Ivo Vegter’s recent column, Knysna: When prayer and praise get in your face, is a brave and well-written piece expressing his “displeasure with believers and disbelief in god” in the wake of the #KnysnaFire disaster. It received an overwhelmingly positive response and was widely shared on social media.
On the surface, his diatribe against belief in God appears to make sense. But his column reveals some of the typical straw-man arguments, flawed philosophy and poor understanding of the nature of God that is common among atheists.
But let’s start with the parts that I agree with.
Quite a few people, however, thought that it would be appropriate to send emoticons of praying hands, or even entire prayers, to these groups.
The behaviour that apparently trigged Ivo’s wrath is something that I find equally irritating. On public WhatsApp groups that exist for a specific purpose, it is totally inappropriate to send off-topic messages, whether they be jokes, memes, advertisements, questions or comments meant for a specific individual (send it to the individual, not to the group!), birthday wishes, or indeed, emoticons of praying hands, prayers or prayer requests, amens and hallelujahs, Bible verses, etc.
I completely share Ivo’s frustration here. And he is also 100% correct that WhatsApp or Facebook or any other public platform is not the place for prayer. Leave that for religious groups or gatherings, or just pray privately, in your own room, as Jesus taught.
Ivo’s rant can be summarised in this paragraph from his column:
But one should take offence when Christians interrupt emergency communications to impose their delusions on everyone else. Or when they thank their god for ending disasters without blaming him for starting them. Or when they take credit on their god’s behalf for the generosity and kindness of flesh-and-blood people.
Let’s deal with the second part of his complaint – thanking God for ending disasters without blaming him for starting them. It is a common argument among atheists to claim that natural disasters and the presence of evil and suffering in this world either disprove the existence of God, or leads one to conclude (if God does exist) that he is an evil God to allow such things.
From his column:
If you thank your god for rain that turns out to be insufficient, after fires that he allowed to happen in the first place, you’re just not making sense.
And further on:
But let’s assume it was arson, and god does exist. How does an omnipotent god get thwarted by a few kids with matches? If he wasn’t able to change the wind direction to let the fires burn themselves out against the sea, he is not omnipotent. And if he is omnipotent, he actively allowed the death and destruction, which is evil. If he could have sent rain, why did he send too little, too late? It is perverse to thank him for that.
Like so many atheists I have engaged with over the years, it is clear that the god he cannot believe in is a god who, if he did exist, would cause or “allow” such disasters to happen. A god who is “thwarted” by a few kids with matches, and who is either unwilling or unable to change the wind direction to prevent a disaster such as this. A god who is supposedly omnipotent, but actively allows death and destruction.
I believe that one of the reasons people sometimes abandon belief in God is a complete lack of understanding about the nature of God and the reasons why natural disasters, death, destruction and evil exist in this world. The “pat answers” he has heard from Christians have become his straw-man arguments against Christianity and the existence of God: the “devil at work”, God’s “mysterious plan” which is never revealed, or “god is testing us”.
The god that many atheists don’t believe in is indeed a god that does not exist. The God that I believe in and who reveals himself in the Scriptures is quite different from the imaginary god portrayed by Ivo in his column.
To explain this, let’s continue to assume that God exists, and that he was well aware of the disaster unfolding in Knysna. Why does he not intervene? Why does a good and benevolent God allow evil, death and suffering in this world? If he loves us and has the power to stop evil and prevent suffering, why does he not do so?
This question has been pondered for centuries and many books have been written about it. (Two good reads worth mentioning here are The Reason for God by Tim Keller, and Where is God when it hurts by Philip Yancey).
We can start by pointing out that there are two kinds of evil in the world. Death and suffering can result from either of these, or a combination of the two. Let’s call them human evil and natural evil.
Human evil is moral evil, perpetrated or caused by humans, because humans have free will, the ability to choose between good and evil. Mankind’s free will is what allows us to freely choose to love or hate, to obey or disobey, to accept or reject God. Without freedom of choice or a free will, we would be mere robots, automated puppets who only do what we are made to do by our creator. Without free will there can be no real love, for love has to be chosen. A consequence of free will is the ability to choose sin, to choose evil over good, which leads to the presence of moral evil in this world. A fire started by arsonists would fall into this category. So does murder, rape and violent crime. Even car accidents are a result of our free will. Or choosing to build your house on the slope of a volcano or on a flood plain (a choice which exposes you to a greater risk of natural disaster).
Do innocents die or suffer because of the moral evil choices of others? Yes. Can God prevent that? Of course he can, but why would he do that? That would violate our free will. You’re asking God to blow out the matches every time an arsonist lights a fire, to jam the trigger every time a killer tries to shoot someone, to block industrial development that pollutes the air and causes lung cancer, to divinely shut down breweries because of the harm suffered by innocents due to alcohol abuse, to take out every criminal or bully or abusive parent before they can harm an innocent person. I could go on and on. Where does it stop? Where should God intervene and where should he allow our free will choices and their consequences? If God did this, he would undermine our free will and we would become mere robots. Every choice we try to make that is potentially harmful to innocents would become impossible, blocked by a God who acts like a kind of puppetmaster.
