Theodicky

Maybe God isn’t dead. Maybe he’s just going deaf. Maybe he’s totally deaf in one ear, and partially deaf in the other. It’s understandable. He is getting to be a little ancient of days anymore. Eventually, everyone’s hearing starts to go. We’re made in God’s image after all, so I don’t know why we would expect it to be any different for the archetype.

Don’t get me wrong. He obviously has some hearing left. He still answers all sorts of prayers all the time. He makes sure Christians don’t have car wrecks on long drives, and that they don’t get any speeding tickets (unless he wants to teach them patience). He still blesses fatty fast food to nourish Christian bodies—a miniature miracle he performs on a routine basis. The reason some Christians get fat is because they sometimes forget to pray before eating, or they take a couple bites first. Those bites aren’t blessed to nourish. This is God’s way of making sure his people don’t succumb to embarrassment when it comes to public displays of piety. The louder you pray in a restaurant, the more nourishing your fried chicken. Silent prayers count for a blessing only if they are long and awkward, and take place while the waiter is waiting to hand you your entrée. Short and discrete silent prayers just piss God off. He passes over your tray and blesses the food of the fat person at the table next to you, just out of spite.

No, God does answer prayers. God gets eighteen year old youth group kids into good colleges, helps busy mothers remember where they put their keys, makes mornings productive, and business ventures successful. God helps Bible college students retain information for important exams. God reduces fevers and eradicates cancer, in cooperation with the proper treatments. Prayers for the healing of people with AIDS seem to fall on deaf ears, but God does hear and answer prayers about helping victims of AIDS to cope, and to give them as painless a death as possible, in cooperation with lots of morphine, which he of course created. God makes divine appointments between Christians so they can feel better about themselves when they’re out of their element. God does “God things,” like get things for Christians at discounted prices. God achieves this by putting his finger on the part of a vendor’s heart that wants to help people who are helping others, which of course has the totally unrelated byproduct of making said vendor feel great about himself. God answers a lot of prayers, and often in very unexpected ways—like instead of a BMW he gives the preacher a Range Rover, which wasn’t his first choice, but still.

Yet some prayers God just doesn’t catch. Like the prayers of Christian missionaries on behalf of Haiti and its people. They pray for poverty to give way to sustainability, for practitioners of Voodoo to come to Christ before they die, for the people in their churches to be safe and for no disaster to befall them. They pray that the people of Haiti would no longer have to suffer. Some prayers God just doesn’t hear, not because he’s cruel, but because he’s old and mostly deaf. If God had heard the daily prayers of righteous wo/men sent up on behalf of the people of Haiti, on behalf of the hundred thousand individuals who died in last week’s earthquake, God would have done it differently. He would have reduced the strength of the quake considerably. Rather than an onslaught of divine wrath, it would have served as a divine warning. Or maybe God would have prevented the earthquake altogether, had God heard the prayers of his people. The prayer of a righteous man availeth much, but not as much as it used to.

I was in the earthquake last week. I was on the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic, where it was only a 5.5, not a 7.0. But it was the same earthquake. I was in a little shack out in the middle of nowhere—a three bedroom scrap-metal home that houses about ten people. It didn’t collapse. It shook and rattled, but it didn’t collapse. If it did, we probably would have been fine. If it had been made of concrete (like the more expensive houses in the Dominican Republic) instead of scrap metals and woods, we could have been hurt, had it collapsed. But it didn’t at any rate. We thought it was a bit of an adventure at the time, having no idea that not too many miles away, tens of thousands of people were writhing and dying in agony as we laughed nervously.

I knew two Hatian ministers who lived in the Dominican Republic. Both of them had family back in Haiti—one had several brothers and other extended family members, the other had a two year old son. Communication was out. For days I watched them go about their business, quietly wondering whether their loved ones were dead or alive. The day we left the island to return to the States, these Hatian ministers trekked into a Hatian disaster zone to search for their loved ones. Wilby found his two year old son alive. Romano found his older brother dead, leaving nine children orphaned.

