Monday, December 1, 2014

What is Hell Like? Come to Church and Find Out, or Not

I think this is the third time I have posted photos on this blog from the marquee of the church down the street from where I live. In the first photo, the marquee indicated, “Big Bang Theory: You’ve Got to be Kidding—God.” Interesting that God should actually provide a direct quotation to this particular church without providing it to other churches. I kind of thought they believed the Bible was God’s word, but apparently God sends them direct quotes. I used this photo in my 2012 book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged,Stressed-Out World. At first I thought God was ridiculing cosmology, but I have gradually come to realize that what really disturbed God was the television series by that name. Apparently God really hates TV shows with geeks in them. In the second photo, the marquee announced, “Evolution: The Science of Calling God a Liar.” I made a YouTube video of this sign, and it got copied around the FaceBookosphere.

Note of caution: There is a website that makes fake church marquee images. They are funny but don’t take them seriously. For example, the church sign that said, “God to President Bush: Those little voices are not from me. Check your meds,” was funny but not genuine. And that joke about the church marquee that said, “What is Hell? Come to church and find out” is likewise apocryphal.

But in this third example the marquee looks, at first, not too different from other church marquees. It is not outrageous, but subtly misleading in a way that I think is interesting enough to discuss at this point. There is apparently a multi-church seminar called “ExploreGod.” In this series, they ask important questions, such as Does God exist? or (as in this photo) Why does God allow pain and suffering? These are good questions. But how a church approaches them and how scientists might approach them reveal a fundamental difference between religion and science.

First note that science itself cannot answer either question. But scientists as people frequently wonder about such questions and come up with personal answers to them.

When a church asks, Does God exist?, there is only one possible answer. And everything that leads up to their conclusion is forced into lockstep march toward that conclusion: the answer of Yes. But when scientists ask, Does God exist?, you get a whole range of answers. Science does not force its arguments into a lockstep march toward the answer of No. Many scientists answer Yes, many answer No. But many scientists, myself included, cannot answer this question. Instead we ask, what do you mean by God? If you mean a supreme being who controls all the details of the universe, the answer is clearly No. But if you mean a spiritual essence of love, the presence whereof can never be tested but which many of us would really, really like to believe in, the answer is a resounding I hope so for those of us in the middle. Scientists are always questioning our assumptions and biases. The churches answer the question like an army; scientists answer it like a herd of cats.

Similarly, when churches ask the question in the photo, you know that they will reach some kind of answer or other that leaves God both merciful and all-powerful. They might answer it (especially this church), “God allows suffering because there are Democrats in the world.” Others might answer it, “Because God is testing and strengthening us.” But both of these answers fail to match the evidence, because (in response to the first) even Republicans suffer now and again—there are some forms of pain from which even assault weapons cannot protect them—and (in response to the second) because pain and suffering is way, way, prodigiously, lugubriously, supercalifragalisticexpialadociously, abominably greater than is necessary for strengthening a person’s character. We all expect life to be challenging, to find thorns in a rose garden, but for many people (so far, not for me) suffering has been overwhelming. A little Palestinian kid getting killed by an Israeli mortar, or getting killed because she was used as a human shield by an Islamist terrorist, does not promote that kid’s spiritual development. (See, here is common ground between Israel and Hamas: they both believe that Palestinian civilians are expendable.)

The one answer a church will not permit is to say, “Shit happens and God doesn’t stop it.” There may be a God-essence that wants us to overcome struggles to the extent that we can, and this can be considered a potential Christian answer, but no church would say this, because then people would stop coming and bringing their money. That is, if you can’t get God to alleviate your suffering, then what is the point of prayer and church involvement?

But scientists as people are open to a range of responses to such a question.

As Bart Ehrman has pointed out in his book God’s Problem, the Bible offers about four different answers to the question of why God permits suffering, depending on which part of the Bible you read. The answers all contradict one another. Scientists, as people, would note this range of Biblical answers without trying to force everyone to believe just one of them, without screwing the scriptures that say otherwise into confirming the belief decided in advance.

And of course there are lots of religious answers outside of Christianity. Christian Scientists (who are not Christian scientists) claim that suffering is an illusion.

Conservative religion says, “We have the answer, and we will force all evidence, even scriptural evidence, into confirming it.” Scientists as people say, “There are different possible answers, and we may just have to accept the fact that we cannot know which if any are correct.”

In closing, I point out that this photo was taken on September 22, 2014. Notice that the sign just below the marquee is still advertising a God-loves-guns-and-wants-you-to-have-assault-weapons seminar they sponsored the previous May. The seminar is over enough already and you should take the sign down. But they don’t, because apparently this sign—apparently a permanent fixture now—expresses that they think the Gospel is really about: not Jesus, not God, but guns.

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