16 Jan 2011

What If All the World Were a Stage…?

Religious 15 Comments

No doubt one of the most difficult questions a Christian must face is this: Why would a benevolent God allow all the horrible things that happen on a daily basis? Worse still, why would He order the ancient Israelites to do things that we would now classify as war crimes?!

I do not take this question lightly. When I was an atheist, I found the Old Testament repugnant. So in terms of my own personal faith right now, my reason is simple: Hands down, Jesus Christ has a more refined moral sense than I do, and He said the God of the Hebrews was perfect and in fact the only Being who was good.

But OK, let’s put aside my “blind faith” in the character and judgment (as well as the historical accuracy of the accounts) of Jesus. Intellectually speaking, does it makes sense that a loving God would do such things?

I think it does. To reiterate, I would never have predicted a benevolent, omniscient Being would act the way He (sometimes) does in the Old Testament. But then again–and I’m not trying to be cute here–it’s to be expected that am omniscient Being would surprise us, isn’t it?

So here goes. Given that Jesus is telling me the God of the Old Testament is perfect and good, I have thought long and hard about how that could be possible. And here are some of my thoughts:

1) No matter how you die, in a very real sense, God killed you. (Ricky Gervais has a funny bit on this in his latest HBO act, when he says the insurance companies are absurd for refusing payment in cases of “acts of God”–since if you’re a believer, every time your property is damaged, it’s an act of God.) So it’s a bit weird to call God a murderer for killing a pagan baby with a plague, or even through ordering Joshua’s soldiers to do it with a sword, if you have no problem with him killing a pagan baby through some “natural” cause.

This should go without saying, but let’s not take chances: IT DOES NOT FOLLOW that a theist can go around killing people. Because YOU AREN’T GOD. You are a murderer if you take someone’s life for kicks. That’s because you don’t control everyone’s destiny, and there is a very real sense in which you can stand back and let the person live out his life without your intervention. But that is impossible for God to do. No matter what happens, it is because He willed it.

2) No matter how awful or tolerable the “worst thing that ever happens to humans” is, we would necessarily consider it to be the epitome of monstrous–because, we could quite rightly say, “this is the worst thing that has happened in world history.” But that doesn’t mean God is a cruel Being, who maliciously designed a universe to torment us. If we grew up in a world of pink bunnies and lollipops, and God said, “You had better follow my commandments, or else you will get a paper cut the next time you unwrap a lollipop,” then we would sulk and think He was a tyrant.

(Seriously, I am not trying to belittle the awful things that happen in our lives. But my point is, we really have no other experience to compare. My 6-year-old tonight told me he wished he were an orphan, because I turned off the faucet before he was done washing his hands and was hurrying him to take a bath. And he was serious; he really was outraged at what I had done, because he’s not used to many constraints on his behavior.)

3) I think it is a very useful analogy to consider God as an author; history is thus His story. Consider that in the Book of Jeremiah–where God is at His “meanest”–He sometimes refers to the king of Babylon as “My servant,” meaning the guy who will come in and execute God’s judgment on the idolatrous Israelites. That’s a really strange thing for God to say. It sounds fine for him to call the prophets His servants, but the Babylonian king?!

But he’s God’s servant, the same way that the freaky clown is Stephen King’s servant in the novel It. King is telling a story, and to achieve his purposes he needs bad guys to do awful things to the other characters in his story.

The crazy thing is, God is so powerful that in His story, the characters achieve self-awareness, and also have free will.

15 Responses to “What If All the World Were a Stage…?”

  1. Doug says:

    God is not a central planner, and does not dictate what does and does not happen a la Bernanke. God is a Creator who lovingly dwells with and exercises patience with the human race. We are wildly off track from the original intent of our creation. In the beginning (literal or allegorical, take your pick), God left mankind with a choice. We all know that with that choice introduced the concept of evil. The world is a stage, of course, but that stage is a great drama between the forces of good and the forces of evil. And the human race is caught in the middle of the action. God has always worked to rescue humanity, and the Scriptures are the library that narrates this story.

    The catch is that the stories were written by men who followed God and wrote down what God wanted them to write down. But that doesn’t mean their perspectives were completely accurate. In the book of Job, Job was wrong about God’s character. His friends were wrong about God’s character. But simply because “it’s in the Bible” doesn’t mean that’s what God is like. Likewise, with some of the OT stories, perhaps their perspective was tainted by the fact that their cultural milieu was a violent one, and they viewed the Creator-god as a violent god, like other gods. But throughout the OT, there are glimpses and stories that reveal that this god with a seemingly violent streak is actually not quite what they though god to be after all.

