Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Argument from Evil: An Internal Problem for Atheism

One of the biggest problems with the Argument from Evil is that the conclusion of the argument doesn’t sit well with all of the various things that are presupposed in the argument itself. For instance, theists often argue that atheists can only make the argument by appealing to objective moral values. If atheists claim that God has to prevent suffering, then they’re saying that there are certain moral values that even God must obey. And if atheists claim that suffering is evil, they are presupposing some sort of standard that we use to distinguish between good and evil. They can’t say that it’s really all subjective. They can’t say that these moral values developed through evolution to preserve us as a species, because then these moral values would only apply to us, not to God. So the atheist has to appeal to objective moral values. The problem is that objective moral values point to a transcendent source of moral values, not to atheism.

This is a problem that theists usually point out, but as far as the Argument from Evil goes, atheists actually need a lot more than objective moral values to get the argument off the ground. For instance, they need suffering, but for suffering there has to be humans and animals (or something similar), and humans and animals are incredibly complex organisms. This complexity points to design, not to atheism. Atheists also need some sort of world where all this suffering is taking place, and any world will serve as the foundation for the Cosmological Argument. But there can’t be just any old world; the suffering we see around us requires a finely-tuned world. Otherwise humans and animals couldn’t survive. This, of course, is the idea behind the Argument from Fine-Tuning. Beyond this, atheists need minds to recognize the evil and formulate the argument, and this is part of the Argument from Consciousness. They also need a concept of God, because they’re claiming that this concept doesn’t apply to anything that actually exists. And our concept of God is used in various forms of the Ontological Argument.

The point here is that the Argument from Evil is an argument for atheism, and yet atheism doesn’t account for anything that’s presupposed in the argument. The argument requires objective moral values, extremely complex suffering beings, a world (a finely-tuned world, mind you), conscious minds, and a concept of God, and all of these are important elements in proofs for God’s existence.

If we consider this carefully, it turns out to be a tremendous problem for atheism. The thrust of the Argument from Evil is that theism doesn’t account for suffering, and that theism is therefore implausible. But let’s turn that reasoning around. Atheism, as far as I can tell, doesn’t account for anything that goes into its own argument. Atheism doesn’t account for the existence of the universe, or for life, or for objective moral values, or for anything else. Atheism accounts for absolutely nothing. So if we’re rejecting arguments based on their lack of explanatory power, we’d have to reject atheism long before we reject theism. In other words, it makes no sense at all to say, “Well, theism doesn’t account for evil very well, so let’s reject theism and believe in atheism, which doesn’t account for anything very well.” But atheists still make the claim.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Animal Suffering and the Fall of Man (Part Two)

Progressive creationists maintain that God created the world in six days, but that there were millions of years between each of the days of creation. Hence, God created some things on one day, then millions of years went by, and God created some more things on a new day, and millions of years went by, and so on. Theistic evolutionists accept the general account offered in biology classrooms, adding only that God was somehow involved in the process, either by programming the system so that evolution occurred, or by helping the process along the way.

These views entail that the Fall of man was preceded by millions of years of death, disease, and bloodshed. It would therefore seem that animal suffering has little to do with the Fall, since suffering came first. Nevertheless, I think there are some plausible models that would relate animal suffering to the Fall.

Most obviously, one could argue that God had foreknowledge of man’s rebellion, and that God therefore created our world apart from his full sustaining presence from the beginning. In other words, God knew that we would rebel, so he never fully engaged the world, until the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the resurrection, God completely upheld and sustained a physical being, which foreshadows the resurrection of all things at the end of the present age. Thus, this world, from it’s creation, because it was a place where man would rebel, was a place that needed to be redeemed.

Alternatively, we might focus on the Genesis claim that man was given dominion over the world. Theistic evolutionists have a difficult time reconciling their view of origins with certain details in the Bible, but they can nevertheless agree with the broad picture presented in Genesis. Here’s the broad picture. God first created a shapeless, formless, chaotic mass. Then he proceeded to organize that mass into an ordered whole by a process of separation (light from darkness, land from sea, etc.). The natural state of the created world was chaos and disorder. Order comes only by an ordering principle which God imposes on the world. (Note: the Greek term for “ordering principle” is logos.)

