This is my third reflection on my debates with my atheist uncle over Christianity. One of this favorite things to say was something like “Wouldn’t a just/loving/powerful God do x differently?”
Wouldn’t a loving God make the world without suffering?
Wouldn’t a powerful God make people so that they were less sinful?
Wouldn’t a just God have a better system of punishment and reward?
None of these questions were, to my ears, very compelling. Another way to phrase these questions is, “If I were God, I would do x differently. If I were God, I would make x better.” When you put it that way, suddenly the pride behind such questions becomes obvious. We are saying that our own personal way of thinking is superior to that of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator. Yet we are mere humans, trying to grasp the motives of God. It is extremely unlikely that we could get anywhere close to good answers regarding these questions, especially when we are so steeped in sin and stupidity.
At the same time, these are valid questions to ask. The problem is how we ask them: instead of placing God in the dock, we can strive to exonerate him. We can ask “why might God do x?” We can develop reasons why the world could be the way that it is, even though we do not have a complete picture. In humility, we must acknowledge our limitations in knowing the purposes of the universe. As Christians, it shouldn’t surprise us if we struggle to provide a complete picture, for we see through a mirror dimly and must wait to see face to face. For now we know in part, we must wait to fully know (1 Corinthians 13:12). Under an atheist worldview, there is no reason to believe that we should comprehend the nature of the universe at this stage in our evolutionary development.
J.I. Packer offers an example that he applies to wisdom, but that I think it applies to most of these questions as well:
“If you stand at the end of a platform on York station, you can watch a constant succession of engine and train movements which, if you are a railway enthusiast, will greatly fascinate you. But you will only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the overall plan in terms of which all these movements are being determined… If, however, you are privileged enough to be taken by one of the higher-ups into the magnificent electrical signal-box that lies athwart platforms 7 and 8, you will see on the longest wall a diagram of the entire track layout for five miles on either side of the station, with little glow-worm lights moving or stationary on different tracks to show the signalman at a glance exactly where every engine and train is. At once you will be able to look at the whole situation through the eyes of the men who control it: you will see from the diagram why it was that this train had to be signaled to a halt, and that one diverted from its normal running line, and that one parked temporarily in a siding. The why and the wherefore of all these movements becomes plain, once you can see the overall position.”
My uncle’s complaints were the equivalent of asking, “Why did God move that train and not this one?” The problem is that no man is in the signal box; no man can have all the answers, not even Christian ones. We cannot see all of the movements or motivations. All we can offer are some possible glimpses into the signal box – that train would have crashed, this train would have arrived too early, this train’s crashing was necessary to prevent 50 more trains from crashing. We use the Bible and our reason and our experience to try to discern what the Master is thinking.
In the end, there is no way to prove what the conductor is doing is right. We have done our duty if we can provide plausible responses. From that point on, it is a matter of faith: you can assume that there is a Master in the signal box – directing the trains in a reasonable way – or you can guess that there isn’t – that the movements are arbitrary. Both sides rely on faith.
My uncle may choose to reject the plausible explanations I provided, but for my part, I will humbly acknowledge that I do not know everything. I am not in the signal box. I do not see God face to face. I am a sinful, fallen human being, so I cannot presume to know what an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God would do. Any explanation I may give is a guess – a plausible guess – but a guess nonetheless. There is only one man who could ever definitely answer the question “what would God do?”