To give a brief history, this is a conversation I had with an atheist over the topic, “Why won’t God heal amputees?”  The atheists charged God for being “wicked” in (as he put it) never healing an amputee- ever.  The atheist furthermore posited that God is contradicting Himself when Christ states, “Ask anything in my name…” and yet (as he put it) many prayers go unanswered.  Here is part of the transcript from the discussion.  The bold paragraphs signify the atheist, the rest are my responses, but I hope this will be apparent.

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Why won’t God heal amputees?  He said ask anything and I will give it to you, is God a liar?

 

Why would God do anything at all for people?  Is He obligated?  You make the point that in the Judeo-Christian religion, Christ makes the statement:

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.  And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.  If ye love me, keep my commandments.” – John 14:12-15

The big issue here, I think, is that of context.  Who was Christ speaking to?  Why did he say it?  What were the conditions?  What did He mean?  If this statement by Christ is admitted as evidence towards an understanding of this web site’s namesake, it must be treated with a more analytic approach as to it’s literary meaning.

 

Nah, it really doesn’t.  John isn’t a historical account; it, like the rest of the gospels, are fiction.  We could analyze the reasons why the fiction was written in a specific way and perhaps get somewhere, but that’s as much as we can do.

 

One can even read fiction analytically.

 

Yes, but to different ends.  We can read Harry Potter analytically and glean insight into, say, human sociology while realizing that it’s not going to tell us anything about actual historical events.

 

What makes you think I’m making a historical argument?  I simply stated that the argument this web site is making in it’s namesake does not follow from any evidence found in John.  The proof does not lie in any historicity, but in the texts themselves.  I am simply applying a textual hermeneutic to analyze the statement.

 

Hermeneutics are a fun intellectual diversion, but in this case, it would seem that they would serve only to detract from the difficult rhetorical question which serves as this forum’s thesis statement.  Hermeneutics in this case offer no solution, or even promise of a solution, but merely a tactic to get us to stop asking the original question. 

Why would God heal amputees?  I can think of several reasons why I, if I were a god, would do exactly such a thing – the alleviation of suffering, the demonstration of my power, just wanting to be a nice guy about it, etc.  Maybe I’d prevent limbs from being amputated in the first place.  Who’s to say?  But I have to admit that I can’t think of a reason why I would decide to never, ever do such a healing feat.  I also can’t think of a reason why I would not prevent thousands and thousands of Jewish children from being thrown screaming into ovens or thousands and thousands of people dying from unsafe drinking water every day.  Why would I want to be that much of a bastard? 

 

I disagree with you.  Hermeneutics, in this case, are not meant as a diversion, but are of paramount importance to a proper understanding of how the Scriptures are read.  I do respect the point you made about the namesake being a rhetorical question, and I can accept that, but then I must also accept that you are not really looking for an answer.  As for your points on what you would do “if you were god”, my question to you would be, is your grievance with death or is it with suffering?

 

Actually I consider “An imaginary god cannot heal amputees, and all gods are imaginary” to be a fine and rigorous answer to the question.  If you have a better answer, you might want to start breaking it out at some point, particularly since the “ask anything in My name and it will be done” scriptures have been brought forth.

I actually hadn’t considered that I have a “grievance” per se.  True, if I were convinced of the existence of the Christian God, I would well want to know why so many lives are nasty, brutish, and short, and why the nastiness, brutality, and shortness of those lives seems to have no correlation at all with how “sinfully” or “righteously” those lives are lived.  As it is, however, I needfully chalk it all up to random chance and have no one to whom I could direct my inquiry.  To answer the question, I suppose I have more of a problem with suffering, since everyone gets the same allotment of death (one per person) yet some suffer much more than others.

 

You bring up the “ask anything in My name and it will be done.”  Again, I would point to context, conditionals, and a proper hermeneutic treatment of that passage before an interpretation is made.  By the way, I believe your answer to my question was excellent, for this is an issue that many Christians have problems with.  Why does God allow suffering?  It’s a big question, but I don’t think you will like my answers (although I’d be happy to give them), because they are very theologically based.


Will I not like your answers because they are pro-theist?  Or will I not like your answers because they will be long, conflicting, and prone to obscuring the topic rather than enlightening it?  Don’t be so sure I’ll dislike it.  I’ll tell you that every answer I ever got during my Christian days was a variation on “who are you to question God’s ways, you don’t understand anything, you need to stop asking the question, examine your own life, and pray for forgiveness.”  I guarantee that I will appreciate your answer in inverse proportion to how much it resembles the answer I always got.

 

You seems very genuine, and I both respect and admire that.  The reason I didn’t think you would like my answer is because I will rely to a good extend on theology and throw in some Scripture here and there.  If you are OK with that, then by all means let’s pursue it, and don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind if you are critical, you have every right to be.

Bring on your game.  Even though I’m no longer a theist, I still keep my ear slightly to the ground.  If this tells you anything, I still subscribe to Bishop Spong’s newsletter and own several of his books, though I don’t often agree with his last-minute attempts to salvage his belief from the arguments against it which he himself brought forth.  Regardless, I’m not one of those people who reacts as Dracula to garlic simply because Jesus or scripture is mentioned.  Just as a person who was brought up in a family of morticians isn’t going to freak out over a dead body, I’m comfortable with talking about a theism which resides in my past.