Because of this ordering principle, matter was organized into life, and evolution occurred. Eventually, man came on the scene, and here’s the key: God gave authority to man to take part in the process of completing the creation. This point can be made clearer by considering free will vs. determinism. Let’s say that nature functions according to mechanical laws, and that nature will carry on according to these natural laws unless something interferes. What could interfere? Only one thing—the decisions of free beings. And these free beings could be God, angels, or men.

Hence, man has the power to alter the course of the world. He does this by his will, just as God could order the universe according to his will. So God gave us dominion over the earth, to play a creative role in shaping it for the good. But our first order of business as rulers over the world was to declare that we didn’t need God’s help. We rebelled, and God withdrew. The world as it now stands is an unfinished product, groaning until God completes the work that he started.

The obvious question here would be this: Why did God create through evolution, a process that relies on death, disease, and bloodshed? One might respond, along with John Polkinghorne, that a world that “creates itself” to some extent is better than a world whose construction is the product of a divine Monarch. I’m not convinced by this, however. I think it would be more important to argue that a world in which man is able to participate in shaping the world is better than a world in which man plays no such role. And if man is to play a role in shaping the world, the world can’t come from the hand of God as a finished product.

On the whole, I think that the “Suffering before Sin” views need to be combined with various theodicies, such as the free will theodicy, soul-building theodicies, the informed consent theodicy, Kant’s argument for divine hiddenness, and so on. For the question of why God wouldn’t skip the process of evolution will always come to the surface, and theists who want to give explanations will have to bring in certain aspects of our world that could only exist in the sort of world we live in.

But where does animal suffering come in? The Bible devotes little space to God’s motives in creating the world, so we may have to engage in a little speculation whenever we think on this topic. Keeping the doctrine of the Trinity in mind, we could postulate a reason for the creation: God made man because he wanted to create a new type of love. In the Trinity love is, so to speak, obligatory, because it is God’s nature to love and because each person of the Trinity is infinitely lovable. In forming man, God created a being who doesn’t love of necessity, but by choice; and, because man would fall into sin, creation also allowed God to love someone who would be inherently flawed. Hence, creation produced the possibility of freely given love from both man and God.

But man, as a free being, requires a certain type of world. To have free choice, God cannot be fully present, because God’s presence would overwhelm our free will and lead to utter coercion. Free beings develop morally only in the presence of hardships, so hardships are a significant part of our world. We must learn that we are dependent on God, so we must have some knowledge of what it’s like to live apart from God. In short, we must learn the difference between good and evil.

All of this happens in our world. As I have argued in previous posts, a world with animals is better than a world without animals. But if animals are going to be a part of our world, this means that they are going to be a part of a world with suffering, hardships, etc. How is this related to the Fall? God knew that man would rebel. And this world was designed to give us an opportunity to develop morally and return to God. Hence, the world is the way it is because of our nature as free, fallen creatures.

For more on “Suffering before Sin” views, see:

“Evil and Suffering in Light of God’s Power and Love” (Hugh Ross)

Why Would a Good God Create Parasites? (Hugh Ross)

Video: John Polkinghorne on the Problem of Evil

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Animal Suffering and the Fall of Man (Part One)

[I decided to break this into two posts. The first deals with animal suffering from a “No Suffering before the Fall” perspective. The second (which I will post tomorrow morning) deals with animal suffering from perspectives that allow suffering before the Fall.]

Christians typically believe in a “Fall of Man”—an event in which human beings turned against God, resulting in the “Curse.” The Curse would include, among other things, suffering. Thus, the Fall is used by Christians to account for suffering in the world.

Atheists find this unconvincing, but apart from declaring that the Fall is a myth, there’s not much of a way to argue against it. Hence, atheists try to explore the limits of what the Fall can reasonably account for. This is where animal suffering comes in.

“Granting that God is punishing humans for rebellion,” argues the atheist, “why do animals have to participate in this punishment? What did animals do to deserve this?”

