21 Dec 2014

Second-Guessing God

Religious 22 Comments

I’ve made this point in various ways before: We obviously do not know exactly why God allows certain evil acts to occur, but the answer is certainly NOT going to be, “Oh, you care more about sick children than God does,” or, “God wasn’t paying close enough attention when the Holocaust happened.”

Let me try to crystallize the impudence and ignorance of such second-guessing by picking a very specific act of evil where we do know the full story. Imagine someone confronting God in the following manner:

I really question your motives. If you’re supposed to be omnipotent, then why did you let this totally innocent man–he was a carpenter from Nazareth–get brutally tortured and then murdered? This one wasn’t even close. The guy did nothing but go around teaching people and helping them recover from illnesses. But because he spoke truth to power, the authorities had him killed. How you can sit back and let that happen just proves you have a sick sense of justice. Christopher Hitchens was right.

Now if you don’t believe anything like the God of the Christian Bible exists, fair enough, this post may strike you as irrelevant. But many atheists (including Hitchens) go further than that, and argue that even on its own terms, Christianity is monstrous. There are famous arguments contrasting God’s omnipotence with His benevolence.

So in response to those types of immanent critiques, I offer the above thought experiment. The Christian is able to reply very specifically on this, the worst of all injustices in human history. The answer is much more than simply saying, “Well God wanted free will” or “Adam and Eve brought sin into the world.”

No, on this particular act of evil, God could say, “Of course this was a horrible act. My understanding and moral code are infinitely more developed than yours. But given the structure of the universe–which I designed for quite specific reasons–this was a necessary event in order to save humanity from itself.”

To repeat, if you want to throw out the whole gospel as a string of tall tales, OK. But on its own terms, Christianity has a very good answer for why God allowed the worst act of evil ever. I am confident that He has good reasons for every other act of evil as well.

22 Responses to “Second-Guessing God”

  1. Joseph Fetz says:

    Strangely, the only time I’d ever heard Hitchens name was on your blog …

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      And from you, no less. Is he some sort of serious theological thinker?

      • Enopoletus Harding says:

        No. Former Trotskyist, converted to neocon c. 2001. Unusually, only half-Jewish. One of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism (Jerry Coyne appears to have taken his place). Wrote a book condemning Mother Theresa and one called God is Not Great. Drank and smoked much and died of cancer. “Lost” a debate with William Lane Craig.

        • Major.Freedom says:

          Enopoletus, could you write what goes on my tombstone?

        • Grane Peer says:

          I have long held that he was the John Daly of journalism. Despite some disagreements I found him to be a mostly entertaining character and I held him in a fair amount of regard as something of a modern day Mencken. That said by the end of a debate with David Berlinsky I was so utterly unimpressed that I haven’t given him much thought since.

  2. Major.Freedom says:

    “Of course this was a horrible act. My understanding and moral code are infinitely more developed than yours. But given the structure of the universe–which I designed for quite specific reasons–this was a necessary event in order to save humanity from itself.”

    If God’s understanding is infinitely more developed than yours, then from what basis do you presume to understand that what has happened in the world was done “in order to save humanity from itself”? That takes an understanding on par with God’s, and you’re not God.

    If God’s understanding really was infinitely more developed than yours, then at most all you could say is “I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER.” And yes it would be better in all caps.

    I think what you are doing, likely inadvertantly, is claiming to have an infinitely developed understanding of the universe due to you believing in Christianity. It is an excuse for a non-infinite mind to claim knowledge of infinite concepts, and then smashing down and dismissing all non-Christian ideas about the universe as arrogance and presumptions in knowing infinitely complex ideas.

    It makes no sense to even hint that you have any understanding of a mind infinitely more developed than yours, unless you presume your mind is itself already infinitely developed. You couldn’t even say your mind is close to or sufficiently close to an infinitely developed mind in order to understand it, because ANY less than infinitely developed mind, is as distant from an infinitely developed mind as any other less than infinitely developed mind.

    If someone asked me why does God allow evil to take place in the world, then I would say I don’t know what you mean by God, and keep asking what his answers mean, until he learns he doesn’t even know what he’s talking about either. I wouldn’t shine him on and pretend to know what he is talking about and give him an answer that any Hegelian or historicist in general could give, where deep down what they ultimately fall back on is “Well, it actually happened so it must be rational.”