When we heard the news that the earthquake had not been as kind to the poorest country in the Americas as it had been to its racist neighbor (the Dominican Republic), the immediate response of several missionaries astonished me. “God is good,” they said. “God is faithful.” “I can’t wait to see how God redeems this,” said another. “God will bring glory to himself through this tragedy.” I couldn’t believe my ears, but I held my tongue. I knew that nothing I could say would make anything any better. But I was astonished at the effrontery of these gringos. Did they lose their homes? Had their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and sons and daughters just been senselessly killed? What gives them the right to speak on behalf of those who suffer? What gives them the right to declare God not just innocent, but good? Not just guiltless, but faithful? Who appointed them jury? More significantly, when (in the five minutes since they heard about the devastation in Haiti) did they find the time to listen to the complaints of God’s accusers? Yet already an acquittal, or rather, an out of court settlement. That’s what they meant when they said, “I can’t wait to see how God redeems this.” In payment for the deaths of thousands and the suffering of millions, God promises to send Christians with food, medical supplies, clothes, gasoline, and the gospel—the gospel that God saves souls (obviously not bodies). What does this claim mean? “God will redeem this, bring glory to himself.” Let’s examine it.

Notice that first, gone is the biblical notion that things like earthquakes are directly caused by God, signs of his displeasure, vengeance, or impending final judgment. Most Christians (John Piper and his ilk notwithstanding) don’t think that way anymore. Christians know that earthquakes have perfectly natural explanations. Some leave open the possibility that God would cause an earthquake as judgment here and there, but most earthquakes are just the result of “natural causes.” So gone from this narrative is the notion that God was punishing Haiti for its sins, or more biblically, for the sins of its leaders (who are still in one piece, as it happens). Gone also is the notion that this earthquake is a sign of portentous times, a sign of the inbreaking kingdom of God, the coming of the Son of Man on the stratosphere (sans spacesuit), and the final judgment in which everybody who isn’t a Christian dies and goes to hell. We know better, because we know earthquakes have always happened, and happen all the time, so we know that they are not signs of God’s displeasure or of an impending worldwide massacre of Muslims, Atheists and Episcopalians.

What do we have left? What we have is the idea that where God is at in natural disasters is in the aftermath, specifically, in the response of his people. God is evident in the rallying together of Christians to ease the suffering of those whom God (for whatever reason) has allowed to suffer. God is present in the presence of medical supplies, food, clothing, gasoline, and gospel proclamation. Glory is brought to God as God orchestrates a massive force of missionaries who are able to exploit the vulnerability of those who suffer in order to win new converts, converts who are grateful for medical supplies and food and makeshift shelter. “Clearly Voodoo isn’t working for you. Come to the true God and live for eternity!”1

Apparently, however, God’s glory is seen only in the aid of Christians. When the United Nations and the United States give aid, that is paternalism. That does not bring glory to God. When atheists and humanists donate millions of dollars, that does not bring glory to God. They are just doing it to assuage their guilty consciences. So even though the vast majority of aid to Haiti comes from definitively non-Christian sources, glory is brought to God through the much smaller-scale aid work of Christians.

Honestly, what does it mean to say that God is going to redeem this situation? Did God cause Barack Obama to respond as he did? Or was Obama merely exploiting the situation to win the favor of the black community in the States, as Rush Limbaugh divined? Did God cause the United Nations to respond? Did he put it in the hearts of atheists to donate money, planes and supplies, to help their fellow human beings in Haiti? Are we to believe that if God did not exist, everybody would have just sat on their asses and laughed at Haiti’s suffering? Do unbelievers really look at this situation, see the global response to Haiti’s plight, and say, “Wow, God is amazing! Look at all his glory!” Or is it just Christians that see it that way? Isn’t this idea of “God bringing glory to himself” just a vestige of a theological era in which it was believed that every nation had a patron god, and that one nation’s political triumph brought glory and honor to their patron deity, among a mass of inferior deities? I mean, all the talk in the exodus narratives about Yahweh bringing glory to himself—that’s what’s going on there. Yahweh is better than Egypt’s god, than Midian’s god, than Canaan’s gods. That’s what’s going on in the legend of David and Goliath: Yahweh is better than the Philistines’ god. Through military conquest, Yahweh brings glory to himself, by taking it from surrounding deities.