The theist, then, is left with the task of showing how animal suffering is related to the Fall of man, and this is the purpose of this post (and the next). I will divide theistic views into (1) those claiming that there was no suffering before man sinned, and (2) those claiming that there was suffering in the world even before man sinned. Since I’m only discussing possible relationships between animal suffering and the Fall, I will have to dedicate a separate post to theodicies that account for animal suffering. Hence, the following should be regarded as a partial theistic response.

Young-Earth creationists typically hold the following:

(1) God created the world between six and ten thousand years ago.

(2) God created various “kinds” of animals, which through selection developed into the species we see today. (Note: Natural selection is a part of Young-Earth theories. These theories simply reject the idea that evolution can produce an increase in genetic information. Hence, in the beginning, God created a great deal of information among the various “kinds”; these “kinds” later produced offspring; selection favored certain offspring in different environments.)

(3) Animals were originally vegetarians.

(4) There was no death before sin (except plant death, and perhaps fish and insects).

Some Old-Earth creationists agree with everything except (1). They hold that the world was created billions of years ago, while God created life according to the biblical account (i.e. God created life between six and ten thousand years ago, though the earth is much older). Hence, certain Old-Earth creationists agree that there was no death or suffering before sin.

So how would the Fall be related to animal suffering on these views? The account would go something like this. God created a world, and it was perfect. There was no death, disease, or bloodshed, because God was upholding and sustaining everything perfectly. Everything went according to God’s will. Suffering was not an option, because there was the perpetual miracle of God’s sustaining presence.

But God gave man the freedom to choose what kind of world he would prefer to live in. Would man rather live in a world according to God’s rules, or a world where he can do as he pleases? Man chose to live in a world where he could do as he pleases. That is, he rebelled against God. Atheists tend to think that such rebellion (eating a forbidden fruit, for instance) is an incredibly small matter. But we should recognize what was going on. The problem wasn’t a matter of fruit. The problem was that man adopted a new system of morality, according to which he would do whatever he feels like doing, even if it goes against what God commands.

At that point, God partially withdrew from the world. He withdrew some of his sustaining power. God said, in effect, “If you’d like to live apart from me, welcome to a world where I am not fully present to keep everything just the way you like it.” On this view, the “Curse” would not be something positive. It wouldn’t be something that God added to the world. Instead, the Curse would be the result of subtraction. God withdrew (to some extent), and things started going wrong.

Animals, of course, were part of the world that God withdrew from. If man had not sinned, God would have continued to fully sustain us, and there would have been no animal suffering. But since man chose to live in a world apart from God, and since God honored that choice, the entire cosmos was affected.

That would be a rough sketch of the “No Suffering before Sin” view. An atheist might make the following objections:

(1) God shouldn’t have created animals if he knew that they were going to experience pain. I addressed this claim in my Introduction a few days ago. Given the choice between suffering animals and no animals, a world with animals is better than a world without animals.

(2) God should have created animals so that they don’t experience pain. But if God knows that he is going to leave the world to its own devices, this would be disastrous for animals. Animals would go extinct if they didn’t experience pain.

(3) God should have created animals so that they experience less pain. Before I take this objection seriously, I’d have to see some evidence that species would perform better with lower levels of pain.

(4) God should have created animals so that they don’t need a sustainer. That is, God should have made the world so that it performs perfectly without him. In the mind of the atheist, this would probably be the strongest objection. To me, it is the weakest. The atheist here would be arguing that God should make a world that functions perfectly even if creatures rebel. But why? Why shouldn’t God create worlds that depend on him not only for their existence, but also for their well-being? I can’t think of any good reason for siding with the atheist on this point.

Hence, I think that the “No Suffering before Sin” views plausibly account for animal suffering. (The question is whether these views account for other things.)

As a final note, I would like to reiterate a comment I made earlier about pessimism. Is nature really as bad as atheists make it out to be? When discussing the existence of God, many atheists act as if we live in the worst world imaginable. Thus Bambi dying in the woods becomes the picture of all nature. The tiger playing with her cub is left out, as are the eagles soaring on the wind, the beavers building their dams, and the dolphins dancing in the water.