    If God is the same forever and ever, there ought to be something in the Bible that reveals who God is. That person, I believe, is Jesus Christ. However we describe God can be revealed through Jesus and his actions in the gospels.

    Bob, I struggled greatly with these passages, but have come to see them as immature or incomplete in their understanding of who God is. The OT writers had a cultural background where violence was normal for a deity, and so their representation of their god didn’t need to be radically pacifist like Jesus seems to be. But through their experiences, God was revealed over time, culminating in the representation of Jesus.

    A few books about this topic:
    Brian McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christianity” has a couple chapters devoted to the violence in the NT
    Sharon Baker’s “Razing Hell”
    Greg Boyd has some videos that deal with this, and he has an upcoming book tentatively titled “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.” Google Greg Boyd and you’ll find resources.

    • knoxharrington says:

      If God left us with a choice, knowing that we would choose “incorrectly,” is that really a choice in any meaningful sense of the word? In realilty, that conception is not a choice at all – there was only one outcome and God picked it – right?

      Why is it that God is revealed through a person we all would seemingly like and not through his commandments and deeds in the OT, for example? Or better yet, through the destruction of his “son” who we all think is the cat’s pajamas? So much of what goes on in Christian circles in anthropomorphism or wish fulfillment that it boggles the mind. If we can know God through his Word – as many say – we cannot then cling to the idea that his Word does not at least reveal a great portion of who he is. People seem to invest the God of the Bible as being the fulfiller of their particular version of what is correct rather than taking the Word at face value. “God ordered the Israelites to destroy every man, woman, child and animal” – that doesn’t really mean what it says because we can’t know God’s purpose so we just have to throw up our hands and say he does it because he loves us. That explanation shouldn’t satisfy a 5 year old.

      If the Bible is not the means of knowing what God says, does, commands and is – then it is no better than Dianetics. If, however, it does reveal God to us then we can comment on it and be free of “mystery” (at least with regards to what is revealed).

      Why the necessity of God being revealed over time? Wouldn’t it have been better for everyone involved he just revealed himself so that those who had to suffer through the accretion of his presence didn’t have to suffer? Oh, that’s right, God loves us and we can’t understand his purpose. Whoa, do I feel better now.

      • Doug says:

        Knox, those are all really good questions. However, you make assumptions that I do not hold to be true. I don’t think it is necessarily true that God knew in advance what Adam and Eve would choose. Maybe God did, maybe not. I’m inclined to believe that it was truly free will, and God adapts to the things God doesn’t want us to do (if God is only omnipotent if God knows every little detail in the future, how exactly does that communicate “omnipotent”?!). I also don’t believe that there shouldn’t be mystery with respect to God’s nature.

        On the other hand your point about why God’s character is revealed over time is well-taken. I’ve honestly never thought of that before. But it is what we have in the Scriptures. And the Scriptures are primarily narrative stories of men who encountered God. What they wrote reflected their experiences.

        I don’t believe God is violent. That’s a tough position to take given the narratives in the OT, but theologians have wrestled with this for many centuries. It’s not an easy position, either way. I’m simply not content worshiping a deity who is violent, and those who defend it with the “we don’t understand God’s purposes” answers tend not to reflect on how that comes off to those who have been “killed by God’s dictates.”

        • knoxharrington says:

          If God didn’t intend for Adam and Eve to choose the tree of knowledge why put it in Eden in the first place? Free will implies that we possess the ability to act irrespective of prior circumstance and “choice.” I used to believe in free will but that was based on a misunderstanding of determinism. I cannot choose to eat at Delmonico’s in New York in two hours because my prior life experiences and “choices” find me in Dallas. In order for free will to make sense I must be able to act as if my prior choices don’t matter – unfortunately, they do. We are constrained by physical laws and by our past – not to a “predetermined” outcome but to an outcome proscribed by our prior choices.

          Is God omniscient or omnipotent? If he knows everything that will happen – omniscient – then he is powerless to change anything – no free will. If he is omnipotent then he is not all knowing. We can square this circle by throwing up our hands and saying he is both but we can’t explain how.

          If there were no mystery there would be no faith. I get this from a lot from people – “if you knew everything then faith wouldn’t be a requirement. Who are you to ask to know everything?” I made the point that we can know God – according to Christians through his Word – and that we are free to comment on the portion revealed to us. On that basis we see God as a genocidal, sadistic, jealous figure which demands impossible things from people and then punishes them for not living up to them – the God of the OT. Then, we get the God of the NT who offered his Son up to be murdered as a scapegoat for sins he helped create by planting the tree of knowledge in the garden. As the chuch lady would say “convenient.”

