Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Reason for God, Chapter 2

Quite a few people have recommended that I read the book The Reason for God. I was not impressed.

I do not expect to blog through the whole thing, so I’ll start with the most interesting chapter(s). Chapter 2 easily makes the cut: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? My section headers are mostly copied from the section headers in the book.

Chapter Outline

  1. Maybe there’s some reason justifying evil that we simply haven’t thought of.
  2. Sometimes bad things turn out well, so maybe evil and suffering isn’t all that bad.
  3. There’s no basis for evil without God, so evil is evidence for God.
  4. Jesus was overwhelmed by torture, and that's because he was separated from himself. Thus, God suffered too. So How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? Answer: Jesus.
  5. People like the idea of Christianity.

Page 22-23: Introduction

I will begin with a paraphrase of the opening paragraph of a paper by William Alston:

With the problem of evil, there are two different arguments. The “logical” argument claims the existence of evil provides a logical proof of the nonexistence of a good God. The “inductive” (or evidential) argument claims that evil is strong evidence that God does not exist. Alston writes, “It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument is bankrupt, but the inductive argument is still very much alive and kicking.”

Tim Keller begins his chapter by misquoting the final sentence.
The effort to demonstrate that evil disproves the existence of God “is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides to be completely bankrupt.” Why? (p.23)
The sequence of words inside the quote marks do not appear in Alston’s paper; Keller added the word “completely.” But doctoring a quote is a small mistake compared to what follows.

Keller places the quote immediately before the section header “Evil and Suffering Isn’t Evidence Against God.” This deceives readers into thinking “almost all sides” agree the inductive/evidential argument is wrong, despite Alston directly stating the exact opposite! In the future, I’ll recommend that Keller finish reading a sentence before publishing it in a New York Times bestseller.

While I don't know for sure, this certainly looks like a deliberate lie. Furthermore, it was strategically well-chosen; I would not expect readers unfamiliar with the topic to type in URLs from footnotes. Sure, people like me can point out what Keller has done, but still, its primary effect is to help build the faith of Christians.

The alternative to a lie is that Keller is unfamiliar with the concept of evidence and how it differs from logical proof. But later in the book, Keller makes a big deal out of how his pro-God arguments are “clues” and not “proof”, so I can think of but one explanation matching the data: Lying for Jesus.

Page 23-24: Evil and Suffering Isn’t Evidence Against God
Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless. (p.23)
As usual, Keller responds to evidence by saying it isn’t proof.

The phrasing “evil appears pointless to me” is designed to downplay the logic and data justifying the conclusion and instead attack the people reaching the conclusion. He doesn’t have an answer for why God lets it happen, which is to say, evil appears pointless to him too. He could use fewer words to communicate more: “evil appears pointless.” But then he wouldn’t be able to talk down to skeptics for daring to arrogantly use reason against Christianity.
Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order. (p.23)
It’s a testament to the strength of the evidence of evil that Keller resorts to sputtering about hypothetical answers, rather than giving one.

Imagine Congress is voting on a new law. Its opponent tells us, “Our minds can’t think of any reason the law might be a bad idea, but still, there might be one! To assume that you automatically know all the side effects, and all side effects of the side effects shows blind faith of a high order!” Speculating about a hypothetical harm while refusing to name one would be an inane rebuttal, even by the low standards of political logic. If the best a law’s opponents can do is speculate over an unspecified hypothetical disadvantage, then either the law is extraordinarily well planned out, or its opponents are unusually inept. Keller is in precisely this position by simply speculating over an unspecified hypothetical disadvantage to creating a world with less suffering.

Next, Keller uses an analogy: If you don’t see a St. Bernard in your tent, you can conclude it’s not there, but if you don’t see a no-see-um (the insect), then you have no basis to conclude anything. Likewise, our inability to see the reason for suffering doesn’t tell us if God has a hidden reason:
If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. (p.25)
Yet again, we see the false dichotomy of “suffering is not evidence at all” versus “suffering is proof that God does not exist.” I would say God’s reason for allowing suffering is rather like a weasel. If there’s a weasel in my tent, I’d definitely expect to see it, but I’m less than 100% certain I would. When I look in my tent for a weasel and don’t find one, this is strong evidence that there isn’t one.

The Christian God wants to be known and wants to be worshiped. The Christian God inspired several thousand pages, and one of its goals is to teach us about God. Theology books are filled with millions of pages of speculation about God’s motives and character. Before we even approach the question of my ability to divine God’s purpose, my first guess is that God would simply tell us. Or perhaps there would be many plausible explanations, and we’re simply left in the dark about which one is true. The Bible’s failure to provide an explanation and the failure of theologians to patch the hole is not the fault of skeptics. It’s the failure of Christians to invent a God with a credible backstory. If Keller can’t think of a way that God’s actions could be good, then he should stop calling them good.