Nature is not horrible. Nature is wonderful and beautiful. There is, of course, the problem of pain. But what would we expect in a world where a great rebellion has occurred? I would expect a world with problems, but a world which still bears the mark of its creator. And that’s exactly what we find.

For more on “No Suffering before Sin” views, see:

Why Us? (Ken Ham)

The Problem of Evil (Peter Kreeft)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Some Introductory Thoughts on Animal Suffering

Sometime in the next day or two, I will present some theodicies that take animal suffering into account. Before I do, however, there are a few issues that must be addressed, since theodicies must proceed on clear thinking rather than on sloppy thinking.

First, we must clear up a bit of pessimism (of the John Loftus sort), and recognize the goodness of a world with animals. Or, at the very least, we should recognize that many theists are convinced that there is a great deal of good in the world. Thus, atheists should recognize that any argument that denies the value of certain things in our world will not be persuasive to theists. With this in mind, consider three different worlds:

(1) A world with no animals.

(2) A world with animals who experience (intense) pain.

(3) A world with animals who do not experience (intense) pain.

The atheist is claiming that world (3) is better than world (2), and that, since (3) is better, God should have created world (3) instead of world (2). I am not going to question whether this is the case. I will gladly take up the atheist challenge by agreeing that, all things being equal, a world without animal suffering is better than a world with animal suffering. Theodicies, then, must show that all things are not equal, i.e. that there are reasons for God to allow suffering. The problem I wish to address here is that there is a tendency among certain vocal atheists (e.g. John Loftus, Reginald Finley, etc.) to say that world (1) is also better than world (2). That is, if animals are going to suffer, it would be better if animals didn’t exist at all. Thus, if God knew that animals were going to suffer, he shouldn’t have created them in the first place.

Here I can only appeal to what we already know from experience. We know that a world with animals is better than a world without animals. When a species is going extinct, we try to protect the species, because on some level we recognize that the world just won’t be as good without that species. We all understand that it is good to have cats and dogs, that a house, like the world, is somehow better with animals. Some philosophers have argued that any being is better than any non-being, a view which has even been used to reject Leibniz’ “best of all possible worlds.” Some (Augustine, for instance) would argue that our world cannot be the best possible world, for all God would need to do to make the world better would be to add a single ant to the universe. The universe would be better, because even an ant is good.

The point here is that if an atheist sees no inherent good in the existence of animals, or in the world, or in humanity, or in anything else, neither the Argument from Evil nor responses to the argument will get very far. Indeed, I think that the sort of pessimism that denies the goodness of the world is part of the reason a person becomes an atheist. If he doesn’t see anything good about the world, he has nothing to be thankful for. And if he has nothing to be thankful for, he will have no gratitude towards God.

Second, the atheist claims that animals don’t deserve a world with suffering, since they didn’t participate in any Fall and are therefore innocent. While I agree that animals are innocent of moral evil, and that they don’t deserve a world with suffering, I must point out that animals do not deserve a world of bliss either. In other words, the atheist mode of thinking seems to be this: “All sentient beings deserve a world of bliss, unless they do something bad.” (Of course, atheists such as John Loftus think that even bad people should get a world of bliss, but that’s beside the point here.) But how do atheists arrive at this view? It certainly isn’t self-evident. Perhaps the atheist will say, “I’m not claiming that animals deserve a world of bliss; I’m simply saying that that’s what an all-good being would give them.” But this isn’t self-evident either. One could argue that an all-good, all-powerful, all-just being will give people what they deserve, but this hardly suggests that such a being will give as much pleasure as possible, or that this being will prevent as much suffering as possible.

Third, if Christianity is true, animals are far less significant than human beings, both in this world and in the next. As the only truly free beings in our world, we have the ability to alter the course of the physical world by our wills. That is, the natural world proceeds according to natural laws. The only thing that can interfere with business as usual is something outside the chain of natural causes—in our case, the human will. Moreover, we are eternal, created in the image of God, and what we do in this life has an effect on eternity. I’m pointing this out because some atheists seem to be more concerned about animals than about humans (as I was when I was an atheist).

