Can humans really trust the Gods always to treat us with integrity, when on our better days we appear to have a sharper sense of morality than they do on their worse days? We assume Gods will always act with integrity—after all, they are divine. We expect immoral behavior from demons, but not from Gods. The record, however, is flawed. For instance, in Homer's epic poem the Iliad Zeus deceived Agamemnon with a lying dream—to the hurt and detriment of Achilles (2:1–35). And even Yahweh, the God of the Bible, sent a lying spirit to deceive King Ahab of Israel so he would be defeated in battle. Later he placed lying spirits in the mouths of all the prophets of Israel (1 Kings 22:19–23). On another occasion, he sent an evil spirit to torment King Saul (1 Samuel 16:14–15)—strange behavior for a God! Such behavior by the Gods recalls Homer's description of Zeus' father, Cronus, as the God "of the crooked ways" (Iliad 2:205).
Humans believe it is not ethical to deceive or mistreat others. And that is one reason the "serious misconduct and loss of moral value" of American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraqi war was so reprehensible. The soldiers were held accountable for their actions, but apparently Gods can act as they wish—and with impunity! We explain their occasionally shocking ways by arguing that Gods obviously know the big picture. Since they are Gods, we assume they must know what is best for us in the long term. Our human view of things is finite; we see matters dimly and then only in short term. So we conclude: an event appearing tragic to us must only be so from our limited perspective, for surely Gods always act justly. For that reason, we tend to think that our personal tragedies must somehow be for the best. This solution, however, leaves honest folk with a nagging ethical question: how can bringing anyone harm ever be considered "good"? Is it possible that Gods do not always know best after all, and humans invented that idea to cover divine misbehavior? Or is it, perhaps, possible that the writers of our religious texts have mistakenly misled us? For example, did Jesus really instruct his disciples to take up the sword (Luke 22:36).
The biblical book of Job is one of the clearest examples of divine misbehavior in the literature. Job simply could not understand why tragedy struck his life. When his "friends" told him that God punished him because of his sins, Job was perplexed. He was willing to admit he was not perfect, but he knew his suffering was not proportionate to the sins he committed. And Job actually was correct: God permitted his egregious suffering to see if he would commit a greater sin, as the text makes plain (Job 1–2).
"The ends never justify the means" is clearly an idealistic sentiment, and we humans on our worst days never quite measure up. In cases of expediency, we frequently find our ends justifying our means, like at Abu Ghraib, for example. Nevertheless, when we privilege ends over means, we at least know we are traveling down a lower road. And if we finite humans sometimes know the difference between high road and low road, shouldn't Gods always know the difference?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
This essay appeared in Charles W. Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 12-13.