          I get that “believers” don’t want to believe that God is violent. If we go by the record, though, we must draw the conclusion that God is violent. Now, we can attempt to rationalize it, call it mystery when we are unable to do that or just live in denial but the reality is that when God orders genocide he orders one part of his creation to obliterate another – for the mere fact that they were not “chosen.” Does that sound like a God of justice, love or equanimity to you? It doesn’t to me – but maybe I need to be less Sherlock-like and just live with mystery.

          • Doug says:

            Knox, again I’ll question your assumptions. Your definition is that omniscience means God knows exhaustively all details past, present, and future. I don’t believe this claim. The future is nonexistent because it hasn’t happened. We talked about “the future” because it is a way of speaking about what could or will happen. But it hasn’t come yet, so it does not “exist” other than in our minds.

            Your definition of free will also presupposes that in order to be “free” all possible options could be chosen, whereas there are obvious mortal constraints on our ability to choose. The “freedom” in the Genesis narrative is about human beings exercising moral agency, not unlimited capacity.

            Further, you are presupposing that the Genesis narrative is historical nonfiction. I’m not sure I buy that claim (though for me the jury is still out), because what is very clear is that the Genesis narrative was written (many scholars believe Moses to be the primary author) to the Israelites as they were exiting Egypt and settled into their homeland. At the very least these narratives were intended to give their people a sense of origin and purpose as one people. These narratives were important in establishing themselves as God’s people.

            The “record” you claim—the Bible—is not a constitution where it was factually recorded. As I said before, those who wrote the OT were situated in a culture where what they penned was written in their own language and in their own time. They also understood what came from God in a certain way, and recorded it as such.

            To your final question, no, it does not sound like a God of justice. But then again, if justice is getting what we deserve, then perhaps that’s a manifestation of God’s justice.

            Only God knows.

        • bobmurphy says:

          Doug, I just want to point out that in your two responses, you are saying that God isn’t omniscient, and that we can’t be sure someone who ordered people to be slaughtered had a violent streak in him.

          I sympathize with Knox’s frustration.

          You’re saying God doesn’t know the future? Didn’t he know every hair on your head before you were conceived? Then how could He not have known Adam and Eve would sin?

          • Doug says:

            Bob, what I’m saying is that God is omniscient with respect to what can be known. I’m inclined to believe that the future is not “known” except within our own minds. There is no future because it has not arrived.

            If God knows for a fact that Adam and Eve would have sinned, then Adam and Eve actually didn’t have free will, and so could not genuinely have chosen otherwise.

            The question isn’t whether or not God is not all-knowing, but what is the nature of what God can and cannot know. This also relates to God’s omnipotence. If God knows for sure everything that will happen exhaustively, God is less omnipotent (in my book) than if God knows all future possibilities, but has not predetermined or pre-known what was to happen.

            This isn’t at attack on God’s omniscience, but on the nature of what can be known. Google “Open Theism” and/or “Greg Boyd” for a better and more cogent summary of this view.

          • Daniel Hewitt says:


            Existing outside of time means that God can see the past, present, and future as one entity. Confining God to one-dimensional linear time, I think, is falling into the trap Knox mentioned of assigning anthropomorphic qualities to God. The “Time and Time Beyond” chapter of Mere Christianity gives a good, short explanation. As C.S. Lewis put it, God lives in an “Eternal Now”.

            Picture it this way. We exist in 4-dimensional spacetime. We can “see” 3-dimensional space, yet we can only move along in time in a one-way, linear manner. We know we’re moving through time (travelling on a line) but we are not capable of perceiving it the way we can a spatial dimension. God “sees” the 4-dimensions as clearly as we can see 3-dimensions.

            Now, I will be sure to check out Open Theism and Greg Boyd. Or maybe I should have before posting 🙂

  2. Captain_Freedom says:

    >Seriously, I am not trying to belittle the awful things that happen in our lives. But my point is, we really have no other experience to compare.

    But you are in fact “comparing” various behaviors to something other than God’s will. None of us knows what God’s true intentions are. So when you allude to various “bad” things, from “the worst thing that ever happened to people” down to “paper cuts”, in both cases, and in every case in between, you are comparing these behaviors to an absolute standard that is not God related, namely, to the absolute standard of individual human well-being as HUMANS see it. YOU are saying that paper cuts are “bad” and YOU are saying that murder is “bad”.

    >This should go without saying, but let’s not take chances: IT DOES NOT FOLLOW that a theist can go around killing people. Because YOU AREN’T GOD. You are a murderer if you take someone’s life for kicks. That’s because you don’t control everyone’s destiny, and there is a very real sense in which you can stand back and let the person live out his life without your intervention. But that is impossible for God to do. No matter what happens, it is because He willed it.

