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Monday, June 05, 2006

God's Plan

No doubt one of the strongest arguments against the major religious faiths goes like this: If God is omnipotent, then why does He allow so much suffering? E.g. a bunch of people emailed me after my religious LRC articles and wanted to know why "your loving God allowed the Holocaust!"

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, but (as you may guess) there are many different issues involved and one could write books on it. Rather than do nothing, however, let me give a snapshot of my current view. Naturally this blog post won't convince an atheist, but it may resonate with believers who haven't known what to do with this challenge.

First, let's acknowledge that it is a problem. For Bible-believing Christians (or orthodox Jews), it's even worse. Not only does God allow humans to do evil things, He even (in the Old Testament) ordered the Israelites to slaughter infants. Whoa!

Nonetheless (for the believer), there has to be an explanation. For Christians, we know this quite easily: Jesus certainly felt that the Father was holy and moral, and Jesus certainly knew the scriptures and what had happened in the past.

Now here's where I simply hope that the reader has had experiences like mine: Have you ever thought a person's behavior was totally inexplicable, but then as you learned more of the situation, it became a lot more coherent? Indeed, have you ever thought back, say, to kids you knew in high school (or whenever) and hated at the time, but now you realize they were right and their scoffers (including you at the time) were dead wrong?

Or try this route: I don't care who you pick, be it Adolf Hitler, a serial killer, or George Bush (if that's your politics): If you watched a movie of this person's life, by the time he did the horrible things, you would totally understand and expect it. I.e. in the context of this person's experiences, his behavior would make perfect sense. It's not as if you'd be shocked at the serial killer's first murder, if you had seen a history of his life up till that moment. (Don't be thrown too much by the analogy; I'm not saying you would think these people did the right thing at the time, just that you'd totally understand why.)

Okay: When it comes to understanding the motives for God's actions, the relevant history is, all of time. So if you can see that humility should make you reserve judgment on people because you didn't know all the facts, can you possibly imagine what sorts of considerations God makes when deciding what to do??

Conclusion: If you are a Christian, when you die you will be in paradise. And one aspect of that is that you will fully comprehend--and totally agree that it was the most moral thing to do--why God ordered the Israelites to sack entire cities, why He didn't zap Hitler with a lightning bolt, etc. Granted, I have no idea how some things are going to make sense, but that's part of the excitement for the Christian: Some day it really will make perfect sense; you will realize that God created the best of all possible worlds.

15 comments:

  1. Joshua Ridinger9:39 PM

    If God is omnipotent, then whatever evil exists, exists because that's exactly how he wants it to be. He's omnipotent, he could make the universe act any way he pleases, to the smallest minutea; he is beholden to no laws, laws are beholden to him. If someone punches you in the face, it is because God wants him to, and if you don't like it, it's because God wants you to not like it, etc. So given an omnipotent God, we live in the best possible world, only in the sense that we live in that exact world that God prefers to every single other possibility (with absolutely everything being possible to him).

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  2. C.S. Lewis explored this in his little book The Problem of Pain. One of the angles that he takes is the purpose of pain, that we learn from pain and thus improve spiritually. Certain individuals have taken this notion a bit far (e.g. Origin castrating himself), but most reasonable people, I think, can see the point (e.g. If your hand is on the hot stove, it hurts like hell. That's how you know to take your hand off of the burner).

    Lewis also explores this, a bit, in his book Surprised by Joy--the story of his conversion from atheism to agnosticism, to Christianity. For the most part, his chief argument against Christianity was that if God was all-loving and all-powerful, then people shouldn't suffer. The Problem of Pain deals with this the best.

    If you haven't read any of Lewis's Christian works, don't start with The Problem of Pain. Start with Mere Christianity.

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  3. God is not subject to man's moral judgments and transcends morality.

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  4. Bob, your answer is no answer. You just have "faith" it will all make sense one day. That's the non-answer to everything.

    This is sort of like the commiunist telling us we need to have "faith" in his latest 5 year plan.

    Bob, as far as I can tell, when you die your existence ends. Sorry to crack that unpleasant news to you, bud.

    Of course, my atheism must also part of God's glorious plan. Praise Jesus!

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  5. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Voltaire ridiculed people who thought this was the "best of all possible worlds." And for good reason. Bob is actually saying that evil doesn't really exist. It's all an illusion. Suppose a person kills and tortures all your kids. You must cheer up! It's the best thing that could have happened. Send the murderer some flowers in jail while you are at it!

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  6. Anonymous2:16 PM

    Voltaire ridiculed people who thought this was the "best of all possible worlds." And for good reason. Bob is actually saying that evil doesn't really exist. It's all an illusion. Suppose a person kills and tortures all your kids. You must cheer up! It's the best thing that could have happened. Send the murderer some flowers in jail while you are at it!

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  7. Anonymous7:35 PM

    Professor Murphy,
    On the problem of evil, I would strongly recommend that you read "The Doors of the Sea" by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. The book grew out of an article Hart wrote for the WSJ (and expanded upon for First Things) which critiqued various theological responses to the tsunami. I know that both the WSJ article and the First Things one are available somewhere for free online.
    Cheers,
    Araglin

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  8. Bob is actually saying that evil doesn't really exist. It's all an illusion.

    Where did I say that again? My browser must be broken.

    Suppose a person kills and tortures all your kids. You must cheer up! It's the best thing that could have happened. Send the murderer some flowers in jail while you are at it!

    Over the years, as I've wrestled with this problem, do you really think that the problem of evil never occurred to me? Is your sarcastic response really nothing more than this? "Bob thinks he has solved the problem of evil, such as Adolf Hitler. But Bob has conveniently overlooked the possibility of a murderer."

    Let me try this approach. From your sarcasm, I'm guessing that you might possibly be a materialist (just as I used to be). If so, then you think the state of the universe in the next moment is at least related to the physical configuration at this moment. (Naturally depending on your views of quantum physics, there is more or less exact determinism involved.)

    Now, exactly how should God (if we pretend for the sake of argument that He exists) alter the present reality, such that no one can murder my family? Make sure that when you change physical laws, you don't e.g. prevent the chemical processes that allow us to breathe.

    (For onlookers, my point is that we can't just pick and choose tiny aspects of reality that we don't like. EVERYTHING all fits together. Yes, this is indeed the best of all possible worlds, but there are a lot of things that God had to consider of which you and I are ignorant. And yes, as I acknlowedged in the original blog post, this is not intended to convince atheists.)

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