Richard W. Coffen  |  10 December 2018  |

11:45 a.m. Thursday, November 15—Long lines jutted from checkouts. I pulled in behind lane 9. Ahead stood a well-dressed, well-coifed lady. Well below the median age of 72.2[1] for us retirees in Green Valley! Ms. Anonymous placed a few items onto the conveyor belt—two boxed toys, Christmas giftwrap, two holiday ribbons.

I edged closer and asked: “Are you sure you are old enough to play with those toys?”

She turned, explaining: “One’s for that 4-year-old with brain cancer. Won’t last till Christmas. Other’s for his 3-year-old brother, who wouldn’t understand why big brother got presents but he didn’t.”

The conveyor belt moved her items to the cashier. I emptied our cart. As Ms. Anonymous walked away, she waved and said, “Bye.”

7 p.m. Thursday, November 15—Firemen had finished stringing colored lights and placing Yuletide decorations. Soon, 200 well-wishers, most strangers to one another and to the Cook family, thronged the front and side yards. Most, like the magi of old, bore gifts.

Junior, 3-year-old brother Thor, mommy, daddy, and a few friends weren’t home. They’d gone to view The Grinch. The ride to the theater and back was special—in a stretch limousine! As the vehicle pulled up once more to the house, Junior gasped. An inflatable snowman wobbled on the roof. A machine spewed artificial snow.

During August 2017, physicians had diagnosed Junior’s problem—brain tumor. Surgery and radiation followed. Everyone hoped (some prayed) that the tumor had disappeared—for good. Then this past July a follow-up scan revealed four new tumors—on the brain and spine. Jargon: anaplastic ependymoma.

Oh, the physicians had appended—terminal.

On Friday, November 9, Junior began sobbing—his head hurt; he felt terrible. After brain scans at the emergency department, the physician commented, “There’s nothing we can do.” He added, “This is the hardest part of my job.”

Hospice took over—for a 4-year-old with a death sentence!

Limousine doors opened. Daddy carried the exhausted Junior into the house. He sat with Daddy and peered through the front window. He could hear the crowd singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Other carols followed. Soon a clutch of police cars, lights flashing, crawled past.

“Ho, ho, hos!” erupted into the night as Santa squeezed through the crowd and entered the house. Two hundred voices cheered. Four hundred hands clapped. Junior grinned as he hung out with Santa. Gifts from the crowd cluttered the floor.

8 p.m., Thursday, November 15—The crowd, ready to fade into the darkness, must do one more thing. Junior would turn 5 on December 15—if life lingered. The enormous outdoor choir belted out “Happy birthday to you . . .” as Junior, enfolded in Daddy’s arms, looked on.[2]

A Merry Christmas?

A word bandied about each December is Immanuel. We all know how to translate this Hebrew theophoric proper noun: “God Is With Us.” Many of us assume that it was an inspired unpacking of Jesus of Nazareth’s ontology. “It means,” we parrot, “Jesus was a God-man.”

We ignore that (1) there were other god-men revered in the ancient world and (2) the book of Isaiah spells out the denotation. It appears to have been a moniker for Isaiah’s soon-to-be-born son. Immanuel had no ontological innuendos for the natural consequence subsequent to Isaiah and Mrs. Isaiah’s coitus (Isaiah 8:3). Little Immanuel was wholly human. His name or nickname (one of two—the other, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, was a mouthful; how could a little kid even pronounce his own name?) served to reassure King Ahaz that, notwithstanding the impending saber-rattling by kings Rezin and Pekah, God was there—with his Hebrew (chosen) people. By the time Immanuel was weaned, those two bigshots were history!

But back to the 21st century. Perhaps we’re arrogant to assume that the message of Immanuel to troubled and doubting King Ahaz likewise addresses us. After all, we aren’t Jews living in the 700s B.C. Furthermore, we don’t speak Hebrew, so without scholarly help the word play is lost on us. Of course, the term Immanuel was repurposed with the promise of Jesus’ birth. But again, might we show our conceit were by assuming that a message to first-century Jews, who knew how to read Hebrew and who were under the occupation of Roman troops, was intended for us. Let’s face it. You and I are very late overhearers.

And what about little Junior, whose life is dissipating? God is here? Where? At the High Sierra Desert Sky Cinema? I thought that if angels refused to enter movie theaters, then surely God wouldn’t be there! Additionally, God seemed nowhere on the lawn of Junior’s house. Maybe he drove one of the police cruisers? Where was God? God was with Junior in his pain? Where? When? Among the 200 thronging the yards? Was God manifested as that inflatable snowman? No one saw God that night. No one heard him singing “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Immanuel? Where? When?

What About YHWH?

We all know the proper name of the Hebrew deity—YHWH. Old Testament stories contain an element that most of us perhaps have overlooked. YHWH was portrayed time and again as immersing himself in human events. He planted a primordial garden, got his hands dirty molding a human, picked up that first person and deposited him in Eden, bloodied his hands while making Eve, engaged in hide-and-seek with Adam and Eve as they secreted themselves in the trees, personally drove them out of the Garden, did directive counseling with fratricidal Cain, came “down” to see for himself if the angels had told the truth about the construction project on the Plain of Shinar, dined on a barbecue with Abraham, was deus ex machina at Mt. Moriah when he spared Isaac, torched a shrub to grab Moses’ attention. You get the idea.

Where nowadays is that One who, we’re told, once upon a time involved himself with humans? YHWH is here? Where? When?

What About Elohim?

