Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Death of an Atheist

Surrounded by loving children and doting grandchildren, the atheist's eyes closed for the last time and his spirit departed.

A screaming in the ears.

A sense of rushing forward at incredible speed.

A white light at the end of a tunnel.

Mr Largely Hampton stumbled as he came to a stop. He found himself standing before a throne, translucent blue as if rough-hewn from a single sapphire, that reached higher than he could see. A motionless figure was seated on it, inexpressibly huge, shrouded in mists through which shone blinding, unapproachable light.

"Jesus Christ!" Hampton swore, staggering backwards and shielding his eyes.

Out of the mists stepped a small man dressed in white. He was tall, middle-eastern and grinning.

Hampton stared at him. "Oh," he said. "So you do exist. Huh."

Jesus continued grinning.

Hampton was standing on an endless flat expanse, transparent like glass. Over and under wheeled the stars.

"Don't think this changes anything," he said, wagging a finger. "I often imagined what I'd say if I died and it turned out that you were real. I've got some questions for you, mister." He was amazed at how suddenly clear his mind and memory were - like a super computer running smoothly at full tilt, laughing at light speed.

Jesus nodded. "Ask away," he said, in slightly accented English.

Hampton stole a furtive glance at the towering figure shrouded in blinding fog, and considered his position. But, dead or not, he was still himself, and righteous indignation bubbled to the surface. He steeled his nerves and took a deep breath. "Suffering," he said. "The big one. Explain it."

"I'm going to need you to be a little more specific," said Jesus. "Give me an example, if you don't mind."

Hampton sighed. He was here now. Why beat about the bush? "My sister. Dead at ten. Cancer. How can you possibly justify that?"

"I'm not entirely sure I could ever justify it. You see, I didn't kill her." Jesus' face was unreadable.

"Then who did?"

"No-one, it just happened. Things just happen all the time, good and bad."

"But you're all powerful, yes?"

Jesus said nothing.

"If you're all-powerful, you could have saved her." He stole another nervous glance at the throne, great and terrible, but did not back down. "In any court of law, you would be found guilty of neglect."

"Yes, I could have saved her."

"You admit it! Then why didn't you?"

"If you can tell me why I should have saved her, I'll tell you why I didn't."

In spite of his surroundings, Hampton felt a sudden thrill of anger. Jesus was apparently harder and more calloused than he had expected. "Why? Because she deserved better! She was entitled to better. She was entitled to a full and happy life!"

"Says who?" asked Jesus, calmly.

Mr Hampton paused. His thinking was crystal clear, his mind purring like a Ferrari. He realised he had no higher authority to quote. In the end he plumped for "It's a self-evident truth."

"Is it? Oh. Self-evident. She was entitled to a full and happy life because you say so."

"Are you saying she deserved what happened to her?"

"No."

"Then you're saying she was entitled to a full and happy life!"

"No."

Hampton raised an eyebrow. The little man in white was being infuriating. "Heads or tails, Jesus. You can't have both." He gasped as a coin materialised in his hand, simply because he had imagined it.

"She was neither entitled to happiness nor deserving of pain," said Jesus, calmly. "Things just happen, good and bad. That's life. Her illness was not punishment from God any more than her happiness was reward from God. Things just happen."

"She suffered," Hampton spat, "and so did her family. She went through so much - chemotherapy, isolation, all her hair falling out, how is that fair? She didn't choose to be born into a world of pain-"

"How do you know?"

"What?"

"How do you know she didn't choose to be born into a world of pain? How do you know you didn't?"

"I- what? I would have remembered it!"

"Can you remember your second birthday?"

Hampton could feel his neck turning red. "Of course not. Even here, I can't remember that far back!"

"And yet you expect to remember something from before you were born?"

Hampton paused again. "Are you telling me she chose to be born? Of her own free will?"

Jesus shrugged.

"So she didn't choose to be born..."

Jesus shook his head. "I didn't say that, either. But as you don't know either way, how confident can you really be?"

Beside the throne, semi-shrouded in the blinding mist stood the pearly gates. "Is she in there?" Hampton asked.

Jesus nodded.

"Is she all right?" Hampton strove to stop his voice breaking.

Jesus gave him a real smile for the first time. "She is living a full and happy life."

