Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Talking with an Atheist: What Can't God Do?

"...with God all things are possible.”
-Jesus Matthew 19:26
Is there anything God can't do?

I once heard a sermon titled "Things God Can't Do." God can't go against his nature so he can't lie, or hate, or be unjust. In the past, theologians have debated if God could create a rock he can't lift. The bible tells us that all things are possible with God, so the answer would be there is nothing God can't do. The question was the center of a recent discussion I had with my Favourite Atheist (FA) that looked at the subject in a different light.

We were discussion the nature of God and what FA calls the "four omnis -omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscience, and omnibenevolent." In the middle of our chat he asked me what my thoughts were on Judges 1:19:
The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.
The questions:
From this verse FA had a few questions:
  1. Is God one of the fairy-folk? If you miss his joke, the Fae can't touch iron it weakens and the chariots were made of iron.
  2. If God is all powerful and he was on the side of the men of Judah why were He/they stopped by iron chariots?
  3. If iron chariots can stop God, can we trust any Scripture, since this event contradicts other verses that say God is all-powerful?
My Reactions:
  1. No, God is not one of the Fae. I might have thrown a pillow at my friend at that moment. Additional thoughts: God is not on of the Fae, especially not a leprechaun so please don't make a connection to Noah, the rainbow promise, and pots of gold. :p
  2. I have no idea why the people of the plains were not defeated but I do not believe that it means God has not power.
  3. Again I don't know, but I don't think this verse is a contradiction. I don't think the "because" means we should worry about iron chariots. 40 years earlier God defeats a whole army of chariots in the Red Sea. My thought was we need to look at the Hebrew (which I haven't done yet).
Possible Conclusions:
That was the end of the discussion, but I'm still mauling over the verse in my head. My answers that day were true, I don't know what to do with this verse or how to answer my friend. These are the possible solutions:
  1. FA is right, my whole Christian faith is based on man made lies and this is one of the flaws/proofs of the that. This is not my conclusion but I at least have to state that it is an option.
  2. God is all powerful. He can defeat iron chariots and the verses have been mistranslated or misunderstood. With scholarly research we will be able to correct the apparent contradiction.
  3. God is all powerful. God can defeat iron chariots and chose not to in this situation and the reason is not disclosed to us.
Your Turn:
  • How would you respond to this verse and FAs questions?
  • Do you agree or disagree?
  • How do you support your view?
  • Do you have any insight to add?
  • Am I missing a possible conclusion?
  • This is an interesting verse that does raise valid questions. If all Scripture is God-breathed we can't ignore this verse so what do we do with it?
Please leave your comments below. My one request, which ever side of the debate you are on, please play nice with the other children in the sand box. No throwing toy trucks, dirt, or names at each other -thank you.


Gloria Sigountos said...

Really that is what he is going to pull out in judges? not the Priest who cut up the prostitute?

The Hebrew here isn't going to give you any help. I think your friend is trying to make the text say something that it isn't. I think the text is just saying oh yeah they had iron and we just had bronze. Iron cuts though bronze and so yeah we couldn't defeat them.

It almost sounds like he wants God to act like the patron gods of Dungeons and Dragons.

matthew said...

I believe the Lord is with me too, but there are still times when I fail.

Assuming that God's presence will always lead to victory assumes that God chooses to overwhelm people with hard-sovereignty, making men mere puppets.

I think the Bible reveals a different sort of God, a God who draws back to some degree... limits himself for the sake of freedom.

The Israelites in that passage had God with them, but they also turned their eyes toward the enemy and, apparently, became afraid. It reminds me of Peter walking on water. God was with Him, but that didn't matter once he chose to look at the circumstances.

God's omnipotence is not only nuanced by common sense, but also voluntarily.

FA said...

Re: Gloria.

It sounds like you're saying that it doesn't matter if God is with you or not. If you have the better weapons, you win. That's a sentiment that I can generally get behind, but mostly because I don't think that there are any gods on either side of conflicts. Does tend to steal the comfort from the "god is on our side" sentiment though, one would think.

Dungeons and Dragons never really crossed my mind. The Illiad or Exodus now, those had some active deities.

Re: Matthew.

What do you mean "apparently became afraid"? Where do you get that notion? They took the hill country. They failed to kick out the plainsfolk. They went on to attack other places. Where does fear enter into it? It is certainly not obvious from the text.

As to the "limited God".. it sure didn't stop him from "giving the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands" in verse 4.

