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.
Charlie, how do you know that tragedy and suffering are caused by God?
I don't understand how tragedy and suffering are immoral- or are they? How could Job's sickness be immoral? Is all sickness immoral?
Parents punish their children to persuade them to behave correctly... When God sends evil spirits to torment King Saul, isn't that punishment? I guess God has as much a right to punish an individual as a parent does... Perhaps you disagree.
It seems that any behavior of which you do not approve is deemed "immoral" and "shouldn't happen." Perhaps in your world view it shouldn't have happened- but what right do you have to make that declaration for anyone else?
Religions always get stuck on this point. If God is in charge of the world then God is somehow responsible for bad things. If the religion creates devils, demons, etc. then they inevitably become rival deities which creates problems for monotheisms that polytheisms accept with a shrug. The reality is that there is both capricious aspects of nature that have terrible outcomes and there is evil intent in humans and, I would argue, in some animals. We try to account for this evil and caprice by projecting it onto God or gods to avoid the more obvious and simple explanation….shit happens.
Invictus by William Earnest Henley (1875)
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson (1893)
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
And down Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat--and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet--
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
I suggest that there are only two existential choices in life, and one does not exclude the other: to raise the fist in defiance, and to bow the knee in humility.
Good morning Elizabeth,
I don't think pain and suffering are caused by God. In my view for good or ill God has abandoned the universe, human beings, and all its creatures, and left us alone in the world. We are left to our own devices in a dangerous world. Our fate in in our hands. Disease is a natural circumstance. But if one believes that God is in control, then it follows that what ever happens to us God must share part of the blame, since s/he could have effected some other outcome.
The immoral behavior of the Gods is not in causing tragedy and suffering but in their permitting such things to happen.
To your last question: I speak for no one else but me. One's personal belief is too important to leave to the professionals. Everyone must answer these existential religious questions for themselves. We all have to make sense out of the world. But if a God controls the universe then his/her sense of morality is sadly lacking the human element of compassion.
Good Morning Friend Roger,
A curiosity question: specifically what animals share with humanity an inclination to do evil?
Roger (Community Christian Church) is correct, as usual. Roger sees the universe as it actually is rather than how mankind thought it to be for the past 1,000s of years. Roger implying a deadly snake bite or bear mauling is evil is one way such animal actions may be viewed, and I don't have an issue with calling those actions "evil". Charlie, keep on asking; and Roger, keep on answering.
Good morning Charlie,
Sorry to be late in answering this- but something happened outside in a little pond near our home that made me think of what you asked Roger. You asked what animals share with humans an inclination to do evil... Well I witnessed two parent ducks (and some other adult ducks, mallards I think, joined in) surrounded a little duckling and proceeded to kill it. (I was very distressed to see this take place and wanted to help the little duckling, by the way, but had no idea what I could do) Anyway, I was told by a wildlife rescue operator that yes, sometimes in the wild, the parents of a baby animal will kill it if they suspect something about their offspring is deformed or weak or malfunctioning in some way. Being a mother, that does seem evil to me. I suppose the parent somehow knew the little duckling wouldn't be able to survive on its own and was doing a mercy killing. What do you think of that example?
What about the scripture in Deuteronomy that says God created evil? It's Deut. 2:18 I believe. There's another verse in Isaiah which states God created evil, but Christian translators were uncomfortable with that and translated it to say he crated "disaster." (I do not trust any Christian translation of the Torah or the Tanakh as they tampered with certain texts to make them appear Christological.) Have you ever studied the Jewish teaching on Satan and evil? Jews do not believe Satan is an enemy of God but rather that he is God's servant. Did you know that?
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
Good Morning Jim,
It is true that the term evil is used for natural events (snakes, bears, floods), but as I understand "evil" there is a moral component to the concept. What goes on in the animal kingdom I take to be instinctual rather than morally reprehensible (the first definition in my ready reference dictionary for evil). So the pogram against the Jews in Esther by Haaman is evil, but the viper bite that Paul received on the island of Malta was not.