Fourth, let’s not forget that, in any world with complex creatures, lots of things are connected to lots of other things. Humans find it difficult to understand this, but it’s easiest to see in ecosystems. In the 19th century, a rich genius decided to bring some rabbits to Australia, so he could hunt them. What could be more harmless than a few rabbits? Well, the rabbits practically destroyed the ecosystem of an entire continent, and the outback continues to suffer today. They’ve had to introduce strains of rabbit viruses into nature to help control the rabbit population. The principle is the same in other areas. For instance, suppose we had the power to alter the gravitational constant, and suppose we found some reason for doing so (e.g. perhaps we find that changing the gravitational constant will balance the effects of global warming). So we effect the change, and find out that the universe is worsened, if not uninhabitable.

The point here is that most of the suggestions made by atheists (who long to tell us what a better world would look like), if followed through to certain obvious results, would end in disaster. Normally, the disaster can be noticed quite easily. However, even in instances where the change seems entirely plausible, we should keep in mind that we don’t see all of the connections involved. An atheist who proposes a change as small as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings may, for all we know, be offering us a hurricane somewhere else. As Peter van Inwagen has said, “Our own universe provides the only model we have for the formidable task of designing a world.”

Finally, we need to be realistic. Many of the changes recommended by atheists would result in a “Looney Toons” world, where Elmer Fudd shoots Daffy in the face, Daffy’s bill spins around his head several times, and yet Daffy emerges unscathed (except for the fact that his bill is backwards). If atheists would like to make a case that this sort of world is better than our world, I’d be happy to consider the argument. But there usually isn’t an argument. Instead, the atheist offers a long series of questions, such as “Why doesn’t God make it so that a coyote falling off a cliff is okay when he gets up? Why not? Huh?!” I have no doubts that God could create such a world. My problem is with the idea that this sort of world would be better on the whole than our world. Hence, let’s try not to be silly (as when Loftus argues that God should have given us wings and gills, and as when Richard Carrier says that God should put force fields around churches, make Bibles glow in the dark, and turn all guns into flowers).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Four Evidences for the Fall

Atheists reject the idea of a Fall of man. But the Fall is an important element of theistic accounts of why God would allow suffering. If man were extremely good, we might justly be surprised that there is so much suffering in our world. But if man is actually steeped in sin, should we find it shocking that God allows us to suffer?

There are, I think, four matters which, when combined, provide a reasonable case for the Fall of man. Taken individually, they might not be very persuasive. But taken together, they seem to indicated that we are indeed fallen creatures. (The last is the real point of this post.)

First, there is the matter of revelation. The Apostle Paul, for instance, performed miracles and saw visions of Jesus. And Paul declared that “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Paul admitted that even he was affected by this fall, as evidenced by his inability to do what he knew was right (Romans 7:14-25).

Second, man is notoriously sinful. In making an Argument from Evil, atheists frequently appeal to moral evil, which God (according to the atheist) should prevent, i.e. rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and genocide. But the examples offered by atheists also show how bad and selfish man is. Indeed, even people who dedicate their lives to doing what is right always find out that something is constantly pulling them in another direction. This is consistent with the Fall.

Third, we can reason indirectly to the Fall via evidence for God’s existence. Atheists argue that pointless suffering is incompatible with the existence of God. Since there is pointless suffering, reasons the atheist, God must not exist. However, the theist can turn this reasoning around by arguing that evidence for the existence of God is evidence against pointless suffering. Hence, any evidence the theist can muster in favor of God’s existence is simultaneously evidence that God has reasons for allowing suffering. One of these reasons, which is consistent with revelation and with what we know about man’s nature, could be that man has fallen into a state of sin.

Finally (and least obviously), we occasionally see glimpses of man’s greatness—things that tell us that man was meant to be something much greater than what he actually is. There seems to be no survival advantage in Mozart’s amazing abilities, or in our love for Mozart’s music. There is little in evolutionary theory that would lead us to expect such things. Similarly, the painting and poetic ability of the girl in this short video baffles the mind, and tells us something about our original state.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Triablogue has a new post about Loftus's belief that God would not create anything. You can read it here.