Human evil is present because God chose to give us free will, so we can choose for ourselves. With the freedom to choose, he also gave us intelligence and the ability to reason. He gave us common sense, wisdom and a conscience. He gave us instructions on how to live, summarised in the command to love God with all our heart and to love others as ourselves. It’s a command, but we can choose to obey or disobey the command, for without choosing freely it would not be love. If all people chose to live by this moral code, there would be no human evil in this world. To blame God that innocent people suffer and die in this temporary world because of evil moral choices made by humans shows how perverted our sense of moral justice has become. As God said to Job, we blame and condemn God to justify ourselves. It also shows how little we value the freedom of choice that God has given us.
The second type is natural “evil”, which is apparent evil or destruction that is not caused by humans, but by the laws of nature. God himself is not limited by the laws of nature, but he chose to limit the universe he created by the laws of physics – laws which are inherently good, predictable and constant, necessary for life on Earth, and discoverable by human beings (to our wonder and amazement). Natural disasters are often referred to as “acts of God” by the insurance industry (to atheists’ eternal annoyance) and it is tempting to conclude that either God does not exist and has nothing to do with it, or God must be evil to allow such disasters. In reality, natural disasters are not “evil” per se, even though they often result in death and suffering. They are simply a result of the design of the universe and the (beneficial) laws of physics and cycles of nature that govern and sustain life on Earth. The same laws of nature that allow life-giving rain to fall can cause destructive storms that cause loss of life. Fire that allows us to cook our food and allows the southern Cape’s fynbos biome to survive can become a destructive inferno such as we witnessed in Knysna.
One might argue that if God exists, he did a poor job to create the universe in such a way that the laws of physics can also be harmful to humans. The same nuclear reactions and radiation that allow the sun to warm the earth and permit life can also cause cancer, sunburn and devastating droughts. Why could God not create a sun that warms us without the harmful side-effects?
The answer is found in the Scriptures. The book of Genesis explains that everything God created was “good”. There was no death, suffering and destruction before the fall of mankind (the moment we chose evil over good). But after we sinned, everything changed. Since the fall, all of creation is under a curse because of sin, because mankind chose evil and opted not to trust and obey God. The result of that curse, according to the Bible, is that all of creation is now in a state of decay, suffering the consequences of sin, and destined for eventual destruction. Cynical atheists might picture God saying, “Oops! Well, that went wrong…” But God knew this would happen when he gave us free will. From the beginning, this world was not intended as God’s final home for mankind. There was a plan for redemption from the start, in the form of Jesus Christ who died for all of humanity to reconcile us to God. Our earthly lives are a temporary opportunity to choose or reject God. Yet for now, we still live in a world that is “fallen” and imperfect due to the curse brought by sin.
A common misunderstanding is that this world, this earth, was intended by God as the perfect and permanent home for us. It was not. Creation reveals God’s power and glory, and this world provides glimpses of what lies in store for mankind, but if you’re looking for perfection and final justice in this broken world, you will always be disappointed. Christians understand this, and live in hope for a world beyond this world, a life beyond this life, and we know a day will come when God will judge the living and the dead according to the choices they made.
It is therefore also completely wrong for a certain individual to claim that the fires on the Garden Route were a result of God’s judgement on the gay community in Knysna. This is absurd, and shows a poor understanding of how and when God will judge mankind. In the Old Testament, before the redemptive death of Jesus Christ, God did at times exact instant judgement in the form of natural disasters, violent conquest or disease, for those who did what was evil. But in the New Testament, God’s wrath for man’s sin was poured out on Jesus Christ, so that we may be reconciled to God and not have to face the penalty for our sin. The Scriptures explain that God delays judgement because he wants everyone to be saved and come to know his love, and that forgiveness of sin is available to everyone who accepts that Jesus paid the ultimate price for our sin. Because of God’s love for us, Jesus Christ was sacrificed to atone for our sin, so that we may start over and choose to love God. Those who do not accept this sacrifice and continue to reject God will be judged “at the end”, and we all have to give an account to God on judgement day. To see natural disasters today as God’s judgement on people is not accurate.
As an aside, most atheists recognise that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure, and we have more corroborating evidence and ancient manuscripts testifying to the life of Jesus than for any other ancient figure. What we know about Jesus Christ is far more detailed and far better documented and attested by multiple sources than what we know about other ancients like Homer or Alexander the Great. But in my experience, few atheists have done any detailed research about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All the claims of Jesus Christ hang on this one event – his resurrection. If that did not happen, Christianity is false and Jesus was the greatest hoaxer of all time. But if he rose from the dead as the ancient manuscripts claim (a claim which the early apostles and eyewitnesses were willing to die for), then it would be wise to listen carefully to what Jesus had to say when he walked the earth. Incidentally, Ster-Kinekor is currently showing a film adaptation of Lee Strobel’s bestselling book, The Case for Christ, which deals with the topic of Jesus Christ in more detail.