 

To properly understand why suffering exists, two other aspects must first be understood, sin and grace.  Suffering is the direct result of sin.  As soon as sin entered the world, so did suffering.  Now, I am not going to patronize you with an extended treatment of sin, for I have a sneaking suspicion you already have a good understanding of what it is.  But now we have the bigger question, why does God allow suffering to exist?  He has the power to stop it right?  Let me start by affirming the fact that just as God hates sin, God hates suffering.  We read in Lamentations 3:33 “For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.”  The Hebrew word here for “willingly” can also be translated “from His heart, or inner most being”.  This is an amazing verse, for we see two things: God, in His sovereignty, allows for suffering to occur, but in His heart, He does not will that it would occur.  Now, you may immediately think “but isn’t this contradictory?”  The answer is no, and I will try to explain why:

1.  God is the ultimate source to which all glory is due.
2.  God is most glorified in that which brings Him the most glory.
3.  The affection which brings God the most glory must be the necessary end of all things.
4.  The affection which brings God the most glory is the exposition of His grace.
5.  For grace to exist, sin must exist.
6.  Where there is sin, there is suffering.
7.  Therefore, though God is not the author of sin and suffering, He has ordained sin and suffering that He may be glorified in His grace, the grace found in Jesus Christ.  God can morally hate something, but sovereignly allow it for His glory (see John 11, specifically verse 4).  This doesn’t mean that God enjoys sin or suffering, on the contrary, He hates it, and we see God’s verdict on sin in the image of the cross.  To look at Christ on the cross is to look at God view of sin, and if any of you have seen the Passion, you known exactly what I’m getting at- it is absolutely putrid and disgusting.  So much so that God would send Himself, in His Son, to die in human place so that sin could be conquered once and for all time.

This will probably bring a lot more questions, but this is the concise version of a much longer treatment I could give this topic.  I hope this helps.

 

First off, thank you for a calm and thought out response.  It is, admittedly, very hard to answer the question without writing a book.  Bart Ehrman is one of the smartest people I know of, and he pretty much had to write the book, even if the thesis itself could be summed up in a sentence or two.  (It’s a fantastic book, by the way, and he’s not paying me to plug it.)

 

Yup, I’m well aware of the “the world was created without sin, but now we have sin and that’s why everything’s screwed up” point of view.  20 years ago I would have probably agreed with your entire post, verbatim.  But now that I have developed a more skeptical eye, I start to see things that no longer make sense to me.  The biggest one is the use of language, and the odd tendency of religion to use words which either don’t have secular analogues at all or whose meaning changes when used in a secular context.

 

“Suffering”, I think, we can agree on.  Let’s say a crazy person jumps out of the bushes and stabs you half to death and you face a long painful hospital recovery, maiming, and scarring.  Yup, “suffering” is a good word to describe this situation, whether you’re a theist or non-theist.  Now let’s assume for the moment that this suffering is the result of “sin”.  Now it gets trickier, because there is no perfect secular translation for “sinful”.  “Non-ethical” certainly fits the bill; your attacker definitely went against any civilized society’s ethical boundaries when he plunged the dagger into your flesh.  But “non-ethical” can’t also describe acts like wearing polyester-cotton blend or eating shrimp or working on the Sabbath, acts that are, in the ceremonious sense at least, “sinful”.  And hey, it’s your attacker’s “sin” which caused your suffering, not yours; why must you be the one to pay that cost?

 

Then we get to your very first numbered thesis, “God is the ultimate source to which all glory is due”.  And I ask myself, I’ve heard the word “glory” all my life, usually in religious contexts… what the heck does it even mean?  Is it fame?  No.  Adulation?  Not quite; I guess we’re supposed to smother God with adulation, but that’s more our response to his “glory”.  Is it something we can see?  Touch?  Hear?  None of these.  I turn to my online dictionary… “high renown or honor won by notable achievements”.  Well, that’s a bit of a help, I suppose.  And if you believe God created the heavens and the earth, that’s a pretty notable achievement.  Still, “glory” is a word I so rarely hear used in secular contexts, and then it’s usually referring to war (which, from what I gather, is the opposite of glorious for the most part) or naked bodies (and yes, I have seen a few I’d describe as “glorious”, although my religion forbade it). 

 

Then #2 is a clear-cut tautology, #3 is an assertion that comes from out of nowhere (you might need some scriptural exegesis for that one to make any sense), #4 seems to contradict #3… I really can’t get further into it because the language itself seems to be working overtime to be mystical and murky.  “Sin”, “glory”, “grace”, “the end of all things”… I feel like I’m watching an attempt to do mathematics using emotions rather than numbers.  What IS contentment divided by existential angst?  I don’t know the answer to that.  I also don’t know what I could do to “bring God glory”, although I was once foolish enough to think I could.  So far I’m getting the idea that this carefully constructed answer you’ve presented is, at its heart, a call to worship.  It’s starting to smell a whole lot like the “shut up and keep praying” sorts of answers I used to get. 

