Category: Apologetic Papers


            Why can’t we all just get along?  Or, in the immortal words of John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too/ Imagine all the people/ Living life in peace…” This poignant longing for peace pervades our culture and time, but where is the peace?  How is it achieved in the real world? There is something wrong with human relationships. Despite humanity’s best efforts there has never been a time or place in which societies have not degraded into conflict and oppression. That something is evil. It is that thing that insists: my will, not yours; my desires, not yours. Whether one is a Christian or not, the fact that humans mistreat each another is inescapable. The problem of evil cries out for a solution. However, in order to propose a solution, it is first necessary to understand the problem. Defining evil is a good place to start. It is my purpose in this paper to explore the notions of evil held by those whose worldview differs from mine and to see how their definition and solutions compare to the Christian definition and solution.

The problem of evil is one of the objections most commonly raised against the existence of God. The problem of evil can be stated in two different forms: the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil.  Both of these aspects can be stumbling blocks for those who take issue with the existence of God as well as for the believer who may be dealing with doubts in the face of their own suffering and are trying to understand and lay hold of the hope that is given to them.

The intellectual problem of evil has two aspects: the logical problem of evil and the probabilistic problem of evil. These are both abstract philosophical concepts. The logical problem of evil states that there is an inherent contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil; and the probabilistic problem of evil states that given the amount of evil in the world, the existence of God is highly unlikely.

The emotional problem of evil on the other hand is more a matter of disgust or outrage over the idea that an all-powerful loving God would allow anyone to experience pain and suffering when he has the power to alleviate it. This is the problem of evil that surfaces when we as humans are faced with the devastation of natural evil like earthquakes and tsunamis, or atrocities like the Holocaust which man commits against other men. Rather than directly address these claims, which has been done often and with much better success than I could achieve in a paper of this length, I have prepared a short list of questions that I have asked a number of people I know who are either atheists or agnostics to gain a better understanding of how they define and solve the problem of evil.

The questions are the following:

  1. Do you think evil exists? Why or why not?
  2. What is evil?
  3. What is the source of evil?
  4. What, if anything, can be done about it?

In order to avoid arguments over the validity of Christianity, I intentionally left out the issue of whether or not God exists from my first interview and simply asked what the interviewees thought about evil itself. The questions were asked in as neutral a way as possible so that my subjects did not feel I was trying to lead them to any particular understanding. It was my hope that through their answers and knowing something about their background, I would be able to gain some insight into how their notion of evil affected their worldview.  But what did my research actually show? I was surprised to find how much there was in common between the Christian worldview and theirs.  For the most part there was a tacit acknowledgement that evil existed, even if only at a personal level, and that something should be done about it.  On the other hand the issue of relativism came up in the view of each person, which complicated and weakened his or her proposed solutions.

First, I would like to examine the perceptions of evil found in the literature written by atheists. The primary idea in this literature is to refute the arguments for the existence of God, therefore the points are laid out in as simple and as logical and abstract a way as possible which literally avoids all the messiness that goes along with actual lived human experience.  This abstraction of the arguments against the existence of God often results in an oversimplification of the issues at hand, which leads to arguments against straw men.  I found in my interviews that often a combination of views about evil was apparent.  Evil was not something that could be placed neatly in a box and examined. Many nuances arose which colored the definition of evil and the solution. In Atheistic literature the concept of evil breaks down into two basic forms: those who acknowledge that evil is real and exists, and those that treat evil as a human construct.

For example, Emma Goldman in her essay The Philosophy of Atheism plainly acknowledges that evil exists as a real thing. She writes: “…injustice among men is ever on the increase; the outrages committed against the masses in this country alone would seem enough to overflow the very heavens. But where are the gods to make an end to all these horrors, these wrongs, this inhumanity to man?”[1] In addition, Elizabeth Anderson in her essay If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted? argues for a moral foundation that does not rely on the existence of God, and in so doing she acknowledges that there is such a thing as a moral right and wrong. On page after page of her essay she lists many instances taken from the Old and New Testaments of things that on their face seem to be in her words “heinous acts.”[2] I have to admit that those things are hard to swallow, but defending against those charges is not within the scope of this paper.  What is significant is that Arnold, in her explanation of morals, treats those instances as real evidence of evil.

Percy Bysshe Shelly and Carl Sagan propose that evil is just an illusion, a concept invented by the human mind. In his essay, A Refutation of Deism, Shelly writes:

Populace cities are destroyed by earthquakes, and desolated by pestilence. Ambition is everywhere devoting its millions to incalculable calamity. Superstition, in a thousand shapes, is employed in brutalizing and degrading the human species, and fitting it to endure without a murmur the oppression of its innumerable tyrants. All this is abstractedly neither good nor evil because good and evil are words employed to designate that peculiar state of our own perceptions, resulting from the encounter of any object calculated to produce pleasure or pain. Exclude the idea of relation and the words good and evil are deprived of import.[3]

Evil, for Shelley, is simply a way to define or name things that are an unalterable and uncomfortable part of the cosmos. Shelley implies that those who insert God into this scenario are doing so as only a means to comfort themselves and provide meaning and purpose for the things that are hard to deal with.

Carl Sagan treats the whole issue of good and evil and morals rather cavalierly. In his essay The God Hypothesis Sagan addresses the issue of morality.  He makes a comparison of human morals to instincts of animals and chalks up morality simply to nothing more than a result of natural selection or survival of the fittest. He says: “once humans reach the point of awareness of their surroundings, we can figure things out, and we can see what’s good for our own survival as a community or a nation or a species and take steps to ensure our survival.”[4]  Sagan refutes the existence of God by both emotional and intellectual arguments, in other words, for Sagan, human suffering and injustice make the existence of God a logical contradiction.[5]  This particular argument has largely been put to rest by both Christian and non-Christian philosophers, but it is not my aim to go into that here. [6]

Richard Dawkins, a Darwinian Evolutionist like Sagan, seems to both affirm and deny the reality of morality and evil. In his essay Atheists for Jesus, he remarks: “Natural selection is a deeply nasty process… The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight.”[7]  For Dawkins, natural selection has nothing to do with what is right and wrong. Morality and evil as concepts make no sense when the sole drive can only be survival and passing on of one’s genes.  However, Dawkins cannot help but acknowledge that in humans a quality exists that seems to go against this theory, something he calls “super niceness.”[8] He writes: “human super niceness is a perversion of Darwinism because, in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection.” [9] He has no explanation for this phenomenon, but in a snarky fashion suggests that it should be encouraged through the use of religion because religion is so effective at getting people to believe in irrational things.[10]

It is interesting to note that no matter from which side the argument is being approached, the literature always goes straight for the emotional hook. On the one hand, the atheist’s tactic of trying to refute the existence for God based on the moral argument is to show that the moral argument lacks empirical support and depends solely on the emotions, which are not valid evidence because they are not quantifiable scientifically. On the other hand when the moral argument for the existence of God is taken on from a philosophical angle, in that it points to an actual foundation for the existence of objective moral values, the tactic is to grab at the emotions by pointing to all the atrocities that have happened in the name of religion or to cite the existence of natural evil in the face of an all-powerful God who could stop it if He so chose. When I intentionally left the argument for the existence of God out of the initial interview, appeal to the emotions was almost non-existent.  When I avoided asking their opinion about whether or not God existed, they were able to detach themselves from the emotional hooks and focus on what they believed about evil.

For this paper I interviewed 5 different people, both men and women, who have characterized themselves as either atheist or agnostics.[11]  Although their beliefs about evil were varied and nuanced, they also fell into two camps. There were those that believed that evil existed as a real thing and those that believed that evil was simply a creation of the human mind to describe things that we either do not like or things that make us uncomfortable. Neither group could propose a solid answer to what could be done about evil. However, the group that acknowledged that evil was a real thing was at least able to conceive that a solution was possible. Whereas the group that believed that evil was only a human construct had a much bleaker outlook on mankind’s ultimate prospects.