Hampton turned to look away. There was a tear battling its way out of his right eye. Behind him his solitary shadow stretched away for what must have been miles, clear cut and black against the light coming from the throne. Jesus cast no shadow.

"So she is happy, then. In the end, she got the full and happy life she was entitled to," he said.

"Who said entitled?" said Jesus, in what Hampton thought an insensitive tone. "Heaven is a gift, not a birthright. How does simply being born entitle anyone to anything?"

Hampton's anger returned with a rush. He decided to change tack. "But you're meant to be good! Perfect, in fact! Surely healing a dying girl is good, and yet you didn't do it! If I had had the power in my hands to save her, like you do, I would have saved her, but you didn't. By not acting, by not intervening, you showed that you might be all powerful, but you're certainly not good."

"I have the power to heal every hurting person on the earth, right now, this instant. Should I do it?"

"Yes! Emphatically yes!"

"Should I surgically remove all pain from the world?"

"Of course! You shouldn't even have to ask!"

"Should I take away people's ability to do evil? Should I remove their choice? Should I remove your ability to disagree with me, right here and now?"

Hampton opened his mouth and then closed it again.

"Imagine a world in which I surgically removed the suffering from every act of violence. Murderers could attack people over and over, every day, with no consequence. They could stab a hundred people in the street, every day, and no-one would care.
"Imagine a world where a man can beat his wife with a bat every night, yet she feels no pain. He would feel it was right to indulge that desire as often as he felt it. He would probably say it was self evident. For him, good and bad would be meaningless concepts, because the consequences would be the same, no matter what he did.
"Imagine a world where the rapist causes no pain, does no damage. The rapist would use the absence of pain to say that what he did was right and innocent."

Hampton's mind was spinning. He needed a little time to process. "Would that be so bad?" He asked, scratching his head.

"It would drive you insane. The entire race of you. If not working brings the same results as working, then why work? If not eating brings the same results as eating, then why eat? If not breathing brings the same results as breathing, then why breathe? If no matter what you do, it always turns out the same then why bother to do anything? Why even stay alive?"

"You're saying life without choice and consequence is meaningless?"

"Yes. Even if it's a choice as small as eating a single fruit on a single tree. Without choice, without the potential for pain, there can be no free will."

The mist from the throne seemed to be drawing nearer, billowing out in an ever growing cloud. The light from within was dazzling.

"You asked me if you should take away my ability to disagree with you," said Hampton, one eye on the slowly approaching cloud. "What would you say if I said yes?"

Jesus laughed. "In the beginning when there was only me, I separated light from darkness, and saw that the light was good. You remember that story? Yet I was all that that existed at that time. Do you realise what that means?"

Hampton said nothing. His mind was working perfectly - better than it had ever done on earth. He could remember passages from Genesis that had been read in school assembly when he was five. "God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness." The separation of light from darkness happened before any kind of light source - stars, planets - had been created. So where did this occur?

Jesus nodded in response to his thoughts. "The separation of light from darkness happened within me. I became the light. I removed my own ability to choose evil - in me there is no darkness at all, and now I cannot sin. Look - no shadow. You want to be the same way? You want to be like God? Do you think you've earned that right?"

Suddenly conscious of the razor-sharp memory of his own life, Hampton changed tack again. "I suppose I understand the need for consequences, pain and free will - but what about the suffering that has nothing to do with free will? What about suffering that is completely random? Natural disasters, parasites, droughts, plagues?"

"Don't even get me started on natural disasters!" exclaimed Jesus, with an odd note of bitterness in his voice. "Even calling them that is a little upsetting."

Hampton stared.

"Gifts!" Jesus cried, in exasperation. "They were meant to be gifts! Enough free energy to send someone to the moon and back! Mankind was made to be in tune with the earth, to fill and subdue it like a mother calming her baby. But they subdued it like a man beating a wild animal - a wild animal that can bite back. You lost touch with the earth and forgot how to read its messages. The animals haven't forgotten - they know to get out of the way days before a tidal wave, a volcanic eruption, or an earthquake. But not you, not any more. Instead of harnessing the power and using it, you don't even realise it's coming, and it destroys you. Instead of riding the bus, you threw away the timetable, fell asleep in the road and let it run you over."

Hampton had never considered that angle. The 'natural disaster' argument had always served him well when he had been alive. But it was true what Jesus said about the animals - how did they know? And why didn't the humans know? Presumably they had known once...