    If it is claimed that man cannot murder because man is not God, and if it is claimed that NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, GOD WILLED IT, then at least one of these statements is wrong. They cannot co-exist, for they contradict each other. If God plans everything, then he plans for every murder. Under the claim that God plans everything, then if A murders B, then it is because God willed it. It is nonsensical to also claim that “it does not follow” that man can murder man. It does follow if God plans everything, because whatever happens, it was because of God’s plans. If Stephen King created the clown to kill people, then the clown does not have free will. If God created some men to kill other men, while others are created not to kill, then humans do not have free will.

    If A murders B because of A’s viciousness, or if A abstains from murdering B because of A’s accepted principle of non-violence, and if God plans everything, then whatever happens, was “supposed” to happen. It cannot be argued that man “cannot” do this or that, or “can” do this or that. Really, anything and everything can be done if one thinks God plans everything and one wants to live according to the philosophy of living according to God.

    Thus it must be the case that either God does not plan everything and man cannot murder each other according to their choice, or men can murder each other which is necessarily according to God’s plans.

    I agree with Doug. It must be the case that God is not an ever present central planner. Humans have free will, and that means what we humans do is up to our plans, not God’s plans. If God gave us free will, then we plan our own destinies.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Captain, I can’t give you a full answer now, but I don’t think you are coming to grips with God’s sovereignty. I am saying that when someone chooses to murder someone:

      A) It was his free will to do that.

      B) It is a sin.

      C) God knew he was going to do that from the beginning of time, and in fact constructed the very fabric of the universe–down to the charge on an electron–taking that truly free choice into account. In that sense, the murder is consistent with God’s will, even though it is also true to say God would have preferred that the guy didn’t murder anyone.

      • Captain_Freedom says:

        Thanks for your reply. It’s OK, I respect individual choice, so I appreciate you writing whatever/whenever you want. I am not one to think anything negative about that sort of thing.

        If I may respond some more, I guess my misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, has to do with your analysis of God’s preference.

        On Earth, in Austrian theory, do you accept that how an individual acts, without coercion of course, displays their preference at any given time? Since you and I are human, we can only think in terms of human logic, praxeology.

        If you state “God knew he was going to do that from the beginning of time, and in fact constructed the very fabric of the universe–down to the charge on an electron–taking that truly free choice into account. In that sense, the murder is consistent with God’s will”, then is it not the case that whatever happens is what God’s preference really is?

        At the end of C), you state “even though it is also true to say God would have preferred that the guy didn’t murder anyone”. Well, according to the principle of revealed preferences, is it not the case that God must have preferred to do what actually happens, and not what did not happen, i.e. what he did not do?

        In praxeology, what an individual does reveals their actual preferences. If we see Jones go into McDonalds on his own free will to buy a hamburger, then we cannot say that his “real” preference is to go to a basketball game. His preference *is* to go into McDonalds and eat a hamburger.

        Since I am only human, my mind can only think in terms of praxeology, and I also believe God exists, then if I observe A kill B, then it must be the case, in my mind, that God’s real preference is for B to be killed by A. I just don’t understand how God’s “real” preference can possibly be for A *not* to kill B, when that is actually what happened, and it is assumed that what God does is his real preference pattern.

        The only way out of this contradiction I am afraid is to ascribe to God either omnipotence *and* “evil”, and by “evil” I mean what most humans consider to be evil, theist or not, or it must be the case that God lacks omnipotence and thus the evil that does take place in the world is not what God was responsible for.

        You’re right that I probably am not coming to grips with God’s sovereignty, but then, if I can put this as humbly as I can, maybe you aren’t coming to grips with what it means for humans to have free will, and the implications this has for God’s power.

        If God is omnipotent and plans everything, then it is very strange to me to hear that what actually happens is not what he really preferred to happen, and at the same time intended it to happen.

        I suppose the reconciliation must be found in explaining why God would plan a universe that he does not actually prefer. My mind will never be able to reconcile this, because for me what I do, what you do, indeed what everyone else does on account of our free will, *is* what we prefer to do at that time/place.