I will begin with those who acknowledged evil as a real thing.  When I asked Patricio and Eddie if they thought that evil existed, they answered in the affirmative with no hesitation. To them the concept of balance or dualism made sense.  If there is good then there must be evil as its opposite. Patricio said: “if there is good there has to be a knowledge of bad and a concept of bad  in order to compare them to each other.”[12]  Eddie said, “everything has an opposite reaction.”[13] To both Patricio and Eddie the fact that humans can, and do, flourish was obvious and the reciprocal of that flourishing was also obvious.  When asked to define evil, both Eddie and Patricio classified evil as only existing within human relationships. Evil is a result of a decision or choice, and emerges out of human interaction, which implies free will.  When asked whether there was a scenario where evil would not emerge within human relationships, Patricio immediately wanted to affirm that there was.  However, when trying to come up with an example, like a small village where for the most part everyone was happy, he still had to admit that evil always comes out. He realized that humanity wants to live in harmony, but in practice, we don’t.  This idea of harmony was the primary influence of my third interviewee. Rodney’s definition of evil was that which disrupted the harmony of the relationships between people in a social group.[14] When asked what could be done about the disharmony that inevitably emerges, his answer was to lead by example. The Golden Rule is the basis of all morality and ethics. He said: “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”[15] When asked how this solution would work on a global scale in terms of what could be done about large scale evil, Rodney said that as a short term solution it was not effective, but that change could happen generationally through the influence of the young coming into adulthood and power.  His example was of a stronger culture taking over a weaker one initially but the weaker culture pushing back by influencing the way of life and changing the culture from the inside.

One thing that was common among this group of interviewees, and indeed with all of the people I interviewed, is that there was a certain degree of relativism in the definition of evil within a culture.  All acknowledged that there were things that one culture found to be evil that another did not. The problem came in determining what should be deemed ultimately evil despite what any given culture might think about it at any given time.  The most common answer was a consensus of the majority. For Eddie, the ideas of justice and intentionality were very important to the definition of ultimate evil. One act could be considered evil, like beating and raping a child for one’s own gratification, while the same degree of violence would be acceptable as an act of retribution or the meeting out of justice.[16] Harkening back to the arguments against God from Emma Goldman and Elizabeth Anderson, where particular events are held up as examples of the evil of Christianity, it is evident that the authors gave no thought to intention or justice in the condemnation of Christianity. It is possible that a more nuanced understanding of those events is called for in terms of understanding their purpose and motivation. In order to judge the morality of any given act within time and place, a universal foundation for good and evil is necessary. Without a universal standard of good and evil everything can be rationalized away based on cultural mores of the time. Without God, the author of universal morality, anything does and has become permissible. This foundation must be more than a mere biological drive for survival as Dawkins so bluntly demonstrated in his explanation of the nastiness of natural selection.

The other common factor that came out with my first group of interviewees was that nature was not evil.   Natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are part of the cause and effect world of physical laws and therefore neutral.  This was notable because for many natural disasters are usually a sticking point when it comes to the existence of God. However, when God is not the center of the conversation, those things become tragedies rather than reasons to deny God. Also notable, the interviewees considered that nature included the animal kingdom.

The first thing that came to Patricio’s mind when I asked him to give me an example of something evil was blackmail. When we explored why that was the first thing that came to his mind, it became clear that he believed that it was evil for one human being to hurt another human being for their own advantage.  However, it was not evil for a tiger to attack and kill his sister. The tiger when it attacks is just hungry and acting out of its nature.  This belief gave him pause though when he thought about those two things together. Why was one act evil and the other not? Both acts are done for the advantage of the one over the other. The difference was that there was something that made a human special. The tiger in satisfying his hunger was not conscious of the value of life. As Patricio said, in order for something to be evil there needs to be consciousness of “the life of the other person and knowing how precious that is, to keep life rather than hurt life.”[17] However, Patricio hunts and eats meat, so it must be something more than just life that is important.

What surprised me was how close Patricio, Eddie and Rodney’s worldview was to that of Christianity. Several very important truths were acknowledged. For one, human beings are unique, different from other sentient beings. Something makes our lives and desires valuable beyond those of animals. They also acknowledged the fact that something is wrong with human nature because evil and disharmony always emerge. For the Christian this is the picture of God’s creation of man in His own image. Man’s ultimate value comes from the fact that he bears the image of God. The Christian worldview explains the human nature problem with the fall of humanity into sin resulting from a misuse of his free will choosing against His Creator, the fountain of Good.   Evil becomes not a thing per say, but the absence of good.  Secondly, even though the idea of relativism caused some problems with the consistency of their views, they all agreed that there were some things that were universally evil despite what any given culture might think.  This idea confirms the Scriptural revelation that God has written His moral law on the hearts of all mankind, giving to everyone an innate sense that some things are right and some things are wrong which transcend time and place. However, without the foundation for the moral law written in the heart and the desire and power to obey that law, it becomes difficult to actually have any kind of hope for resolution of the ultimate problem that evil presents. Without a transcendent foundation, judging evil becomes a personal thing.  In this case the only thing to do is to find like-minded people to be around.  Relativism cannot produce unity, but rather pits one standard or “right” against another “right”.  In this scenario the law of the jungle prevails. How can peace flow from this?

Now let’s turn to the second group that I interviewed; those who did not believe that evil actually existed. Those two differentiated from one another in that one of them believed that the existence of evil only made sense if God existed while the other did not acknowledge that the existence of God was even a possibility.

Amanda is a PhD candidate in Bio-Chemistry and does not believe that God exists. When I asked Amanda about evil, she said: “the concept of evil is entirely born of the sentient mind. From a biological standpoint I am not sure that evil exists.”[18] She believes evil is a concept we have created to describe a person with particular motives and behaviors. In other words, evil is not “real” but it is a useful concept. For Amanda, evil is a relative thing. Everyone has inside of them motivations that can be considered good or evil. But what differentiates those things depends on each individual’s definition.

Good and evil are relegated to the human mind. Amanda, like my previous interviewees, also believes the natural world is not evil.  Similarly as well, Amanda believes that what differentiates humans from other animals is that “humans have the capacity to consider the consequences of their actions and by having that ability we have the ability to choose or not choose to do things that are harmful”[19] However, this creates a conflict within her worldview, because from her perspective as a scientist, who rejects the idea of the existence of God and the supernatural, she believes “we live in a deterministic world, and therefore choice is really an illusion.”[20] However, she feels that she has a choice and that is what is important.  This internal conflict in Amanda’s worldview makes the solution to the problem of evil seem somewhat arbitrary. In her view, although nothing is universally evil, there are some things that the global community has rejected as wrong.  Therefore we as humans should abide by the social contract that binds societies together. Those who go against those rules should be stopped.  This seems to be the way things work when you look at things like international law. However when faced with specific things that she views as wrong, like cruelty to animals, she found no basis to condemn anyone outside of her personal community.

Anne, on the other hand, is not convinced that God does not exist. She is currently in the process of investigating the evidence pointing to God to decide whether or not she can accept it. Anne’s response to the problem or existence of evil was: “evil exists only if God exists. If God doesn’t exist, then sin and evil don’t exist and there is no problem.”[21] Without God, she acknowledged that the concept of evil was entirely relative to the individual. Things that one person might consider evil another might consider good and beneficial.[22] In her moral economy “there is no black and white, only shades of gray.”[23] This sounds very much like the viewpoint of Percy Bysshe Shelly quoted earlier. Since Anne was very hesitant to declare that anything was evil, the questions of the source of evil and its solution were somewhat meaningless. Anne thinks in that case, there is no source and nothing can really be done about what one personally doesn’t like.  One can start a campaign to “raise awareness,” or simply move somewhere else to find people who share your preferences.[24]  When I asked her how something like rape fit into her view of right and wrong, she responded that, in looking at rape, there was an assumption that one person’s will was more valid than another person’s will.[25] Although this sounds coldly detached, Anne expressed a level of intellectual honesty here, which is rare. Anne is one of the few people I have met who has really thought through these issues and realizes the implications of what she believes. She realizes that if evil does not exist, then even personal autonomy cannot be assumed as a human right. Oddly enough, she is not bothered by this. The presence of things that she does not like is something that “just is” like taxes.

Amanda said “ideally one wants one’s concept of the world to be logically consistent with what one believes and emotionally satisfying.”[26] So I asked, “What if one’s position is logically consistent but not emotionally satisfying?  What then? Her response was: “since you can’t change the facts, you must adjust your emotions by re-examining why you find something distasteful.”[27] Ultimately one must buck up and accept those things if one is to boldly face the “truth.”

            To conclude my research for this paper, I returned to my interviewees after they had had a few days to mull over our previous conversation.  My final question to them was: Do your beliefs about evil have any bearing on whether or not you believe in God? With few exceptions each person’s initial response was that it did not have any bearing on their beliefs about the existence of God. For Patricio and Eddie, who come from religious backgrounds but have discarded the faith of their youth, evil did raise thoughts about the devil. However, they considered the idea of a being with horns and a forked tail childish. Their thoughts about evil did not connect with their reasons for doubting the existence of God. For Rodney, Amanda and Anne, their rejection of God came not from what they believed about good and evil but from what they perceived as a lack of evidence.  For Anne in particular, whether or not evil actually existed as a real thing depended on whether or not God existed, and not the other way around.

