In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for $100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:
Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.
Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.
Being an angel is hard work. In his 1926 essay “On Being the Right Size,” J.B.S. Haldane writes, “An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts.”
And this takes no account of the weight of the harp. In The Book of the Harp, John Marson notes that gold is about 10 times heavier than willow, once the favorite wood of Celtic harp makers. He calculates that a harp of gold would weigh 120 pounds, far more than the 70-80 pounds of the largest pedal harp.
Should we worry about this? Let us not forget that it was angels who destroyed Babylon for its people’s wrongdoings. In the Book of Revelation, chapter 18, verse 21 tells us: “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus with violence shall that great city of Babylon be thrown down.'”
This becomes a public health matter. Even if harps aren’t thrown at us deliberately by vengeful angels, Marson writes, “there is always the danger of one being dropped accidentally from a great height, resulting in the kind of damage caused on occasion by meteorites — unless, of course, the Bible is indeed correct after all, and angels do not play harps.”
In 1889, the Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka introduced a circle dance that he said would drive the whites out of America and restore the country to the Native Americans. As the Ghost Dance spread throughout the West, an alarmed U.S. government ordered it stamped out, which led to several violent encounters. When the Chicago Tribune published an editorial condemning the dance, Massa Hadjo, a Sioux, responded:
You say, ‘If the United States army would kill a thousand or so of the dancing Indians there would be no more trouble.’ I judge by the above language you are a ‘Christian,’ and are disposed to do all in your power to advance the cause of Christ. You are doubtless a worshiper of the white man’s Saviour, but are unwilling that the Indians should have a ‘Messiah’ of their own.
The Indians have never taken kindly to the Christian religion as preached and practiced by the whites. Do you know why this is the case? Because the Good Father of all has given us a better religion — a religion that is all good and not bad, a religion that is adapted to our wants. You say if we are good, obey the Ten Commandments and never sin any more, we may be permitted eventually to sit upon a white rock and sing praises to God forevermore, and look down upon our heathen fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who are howling in hell.
It won’t do. The code of morals as practiced by the white race will not compare with the morals of the Indians. We pay no lawyers or preachers, but we have not one-tenth part of the crime that you do. If our Messiah does come we shall not try to force you into our belief. We will never burn innocent women at the stake or pull men to pieces with horses because they refuse to join in our ghost dances. … You are anxious to get hold of our Messiah, so you can put him in irons. This you may do — in fact, you may crucify him as you did that other one, but you cannot convert the Indians to the Christian religion until you contaminate them with the blood of the white man. The white man’s heaven is repulsive to the Indian nature, and if the white man’s hell suits you, why, you keep it. I think there will be white rogues enough to fill it.
Three weeks later, at Wounded Knee, the U.S. Army killed more than 200 Lakota.
(Massa Hadjo, “An Indian on the Messiah Craze,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 5, 1890.)
In 1880, freethinking attorney George Walser tried a new experiment in the American heartland — a community dedicated against Christianity, “the only town of its size in the world without a priest, preacher, saloon, God or hell.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll tell the story of Liberal, Missouri — its founding, its confrontations with its Christian neighbors, and its ironic downfall.
We’ll also puzzle over how a woman can suddenly be 120 miles away in just a few minutes.
Sources for our feature on Liberal, Mo.:
J.P. Moore, This Strange Town — Liberal, Missouri: A History of the Early Years, 1880 to 1910, 1963.
Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, and Gary Kremer, Dictionary of Missouri Biography, 1999.
Tom Flynn, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 2007.
Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.
You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.
Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
From Kingsley Amis’ 1966 novel The Anti-Death League:
This is just to show you whose boss around here.
It’ll keep you on your toes, so to speak,
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivvle and blubber like a baby.
That’s up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your LOT.
And think how much good it’ll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptise you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to LIMB-O, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you’ve got one.
Mind you DO take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you DON’T,
I’ve got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as Leukemia and polio,
(Which incidentally your welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.)
I’ve given you one love-pat, right?
You don’t want another.
So watch it, Jack.
Misspellings in original. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis says Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked Kingsley in 1962, “You atheist?” He answered, “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.”
Robert Barker and Martin Lucas overlooked a crucial not in their Bible published in 1631. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes, “The fine of £300 helped to ruin the printer.” Further Bible errata:
In Myles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, Psalm 91:5 read “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (rather than terror).
The “Cannibal Bible,” printed at Amsterdam in 1682, included the sentence “If the latter husband ate her [for hate her], her former husband may not take her again” (Deuteronomy 24:3).
In the “Camel’s Bible” of 1823, Genesis 24:61 reads “And Rebekah arose, and her camels [for damsels].”
In an edition published in Charles I’s reign, Psalm 14:1 read “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God.” The printers were fined £3,000, and all copies were suppressed.