  3. Mark Joslin says:

    Well, I sincerely hope you read this.. and if you’re interested, I did “A Course in Miracles VS The Bible” post on my blog that I think you should read: http://www.markjoslin.com/blog/archives/12

    At any rate, no, pain has come from ourselves and it is merely a symptom of the body:

    “Pain demonstrates the body must be real. It is a loud, obscuring voice, whose shrieks would silence what the Holy Spirit says, and keep His words from your awareness. Pain compels attention, drawing it away from Him, and focusing upon itself. Its purpose is the same as pleasure, for they both are means TO MAKE THE BODY REAL. ”

    Secondly, we are still with God but our minds do not see it. The Light in you is the Light in me, and that Light cannot go out because God willed it forever. Death has no meaning to God, and nor does it hold any meaning to your true self. We are merely experiencing that which is opposite of God — the insane thought that we are not with God thus creates projection thus creating this world or “hell”. Hell has an extremely negative connotation but if you will focus on the great deception of the devil, you would come to see that the devil is merely a symbol of ourselves. We search here in this maze for peace, do not find it, and continue to search elsewhere. Remember that everything we do is a means to make us happy, and clearly this world does not provide it.

    The reason you and I are in this dream and do not hear our Father is because God _is_ the universe, God _is_ the light, and what he created does not have any contradictions. There cannot be eternal life while there is death. There cannot be happiness while there is pain. What God wills exists, but he created You in the image of himself and so you too are God. You have the ability to create with him, but you are confused and in a dream.

    However, God wills that you return to him and thus the Holy Spirit comes into play. Do not regard Jesus as higher than yourself because he is not. He may be temporarily, but in reality, you are with him. Jesus chose to listen, and chose to align his mind back into holiness. His holy mind which loved everything and truly became whole was then realigned with God’s — and the contradiction ceased for him and he saw the Light. He came to know reality and came to know God and came to know eternal patience. He is with you now, but you must choose to listen. “God calls and you do not hear, for you are preoccupied with your own voice.”

    Do not treat your spiritual development as an intellectual hobby or as a puzzle to be found out. The only puzzle around us is the world in which we live in. It is a world full of our projections which are merely symbols. The Sun is the symbol of God which would blind the Ego’s eyes. The vagina is the symbol of Heaven, but its emptiness longs for company. The male and his penis are the symbol of the Son of God or us. So just as you cannot create with God, so you cannot create with just a penis. The immaculate conception is merely an allegory that God, as represented by Mary, created the Son of God in his image, as represented by Jesus. Whether or not this was real is irrelevant — it is a story with a symbol and meaning.

    You need to read A Course in Miracles or you need to choose to listen quietly.

    Finally, following on what Doug is saying, be weary of the Old Testament and some of the things implied. As “A Course in Miracles” tells (which is written by Jesus):

    There are some of the examples of upside-down thinking in the New Testament, althought its gospel is really only the message of love. If the Apostles had not felt guilty, they never could have quoted me saying, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” This is clearly the opposite of everything I taught. Nor could they have described my reactions to Judas as they did, if they had really understood me. I could not have said, “Betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?” unless I believed in betrayal. The whole message of the cruficixion was simply that I did not. The “punishment” I was said to have called forth upon Judas was a similar mistake. Judas was my brother and a Son of God, as much a part of the Sonship as myself. Was it likely that I would condemn him when I was ready to demonstrate that condemnation is impossible?

    As you read the Apostles, remember that I told them myself that there was much they would understand later, because they were not wholly ready to follow me at the time. I do not want you to allow any fear to enter into the thought system toward which I am guiding you. I do not call for martyrs but for teachers. No one is punished for sins, and the Sons of God are not sinners. Any concept of punishement involves the projection of blame, and reinforces the idea that blame is justified. The result is a lesson in blame, for all behavior teaches the beliefes that motivate it. The crucifixion was the result of clearly opposed thought systems; the perfect symbol of the “conflict” between the ego and the Son of God. This conflict seems just as real now, and its lesson must be learned now as well as then.””

    • RobertH says:

      Mark Joslin, I think everything you said was contra to God’s Word and full of what seems to be gnostic heresy and some pantheism.

      Jesus (Yeshua), the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, is infinitely higher than the ‘best’ human. There is sin and punishment. Jesus did believe in and taught about sacrifice (such as what he did on the Cross, hallelujah).

  4. RobertH says:

    Dr. Murphy, I really enjoyed your post although I do not agree with how you worded some things. With regard to that ‘evils’ perpetrated in the OT I think you would like Paul Copan’s work on this area. He recently came out with a book, “Is God a Moral Monster?”

    I think you would like, or be interested in, some of Dr. William Lane Craig’s work on “Molinism” also known as “Middle Knowledge”.

  5. Doug says:

    Re: Daniel (reply doesn’t work so many levels into the replies)…

    Where is the idea that God is “outside of time” in the Scriptures? Or is this just another anthropomorphic attribute given by human beings? Again, if there is no actual future other than in our brains, the only way for us to conceptualize a god who knows the future is to create god in a way that we can describe god knowing the future.

    If we do exist in 4 dimensions, and we can only see 3, how do you know there is a dimension we can’t see?