XFiles: The two faces of Dr. GeisturMay 23, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)
Last week, in the debate over evil, Dr. Geistur (the Christian) told Mr. Straw (the atheist) that evil wasn’t really all that bad, and that the end justifies the means. This week continues along the same lines, with some gratuitous mockery of atheists and some blissfully oblivious hypocrisy thrown in for color.
MR. STRAW: So you’re saying that evil has a purpose that has implications in eternity.
DR. GEISTUR: Yes.
From man’s point of view, evil is evil, but from God’s point of view, evil is ultimately not just good, but better than having no evil at all.
This is why the first curveball Geistur threw was an insistence on having this debate under the assumption that God must exist. That’s a very important assumption, because without it, if we remember that God does not show up in real life, and that the real question is whether or not men are feeding us a coherent and reasonable theology, the fact that you end up arguing “evil is good” might seem like a pretty serious self-contradiction.
At this point, there’s a bit of a breakdown in the script. Geisler and Turek, the authors, break the fourth wall in order to take a gratuitous swipe at atheists in general.
STRAW: Suppose there’s no eternity. Suppose we live, we die, and that’s it.
GEISTUR: It’s possible, but I don’t have enough faith to believe it.
STRAW: Why not?
GEISTUR: Haven’t you read this book?
STRAW: No, I jumped right to this appendix.
GEISTUR: That’s just like you, isn’t it? You don’t want to play the game; you just want to see the final score.
Take that you atheists! You can practically see Geisler and Turek sitting in front of their keyboards, worrying about what happens if anyone just skims their book. Suppose they go straight to the appendix, and judge the whole book by the quality of their arguments about theodicy? We don’t want them to conclude that the rest of the book is this bad, do we? Hey, I know, let’s make them think that’s what the evil lazy atheists all do—then they’ll have to read the whole book, just to “play the game.” Problem solved!
Of course, if you do read the whole book, like we have, you might notice that Geisler and Turek’s whole argument for eternal life and eternal judgment boils down to just taking man’s word for it that these unseen and self-contradictory ideas are really true. Because they “don’t have enough faith” to question what men tell them, even when the teachings are perverse and absurd. And they’re making fun of the atheists?
But it’s not just atheists who earn Geistur’s smarmy contempt. America in general—yes, this great Christian nation we always hear so much about—is equally to be dispised:
STRAW: I suppose I suffer from the American disease of instant gratification.
GEISTUR: That’s probably why you’re having trouble realizing the value of suffering and “no pain, no gain!”
STRAW: You’re right, reading this book is too painful. It’s too long.
I’ll grant you that it is indeed painful to watch a pair of otherwise educated scholars undertake a long, slow process of intellectual self-castration, especially when using instruments as blunt as those favored by Geisler and Turek. But somehow I don’t think that’s what Geistur is trying to say. Having gotten hold of a pleasurable fantasy, Geisler and Turek are indulging in a bit of self-gratification, imagining atheists everywhere moaning and gasping in the pain from the hard-hitting points they raise. Let’s give them a few minutes of privacy, shall we?
Ok, all done guys? Good, let’s get back to the actual discussion then, shall we?
STRAW: …let’s get back to the question of evil. If there is an eternity, then some evils in this world may have an eternal purpose. But there are certainly some evil acts in this world that have absolutely no purpose.
GEISTUR: How do you know?
STRAW: It’s obvious! What good purpose could there be in, say, the terrorist attacks on 9/11?
GEISTUR: While I wish it had never happened, there were some good things that came out of those terrible events. For example, we came together as a country; we helped those in need; and we resolved to fight the evil of terrorism. We were also shocked into pondering the ultimate questions about life, and some people came to Christ as a result of it. As C. S. Lewis said, pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 9/11 certainly woke us up!
Wow, Geistur came really close to admitting that 9/11 did more harm that good. And he really has to grope a bit to find some way to make evil sound like good. The terrorist attacks were good because they brought us together as a country? Really? I can’t help but wonder if Geisler and Turek would make the same argument today. Is this really the Great Revival they were hoping for? Are they glad that 9/11 led to a Republican rush to war in Iraq that proved disastrous and unjustified, resulting in a Democratic backlash that put Obama in the White House?
It’s no wonder why Geistur wishes 9/11 had never happened, despite his vague and empty reassurances that some good must surely come out of it. And, just to increase his discomfort, Straw presses the issue by pointing out that even if a few good things happened, the bad outweighs them. Geistur falls back on that favorite Christian stand-by: agnosticism.
STRAW: Yes, you can find a silver lining in just about anything, but there’s no way your “silver lining” outweighs the pain and suffering.
GEISTUR: How do you know? Unless you are all-knowing and have an eternal perspective, how do you know the events of 9/11 will not work together for good in the end? Perhaps there are many good things that will come out of that tragedy in the individual lives we will never hear about. In fact, good results may even come generations from now unbeknownst to those who will experience them.
STRAW: Maybe, but I don’t have enough faith to assume that.
Oops, I lied. That last line is not what Straw originally said. It’s only what he would have said if he were a real atheist instead of Geisler and Turek’s sock puppet straw man. In the book, Mr. Straw just whimpers something weak about Geistur copping out. That gives Geistur a chance to repeat his argument about how limited human knowledge is and how little we know about the future. And therefore evil is good, because we can’t ultimately know beyond all possible doubt that it is indeed evil.
Straw does redeem himself a bit with this next line, though.
STRAW: If God would tell me his reasons, then maybe I could believe you.
GEISTUR: Job already tried that tactic. After he questioned God about why he suffered, God baffled Job with questions about the wonders of creation (Job 38-41). It’s as if God were saying to him, “Job, you can’t even understand how I run the physical world that you can see, so how are you going to understand the vastly more complex moral world that you cannot see—a world where the results of billions of free choices made by human beings every day interact with one another?” Indeed it would be impossible for us to comprehend such complexity.