Correction: The two scriptures that suggest God created evil are Deut. 30:15 and Isaiah 45:7. (best translation is in the original Hebrew and can be found at chabad.org)
Good Morning Elizabeth,
Your description about the Ducks is clearly disturbing to human beings, but in the animal kingdom some species even eat their young. I know next to nothing about duck psychology but if pushed would suggest that it is nature's way of protecting the species (see my comments to Jim above). Can there be moral failure if one does not possess the ability to reason? So I would not describe the adult ducks act as morally reprehensible but I would judge Hitler to be morally reprehensible when he sponsored a cleansing of the human species in Europe.
Deut 2:18 has nothing to do with evil. Can you locate the passages where God creates evil and let me know.
In Hebrew Bible God initially is the source of both Good and Bad that happens to people (see the book of Job for example). We do not find Satan as the enemy of God until after the Babylonian captivity when the Hebrews had been influenced by Babylonian religion (Zoroastrianism).
Sorry Charlie- I thought I posted the correction! I'm not sure what happened maybe I didn't hit "publish" or something. I also sent you an email with an article explaining why God created evil from the Jewish point of view. In short, "the struggle toward a life of virtue is only possible with the existence of evil which serves as a spiritual counterweight. In other words, righteousness cannot exist unless man is free to choose or reject evil." The correct scriptural references are Deut. 30:15 and Isaiah 45:7 which is only correctly translated in non-christian bibles. The Christian translators added "disaster" or "catastrophe" in place of "evil." What are your thoughts? Also- do you agree that the Greek Christian translations of the Hebrew Torah and Tanach are inaccurate because of the efforts to make them fit into a Christological outline? Elizabeth
Another correction: Actually, the KJV of the Torah (i.e.. old testament) does indeed correctly translate Is. 45:7 to read "God created evil."
It seems to me that if there is a creator he/she must be responsible for everything, otherwise one is into the slippery realm of limited and multiple deities. And if there are different dimensions to existence, such entities could actually exist.
But however I think of the spirit realm, I am created with the potential for good and evil. Unlike nature which must follow its own rules for life or death, I am capable of anything. That's why we have reason, but also redemption.
Brilliant minds of the ancients such as Plato and Marcion couldn't stand the idea of One God responsible for the goodness and evils of life. Plato's creative demiurge was demoted under the Form of the Good, and for Marcion, YHWH the creator deity of Israel was demoted under the High God of Jesus.
These are the kind of things I write when I'm in my most extreme modes of interpretation.
How interesting that you should select a verse about God and evil from Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55). Many scholars think that this author wrote in the 6th century B.C.E., during the exile of Israel in Babylon.
I would say that the God of Deutero-Isaiah is the God of the Gospel of Mark and Mark's Jesus Figure, since Mark introduces, in his first couple verses, John the Baptist and Jesus with a quote from Isaiah 40:3.
By a coincidence I happened to be studying this section of Isaiah recently. Here is my summary of divine attributes found there:
So Mark’s gospel is about the God of Deutero-Isaiah, the Elohim/YHWH (God/Lord) of his people Jacob/Israel/Zion (40:27, 51:16), the first and the last (44:6, 48:12), the everlasting creator (40:28), the God of all ends of the earth (45:22), the God of righteousness (45:23-24), who teaches Israel righteousness (48:17, 51:7), who brings his never ending deliverance and forever salvation near (46:13, 51:6; 56:1), who takes vengeance on nations like Babylon (47:1-3), who speaks words of comfort to Jerusalem (40:1-2, 52:2, 9), and promises to be a shepherd to his flock (40:11).
This God chooses Israel as his servant from the ends of the earth (41:8-9; 44:21, 49:3-6), gives rivers of water to the poor and needy parched of thirst (41:17-18), delegates to his servant the task of bringing forth justice to the nations (42:1), to whom kings and queens shall bow down (49:23), and who is savior and redeemer when the servant falls into idolatry and is delivered to reviling and destruction (43:1, 3, 11, 14, 28), but who remain the Lord’s witnesses (44:8)whose transgressions are swept away (44:22).
