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For Perfection or For Dependence?

April 18, 2013

A common atheist argument against the existence of “God” is what I shall call the argument from Malevolent Design. It goes something like this–if the things in nature (animals, people, systems) were designed by a perfect, loving God, then they would be perfect creatures. However, these creatures are flawed and imperfect. Look how screwed up all of these things are. Therefore, they must have not been designed by a perfect, loving God. Therefore, God does not exist.

There are several problems with this argument. One is that the argument from Design or for Design, can never make any definitive statements about the nature of the designer, just that there is a designer. Even the main leaders of the Intelligent Design movement admit this. And as David Hume wryly pointed out, the designer could be evil, or dead, or a committee, or everything designed could be a prototype or a copy of another model. Another problem with this argument is that it does not actually disprove any tenet of orthodox Christian teaching. The argument from Design is not found in the Bible–no argument for God’s existence is found in the Bible. Disproving an iteration of the argument from Design no more topples the foundation of Christianity than refuting the argument from Evil destroys atheism. It’s all just another part of what John Wilkinson calls “apologetic ping-pong.” Another problem is that it sets up a rather rosy-cheeked idea of what God’s design is supposed to look like. Atheists claim that there is no God, but they happen to know exactly what the world would look like if such a God (who rarely matches the complexity of the God of the Bible) did, in fact, exist–a “perfect” world.. The argument against design turns out to be a straw man fallacy–it sets up a God that is not part of traditional Christian theology, and that almost no one believes in–and then “disproves” his existence and takes him down, by extension destroying the foundation of Christianity. I have noticed that internet atheists and Dawkins wannabes tend to attack the weaker members of the church–William Paley, young-earthers, their childhood Sunday-school teacher–while avoiding confronting, say, David Bentley Hart. (It is also regrettable that many Christian apologists use the Dawkins/Dennet/Hitchens trio as intellectual punching bags rather than engaging with atheists/agnostics who have more interesting and cogent things to say.)

However, I want to propose one idea for consideration that no one, to my knowledge, has proposed. I think that perhaps, in his design of the universe, God did not intend for the universe to be an inherently stable, self-sufficient place. Rather, he upholds the universe’s order by his sovereign power, and no one thing in the universe is self-sufficient without God.

Take the inherent imperfections of man. Suppose I am born with some defects–my nose is incredibly long, my right leg is missing, and I am blind in one eye. However, I have a family maker who is a caretaker for me who helps me through these things. Through his love and wisdom, he fashions a prosthetic leg, arranges for eye surgery, and teaches me skills to cope with my long nose. In short, this person directs me through life and protects me from anything bad that could happen to me. And suppose one day that we have an argument, and that I decide to leave this person who helps me in my day to day life. This would put me at risk from things that he protected me from before.

This is an imperfect analogy of the position I am presenting. God did not create us to be “perfect,” self-sufficient beings. God created us to be dependent on him. This means that “natural evil” could have existed before the fall (I hold that it did), but it would not have been evil. A tsunami is only “evil” if it hits a town full of people. If, say, everyone was on the hillside watching it instead of in its path, it would not be evil. It would be glorious.

In conclusion, I would say that it is foolish to look to “design” for either arguments for or against God. For the atheist, everything eventually disproves the existence of God. For the Christian, everything proves the existence of the ontological Trinity. It is a mistake (perhaps a holdover from Platonism) to look to the “designed” portions of the universe for evidence of Christianity. Perhaps God, in his infinite variety, likes asymmetry and weird things. Whether Christian or atheist, we should not try to set benchmarks for how God’s “design” should look in the world. To do so is to try to fit God into our own “rational” box, to control him, whether for perceived good or ill.

And in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, some of the ideas in this article were inspired by Michael Horton’s book The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way.

Current Listenings: The Shelter by Jars of Clay, “I Shot the Sherrif” by Eric Clapton

Coming Attractions (Once Finals Are Done): The Design Inference (Hint: It’s about as useful as the ontological proof), Why I Am A Republican (really real version), Why I Quit the Paste Newsletter, Tenured Pharisees, Why I Don’t Smoke Marijuana (Special 4/20 Post).


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