It may be a fine distinction, but the Hebrew word Immanuel doesn’t contain the name YHWH. It isn’t Immaniah. Instead, it refers to El or Elohim. El (singular) was the Canaanite “top dog” and “big wheel” (to use today’s jargon) among the various deities whom they worshiped. Elohim (plural) denoted the same god. Hebrew, a dialect of the language of Canaan (Isaiah 19:18), used El and Elohim as generic terms for the deity whom God’s chosen people worshiped.

El was a sky god, and sky gods, being at the apex of the pyramid of deities, tend to remain standoffish, interfering in human matters only sporadically. That concept seems to hold across cultures. Mircea Eliade explained that the sky deity set the cosmos in motion and retreated, letting it function without meddling. Although such deities created all, they are “Most High,” transcendent, and “inaccessible to man.”[3] They’re generally viewed as “high, infinite, immovable, powerful.”[4] However, they remain “indifferent to the world’s affairs.”[5] Supreme Gods “withdrew permanently from earthly and human affairs.”[6] “The Bantus say: ‘God, after having made man, pays no further attention to him.’ And the Negrilloes say again and again: ‘God is far from us!’”[7] Although sky deities are frequently thought to be omnipotent and omniscient creators, they generally have better things to do than to involve themselves in life on Planet Earth.[8]

Generally speaking, the biblical El, the Supreme Being, a Sky God, seems to be much the same—different from YHWH. El did his thing “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1), creating via long distance by speaking, and then seems to have retreated “far beyond the sun.” As the Hebrew sky god, by and large, El seems to be far less involved in human affairs than was YHWH. Little wonder that Isaiah had to emphasize that “God Is With Us”—Immanuel! The circumstances appeared otherwise. But for us today? When, where, how is God with us?

Inferences

We Westerners, living during the 21st century, have been steeped in science, although some of us try to deny that influence! We are fundamentally empiricists. We want confirmations! Empirical proofs require solid evidence agreed upon by persons around the world and regardless of their belief systems. If 4-year-old Junior were an exception, then our questions about the actual meaning of Immanuel would be meaningless. Junior would be the “exception that proves the rule.” Alas, he is not an exception but an everyday occurrence on Planet Earth.

On the one hand, Junior and other sufferers arguably provide some of the strongest empirical proof for philosophical atheism. Contrary to much Eastern philosophy, suffering is real. Evils of various sorts are not imaginary but empirical. In Junior’s case, no one expects a deus ex machina to preserve his life. The death of a 4-year-old—a child reportedly “always happy”—is philosophically, religiously, and theologically discordant with the existence of a righteous, loving, and all-powerful God. We do ourselves an injustice when and if we ignore suffering and its relationship with God’s existence. When and where is Immanuel?

On the other hand, Ms. Anonymous and the 200 who joined her afford, again arguably, a highly cogent argument for practical theism. People such as these, regardless of their religious persuasion, demonstrate that God Is With Us—Immanuel. Maybe those 200 people on Junior’s lawn were avatars (to borrow terminology from Hinduism) of YHWH. They somehow offered palpable evidence of YHWH. Maybe we need to rephrase Jesus’ words to: Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, God has done it! Might the 200 people who showed up on Junior’s lawn make tangible YHWH?

The Questions Are Real and Important

The Review and Herald Publishing Association released three books written by Roger Morneau that reported miraculous answers to his prayers. The books sold like proverbial hotcakes. Sales figures demonstrated that average readers craved validation that God cares—Immanuel, God Is With Us.

Potential customers were assured that the author related valid accounts that God is with us. But here’s the inside information. Those of us at the publishing house never made one solitary attempt to corroborate Roger’s stories. No one ever asked for the contact information for any of the people Morneau mentioned! We simply took his word for it.

It seems to me that we were irresponsible. Catholic Church leaders have spent decades authenticating the miracles claimed to have occurred at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. Since Lourdes opened, at least 200,000,000 persons have visited. About 7,000 of them have claimed to have been healed. However, only 68 healings have been confirmed by the official Medical Bureau. Yes, fewer than .00004 percent have experienced confirmed healing![9]

Thomas, my pastor years ago, confided that he teetered on the verge of atheism. As a result, he collected miracle stories. He never double-checked to affirm their legitimacy. However, by amassing these tales, Thomas’ brittle faith in the existence of God was sustained. Regardless of how noble and even spiritual such intentions may be, if they aren’t anchored in truth—based upon empirical data rather than “fake facts”—then they deserve to be disbelieved.

Because empirical data can provide a basis for questioning and even abandoning theism (as at least one Adventist pastor, Ryan J. Bell, has done in recent years) or provide evidence for the divine, I’ve decided to call myself a “deitheist”—a theological combination of deism plus theism. Although I find the empirical data of disaster, disease, and death against theism almost convincing, I continue to cling to belief. However, I must be honest with the evidence. Hence, I’ve concluded that our God is fundamentally a sky deity.

Well, I must leave off writing and start listening to a few hymns. They keep me captured within the category of deitheist.

God has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
God has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
God has no body now on earth but yours.
—Adapted from Teresa of Avila


  1. Https://www.areavibes.com/green+valley-az/demographics.
  2. Https://www.tucsonnewsnow.com/2018/11/16/sahuarita-spreads-christmas-cheer-local-boy-with-terminal-cancer; https://tucson.com/thisistucson/tucsonlife/sahuarita-celebrating-christmas-early-for–year-old-with-terminal/article_40c47d46-e85a-11e8-8127-13f2088d321d.html.
  3. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religions, pp, 38, 39.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., pp. 44, 45.
  6. Ibid., p. 47.
  7. Ibid., p. 49.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Http://www.spiritdaily.net/macnuttlourdes.htm.

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Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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