Mary Jo Sharp, of Confident Christianity, recently wrote a commentary on the second Loftus-Wood debate on the Problem of Evil: "Loftus-Wood Round Two: Another Failed Argument from Evil."

The debate was recently made available as a free Podcast. Click here to listen to the two-hour exchange. I look foward to comments.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mabel and the City of God

My last post featured a woman named Mabel, who suffered immensely for several decades. She was blind, nearly deaf, and horribly disfigured. Yet through all of this, Mabel’s faith in God was unshaken, and she praised Jesus for being so good to her.

The first response to this post was enlightening. An atheist reader complained that the purpose of my post was to appeal to my readers’ emotions (as if atheists would never appeal to emotion when discussing the Problem of Evil—laugh, laugh). The real purpose, however, runs much deeper than emotion.

Consider the following propositions, both of which are true:

(1) Mabel suffered horribly, far more than most human beings will ever suffer.

(2) Mabel was a Christian, who believed in an all-powerful, wholly good God.

According to the Argument from Evil, intense suffering and theism are incompatible. But this raises an important question. If suffering and theism are incompatible, why didn’t Mabel question her belief in a God of love?

The most obvious atheist response would be that Mabel never thought about the problem. This is absurd, however. She was alone for twenty-five years, with little to occupy her time except her thoughts. Surely the question of why God would allow her to suffer surfaced at some point. Thus, this response is too superficial.

Next, an atheist might respond that Mabel simply wasn’t sophisticated enough to notice that God’s goodness and power are incompatible with intense suffering. If this is true, we have to wonder why Mabel never recognized the incompatibility, when it seems so obvious to atheists. (I would add that the world contains people who are sophisticated and who agree with Mabel that God and suffering are compatible.)

Third, one might argue that Mabel needed a “crutch” to help her through her suffering. (This was John Loftus’s response to the post. He said that people like Mabel are better off believing in God.) Yet Mabel seemed to exhibit tremendous joy in the midst of her suffering, joy beyond what we might expect from a placebo-God. In other words, if mere belief in Jesus is able to sustain a person through decades of intense pain and loneliness, and in the end the person is more joyful than ever, couldn’t we argue that this is at least some evidence that Jesus really is helping the person? Regardless, this isn't the reason Mabel's faith was unshakable. There's nothing about a "crutch" that would keep a person from recognizing some inconsistency during twenty-five years of thinking, and, again, there are plenty of people who don't need a "crutch" who find the Argument from Evil unpersuasive.

These responses are insufficient. But to turn the tables, let’s ask a different question. How might a theist account for Mabel’s faith? Tim sent a quotation from Augustine, which gives one theistic response:

Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor. (Augustine, City of God, Book I, chapter 8)

But is it sufficient to say that Mabel remained faithful to God because she was good, while someone who turns away from God is bad? I’m not sure. I wouldn’t argue that because Elie Wiesel declared that his first night at Auschwitz destroyed his faith, he must therefore be bad. One could argue, however, that in such a situation, Mr. Wiesel wasn’t in any condition to properly examine the soundness of an argument against God’s existence. (Before anyone accuses me of belittling Wiesel’s suffering, may I point out that I’m doing exactly the opposite. Due to the intensity of the suffering, it would be impossible to be cold and rational as he lost his faith.)

Nevertheless, we could hardly deny that an atheist sitting on his couch and pondering the suffering of Elie Wiesel may be able to soberly examine the premises of the Argument from Evil. And, of course, such an atheist may conclude, based on the suffering of Holocaust victims, that God does not exist.

Yet this leads us to the same difficulty. For theists can also soberly examine the Argument from Evil, and theists find the argument unconvincing. Further, the difference cannot be a matter of intellectual ability, education, or anything of that nature, for people of comparable stature have taken different stances on the issue. Thus, we must agree with Augustine that the difference lies in the person who is suffering, and not in the suffering itself. Or, more accurately here, the difference lies in the people examining the argument, rather than in the argument. But if our response to evil is not a matter of premises and deduction, the difference between theists and atheists on this issue must be found among our values.

