Is God "Evil"? – Part 2

I’m picking up now where I left off in the last post.

For those who don’t want to read Part 1, here is a summary: If we are going to make moral judgments about whether God is “evil,” we are going to have to make those judgments in the same way we would make them about people. In that connection, I have suggested that it is not enough to say that anyone who causes suffering is “evil” because such a definition doesn’t take into account such person’s motivations or purposes. Instead, I have proposed a more robust definition which takes into account at least two possibilities: (1) that, as is the case with anyone who has been to the dentist, inflicting short-term sufferingmay be in the long-term best interests of another AND (2) inflicting sufferering may be necessary to end or prevent one who is intent themselves on causing suffering (that is, suffering to bring about justice). We could not characterize someone as evil if they are acting in one of these two ways, even though they may cause someone else to suffer.

It is at this point that I think we can begin to see what is going on in the Christian scriptures. Again and again, the central question is this: why doesn’t God end suffering? The book of Job, which Matheson describes in his post, is a great example. It is likely the oldest book in our bibles, and it gets down to precisely that issue: Why, God, am I made to suffer? Job believes and trusts God even though he suffers at God’s hands. Why would he do this? we are made to ask ourselves.

As I read Job the central issue is not to explain suffering – which is only done in a very cryptic way during the first few chapters. It is to ask the question Should I continue to worship God when I suffer in ways that have no meaing to me?

Later, the Psalmists will again and again pose the same question. God’s chosen people live in suffering under pagan kings. Why doesn’t God fix this situation as he has promised?

Answers to these questions – within the biblical text – are few and far between, and they are never fully satisfying.

What is remarkable here is not that human suffering raises the question of whether God is evil – that much ought to be apparent to anyone – but that so many people who claimed to have experiences of God were convinced that he was good in spite of the all of the “evidence” to the contrary. (“I know that my Redeemer lives” Job proclaims, at a time when his suffering has reached its apex!)

Equally remarkable is this: I am aware of no serious religious teaching about God which contends that he inflicts pain in the way Matheson hypothecises – purely out of indifference or spite. Why, given all of the “evidence” of seemingly meaningless human suffering, has no one ever claimed to have a relationship or encounter with a God who is known in this way?

What is going on here? There are very few options, I think – and I won’t address them all here. I will only say that, one must at least consider the possibility that these people really did, as they claimed, have an encounter and relationship (either individually or within their community) with a living God whom they were convinced, because of the nature and strength of that relationship, was acting in their best interest.

Lets run with that possibilty for just a moment (I only ask a skeptic to consider it as a possibility at this stage), and consider what Christians believe about God and suffering.

The claim that Christians make, which follows in the tradition of Israel, is that present suffering – while not fully explainable – serves some purposes that are ultimately in the best interests of mankind and of our world. In that sense, we can say that God is “good” in spite of the fact that he allows, or even inflicts, suffering. God, we believe, is moving the universe to a place where pain and suffereing will ultimately end.

Paul, in particular, wrestles with this issue in his letter to the Romans. You can read part of that letter here. He concludes his line of thought by suggesting that present suffering and “wrath” for certain people may be for a greater purpose that God has in mind, which Paul ultimately understands to be the restoration of God’s creation into a state where suffering (he will call this “sin and death”) no longer exist. Suffering which originates from God somehow serves that end.

In a sense, the suffering of Jesus on the cross can be seen as God’s “answer” to our questions about suffering. But its not an answer in the sense of providing knowledge about the why’s and wherefores – it is an answer which says that, whatever God’s purposes may be in human suffering – purposes that we may not understand, God is willing to put himself on the line as well. He is willing to suffer right alongside us..

Similarly, the resurrection of Jesus can be seen as a promise of the future – a way of saying that God’s world, free of suffering and death, is real and on its way.

This way of thinking is, of course, a lot different than some of the “pat” answers that Christian evangelicals will give, and it sounds like Matheson has had more than his fill of those answers. I don’t blame him at all for becoming a skeptic if he’s never been exposed to anything else. 

Also, I don’t write this to convince non-believers that God is real and he is good. (Thats a bit ambitious for two blog posts!). I only write it to open up the possibility for some of you – including Chris if he’s still reading – that, properly expressed, Christianity appreciates and “deals with” this problem in ways that you may not discern from a conversation with a typical, conservative evangelical.


