On Whether God is "Evil"

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.


10 Responses to On Whether God is "Evil"

  1. randy says:

    Very interesting Matt. with a definition of evil as anything that causes pain, suffering, and/or destruction God is going to be caught. I think another way to enter the conversation could be to think about the nature of a person or to look at the whole of someone’s life to gain a perspective on whether they are evil or not. So often we want to look at one, two, or three situations and make a judgement on someone’s life as a whole. It seems to be a little bit of a narrow scope for making a lasting judgement about someone.

    I do understand that this perspective as well has limitations. There are questions like, “How many acts of evil must be perpetrated before someone is counted as evil?” or “Is it merely a balancing act of trying to have more things of good than things of evil in the end?” I think both can be good questions and offer good discussion. Therefore, this is not the only lens you can look through. Your desire to include purpose and intent also have to be part of the conversation.

    I just want to add to the conversation the perspective to also consider the other side person when making a lasting judgement about someone. In this case it would be to consider like you have said to ask questions of why God might have initiated these acts and then also to ask what other acts has He initiated and how do both of these come to help us understand the character of God, or for that matter anyone else we are looking at as well.

    Love ya’ dude. Keep the conversations coming.

  2. […] Is God "Evil"? – Part 2 I’m picking up now where I left off in the last post. […]

  3. […] a nail And I would, if I could, jump into the discussion that Matt has been leading about whether God is evil. There’s much very interesting stuff to read in Matt’s two posts on that […]

  4. RBH says:

    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.

    That definition is still incomplete. One must add something about alternative possible actions in order to evaluate “best”. The Old Testament God requires Israel to do some pretty awful stuff — several examples are mentioned above, and there are many more.

    Matt suggests, though he does not defend, an analogy with human parents allowing their children to suffer pain for some good reason — the visit to the dentist. He says

    I am certainly “evil” 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.

    In that specific case, Matt had several alternative courses of action. He could have declined to take his daughter to the dentist, thereby condemning her to a lifetime of dental problems. He could have taken a pliers and jerked her teeth out himself, thereby avoiding the lifetime of dental problems but causing her unnecessary suffering. He could have jerked all her teeth out with a pliers, saving her the lifetime of dental problems but giving her short-term pain and long-term disfigurement. Or he could take her to the dentist. “Best” has to mean something — something like a means of choosing among the alternatives that which will cause the least short- and long-term pain and suffering — and so from among the available alternatives Matt chooses the dentist.

    Now, God is allegedly omnipotent, benevolent, and all those good things, and allegedly has a special affection for humans. The question of God’s evil turns on whether God could have chosen some other alternative way that entailed less human pain and suffering, to solve what He (and no one else) perceived as a problem. Was there a way for an omnipotent being to clear out the Midianites without killing everyone except the virgin girls who were parceled out to the Jewish soldiers? Is there an alternative that would have accomplished God’s goals without as much human pain and suffering? Surely there was — an omnipotent deity who can cause a global flood but can’t figure out how to push a bunch of bronze age pagans off their land without killing them all (except those unfortunate virgin girls) is a contradiction in terms. Either the Christian God does not have the powers and properties attributed to him, or he gratuitously causes unnecessary human pain and suffering and is therefore evil.

    You theists have to decide which you prefer: a deity that doesn’t have the powers attributed to him (them?), or a deity that causes unnecessary and avoidable human pain and suffering and is therefore evil. (Any references to “God’s ways are not man’s ways” or “god moves in mysterious ways” will be ruled out on question-begging grounds.)


  5. Matt says:

    Thanks for stopping by RBH. I appreciate the respectful, thoughtful way you’ve responded.

    I hope to eventually come back and reflect on this a little, but it will probably be a few days before I get around to it.

    In the meantime, I have a few buddies who read this space…maybe one of them will jump in and address your comment. Specifically, I wonder if anyone would comment on whether an appeal to the transcendent/mystical nature of God is a cop-out…?

  6. R.A.Matheson says:

    First of all, thank you for looking at my site and posting about it. I’m always open to debate/discussion regarding these issues. I appreciate the discussion about my site. Us fellow bloggers need to help each other out when it comes to spreading the word.

    You wrote, “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?”

    This, including your other examples, does nothing to counter the argument that god is evil. You say that if my definition of evil is correct, then god IS evil. The only way you can counter this is to show that my definition is incorrect. First I would like to say that if the definition of evil from Webster is not good enough for you, I don’t know what else would be. In my article you discuss from 2004, I did use dictionary.com, but Webster’s definition is the same. In an attempt to show that my definition is incorrect you presented an excellent case-book example of a straw man argument.

    God does not simply pull our tooth out, causing pain, because it will get worse for us. Nor does he kill some who would end up killing more if allowed to live. Well, actually, he does do that in the bible, but he doesn’t stop there. If that is all he did, your argument might hold some water; however, as we both know he does not stop there.

    No one would fault you for pulling a child’s rotting tooth. Killing people to prevent killing wouldn’t reach much objection either. However, think about this situation, which is taken from my article you are discussing here in your post. I’m not sure why you didn’t address this in your post – I can only assume you didn’t read the whole thing.