Evangelical Christians would have us believe that if the Emperor looks naked to us, then something is wrong with our eyes. The moment you have an Emperor grand and powerful enough to be worthy of the title, you have Emperor who knows more about fashion and clothing than some arrogant little brat who thinks himself wise enough to know what an Emperor looks like naked.

Also, God need not be particularly great and transcendent for me to take issue with His inaction. Were I to learn that there’s a real world Spiderman sitting on his hands, I’m going to conclude his inactions reveal that he isn’t good.

Postulating not just a God but an extra great and transcendent God doesn’t avoid the problem. Suppose the Emperor is a super-duper-awesome Emperor, with an omni-suave sense of fashion, whose fashion opinions are the very definition of Fashion Truth, and with the ability to shut down entire lines of clothing with a single withering scowl. He’s still naked. I’m disappointed by minds who think imagining that God is beyond criticism automatically makes God beyond criticism.

In defense of the Emperor, at least he gave his subjects proof of his existence. Likewise, it was clear that the Emperor himself believed in his clothing; his subjects didn’t have to wonder if the Emperor simply felt like being a nudist today. It really was as simple as the authority of the Emperor versus their own eyes. By contrast, the Bible’s message is delivered not by God, but by ordinary people asserting that their invisible friend is very different from what my eyes say he is. So what Keller is doing is kind of like an argument from authority, except without the authority.

Page 25: The Benefits of Suffering
Though none of these people [in the preceding anecdotes] are grateful for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character, and strength they had gotten from them for anything. With time and perspective most of us can see good reasons for at least some of the tragedy and pain that occurs in life. Why couldn’t it be possible that, from God’s vantage point, there are good reasons for all of them? (p.25)
A few pages later, Keller rebuts it himself:
A woman in my church once confronted me about sermon illustrations in which evil events turned out for the good. ... She insisted that for every one story in which evil turns out for good there are one hundred in which there is no conceivable silver lining. (p.27)
The woman’s main point is true, and it shows why Keller has failed to rebut the inductive argument. Anecdotes of bad turning good are useless against the knowledge that this is not how things usually work, and that sometimes apparently evil events turn out even worse than expected.

In addition, I suspect that many of the fortune-reversal stories are told by people who started with the healthy perspective of looking for the good in the bad, and ended up forgetting that the bad actually was more significant than the good. Or perhaps they maintained a positive outlook without ever making this mistake; perhaps Keller twisted their words just like he did with the Alston quote back at the beginning.

Keller makes no attempt to actually respond to her point. Without even a paragraph break, he ignores the logic and pretends she was just getting emotional. This is simply another example of Keller changing the subject away from the actual argument, and instead criticizing the person making it. Here’s the quote again with more context:
A woman in my church once confronted me about sermon illustrations in which evil events turned out for the good. ... She insisted that for every one story in which evil turns out for good there are one hundred in which there is no conceivable silver lining. In the same way, much of the discussion so far in this chapter may sound cold and irrelevant to a real-life sufferer. “So what if suffering and evil doesn’t logically disprove God?” such a person might say. “I’m still angry. All this philosophizing does not get the Christian God ‘off the hook’ for the world’s evil and suffering.” (p.27)
Page 25-27: Evil and Suffering May Be (If Anything) Evidence for God
[M]odern objections to God are based on a sense of fair play and justice. ... On what basis then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair and unjust? (p.26)
When showing how evil and suffering are evidence against Christianity, my basis for fair play and justice is Christianity’s sales pitch. Evangelicals will sell people on a “good” God who “loves” people, and then fault anyone who notices how much this differs from God’s inaction.

I’ve already written more than enough about the moral argument. Using it as a rebuttal to the problem of suffering makes it even more wrong than usual.

Page 28-29: Comparing Jesus to the Martyrs

Let me begin by recounting Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross. Jesus says of the people torturing him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The thief beside him acknowledges Jesus as sinless, and Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Moments before his death he says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” In Luke, Jesus is fully in control of his mind even as his body is destroyed. Note that these are not cherry-picked examples, but a comprehensive list of everything Jesus says during his crucifixion in Luke.