And just to prove the deep intellectual profundity of this point, Geistur backs it up with an allusion to the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart. Cause what I’m sayin’, you just can’t argue with a fictional character that was portrayed by Jimmy Steward, know what I mean?
Ok, sarcasm aside, this is actually very close to bringing up an important and truly profound point. The issue is not whether an omnipotent and omniscient deity might know something humans don’t know. The issue is whether Straw, the man, could and should believe Geistur, the man. We’re not talking about observing God behaving in mysterious ways, we’re talking about the claims that men like Dr. Geistur make in God’s absence, and whether these claims have self-consistency of real-world truth.
If God were to show up in real life and tell me that He has reasons, then I would believe. That’s the difference between Job and Geistur. Job knew that God had reasons, because God showed up in person to tell him He had reasons, whether or not those reasons made any sense to Job (or to anyone, for that matter). Geistur has nothing like that. He does not know that God has any good reasons for allowing 9/11, he’s just clinging to faith in the doctrine that God must have had a reason.
Meanwhile, Straw is weighing the evidence to see whether or not Geistur is saying things that make enough sense to be believable. And Geistur can’t offer Straw the evidence that Job had, because Job had a God Who cared enough to show up in real life and to, well, to tell him to STFU. We don’t have that. God doesn’t show up even as a bully to suppress honest inquiry with thinly veiled threats. So it’s up to Jimmy Stewart to try and make up for God’s absence.
Geistur is, ultimately, making an appeal to agnosticism (or an appeal to ignorance, if you prefer). That’s a pretty poor argument, though, so he tries to deny that he’s doing it.
STRAW: But it seems like that’s an argument from ignorance.
GEISTUR: No. It’s not like we have no information about why bad things happen. We know that we live in a fallen world, and we know that good things can come from bad. So we know it’s possible that God can have a good reason for bad things even if we don’t know what those reasons are. And we know that he can bring good from bad. So it’s not an argument from ignorance, but a reasonable conclusion from what we do know. And while we don’t know the reason for every specific bad thing that happens, we know why we don’t know: we don’t know because of our human limitations.
And that’s Geistur’s final summation for his argument from agnosticism; after this, he changes subjects, so that’s probably Geisler and Turek’s final conclusion as well (at least for this particular rationalization). Unfortunately, none of the things Geistur says “we know” are things we actually know.
We don’t “know” that the world has “fallen” from an initial state of perfection. That’s merely a story that Geistur accepts by faith. Nor do good things come from bad things, strictly speaking. Life is a struggle, and when bad things happen, people work to make them better. The good things are the result of the work, not of the bad things. It’s true that you can’t have emancipation without having slavery first, but the goodness of the emancipation is not caused by the institution of slavery. The evil (slavery) creates a lack of goodness (liberty), but restoring that deficiency doesn’t mean that good came out of the bad. Good comes out of people working to improve the situation. And besides, though emancipation is good, it’s far better never to have lost your liberty in the first place.
Likewise, we don’t “know” that it’s possible for God to have a good reason for the bad things. In fact, there’s no way Geistur could possibly know that an omnipotent and omniscient God could not have found some way to achieve the good without requiring the bad. Even if we grant that it might be good to “wake up” America by blessing the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we still have to consider whether or not it would be better to issue the wake-up call by some means that did not involve horrific death for thousands of men, women and children. And by his own arguments, Geistur cannot know that a truly wise God could not think of a better way.
And finally, we don’t know that God can bring good from bad, because we never see Him do it. We see men superstitiously giving God credit for good things (and paradoxically failing to assign Him responsibility for the bad), but God Himself does not show up in real life to do anything at all, good or bad. Like I said before, the good that happens, happens because people make it happen. Once again, it’s Geistur’s faith, not his knowledge, that causes him to make the assumptions he cites as evidence that he’s not arguing from ignorance.
There’s one last exchange I want to address this week: the Jewish answer.
STRAW: What do you think of Rabbi Kushner’s answer to the question? You know, he wrote the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
GEISTUR: I think his answer is wrong.
STRAW: Wrong? Why?
GEISTUR: Because his answer is that God isn’t powerful enough to defeat evil on earth. So we need to forgive God for allowing evil.
STRAW: What’s wrong with that?
GEISTUR: Because there’s strong evidence that God is infinitely powerful. Fifty-six times in the Bible God is referred to as “almighty,” and in several other ways he is described as all-powerful. We also know from scientific evidence that he created this universe out of nothing (take a look at chapter 3 of this book). So Rabbi Kushner’s finite god doesn’t square with the facts.
Isn’t it funny how bad your own arguments can sound when you hear someone else make them? Geistur’s main point in this appendix has been that God allows evil because He really doesn’t have any choice: either He allows evil (even though it’s evil), or He destroys some vital principle of free will that makes us real people (thus committing an even greater evil). We fallible mortals might wish evil weren’t here to make us suffer, but sadly even “almighty” God can’t come up with a better alternative.
Hearing a Jew make the same sort of argument puts it in a whole different perspective. Of course, Rabbi Kushner does commit one faux pas that Geistur would never allow: the good Rabbi is frank and open about the fact that he blames evil on certain divine limitations, without tangling up his thought processes by as many convoluted rationalizations and contradictory dogmas. But you can’t swallow such direct and unadulterated honesty without a serious risk of evangelical headsplosions, so Geistur looks suspiciously at the plain, unvarnished version of his own argument, and flatly rejects it.
And that brings us to as good a break as any. Tune in again next week, when we’ll hear Dr. Geistur say:
GEISTUR: There are no good people!
Should be fun.