A few days ago, a commenter named Chris asked me to give my opinion on a recent post written by R.A. Matheson on The Athiest Bible Study blog which relates to the question of whether God is evil.
I was immediately intrigued by the post Chris linked in his comment. Unfortunately, however, blogging time has not been much of a luxury for the last few days, so I’m just now getting around to posting some thoughts. (Chris: I hope you’re still out there).
Chris asked me to participate in a debate over the issue, so I hope he will forgive me if I treat this as more a chance for reflection and conversation than debate. I was a debater in High School and College, and have been a civil litigator for 15 years, so I know something about propositions, proof, evidence, reasoning, etc. Frankly, however, I’ve found that truth – real truth – tends to become apparent when people are willing to be honest with each other about what they think and how they feel in conversation that is less formal, and more open and honest. So…my response won’t be quite as structured or antagonistic as that of a skilled debater.
For those who haven’t looked at the ABS post, here is a quick summary: Matheson defines “evil” as something which is the cause of “suffering, injury, or destruction.” After briefly addressing the question of whether moral judgments can be made without using God as a reference point (a matter with which I won’t take issue here), Matheson points out that the God of the bible causes suffering, injury, and destruction. He references several biblical concepts in making this point, but the most important ones – in my view – are the concepts of the curse (from the early chapters of Genesis) and of hell (which can be found in the various gospels and the Revelation).
Matheson could have (and I think he probably knows this) gone on and on had he liked. There is no shortage of biblical texts that refer to violence and harm that are brought on human beings by God. In Joshua, Israel – attempting to occupy Caanan – is told on at least one occasion to kill every single person, even children, who stand in its way! In Esther, over 75,000 enemies of Israel are killed in an event that the Jews now celebrate as Purim.
If its blood and pain that you are looking for, you will see plenty of it – and plenty of it initiated by God – in the Christian scriptures.
If we are going to stick with Matheson’s definition of “evil,” then he can pretty much make that label stick to God, and he won’t run out of material to make more labels any time soon.
The question that Matheson is really posing here – and I think he would agree this is a fair assessment – is whether God can be anything other than evil when he causes pain and suffering? And that, folks, is a question that every Christian and athiest ought to ponder.
For me, however, the definition of “evil” seems to be lacking. You can’t simply dismiss someone as “evil” because they bring about suffering.
Think of it this way. My daughter has a tooth that needs to come out. She hates going to the dentist, but going to the dentist is the only way to extract the tooth and prevent infection from setting in. By making her go to the dentist and undergo the anxiety and pain of the dental chair, am I an “evil” father? Wouldn’t it be more “evil” of me to let her become infected and continue to suffer? Is the pain and anxiety she experiences, even though it is intense, in her best interest in the long run?
I am certainly “evi” under Matheson’s definition, but I’m going to guess that people of just about any persuasion – Chistian, Jew, athiest, Muslim, etc. – would be more inclined to judge me as “evil” if I didn’t do what was best for my daughter.
Here is a second way of thinking of it. In World War II, Allied troops invaded Germany, killing untold numbers of German soldiers. As a result of these efforts, however, a facist regime, bent on genocide, was brought to an end, and many, many people’s lives were spared from the brutal treatment of the Nazis. Were the allied solders, then, “evil”?
If you don’t like that illustration, then take your pick of another one – any situation where someone kills or causes pain and suffering to prevent someone from causing even greater pain and suffering – that is what justice is all about. Generally speaking, we don’t think of someone who is bringing about true, appropriate justice on a wrongdoer as “evil.” Indeed, if anything, they are correcting a problem of evil. [Some Christians will say that it is no longer the place of humans to do this – that violence can never be redemptive because it only creates a cycle of more violence – but that isn’t my point here. My point is simply that our moral sensibilities don’t have a “problem” with inflicitng suffering on an evildoer if it is necessary to do justice].
There is another possibility as well: sometimes a parent may allow a child to suffer because the only way for the child to learn and grow into a healthy, responsible adult is to deal with the consequences of his actions or decisions. However, this type of suffering doesn’t seem to be at play here, so I’m not going to say anything more about it at this stage.
My point is this: to appeal to our moral sensibilities, the question of whether someone is “evil” has to take into account the intention of the person causing the pain, and the reasons that the pain is inflicted. The definition that Matheson provides doesn’t take that factor into account.
Of course, even if we take my more robust definition of “evil” into account, God is not necessarily off of the hook. However, we at least have a framework in which we can understand why Christians will say that God loves humanity, in spite of the sufferering that humanity endures because of, or with the consent of, God. Is it possible that there is a reason behind the sufferering?
Now, we are very, very close to the questions that are posed and (sometimes, but not always) answered in the Christian scriptures.
I have a lot more to say on this subject, but I will leave it at that for now, and hopefully come back to it at a later date.