For the Christian, the solution to the problem of evil rests on the fact that God’s revelation of His character and work of redemption at the cross is the ultimate foundation for defining good and evil. It is those eternal standards which hold the whole world accountable and offer hope of real triumph over evil personally and socially.  The atheist and agnostic solution is problematic in that that they lack a foundation for determining what is ultimately good or evil.  Therefore their solutions have an arbitrariness that limits their strength. The relativism that pervaded all of their views weakened the bonds that they shared with the Christian worldview, but also provided a bridge of dialogue. I discovered that when I approached the issue with non-threatening questions and primarily listened rather than spoke, I had very productive conversations rather than arguments.

[1] Emma Goldman, The Philosophy of Atheism in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 131.

[2] Elizabeth Anderson, If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?, in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 335-339.

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelly, A Refutation of Deism in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 54.

[4] Carl Sagan, The God Hypothesis in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 233.

[5] Ibid., 236.

[6] For more information on the logical problem of evil see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/, and http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-problem-of-evil, accessed 11/29/2014.

[7] Richard Dawkins, Atheists for Jesus in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 307-308.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

[12] Interview recorded with Patricio via phone, November 24, 2014.

[13] Interview recorded with Eddie via phone, November 25,2014.

[14] Interview recorded via phone with Rodney November 25, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Interview recorded with Eddie via phone, November 25,2014.

[17] Interview recorded with Patricio via phone, November 24, 2014.

[18] Interview recorded with Amanda, November 24,2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Interview with Anne, November 24, 2014.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Interview recorded with Amanda, November 24, 2014.

[27] Ibid.

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Introduction

“No one can tell me who I can and can’t sleep with.” A common beliefs of some Evangelical churches is that all intellectual arguments against God ultimately boil down to the sexual and moral issue of human autonomy. Whether or not the arguments do actually boil down to this matter is something that can be argued.  Yet, the fact that this perspective can be found in the Christian community is an indication of the importance the rolesexual ethics plays in raising the next generation. Sexual desire is one of the most powerful motivators of human beings, particularly of the youth, and it is correct to take it seriously. However, Christians can place such an emphasis on sexual sin and behavior that it can overshadow all other parts of their theology and end up distorting a healthy view of the body and of sexual desire itself.

Secular Ideas about Sexuality and Dating

One does not need to look very far to see what the secular world thinks about human sexuality. There are two aspects of sexuality that are prevalent and coexist in the secular culture. Yet, if looked at together they produce conflict and contradiction.  One aspect is that sexuality is simply a primitive biological drive to reproduce. In this view, sexual urges are natural. Acting on them therefore is merely an instinctual way of ensuring that one’s genes are passed on.  Science programs on TV often try to reduce everything, even emotional responses, to chemical reactions in the brain.

The other main secular view is that finding one’s “soul mate” holds the answer to all of life’s problems. According to popular culture, sexual compatibility is a big part of determining whether one has found one’s soul mate is.  Almost every movie and TV show bears this out. As soon as a couple show a romantic interest in each other they will be thrown into bed together.  This pattern happens regardless of whether or not the program is aimed at youth or adults. Dating is portrayed as a pathway to sex rather than a way of getting to know a person of the opposite sex and oneself at the same time.  If perchance a couple does get together and decides to get married, the commitment is only as long as the sexual romance lasts. As soon as problems show up, and they must if the show is to remain interesting, it is time to split up and prepare the couples for the next round.  Shows like the immensely popular Grey’s Anatomy, are perfect examples of this. Romantic attachment is portrayed as the ultimate goal for each of the characters, and yet there is never really any satisfaction or fulfillment gained.

Both of these views are a heritage of Modernity’s shift to the supremacy of the autonomous self. Many kids are getting the message from our culture that if something feels natural then it must be good; and that the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. It is ironic that when Shakespeare had Polonius say “to thine own self be true” he was being facetious and everybody knew it.  Nowadays that phrase is bandied about as sage advice by talk show hosts and psychologists and the youth are swallowing it hook line and sinker. Yet, as many young people inevitably discover, we don’t always know what is good for us. In fact, most of the time our basic desires are damaging to us. The prophet Jeremiah says “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”[1] Since God and His design for relationship has been rejected by our culture, something else must step in and fill the gap.  Human reason rejecting God fills the gap with Scientism which explains relationship in terms of an evolutionary mechanism for passing on human genes. Popular culture tells us that relationship is a way of attaining personal fulfillment. Manufactured temporal purpose is based on the shifting sands of personal pleasure. Each of these views is reductionist in nature. Either one sees sex and relationship as merely complex chemical reactions determined by evolution, or one flies from the dark cold despair of determinism into hedonism.

The Evangelical Response – Purity Culture and Courtship

            The Church is right to fight back against these reductionist views and point to a more holistic understanding of the human person and his relationships. However, as with many human endeavors, when this is attempted without humbly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit through scripture, the results can be reductionist in their own way.  When we look at the rise of the “purity culture,” and its intersection with courtship in the Evangelical Church, we can see just such an example. The emphasis on purity and courtship is intended to remind the youth that the ultimate reason for dating is marriage and to guard against the damage that the trivialization of sex can do to an eventual marriage.  Yet, unintended consequences arise from this model that stem from a misunderstanding of the purposes of God’s commandments to us. God’s commandments cannot be reduced to some arbitrary set of standards that we must measure up to in order to have value and bring Him glory.  They are there for our own benefit, handed down in order that we might flourish. God receives glory from our flourishing. A wrongheaded response to pagan sexualization of everything in popular culture easily leads to a skewed focus on Christian purity which unmoors this vital expression of gospel faith from its purpose and meaning.

The purity subculture in the Evangelical Church is characterized by an extreme focus on abstinence from anything sexual; with rituals resembling marriage ceremonies where young girls as young as 11 pledge to remain virgins.[2] There are rings and tokens that accompany these rituals that act as constant reminders of the commitments that are made. Young people, especially girls, are told that their purity is the most valuable thing that they possess, and that there are dire consequences to even the smallest lapse, even in their thought life the extreme focus on external behaviors to express purity can have the effect of disassociating it from a matter of the heart. When purity does not flow from the internal spring of a loving obedient heart, it becomes an idol.

There are many consequences to the idolization of purity. Purity culture can set an almost impossible standard for young people to reach.  The inevitable failures can produce a tremendous amount of guilt in the individual. One young man puts it this way: “I’m supposed to be a great Christian guy and I have sexual feelings, and with God I feel guilty, and I ask God to forgive me, and I feel that I’m going to run out of grace. And I feel that I’m messing up sometimes and living a lie.”[3] This comment highlights another problem with idolizing purity, the lack of grace. It is typical in communities where purity culture is strong to ostracize those who fail to keep the standards. Once a reputation for falling is gained, it is almost impossible to shake it off.  A young lady who grew up in just such a culture and was seduced by a boy tells of the reaction of her community:  “Word got out to my circle of friends that I was “promiscuous,” and my fate was sealed. I was now the resident whore. I reached out to the few people in my life whom I thought could help me, but even they turned their backs on me.”[4] When someone fails to reach the standard, they must be punished because idols are incapable of giving grace.[5]

            The sexualization of the culture around us and the noetic effects of sin on human nature do present very real for helping young people avoid destructive decisions regarding their sexual desires. We have seen that purity culture reflects guilting and rituals more than biblical principles. In many cases the cure is worse than the disease. Still, there exists another idol in the Church that is born out of purity culture: marriage.  With the extreme negative emphasis that is placed on any kind of private interaction between boys and girls because of the risk of physical or even mental sexual impurity a problem arises as to how to bring two people together into that highest of Christian values for adults: the marriage bond. As the dating model of the popular culture is obviously fatally flawed, many in the Evangelical community have resorted to a courtship model. The courtship model that is supported by purity culture tries to address the problems of sexual temptation by taking private interaction between a boy and girl off of the table, and placing all the authority externally in the parents. According to Thomas Umstattd, who was originally a proponent of courtship, but has since abandoned it in favor of a more traditional model of dating, are:

  • The man must ask the woman’s father’s permission before pursuing the woman romantically.
  • High accountability (chaperones, monitored correspondence, etc).
  • Rules about physical contact and purity. (The specific rules vary from community to community).
  • The purpose of the courtship is marriage
  • High relational intentionality and intensity
  • High parental involvement. Fathers typically hold a “permission and control” role rather than the traditional “advice and blessing” role held by their fathers.[6]

There are aspects of the courtship model that do have value which is evidenced by the popularity, among evangelical youth of books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. The casual attitude towards sex and dating in the popular culture has left many young adults feeling lost and empty and wanting something more.  As noted by Donna Freitas in her book Sex and the Soul, the hook up culture in college has actually reversed the way that intimacy works in the relationship between two people. The process is not: get to know a person through a series of dates, the development of mutual feelings, marriage, and finally the intimacy of sex. It has become “one night after a party, two people hook up, then it happens again, then it becomes a regular thing, and eventually they find that they are in a relationship.”[7] These kinds of relationships rarely develop into marriage. With the hookup as the predominant secular model of dating it is natural that the Evangelical community would want something different, something with higher parental involvement so that a more mature person can help the young person avoid highly charged situations through a strong focus on the ultimate purpose of dating which is to find a marriage partner.