Just my $0.02

matthew said...

It is unimportant whether they lost to the 'plain' because of fear (decided not to fight them when they saw their iron chariots) OR because of military defeat (were simply unable to defeat them b/c of their iron chariots).

The text doesn't tell us either way, but it doesn't even matter. The point remains the same. God's presence in v. 19a does not make certain perfect success. It's only a conundrum if we take a very hard-sovereignty view of God.

In other words, if the question is, how could a bunch of Israelites lose to a bunch of people with Iron chariots, the answer is simple. If the question is, how could God lose to a iron chariots, the answer is impossible. But we are not dealing with either of those questions, we're dealing with something in between. These were Israelites whom God was with. Thus something in between complete failure and complete success should be expected.

Sometimes that failure is due to fear, sometimes to laziness, sometimes to human limitations, etc. I think that if they had fully trusted God, in that situation, they would have been able to do what He asked them to do. Since they didn't, I assume they turned their attention to the circumstances rather than keeping their thoughts on the Lord.

As for your second comment, God seems to have a pattern of providing initial victory to build faith but then stepping back to let us act in faith. We have a pattern of failing. But God prefers that we live it out rather than giving us everything on a silver platter.

matthew said...

Just opened up my new 'Judges' commentary for the first time, just for you :) Here's what Daniel Block says about your question:

"Why is Yahweh's presence canceled by superior military technology? The narrator does not say, but presumably the Judahites experienced a failure of nerve at this point, or they were satisfied with their past achievements."

FA said...

And I'm the one who gets accused of reading things into the text that aren't there :P.

It matters, in that they failed, and the reason given is because of iron chariots. You've inserted things like fear, satisfaction, loss of nerve, etc, when there isn't any indication of it in the text.

Assuming and presuming are all well and good, but the fact remains, as you said "God's presence... does not make certain perfect success."

I am failing to see why that isn't troublesome, when one is discussing an omnimax entity. I don't think hard sovereignty has anything to do with it. It's not like God isn't involved in this conflict. The Israelites achieve victory before and after (verse 4, and 22 et al). They fail to achieve victory in 19. God is said to be there in all of those instances.

You have said "Sometimes that failure is due to fear, sometimes to laziness, sometimes to human limitations." Wouldn't this verse seem to indicate that sometimes the failure is due to the other side having iron chariots?

If it doesn't matter if God is on your side, I think that is important to know. If having God on your side is not an assurance of victory, then it seems silly to consider god as omnimax, to say the least.

Regarding your commentary. Isn't it bothersome that one can equally presume completely opposite things (fear or satisfaction), in order to get out of the problem?

matthew said...

The above comment shows that you are making 1 major error in regard to this text and 1 major error in regard to your overall argument.

1. You are reading a narrative text as if it is some sort of formula. The narrative genre allows the reader to imagine what emotions may or not be behind the story. The reference to iron chariots conjures up the thought that they may have been intimidated by them. Narrative should never be read in the way you are interpreting it (God's presence + Israel = automatic success).

2. Your argument dismisses my point about your analysis being overly calvinistic, but then continues down that same road. If you want to dialogue with a Calvinist I'm sure you can find one! But why keep arguing against Calvinism when none of them are here?

For Arminians, God's presence isn't overwhelming (He doesn't want it to be). The entire premise of this post "what can't God do?" is based on calvinistic assumptions. Arminians would rather ask, "what won't God do?" And whether you admit it or not, that changes the situation in Judges 1 entirely.

God was present with Israel. He was willing to do His part to help them succeed. Sometimes they did their part and sometimes they did not.

Read narratively, we can see why Israel in Judges failed. Sometimes they got intimidated by the enemy's strength. Sometimes they lacked the determination of their enemies. Sometimes they compromised with the enemy and made peace. Sometimes their failure was a result of punishment for breaking God's covenant. Sometimes God was willing to use the remaining Canaanites so as to test Israel.

When we combine your formulaic reading of this narrative with your Calvinistic sparring partner (the two really go hand in hand), it is not surprising that you find the verse objectionable.

I'm assuming that you'd remove your objection if the passage said something like "God was with them, but they felt intimidated by the iron chariots and, therefore, drew back and did not experience victory."

I suggest that this is simply a fair interpretation of the narrative. It's a down to earth story. God's presence can't always be felt. Enemy strength is easier to sense. Our spiritual faith gives way to our material senses. God's presence is rendered powerless because of our refusal to trust.

