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British philosopher of religion Antony Flew (1923-2010), writing as an atheist in 1955, expanded upon a parable designed to show that there is no difference between (God as) an “invisible gardener” and there being “no gardener at all.”

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds.

One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.”

The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.”

So they pitch their tents and set a watch.

No gardener is ever seen.

“But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.”

So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.)

But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.

Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.”

At last the Skeptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?”

John Frame counters with a parable of his own:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle.

A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches. The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener. One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries.

The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick.”

They pitch camp. Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot. Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms.

“He’s only doing it because we’re here--to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.”

The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status.

Then the skeptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us. There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials. It’s still a hoax!”

Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

--John M. Frame, “God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence,” God’s Inerrant Word, ed. J. W. Montgomery (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), p. 171.

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One thought on “The Invisible vs. the Constant Gardener: Parables for and Against Atheism”

  1. Having been an atheist before my conversion, it is easy to understand how people can set up such requirements in order to determine whether there is a God or not. Interestingly enough, a Professor of Religion in a nearby State University left the Christian Faith over suffering; the same point at which I left atheism. I asked, “How could there be a God and let little children suffer?” When Jesus came knocking at my heart’s door in 1957, that issue never entered my mind. Years later, after a terrible tragedy inmy family, I dreamed that i was standing with my wife in a semicircle around the Lord (He looked like a picture I had seen of Jesus standing as a young person in the midst of the scholars in the Temple). We were telling him about the tragedies, and he ws telling us about how He saw them and we were laughing. It was a happy, healthy laughter, like we had heard the only answer that could explain such griefs. What He said, however, I do not know. At that moment, I thought, “This is the Lord. What am I doing standing here talking to him?” I dove at His feet and woke up.

    Actually, I had written an answer to the issue and had delivered at the funeral of my mother and three other members of my family. I found the answer in Christ and His crucifixion. If God appointed and used that the worst of all events and tradgedies that ever happened, then it follows that He will have provided for Christ’ sacrifice to redeem out tragedies.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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