Those young people and parents who read Joshua Harris’s book saw the courtship model as a way to counter the cultural hook-up mandate and bring a more spiritually mature adult alongside the immature party in order to share the responsibility. The high parental involvement could slow down the quick progression of intimacy that plagues the current dating scene and allow the couple to develop a “deep friendship that could lead to marriage.”[8] The courtship model itself is not really the problem. Parental involvement and counsel in the choice of a potential mate, providing means to avoid temptation to sexual immorality, and keeping in mind the ultimate goal of marriage are all good things and should be a part of a healthy dating process.

Intersection of Purity Culture and Courtship

However, the problem with courtship when it intersects with purity culture is that the focus becomes almost exclusively, “how do we keep the couple from having sex before they are married?” When we look at early America where the courtship model was practiced successfully in the Christian community the sexual issue was not a problem.  Take for example the courtship of Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder recorded in These Happy Golden Years. In that situation Almanzo did approach Laura’s father about pursuing Laura,[9] but there was not the suffocating oversight that is prevalent in today’s courtship rituals. Almanzo and Laura were able to go out on sleigh and carriage rides into the country completely unsupervised and yet there was no specter of sexual sin hanging over their interactions.

Granted, we do live in a different time. In early America, sex was not one of the dominant aspects of the surrounding culture like it is today. Back then young people were not confronted with a constant barrage of images promoting and normalizing pre-marital sex. Back then communities were very strong and close knit.  However if one observes the typical Evangelical purity community now, strength and unity would certainly be an accurate way of describing it. The difference is that Laura’s parents trusted her and they trusted God. They raised her to know what was right and wrong and what God’s purpose was for her and then trusted her to act on the teaching which she had herself internalized. One aspect of the purity culture courtship model as noted earlier is extreme parental control. This kind of control is an example of a distinct lack of trust in God. The youth are taught the precepts of purity but are never given the opportunity to stand on their own two feet and make the choices while listening to the Holy Spirit. The parents have taken on the role of God.

Another pitfall arises from the literature that espouses courtship over any other method of dating. Much of the purity language is focused almost exclusively on sexual abstinence both physical and mental.  For example, a statement on the IBLP web site says: “Courtship is a choice to avoid temptation and experience the blessings of purity.”[10] In this one article on courtship and its purposes, almost every single paragraph has something in it that speaks of avoiding temptation or puts a negative spin on physical desires. With lines like “couples usually date with the selfish goals of having fun and enjoying romantic attachments,”[11] and  “In a dating relationship, self-gratification is normally the basis of the relationship,”[12] the article gives the impression that sexuality is a negative thing that needs to be suppressed.

I am not saying that expressing one’s sexuality in a relationship before marriage should be treated cavalierly. Yet, sex and the pleasure one experiences from it, are created by God and are good. To place a negative connotation on them can leave a young person with the impression that sex and his body are bad. This non-Incarnational way of thinking about the body and sexual desire often has many unintended consequences for couples once they do get married.  Those feelings that sex, and one’s desire for it are bad don’t disappear once the vows have been said.  Many women speak of the sexual dysfunction within marriage that they deal with as a result of the methods they used to maintain their purity before marriage.[13] When a girl sees her purity as her ultimate gift to her husband, it objectifies her in a way that is contradictory to the intent. Another tragic unintended consequence comes when a girl does manage to keep herself completely pure. It becomes extremely difficult for any young man to measure up to her father’s standards. This can keep many young women from even the potential of courtship and marriage because their fathers run off any potential suitors. As one young man puts it that returned home from college expecting to find many of the young ladies he grew up with available for courting:

It is a cruel irony: a culture which esteems marriage and family as the highest ideal ultimately makes it unattainable. Organizations like ATI and Vision Forum that claim that women only have a role in the house ultimately doom them to a lifestyle apart from their ideal. By idolizing marriage, finding a spouse becomes almost impossible.[14]

This notion of one’s purity as the ultimate gift turns sexual purity into a commodity by which the value of a potential spouse is judged. Much of the teaching that is put forth in purity culture is about saving one’s self for one’s eventual mate.  Not only are many young people pledging that they will be virgins until they get married, many are also pledging that they won’t have their first kiss until the altar. This is not to say that avoiding physical temptation is not a wise thing to do, however when one’s value as a person is determined by how successful one is at self-control, the damage can be catastrophic. For example, photographer Amy Almasy writing about her experience with purity culture says:

What purity teaching did for me, and for many of the women I know who were raised in similar environments, was distill me down to my body. Sure, leaders paid lip service to concepts like, you know, women having brains and personalities. But the core of purity culture was that my mind didn’t matter, my personality didn’t matter, my dreams and desires and goals didn’t matter — if my shorts were too short. Or if I wore a bikini, if I kissed a boy, if I kissed a GIRL, if I shook my bootie when I danced, if I ever-ever-ever had sex for any reason whatsoever before I was married. Because my REAL value, my ultimate worth, came from my body. I learned that the assumed, innate “impurity” of my body would overshadow any other valuable trait I may possess.[15]

Yet another pitfall is that purity culture can set such an impossibly high standard for physical and mental purity, with dire consequences from the community for failure, that young people are saddled with tremendous guilt.  Unfortunately failure in this area tends to be enormous. A young woman who calls herself “Mary Elizabeth” started out as a happy and well-adjusted girl whose parents wanted the best for her. However, once her parents got involved with ATI, an Evangelical group espousing purity culture, everything changed. She writes:

Around the age of fourteen, my Dad introduced the concept of courtship. It was painted in such a romantic light–my hand being won by a dashing young man who proved his honor and godliness and would be the perfect husband. What girl DIDN’T want that?? All we had to do was keep working on becoming the perfect little home-maker. Everywhere we went, we must dress modestly so as not to turn off potential suitors with our brazenness. We must act like and be ladies at all times… We were to give our Dad our hearts and treat him like our husband in the mean-time, so as not to give away the unsoiled ground of our hearts. For if we were to give even a piece of our heart away it was “un-whole” and not worth as much.[16]

Already it is easy to see that a good thing turned into an ultimate thing becomes an idol. Idols created from very good things, like wanting a good marriage to a Godly man, can be especially vicious in their demands. The perceived consequences of not measuring up are so dire that any slip is treated with extreme prejudice as noted by Mary Elizabeth when things for her started to go wrong: “the standard that had been set was so impossibly high, and the verbal attacks I suffered on an almost daily basis drove me into a deep depression. I felt worthless. There was no hope. I was capable of no good. I was no good.”[17] Ultimately her community turned away from her when she reached out for support.

Purity culture courtship is an all or nothing game. The prep for this game begins before there is even the possibility of marriage and if one slips up with the mental part one doesn’t even get a chance to play. Mary Elizabeth puts it this way: “If my worth was wrapped up in my mental purity then I had destroyed that, because I had given my heart to more than one boy.”[18] The depression and feelings of worthlessness actually drove her away from God, the only one who could give her worth, and into a destructive lifestyle of reckless promiscuity because it at least gave her the illusion of value but ultimately left her despondent at the brink of suicide.

