How the Bible Goes Wrong: The Nature of God

"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 whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" Epicurus

“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 whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” -Epicurus

When I considered writing about the nature of the Christian god, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it. The subject is a major source of contention among Christians themselves…although that could be said of just about anything deeper than “Jesus saves” (and even that might get you in trouble if you say it with the wrong tone of voice).

As in the previous article, I’m trying to address the most common literal interpretation of the bible, which is what I was raised with and what most of my friends and family believe. In this case, let’s start with the version of the Christian god who has the following attributes: 1) He is omnipotent; 2) He is omniscient; 3) He is loving and benevolent toward us; 4) He desires that all humans join him in heaven.

The first and most glaring problem I have arises directly from the combination of these four attributes with the popular version of hell, and is the reason I rejected hell long before I rejected the rest of Christianity. I know there are Christians with a very different concept of how god might deal with unbelievers in the afterlife, and I applaud them for thinking seriously about it. But the vast majority cling to the old manipulative story of eternal suffering.

The problem is that according to the bible, god desires to save every single human, and has the ability to do so. Such a god would save every single human unless something stopped him. Since the only thing that can stop him is himself (his own will), he would have to desire something else more than saving people. Yet that is not the picture we’re given of the Christian god. We are told that he chose us over his own self (or over his “son”, if you prefer). The story of god sacrificing Jesus in order to save us is supposed to prove how much he cares about us. He chose us over any of his other desires, proving that saving us is, in fact, his greatest desire.

This reasoning leads to the conclusion that nobody will go to hell because nothing will stop god from getting what he wants, and what he wants is to take everyone to heaven. The objections from Reformed/Calvinist Christians usually involve trying to explain away the verses that clearly say “god desires to save everyone”. I prefer to think that if a god says “I want to save everyone”, he actually means it. Dishonest manipulation of the text to make it say something else does not help your position.

Christians who believe humans have real free will might argue that our choice is what stops god from saving us, but there are problems with this approach as well. Their god is omnipotent, meaning he could get rid of hell. He does not need to send anyone there, or allow it to continue existing. He could let everyone into heaven.

This is where Christians argue that some people would still reject him. Well, if you really think that some people would reject god after seeing him face-to-face and being forgiven for everything they’ve done wrong and admitted into an absolute paradise, I think you’re crazy. But that still doesn’t mean he has to torture them for eternity. He could snap his fingers and erase them from existence. He could create a separate place for them to live that doesn’t involve eternal torment. He has plenty of options that don’t involve eternal suffering, because he makes all the rules and has all the power.

Unfortunately, a god with those four attributes is neither the god portrayed in most of the bible, nor a god that could possibly exist given what we know about reality.

One problem with the god of the bible is that he’s hardly consistent. In Exodus 20:5, god says he punishes children for the sin of their parents. This isn’t fair at all, but it’s consistent with a lot of stories in the Old Testament, and is used as justification for the numerous genocides god commanded and/or perpetrated. It’s also part of the basis for the nonsensical idea of original sin. However, in Ezekiel 18 he goes into great detail about how each person is held responsible for their own sin, and children will not be punished for the sin of their parents. This position is more just, yet it stands against original sin and destroys the justification for genocide. Thus Ezekiel 18 is usually the one that is forgotten or rejected, and the jealous “kill the infidels” god of the Torah remains.

You can also judge him as evil by his own standards. He says not to murder, and then murders millions of people himself. He teaches selflessness, yet demands that we all praise and worship him or else we will suffer. We are supposed to turn the other cheek to those who strike us, and love our enemies, yet when humans don’t believe in him that somehow justifies killing and torturing us. Eternal torment is supposedly the only possible fate for unbelievers, because unbelief is the one sin toward which he can’t show mercy (so much for being omnipotent).

Why would you worship a god who doesn’t hold himself to the same standards he imposes on you? Quite simply, “worship me or suffer” is manipulative and selfish. Even worse, the standard imposed on us is impossible to meet, and therefore this god is causing people to suffer because they fail to do something he knows they are incapable of doing. The Christian god is often compared to a father, but if a human father acted like this he would lose his children and probably be imprisoned. It’s like a parent demanding that a baby start walking, and then punishing the baby for failing to walk…and continuing that punishment for the rest of their earthly lives. Or parents locking their kids out of the house and demanding worship before letting them back in, but the kids don’t actually get to come back in until they die.

Furthermore, this god has given us no evidence that he’s any more real than the gods of other religions. So not only are we expected to meet an impossible standard of perfection, and are condemned to terrible suffering when we inevitably fail, but we’re expected to take our ultimate fate into our own hands without having legitimate evidence that any of it is true.

An omnipotent god would have innumerable ways to prove his existence, yet he remains invisible. Every miracle I’ve heard of has either been passed through several people (my cousin told me that his sister told him that her pastor…), or it has been something that is totally possible according to the laws of nature (someone with a 10% chance of surviving cancer ended up surviving cancer).

People keep saying that the facts of the natural world demand an intelligent designer, but even if that were true I still wouldn’t know if the designer is Jehovah, Allah, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The simple fact is that for a god who’s supposed to be so personal and concerned about our lives, he’s left an incredible lack of real evidence. We have more evidence for the Sasquatch than for the Christian god.

I recently saw a relevant comment on another blog. The blog itself is terrible (nearly incoherent ranting against atheists), so I’m just going to paraphrase the comment here: Your god has never showed himself to me. There are a few possible explanations for this, the simplest being that he doesn’t exist. Another explanation is that he is unable to show himself, but you don’t allow for that possibility. The third option is that he just doesn’t care. If god doesn’t care about whether or not I believe in him, why should I care?

Throughout the New Testament there are promises that believers will receive what they pray for. Not just that prayers will be answered (as the popular saying goes, sometimes the answer is no), but that if you ask for something you will receive it. Jesus says without conditions that if two or more Christians agree in prayer he will do what they ask. In the book of James, we are told that if an elder anoints a sick person with oil and prays for them, they will be healed.

It’s a major blow against Christianity that none of those promises hold up to even the simplest scrutiny. I can think back to my time as a Christian and remember numerous cases in which I prayed for things that would require the intervention of a supernatural being, and they never happened. Prayer in general seems to “work” at about the same rate you’d expect things to happen anyway. Studies of recovering patients who were prayed for by Christians, compared to a group who were not prayed for, showed no difference in recovery times or rate of complications. Nobody has ever provided evidence that an amputated limb has grown back after an amputee was anointed with oil and prayed for by an elder. If these promises were really true, Christian elders would be curing more sick people around the world than doctors, and everyone would believe because there would actually be evidence.

But no, the best they can do is make excuses about how you need to have faith, not look for evidence, and on that I’ll agree. The only way to truly believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, and loving god is to reject all evidence and take it on blind faith.

A god who knows about the suffering on earth and is able to stop it, yet does nothing, is not loving or even moral (by his own standards…biblical law holds people responsible for suffering that results from their failure to act when made aware of a problem). All around the world for all of history, innocent children have been starving to death, dying from lack of water, being killed by natural disasters, and so on. Either god is unable to help, or he doesn’t care enough to do anything, or he doesn’t know what is going on, or he doesn’t exist. Choose wisely.

In the next article, which I actually wrote before this one, I will once again dive into the complicated matter of morality and examine what the bible has to offer on the subject.

There are five articles in this series:

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