In what sense, then, does a mass of Christians and non-Christians all giving aid to a group of people who are suffering bring glory to God? Even if God is orchestrating the entire relief effort, how does God bandaging up the wounds of the Haitians who survived exculpate God from complicity in their suffering and the death of one hundred thousand in the first place? Can you imagine such a defense offered by a mass murderer? “Yes, I shot 44 people in one hour and 32 of them died, but I drove the surviving 12 to the hospital. I don’t understand why I’m on trial here. You should be thanking me.” If God really created this earth, then God is responsible for the natural processes of this earth. If God made it, why did he make it this way, so that every once in a while, the earth opens up and swallows a hundred thousand people in death? Or are you going to tell me that prior to “the fall” there were no earthquakes? Earthquakes and tsunamis only happen because Eve ate a bite of a quince 6,000 years ago. After she bit into it, the composition of the earth was fundamentally altered on a real physical level so that now the earth itself has a bloodlust. That’s supposed to be an answer? We’re supposed to believe that?

Or maybe you’ll say that without suffering, nobody could be good. Goodness requires suffering in order to be shaped and proved. If that’s the case, then how was God good before evil came along? Apart from that problem, let’s try to get this straight. So, you’re saying that in order to make a hundred thousand people good, God killed them? Or rather, God killed a hundred thousand Haitians in order to make the remaining 8,900,000 Haitians good. So now God is arbitrarily sacrificing people (good people like Romano’s brother, father of nine) in order to have a hopefully positive effect on everybody that misses them. God takes away a minority’s chance to become good so that the majority will have that chance. That makes perfect sense! All right, God, you can go home now. You’re exonerated. We thought you were just killing innocent people arbitrarily—but you had a reason for it. You wanted to cause the survivors to suffer in order to build their character.

But wait, you say. These people weren’t innocent! No one is innocent! “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (There’s God’s glory again.)

Right. Forgive me. I forgot about that one. Any sin requires death, so really, we shouldn’t say God is cruel for killing these people. We should say that he is merciful for not killing them until now! All those thousands of faceless toddlers who are buried in mass graves of unidentified bodies—they deserved to die, because they once said “No” to their parents when it was time to go to bed.

Now you resort to the old cliché: “God is mysterious. The answers aren’t clear now, but they will become clear.” Indeed, you’re partly right. How we can affirm both that God created this world, and that God is good—that is a mystery. Whether it’s a profound mystery, or a convenient one, I’ll leave you to decide. But the moment we start defining “love” and “justice” and “goodness” as “whatever God does/commands,” that’s the moment those terms cease to have any usefulness for human beings. Either God is good and good is therefore unintelligible, or good is good and God is therefore unintelligible.

Regardless, who do you think you are, you armchair theologians, you professional apologists! Did God’s victims appoint you? Did they grant you the power to acquit the Most High? What gives you the right? Your Bible College degree? Your ordination? Your PhD? Your church attendance record? Your own personal experiences? Which of these gives you the right to issue an immediate “not guilty” verdict upon God, on behalf of nine new orphans?

  1. I need to clarify that I’m not saying all missionaries are exploitative, though many certainly are. Nor am I questioning the motives of those who are rightly working in the relief efforts in Haiti right now. They are doing what is right; equally so all the non-Christians engaged in the same effort. [BACK]

One thought on “Theodicky

  1. I want to thank you for keeping these archives online. Your writing is a delight whether analytical or of a more emotional bent and I look forward to everything you continue to write that isn’t a 200-page Copan review :) Which I did still get to the end of with less skimming than expected and I understand the need for precision and verbosity in such an endeavour. It’s something like trying to refute a Gish-galloping creationist.

    Your book has been an immense help to me in my personal journey and some of these older posts may have finally given me a hint of what value some see in post-/liberal theology (or “spirituality”, I’m not sure I see much theism coming back). As a former (unhappy) fundamentalist my more natural reaction was “Hallelujah let’s toss the whole damned thing out!”

    Thank you. I could have stuck this comment on any post but I was really touched by this and decided to just do it.

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