Conclusion    

            What is the answer to all of this?  How can we as apologists provide a different answer for those who have been hurt both by the secular de-emphasis on purity and the Christian wrong-headed emphasis on purity? We can start with is a better definition of sex.  By knowing what sex and its purpose is, we can better understand that the rules that God has instituted for its expression are for our benefit. God’s rules are never just some arbitrary standard to strive for. The Bible speaks of the sexual act between Adam and Eve as Adam “knowing” Eve. This speaks of sex in a much more relational way as a multi-faceted connection between two people. Sex obviously has a biological function of regenerating mankind, and it is also obviously very gratifying and pleasurable, but it is only satisfying when it is accompanied by the intimacy in the God-given parameters of “knowing” the other person.  This better definition highlights the fact that immorality not the sex is sin. This will help couples to avoid the baggage of guilt about sex once they are married.  This “knowing” aspect of sex can also provide an answer to those who are called to celibacy. Intimate friendship need not be sexual in nature. That is a lie that popular culture tells. A community within the body of Christ where everyone is “known” and valued for their differences can give those called to singleness, for whatever reason, a place to belong.

Realizing that the rules God sets for our relationships with the opposite sex are there for our benefit, and not just to bring God glory, can avoid idolizing those standards. It can remind us that our value flows from God’s love and the fact that He has created us in His image, not from how well we keep the rules. Sexual purity is a part of God’s plan for all of humanity, not just those who are called to marriage. Recognition of fallen man’s tendency, Christians included, to autonomous self-centeredness is a good antidote to help us return to a focus on the fact that we exist for God, the source of blessing in community. God’s intention for the Christian community is beautifully expressed in Hebrews: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”[19]  We can encourage one another to guard against and fight the idol factory in our hearts.

[1] Jerimiah 17:9 NIV.

[2] Betsy, “Recovering Grace A Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI.” http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2011/10/courtship-covenants/ (accessed October 24 2014).

[3] Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 180.

[4] Mary Elizabeth, “Recovering Grace A Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI.” http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2012/01/the-thing-about-purity/ (accessed on October 22 2014).

[5] Yong men can also experience this separation from community. For boys this comes in the form of being the right kind of friend.  As a boy I was ostracized by some of the parents of my friends because I had begun to question the tenets of the program we were involved in. The idolization of purity is a symptom of a larger tendency in the church to place unquestioning adherence to narrow interpretations of doctrine on a pedestal.

[6] Thomas Umstattd “ Thomas Umstattd Jr. An Unusual Perspective on Religion, Politics and Life.” http://www.thomasumstattd.com/2014/08/courtship-fundamentally-flawed/ (accessed on October 22 2014).

[7] Donna Freitas, Sex And The Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 139.

[8] “Institute in Basic Life Principles: Giving the World a “New” Approach to Life,” http://iblp.org/questions/how-courtship-different-dating (accessed on October 23 2014).

[9] Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1971), 31.

[10]“Institute in Basic Life Principles: Giving the World a “New” Approach to Life,” http://iblp.org/questions/how-courtship-different-dating (accessed on October 23 2014).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For more stories that speak of the tragedy resulting from an non-Incarnational view of sexuality see the link

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2011/11/the-purity-culture-and-sexual-dysfunction.html

[14] The Graduate, “Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2012/03/why-courtship-fails-a-males-perspective/ (Accessed on October 25, 2014).

[15] Anne Almasy, “Huff Post Women,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-almasy/the-vulgar-face-of-purity_b_3882864.html (accessed on October 24, 2014).

[16] Mary Elizabeth, “Recovering Grace A Gothard Generation Shines Light on the Teachings of IBLP and ATI.” http://www.recoveringgrace.org/2012/01/the-thing-about-purity/ (accessed on October 25, 2014).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV.

Introduction- Age Old Questions

“Who’s there?”[1]— The opening words in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Hamlet, ask a question very closely related to “Why am I here?” Is it someone or no one? Is he a self-existing personal agent with a free will to act or is it simply a very complex chemical reaction that is completely determined by the laws of nature? Or, is this kind of question even possible to answer? Both questions, “Who’s there?” and “Why am I here?” are related to ultimate meaning. They haunt us during times of personal pain and heartache, when we are confronted with all kinds of evil, both man-made and natural disasters. In Hamlet’s case the questions loom up during his darkest hour when confronted with the death of his father, the discovery of the circumstances surrounding that death, climaxing in ultimate betrayal by his own family and those he supposed to be his friends.

However, these questions can also surface in the good times as well.  Many times upon reaching our goal’s we find ourselves unsatisfied and are left asking, “Is this all there is?”   King Solomon writes about this in Ecclesiastes.  Solomon, having reached the pinnacle of achievement, opens Ecclesiastes crying out “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ … ‘Utterly meaningless.’ What does a man gain from all his labor under the sun?…I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, as chasing after the wind.”[2] Both aspects of the pain of apparent meaninglessness are depicted in Hamlet and Ecclesiastes.  Hamlet is forced to find a motivation for existence when it seems that his whole world is falling apart, and Solomon must find a reason to have joy when it seems that all of his accomplishments turn to ashes in his mouth. Because both Hamlet and Solomon’s worldview is founded on the transcendent God of Christianity they have the capacity to address these questions with some assurance that the answers will account for not only what is observed, but what is experienced as well. Not so with the Modern Atheist or the Postmodern Skeptic.  They must make leaps of faith onto transient, not transcendent, foundations.

Modern Answers to Old Questions

The New Atheist[3] response to the universal cry, “Who’s there?” is unanswerable in their worldview.   Because atheists reject the supernatural in any form, the question has to change from “Who’s there?” to “What is there?”   The a priori rejection of a personal agent behind everything leaves only materialism or the phenomena of the natural world to explain the universe. However, several problems arise from this assumption.  First, a purely scientific explanation leads to meaninglessness and futility because, the second law of thermodynamics states the universe is destined to run out of available energy for work and reach a state of equilibrium, or “heat death.”[4]  This is a rather bleak future to look forward to.  All of the accomplishments of humanity, scientific or otherwise, will eventually be for naught. Theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg in his essay, “What about God,” states the problem this way:

In my 1977 book, The First Three Minutes, I was rash enough to remark that ‘the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.’ I did not mean that the science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point. I hastened to add that there were ways that we ourselves could invent [emphasis mine] a point for our lives, including trying to understand the universe.[5]

This perspective leads to the second problem. Many New Atheists, in order to counter the devastating effects of despair which result from the “rashness” of their worldview suggest adopting a stoic bravery in the face of absolute meaninglessness and purposelessness and settle for inventing temporal, individualized purpose and meaning.  One must “create” meaning and purpose wherever one can.  What is wrong with inventing a point for one’s life?  The problem with inventing purpose is that it sets up every autonomous self as the arbiter of what is good. However, all those invented “goods” begin to bump into other invented “goods” resulting in a chaos in which only the strong survive.

In Hamlet we can see a perfect example of multiple “goods” coming into conflict with each other. Our first encounter with Hamlet is at court with the freshly wed and crowned King and Queen, Hamlet’s newly bereaved mother. Hamlet’s father has just died and Hamlet is still in an appropriate state of mourning, dressed in black and obviously quite sad. The King wants everything to seem normal, as if his brother’s death and his expeditious marriage to his sister-in-law is no big deal, which conflicts with Hamlet mourning.  The King asks Hamlet: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”[6] And the Queen exhorts Hamlet to take off his mourning clothes and “let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. / Do not forever with thy vailѐd lids/ Seek for they noble father in the dust. / Thou know’st tis common; all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.”[7] We can hear the echo of the Modern Atheist to put a brave face on the inevitable. The King and Queen’s response seems odd because it was not as if Hamlet were still mourning years after his father’s death.  It was barely two months past. Through this dialogue Shakespeare is commenting on the logical kind of mindset that one must adopt if one rejects God. Why be so glum if death happens to everyone?

When Hamlet responds to these requests by explaining that his pain is real and justified, the King then launches into an extended speech intended to pressure Hamlet into accepting his invented “good.” His tone is somewhat condescending; (very much like tone that the New Atheist’s take in their writing) “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,”[8] but this is normal, every one dies, and your obstinate persistence in not accepting my will is really unmanly, in fact it shows “a mind impatient, / An understanding simple and unschooled.”[9] The King attempts to use his position to bully Hamlet into accepting his picture of the situation  When Hamlet does not cooperate, the King sends him to his death in England. This dialogue is foreshadowing of the clash of wills evident in the worldview debate between the New Atheist’s and religion today.