But if the atheist’s argument depends on his values, how can he be sure that his argument even works? To put it differently, Mabel had a system of values, and apparently these values prevented her from rejecting the existence of God because of suffering. The atheist has a different system of values, and he rejects God based on these values. But how can the atheist say that his values are right and Mabel’s values are wrong?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Of Death and Power and One Old Lady

This comes from a chapter of Thomas Schmidt’s book A Scandalous Beauty:

I was a college student when I met Mabel. It was Mothers Day, and I was taking some flowers to the county convalescent home to brighten the day for some lonely mothers and grandmothers.

This state-run convalescent hospital is not a pleasant place. It is large, understaffed, and overfilled with senile and helpless people who are waiting to die. On the brightest of days it seems dark inside, and it smells of sickness and stale urine. I went there once or twice a week for four years, but I never wanted to go there, and I always left with a sense of relief. It is not the kind of place one gets used to.

On this particular day I was walking in a hallway that I had not visited before, looking in vain for a few people who appeared sufficiently alert to receive a flower and a few words of encouragement. This hallway seemed to contain some of the worst cases, strapped onto carts or into wheelchairs and looking completely helpless.

As I neared the end of the hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was a horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly. I was told later that when new aids arrived, the supervisors would send them to feed this woman, thinking that if they could stand this sight they could stand anything in the building. I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been here, bed-ridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.

I don’t know why I spoke to her--she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” She held the perfect flower up to her distorted face and tried to smell it. Then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously the product of a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.”

I said, “Of course,” and I pushed her in the chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Before I could speak, Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here. This is from Jesus.”

That was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being. We distributed the rest of my little supply of flowers in the same manner, and I wheeled her back to her room. There I began to learn more. She had grown up on a small farm that she managed with only her mother until her mother died, and then she managed the farm alone. Her social life was limited to the country church near her home, where she had played the piano from the time she was a girl. Finally blindness and sickness and poverty sent her to the county convalescent hospital. For twenty-five years she got weaker and weaker, with constant headaches, backaches, and stomach aches. Then the cancer came. There was little medical care for people like Mabel, people with no money merely waiting to die. For company she had three roommates, human vegetables who screamed occasionally but never spoke intelligibly. They often soiled their bedclothes; and because the hospital was understaffed, especially on Sundays when I usually visited, the stench was overpowering.

Mabel and I became friends, and I went to see her once or twice a week for the next three years. Her first words to me were usually an offer of hard candy from a tissue box she kept near her bed. Some days I would read to her from her beloved Bible, and often when I would pause she would continue reciting the passage from memory, word for word. On other days I would take a book of hymns and sing with her, and she would know all the words of the old songs. For Mabel, these were not merely exercises in memory. She would often stop in mid-hymn and make a brief comment about lyrics she considered particularly relevant to her own situation. I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns. Once, for example, while singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” following the line, “Is there trouble anywhere?” she murmured softly, “Oh, yes, there is.”

It was not many weeks before I turned from a sense that I was being helpful to a sense of wonder, and I would go to her with a pen and paper to write down things she would say. I have a few of those notes now (I wish I had had the foresight to collect a book full of them), and what follows is the story behind one scrap of paper.

During a hectic week of final exams I was frustrated because my mind seemed to be pulled in ten directions at once by all of the things I had to think about. The question occurred to me, “What does Mabel have to think about--hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it is day or night?” So I went to her and asked, “Mabel, what do you think about when you lie here?”

And she said, “I think about my Jesus.”

I sat there and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me, of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote; so slowly that I was able to write it all down. This is what she said:

“I think about how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. . .

I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied. . . Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.”

And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:

Jesus is all the world to me,

My life, my joy, my all.

He is my strength from day to day,

Without him I would fall.

When I am sad, to him I go,

No other one can cheer me so.

When I am sad, he makes me glad.

He’s my friend.

This is not fiction. Incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this. I know. I knew her. I watched her for three years. How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening--and she lay there and sang hymns. How could she do it?

The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something that you and I don’t have much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, unable to talk to anyone, she had incredible power.