One of the more common methods atheists use to attack the Christian God is on moral grounds. They’ll point to the moral repugnance and barbarity of some of God’s actions as described in the Bible. To pick a few of the more salient examples:
· God demands that Abraham sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a test of Abraham’s devotion to him. Then, once Abraham is on the point of performing the sacrifice, God calls the whole thing off.
· Having created the world with the full knowledge that human beings would fall into sin, God nonetheless becomes so enraged by their sin that he floods the entire world, killing all the creatures on the land — except for the ones preserved in Noah’s ark.
· God allows Satan to kill Job’s family, slaughter his flocks, destroy his property, and bring horrible sickness to his person — all because Satan suggests maybe Job wouldn’t love God so much if he didn’t have it so good.
And on an everyday, conventional moral level, you have to admit these atheists have a point. God definitely comes off in these stories as a bit erratic, a bit moody, and a bit self-contradictory. At the least, these objections point to some serious questions about whether goodness is good because it’s good, or whether goodness is good because it’s in accordance with God’s will.
(A question that gets hinted at in various forms in the Old Testament, although it never becomes an explicit theme of questioning. Plato tackles the question in the context of Greek mythology in one of his early dialogues, the Euthyphro. It’s been picked up by many Christian writers over the centuries, most notably by Kierkegaard in his book-length meditation on Abraham and Isaac, Fear and Trembling.)
Note: I don’t claim to know anything about anything. The most I’ll claim is that I hope I’m asking these questions in all sincerity and intellectual humility.
But here’s the thing about atheists as a group: no sooner have they attacked the Christian God for being an inhuman monster than they’ll go and accuse Christians of an infantile worship of some all-good Sky Daddy. The accusations contradict each other. As well they should, because the Christian God is (to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase in a slightly different context) “not a tame lion.”
What atheists are generally attacking isn’t the Christian God as such, but rather the Christians’ complacency about God. Anyone who genuinely believed in the truth of Christianity would be forced to live their life in such a way that most modern people would consider them insane.
God is some old bearded man who lives in Heaven, Jesus is a nice dude who says inspirational stuff and loves guns, and the Holy Spirit is something that makes flames appear over the Apostles’ heads and makes them speak in tongues once a year.
Such is the view of Christianity the Churches (generally) perpetuate, and such is the view of Christianity these atheists quite rightly find reprehensible.
The Christian God might be the being who sent his son to die to redeem the sins of the world, but he’s also the being who drowned the Earth in flood and could do so again at any moment — even though he promised not to.
God might be the being who made cuddly little cats, beautiful sunrises, and the scent of a fresh-bloomed rose — but he’s also the being who made cockroaches, mosquitoes that carry deadly diseases, and placed the same violent energies that power the sun at the heart of every single atom of matter. If you take seriously the idea that God created everything, you must follow that logic to the end — God created everything.
This is the terrifying message at the end of the Book of Job: God is all-powerful. Job has no right to complain.
It would be hard to overstate the radical Otherness of the Christian God. Here there are no comforting images of bearded men in clouds. Here there are no private spaces secure from the all-seeing eye of Omnipotence. Here there is no security, for all this passing material world is the creation of this not-entirely-knowable being who (we can only trust) is guiding all things to an ultimately beneficent end.
The Alienness and Otherness of God is something so extreme that the closest comparison I can think of is with the Elder Gods from HP Lovecraft’s horror stories. Big, tentacled, aeons-old monsters with motives we can’t fathom and whose appearance is so terrifying that the mere sight of them is enough to drive human beings insane. Something like that is much closer to the right way to imagine God than the old man in a cloud is. (Don’t take the comparison too literally, though — the simple fact that there are many Elder Gods in Lovecraft’s universe makes it clear they are not the One.)
Consider the fact that when humans are visited by angels in the Bible, almost always the first thing the angel says is, “Be not afraid.”
Sounds cuddly and comforting when you just read it without thinking too deeply. But reflect a moment and you’ll realize the implication is that when the angel appeared, these people instinctually responded with terror.
So it’s with this sort of being in mind that we should read Christ’s command: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
Maybe with this taste of God’s terrifying nature you can imagine what an inhuman demand this is. This is staring into the jaws of everything that has ever terrified you, opening up your heart, and saying every day, “Yes, for all that I choose to love you.”
When you try to understand Christianity, do not try to see it through the eyes of today’s complacent churchgoers. Try to see it through the eyes of the martyrs who were willing to suffer and die for the Kingdom of Heaven.
They loved God.