Updated: Mar 28
So, where do we begin? Like many of you, I grew up in a Christian home. I was introduced to Christianity at an early age, and in many ways, the Christian worldview was conceptually similar to gravity or any of the other absolutes of reality. Simply put, the existence of the Christian God was an immutable fact. Where there were conflicts between my natural impulses and that of the scriptures, I justified them to myself at the moment and repented later. I never considered that perhaps the fault lied in the fundamental nature of the religion, not with me. This settlement changed just before I turned thirty. My oldest son had just reached an age where, like all children, he was curious about everything. One day, he asked me, “Dad, what happens when we die?”
I responded with the standard Christian response; “When you die, if you have been good, you go to heaven, and if you have been evil, you go to hell.” Over the next few weeks, I began to wonder for the first time in years whether this was 100% correct. I began to investigate what the scriptures and the theologians thought and said. To my surprise, there was a great deal of confusion amongst the faithful as to exactly what happened after death. I began to wonder, if the most attractive element of Christianity is in doubt, then what else in my faith was up for debate?
Finally, I decided that the only logical thing to do was to start at the beginning and work my way forward. I expected that this would be a process that would reaffirm my faith. Instead, it destroyed it. I began quite naturally enough with Genesis. I was confident that this would hold no particular challenge to my faith as, to me, Thomas Aquinas’s five ways seemingly answered all comers. Each iteration of scientific genesis theory merely acting to move the act of creation further back in time relative to ourselves and unfolding creation in ever greater complexity and magnificence. Unfortunately for my faith, I did not even get to the creation of the universe. I stumbled at the first hurdle, so to speak.
As I read and considered that God had created the angels and that Satan had rebelled with a third of the angels, leading to a war in heaven and his final exile to earth, I began to have severe doubts. How and why would anyone rebel against an omnipotent and omniscient being, especially if he was omnibenevolent? More importantly, I was struck by the paradox of a being of unlimited power, sending his servants to fight his battles on his behalf. Wouldn’t God, if he were all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good, find some way to correct his servant’s mistakes while avoiding harming or allowing harm to come to his other servants?
Next, I wondered about our world. As a Christian, I had been told that we were Christ’s soldiers fighting Satan and his demons in our world. Yet how could this be? Had we not been assured that Jesus had ‘broken the power of the devil’ after his crucifixion? Why did we need to fight if our God was genuinely omnipotent and omniscient? Couldn’t he just end the war whenever he wanted?
Maybe there was no devil at all, I thought. Perhaps it was just us using our freedom to follow our desires. Harming others and doing evil as a result. Without a devil to blame for those desires or tempting man, those desires fall at God’s feet.
These questions opened up Pandora’s box. I had wondered on to the problem of natural evil. Why, if God was omnibenevolent, was there such a thing as natural evil (natural disasters, diseases, parasites, congenital disabilities, etc.)? Why did humans and animals share similar basic desires? On the surface, none of these things were caused by our free will, they were simply part of the design or nature of reality. Furthermore, there did not seem to be any discrimination between the faithful and non-believers in the distribution of natural evil. Righteous and unrighteous alike suffered, a point driven home in even greater detail by the horrific accounts of nineteenth-century missionaries in Africa.
As I considered the ‘theodicies’ for this the problem of natural evil, I found them wanting. The Augustine defence ‘that natural evil exists as a punishment for our original sin’ seemed to be contra to the supposed omnibenevolence of God. Hick’s soul-making theodicy, which stated that ‘suffering is natural and as a consequence of free will was necessary so that we could develop from morally immature creatures to morally perfected ones’ also seemed wanting. After all, suffering was hardly evenly distributed. It was a universally observed fact, constant throughout time, that the wicked often prospered while the righteous suffered. Gottfried Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds, Theodicy, which stated that ‘God knowing all possible universes, being limited to the creation of one, being determined to create and being good would result in the creation of the best possible universe’ left me flat. After all, for this theodicy to be true, God would be limited by something and, therefore, could not be omnipotent.
As I considered these challenges to my faith, I realised that there were four possibilities. One, God simply lacked the power to destroy the devil or create a better world without natural evil, namely that he was not omnipotent. Two, God, while having the power to destroy the devil or create a better world, chose not to. By this choice, God chose to allow suffering and evil, which could have been avoided. These outcomes would lead to the conclusion that he was not omnibenevolent. Three, God was both omnipotent and omnibenevolent but was unaware of the world’s evil. Or four, a combination of the three. I realised that any of these four possibilities would lead to the inexorable conclusion that the God described in the Judo-Christian tradition could not exist as described.
This realisation was momentous, and after a period of soul-searching, I abandoned my faith and begun my search for the truth. It is this journey that I invite you to join me on. Like René Descartes, we need to start by demolishing every one of our beliefs and beginning as it were with a clean slate. Questioning everything, we have held to be right or wrong and opening ourselves with a willingness to bound ourselves faithfully to the truths we find, and those duties become apparent on our journey. However, before we can begin, we need to set out some rules, some measures to hold ourselves to lest we become lost in contradiction and paradox.
To this end, I proposed to myself and I suggest, in turn, to you that we set our rules as follows. One, any principle must flow logically from a previous principle or a self-evident truth, and two, no principle can contradict any other principle. With these rules, I began once again at the beginning of everything with the metaphysics of existence.