17 Responses to Is God "Evil"? – Part 2

  1. Richard says:

    As I think about evil and when we apply that label to people we are speaking of a person with no regard for human suffering as well as someone who delights in infliciting pain. Given this very reasonable definition I don’t see how any part of the biblical witness could support the proposition that “God is evil.”

    Now, God might be indifferent or cold or even cruel, but I don’t think the adjective “evil” sticks.

  2. Matt says:

    I agree that there is no way that the biblical witness supports this notion…. AND… I still think that their claim that God is not only good, but that he loves humanity is quite a remarkable thing. Where did it come from? It would be a puzzling thing to me if I had to rule out a priori the possibility that it grew out of an actual encounter with God.

  3. R.A.Matheson says:

    “I am aware of no serious religious teaching about God which contends that he inflicts pain in the way Matheson hypothecises – purely out of indifference or spite.”

    Here are a few…

    ” For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.” Genesis 7:4

    Here god has wiped out every animal on the planet when it was humans that were sinning. These animals were innocent.

    “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.” Genesis 7:22

    Here, it says god kills everything that breathes. That included every one-day-old human child that wasn’t a part of Noah’s family. There were at least thousands of them. The only logic that would say these children were not innocent is the logic of the bible, which punishes the son for the crimes of the father. Everywhere else in existence, this is counter to everything that is considered moral and “good.” I am pretty sure killing innocent children is “evil.”

    All through the passages in Exodus when Moses confronts Pharaoh, Pharaoh would have listened to Moses and let the people free. However, god forces Pharaoh, through mind control (“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart…” Exodus 7:3 among other passages), to not let the slaves go. Why does god do this?

    “…that ye may know how that the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.” Exodus 11:7

    So god forces Pharoah to ignore Moses so that God can kill every first-born child in all of Egypt, not so that Moses’s people can be free, but so that there is a difference between the Egyptians and the Israelites.

    “I will send my fear before thee, and will destroy all the people to whom thou shalt come,” Exodus 23:27

    Here god leads his people into a land full of people that god created. God has Moses’s people commit one of the first recorded instances of genocide on these people just to show god’s power and to give the Israelite’s somewhere to live. Again, don’t forget that god created these people and was in control of everything they did. Now he is destroying them. That seems pretty spiteful to me. The main reason they are being destroyed is because they are sinners – sinners that god created.

    “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.” Proverbs 26:3

    Here, we are told to beat the foolish. Well, god made these people foolish, yet he wants us to beat them. Why would someone make a fool, and then command people to beat fools? Again, spite, malice, indifference, and “evil.”

    “Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I am against thee, and will draw forth my sword out of his sheath, and will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked.” Ezekiel 21:3

    Here, god is deciding to pull his sword out and kill everyone. EVERYONE. Not just the “wicked” but also the “righteous.” The good and the bad. All of them.

    I can go on and on and on. The best example, as always, is Hell. God creates us, knowing we’ll mess up. When we mess up, he punishes us in eternal darkness and fire. He knows we will mess up, and yet makes us and then punishes us anyways. He has foreknowledge of everything, being omnipotent.

    Here is the old Epicurius quote, which to this day has not been answered to any decent degree…

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”

    Epicurus – Greek philosopher, BC 341-270

  4. Chris says:

    Thank you for you thoughts and time you’ve devoted to your postings. I love debate such as these and look forward to continue discussion.

    Is God Evil!?! This is an argument which basically comes down to a personal judgment, with all of the terrible deeds that God bestows upon his creations, there are a few goods one mentioned in the Bible, somewhere, you may have to dig deep to find them, but they are in there I think, I hope at least. What I’m more interested in is HOW these stories of intense violence and depravity have been used to lead the faithful to righteousness and WHY followers of the faith endure and even accept suffering?

    As an example as to why suffering is taught to be endured in the good book one only has to look at the result of the lessons they teach. The early and late middle ages, at the height of the Catholic Church’s control (no wonder they were called the dark ages), the social systems in place were designed to keep the wealthy powerful, and the poor right were they should be, tolling in the fields. Their suffering was a sign of their faith, their reward awaited once they dropped dead after their final tithing. Systems such as these used the stories of Job and the like to maintain the yoke on slaves for a 1000+ years. The more you suffer in life the greater reward that awaits you in the Kingdom of Heaven. Ensuring the suffering of the vast majority of the population so a few can live privileged lives is sinister in my mind. The thought that’s its good to suffer for your Religion, to allow evil acts to be committed upon you like a love sick beaten wife is crock, you’re a sheep left out in the cold with the hopes that one day you’ll be allowed something better. A system that manipulates individuals into accepting a lesser life is evil and nothing more that a method of control by those that wish to maintain power. Religion isn’t the only such system, but certainly the most wide spread.