    • Major.Freedom says:

      I will confidently assert, and I will accept the consequences of me acting on this belief, that torturing an innocent person to death is NOT in any way shape or form necessary for me to “save myself.”

      Humanity did not torture Jesus to death. A few psychopathic statesmen did. Most of the world didn’t even know who Jesus was at the time of his murder.

      Trust your reason. Trust that those psychopaths who tortured and killed Jesus did not do so out of some perfect, rational cosmic plan that is “beyond our comprehension”. Their choices were bad. Individuals can and do make choices that are bad from the standard of reason. Please do not excuse evil simply because it takes place. That is a “I give up” attitude.

      Don’t give up. That phrase. “Don’t give up.” Look at it closely. What is it really saying? It is saying don’t offer something in the upwards direction. Upwards being metaphorical as denoting authority. It means don’t offer anything to those who seek authority over you.

      Don’t offer anything for the sake of an idea of authority either. The statesmen who murdered Jesus did so because they wanted to offer a sacrifice to their idea of authority, which is a God unlike the one Jesus preached.

      It wasn’t God that killed Jesus. It was BELIEF in God that killed him.

      If anyone tells me that Stalin’s or Hitler’s actions were a “necessary” activity, that what they did is a part of some benevolent, super sophisticated mind’s “plan” for me, I’d know they have ideas not conducive to the betterment of my life, or anyone else who values the self-imposed “prison” of peace, prosperity, and happiness.

      They would excuse my being tortured to death as a part of a benevolent plan they are privy to but I just don’t understand as I am destracted in my wails of pain and suffering. Shhhh, don’t think of what is happening to you as bad, it is good. God has a plan for you, and the plan for you is to feel pains of torture. Accept it.

      The story of Jesus being tortured to death is a metaphor describing the world of humanity vis a vis the spiritual world. By accepting Jesus’ torture to death as part of a benevolent plan, you end up having a moment of catharsis, and the hope is that you will begin to view human life, no matter what happens, as good despite the pain we experience on Earth. The empirical world of mortality and suffeting is explained. You begin to feel a wave of relief washing over you as internal antagonisms seem to disappear. No longer does evil in the world worry you. You are now a child of God, and Jesus has saved you. Jesus has saved you because you have accepted his torture to death as a necessary part of a benevolent plan. By now having a belief is that benevolent plan, nobody can scare you. Nobody can hurt you, in the spiritual sense. They make your body hurt, but you are now more than your body. You have discovered your soul. Your soul is with Jesus. He showed you that not even being tortured to death will shake your feeling of self-empowerment and belonging in the world of mankind.

      SWAT teams can burglarize and shake down innocent people, CIA agents can torture innocent people to death, evil can take place all around you, but don’t fear it, it is all part of a benevolent plan.

      What distinguishes me from my former Christian colleagues, what made me become atheist, is that I could never accept the call on me to apologize for evil in the world. To feel like no matter how insane and totalitarian society becomes, to always consider it as part of a benevolent plan. It just doesn’t sit well with my activist epistemology. I didn’t even do when I was told that should utilize my activism and try to convince others to become Christian, so that evil will be reduced. That made no sense to me, and continues to make no sense to me. If evil is a part of God’s plan, then fighting it would seem to go against what I was previously told is a part of God’s plan.

      Either I am to fight evil because evil is not supposed to occur, or I am not to fight against evil because doing so would upset some cosmic plan which does not include fighting evil.

      Don’t tell me to fight against evil, and then tell me evil is a part of a benevolent plan above my comprehension.

      • Ivan says:

        “Don’t second guessing God”…

        and then the author spends the entire post second-guessing God.

    • Lee Waaks says:

      Christians, possible due to anxiety, indulge in wishful thinking, so I doubt they truly believe anyway. But I agree that with MF (as I posted below) that their arrogance knows no bounds if they assert they know God’s mind. Although their arguments might be a comfort to some Christians who have suffered tragedies, for unbelievers who have also suffered terrible tragedies, hearing Christians speculate why, e.g. the death of a loved one fits into a “higher” plan is very annoying, especially when one considers the selfishness behind such arguments (anxiety relief).

