The image in our mind is vivid. We see the ambitious painter, with broad strokes of great zeal and skill, laying down the latex on the freshly sanded floor. Back and forth, taking a step back, covering more and more of the spacious area with glistening and colorful paint.
But, there is a problem...
After a certain point of committal in the process, the fervent worker has inadvertently done two equally disparaging travesties...
(1) he has painted himself into a corner
(2) his own effort has blocked any hope of escape or recovery.
Many skeptics (atheists) and sadly, many Christians, have not taken the time to do the real work of research and investigation into what has already been debated and discovered. Like a joyful but soon-to-be-disappointed-scientist who claims that he/she has recently discovered the existence of atoms, these trendy-but-out-of-date zealots have, far too quickly, grabbed the nearest brush and bucket and have started slinging paint everywhere.
There is an old expression: let your opponent continue to speak, because the more one says, the greater the chance that one will make an error. When it comes to skeptical challenges against theism in general, or Christianity or the Bible in specificity, there are several tempting hues that the naturalist may be eager to grab, but they only serve to undermine their entire position.
But isn't that always the way temptation works? Take it NOW, don't worry about the consequences?! A viral youtube video, or a pop-culture book, or a charismatic pundit appears on the talk show circuit proudly bearing this "new" bucket of god-coating goodness, and voila! Everyone on the blogosphere is hailing the argument as the silver bullet that will finally silence the imaginary god of the religious right. Praise the non-god!
It is the angle that the God of the Bible is a moral monster.
Carrying this bucket further, some skeptics will even challenge theism to explain evil and suffering in general, not just the specific accounts such as the Flood, the history of Israel, etc. They demand a reconciling of the existence of a good god and bad events. In a way, their challenge is that for God to even merely allow evil or suffering (forget about direct causation) is to implicate Him as a moral monster.
Why skeptics fall into this obvious trap is truly a mystery. Why they are so often eager to take the brush and then begin swinging away is hard to understand, since this argument (if taken to it's logical beginning and end) completely destroys the skeptics cherished position. It is like a survivor of a sinking ship hacking away with an axe on the floor of his rescue boat...it will only serve to surely drown him and those with him.
Let's take a huge step backward and see why this line of assault is suicide to the skeptic. The skeptic accuses the God of the Bible of being a moral monster. We didn't ask them to go there, but they did. Now, logically--there can only be two fundamental explanations for the existence of a "moral code" within humanity.
Secondly, there is the skeptical, or naturalist explanation for morality. While there is no general agreement on the mysteries of this process and product, invariably biochemical evolution is invoked to account for the moral makeup of man.
Over millions of years, somehow and in some way, homo sapiens evolved a moral code to benefit the species as a cultural whole, rather than the survival of the fittest individual.
We will not look into other abstract formulations, such as social contract theory and it's offspring, as they fail to account for the Universal nature of man's condition.
Simply put, if morality is merely a survival aid conferred upon us by an amoral universe, then it has no ultimate or legitimate authority.
If we merely evolved our sense of fairness, or right and wrong, or justice and injustice, then these are no more "real" or binding as some set of eternal immutable laws, rather they are chemical processes, worked out over aeons of time, with the real possibility of changing the next time a dominant gene is expressed that exhibits benefit to the species.
If morality is a product of evolution, then it loses it's authority to judge anything as right or wrong, because our current morality is along a continuum of adaptions that began as something far different in the distant past, and will morph into something even more bizarre in the not-so-distant future.
The reason people are arrested and even jailed is because they (allegedly) have broken an established law. There is a documented code of acceptable behavior on the books, so to speak. Their actions (or inactions) are then compared against that standard, and conformity or violation is confirmed.
Morality, like a legal system, operates in a similar and analogous way. Behavior is compared against an authoritative standard, and consequences follow. But, alas---here is the rub, the catch-22, the fly in the ointment, for atheism: Without an ultimate authority, NO ONE can call any action good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust, fair or unfair.
(1) matter/eenrgy/chemical processes
cannot magically produce eternal moral laws. It may have laws of gravity, or electromagnetism, or laws of chemistry (and even those are suspect), but it cannot, and never will have, eternally binding moral laws.
You have to have an ultimate authority to accomplish that, and in the atheist worldview, they cannot allow that divine foot in the door. It is inescapable, and actually even worse than that for naturalists, for as Stephen Hawking admitted recently, if there is nothing higher than the Universe, then indeed, even free will and choice are merely illusions.
This brute "fact" and condition is called Determinism.
SIDE NOTE: Actually, it is even MUCH WORSE than that for the naturalist, because ultimately naturalism mandates that certain people will be atheist, or theist, Christian, Buddhist, or even liberal Democrat or right wing Republican---it all just depends on the collection of chemicals in their brain. It is not the arguments, or the logic, or the rationality or reasonableness of a case, we all are forced to "believe" or "accept" what we consider to be "right" based upon our cerebral chemistry.
It is a bit weighty, and a read that takes a couple of passes to really absorb the full impact of it's conclusions, but it is a worthwhile quote nonetheless, from theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne (my clarifications are between brackets [ ]):
"...human freedom is closely connected with human rationality. If we were deterministic beings [just a collection of atoms obeying natural law], what would validate the claim that our utterance constituted rational discourse? Would not the sounds issuing from our mouths, or the marks we made on paper, be simply the actions of automata [the natural result of purely natural processes, not the result of logical deduction or reasoning]? All proponents of deterministic theories, whether social and economic (Marx), or sexual (Freud), or genetic (Dawkins and E.O. Wilson), need a covert disclaimer on their own behalf, excepting their own contribution from reductive dismissal?"