Another problem with inventing a purpose for one’s self is it tends to function well only when things are good. The popular entertainer and New Atheist, Pen Jillette, puts it this way:

I’m not greedy, I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. It has to be enough, but it’s everything in the world, and everything in the world is plenty for me… Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I’m raising now is enough that I don’t need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day.[10]

What Jillette suggests is that meaning and significance exists so long as one can find good things in one’s life.  What about those who did not win the genetic lottery?  Is there no meaning or significance to their lives?  Human beings seem to have an innate desire for significance, not just for pleasure or survival. Pleasure is not a very good motivator, because it operates on a principle of diminishing returns. How one finds meaning and significance in life has to trace back to one’s teleology; what one considers the purpose of mankind to be. However, if your basic assumptions about how mankind came to exist imply that he has no purpose that, in fact, there is no purpose of any kind in the universe, then meaning becomes arbitrary. Arbitrary meaning cannot hold up when one is confronted with injustice.

The exchange between Hamlet and the King and Queen highlights the faultiness of this kind of philosophy.  After berating Hamlet for his persistence in his mourning, the King tosses in a reminder of something positive, “for let the world take note, / You are the most immediate to our throne, / And with no less nobility of love/ Than that which dearest father bears his son…”[11] However, Hamlet’s position makes absolutely no difference to him. As soon as the King and Queen leave, Hamlet launches into his first soliloquy lamenting the pointlessness of his life: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!”[12] There must be something else that can motivate Hamlet other than the good things in his life. Hamlet’s motivation has two aspects, justice and revenge. Although they keep him pressing on, his desire for revenge corrupts his desire for justice, which eventually leads to his death.

My Truth is Right For Me

On the other side of the Atheistic coin is the hopeless morass of Postmodernism. Postmodernism by its very nature is something that is ever shifting and difficult to define. Suffice it to say that one of the main characteristics of Postmodernism is relativism.  Postmodernism was born out of a reaction to one of Modernism’s chief tenets: certainty. With the Enlightenment, the West transitioned out of the Medieval period into the Modern era.  The God-centered universe was replaced with the man-centered universe, and “truth” became only what could be known through science and rational thought. Historian Jacques Barzun writes: “Science had persuaded the intelligent that the universe was nothing but the mechanical interaction of purposeless bits of matter.”[13]  Certainty was reduced to what one could deduce through scientific experimentation. Everything else was relegated to the realm of illusion and falsehood, including not only religion but the arts and humanities as well.

The Romantic Movement rose to counter the resulting death of subjectivity, and became the precursor to Postmodernism.[14] Reacting rather strongly to being ejected from the realm of truth they exploited a chink in the Enlightenment’s armor. Modernity’s shift to the supremacy of science discovered through the rational autonomous self actually exposed a contradiction in the worldview. If the universe was nothing more than “purposeless bits of matter” operating on natural laws, then this must also apply to the human mind.  The idea, carried to its natural conclusion, calls all human understanding into question.  Under this framework, the human mind is the tool by which we understand the universe.  All of our perceptions about everything, from scientific theories and laws to truth and beauty, are filtered through the mind. If the human mind is merely a product of the randomness of evolution, there is no way to verify that human thought and experience actually correspond to reality.  Postmodern philosophers noticed this chink in Modernity’s armor and to shore up atheistic worldview, had to conclude that everything is relative. All “scientific certainties”, the meaning of the words, ideas about morality become simply an ever-changing product of the social environment.

It is easy to see how radical relativism has filtered into the popular culture and unhinged the moral responsibility of the individual. An overarching moral code has been obliterated. Individual moral autonomy has been redefined as freedom instead of rebellion against God, in these days as in Judges, every man does that which is right in his own eyes, even if it goes against natural law.  Goodbye certainty, hello “freedom.” This “escape from reason,” as Francis Schaeffer puts it, has led to a growing sense of apathy among those espousing Postmodern thought, particularly in the realm of Christian truth claims. From this perspective there is even less on which to base meaning and purpose than the Modern Atheist has, because now even science is unmoored from ultimate reality.  Meaninglessness is now complete. Personal happiness as defined by the autonomous self is the new religion.  It is easy on the surface to sidestep the hopelessness inherent in this sad, destructive, civilization destroying perspective and just go along to get along, oblivious to everything but what is “true for me.”

Both the Modern Atheist and the Postmodern Skeptic agree that happiness is the chief aim of man.  Darwin in his autobiography writes: “all sentient beings have been formed so as to enjoy, as a general rule, happiness.”[15] And from the Postmodern relativistic perspective, what else could possibly be the aim of humanity? But there is something that tends to intrude on individually autonomously defined happiness, a universal innate sense of justice. It is hard to maintain one’s sense of happiness when the injustice in the world intrudes into our consciousness either through personal misfortune or through observed atrocities. There is something in us that balks at the idea of having peace and joy while others are suffering. This is why atheists, both Modern and Postmodern are just as offended by perceived and real injustice as Christians.

Divine Justice – A Robust Motivation

There is an intimate connection between meaning and purpose and our own happiness. That connection is ultimate justice. If man’s chief aim is to be happy (and I am not sure that it is, but let’s grant that for the time being), then there has to be some way for a person to achieve at least peace in the midst of personal struggle. This is where Hamlet and Ecclesiastes have something to teach us about meaning, purpose and happiness.

It is possible to maintain the perspectives of the Modern Atheist and the Postmodern Skeptic when things are going well, even when faced with injustice in the wider world. However, those perspective begin to break down and give the Christian apologist an opportunity to give an answer for the hope that is within us when the Atheist and Postmodern Skeptic is faced with personal tragedy and hardship. How does one answer the bleakness of these kinds of outlooks?  Especially poignant is the time when they find that everything is not blue sky and Hallmark cards. In this we can return to Hamlet and Ecclesiastes to see if there might be some potential answers.

As Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the 1590’s, it is clear that that the issue of the futility of human existence is not a problem that has cropped up with the scientific discovery of the impending demise of the universe.  In Hamlet we have a character who is certainly not experiencing blue skies and Hallmark cards.  After his exchange with the King and Queen mentioned above, Hamlet’s response is “O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!”[16]  Hamlet’s distress brings him to the brink of suicide, but his hand is stayed from taking his own life by his deep belief in Divine justice. All the other things that could be perceived as good in Hamlet’s life are worthless to him. The answer the Modern Atheist has to give Hamlet in his pain would not be sufficient.  I suppose that Penn Jillette would have to tell Hamlet that since his belief in ultimate justice was simply an illusion, and if he did not feel like living, then he might as well end it all. Suicide is an acceptable alternative–though not the brave alternative. But Hamlet’s worldview gives him strength to muddle through his pain, because he acknowledges a transcendent authority that supersedes his own desires and a purpose for all things that he is bigger than himself. He is sustained by his belief in an ultimate justice that will hold him accountable for his decisions

It is important to note that Hamlet does not know that his father has been murdered when he makes his first soliloquy. Yet he still perceives that an injustice has been done. His mother, who appeared to love his father greatly – “…she would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ by what it fed on.” [17]– married his uncle before the body was even cold. His mother’s callous act was just as instrumental in driving Hamlet to suicidal thoughts, as was the death of his father. This speaks to the fact that outside of societal laws Hamlet believed in a universal moral standard. Hamlet was not saying: “well, I guess if she thinks it’s okay then it must be okay for her.”

In Hamlet’s other soliloquies he is becoming even more morose before the obstacles in his path.  In the famous “To be or not to be” speech we see Hamlet’s temptation to slip into something of the Modern Atheist’s sentiments of courage in the face of futility when he muses: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/ And, by opposing, end them.”[18] However, Hamlet is struck in this moment with all of the injustice in the world, at the pointlessness of taking arms against the sea of troubles for in the very next line he is flirting with death: “To die, to sleep-/ No more- and by a sleep to say we end.”[19] In this speech we have an example of not only personal tragedy but also general human tragedy as well. He laments about the futility of life where good people “bear the whips and scorns of time, / Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, /…the law’s delay, / The insolence of office, and the spurns/ That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes.”[20] This is very similar to Solomon’s lament in chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes: “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed- and they have to comforter; power was on the side of the oppressors- and they have no comforter.”[21] In the face of this injustice Hamlet is motivated by two things; his fear of divine justice for the sin of suicide, the “dread of something after death”[22] and the desire for justice for his father.  As we can see justice is a very powerful motivator for Hamlet during times of distress. It is strong enough even to overcome Hamlet’s feelings of hopelessness in the futility of the human condition.

