Douglas Jacoby on Answering Skeptics: An Old Man in the Sky!

Thursday, 09 July 2015 14:09

Douglas JacobyThese are momentous times. Given the furor in the news of late, some recipients of this newsletter might prefer that we dedicate an issue or two to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay unions. This is important, and aiming to provide some help in navigating the issues, I've produced a short article on gay unions, as well as a podcast. Yet our priority is to continue with our series Answering Skeptics. After all, we Christians should be known for what we stand for, more than for what we stand against.

First, the summary of last week's unit; then, our first foray into material under a new heading, God.

Recap: Nonsense questions

  • Nonsense questions aim to discredit the classical concept of God as, for example, negating his omnipotence.

  • Nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1:37), yet this refers to what is logical or meaningful. There are some things God cannot do -- yet not because he lacks power, but because they are logically impossible (like creating "loud silence").

  • When nonsense questions are reworded, they are exposed as meaningless (no one can create non-silent silence, and it is meaningless as a concept). God sees through such clever questions, and we should too (Job 5:13; 1 Cor 3:19; 2 Cor 10:5; Col 2:4).

The Answering Skeptics series: Hypocrisy, Scripture, Morality, Nonsense questions, God, Science, Suffering, Miracles, Christ, and Religion

Old Man in the Sky

"How can you Christians believe in an old man in the sky?" You may have been asked that question, and you probably replied, "We don't." The common caricature of God is ridiculous. Atheists and Christians hold similar reasons for rejecting the caricature, and this has the potential to open up many profitable lines of discussion. All the following questions make the same assumption. Can you tell what that assumption is?

  • "How can God possibly hear millions of prayers at the same time?"

  • "What color is he (white, black, Latino)"?

  • "Is God male, or female?"

  • "Why does he want to spoil our fun?"

  • "The Bible says he's a jealous God. What's his problem?"

  • "The Bible says he's angry. Isn't such behavior inappropriate for a being with all knowledge and all power? And eternal torture -- what a barbarian!"

  • "Why should he need our worship? Is he insecure?"

  • "Why does the Bible say God regretted creating mankind? (Oops!)" 

Human limitations

What underlies each question is an assumption that God shares our limitations. It's a view of God as a slightly more advanced version of ourselves. Yet if the true God is the one described in the Bible -- spirit, not flesh; personal, but not human; and real, though not bound by space-time -- then each question is easily answered. 

If all times are equally accessible to God, then he has all eternity to consider our prayers. He isn't black or white, because he's not a human. Nor is he male or female. Both genders express his image, and yet God is not sexual. (Check out the podcast on The Gender of God.)

He isn't some senile, doting grandfather -- or the opposite, a cranky killjoy, too old to have fun, (so he forbids us to). Besides, outside time is there aging? We can't pull a fast one on God, as he is all-knowing. Yet his aim isn't to smother us, but to off

There are many passages that refer to the "arm," of the Lord, or his "eyes," etc -- expressing his power, knowledge, and so forth. This is anthropomorphic language (from anthropos, human + morphē, form), accommodated to our level, so that we can relate to him. For example, when the Lord walks in the Garden in the cool of the day and asks Adam, "Where are you?", we shouldn't think he's lost track of the him, any more than that his presence in the Garden means he isn't omnipresent (immanent in the entire cosmos).

Many skeptics seem to assume that jealousy is unworthy of divinity, but it is not. Shouldn't we husbands jealously guard our wives? Surely we shouldn't share them with other men. Is anger always wrong? Shouldn't God be angry with the perpetrators of genocide? In fact, if he weren't jealous and angry, he would not be God. There is no reason to think that divine anger or jealousy is tinged with selfishness, as it so often is in our case. As for nonstop, infinite torture -- there are strong reasons for rejecting this notion. God is just, so if anyone deserves punishment, it will be fair (Luke 12:47-48).

God doesn't need our worship; the need lies wholly on our side. When we are improperly oriented to the king of the universe, we are filled with deceitful pride and bring harm to ourselves and to others. Worship is the natural response of the creature in the presence of its creator. As for "regretting" (some versions of Gen 6:6 say "repenting," though "relenting" is a better word), God's pain at our sin involves no element of surprise, as though the Deity were caught off guard. (He knew it was coming.) Yet he feels pain because his relationship with us is actual, not fictive.

This is only a smattering of questions and responses. All these points can be backed up with scriptures, so in your discussion quote them if that helps your friend to understand. I have discovered that most atheists are taken aback when they first hear a reasonable portrayal of God. Sometimes at this point they look away, realizing that their first line excuses are weaker than they'd supposed.

So how should we respond to the atheist who declines to believe in "the old man in the sky"? Gently correct them, with the goal to help them to re-imagine what the true God is like.

  • Where possible, agree with him/her! The old man in the sky turns out to be a straw man; neither of you believes in it. You have something in common.

  • Commend them where their insights are "biblical." Get them to think outside the box. Ask "What kind of a God could you believe in?" Your friend may be closer to the kingdom than you realize.

  • Emphasize that the God of the Bible is spirit, not flesh; personal, yet not subject to human weakness; and somehow above (not trapped in) space and time. 

Until next week

Thanks for your support as we strive together to think about faith. Or, to adapt a phrase from Ravi Zacharias, please join with me in my ministry to "help thinkers to believe, and believers to think."

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