    So back to the main point, is God evil? In my personal opinion, No. I love God, god is love, God is infused into everything that is great in this world. Man is the evil one, and man creates tools to advance his ability to commit evil acts. The Bible has been the greatest tool of manipulation ever conceived, leveraged the most control over the population, and a great deal of evil acts have been committed by men holding this book high. This is not a book worthy of worship.

    Honor God and all his blessing, but the God of Love is not the evil heathen of the Bible that directs Christianity and Catholics. God exist within ones spirit, and will be with you on your path if you follow your heart.

  5. R.A.Matheson says:

    Remember, Chris, the god you are saying is not evil is not the god of the bible – it is one you’ve devised based upon things you’ve read in various religions. The god of the bible is definitely evil.

  6. Chris says:

    No, the God of the bible isn’t really God at all. More like a means to an end.

  7. Matt says:

    Lots of good dialog here. Much higher level of mutual respect and reflection than you would normally expect to find in a discussion between Christians, skeptics, and deists (Chris, maybe?).

    Its going to be next week before I jump back in, but feel free to carry on in my absence…

  8. Matt says:

    I just want to re-emphasize my previous points here. During my vespers prayers tonight, I read this text from Psalm 71:

    You have showed me great troubles and adversities, but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.

    This, in my mind – and as I’ve already said, this epitomizes the biblical witness on this issue. There is very little explanation for why God causes suffereing, but (often) in the same breath that people attribute their suffering to God, they look to him as their redeemer and express faith that he will act as such.

    I’m not quibbling with Matheson over whether God brings about suffering. That much is obvious from the text. Nor am I offering a comprehensive explanation as to why the suffering is necessary in every instance. There are explanations in some instances (for Pharoh, it provided a means for God to display his commitment to his people, as Matheson quotes; in the instance of the story of the great flood, we are told that it resulted from God’s deep disappointment with the violence of man). In others, there aren’t.

    My point is that the biblical witnesses, like the Psalmist, never conclude – as Matheson does – that God is evil becuase of this suffereing. Quite the opposite, they continue to persist – as did Job – that God is good and will act in the end as their redeemer.

    And it is at this point where I think that Matheson’s well articulated argument turns on itself. What Matheson says makes perfect sense! So why didn’t the biblical witnesses (and countless millions of Jews and Christians that followed them) arrive at the same conclusion? Why did persist so strongly, in the face of all of the “evidence”, that God is good? I think this ought to suggest the possibility that their accounts of their experiences of God were legitimate, and that their seemingly irrational faith was a direct result of those experiences.

    As to Chris’ points, which are also very well articulated….

    I do not diagree that the Judeo-Christian tradition has been abused to oppress the powerless and poor by appeals to a reward in the afterlife. I won’t defend any of that stuff. However, I will say this:

    1. I think the most reasonable interpretation of the Christian scriptures has more to say about hell as a place for oppressors than it does for the oppressed (…and I encourage you to read my series on hell from earlier this year if you’re interested in the details of why that is the case)

    2. The Christian scriptures themselves make it clear that oppression of the powerless and poor is the most abhorrent of evils, and anyone who abuses and misrepresents God in this way (as did the Pharisees in Jesus’ day) are not honoring the God of the bible.

    In a sense, I agree with Chris that God can be “used” as a means to a very evil end. However, I disagree that the God who is “used” in this way is the God who is described in the Christian scriptures.

  9. Chris says:

    Sorry its taken so long for a response Matt, I appreciate your comments.

    Regarding “…Christian Scripture make it clear that oppression of the powerless and poor is the most abhorrent of evils…”

    I fully agree with this, but I contest that this is the purpose of the Bible. Some extremely abbreviated history- 3rd century AD, Constantine had a problem on his hands, as ruler of Rome his Empire was being pulled apart by the Pagans whom worship Sol and nature and the rising Christians. Rather than let his nations be divided, he blended the two religions.

    -The Pagan holiday Ester that paid tribute to birth/renewal and Spring, symbolized by the rabbit (and is now a cheap marketing scheme) was combined with Christ’s resurrection conveniently celebrated at the beginning of spring.

