by Zach Tollen
You’ve heard it before. Christians spreading the Gospel of Christ will readily inform you, “God loves you.” And a little investigation reveals that they really mean it. God doesn’t just love humanity abstractly — he loves you, specifically, individually.
Which is great because I definitely need loving.
One thing everyone in my audience has in common is that we wake up wrapped in flesh, confined by what we later learn are the rules of all physical matter. While we also call them the “Laws of Physics,” knowledge of the existence of these rules, or something like them, is very ancient. In the Bible, Genesis 3:19 reads: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
In modern physics, the second law of thermodynamics dictates that energy systems dissipate. (Of course, at some point they had to build up, or there could never have been any differentiation in the first place. So the 2nd law must be understood to only apply at smaller scales – something which physicists don’t mention that often, but I digress…) The relevant point is that all local matter in our solar system, for example, is in a permanent state of increasing entropy, that is, on the whole it becomes less cohesive over time. On the human level, we can acknowledge this by the fact that we generate more garbage than we can recycle, and our use of resources almost always depletes, rather than increases the supply of resources available. Again, this is not even a modern phenomenon. Even before we started planting our own food, mankind had been transforming his environment in ways that couldn’t be reversed.
“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It didn’t take modern physics to discover this.
And it calls into question whether God really loves us. One of our basic desires is for immortality in some form. I can prove this by the fact that the 2nd law of thermodynamics feels bad. There is something very sad about it, and when first discovered in the 1800’s it naturally faced enormous resistance. Wouldn’t it be great if science could have saved us from what religion resigned itself to a long time ago: that the material world was, in the end, simply a place of dust, rather than of life? Instead, science went the other way, and confirmed religion’s darkest suspicion. The forces of non-entropic creation, insofar as we understand them at all, operate at such a massive and impersonal scale that in the end, they have nothing to do with us. We are stuck with entropy – which means a slowly dying sun and impossible distances to anything that might otherwise sustain flesh-based life.
We can only assume God could have come up with something better. But He obviously didn’t. And in explaining why He didn’t, divisions in people’s opinions are inevitable. The most readily rational explanations spur, at the same time, the most violently intolerable emotions: that God is either Stupid, or at minimum, not that smart; or that he’s evil, or at minimum, at least not that Good; or that he’s powerless – or at least in competition with some other comparably powerful, and much less Good, entity.
So does God love us? I don’t see much evidence for it.
The Christian claim goes much further, though, in singling out individual people for His love.
Let’s review the basics. The Gospel of John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
In other words, God is trying to cure us from the material limitations I’m complaining about. “Everlasting life” is essentially a defiance of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The mechanism: God sends his only begotten Son, and requires nothing more than “belief” — whatever that means. (To His credit, God ignores the social status of the individual, giving an ego boost to anyone whose social status is low. You can be a nobody in the human society and still be saved by the Christian God.)
But the story seems inadequate. God sends one man, once — to a desert in the Middle East. The Middle East is not exactly my neck o’ the woods. He sent his only begotten Son to a desert in the Middle East to preach for a short while, only have Him stir up so much trouble that the authorities decided to nail him to a cross and send him back to where he came from. How does this constitute a viable mechanism for providing eternal life? It’s hard to say. (Note: I’m not even addressing the question of whether “eternal life” would actually be pleasant or not. But the fact that life is so fragile and apparently meaningless is most certainly not pleasant. So I think we’re in need of some help regardless.)
Roman Catholic theology equates the Son with the Father – I prefer this theology, because it resolves the most pressing logical questions that arise if Jesus and God are not exactly the same thing. They are both considered God. Jesus is merely God in human form – not just the “son” of God. How God could have a blood-related family like we humans do, let alone why that family should be restricted to a single male child is a different question. Anyway, God Himself became a human, and this is called the Incarnation, which made it possible for any human to live forever. But how? Perhaps it has something to do with God’s newfound ability to empathize with people. But I think a reasonable person could dismiss the whole notion by saying: “That’s really stupid!” It seems like a profound desire for wish-fulfillment: We believe something is true because we want it to be true, but that doesn’t make it true. Nonetheless, not every wish-fulfillment fantasy catches on like Christianity did (to say the least!). So it’s likely there is more to it than that.
I want to address Pascal’s wager. Access to eternal life is limited to those who believe, of course, thus raising the stakes enormously in a very lopsided way in their favor. Since all of the benefits accrue to the believers, some people will be tempted to “believe” out of sheer rational self-interest. This has become know as Pascal’s wager. My response to this is: That’s betting, not believing. I do not believe that belief is an entirely conscious action. I cannot exactly decide what I believe, especially not my beliefs are explicitly calculated to benefit me personally. Admittedly, all people have an unconscious tendency to believe what benefits them – but it seems manifestly immoral to do this consciously, which means that in order to be saved in this way, God must actively approve of being unethical. I think the kind of “belief” that the Gospel of John is talking about is more subtle than that, and involves both conscious choice and unconscious belief. It’s not the cynical betting of an entirely conscious rationality.
But why God requires belief in the first place is a challenging question. Historically this question has driven many Christian thinkers to a theory called Universalism, in which there is no hell, and everyone is saved. This is basically to say that everyone believes – whether they know it or not. The thorny question of the role of free will in deciding whether one goes to heaven, or burns for eternity in hell, is thereby sidestepped.
But I’m going to solve the free will question another way. In Part 2. Before I get to the real meat of my argument. Stay tuned.