 

And how in the world, if we’re going to admit that these big questions don’t have easy answers, could we turn around and then say that everyone in the world can grasp a knowledge of God so great that it would result in their eternal salvation… or could reject it knowingly enough that it would result in their eternal damnation?

 

First off, thank you for an honest response; you have been a pleasure to converse with.

To get to some of the meat of your response, I really found it quite fascinating your point of how many “religious” terms are not easily transferable.  To certain extents, I agree with you.  “Sin”, “grace”, and “glory” are words which are difficult to correctly transpose to a secular understanding.

You bring up the point that “non-ethical” is possibly the best equating word to sin.  As a point of clarification, by non-ethical, you are meaning any action which does not follow a predetermined course of ethics?  If it is, this seems to be a very narrow correlation, for suffering occurs on a scale much larger then ethics predetermine, namely, natural disasters.  However, I do not mean to patronize you, for I am quite sure you would also consider various other means by which people may suffer.  The causes of this suffering may be physical, monetary, economical, social, psychological, etc.  The point is this: suffering cannot be treated neatly under a blanket of ethics.  Someone can suffer from a mental disorder, or psychological depression.  All I really mean by this is that the idea of suffering must be treated in a broader arena.

Your then cite several Old Testament laws, and then imply that our “modern day ethics” don’t prescribe to them.  I took this in humor, for I’m am quite sure you understand that the law was fulfilled in the New Testament through Christ.  For example, the law was meant as a guide to Christ. (see Romans 7) We are not under these Old Testament laws in the same sense as those who lived when they were given. (this is the best I can say this without extensive treatment)

You then stated “it’s your attacker’s “sin” which caused your suffering, not yours; why must you be the one to pay that cost?”  There it is, you have just defined it yourself, suffering (the attackee) is caused by sin (the attacker).  To answer your question, no, it is not “fair” in the sense you have understood it, and that is one of the terrible aspects of sin, namely, within sin there is no true justice.

I was absolutely shocked when you equated my view of God with the reasoning behind why I ascribe Him glory (namely, as Creator and Sustainer), for what you deduced was exactly and perfectly correct.  Please forgive me, but this is a rarity in my discussions with non-believers, and I find this as both honoring to my viewpoint and respectful to the conversation, both of which I applaud you for.

You then correctly identified a tautology.

Point #3 may slightly seem out of place, but it is simply meant to state that, from a Christian assumption of God glory, the ends of every action that ever occurs must necessarily result in the bringing of the greatest amount of glory to God.  (It follows from the implicit Christian understanding of God and of glory.)

Point #4 is taken from several parts of Scripture and also from exegetical Biblical scholarship, for example see Ephesians 1.  This point does not contradict #3, it simply identifies the ends, namely, the glory of the grace of God shown through the workings of His Son Jesus Christ.  This point is the most powerful, beautiful, and perfect of all Christian doctrines, for it both glorifies God through the workings of His Son, and it gives us a hope for salvation from our sins.  “Grace” in the Hebrew may refer to “undeserved favor”.  In the Greek, specifically how it was used in Scripture, grace referred to “the undeserved favor shown through the merciful kindness of God which, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ.” (Thayer’s Lexicon)

I hope I have clarified the “mystical” and the “murky” and I would sincerely urge you to return to the rest of the points I laid out, and give them a more thorough look.

I am not trying to mathematically equate this, all I am try to do is present a case in a way that is accessible, short, and to the point.

You then ask the question “What IS contentment divided by existential angst?”  I would simply note that apart from Christ, even pleasure many times leads to suffering.  To be truly (and I mean really, truly) content apart from Christ is, in my experience and understanding, ultimately impossible (please note carefully the word ultimately).  The equation only works from a standpoint of non-theism, not from theism.

You then state, “I also don’t know what I could do to ‘bring God glory'”.  The answer to the question is this: cleave to His perfect working of grace, namely, Jesus Christ.  If God is most glorified in this grace, cleaving to its work would surely bring Him the ultimate glory.

You then state, “So far I’m getting the idea that this carefully constructed answer you’ve presented is, at its heart, a call to worship.” WOW, this is absolutely stunning.  I cannot believe how perfectly and correctly you accurately prescribed the natural response to the case I have made.  Many CHRISTIANS can’t even answer as correctly as you did.  I am utterly amazed at this, I have never seen a non-theist be able to correctly ascertain this fact in this context before- ever!  Trust me, I could say bookfull’s on this topic, but for now, I will simply say well done!

But the way, I am in no way saying “shut up”, please by all means keep up with your constructive criticism and questions.  But I wouldn’t be opposed to you praying.

You finally close with a dynamite question “And how in the world…could we turn around and then say that everyone in the world can grasp a knowledge of God so great that it would result in their eternal salvation…or could reject it knowingly enough that it would result in their eternal damnation?”  My answer to this question is simply this:  your assumption is correct, it is impossible, but God has made it possible through the revelation of Himself, through His Son, through His Word, and through His Spirit quickening our dead hearts.

In closing, I will simply say that again, I could give much longer treatments on all of these points, but will stay my typing for the time being in order for you to read, to ponder, and to respond.

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