  3. Grane Peer says:

    The sense of right and wrong seems to be a distinctly human trait. God could have seen fit to make humans incapable of this and the question of evil would never arise. Would this make life meaningful? God could have created life to be incapable of evil, either by removing free will or removing the essence of life from life itself (unchanging). What is joy without agony, what is love without hate, what is good without evil? If the atheist does not believe god exists then question God for allowing evil in the world, what sense does this make? I believe Hitchens used to say There are evil men in the world but it takes religion to make a good man do evil or something to that effect. Well, I’m sorry to say there are any number of wrong beliefs that have lead to that outcome, belief in a supernatural deity is hardly a requirement. The horrors of the last 2000 years are easily set at the foot of religion but what kind of ignoramus would believe there would have been relative paradise without? The religious are not wrong to try to understand the mind of God but the claims to actually know it are futile and at least a little perverse. To admit the cosmos is subject to the divine logos and claim knowledge when it can only be had through the limited lens of human experience is like looking to an infant for wisdom.

  4. Yosef says:

    God could say, “Of course this was a horrible act. My understanding and moral code are infinitely more developed than yours. But given the structure of the universe–which I designed for quite specific reasons–this was a necessary event in order to save humanity from itself.”

    And then you would say “But, given your omnipotence, couldn’t you design a universe whose structure could achieve the same specific reasons without this event being necessary to save humanity itself?”

    • Tel says:

      If God is granted the omnipotence to rule over and above logic itself, then none of this is a problem anymore.

      • Major.Freedom says:

        If logic is rejected, we could not even say it is no longer a problem, for that statement requires logic to even have meaning.

        • Tel says:

          Is there anything that can’t be fixed by faith then?

          • Major.Freedom says:

            Depends on how you define “fix”.

            If you mean ideas that can help you turn a negative, sad, empty, helpless, alienated feeling into a positive, happy, full, empowered, belonging feeling, then speculative faith can and has “fixed” that problem for many people.

            But it isn’t the best fix for everyone. For many, myself included, philosophical speculation that transcends theistic/religious constraints does the best job. I know this because I feel empty and unfulfilled every time I read any theistic literature nowadays. Too many bland mantras, disconnected and contradictory passages, sterile metaphors, horrific violence presented as holy deeds I must accept as a duty, and are mostly devoid of philosophical innovations considering how old most of the texts are.

            I view religion as a first attempt at formal philosophy, as a first attempt to explain human self-awakening. It was perhaps a little interesting the first time I read most of the world’s major religious texts, but at some point, it got old for me. I moved on.

            For me the grand mystery is introspection, and how I am loving someone else so much and vice versa. It is not trying to find Mind behind every rock and snail darter. The seemingly random new ideas and thoughts that occasionally arise, and how they fit in with older ideas, both from myself and from others, is where I find intellectual and emotional fulfillment.

            This all requires respecting my property rights. I can’t think optimally when there are guns pointed at me for sitting and thinking, instead of obeying some moron’s orders for my person or property because of their philosophical corruption.

      • Yosef says:

        Tel, if God is omnipotent over and above logic, was is He attempting to provide a logical argument as to why such a horrible act occurred? If he is over and above logic itself, then His response to all questions would be “Nah, you wouldn’t understand” and it would be quite literally true.

  5. Tyler says:

    Dr. Murphy,

    I was very interested in this post bevause you’re hitting on what I have always struggled with the most about Christianity. I’m not seeing how your hypothetical response from God actually clears up the problem of simultaneous benevolence and omnipotence. Why would an omnipotent God not just design a universe in which no evil was necessary?

    • Innocent says:

      Tyler, this is going to sound slightly strange but the issue with suffering and why it exists is an interesting one. First lets delve into a hypothetical situation. What if there was no suffering?

      First I would suggest that suffering and choice go hand in hand. I suffer due to the choices of others, other suffer because of my choices. If you remove suffering you must by default remove free will. But it would seem that God had free will as an essential human characteristic. We are not forced to believe in Him, goodness, we can actively act against His will if we wish. So what is God actually attempting to do?

      • Tyler says:

        That actually does make some sense. I’ll have to think on that for a while. Thanks for the reply.

  6. Mike M says:


    Check out “Why Suffering?” by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale

  7. Lee Waaks says:

    “Let me try to crystallize the impudence and ignorance of such second-guessing by picking a very specific act of evil where we do know the full story…”

    I think it is a bit impudent to try argue one knows how God thinks/acts (assuming he exists/thinks/acts) in order to square your moral views with the ones that are allegedly derived from him.

  8. knoxharrington says:

    When I read this I couldn’t help but think of this clip from The Big Chill:


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