The End of Christianity? A Skeptical Review (Part 6)
“Can God exist if Yahweh doesn’t?” This is the question at the center of The End of Christianity chapter five written by Jaco Gericke. Some of the other chapters in The End of Christianity have bad arguments, and at least one chapter seems to lack an argument altogether. But the argument of this chapter is strange. Let me explain.
Gericke begins with a concession: the core concept of God in classical theism is not going to be critically undermined by conceptual analysis:
“there will be no end to apologists’ reinterpretation of the concept of ‘God,’….” (131)
“any disproof merits only a relative efficiency value at best when it tackles the god of the philosophers.” (132)
In light of this fact Gericke believes another approach for critiquing Christianity is necessary. And so he advises that instead of critiquing the concept of God as it is understood by academic philosophers and theologians today, the atheologian should attack the concept of God that one finds in the Bible, in particular the Old Testament. The idea is to identify descriptions of God in the Bible that Christians today reject and then hope that the Christian responds to this problem by rejecting the Judeo-Christian revelation altogether (and making the leap over deism to full-blown atheism).
Now in order to see why I consider this argument to be strange, think about what it would look like for a fundamentalist Christian apologist to adopt the same method in response to a view he found recalcitrant to refutation such as Neo-Darwinism:
“Current Neo-Darwinian theory is always changing and morphing. There will be no end to Darwinists’ reinterpretation of the concept of ‘evolution’. And so any disproof merits only a relative efficiency value at best when it tackles Neo-Darwinian theory. Consequently, I advise that we need to ignore Dawkins and Mayr, Dobzhansky and Mendel, and get back to Darwin himself. We should limit ourselves to what Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, and if we can demonstrate that the precise theory that he outlined in that book does not accurately describe the processes which are operative in nature then we will have done our job.”
As strange as that may seem, it is exactly the kind of argument being offered by Gericke. Since we cannot defeat the contemporary philosophical/theological concept of God, we should focus on critiquing the ancient Israelite conception instead.
The strangeness of the argument is complemented by Gericke’s assumption that demonstrating particular statements about Yahweh in the Old Testament are false is equivalent to showing that Yahweh doesn’t exist. He writes: ”what we have in the text is the character Yahweh who, as depicted, can for various reasons not possibly exist outside the stories in which he acts.” (135)
You might call this claim weird hubcaps placed onto an already strange looking car. To illumine the weird nature of this claim, consider another illustration:
When my daughter was three her grandparents came to visit. Because we picked them up at the airport and dropped them off at the airport, she (incorrectly) concluded that they lived at the airport. With that in mind imagine the following fictional exchange between my daughter and her Sunday school teacher:
“Did you meet your grandparents?”
“Yes, they live at the airport and they give me toys and play with me.”
The teacher knows that people don’t live at the airport. But what then should she conclude? If she shared Gericke’s reasoning she might argue like this: “what we have in the child’s story is the character of two grandparents who, as depicted, can for various reasons not possibly exist outside the stories in which they act. Therefore, the grandparents don’t actually exist.”
But of course that is not warranted. She should conclude, instead, that the child got at least one description wrong. But that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t have grandparents who visited her and gave her toys.
Similarly, the fact that biblical authors were incorrect in some of their theological descriptions doesn’t mean that Yahweh doesn’t exist. It means only that they got some of their theological descriptions about Yahweh wrong. Indeed, this is precisely what the doctrine of progressive revelation has always accepted.
It is interesting to note that the first endnote of Gericke’s essay states the following: “The same findings and more are corroborated by the work of Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God….” (387) Yes, that is correct. It is also correct that Thom Stark is a committed Christian, a fact that I would have thought would give Gericke some pause about the quality of his argument. So in closing I’d like to offer Gericke the following tip: when your argument for atheism draws on material embraced by Christians, there’s something pretty seriously wrong with your argument.