Likewise, in John, after Jesus has been flogged and given a crown of thorns, he defiantly replies to Pilate’s death threat, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” By contrast, Keller writes:
The gospel narratives all show that Jesus did not face his approaching death with anything like the aplomb and fearlessness that was widely expected in a spiritual hero. The well-known Maccabean martyrs ... were famous for speaking defiantly and confidently of God even as they were having limbs cut off. ... Why was Jesus so much more overwhelmed by his death than others have been? (pp.28-29)
How is it that Keller gives such a backwards description of how Jesus faced his death? The issue is that Luke and John’s portrayals do not match Matthew and Mark’s. In these accounts, Jesus is overwhelmed. There are no words of forgiveness for the soldiers killing him. He provides no words of encouragement for the penitent thief. In fact, there is no penitent thief at all; Matthew explicitly tells us “the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him.” Jesus even asks God why he has been forsaken. In his final moment in Matthew and Mark, rather than affirming God as his father and as the destination of his spirit, he utters a loud and wordless cry.

(Keller tries to defend his point using Jesus’ agony the night before his death. But Keller wasn’t making a comparison with the Maccabean martyrs anticipating their deaths in private the night before, but to their actual executions, so I focused on the parts of the Bible that are actually relevant.)

There are three issues raised by the diverging portrayals of Jesus’ death. The obvious problem is the challenge to the idea that the Bible is without error. The worse problem is that the Bible can’t keep its story straight even on topics of importance. Keller uses Jesus’ reaction to build an argument about the Trinity, thereby accidentally showing how Jesus’ reaction is not a trivial detail, but a matter of theological consequence. The third problem is that Keller’s main point in the chapter is already undermined by the time he starts making it, as we will see.

Page 29: The Suffering of God
To understand Jesus’s suffering at the end of the gospels, we must remember how he is introduced at their beginning. (p.29)
We “must remember” this. Here’s my understanding of why Jesus suffered so much: the nails in his hands and feet. The point would be utterly absurd even if all four gospels mirrored Matthew/Mark’s description. Keller is implicitly asserting that a spiritual hero would not be overwhelmed by torture, and his evidence is several anecdotes from ancient history.

Keller tells us Jesus suffered so much because God is three in one, and Jesus was separated from his better third.
We cannot fathom, however, what it would be like to lose not just spousal or parental love that has lasted several years, but the infinite love of the Father that Jesus had from all eternity. (p.29)
The separation part sounds pretty easy to me; it’s not like Jesus “lost” God’s love permanently, or was otherwise confused about how things were going to turn out. In a stable relationship, being separated for several days isn’t something you volunteer for, but if you have to do it, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s new relationships and strained relationships that are the most challenged by a short term separation. Jesus and God the Father have been together for, what, an eternity? Time to themselves for a bit might have done some good. Maybe God the Father should have even kicked the angels out for a bit so that he could have heaven all to himself for a change.

I have no doubt that many of the same Christians who found Keller’s human relationships/Trinity analogy to be insightful theology will in turn find my counterpoints to be utterly blasphemous blind faith in my own cognitive faculties. How dare I try to understand God by assuming the relationship of the Trinity is anything like that of human relationships!

Page 30: Redemption and Suffering
Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. ... He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us. (p.30)
Christianity claims this. That’s wonderful. And now in the chapter’s climax, Keller treats the claim as fact:
Let’s see where this has brought us. If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition.  God takes our misery and sufferings so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. (p.31)
Here, he plays his theological assertions against physical evidence and then tells us that the latter must give way to the former. This is a blind assertion followed by a jarring willingness to simply ignore the evidence. This isn’t even faith without evidence, it’s faith within the teeth of evidence to the contrary. Trimmed of it’s unjustified assertions, here’s what remains:
If we ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’, we do not know what the answer is.
Page 31-34: Resurrection and Suffering

Keller spends the last fourth of the chapter talking about how people want Christianity to be true, particularly if they are suffering.
I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties. We also need hope that our suffering is ‘not in vain.’ ... Embracing the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and Cross brings profound consolation in the face of suffering. The doctrine of the resurrection can install us with a powerful hope. (pp.31,33)
This is an example of what I like to call the Argument From Sadness:

  1. If there is no God, there is no heaven.
  2. If there is no heaven, that would make me sad.
  3. I am not sad.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

I’m being only slightly satirical. Keller really is trying to persuade people to believe God exists, and he really is basing this on people wanting it to be true. The only difference is that the Argument from Sadness pretends to be reason. But if you look back at the title of the book, it’s not so clear that even this is a real difference.

I'm not saying Keller is too stupid to understand the difference between a reason to want something to be true and a reason to think it is true. What I'm saying is that Keller is too dishonest to care.

Far from giving a Reason for God or answer to the Problem of Suffering, in this chapter Keller has given an example of how evangelical Christianity is completely and utterly without intellectual merit. And so naturally, the book is a bestseller.