Rethinking the Phrase “God Allows” In Response to Evil is the title of a blog post by Mark Gregory Karris on the Patheos group blog. He describes himself as an ordained pastor, author, musician, licensed marriage and family therapist, and all around biophilic. (My italics.) Patheos says that it is “hosting the conversation of faith,” and it is an attractive and active group blog.
My darling wife sent the link to me because we have discussed the subject for a long time. This subject is the justification of God’s way to man, or the problem of evil, or in fancy language, theodicy. Indeed, I am a published author on the subject. That essay, a discussion of the Bible’s book of Job, appeared in the Humanist, and, edited, in the Guardian, where there were many comments.
While I suppose my first thoughts on the subject must date to Sunday school classes at a synagogue in Washington, D. C., or perhaps to a philosophy of religion course at Cornell University, I first organized, formalized, and delivered them in 1999 for a presentation at the Faith and Science Lecture Forum in Atlanta. This was a large meeting organized by Ravi Zacharias, an important Christian evangelist minister, in Atlanta, Georgia. The presentations are available as a DVD. The specific topic was Is There Meaning in Suffering and Evil? More than 2000 people listened in the auditorium, many more in overflow seating, and by closed circuit TV from many college campuses. Dr. Zacharias gave a passionate and energetic 45-minute sermon on the subject, followed by a panel discussion. There was a nice professor of Eastern religions, Dr. Jitendra Mohanty, a well-known and still active Christian apologist, Dr. William Lane Craig, and me, wearing the black hat in that crowd as the naturalist and scientist. Each of us gave a short talk, and then we discussed matters. Finally, there was an hour of questions from the audiences.
Rather than speak as I imagined they expected, saying that scientists understand the operations of nature, and there is no room in this correct picture for the actions of the personal god they picture, I decided to give a sermon on the Hebrew Bible’s book of Job, which is the biblical book famous for its consideration of the forum’s question. With that long introduction, in this post I’ll describe and discuss Mr. Karris’s post. To keep this post from growing too long, I’ll discuss my Job essay in another post.
If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly benevolent, why is there suffering and evil in the world, His creation? There is the matter in a sentence, but its apparent simplicity belies its depth. Thinkers throughout recorded history and in many cultures have pondered the matter. In short, my opinion is that the three premises are inconsistent with the existence of evil and suffering, so at least one of them must be wrong.
I don’t claim to have made an original discovery in my claim, which is the solution offered by many theists, including Mr. Karris. In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner proposed that God must not be omnipotent. He would stop evil and alleviate suffering if He could. God is powerful, just not all-powerful. As He is perfectly benevolent, God stands with us and suffers alongside us, but for some reason, unknown to us, God cannot end evil and suffering. This well-argued book from 20 years ago is still in print. I’d say that Mr. Karris is in this camp.
Mr. Karris objects to the locution that God “allows” things to happen. Why does God allow evil to exist? Why does God allow His faithful to suffer? When we picture God as in charge, running the world according to His plans, hold Him responsible for all events, and able to change His mind, stopping this disaster but not that one, we picture God as an erratic sadist. But He cannot be such. Rather He is always loving and true. Thus, while God can do many things, He cannot do what is logically impossible, for example. The Lord cannot make 2 + 5 = 9, or orange juice, or the Pacific Ocean. It just doesn’t make sense that such things could be done, even by God. Thus, by this line of thought, there is some logical reason or some other reason, why God cannot rescue us from evil and suffering.
I remember reading of legislation proposed in a state assembly to put an end to the term “An Act of God” as a description of disasters man-made or natural. No longer would insurance companies exclude damage from Hurricane Katrina on the grounds that they don’t insure against acts of God. The legislators objected to blaming God for these calamities. Mr. Karris feels the same way.
As a matter of logic, I suppose, we could keep the premise of omnipotence and reject the premise of perfect benevolence. Thus, we’d argue that God could, if He wanted, save people from disaster, disease, and crime, but He is uninterested in doing this. Indeed, in the famous theophany near the end of Job, that’s what God says, that He’s really busy with great things, building mountains, creating the giant creatures of the deep, and the stars in the sky. Who, He asks, is this puny man, Job, to ask Him questions about His purposes and deeds?
Mr. Karris, and many other believers, however, cannot bring themselves to reject the premise of perfect benevolence. He writes:
God is a Spirit, and God is love, and God is always doing the most loving acts possible in every moment, in every nook and cranny of existence. God can be one hundred percent trusted because God would never purposely or maliciously harm any person, especially for some grand Machiavellian purpose.
I can tell that Mr. Karris feels this truth as intensely, deeply, and certainly as he can. No doubt many believers in the Christian and Jewish God, Allah, too, feel the same way.
What does Mr. Karris think of the God of Genesis who flooded the entire Earth, killing all but a few of its residents: men, women, children, animals, plants. We might say that the adults were evil, but why did God kill all of the children? Surely they were innocent of their parents’ crimes? Why did God kill all of the land creatures? (I guess, though it doesn’t say, that sea creatures survived the Flood.) Mr. Karris says that he is biophilic. How does he feel about the Lord’s wiping out all but a tiny number of land creatures?
What does Mr. Karris think of the God sending the Angel of Death to kill the first born son of every Egyptian family in Exodus? None of those children had been involved in the Pharaoh’s policies. Indeed, the Pharaoh’s policies were not his own, as a careful reading of the tale of the Ten Plagues shows that the Lord repeatedly “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart. It seems to me that in this story, the Lord has “maliciously” murdered untold numbers of innocent children, and He does so precisely for “Machiavellian reasons.” That great thinker of the Italian Renaissance counseled a prince that his rule would be most secure if his subjects feared him. The Lord explains His reasons for the plagues, including the last murderous, genocidal one. He says that He wishes to show His chosen people and the Egyptian people that He is powerful and to be feared. Definitely a Machiavellian reason. I also wonder what biophilic Mr. Karris has to say about the various plagues visiting a terrible disease on the Egyptians’ cattle, murrain.
Perhaps he would say that these are only stories, not historical events. He might say that the Bible is neither history nor science, but literature that its authors intended to illuminate for us God’s character. That’s fine, I think, but what lessons about God’s character should we take away from these two stories?
Finally, Mr. Karris’s lucid and passionate essay contains many claims about God’s nature. As an empiricist, I wonder how he knows these things with such certainty. How can we examine evidence and decide which of the main argument’s premises are invalid?