He is undeniably "right"...and even Stephen Hawking agrees with that conclusion.
Back to buckets and brushes.
To restate our earlier premise, a trendy (but historically resolved) challenge issued of late by skeptics is that God is a moral monster, especially the God of the Old Testament in the Bible.
By virtue of His "evil" behavior He is either not worthy to be worshipped at best, or rejected altogether at worst.
This unfortunate challenge places the atheist in a pitiable condition. The entire crux of the argument hinges upon the existence of eternal, immutable laws of morality, and that somehow, this deity has violated those laws that even He must somehow obey. Yet, in an atheist worldview, neither god nor morality can exist.
But, some would protest, they are arguing from the viewpoint "given that a god exists, the god of the Bible cannot be god because He is immoral." This perspective shift does nothing to aid in their argument, because then what is the supposed source of this "morality" that god has "violated"?
The only morality we could "know" would be human morality, i.e. the code of acceptable and unacceptable human to human behavior as mandated by the Creator.
Nothing the Creator does or commands to be done could be labeled as immoral or "evil." Actions of people (created beings) could be determined to be good, bad, evil, fair, or just---but since we are not privy to all of the counsels and understandings of our Creator, we could never judge ANY of His actions.
There are two fundamental reasons why we could never judge our own Creator to be immoral:
(1) We do not have access to all of the facts surrounding any decision that God makes, therefore we cannot say with (anything even remotely resembling) 100% certainty that God does not have very good reasons for His own actions.
(2) Our own sense of morality has been given to us by our Creator, and we are subject to Him, not He to us. We may not understand why He would do a certain thing, but our morality is for created humanity, not an eternal god.
You cannot logically apply the same "rules" and restrictions to the designer of the game that he has assigned to created individuals within the virtual world.
We can no more challenge God as being immoral, than Super Mario can challenge Miyamoto Shigeru in a court of law for his choices of programming. It is that absurd.
Once the accusation is made by the atheist he has painted himself into the corner of admitting that ultimate morality exists, and that deep down inside he experiences a legitimate revulsion at the actions of a deity he does not accept. It is an awkward position! (and frustrating)
At best the atheist can only say that the actions of God are difficult to understand, tough to comprehend, but that skeptic cannot say that they are unequivocally WRONG.....
"Is it possible that God has a morally justifiable reason for allowing evil or suffering?"
"Yes...it is possible." Then the conclusion is inescapable---if it is possible that God has reasons for these supposed "moral atrocities" then the entire case of the skeptic collapses instantly.
It doesn't have to be probable...it merely has to be possible.
You tell them that he dropped two nuclear bombs on mainland Japan, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
No doubt the child, in their sense of fairness and justice, would be filled with understandable rage and resentment. They would, no doubt, perpetuate that account of Truman being a moral monster, maybe even go on to write books about it.
...well, now...that changes everything.
I think we can give the Creator of the Universe, a being so intelligent as to design DNA, enough of the benefit of the doubt when it comes to difficult to understand actions that He has taken. We do not know the whole story...yet.
We have seen enough CIA and covert-operations type of movies and TV shows to be familiar with the phrase "Need to know basis". Sometimes documents or photographs are classified TOP SECRET, with a "Need to Know" status decreed upon them.
If this is true in human dealings for purposes of security and national integrity, then surely the Creator of the Universe has dealings and plans so far above us that we, in our present condition, are not necessarily in a "need to know" status. It is both impossible that we could know all that God knows, and it is illogical to mandate that He must answer to us for His actions.
The first question to ask them, of course, is simple: What is wrong with death? Isn't it merely the movement of atoms, because of energy, through space and time? Why is physical death such a moral evil? Think about it. I doubt they have.
And, since the Bible says that physical life is not all there is, that man has been made in the image of God, that we have a spiritual aspect that survives physical death, then death has truly "lost it's sting." Death is not the cessation of existence (that is only true in an atheistic worldview), death for a human is merely the crossing over into the next realm. You will survive your own mere physical death.
I am not condoning anything, I am merely pointing out cold, hard facts.
And, since no one is promised even one more day on this Earth, then a child dying or a centenarian passing away is no different, except for perhaps our own emotional response. Compared to eternity, we all have the same amount of time.
As the ultimate Creator of life, God has the right to choose the time and manner of the ending of physical life. No charge of immorality or of moral monstrosity could ever logically be laid at the feet of our Creator.
The answer is, of course, YES (I actually had one atheist, who had painted himself into this uncomfortable corner say "No!" and he was nearly laughed off the online thread, even by those not theistically bent). So, since God has the right to govern His creation, and death is not the end, then what is now the argument for immorality of our Creator?
God is not a moral monster...
...He is the Moral Mandater.
The next time a skeptic wants to challenge you with the idea that evil, suffering, or the actions of the God of the Old Testament make the Creator out to be an evil being, beg him to let you have the bucket and brush. Tell him it's not a corner he wants to put himself in. You have the MORAL obligation to warn him/her not to go there.