A Reason for Doubt: God’s Goodness

Jason Micheli —  October 2, 2013 — 5 Comments

Skeptical BelieverDavid Bentley Hart likes to quip:

‘An atheist is someone who has failed to notice something very obvious.

Or rather, failed to notice a great many obvious things.’

He also amusingly condescends that pure atheism, which asserts the impossibility anything beyond the material, natural world, is an absurdity such that it can be likened to ‘magical thinking.’

When it comes to arguments for and against God, Hart knows his stuff; that is, he knows the ancient Christian and classical tradition. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, can muster a balls-to-the-wall indictment of God that no unbeliever could possibly approximate.

In his little pastoral book, The Doors of the Sea, itself a continuation to a Wall Street Journal article he wrote, David Hart recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say.

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God.

Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry. Better, it goes without saying, than anything the ‘New Atheists’ delude themselves into thinking is a compelling argument.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering.

He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

Ivan even believes that in the fullness of time we will be able to see for ourselves why everything on Earth unfolded as it did, that, as Joseph in Genesis confesses, God can use even evil for his good ends.

Ivan doesn’t disbelieve.

Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much doubt God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan.

He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes. It is, ironically, a thoroughly Christian rejection in the sense it’s a rejection born of very Christ-centered sensibilities.

What Dostoyevsky understood is that most compelling arguments against God are not philosophical or scientific ones. They’re moral ones.

Atheism, as popularly understood, is an absurdity. I’m with Hart on that. Properly understood, ‘God’ is the most obvious thing of all.

So arguments against God’s existence ultimately crash against the rocks of logic.

But arguments against God’s goodness? That’s another matter.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan.

I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

Of course, Ivan’s argument doesn’t disprove God. It only rejects the god ‘who has a plan for everything.’ I also reject that god.

Jason Micheli


5 responses to A Reason for Doubt: God’s Goodness

  1. Sometimes I think we forget that we live under a curse. Or that like it or not, we have this insidious inheritance from Adam, called Rebellion. Proof in that we feel we have the moral superiority such that we can judge God’s morality. As if He must live according to our standard to earn the label “good”. I might submit that it’s all well and good for men to have their academic debates over God – He really could care less what we think. We are answerable to Him, and not He to us. Just as He never attempts to prove His existence. He never argues his righteousness, mercy or grace. All we do is make fools of ourselves. I am reminded of Job. . . .

    I am one of those who suffered irreplaceable loss….but it’s all common to man. I have had tragedy, heck, I lost a home and wife. And you know? For some reason, I am foolish enough to believe that God cares, that He did NOT design my loss to His greater glory….any more than he designed sickness and death. These things are a part of the curse we live through. We are not in Heaven. We are in a Sin cursed Creation that groans. I see limitedly. I understand limitedly. My perceptions are limited. I don’t know what’s over the horizon, and the landscape looks scarey as hell. But I have this supernatural thing in me that compels me to trust in, cling to, and rely on the Son Who loved me and delivered Himself over for me. I am foolish enough to believe that these Words in this Bible were indeed written so that I might know that I have life. And that He knows my frame, and that He does, in fact, have a future and a hope for me. That I am indeed a new Creation, that all that is past in my life is past, and behold! New things have come! I am foolish enough to believe that His Word does not return void, but accomplishes the purpose….HIS purpose….for which it was sent. I might even dare to think that some just….just maybe….be comforted by what He has to share with us in His Word. I would hope the Word imparted still generates hope in some hearts. But then, only God can change a heart. Ours is not a natural belief, a natural trusting, clinging, relying. Ours is a supernatural Faith and Trust and Hope that defies all our academic suppositions and notions.

  2. I’m still puzzled by the condescending notion that atheists have “missed something obvious.” I believe, but I haven’t found God to be “obvious” at all.

    And yes, I agree that Ivan offers the best argument of all. Which one of us with a pulse can’t feel the truth of it? If we could make a choice between NO UNIVERSE, and a universe in which children would be tortured to death, I really can’t understand why we got this one. I really understand questioning the goodness of the Creator.

    And yes, I choose to believe in spite of this.

    • To be fair, Hart’s quote is in the context of a defense of theism as understood in all the great traditions. His point, one Herbert McCabe made well a few years ago, is that most people (religious and non), for wont of philsophic background, don’t really understand what the religions mean by the word ‘God:’ Existence, Reality, what we name the fact that ‘what is’ need not ‘be.’ Hart’s pointing out how we’ve all, but atheists in particular, have lost wonder over the fact that anything exists at all, for everything in creation (not nature) by definition need not exist. None of us is necessary. We’re contingent through and through, and science has only explained to us just how contingent we are.

      • But science has eroded that sense of awe and wonder, in part, by exposing the fact that while a world like ours might seem to be the outcome of a billion chances, in fact, the universe had billions of chances, (Sagan’s” billions and billions” comes to mind) . And it might have been different but presto, you’re living in what came to be.

        I guess I wonder how seriously Hart has taken taken science. Put this way, it is as though a grain of sand said to itself, “look how unique I am, there is no other grain of sand shaped just like me, and I might never have been.” But a casual onlooker might respond, “Sure Dude, but there is plenty of sand in the world. Guess you just got lucky that you’re you.”

        • Or, here’s another metaphor. (Which is maybe not needed, but the result of sleep deprivation!) Would you stand over a chocolate chip cookie with a feeling of awe that it was shaped, “like that” — the only one, in fact, to be “just like that”? Or would you, with the scientist say something more like, “if you’re gonna drop dough on a cookie sheet, there are a number of ways it could fall, but yep, this is one of them.”

          I’m nervous whenever we use “God” to explain something we just don’t understand yet. Maybe Hart’s right, and there didn’t need to be anything, or maybe some crazy brilliant scientist is just about to explain to us how or why a universe had to be. Seems to me Hawking was messing with this — but I’m outta my depth. Back to cookie dough. . .

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