’s attributes; when they list one particular attribute of God as superior and elevate it above all the rest; when one asserts that God is love (no matter how correct that statement is), YET doesn’t account for the other attributes when engaging in an apologetic encounter, they are, essentially, fulfilling Feuerbach’s dicta and creating God in their own image.
Additionally, using this formula for apologetic discussion also minimizes the fallenness of man, it misunderstands the true damage of sin in relation to God’s holiness, doesn't recognize that all mankind is under God's wrath and due to their sin, faces and deserves judgment, and it weakens the force of the Gospel. It is only the Cross of Christ expressed in that Gospel that only temporarily suspends man's impending judgment and allows him the opportunity to repent.
This presentation is incredibly damaging to the apologetic enterprise because it essentially lets the atheist off the hook, so to speak. Now I completely understand that the average Christian is not a professional apologist; they are not attempting to deviate from orthodox Christianity; and they are not trying to “let the atheist off the proverbial hook.” But that is what invariably occurs in practice. The unbeliever hears, "God is love," and is released from the pressure brought upon them by their own sin. The psychology becomes, 'a loving God won't judge me or send me to hell. I'm not that bad.'
To avoid this my suggestion is as follows:
Whenever the problem of evil arises, what should be considered is acknowledging – in the mind of the apologist – the full nature of God. This is not to say one must go into an excursive of the attributes of God. Not at all. But what should be done is remember, we are presenting a holy, loving, righteous, merciful, just, wrathful God to people who have violated His holy, loving, righteous, merciful, just, wrathful character. They must understand what Jesus said:
NKJ Luke 13:1 There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And Jesus answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?
3 "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
4 "Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?
5 "I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
Each apologetic encounter is different and must be handled according to the context and circumstances. We do not engage in cookie-cutter Christianity. However, THIS is our God! And a fallen world MUST be confronted with HIM in His completeness – that means His justice, holiness, wrath, etc., not exclusively that He is loving.
Soli Deo Gloria.