I didn't know this person when she turned to me and said, "Your god lets children die." I had just been sitting there trying with another friend to make sense of the recent tragedies. As we spoke, I began to see that we shared a common anger with the injustices we both witnessed in the world. Her argument was no push for atheism but a search for answers.
Though not stated in its entirety here, her argument followed a familiar pattern to anyone who dares to be a spokesperson for God.
She alluded to the atrocities seen everywhere these days. I take the bait and claim that evil exists, claiming that you know a tree by its fruit. She asked, "Can God prevent evil?" If I say "no" then God is not all-powerful. I say, "yes" so she asked, "Does God know about all the evil?"
If I say "no" then God is not all knowing. So I say, "yes" and she asked, "Does God want to prevent evil?" But if I say "no" then God is not good, loving or even nice. So, I answer, "Yes, God wants to prevent evil."
"Then why does all this bad stuff happen? Couldn't an all-powerful god have created a world with free will for humans without all of the seemingly needless suffering? And if He/She did this to test us, wouldn't an all knowing god know ahead of time know how we would perform making a test irrelevant? I mean, couldn't an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God just destroy or better yet not even create Satan, or evil personified?"
"And if He could then why didn't He?"
Epicurus' riddle, the logical problem of evil, has been giving heaven's public relations department trouble for centuries.
Never one to shy away from a good argument or to let my amateur status keep me from speaking as an authority, I engaged the woman's question.
I've not been plagued by a need to know anything for certain. I appreciate mystery whether it's the kind of mystery that is born from love like stacking presents under a dying tree and attributing it to a fat man in a red suit. I even like the mystery that is born from mischievousness like when you move a friend's skis over five or more ski racks while he is in the bathroom at the bottom of the chairlift.
One of these mysteries is sweet and one is bitter. Neither the pleasure of Santa Claus or the prick of being pranked makes one more alive than the other. In fact, if you think that one of these experience is preferable to the other, then you need to ask yourself a series of questions; "Who thinks this is preferable?" "Who is this who thinks?" And "Who am I?" See where those lead you.
The young woman I was speaking to answered that she is a "bug on a rock, hurling through space, no more significant than an amoeba in the ocean and no less significant than the expanding universe." Even if it were true, this answer lacks appeal in our image-conscious, Madison Avenue nation. It's not an answer that is likely to be found in someone's online bio.
I offered my personal alternative answer. I told her that, "I am an imperfect person who needs the loving redemption of God, like a ski hill needs a dump. And I am a person who through faith in the living Jesus Christ came to have hope of an eternity in heaven, a place by all descriptions I've heard, sounds like a 'catching a fish on every cast,' 'ski two feet of fresh snow every morning' kind of place."
Then I realized that I had made a colossal boo boo. I had mentioned JC and conjured up images of every clinic destroying, queer folk bashing hater, and conquistador that there ever was. I knew better. Monsignor molesters and pedophile priests make Satan's existence unnecessary.
I retreated and asked that she do JC the favor of not judging him by people who use his name. I've often felt that there would be more people drawn to the faith if there were less "Christians" and more Christ-like people.
"OK then," she said, "how can your god sit by and not intervene when 'his child' screams in agony?"
"I know it's not the same thing," I said, "but parents watch kids suffer all the time. Consider a mother and father could prevent broken bones and all kinds of pain by not allowing them into the park at Keystone. But by denying them the opportunity to try, you deny them the chance to fly"
How smug this must have seemed. How sure of myself.
"Try this scenario," she said. "A 4 year old pees in her panties. Mom gets pissed and holds the toddler's fingers over the open flame of a gas stove. The baby screams in agony and passes out from the pain. Mom waits for her to wake up and does it again. Your god watched, listened and did nothing. Kind of sadistic, don't ya think?"
She curled her left hand under her sleeve, turned around and left. I haven't spoken to her since.
There's a lake by our house, a little wooded area I pass through and with views of the mountains. The next morning the sun hit the frozen water and sent light sparkling in every direction. Still thinking of our conversation, I have no logical response to her question and accusation. I wish I would have expressed sympathy or told her that her story sucks like Newtown sucked, and Aurora, Columbine and Virginia Tech all sucked.
But then I can taste chocolate chip cookies, warm from my wife's oven. It's as real as can be. I become suddenly grateful that like the sweet taste of this cookie, the work of the creator comes to me less through my reason and more through my senses. The air feels cold in my nose and I head back home.
Jeff McAbee is a former Summit County resident now living on the Front Range. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Jeff_McAbee.