    – The most important Pagan holiday, the Winter Solace, which occurs in late December was also merged with Christian worship. Their is no indication as to Jesus’s actual date of birth, the only reference was the Star of David, which is believed to be true, but would have risen in the summer months around the time of Jesus’s birth rather than on the 25th of December.

    These are just a few references, stories of which books were to be included in the actual formation of the Bible is a rather interesting story as well. The point of all of this is that God did not write the rules that Christian’s follow, the days that Christian holidays fall upon are completely a matter of connivence, and the formation of the religion was a means to control the population of Rome. Once under control, abuse and oppression quickly follows. The Bible IS NOT worthy of worship. Do not lye under the thumb of a cult that only wishes to keep you under control and tithing.

    All I ask is that you question authority, rather than follow blindly.

  10. Don says:

    I like the defintion of “God” provided by Yehuda Ashlag, an incredible 20th Century Kabbalist. First, God had an intention to create a creature and fill it with delight. Secondly, God is complete and total bestowal, with no inclination or will to even think of recieving. Anthropomorhizing God with human characteristics is speculative and is akin to worshiping other gods, and debases any credible attempt to attain spirituality, which is, “to bestow atruistically”
    Man, the human being as(complex animal) resides in this world is of the Nature to recieve for one’s self. Evil thus is unequivocally, to recieve exclusively for my sake. Even if I am an atruist by nature, I obtain pleasure for myself.
    The only saving thing is that humans are capable of overcoming the will to recieve for myself and obtain a likeness to the Creator. Read of Jesus’s intention for the believers the night he was betrayed in John. His only reason was that we attain Oneness with God as he(Jesus) had. What is oneness? All knowledge, all pleasure, time ceases and space becomes nonexistent.
    Evil thus is anything I do. It is only when I have and can feel a desire to move to the Creator, to have the desire of Israel (Israel means straight(yashar) to God (el). This is still a desire to recieve, but the intent is to obtain the”likeness” of the Creators ability to bestow.
    Oh, yes, hence it results in Love your neighbor as your self.

  11. byron says:

    if god personaly distroyed america would he be evil???

    if he wanted to rape you would he be evil???



  12. nena says:

    A problem presents when we attempt to understand God as we would understand another person. I do not believe that we can fully understand God as we would like to. “for His ways are as far above our as the heavens above the earth..”.

  13. Bobism says:

    You people should stop being so quick to judge. That’s God’s job. If he decides to murder an innocent person, or to hold a disbeliever over an eternal flame for an infinite billions of years, then that is his business. It’s his show, as they say.

  14. Robert says:

    The below was sent in answer to a statement that I made

    From Robert
    I am open and have no beliefs. I know or I do not. I am intelligent and a philosopher (a searcher for absolute truths).
    Reply from Gavin
    Well, here I want to argue with you, and wonder what you mean by ‘know’.
    Aristotle, Plato? Plotinus? Augustine? Aquinas? Descartes? Locke?
    They all have different ways and definitions of knowing – I am most drawn to a combination of Plato Plotinus & Augustine myself.

