Recently a friend shared a variation1 of the following story on Facebook:
Does evil exist?
The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!”
“God created everything? The professor asked.
“Yes sir”, the student replied.
The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.
Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”
“Of course”, replied the professor.
The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”
“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.
The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”
The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?”
The professor responded, “Of course it does.”
The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”
Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?”
Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”
To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”
The professor sat down.
The young man’s name — Albert Einstein.
Some quick googling reveals that the story is false, as you probably—like me—suspected from the beginning. The Snopes article explains that Einstein has become a stand in for the genius in modern culture, and details how the atheist professor is constructed as a straw man.
There are other tales of a similar kind, including the infamous dropped chalk and several where the professor tells his class that God can’t knock him off the platform, prompting a Christian to come do so for God. The tales seem to come in three varieties:
- The logical refutation, as with Einstein
- The supernatural intervention, as with the chalk
- The Christian doing God’s will, as with the platform
Snopes gives a fairly good, if somewhat biased sounding, explanation of the social functions of these stories: to act as “modern day parables”. As such the actual truth of the story matters little. They are meant to serve as rallying cries to true believers, reinforcing faith and inspiring similar actions in those who hear.
But I think the article misses something. If these stories are like parables, and I think the comparison is astute, we must remember what the goals of a parable are. While inspiring resolve in true believers is one, the primary goal of a parable is to teach. And, indeed, I think these stories do teach us something about God and faith, as silly as they may be.
Returning to our three varieties, we can find a different lesson in each. The logical refutation tends to highlight a flaw in the arguments against God. Evil as the absence of God is a persuasive—though not definitive—argument for His existence. While the logical refutation can never prove God, it can prove that God and faith cannot be proved or disproved.
The second variety, supernatural intervention, teaches that God can act in this world. God’s direct action in the world is a key belief of Christianity. The chalk’s altered path to the ground shows the listener that God can and will intervene in circumstances when necessary.
I find the lesson from the third variety, the Christian doing God’s will, most interesting. On the surface these are the silliest. In the case of knocking the professor off the platform it feels more like a comeuppance than a theological lesson. Of course knocking him over proves nothing. But, when read at a deeper level, these stories serve to challenge the assumption that God’s only—or primary—means of work is through direct action. Much of the Christian faith is based on God’s movement through humans. This type of tale brings that movement into the modern world.
Is teaching the principle goal of these stories? Probably not. Their typical tone and the social aspect of their distribution make it more likely that they are intended to reinforce faith (or adherence to the “party” line, if you’re cynical) than to teach lessons. So if the primary purpose of a parable is to teach, these are probably not primarily parables.2
Yet, I think there is some lesson in each from which we can learn. And it’s worth remember this even as we laugh, scoff, or shake our heads in disbelief at them.
1 The variation in question was actually an amusing combination of at least two different tales and included a nice swipe at evolution. It amused me.
2 How’s that for alliteration? Perhaps I should go into ministry.