The tragedy of Hamlet is that underneath Hamlet’s desire and respect for justice is an equally strong desire for revenge. We can see this most clearly from Hamlet’s final soliloquy. Hamlet has just encountered another example of futility in Fortinbras’ campaign against the Poles over an area of land that is worthless. Rather than have this discovery put Hamlet’s own situation into perspective, Shakespeare has it be a motivator to goad Hamlet back to his course of revenge.  Hamlet has just killed Polonius by accident and this, being the first death at his hands, should have had the effect of bringing Hamlet to his senses.  Instead, Hamlet identifies himself with Fortinbras. He says: “Rightly to be great/ Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/ When honor’s at the stake.”[23] Hamlet justifies himself by saying that if it is right for Fortinbras to sacrifice thousands of men for a matter of his country’s honor, how much more is his cause just who has a “father killed, a mother stained.”[24] From this point forward, Hamlet pursues his goal with single-mindedness, and by the end of the play has four more deaths to his name in quest for revenge and it ultimately costs him his own life.  Self-justification has been Hamlet’s undoing.

When we turn to Ecclesiastes we can see a better answer to life’s futility, and a path towards joy, even in difficult circumstances. In Hamlet we see the futility of the human condition in personal tragedy. In Ecclesiastes we have a much more comprehensive catalogue of meaninglessness.  Solomon writes of the futility of human achievement and labor, the futility of human knowledge and wisdom, the futility of seeking pleasure, and the futility of material gain.  For Solomon, everything is meaningless because the same fate of death awaits all, the righteous and the unrighteous. Taken at face value, this can seem very similar to what the Atheists are arguing. Solomon’s answer to this, “A man can do nothing better that to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.”[25] Also this sounds similar to the Atheist’s solution of creating meaning and purpose out of the good things in life. The difference is that their worldview does not support a reason to press on during times of personal tragedy when all the possible good things seem worthless. Solomon has a better answer for the question “Who is there?” For Solomon and for Hamlet, the answer is God, Who is the source of meaning and purpose. Though we cannot completely fathom His purposes and plans, He is One we can trust. From this perspective the good things in life can be seen as gifts from God and not arbitrary illusions created by the mind of man. This helps us hold onto them even during times of trouble. Solomon states six times[26] that we are to enjoy our lives and the good things in them, but in each case he reiterates that we must acknowledge that these are gifts from God.

Solomon acknowledges something more though that can answer those times when one is overtaken by the depression of life’s futility in difficult circumstances.  He writes “I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity I the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”[27] Examples of this eternal perspective are actually evident even in the fact that Atheists, who believe that death is the end, care what kind of world they are leaving for future generations, and also the fact that everyone wants to be remembered well. Along with this eternal perspective Solomon acknowledges future justice. He writes: “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.”[28]

Conclusion

Justice is a very important part of human existence; one, in fact, that we can’t ignore. Otherwise there would be no outrage at horrors that happen in parts of the world that have nothing to do with us, including societies that may have completely different standards and moral codes. This pertains not only to the Modern Atheist but also to the Post Modern skeptic. The Modern Atheist might say that everything is explainable in terms of cause and effect and natural law and therefore, freewill is an illusion, but let a religion say that it is sin to be homosexual or that women should be circumcised and they are quick to denounce these as inhumane and immoral. The Postmodern Skeptic might say that your truth is right for you and my truth is right for me, but can be quick to rail against any society that acts environmentally irresponsible. Everyone has something inside that recognizes when some kind of behavior is wrong, even when one’s philosophy might not be able to support why it is wrong. Why can’t most Atheists be content to believe what they believe and let others who disagree with them do the same? Why must there be books like The Portable Atheist that are practically devoted to denouncing other people’s views. I believe it is tied to out innate sense that justice should be done.  When our sensibilities are offended we cannot stand by and do nothing.  It affects our ability to be happy.

Divine justice ties everything together and makes it possible to enjoy the good things in our lives when times are tough or when confronted with senseless evil and suffering. It provides a reason to keep on going when the good things are not enough, like we see in Hamlet’s personal tragedy. It is so important that it is Solomon’s last word on the matter.  In the final verses of Ecclesiastes he says: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”[29] As Christians we should be grateful for the difficult times, for it is in those times that our lives serve as the best example to those who don’t believe. It is during those times when we are holding onto the promise that God will make everything right and we are able to have peace and joy that our light shines brightest and can point the way for the unbeliever. The Christian hope includes God’s exceeding great and precious promise to make all things work together for our salvation.  We alone can put a brave face to the world.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark Folger edition, Ed. Barbara Mowat, and Paul Werstine (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2012) Act 1 Sc. 1 line1.

[2] Ibid., 1:2,14.

[3] Professor James Taylor describes the New Atheist’s as a group of early twenty-first century authors who “exhibit an unusually high level of confidence in their views,” and who “tend to be motivated by a sense of moral concern and even outrage about the effects of religious beliefs on the global scene… The New Atheists make substantial use of the natural sciences in both their criticisms of theistic belief and in their proposed explanations of its origin and evolution. They draw on science for recommended alternatives to religion.”

James E. Taylor, “The New Atheists,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/n-atheis/ , (9/19/2014).

[4] Stoeger, William R.. “Thermodynamics, Second Law of.” Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. 2003.Encyclopedia.com. 13 Sep. 2014 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

[5] Steven Weinberg, “What about God” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007) 375.

[6] Hamlet, Act 1, Sc. 2 Line 69.

[7] Ibid., Line 71-75.

[8] Ibid., 90.

[9] Ibid., Line 97-101.

[10] Penn Jillette, There is No God in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007) 349.

[11] Hamlet, Act 1 Sc. 2 Line 112-115.

[12] Ibid., Line 137-138.

[13] Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), 53.

[14] For more on the transition from Romanticism through Existentialism to Postmodernism see Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind Morals, and Meaning by Nancy Pearcey (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 95.

[15] Charles Darwin, Autobiography in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For The Nonbeliever, Ed. Christopher Hitchens (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2007), 94.

[16] Hamlet, Act 1 Sc. 2 line 133-138.

[17] Ibid., line 147-149.

[18] Hamlet, Act 3, Sc. 1, line 65-68.

[19] Ibid., line 68-69.

[20] Ibid., line 78-82.

[21] Ecclesiastes 4:1 NIV.

[22] Hamlet, Act 3 Sc. 1 line 86.

[23] Ibid.,  Act 4 Sc. 4 line 55-57.

[24] Ibid., Act 4 Sc. 4 line 60.

[25] Ecclesiastes 2:24 NIV

[26] Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 3:12-13, 5:18-19, 8:15, 9:7-9.

[27] Ecclesiastes 3:10 NIV

[28] Ecclesiastes 3:15 NIV

[29] Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.

 

 

Is life meaningful?  According to director Woody Allen’s theme in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, the answer is a resounding, almost in your face, mocking “NO!!”  Life is not only pointless it is actually absurd– something to survive in any way possible.  In order for meaning to exist, God must exist.  If there is actually no meaning, no God to make a difference between good and evil, to reward good and punish evil, then the definition of crimes and misdemeanors, of morality itself, is merely a human construct based solely upon expediency.  In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen brings to the screen a group of characters whose lives and philosophies intersect to illustrate the nihilistic, anti-God worldview in all its bleak despair, cynicism, absurdity and moral relativism.

The movie parallels the lives of two men.  Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a successful ophthalmologist with a seemingly perfect life, full of family and public honor.  Unfortunately Judah ensnares himself in a Fatal Attraction type of affair.  The other main character is the cynical, struggling, documentary filmmaker, Clifford Stern (Woody Allen himself).  Unable to earn enough money with his own “serious” work to finish his current project, a documentary on the philosophy professor Louis Levy, Clifford is forced to stoop to the distasteful task of making a flattering documentary of his egotistical brother-in-law, who is a highly successful sitcom producer.  Judah’s story is told in a very serious tone through the use of highly dramatic lighting and set to a soundtrack of brooding classical music. Conversely, the story line involving Clifford is somewhat light hearted and comical, sporting jazz music and clips of old black and white movies.  However the same question as to the existence of an ultimate moral standard hovers over both scenarios.  The different dilemmas which the characters confront are typical of Western culture and easy for an American audience to relate to.  How many of us have seen our neighbors or co-workers get away with something that we were called on? Not to mention the countless times that we have witnessed politicians and celebrities practically get away with murder with little or no consequences.

