Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Evil Nature of God

What’s the argument inside the argument?
Over at the Friendly Atheist, Michael Runyan, a former Catholic and retired risk analyst lists 40 problems he sees with Christianity, one of which he calls the “evil nature of God”.*

After doing a little Old Testament math with rather broad strokes, he says this:

“The case can be made that God killed or authorized the killings of up to 25,000,000 people. This is the God that Jesus looked up to and of whom he was allegedly an integral part. That is to say: Jesus himself was an accessory to these massacres. Therefore, Christianity cannot extract itself from these atrocities; it must own them and admit that their God is in fact a serial, genocidal, infanticidal, filicidal, and pestilential murderer.”

Hmm. Let’s think about that a little.

The Argument Inside the Argument

One has to be clear that when such accusations are leveled, what the atheist is actually arguing is not at all what he claims to be arguing.

To call God nasty names over thousands of slaughtered Canaanites is a bit disingenuous when many atheists don’t believe the Canaanites were actually slaughtered in the first place; after all, atheists regularly contest Bible history and any archaeological discoveries that play havoc with their preferred historical narrative. Alternatively, if the Canaanite massacres can be proven to have really occurred, atheists happily affirm the slaughter was an unspeakable horror perpetrated in the name of a God that they say doesn’t really exist.

So the concern over 25,000,000 maybe-dead maybe-people in what the atheist contends is a pseudo-history is not the issue. The atheist doesn’t give a hoot about dead Canaanites or any other dead ancients. What he wants to demonstrate is that your God fails to abide by some external standard the atheist would like to see imposed on him, whether that be natural law, common sense or simply the atheist’s own personal preference.

But of course a “bad” God is no more and no less likely than a “good” God. What the atheist hopes is that by showing your concept of God to be self-contradictory, immoral or ridiculous, he will influence you to throw up your hands and abandon the notion of God altogether.

One wonders what exactly that gains him, but that’s another story.

The critics of the Old Testament have an unfortunate tendency to engage believers over the fine details of scripture while adamantly refusing to accept its fundamental premises, specifically the existence of the God therein described and the essential veracity of the biblical accounts. If one does not concede the fundamental assumptions of the faith, why bother haggling about the minutiae? The atheist inability to see the big picture appears ludicrous to anyone who takes for granted the premises the atheist rejects.

In this instance I wish I could to ask, Do you actually hear what you’re saying? You’re arguing with a person who believes in a God who spoke the universe into being about the right of that God to stand in judgment on his own creation …

So granted our assumption that God exists at all, does he have the right to judge? Of course he does.

God Affirms That Right

As far as the scripture is concerned, God’s right to judge his creation is always and ever taken to be self-evident. Old and New Testaments are united on that subject:

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
    a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
    or ‘Your work has no handles’?”
Isaiah again:
“You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?”
And Paul, riffing on Isaiah:
“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
The scripture has a single testimony on the subject: God can do what he likes with us. Moreover, the writers of scripture assert this truth as if merely pointing it out settles the issue once and for all. The notion that man might stand in judgment on God is a modern one, apparently.

A Matter of Semantics

But let’s move into Runyan’s frame a bit. It would be interesting to hear Runyan’s views on human justice, but unfortunately he doesn’t spell them out here.

Specifically, does he agree that under certain circumstances men have the right to stand in judgment over other men? Does he believe war is ever legitimate? Does he use the court system? Has he ever sued anyone? How does he feel about crime and punishment? Does he tell his children how they ought to behave?

I’m letting Runyan frame the debate here: what are his real standards, I wonder?

Perhaps Runyan is an anarchist, but since he spent his career working to further the interests of the U.S. government, that would seem unlikely. I think we may take it as read that he accepts in principle the necessity of some form of social order that entails severe consequences for those who injure others and damage society. I’m quite sure he’s all for authority when it protects him and his family from harm.

But in the end, whether Mr. Runyan personally acknowledges a distinction between “kill” and “murder” (or between the justified and unjustified taking of human life) is immaterial: the fact is that most people throughout history and most of our world today DO make this distinction.

And if we concede that men are morally entitled to stand in judgment over the conduct of other men, then indisputably their Creator may stand in judgment on anyone he pleases.

Thus one can only accuse God of “murder” (and the Lord Jesus by association) if one can demonstrate: (i) that God lacked the right to set a standard of behavior for those who died in the Genesis flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, Israel in the wilderness, the Canaanites, the Moabites and so on; (ii) that God lacked the right to set an appropriate penalty for their conduct; and (iii) that God lacked the right to carry out judgment on those he determined to have failed to meet his standard, either personally or by proxy.

To come at it another way, one can only call God “evil” if one can demonstrate that there is (a) a legitimate source of authority in the universe higher than that of God, or (b) that God has himself acted inconsistently with his own character.

The Sustainer of the Universe

Runyan has a further problem here if he intends to debate Christians on their own turf and attack the integrity of God himself, because scripture affirms that God is not merely the creator of our universe but its sustainer as well. The Son, it is said, “upholds the universe by the word of his power”. In other words, God has not merely created people and allowed them to go off independently, acting on their own free will, and doing things that hurt other people. The fact is, each and every one of those who endanger the integrity of human society and hurt others around them only continues to draw breath from moment to moment by virtue of the fact that Jesus Christ suspends his judgment and allows them to do so.

This is not the way we tend to think of ourselves at all, and requires some more “reframing”, if you like. Most of us recognize we are not completely in control of all that occurs during our lives, but few of us recognize the absolute extent of our moment-to-moment dependence on God’s sustaining power. We are not the independent actors we think we are. Those who scream their blasphemies in the face of God can only do it with the life-energy he continues to give them. Those who write accusations of serial murder against him do it in the strength he provides.

Is God obligated in any way to indefinitely sustain those who set themselves up in opposition to him? Of course not. You be the judge: as a father with two sons, would you allow one child to beat the other to death in the interest of maintaining your objectivity? Probably not. But you do not have the ability to sort it all out after the fact. You do not have the luxury of allowing events to take their course because you cannot rewrite the ending of the story if it doesn’t please you. You’d preempt it, because once Cain has killed Abel, you can’t bring him back.

But God can. Should he be held to our standards?

The very idea is preposterous.

* Idea courtesy the Stand to Reason blog. Thanks, folks.

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