This is not a failure of God's presence, but a failure of our faith.

FA said...

You are right. If the text had said "God was with them, but they felt intimidated/satisfied/drunk/bored/lazy/hungry. They drew back and did not experience victory.", then I would immediately retract my objection. Indeed, I'd be willing to accept any emotional reason you'd care to name, if the text suggested it.

Unfortunately, it doesn't. We’re not told that they failed morally. We’re told that their enemies had better tools. That is the only reason given. “... because they had iron chariots.” When their defeat is the result of moral failing, it is pointed out. That’s not what we see here.

Your point re: narrative is well taken. But let’s be honest. In terms of the narrative, the issue is glossed over. It doesn’t even get a whole verse to itself. This doesn’t lend itself to invoking images of fear, or any other emotion. If anything, it reads more like Gloria’s interpretation. There is a matter of factness about the verse that suggests failing to defeat iron chariots is entirely reasonable. And it is, if you don’t have any supernatural help. What, you were expecting an omnipotent deity to trump iron? Calvinist!

Seriously though, I don’t think your charge of a hard-sovereignty requirement applies here, given god’s other actions in the same chapter. God explicitly gives victory before and after this verse. If God’s overwhelming presence (or lack thereof) isn’t a problem in those instances, then it needn’t be an issue here. If you think it does, then you’re going to have to make a case for it. Throwing around the Calvinist label is not sufficient.

matthew said...

I'm not sure what you are actually suggesting. Do you really believe that the author of Judges thought that iron chariots were stronger than Yahweh?

That's a real question you have to answer... b/c the beliefs of the author certainly play a part in interpreting what he has written.

To me, this makes it rather obvious that the reference to their iron chariots is not to suggest that iron chariots are stronger than deity, but rather insinuate that the Israelites took notice of the iron chariots and something happened to them as a result.

The worldview of Judaism renders your wooden-literal reading nearly impossible.

FA said...

No. I suspect the author of Judges didn't give this particular aspect of his narrative much thought at all, let alone the theological implications of it.

As an explanation of the history of Israel, and an explanation for why things are the way they are, the narrative works. It gives a superficially reasonable explanation for the situation as it stood, and quickly moves on to things that the author finds more interesting/important.

I think that the author was rather more interested in detailing how Israel came to be the way it was. foundation of cities, possession of lands, etc. It is an accounting of what lands Israel took, and how. I don't think he was interested very much in the actual reasons one way or the other. We won because God was with us. Here is the stuff we got. Also toe cutting.

That's part of why it is so weird. While superficially satisfying, (as Gloria suggested, iron is tough yo), the deeper implications suggest possibilities that I expect the author did not consider or intend.

Your willingness to make wide ranging assumptions and presumptions about it is evidence that even you must think it is a bit strange. The explanation as written is obviously not satisfying when one looks at it more thoroughly. The sorts of explanations that one usually finds aren't there. That's why the commentary you point to allows such a broad array of presumptions.

In short, it isn't obvious to me that the iron chariots insinuate anything other than a quick and easy explanation for why Israel didn't have the plains country, in the same way that the rest of the chapter lays out how things came to be the way they were. If it were a secular text, we could leave it at that. It claims to be the word of god. thus, weird statements require more scrutiny.

matthew said...

I think if you read a secular narrative saying that a group of people couldn't defeat another group of people b/c the latter had iron chariots... you'd also imagine what that might have looked like at ground level. Did they see the iron chariots and decide not to fight? Did they believe that since their god was on their side it'd be easy and then, at the earliest signs of struggle, turn back? Did they simply lose b/c they were outmatched?

That's all I'm doing too. It is not even necessary, in my view, to assume fear or laziness or the other things you object to. I would be comfortable, also, if they simply lost.

I would, of course, have to ask why God allowed them to lose in such a situation... but there are possible answers to that as well. Even in that case belief in God's presence is not impossible to imagine. It simply requires some theological work.

But I think that given our very different assumptions about the author of Judges, and given our very different assumptions about what is a common sense way of reading this narrative... it is highly unlikely that you will be satisfied with my approach or that I will consider your objections very significant.

My theology and genre appraisal kept this text from becoming an issue for me. I've read the text dozens of times and never once saw it as problematic. It is common sense that iron chariots can't actually defeat deity, but it is also common sense that God's people don't always take God's strength seriously.