    Reply from Robert
    Hello again Gavin,
    I have jumped to this question leaving the most difficult and yet paradoxically the easiest to a later email (the nature and mind of God). The philosopher searches for absolutes. If he does not he is not a philosopher by definition. The word comes from the Greek philo philos, lover of sopher sophia wisdom sophos wise. That is a lover of wisdom or a searcher for absolute truths.
    The problem, is what is one man’s truth is another’s untruth. And how can you be certain of an absolute. Many people will tell you that there is no such thing as an absolute truth and my answer would be to quote…
    What is absolutely true is always correct, everywhere, all the time, under any condition. An entity’s ability to discern these things is irrelevant to that state of truth.” – Steven Robiner
    So our ability to discern/discover an absolute does not mean that it does not exist only that we do not have the relevant true information and even if we do the ability to perceive and understand. Rene Descartes said The first precept was never to accept a thing as true until I knew it as such without a single doubt. Even being without a single doubt does not mean that you are right. Take for example my existence here in this world. Neo in the film The Matrix was shown by Morpheus (They chose the name of the Greek god of dreams) that the world he thought was real was an illusion (see also two other films Open your Eyes also remade as Vanilla Sky). I KNOW for certain that I do NOT know if this world is real (including you of course). I could only know absolutely if I woke up from it. And even if it is real (whatever that means) I know that everything here that we think is natural may be the result of an evil deceiver’s manipulations. Descartes meditated on God being an evil deceiver but concluded that it could not be true as God is perfect (he meant in a good moral way). But his argument is flawed, as there is no absolute proof that God is perfect (far more proof here that he is not..look at the design/nature of his work). A perfect God complete in love, compassion, truth, caring and concerned for everything and everyone doing nothing bad would reveal itself and put right everything that was wrong. Moreover he would not let it be or go wrong in the first place. The answer to that old question if given is usually that he moves in mysterious ways and who can understand the mind of God. That answer is for unintelligent silly people who would ignore the truth before them. If it (God) were perfect in that way it would not produce/make anything inferior to itself (men/women). If you had a young child Gavin would you say…look at and admire/worship me your parent because I am clever and can do many things that you cannot. If you did, you would be mad Gavin. Now consider an entity which does exactly that…is that entity (God) mad? Or will you turn aside from an unpalatable truth? Interestingly concerning these thoughts there are two conflicting passages in the bible. God says in the Book of Daniel (4:35) that he can do what he wants in the world and its inhabitants. Satan in the book of Matthew (4:9) talking to Jesus claims ownership of the world. If both these passages are true then God aka Satan is indeed the great deceiver. The problem with all the philosophers is that they without realising it had been corrupted/flawed by the very fact that they had been born, raised and lived in the world which must have had an influence on their thinking. If you look at their backgrounds, it becomes apparent how much the society they lived in with its then understandings had influenced their thoughts. Augustine is a good example. Talking nonsense about the soul. The speculative soul is like the speculative sub atomic particles in quantum mechanics (all in the mind). They had without realising become corrupted by the world in which they were born and raised and being a part of it (as is everyone now). As the world is and was chaotic their meditations trying to make sense of it are worthless. It is like someone trying to make sense of the ravings of mad men/women in an asylum. What they should have been asking is why the world is as it is. From a distance it looks fine (the world) but does not stand up to close examination. One example. People admire ferocious predatory animals. Look at the beautiful magnificent lion they say. And when it kills its prey, they say its only nature and therefore acceptable. I see a vicious uncaring killing machine when I look at a lion. I am not fooled/deceived by its appearance. I would rejoice if it became extinct. Every thing on this planet is trying (and succeeding) in killing everything else. What we call nature is violent, vicious and cruel. Yet we not only accept it but admire it as well. I KNOW that this is ugly and wrong Gavin.
    Consider sin in the sexual sense Gavin. Imagine a distant planet with two continents divided by water. On one continent, the genitals are regarded as sinful not to be exposed. On the other continent, it is only the mouth that is regarded as sinful not to be exposed (how pink and moist with its moving tongue). I KNOW that in this case as in others sin is subjective NOT objective. I KNOW that to deliberately maliciously lie and hurt both mentally and physically is wrong Gavin.
    Consider the sun Gavin. A violent ball of hot hydrogen in the dark vacuum of space that by a process of nuclear fusion (turning hydrogen to helium) is producing vast amounts of energy. If it were not for the earths iron core and magnetic field no life would be possible because of the lethal radiation. Consider how weird and grotesque this is Gavin. I KNOW that it is grotesque and if it is deliberately designed and made the entities mind that did so is weird and grotesque.
    As I said, I know or I do not. That which I do not know I can only speculate about in a logical intelligent manner. And while I know that I might only have a few absolutes before I die it is enough for me to understand how little I know but paradoxically just how much.
    Regards Robert

  15. startemail2007 says:

    GOD in actuality is neutral–the perfect mix of both good and evil, these are only incomplete part of god.
    god is incomplete without good,as it is incomplete without evil, i think god is even sexless, neither male nor female– or maybe a hermaphrodite !!!
    everything in the world is predestined , i am saying so because i have tested astrology and it is absolutely correct. both the good and evil deeds are predecided.
    I think god is a lonely creature , who needs entertainment all the time !!!

  16. startemail2007 says:

    besides nature is always in competition and competition is evil itself, you have to better yourself all the time, to gain the edge over your enemies , because they may kill you. the natural law–survival of the fittest is evil itself, the differences in color , caste, creed around the world is evil itself.
    BUT the point is, even in all this evil , when people, living creatures come together to help each other– then the true good part of nature comes in front,
    so, nature(god)is neutral in reality

  17. startemail2007 says:

    god is everything
    both complex and simple
    both good and evil
    both selfish and selfless
    both male and female
    and everything imaginable and beyond , all put together

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