"What about disease, then?" he persisted. "What about HIV? What about cancer? Why allow them to exist? What about scorpions, snakes and parasites?"

"You know I exist," said Jesus. "Guess who else exists. No heads without tails," he added, nodding at the small coin still in Hampton's hand.

Hampton got the hint, but smirked. "The devil? Give me a break."

"Real," said Jesus.

Hampton needed a moment. "What's he got to do with anything?"

"He wanted to be like me. But not the same. He wanted to compete. And he was powerful, let me tell you. He separated the light from the darkness within himself, just like I did, but he chose to embody the darkness. He wanted to be an alternative version of me. He took away his own free will to choose good and evil, and chose to be capable of only evil."

"And he causes disease, dangerous animals, parasites and things?"

Jesus paused and gazed past Hampton for a moment. "It's not quite that simple... Do you remember Adam and Eve?"

"And the apple, yes."

"Who said anything about an apple? Adam was in charge of the earth, but signed it over to the devil, and it came to resemble him as he poured himself into it. The world, which started out perfect, became hostile and dangerous, and the evolutionary process adapted, throwing up poisonous creatures, poisonous plants, diseases and parasites. The harmony of existence became a battle for supremacy."

Hampton was confused. "And how is any of that fair on the rest of us? Those of us who didn't pick fruit from the tree, or fall from heaven?"

"Are you suggesting I should have surgically removed the consequences of the Devil's choice? Are you suggesting I should have surgically removed the consequences of Adam's choice?"

Hampton realised they had already covered this ground. "Oh," he said. The fog from the throne had almost reached them.

"You see, it's the same problem. I can't run around after every creature with free will, putting right every wrong decision, because if I do, no decision has any meaning. Life has no meaning if I do that. Free will is a risk. A massive one, granted, but without it, life is meaningless."

"So what is the meaning of life?"

"Choice. Choose the right."

"Right and wrong don't exist," Hampton replied, fiddling with the coin in his hand. "Only different perspectives."

"Then it won't matter if I send you to Hell then, will it?"

Hampton froze.

"If there's no objective right and wrong, what does it matter where you end up? One place is the same as another. Depending on your perspective, of course..."

"Hell is a medieval construct, created by an elitist religious institution to control the uneducated classes," Hampton croaked.

"Says who?"

"It is self-evident!"

Jesus said nothing.

"I've tried to live a good life!" Hampton gasped. "I've done my best to treat others well!"

"You have," Jesus nodded, putting an arm around his shoulders. "You looked after your family with great integrity. You provided for your children when they were ungrateful, and often denied yourself so that your family could flourish instead. You worked hard, obeyed the law, and lived with integrity much of the time."

Hampton looked at Jesus. "Then I can go into Heaven?"

"I didn't say that."

"I'm going to Hell?"

"I didn't say that either."

"... what, then?"

"Well, let's see, shall we?" said Jesus, as the mist overtook them.

And together, they approached the throne.


(Written 08/03/17. Being a Christian, I often come across atheist arguments against belief in a God, one of the most prevalent being the 'an all-powerful all-loving God would not allow suffering' argument. This was framed with great intensity by Stephen Fry in a recent viral video in an interview with Gay Byrne. I have always thought that the 'too-much-suffering' argument doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny, getting by usually on the power of the emotions that drive it, rather than the logic of its position. 

When examined thoughtfully, it becomes apparent to anyone with no axe to grind, that for any free will to exist at all, there must be real choice and real consequences for making the wrong choice. Without these, life would literally be stripped of all meaning. This in no way denies how awful pain can be, nor how often innocent people are made to suffer, but merely acknowledges the nature of a world in which everyone can, and does, choose. The bad choices have ripples that spread out and hit the innocent - but the good choices do the same thing, spreading out and affecting the deserving and undeserving alike. 

Who knows what happened to Largely Hampton in the end when he stood before God the Father? We aren't allowed to judge, only God can do that. It's a mystery. Which is why I didn't answer that question in the story! Part of believing in God is also accepting that there are some things we will never know, and some questions to which we can never have definite answers, only creative speculation. I hope this example of creative speculation has made you reconsider the party line on suffering-vs-God a little bit. Thanks for reading :) James.)


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James

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