Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Elf Jesus

I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. I have trouble bringing myself to playing it now because D&D tends to bring out certain irritating personalities. People like me pore over the rule books to make sure that everything is being done correctly. Most people don't read the rules all the way through before playing Monopoly; I willingly have paid $20 for a 300 page book of rules. I'm insufferable.

Even worse than rules lawyers are munchkins, people who try to win D&D by poring over the rule books looking for loopholes. This is idiotic because D&D can't be won, it goes on and on, week after week, until the gaming group falls apart. In any group, there's at least one of these chumps.

Lightfoot the Halfling Rogue and Grok'thahal the Half-Orc Barbarian and Iskander the Human Cleric have interesting relationships and problems and frailties and backstories (somehow, each one is an orphan), these three are trying to tell an interesting story, but they're stuck playing with Bob the Elf Jesus who just wants to roll dice, kill everything, and get a lot of make-believe treasure.

One of the explanations for why God isn't more evident in the world is that he's leaving us alone to tell our own story. He works in mysterious ways or watches us from a distance because if he were to interfere, he'd ruin our free will, he'd be like Bob the Elf Jesus who just charges into the kobold den, dual wielding battleaxes and somehow casting fireball at the same time, while Lightfoot and Grok'thahal are hatching a plan and Iskander is expressing the pathos of his emotional crises. Jesus isn't like Bob the Elf Jesus.

I think there's something to this explanation, honestly. We need to live in an orderly nature that has rules for our actions to be meaningful. We need to be able to sin to be redeemed, there had to be a tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden.

Using the Elf Jesus problem to explain why the world is the way it is now, why we don't see big, verifiable miracles, is flatly unbiblical. God, evidently, didn't mind eroding Paul's free will with blinding light. He didn't seem to care too much about the Egyptian army's free will when they were drowned in the Red Sea. Jesus didn't seem to think that feeding the 5,000 would spoil them and make them irresponsible and lazy.

There are 1.2 billion people who are malnourished. If God were to drop manna from heaven all over the world, that might impede my free will, but he'd save 35,000 kids from dying today. I wouldn't mind my free will being a little degraded in this manner. If God were to just drop manna on Zimbabwe, there would still be plenty of needy people for the world community to practice showing compassion to.

Saying that God doesn't do big miracles because he doesn't want to squelch our free will is a cruel pat answer, like telling cancer patients they need to pray harder, or telling someone crippled by worry that their problem isn't the thing that's worrying them, it's their lack of trust in God.

I suppose that God could be real and good, even given the state the world is in. The Elf Jesus explanation is simplistic, unbiblical, and cruel, though. God's quietness is a serious problem that deserves more sober consideration. We're prone to look at the exodus from Egypt or the stories of the judges or the story of Jesus. What are the scriptural explanations for God's apparent absence in the time of slavery before the exodus, or the chaos between the judges, or the Greco-Roman occupation?


  1. That bothers me too. Amputees never get a miracle healing; it's only people with diseases capable of being cured.

    Family Guy made a joke about Jesus being overrated and he did magic tricks with his fingers. I considered there might actually be something to that. Mormonism typically gets derided for being ridiculous, but I think that's only because it was founded in more recent memory, in a more skeptical age. If Paul was around in the 1800's I think he'd get laughed at too. I think the police would investigate Jesus's tomb and search for clues for the grave robbers.

    One of my other problems, and I think you sort of touched on this in a previous entry, is the following three choices:

    A. God is kind
    B. God gives you free will to believe in him or not
    C. God damns you to eternal torment if you do not believe in him.

    These three together are mutually incompatible: you can only pick two.

    Also while munchkins are annoying, I can deal with them as long as they're only trying to beat the DM (they can't exactly win there...). The worst DnD player is the guy who tries to beat the rest of the party, stealing treasure or running off in the middle of the night and other such nonsense. It's unfun, in contrast to fun games like paranoia where it's expected.

  2. It is interesting that you mention the Greco-Roman occupation, because we've been studying the book of Daniel at New Song's Bible study! Regardless of what you think about how Daniel was put together, its clear message is that although God does not appear to working in the ways that we would expect Him to if He were truly loving, kind, and sovereign over all things, He is and He is doing so in such a way to glorify His name in all the earth. There was a long period of silence and horrific suffering for the Jewish people, who must have wondered what on earth God was up to while all the nations raged around them.

