Finally we come to what seems to be Ehrman’s major objection to the free will defense. He asks, “If he [God] intervenes sometimes to counteract free will, why does he not do so more of the time? Or indeed, all of the time?” (13). Later he writes, “I can’t believe in that God anymore, because from what I now see around the world, he doesn’t intervene” (16).
This bothers many Christians and it used to bother me. But, thankfully, I began to understand that God has very good reasons for not intervening more than He does. First, if God intervened “all of the time,” then our actions wouldn’t mean anything. In fact, it would be a cartoon world. Johnny could be cutting his steak with a knife and the next moment jab it into his little brother, but the knife would turn to rubber and everyone at the table could laugh heartily. An embezzler could write a love note to his wife and then start to write a bad check but the pen wouldn’t work. He gets another pen, it too is out of ink, and on it goes. We wouldn’t need to take an elevator down; we could just jump out the window and float gently to the sidewalk. And why would we need to go to school because no one would ever suffer the consequence of not going?
If our actions are to mean anything at all, then natural laws must work in regular ways. Consider the words of Oxford’s Richard Swinburne:
If God is to allow us to acquire knowledge by learning from experience and above all to allow us to choose whether to acquire knowledge at all or even to allow us to have a very well-justified knowledge of the consequences of our actions—knowledge which we need if we are to have a free and efficacious choice between good and bad—he needs to provide natural evils occurring in regular ways in consequence of natural processes.1
Swinburne is right and no adult would really want to live in a world without consequences.
But Ehrman often complains about consequences. For example, regarding the disaster of sexually transmitted disease he writes: “It is not only homophobic and hateful but also inaccurate and unhelpful to blame this epidemic on sexual preference or promiscuity. Unsafe practices might spread the disease [that’s an understatement!]—but why is there a disease in the first place?” Well, we know the ground has been cursed because of Adam’s sin, enabling every kind of disease and pestilence, and Adam’s descendants who continue to disobey God by practicing sexual immorality (whether homosexual or heterosexual) bring suffering on themselves that obedience to His commands would largely prevent. Also, does Ehrman seriously doubt that if everyone in the world became Biblically chaste that we wouldn’t soon all but eliminate, if not entirely eliminate, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases? Seriously?
Ehrman also brings up Hurricane Katrina as an example of a natural disaster where people are unfairly blamed. He complains that “some people are all too willing to blame other human beings for what happened. The levees were poorly constructed, and everyone knew it. What right did they have to build New Orleans there anyway?” (231). Now I surely wouldn’t blame the victims for what happened to New Orleans, but shouldn’t we blame the city planners and engineers? After all, the city was built below sea level, the levees were built incapable of withstanding a hurricane stronger than category three, while categories four and five hurricanes were already known to exist. Katrina’s extensive damage was due to humankind’s error. And if there is no God then, who, exactly, is there to blame? Is it not necessary to come to some conclusions of how this disaster happened in order to keep it from happening again? And if there is no God, what is the lesson? Could it be none other than, “We goofed! We built a city below sea level with walls we knew couldn’t withstand a peril that we already knew existed!” As Proverbs 19:3 says, “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.”
So Ehrman might take back the Toontown idea that God should intervene “all of the time” and vaguely opine that God should just simply intervene more than He does. But when would Ehrman be satisfied? If fewer died in the Holocaust would Ehrman be satisfied? Instead of six million, what if only 6,000 Jews died? 600? 60? Wouldn’t he still accuse God if only six Jews were gassed in Auschwitz? How much evil is God supposed to stop and yet still enable free creatures to learn how evil free creatures can be, thus preparing them to enter heaven having learned the horror of rebellion?
If God wants us to know not only that our actions are serious but that our actions mean anything at all, then, one more time: He must allow natural laws to work in regular ways.
Consider too that things could be much worse than they are. Hitler tried, but he didn’t get the bomb first! Wouldn’t that have been a game changer! Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Pol Pot and most of their henchmen are all dead. Genesis 6:3 reveals God’s decision to shorten human life to 120 years from pre-flood spans of hundreds of years. By limiting life spans, He limited both the amount of evil any one person could commit, as well as the amount of suffering any one would have to endure.
Of course, God could have made the world such that every time we looked up we saw a flaming sword dangling over our heads with the knowledge that the slightest rebellion would result in our immediate dismemberment. Then everyone would at least feign being a God-follower, wouldn’t they? But feigned loyalty is no more than rebellion waiting for an opportunity. And what would feigned loyalty accomplish? As the old saying goes, “A person changed against their will is of the same opinion still.”
If God wants people to learn the significance of their actions and to decide freely whether they are going to love Him and love their neighbors, then the universe must be such that there is enough evidence so that those who want to believe will have their belief justified; but not so much evidence that those who want to rebel will feign loyalty.2
- Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: OUP, 1998), 188-189. [↩]
- Apparently it very takes little evidence to be an atheist since many of them are actually willing to believe that the universe popped into existence out of nothing. How does something come from nothing? As “new atheist” Victor Stenger put it: “Since ‘nothing’ is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable. It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition of nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any agent. As Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, ‘the answer to the ancient question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ would then be that ‘nothing is unstable.’” From God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amhurst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 133. Or, as Edward P. Tyron, Ph.D., Professor of physics and cosmology at City University of New York, wrote, “In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.” As quoted in Marcia Bartusiak, Thursday’s Universe (New York: Times Books, 1986), 253. [↩]