    “Imagine a father were to tell his son that by the time he is twelve, he must decide whether or not to love his dad. The father says the child is free to choose whatever he wants, but if he chooses to not love his father, then the father will put his son in the oven and cook him. What sort of freedom of choice is this? I don’t think it is any choice. Surely a man who did this would be considered one of the most insane, sick, twisted, and evil person you could meet. He would be thrown in prison for child abuse, neglect, and infanticide. Even the criminals in prison would look down on this child murderer, most likely taking out revenge in the child’s name. How ironic is it then that when God does this, we worship him, say “God is Love”, and build churches in his honor. ”

    So we can see that god does not just punish us for “rotten teeth” or even killing people. God causes pain and suffering simply if we choose not to love him through use of the free-will that he gave us. That is the main point of my article, and I believe it still stands, as you didn’t really address it directly in your counter-article. You simply brought brought up a simple-to-argue metaphor (pulling teeth, nazis) that nobody would really argue with and then wrote an article against that instead of my article’s main point.


    ps: please excuse typos, etc., as I am just waking up 🙂

  7. R.A.Matheson says:

    “…wonder if anyone would comment on whether an appeal to the transcendent/mystical nature of God is a cop-out…?”

    Yes, I would. It is a cop-out.

    If I say “I am not guilty of murder because I have a photo at home that shows I didn’t kill this person,” in a court defending myself against murder charges, it is not up to the prosecutor to prove I don’t have such a photo. It is my responsibility to prove this picture exists, as I am making the claim.

    The same goes with those that claim god exists, and say things like “We cannot understand god’s ways.” The burder of proof lies with the claimer, not the counter-claimer.

  8. Matt says:

    I’ve picked up the main discussion on this in the second post, but…a couple of points that are more directly responsive to this thread:

    1. I’m not contending that my metaphors provide a comprehensive explanation of why humans suffer. I’m only using them to show that you can’t conclude that someone is evil simply because they cause sufferering. You have to look at the purposes and motivations of the person causing the suffering.

    2. As far as the burden of proof goes, I think it should rest with the person making the proposition. In this case, the proposition is that the God who is described in the biblical text is evil. My point is you can’t meet that burden by simply showing that he brings about suffering, you have to show evil in intent. Yet, the biblical witneses themselves stringently deny such intent. My comments on the next post pick up on that thought…

  9. This was my response however I couldn’t post it—

    It seems you’ve extracted some verses to suit your proposition that ‘God is evil’ and made what appears to be a convincing argument. Except it is disabled at a foundational level. It’s an argument which by nature is paradoxical given it’s an argument founded in scripture with the hypothetical allowance of the scripture being true. If the bible is true than you have already shot yourself with your own gun by denying the fall of Adam and the curse as being the reason for suffering in the world—freewill is the real conundrum. True freewill is the freedom to commit evil—therein lies the mystery. If you deny the bible is true than what nonsense are you talking about? You cannot make a hybrid theory of half truths. It’s either one or the other. Now if you are to take the bible as true, I would accept all of the verses you have given and add more—like the 31,103 verses (give or take) in the rest of the bible to start with. From there I would formulate a picture based on correlating scripture…a fuller, more realized understanding of the role of suffering in the world—from the perspective of the bible that is.

    Isiah 35:7
    I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create ‘calamity’ (another interpretation), I am the Lord, who does all these things.

    (To argue that God creates all evil based on this verse alone is very weak. The overwhelming message in the bible is that God is love, loves us and allows bad things to happen however will always be the righteous judge in the end. Again, the curse is a mystery and God does allow these terrible things, but does it end there? What else has the bible got t say on the subject?)

    Romans 5:3-5
    More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

    2 Corinthians 12:9
    But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

    1 Peter 5.10
    And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

    John 16:33
    I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

    Isiah 25:8
    And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

    John 3:16
    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

    Mark 13:7-9
    And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.

    Ephesians 1:7
    In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace,

    Romans 6:23
    For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  10. Some verses about sin and the devil:

    1 Peter 5:8

    Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

    James 1:13-15

    Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

    John 8:44

    You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

    Ephesians 6:8-10

    Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

    2 Corinthians 10:3-5

    For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,

    Revelations 12:7-9

    Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

    So it’s mysterious God allows such pain…but is there something greater going on here…like Salomon said an Evil God would know no bounds. Why the message? Why the underlying, deeper commitment to love and salvation? Why faith, hope and love? Why would he encourage us to love one another as he has loved us? Makes no sense. I mean, a human mind can can conjure up some evil scenarios, how about the mind of God. If this is the worst and Evil God can do than I’m baffled to say the least—and let’s not forget the good for within life there are still glimpses of Gods glory. There is beauty in world, even amidst the horror why? There is there compassion in people? Why the artistic beauty of a sunset, or the serenity of the stars at night? Why any goodness at all?

    Furthermore if you are truly a student of the ‘problem of pain’ than I recommend the life changing books—’In Gods Underground’ and ‘Tortured for Christ’ by Richard Wrumbrand 14 years imprisoned in jail for his unwavering beliefs in Christ — I had no idea what suffering was until I read these books.

    “I tremble because of the sufferings of those persecuted in different lands. I tremble thinking about the eternal destiny of their torturers. I tremble for Western Christians who don’t help their persecuted brethren. In the depth of my heart, I would like to keep the beauty of my own vineyard and not be involved in such a huge fight. I would like so much to be somewhere in quietness and rest. But it is not possible… The quietness and rest for which I long would be an escape from reality and dangerous for my soul… The West sleeps and must be awakened to see the plight of the captive nations.”

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