But I digress.
The presence of evil in this world does not argue against the existence of God. In fact it confirms the existence of good, because evil is the absence of good, and the constructs of “good” and “evil” require a standard, an absolute moral code that allows us to call something good or evil. This is a contradiction often overlooked by atheists. They use the terms good and evil, but in a true atheist understanding of the world, there is no such thing as good or evil. If we are the product of random chance and undirected evolution, a random collection of atoms held together by physical laws that appeared by chance, then the idea of “moral good” is just something thought up by humans. Indeed, there is no such thing as immoral or evil behaviour in nature, among animals. Nature can be cruel by human standards, but nature does not distinguish between right and wrong. If there is no God, humans have invented the concepts of good and evil, and humans decide what is right and wrong. There is no absolute moral standard, and what one generation or society or culture decides is evil may be considered perfectly acceptable by another.
Coming from an atheist, this makes some of Ivo’s comments quite surprising:
You don’t need to be a Christian to be good and generous.
That is true, but you cannot be an atheist and claim that someone or something is “good” or “evil” without being intellectually dishonest to some extent. Atheists often claim to have an internal moral compass and don’t see the need to believe in God in order to be good, or be able to identify good and evil when they encounter it. This leads them to conclude that morality can exist without belief in God, because they see themselves (quite correctly) as moral beings who are capable of choosing between good and evil, even though they do not believe in God. What many atheists fail to recognise is that their moral compass and their ability to identify good and evil must come from somewhere. It has no foundation without some kind of moral law, an absolute measuring standard. In a world without God, evolved by random chance, there is no objective measuring standard, no law-giver, no impartial judge, and the concepts of objective right and wrong or good and evil simply cannot exist.
Even Darwin concedes that the evolution of morality and conscience is limited to species with intellectual powers “as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man”. In other words, a sense of morality is unique to humans, and according to the atheist world view, what is good and what is evil is decided by humans. If that is the case, how can humans define what is “good” and what is “evil”? As it stands, there are vastly different ideas about what can be considered “good” or acceptable in different countries, cultures and even between different individuals of the same culture. One person considers abortion to be murder, a despicable and evil practice, while another person considers abortion good, a beneficial practice that gives the mother freedom of choice and prevents unwanted babies. Objectively, they cannot both be correct.
The true implications of this philosophical argument are beyond the scope of this piece. Suffice to say that the concepts of good and evil in the atheist world view are shaky and subjective at best.
Ivo does not believe in God, but it bothers him that believers thank their God for the charitable actions of people. Of course, an atheist would never ascribe the deeds of people to God, but Christians understand that God is the source of all morality, the source of charity, the creator of our capacity as humans to love and care and show compassion. It is completely natural for a Christian to pray to God when a time of crisis or need arises, and to thank God when help arrives by human hands, whether those hands belong to an atheist or a Christian. God is not limited or intimidated by your atheism, and it is quite normal for Christians to believe that if an atheist is moved to show mercy or compassion, it is because that person was created in the image of God, with the capacity to show mercy and compassion, and perhaps their heart was moved by God to care and to give, without them realising it. Why does it offend you that we thank God for your charity?
Of course, there are still times when we don’t understand why something terrible happened. Ivo scoffs at God’s mysterious plan that is never revealed, but it is true that we sometimes do not see the bigger picture, and are left with unsatisfactory answers to the question “Why”?
Perhaps the story of Job in the Old Testament was written to help us during such times. His pain and suffering made no sense to him, and he could not understand why God would do this to him, or allow such disaster to overtake a righteous man such as Job. Yet he refused to blame or reject God. In the end, even Job’s questioning was silenced as he was reminded by God that he was a man with limited understanding while God is, well, God. He sees the big picture. Sometimes the Almighty reveals his plans to his servants, other times he doesn’t. But his master plan we do know about – the plan of eternal redemption through Jesus Christ, which opens the way for every person who accepts Jesus to be reconciled to God. Christians understand that this life and this broken world is not our eternal home, and all suffering will end one day. This message and eternal hope comforts Christians in times of trouble and hardship, even when they don’t understand why something happened.
The fact that the faith of Christians is so offensive to unbelievers is no surprise. It was predicted in the Scriptures. Jesus is called the rock and the cornerstone, a firm foundation for those who believe, but at the same time a stumbling stone and an offending rock to those who reject him. He is not neutral.
As C.S. Lewis said: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
I love my brother dearly and usually enjoy his columns, but if Ivo is correct and there is no God, his rant is a storm over nothing, and the only valid concern he raised was that of spamming an emergency response WhatsApp group with inappropriate messages. The fact that he gets so riled up over a god he does not believe in strengthens my own faith in God and confirms that one cannot be neutral about the Christian faith. DM
Photo of Knysna fire by Ivo Vegter.
"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings." ~ Ursula Le Guin