    If we look at the Bible and say, "God isn't working like He used to-- He isn't smiting the Romans like He smote the Egyptians," then we've read our own culture and preferences into the Bible instead of being shaped by God's words. The Pharisees looked at the Bible and expected God to act in a certain way, and Jesus rebuked them for this. It doesn't even matter what kind of miracle they were expecting and what kind they got, or even the fact that there was the presence of miracles at all (or not.) Jesus says several times that He chose not to do miracles in certain locations because of their unbelief, and in John 10:24-25 He points out that people would accept His miracles as valid if they were His sheep. In John 5 Jesus doesn't say, "Don't worry everyone, God just changed up His magic show-- now we're feeding 5,000 instead of smiting our enemies!" He mentions "my works" in passing, but mostly He points them to the Scripture and His teaching, and asks them (and all of us) to take Him on His terms and not ours.

    The "Bob the Elf Jesus" explanation is interesting and perhaps compelling to some people, but in general I think it's more useful to appreciate the fact that the miracles of the Bible were given just as much for our edification and faith as they were for the people who saw them with their own eyes.

  3. This is again tangential (like my first comment!), but since I don't give the "Bob the Elf Jesus" explanation much weight I don't feel the need to comment on it too much. I am far more a fan of the "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" answer to that question.

    You say, There are 1.2 billion people who are malnourished. If God were to drop manna from heaven all over the world, that might impede my free will, but he'd save 35,000 kids from dying today. I wouldn't mind my free will being a little degraded in this manner. If God were to just drop manna on Zimbabwe, there would still be plenty of needy people for the world community to practice showing compassion to. This is by no means the be-all-end-all response, and I certainly recognize that much harm has been done in Jesus' name. But even though 35,000 kids died yesterday from hunger & preventable disease, Jesus still saved 35,000 (probably more, actually) kids from dying yesterday, through His church. Jesus had 12 disciples when He fed the 5,000, and they still didn't have much of a clue as to what they were doing. Now He has millions (perhaps billions) of people who love Him and He works miracles in their hearts that they would feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked. There are a lot of followers of Jesus who miss the boat on this one (I am personally getting dragged behind on a tow rope that someone slipped around my ankle when I wasn't looking), but there's still something to be said for God working in the world through the Bible and the Church.

  4. Matthew, I think everything you say here is correct, at least, to the extent that I don't see anything worth shooting down. I don't think what you're saying is altogether relevant, though, to the job of knowing whether God exists in a meaningful way.

    Sure, I'm okay with God working in oodles of different ways, or even not working at all for a while. (If God seems to be absent, the scriptures tell us to ask why, though; exile is rarely meaningless.) However, not only have you not seen a Red Sea parting this year, I don't think that miracles on that scale, or on the scale of the feeding of the 5,000, are generally claimed to have happened post-ascension. I haven't seen credible evidence of something on the scale of a leper being healed in contemporary times.

    Absence of evidence actually is reasonable evidence of absence.

    You have frequently said to me, personally, things like, "the miracles of the Bible were given just as much for our edification and faith as they were for the people who saw them with their own eyes." I don't think that's true, I think you have too high a view of scripture, that is, placing it over God's energetic work in the world. The miracles of the Bible are only useful for me if I have reason enough to trust the Bible.

    You're right, Christians do oodles of good to help people. Can you demonstrate that the good they do has to have a supernatural source? Christian charity is how we would expect God to work most of the time, but if that's how God works all the time, it's awfully difficult to tell that God is there, in a meaningful way. God has to be bigger than a loving community of humans.

  5. Alex, I'm still not sure why seeing something on the scale of a leper being healed, but I think that discussion is ongoing at your more recent post. Absence of evidence is reasonable evidence of absence, but when you define evidence only in terms of things like lepers being healed, I think you've not given the question a fair shake.

    If the miracles of the Bible weren't given for our edification and faith, why were they given? Most have some sort of spiritual meaning, but that isn't why they were recorded. Surely passages like John 20:31 indicate that that was at least part of their purpose.

    I feel like you draw a false dichotomy between the Bible and God's energetic work in the world; I think that the Bible is part of God's energetic work in the world and, for most people, His primary revelation of Himself as far as concrete instructions and teaching. But you are very right to say that the miracles of the Bible are only useful if you have reason enough to trust the Bible.

    Of course one cannot demonstrate that the good that Christians do has to have a supernatural source, perhaps no more than an amputee's leg regrowing had a supernatural source. But again, if your standard is definitive evidence that something supernatural has happened, then just about any good work is necessarily excluded.

  6. I don't define evidence in terms of narrow categories like "healings" or "things falling from the sky"; evidence for the existence of God would be anything that can't be explained by things that we already know exist and understand.

    The miracles in the Bible would have been given first for the people that they happened to directly. That we weren't there, that we have the Bible instead, does put some distance between us and those events. Not only that, but for people who don't believe, the Bible is just another book that has to stand on its own two feet as a historical document. If the God of the Bible exists, the Bible would be something coming from him, but that the Bible itself exists is no miracle.

    I agree with your last paragraph, to demonstrate God existing, evidence of the supernatural would be required.