Not long ago, my teenage son and I settled down to watch the miniseries “The Pacific.” It’s a gripping production of war in the Pacific in World War 2, following the lives of several young Marines. We’re both history buffs, and with the magic of Hollywood, it was not difficult to imagine that we were viewing the actual events.
We talked about what life would be like for those young fighters. But what really got my attention was a scene in which one Marine is holding a Bible and the other, seeing him, asks with a sarcastic smile whether he is a believer. I always tune in to these TV portrayals of apologetics and this one turned out to be a good opportunity to examine a type of challenge that many Christian apologists will face.
The scene unfolds with the questioner asking the other Marine to confirm that God created everything, including the Japanese soldiers that are trying to kill him. The believer’s response – “free will, what we choose to do” – wasn’t bad. But since he’s God, the questioner persists, he knows what we are going to do before we do it. “Predestination” is the believer’s unexplained response. The questioner then springs the apparent trap: “So the whole game is fixed while we’re down here, for what, his entertainment? That makes us chumps or God’s a sadist and either way I got no use for him.”
No answer to this challenge is offered. Instead, a question is asked: “So, what do you believe in?” The questioner answers quickly: “ammunition.” This of course draws a laugh. He ends with the request that the other Marine ask God to sink a few transports so he can get out of there and go home.”
Great dialogue, from a theatrical standpoint, but it left the issue hanging unresolved. I was debating whether to weigh in when I saw my son looking over at me with a growing smirk. “Well?” was all he said. When he paused the video, I knew he wanted – needed – an answer.
“Don’t start with an answer,” I told him. “Take a closer look at the challenge. What’s wrong with it?” That helped, I think. His eyes lit up and he said, “He’s offering only two alternatives.”
“That’s right,” I responded. “Presenting two loaded options like that prevents a meaningful discussion. It’s like the question, ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ Either a yes or no answer constitutes an admission. The presence of evil in the world – the moral evil brought on whenever a state of war exists – does not mean that we are either chumps or that God’s a sadist. Many other options are available for the thinking person.”
I reminded my son that not every challenge is actually asking for a persuasive response. Here, the questioner isn’t really saying he doesn’t “believe” in God. He’s really indicting God, telling the listener that he is angry at a God that would allow great suffering to occur. This is often the case when dealing with “committed” atheists. Their arguments oftentimes reflect more about the anger and confusion they feel when assessing a fallen world, than about the question whether a personal and loving God actually exists.
I suggested to my son that the questioner may not have been ready for an actual answer. Trying to force an answer on him, or trying to “win” the argument, would be counterproductive. What he needed, perhaps, was someone to listen, to sympathize and to let him know that the questions he asks are legitimate ones, that the pain he feels is real, and perhaps most importantly, that knowing the truth doesn’t take the pain or confusion away. Answers are there, of course, intellectually satisfying answers that can help put things in perspective, even if they don’t eliminate the emotional turmoil that accompany so much of what we call “life.” But the answers have to wait until he’s ready to actually engage the question. Perhaps the best we can do in such a situation, then, is to answer with a question of our own: “Are you really interested in hearing an answer to the challenge you pose, or are you just letting me know what you think of God?”
And then letting them know that when they are ready, you have an answer that might just make a little more sense than they’re willing to admit….
Posted by Al Serrato