God and the Dropped Chalk
Have you heard the story about the atheist college professor who, while holding a piece of chalk, says to his class that if there is a God he will prevent the chalk from breaking when he drops it? This is a common story told by Christian preachers to prove God’s existence. The story has also been passed around on the internet for many years. In case you haven’t heard the story, let me tell it and then I want to offer some important reflection. This is a copy from the most popular version of this story on the internet:
This is a true story of something that happened just a few years ago at USC. There was a professor of philosophy there who was a deeply committed atheist. His primary goal for one required class was to spend the entire semester attempting to prove that God couldn't exist.
His students were always afraid to argue with him because of his impeccable logic. For twenty years, he had taught this class and no one had ever had the courage to go against him. Sure, some had argued in class at times, but no one had ever really gone against him because of his reputation. At the end of every semester on the last day, he would say to his class of 300 students, "If there is anyone here who still believes in Jesus, stand up!"
In twenty years, no one had ever stood up. They knew what he was going to do next. He would say, "Because anyone who believes in God is a fool.
If God existed, he could stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking. Such a simple task to prove that He is God, and yet He can't do it."
And every year, he would drop the chalk onto the tile floor of the classroom and it would shatter into a hundred pieces. All of the students would do nothing but stop and stare. Most of the students thought that God couldn't exist. Certainly, a number of Christians had slipped through, but for 20 years, they had been too afraid to stand up.
Well, a few years ago there was a freshman who happened to enroll. He was a Christian, and had heard the stories about his professor. He was required to take the class for his major, and he was afraid. But for three months that semester, he prayed every morning that he would have the courage to stand up no matter what the professor said, or what the class thought.
Nothing they said could ever shatter his faith...he hoped. Finally, the day came. The professor said, "If there is anyone here who still believes in God, stand up!" The professor and the class of 300 people looked at him, shocked, as he stood up at the back of the room.
The professor shouted, "You FOOL!!! If God existed, he would keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!"
He proceeded to drop the chalk, but as he did, it slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleat of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe. As it hit the ground, it simply rolled away unbroken. The professor's jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk. He looked up at the young man, and then ran out of the lecture hall.
The young man who had stood, proceeded to walk to the front of the room and shared his faith in Jesus for the next half hour. 300 students stayed and listened as he told of God's love for them and of His power through Jesus.
Before offering critique of this story, let me start by saying that obviously as a Christian I do believe something such as this could happen, that is, I think God could frustrate the plans of a man to break a piece of chalk by causing it to roll down his pant leg and land softly on the ground. Added, I want to emphasize that I see nothing impossible or illogical about such an event. I believe God answers prayer and has the power impose on natural laws like gravity and has control over everything like a falling piece of chalk. The science or metaphysics of the story is not what troubles me, rather, it is the historicity and apologetic persuasiveness that gives me concern.
As far as historicity is concerned, this story may have never happened. The story has been reported on both snopes and urban legends as unreliable at best. Mind you, I don’t think that snopes or urban legends are the mother of all reporting or some sort of an infallible news source. Nevertheless, their investigative work gives me enough reasons for concern in retelling or sharing such a story as a factual event in history. We have no verifiable witnesses of the events, so it is hard to substantiate. But let’s say that the professor came forwarded and several students verified the event giving us good reason to believe its historicity, then what? Well, I would still be hesitant in retelling the story because it seems to lack apologetic persuasiveness particularly to the sort of pseudo-intellectual hyper-skeptics I deal with in sharing the faith.
On the apologetic front this argument is rather easy to dismiss
(see for example http://www.devney.com/PDFs/ChalkAnalysis_Devney.pdf ), as are most arguments based on unsubstantiated stories. Overall, it seems to me the story proves nothing. Even if true, the story does not prove God did it, because the skeptic could easily write it off as a coincidence. If you drop chalk long enough, odds are one will eventually hit a pant leg, so that does not prove in a concrete manner that God actually exists. And let’s be clear, the story proves nothing for the believer as well as the non believer. I need to be clear in saying that because I have heard non-Christians invoke this story and then shoot it down as historically unreliable and then jump to the unwarranted conclusion that God is not real. When non-Christians use this story in such a manner, they also have to realize that it proves nothing. A Christian professor could just as easily drop chalk every semester and conclude "this proves God made laws like gravity." My sentiment is that chalk breaking on the floor or not breaking on the floor under the circumstances given in the story prove little to nothing for hard hearted skeptics.
Underneath this story and the skepticism toward is an overarching cultural concern for me as I consider the worldview of many today, that is, the presupposition that laws of nature somehow undermine God. Many atheists believe the regularity of laws in the cosmos constitute evidence against God's existence. This is simply not true. It logically does not follow. This is a mere presupposition without warrant. If anything, it stands to reason that the opposite would be true, that is, if there is no God there would be much less regularity, as everything would be without design and intention.
An added concern for me is the notion that if God does not respond to our whims (in this case by preventing a professor from dropping chalk), He must not be real. The only thing such scenarios prove is that God does not oblige Himself to respond to human performance demands. Unlike the pagan gods, the God of the Bible cannot be coerced or conjured up by human manipulation.
In all of this, the story serves to remind me that God is gracious to humans. He is gracious to the weak arguments of atheists. If there were such a professor offering such a weak argument each semester, I would say it is evidence that God exists and He is merciful. Every time the chalk drops, I would conclude "isn't God merciful" NOT "you see, there is no God." It is rather presumptuous that God has nothing better to do than to rescue chalk from breaking in some professor's classroom who mocks him.
In addition to this reminder, I am reminded that, at the end of the day, arguments have no saving power apart from the gospel itself. Romans 1:16 says “the gospel… is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Apart from the grace of God in Christ we are dead in our sin (Eph.2:1). Dead people do not hear arguments – they’re dead, so they don’t hear anything. Stories like the dropping chalk story not only fall on deaf ears as we say colloquially, but more accurately they fall on dead ears. The gospel gives life to the dead so they do hear. In Romans 4:17 we are told that God “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” In the gospel God calls sinners and makes them righteous sons.
The best part of the story for me is thinking about the last line, “300 students stayed and listened as he told of God's love for them and of His power through Jesus.” If we are not careful, we might think that the most miraculous part of the story (if we assume it is true) is God manipulating a piece of chalk mid-air. Even if that did happen, it would not be the greatest miracle of the story. Friends, the greatest miracle of the story is that dead sinners would listen to the student speak about God’s love and power in Christ Jesus. So let us always keep the gospel central in our apologetics and our lives, knowing that stories and human persuasion are powerless to change hearts. They are impotent to save the dead. Only Christ can save the dead and give new life. This is not to say that there is not a place for testimonies of God’s power in human history. It is only to say that all stories are subservient to the great historical story of God’s sovereign hand over fallen humanity to redeem His chosen in the incarnation of His Son, who perfectly obeyed the Father, sacrificially died as our substitute and rose from the dead paying our penalty and breaking the power of sin. And this story is continuing as we wait for our Savior to return and establish His Kingdom of perfect peace and righteousness. On that day, we will know if such a professor existed because every knee will bow to the King and justice will be dolled out upon those who mocked Him. And let us remember that we would be counted among the condemned mockers if it were not for the grace of God. So we move forward humbly acknowledging our mission to share the gospel and we will do so by the power of the great story, the gospel of Jesus.