Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"With God All Things Are Possible"

Across the street from the office where I work is a little restaurant called the Bonfire Cafe. I went there once for lunch with coworkers, unaware of the fact that it's an overtly Christian establishment which wears its beliefs proudly on its sleeve. Anyway, the experience didn't scar or revile me or anything - I think I had a reasonably priced, if unremarkable, sandwich and a coffee - but I do generally walk past this place every day (it's between my office and Starbucks) and see things like the above propped up outside the entrance. 

Now, I have no problem with the fact that a nominally Christian (or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist...) cafe exists, or with this sign proudly and prominently displayed from it. I'm actually rather glad to be reminded of Bible verses like this; for me, what is surely intended to be merely an inspirational exhortation to passers-by becomes the impetus for profound, meandering philosophical rumination about the core doctrines of Christianity, the nature of God, and the value of telling each other comforting lies.

The first thing I think about is the context of this verse, because I often hear it recited by well-meaning believers as a pithy platitude intended to offer comfort or encouragement to someone in a difficult situation. One rarely ever hears of the verses immediately preceding or following it, and one wonders how many Christians are even aware of the context in which this famous verse appears. Here is Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-29:

19:16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
19:17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
19:18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
19:19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
19:20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
19:21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
19:22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
19:23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
19:24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
19:25 When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?
19:26 But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
19:27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
19:28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
19:29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
There's so much good stuff in here. In verse 17, Jesus objects to being called good, because only God is good. This is one of the many verses in which Jesus clearly demonstrates that he and God are separate. (This is probably copied from Mark 10:18 and also appears in Luke 18:19) Not only does he not call himself God, he refers to God as entirely different from himself. Then, when a child asks Jesus which commandments he should follow (verses 18-19), Jesus only mentions a few of them - incidentally the reasonable ones - and leaves out the nonsensical proscriptions like not worshiping other Gods, making graven images, keeping the sabbath holy, and coveting stuff. Excited that he's been doing all those things all along, the child asks what else he needs to do to have eternal life but is totally bummed when Jesus tells him to sell all his stuff and give to the poor (verse 21). Jesus then takes this opportunity to reiterate how screwed rich people are, including the rather famous verse 24. Then Peter's like "ok we've done all that stuff, and we sold all our shit and have been following you around for a while, so we're good yeah?" (verse 27) Jesus affirms that they are indeed good, as is everyone else... who keeps the commandments and sells his house and leaves his family behind to follow Jesus. All Christians do that, right?

Perhaps I should back up a bit and paint a fuller contextual picture. The phrase "with God all things are possible" comes from the New Testament, specifically the book of Matthew, chapter 19, verse 26, in the midst of a conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples who just want some clarification on how to get to heaven. Specifically Jesus is drawing the distinction between earthly and heavenly salvation: nobody on Earth can save you, but God can. Even this is contingent, though; God can't save you directly - you need to go through his intermediary Jesus, and abandon your family and home in the process. The standard caveats apply when dealing with the NT gospels: Matthew was written sometime in the late 1st century CE several decades after Jesus' death by nobody knows who, and whoever wrote it never met Jesus, so there's no good reason to believe that Jesus even said this. Even if we ignore all of that and just accept that he did say "with God all things are possible," he wasn't uttering it in the same all-encompassing way that Christians do when they say it to each other, and he said it in the same breath as "sell all your stuff and forsake your family for me."

But, since many people who know this verse aren't at all aware of its context, let's just pretend that we aren't aware of it either, and treat it as if it were a single profound utterance, devoid of context: "With God, All Things Are Possible." Just for fun, let's take the easy road first and declare this statement nonsense because it's inherently contradictory. Omnipotence is impossible. If you say "all things" and literally mean it, then you've ceased to make any sense. The standard sardonic retort to God's omnipotence is the subversive question "can God make a boulder so heavy that he can't lift it?" or, as I've also heard it, "can God microwave a burrito so hot that he can't eat it?" It's a silly question, but it serves a serious purpose, namely to illustrate that the idea of omnipotence is logically incoherent.
The same problem applies to the statement "with God, all things are possible." With God's help, could I microwave a burrito so hot that I couldn't eat it? Ok so I wouldn't actually need God's help for that part. But what if I both wanted to microwave a burrito so hot that I couldn't eat it and then I also wanted to eat it? If I accomplish the latter, then I've failed at the former; even God can't get me out of this one. This probably all seems like a silly rhetorical exercise, but that's the point - to demonstrate that a phrase like "all things are possible" in any context is a silly thing to say.

But let's ignore that too. Let's pretend that the idea that "with God, all things are possible" is literally true and not inherently contradictory. Let's proceed with the assumptions that God exists and is literally capable of doing all things. There is still a glaring difficulty staring us in the face: it is clear from our experience that a great many things are simply not possible. 

There is a massive disconnect between the idea that God can do anything and the actual world we observe, in which there are serious and numerous limitations. It would not be difficult for anyone to come up with a long list of things which we can safely assume, based on our experience in the world, are simply impossible. They might range from the ridiculous to the mundane: it's impossible for people to fly without the aid of technology, impossible for a severed human limb to regenerate spontaneously.

If one would like to argue seriously that it is possible for a human being to fly without the aid of technology, or that it is possible for human beings to regenerate severed limbs without the aid of science or medicine, then one ought to consider and attempt to explain why these things have never happened. (Anyone who doubts the impossibility of unassisted human flight is welcome to jump out a window.) There are numerous species capable of regeneration of entire limbs, but for some reason homo sapiens isn't among them. Does God love lizards more than he loves us? Is it really more important that a lizard grow an arm back than a human? If a human being loses an arm or a leg, why does nobody ever expect it to grow back on its own? Even if you seriously believe in the power of prayer, would you be at all surprised if a billion people all prayed for one severed limb to grow back, and it didn't? Are there any Christians willing to volunteer to have a limb hacked off just to give God a great chance to prove me wrong? ...No? No takers on that?
It should be clear by now that the phrase "with God, all things are possible" is an incomplete statement at best. Even if it is factually true, the reality is that, even if God can do literally anything, the simple truth is that in reality he seems entirely unwilling to do a great many things, especially those things which we would consider impossible in the physical world. The second part of that statement renders the first part irrelevant. Perhaps there are those who somehow manage to take comfort in the idea of a God who is omnipotent in theory only. I am not among their number.

So, for the sake of intellectual honesty, I propose we edit Matthew 19:26 so that it conforms a little more closely to reality:

1 comment:

  1. "Anyone who doubts the impossibility of unassisted human flight is welcome to jump out a window."

    I think that sums it up nicely.