The “Lions Bible” of 1804 contains the phrase “but thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions [for loins]” (Kings 8:19). In Galatians 5:17 it reads “For the flesh lusteth after the Spirit [for against the Spirit].”
In the second edition of the Geneva Bible, 1562, Matthew 5:9 reads “Blessed are the placemakers [peacemakers]: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Also, the chapter heading for Luke 21 has “Christ condemneth the poor widow” rather than “commendeth.”)
A 1702 edition has David complain that “printers [princes] have persecuted me without a cause.” (Psalm 119:161)
In a 1716 Bible first printed in Ireland, John 5:14 read “sin on more” rather than “sin no more.” “The mistake was undiscovered until 8,000 copies had been printed and bound.”
The “Affinity Bible” of 1923 contains a table of affinity with the error “A man may not marry his grandmother’s wife.”
In the “Standing Fishes Bible” of 1806, Ezekiel 47:10 reads “And it shall come to pass that the fishes [fishers] shall stand upon it.”
A Cambridge printing of 1653 reads “know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God?” instead of “shall not inherit.” (I Corinthians 6:9)
In the “Wife-Beater’s Bible” of 1549, Edmund Becke inserted a footnote to I Peter 3:7 reading “And if she be not obediente and healpeful unto hym, endevoureth to beate the fere of God into her heade, that thereby she may be compelled to learne her dutye and do it.”
In one edition published in 1944, a broken bit of type in I Peter 3:5 caused own to appear as owl, producing the alarming sentence “For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.”
If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, why do we pray to him to intercede in our lives? A human father is finite and fallible — he may not know that his child needs help; he may be unable to give it; or, conceivably, he may not care enough to make the effort. But an omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely good god is incapable of these failings. We’re already certain that he’s aware of our problems, that he cares about us infinitely, and that he’s able to help us if he chooses. So why do we pray?
“That the believer desires divine assistance in various situations is perfectly understandable,” writes Roberts Wesleyan College philosopher David Basinger. “But that a believer would feel the need to request such assistance from a being who is more knowledgeable, concerned and powerful than he or she is not.”
(David Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?”, Religious Studies, March 1983.)
An 1898 item in the New York Times notes that William Gladstone once attended a Presbyterian service in Scotland where the minister said, “We pray Thee, Lord, of Thy goodness, to bless the Prime Minister of this great nation, who is now worshipping under this roof in the third pew from the pulpit.” And a Presbyterian minister opening an outdoor event reportedly prayed, “In consequence of the rain, O Lord, and by reason of the regretted absence of the Princess of Lochnagar, caused, doubtless, by the stormy weather, I do not purpose to address Thee at any length.”
Before a battle in the Irish rebellion of 1641, John Leslie, bishop of Clogher, prayed, “O God, for our unworthiness we are not fit to claim Thy help: but if we are bad our enemies are worse, and if Thou seest not meet to help us, we pray Thee help them not, but stand Thou neuter this day, and leave it to the arm of flesh.”
(During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “We, on our side, are praying to Him to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray to Him, look for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?”)
In his 1863 history of France, Victor Duruy tells of a soldier named La Hire who sought absolution from a priest during the siege of Montargis in 1427. The priest asked him to confess first, and he said, “I have not time, for I must fall upon the English. But I have done all that a man of war is wont to do.” The chaplain gave him absolution such as it was, and La Hire fell on his knees by the roadside and said, “God, I pray thee that to-day thou wilt do for La Hire that which thou wouldst have La Hire do for thee, if he were God and thou were La Hire.”
Others think the notion of a timeless God, with its perceptual metaphor of God passively perceiving each and every moment of time in a single, unchanging, comprehensive vision, fails to give God the freedom to act in creation, in particular, in the future. Suppose a student receives acceptances from three different universities and is trying to decide which to attend. She prays to God: ‘Lord, at which of the three universities will I have the best overall collegiate experience?’ On the timelessness view, God sees only the choice our petitioner actually makes, not the alternative futures that would have transpired had she chosen to go elsewhere. So how can God answer this prayer?
— W. Jay Wood, God, 2011
“Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'” — Turgenev
Given his necessary perfections, if there is a best world for God to create then it appears he would have no choice other than to create it. For, as Leibniz tells us, ‘to do less good than one could is to be lacking in wisdom or in goodness.’ Since it is strictly impossible for God to be lacking in wisdom or goodness, his inability to do otherwise than create the best possible world is no limitation on his power. But if God could not do otherwise than create the best world, he created the world out of necessity, and not freely. And, if that is so, it may be argued that we have no reason to be thankful to God for creating us, since, being parts of the best possible world, God was simply unable to do anything other than create us. … [Leibniz’s reasoning] cannot avoid the conclusion that God is not sufficiently free in creating, and is therefore not a fit subject of gratitude or moral praise for creating the best.