Why Do I Believe? Part 11 – It’s not all positive … Theodicy

This child has probably died by now.  When I took this picture, her mother had previously been taken to an Ebola treatment unit, and the child became ill some days later.  Taken in Masokory, Sierra Leone November, 2014.

This child has probably died by now. When I took this picture, her mother had previously been taken to an Ebola treatment unit, and the child became ill some days later.  Ebola is one of those things I don’t think respond well to most folks comfortable theories of a good God.  Taken in Masokory, Sierra Leone November, 2014.

The thing that irritates me about most apologists is that they’re so damn sure of themselves. Not all of them are as cocky as William Lane Craig (who, in my estimation, uses sophistry and intimidation to cover up sloppy thinking). However, even gentle ones like Josh McDowell or Ravi Zacharias seem, at least in the stuff I’ve read, to present a neat, airtight package devoid of uncertainty. Doubt, it appears, is unacceptable for an apologist … which is just one reason I don’t aspire to be one. As I said at the very beginning of this series, my intent is not to convince anyone else to adopt my position, but merely to explain (to myself if to no one else) why I’ve landed where I am.

So with the next couple posts I’m going to step back from my presentation of the positives, and look at a couple subjects that introduce honest doubt in my own mind.  I’ve already presented objections to a variety of people’s arguments for God, though I’ve done it from the point of view (which, to be honest, is my point of view) that God does exist and that Jesus accurately portrayed and modeled who God is.  But I do not for a moment think all the evidence I’ve seen points only one way.  It’s entirely possible I’m completely wrong.  No need to look surprised … I warned you this was coming!

But there are at least two major lines of argument against the existence of the God of the Bible, that in my opinion are extremely hard to refute.  They are actually two sides of the same coin, I think, and they come down to one very simple question:  If God indeed exists, where the heck has he been?

It’s not a new question, and though atheists often ask a form of it, they aren’t the only ones.  In the very Bible I read, plenty of people have asked it, including Job (Job 23:8-9), David the Psalmist (Psalm 13:1-2), and Jesus himself (Matt. 27:46).  There’s an important variation of it in Job 21:7 and Jeremiah 12:1, and that is the issue of why people continue to get away with such awful stuff without God stopping them.  This issue, what theologians and apologists call “Theodicy,” is the question of how one reconciles the belief in a good God with the obvious existence of evil.  I heard the Christian-pastor-turned-atheist Bart Ehrman put the question as emotionally as any, when he asked how God could have tolerated the screams of live children being thrown into the ovens of Auschwitz without intervening.  I have no answer, and I’m unsatisfied by the answers others offer.  I’m strongly convinced of the idea that freedom to do evil is necessary for the choice to do good to have meaning … but that philosophical point would not be compromised in the slightest, I don’t think, if when people hit certain thresholds of evil, God would just shut them down.  I cannot see how the collateral damage is necessary for human accountability.

I’m even more mystified by the amount of evil that gets done, affirmatively in God’s name, without him stepping in to do a little reputation control.  Hitler and Pol Pot never claimed God’s blessing, but what about when the inquisitors tortured and burned people explicitly in Jesus’ name?  What about when the crusaders, in Jesus’ name, slaughtered Muslims and even ate some of the dead (First Crusade … siege of Ma’arra), or decimated fellow Christians (Fourth Crusade … Constantinople)?  What about today, when people naming Jesus’ name spew hatred and venom toward others, whether it’s Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists, or the unapologetic screeds against Muslims recently making the rounds of Christian publications in which a supposed Christian (this link is for reference only – NOT endorsed) counseled the faithful to “First trust in God, then obtain a gun(s), learn to shoot, teach your kids the Christian doctrines of just war and self defense, create small cells of family and friends that you can rely on if some thing catastrophic happens and civil society suddenly melts down.”

There is general agreement among those few who’ve ever stopped to consider the possibility, that the fact I am not God is categorically a good thing.  But if I were, with all my commitment to human freedom and accountability, I wouldn’t tolerate this level of evil done in my name. There are ways, even for us mortals, to declare enough to be enough and put a stop to abuse. We tend to make a mess when we try, but surely an all-wise, all powerful deity could shut down a genocide without seriously compromising human freedom, even as we open theists see it.  There’s a brand to protect here, and it’s not being protected.  Maybe nobody’s there to care?

The traditional Calvinist response is that God has a greater purpose in all things, and while they deny that God is the author of evil, they say God gains greater glory from demonstrating his justice in punishing evil. So in a convoluted way they claim that it’s God’s will for evil to exist so he can either redeem it or punish it, thereby maximizing his glory. I think that notion is reprehensible in that it ultimately makes God complicit in the evil done, and further that holding anyone culpable for actions they couldn’t NOT have done (it being God’s decree and all) is the very epitome of INjustice.

Of course, nobody who’s ever read my writing to date is going to be surprised in the least to learn that I find a Calvinist perspective unsatisfactory. But I find Arminian and Open View explanations even more wanting in this regard (though they answer other questions with better success in my view). Ultimately–and this is my point–I have yet to encounter a theist answer to God’s apparent toleration of the most reprehensible of human actions, that I find convincing.

It gets no better when I consider natural evil, by which I mean natural events that create vast human suffering. Events such as the 2004 Banda Aceh tsunami that wiped out over a hundred thousands lives, or any of the many earthquakes and hurricanes that have caused vast destruction in recent years, or the Ebola virus I just personally witnessed killing innocent people in Sierra Leone, aren’t as easily dismissed as human-caused disasters. While there is a plausible argument that free agents cannot truly obey their creator unless they have the option to hate, no such argument holds for non-sentient matter. I have heard some propose that only in the face of disaster does the noblest of human character show, and to some extent that is true, but as above I do not think the human collateral damage is necessary even for other humans to attain greatness. The suffering seems gratuitous to me. And like it or not, I find the possibility that nature is just random and cruel, governed by no good being (or maybe no being at all) the least-disgusting explanation for such suffering.

I’m not going to present an answer to this objection. I have not seen an answer that passes my own smell test. When atheists, agnostics, and seekers object to the apologist that the theistic explanations on offer don’t cut it, my vote is with the skeptics, not the apologists.

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