Allen’s take on the traditional moral perspective is presented mainly through three different characters, all of which are straw men in their own way.  The first is Clifford’s other brother-in-law, Ben, a Rabbi who is going blind. His progressive blindness is a commentary on Woody Allen’s opinion of religion.  Referring to the literal and figurative blindness of Rabbi Ben (Sam Waterston) in Crimes, Allen says:

“Ben is the only one that gets through it, even if he doesn’t really understand the reality of life. One can argue that he understands it more deeply than the others. I don’t think he does myself. I think he understands it less, and that’s why I wanted to make him blind. I feel that his faith is blind. It will work, but it requires closing your eyes to reality.”[1]

Ben is a very sympathetic, but somewhat naïve character. In one scene we find Judah, Ben’s ophthalmologist, treating his eye condition. Judah, whose life is on the brink of falling apart, unburdens himself to Ben about his infidelity. Ben counsels Judah from his perspective of religious morality to confess his transgressions to his wife and seek forgiveness, but Judah is skeptical of that outcome.  In a later scene, Judah agonizes within himself on the “final solution” to the crisis of exposure and ruin he is facing from his unfortunate neurotic lover.  Judah is actually considering whether to authorize the murder of his lover, or to confess his sin to his wife.  As if to punctuate the angst in Judah’s tortured mind, a storm is unloading thunder and lightning in the background, as he walks into the scene lost in an imagined discussion with Ben, who plays the part of his conscience.  The only light source is from the fire burning in the fireplace and the occasional flash of lightning. It is interesting to note that in this conversation Ben is speaking the truth. Ben tells Judah that without a real moral structure (or law), all is darkness; that structure is the only thing that gives one a basis for how to live. This structure is in fact a real moral law, which means there must be a lawgiver, a God who sees everything and will provide ultimate justice. Allen has Judah dismiss Ben’s counsel by accusing Ben of living in the kingdom of heaven, not in the real world. Judah’s decision is finalized when he opts for moral expediency… “What good is the law if it prevents me from receiving justice?” And with that he makes the call that ends his lover’s life. In Judah’s “real world” justice begins and ends with himself.

Allen’s second perspective on traditional morality comes from Judah’s father, Sol (David S. Howard).  Sol raised Judah and his brother Jack in a very traditionally Jewish home. His mantra to Judah and his brother growing up was “God sees everything.”  However, this household was not without its share of questions and doubts as to the reality of a moral law.  Judah recalls these early conflicts on a visit to his childhood home. Wracked with the guilt of having his lover murdered, he seeks consolation from memories of his youth. The scene in Judah’s childhood home is preceded by a sequence of Judah driving through a dark tunnel and emerging out into the light at the end of the tunnel as if to indicate that something from his childhood will illuminate his present situation and allow him to emerge from the darkness of his guilt.

As Judah wanders through the rooms of his childhood home, he imagines he hears his father praying in the dining room, and he looks in to find his teenage self and his family sitting around the table for the Passover Seder.  His aunt May, impatient to get to the eating, makes a snide comment about Judah’s father wasting time with the nonsense of religious tradition thereby sparking off an argument about the existence of morality. May, who is very cynical and angry, says that there is no such thing as ultimate morality. Invoking the horrors of the Holocaust, millions of Jews dead with no ultimate consequences, May expresses her nihilistic philosophy that “might makes right”.  Someone at the table quips that Sol’s kind of faith is a gift; it is so strong that one can use logic on him all day, and it won’t make a difference, he will still believe. To which Sol replies, “Must everything be logical?”

In the middle of this remembered conversation, Judah, from the present, steps in from the doorway and asks what will happen if a man commits a crime; if he kills.  Sol responds that in one way or another he will be punished. Sol’s friend says that he will be punished only if he is caught. May interjects that if he can get away with it, and he chooses not to be bothered by the ethics, then he is home free.  Sol responds by saying that his sister is brilliant but has lead a very unhappy life. Sol’s response to May represents a pattern in the entire scene, in which Sol resorts to insults or assertions rather than engaging with the arguments.  One is left with the impression that religion does not have good answers. This impression further reinforces the false idea promoted by Allen that logic is not part of faith in God. Faith in God, according to Allen, is necessarily “blind” faith; recall Rabbi Ben. Sol’s friend asks him, “What if all your faith is wrong, what then?” To which Sol replies that he will still lead a happier life than those who doubt. His sister is flabbergasted and asks if Sol prefers God to the truth.  Sol replies that, if necessary, he will always choose God over the truth. It is often stated by many an atheist that the definition of faith is believing in something that you know is not true.  This is obviously what Allen’s opinion is. What Allen has done here is kind of disingenuous. He has equated the ability to know that there is a real right and wrong with faith and thereby sets up a false dichotomy.  He has made the situation an either/or, either faith (and by extension morality), or logic and reason (and by extension amorality). By repeatedly setting up faith in opposition to logic, morality becomes merely a human construct that is in essence illusory, a crutch for those who are too weak to face reality.

Allen brings his God-defaming, morally expedient worldview home through another perspective of morality presented in the character of Professor Levy, the subject of Clifford’s “serious” documentary.  Levy has no family. He also apparently survived the Holocaust, and yet on the surface seemed to maintain a positive view of life. Our first encounter with Levy is from a clip of one of Clifford’s interviews shown to his love interest, Halley Reid (Mia Farrow), a PBS producer.   Here we see another of Allen’s skewed presentations of morality. In the interview Levy expounds the early Israelite’s conception of God. Levy thought it was unique that the Israelites were able to come up with a concept of a God who cared but also demanded that one behave morally, as if loving someone and demanding good behavior were incompatible. Allen has Levy call God’s integrity into question with the example of Abraham’s sacrifice of his only, uniquely born son, Isaac.  Levy claims that “despite millennia of effort, man has not managed to create an entirely loving image of God” a conclusion which entirely misses the wonderful loving image of God in this story Who tries and strengthens Abraham’s faith and ultimately provides Himself a sacrifice for sin. This is Allen’s devious way of dismissing God as merely a construct of man’s mind.  And, we are back to the same story, second, third, fourth verse…the morality that flows from such a finite human construct is fatally flawed. And it is!!

Allen is careful to state through dialogue between Halley and Clifford, that Levy maintains a “positive” view of life by self-ascribing value to humans through emotional love. This is Allen’s way of perpetrating an illusion that will help one through the long dark night of existence in a miserable, meaningless, cruel and indifferent universe. Toward the end of the movie, we discover that Levy commits suicide, reinforcing Allen’s idea that love and morality are human constructs which are unable to sustain the crushing weight of meaninglessness.

In the nihilistic wasteland, “might makes right”. Those with the power get to dictate their own morals. All else is blind faith and wish fulfillment presented by the religion of Ben and Sol, or futility in the face of an indifferent universe represented by the suicide of professor Levy. Allen wants to leave the impression that he is being fair to both sides of the argument by giving the viewpoint of morality to the sympathetic characters. However, those characters are straw men manufactured to bolster his worldview.  Allen uses logic as a two-edged sword to dismember the weakly crafted opponents of his worldview, but fails to see that the sword cuts both ways.  Sure he can decimate his straw men. Their positions were not defensible in the first place. Indeed, Allen fails to apply the same logic to his own position, thus striking off the legs of his argument.

By placing reason and logic in opposition to moral truths, Allen posits that it is unreasonable to claim the existence of a real right and wrong. Yet this in itself is a truth claim. It is interesting to note that the moral perspective in this movie is very specifically Jewish, which makes righteousness dependent on law keeping.  In this context forgiveness does not make sense. For those who break the law, like Judah, and who have no Christ on the Cross to provide the remedy for God’s broken law, there is ultimately no way to salve the raging conscience, no way to find peace with God.  The only recourse left to try to escape the crippling guilt, is to redefine the law, and go about establishing self-defined righteousness. As Allen himself states in the documentary, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, one of the central messages of Crimes is that: “there’s no God, and that we’re alone in the universe, and that there is nobody out there to punish you . . .”

Despite the flawed and skewed worldview depicted in this movie I still think it a valuable film to watch.  Like most of Allen’s films it is witty and engaging, definitely a thinking person’s film.  The acting by the star-studded cast is magnificent, and the elements of the filmmaking such as lighting and score make the film a delight to watch.  Allen is certainly a master at his craft. Aside from that, the film asks the right questions. It can be a very profitable conversation starter between Christians and non-Christians.  Additionally for the Christian apologist, this film offers an excellent opportunity to dissect and evaluate a worldview that is common in our Western culture today, and to be better prepared to give a reason for the hope that is within us.

 

[1] Stig Bjorkman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen, (Faber and Faber, 1994), 224-225.