This is the God who rebuilds Jerusalem and re-lays the foundation of the temple (44:28), who places Cyrus of Persia into his service (45:1, 13).
This is the Lord/God who vindicates and saves the servant from disgrace before his adversaries (50:7-8),who shall lift up into prosperity, knowledge and strength the despised non-violent servant who, by a perversion of justice, suffers in silence unto death the punishment for our transgressions (53:1, 8, 11-12).
This is the God who is the husband of his servant drawing his abandoned wife back with everlasting love (54:5-8, 17), whose everlasting covenant of abundant pardon is admired by all nature (55:3, 7, 10-13).
Good Morning Elizabeth,
The Hebrew used in the two verses you mention above is the same and can be translated either as evil or calamity (or related words). How you translate them depends on the context. In both instances I would have translated it as disaster--referring to the bad things that Yahweh does to people. As I said above the ancient Israelites had no wicked or evil counterpart to God. God was the source of good and evil--even to the point of using evil spirits to accomplish his ends (1 Samuel 19:9). Any God who would deliberately create an ethical evil to seduce people to do bad things is actually a demon parading as a God.
I think that the RSV translators for the most part have given us a neutral translation but the NIV translators have translated the Hebrew Bible from a Christian perspective. But you will never know for sure unless you learn Greek and Hebrew.
Hi Gene! Yes indeed the creator deity of Israel was demoted under the High God of Jesus. That's an understatement. This explains why Jews rightfully recoil from Christian evangelists and Jews for Jesus. They view Jesus worshippers as idolators. I am often dismayed at the arrogance of Christians attempting to re-interpret the prophecies in Isaiah to make them appear Christological and Messianic.
I do not know if John the Baptist actually quoted Isaiah 40:3... But it is interesting to note that John called people to repentance from without a single mention of blood or sacrifice or needing vicarious atonement for sin.
If Jesus's death on the cross is so all-important for forgiving sin- how were people able to ask God for forgiveness before that took place? God forgave David- how did that happen without a blood sacrifice?
Yes, we're all created with a potential for good and evil... When it comes to asking for forgiveness when we fall short, it's interesting to see the difference between the way Jews and Christians go about seeking redemption from their Creator. Elizabeth
I would need to see an example of ra' being used for calamity or disaster. Context is subject to interpretation. Christians interpret the context of the Torah and Tanach differently than Jews. Since the Torah originated and was preserved by the Jews for thousands of years, I trust their interpretation of the Hebrew word ra' over any Christian's. I stringently and fervently disagree with Ignatius who said: "The Christian faith does not look to Judaism, but Judaism looks to Christianity." Elizabeth
I have yet to find a Christian interpretation of ra' that means "evil." Fact is, Jews and Christians interpret that particular Hebrew word differently. Since the Tanach was written in Hebrew originally, I trust the rabbinic interpretation and I give it more credibility than a Christian interpretation. Just because God created evil does not mean he practices it or perpetrates it. Didn't God create sex? Does God partake in sex?
I can claim no real expertise in this field and a lot of sensible people might completely disagree and say that all animal behavior is the result of evolutionary learned instincts that somehow serve the survival of the species. However, it has always seemed to be a narcissistic aspect of humans to assume that only we are capable of moral decision making. Caring for the elderly and ill, for example, does not serve either propagation or defense of the herd but we do see it happen in some animal behaviors.
Of course, there is the matter of applying ethics to animals that some would find hard to swallow. Is a mean dog mean because it likes being mean or does it have some other causative or evolutionary motivation? But then, you could say the same for humans in a deterministic context.
While most of what we think and do may be a combination of evolution and environment, I going to hold onto the belief that we do, at some level, make some decisions based on our view of what is right and what is wrong and I am unwilling to grant that power to humans only. Still, a reasonable person may disagree.
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