My question falls under the rubric of theodicy, which is “the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.”1 God’s goodness clashes with God’s omnipotence when bad things happen to people. That is, if God were good and all-powerful, bad things could never happen to people. But bad things do happen to people. Hence, one of these two propositions is untrue. Religious people, however, need for both propositions to be true; they want to maintain that God is both “good” and “in control of the world” in the face of common human experience that denies the truth of one of these two propositions. The obvious clash between the propositions has led some to attempt a resolution of the dissonance between them in the following two ways:
1. By arguing that “learning to view bad things as good things in disguise are disciplines God wants his children to develop as they mature spiritually”;
2. By arguing that “God will not allow anything to happen to you without his permission. He will not allow any ‘bad thing’ to happen that will not ultimately bring you more good than destruction.”2
The first argument cites 1 Cor 2:14 and Rom 8:1-17 in support. This solution, however, requires self-delusion, since one must convince oneself that bad is actually good. The second argument cites 1 Pet 4:12-13, Rom 9:14-24, Isa 55:8-9, Job 1:6-12, and Gen 50:20 in support. (In neither instance does the scriptural support seem to be on point.) This second argument also requires self-delusion, since it asserts that bad is not actually bad but rather only bad on the surface, for the belief is that it will ultimately bring a situation that is more good than bad.
I simply cannot lie to myself that bad things are not bad but rather they are good things. With respect to my own life I know the difference between good and bad, as most people do. I agree, however, that sometimes good comes out of bad, but statistically it does not happen that often. Bad remains bad even though we may eventually get our lives back in order. In 1979 in a tight academic job market, I was fired from Wagner College along with 24 other members of the faculty because of a financial exigency crisis at the college. It so happened that after sending out what seemed to me hundreds of job applications, I was hired to the faculty of Missouri State University. In my case the situation worked out, but the good (a new job) never has completely eradicated the bad (a painful memory of a being fired and without a future in academia).
In response to my question, it is unfortunately true that the Bible specifically depicts God doing bad things to some people and allowing bad things to happen to others. Here are two examples: God does bad things: 1 Sam 15:1-3, 7-9; Isa 45:7. God allows bad things to happen: the classic instance is depicted in the prose introduction to Job 1:1-2:22.
The question of theodicy “why does God do what s/he does?” continues to plague me like a tiny unfindable pebble in my shoe. I have addressed it obliquely in a number of essays, and this year published two other essays specifically on the question of theodicy.3 The reason it bothers me is because the lack of resolution to the clash between God’s goodness and omnipotence ultimately challenges the very concept of God for a rational person. How does it seem to you?
Missouri State University
1Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s.v. “theodicy.”
2Institute of Basic Life Principles, “Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen,” https://iblp.org/questions/why-does-god-let-bad-things-happen
3“A Conundrum: Two incompatible Propositions,” April 27, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2020/04/ and “Did God Cause (Or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic?” April 12, 2020: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2020/04/did-god-cause-or-allow-covid-19-pandemic.html?m=1
in my view the problem comes in actually thinking that we are talking about "God." There's no way to prove otherwise Feuerbach's (German philosopher and anthropologist, 1804-1872) contention that talking about God is a projection of human experiences and traits onto the universe. As I've suggested a number of times before, we humans must come to think of ourselves as the universe reflecting upon itself (Wink, The Human Being, 2002). Christianity, for the most part, has been unaware of it's own brilliance in reducing divinity to humanity ln the person of Jesus.
Living in houses in the woods for most of my life has, I think, given me a different perspective. Humans, with so many innovations that make life safe, simple and comfortable compared to other life forms that must fight constantly for survival, are fortunate in my middle classed human sliver of the world, since basic needs are usually met without the life or death struggle other organisms face. Just yesterday I saw a raccoon dead in the road, flattened by someone who needed to travel from one place to another in a contrivance that enabled the driver to move more efficiently than walking.
Instead of asking whether God does bad things to people, I notice that the Abrahamic religions have created a god that gives humans control or “dominion” as the KJV puts it, above all other animal life forms. Genesis 1.26-28 in action. Realizing that Earth works largely because of an interdependence of organisms, to what end does the attitude of the superiority of humanity lead the planet?
Bad things happen to all life forms. There is no reason I can find to attribute this to the doings of a god. Defining “good” and “bad” (or positive, negative outcomes) as somehow related to the wiles of a homunculus in the heavens doesn’t seem accurate to me. Life happens. A haiku seems appropriate:
Buzzard circles sky
sensing a carcass below,
He saw this was good.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
How about these titles: Does God do good things to bad people? Does God do bad things to bad people? Does God do good things to good people? Jesus thought the answer was 'yes,' according to the Jesus Seminar: "I say to you, 'love your enemies'...for the Father makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.'(Matt 5:44-45)
Uh oh, maybe God's not entirely neutral and everyone's under a repentance rule: "...the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices...those eighteen killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them - do you think they were worse offenders than all the others? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish...' (Luke 13:1-5) (The JS did not credit this passage to Jesus)
Good Warm November Evening Charlie,
It's 75 degrees here in St. Louis, very unusual for November. We hope you and your loved ones have a safe and healthy Thanksgiving celebration. It will be just the three of us this year... and probably the same for Christmas.
1) Why do you get to assign the label "bad" to anything? What if I disagree with you? Who's right? My husband was laid off during the pandemic. He didn't say it was "bad." Why are you right and why is he wrong? You both experienced the same thing, yet each of you gave it a different label. How can two people experience the same thing and give that same experience two different labels, good and bad? That doesn't seem possible.
2) When someone falls ill or is fired or suffers some catastrophic loss- that only affects your physical form. It does not affect the part of you that is non-physical. The part of you that is spirit. Since God is only interested in saving your "soul," he causes bad things to happen physically because your physical form is temporary and mortal and subject to frailty. What does it matter if you suffer physically when your spirit is saved and ultimately bound for heaven? Suffering is temporary- heaven is eternal. God isn't concerned about your temporary physical comfort. He's concerned about your eternal destination.
3) You've established a solid case that God is responsible for all the bad things that take place in this world from mosquito bites to COVID19 to economic uncertainty and getting fired.... Ok, so it's God's fault whenever those things happen. Is there any benefit in determining whose fault it is- what does assigning blame accomplish?
Many thanks as always, Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
1) If it is my life or the lives of my family in which "bad things" happen (and I get to decide what is bad), it doesn't matter if others disagree since they do not have "any skin in the game" of my life. Just as I do not have "any skin in the game" of their lives.
2)I do not think God causes bad things to happen. And when bad things do happen, it does matter.
3. Again, I do not think that God causes bad things to happen.
Thank you Charlie!
1) Why do bad things matter so much? They're over. Is it productive to keep negative events alive by focusing upon them?
2) If God doesn't cause bad things- then what is he doing wrong? Could he have prevented you from being laid off? If he isn't the cause, and if he doesn't bear any responsibility, then is it logical to bring him into the equation?
Thought provoking as always- thank you, Elizabeth
Good afternoon Elizabeth,
1. One should not dwell on bad things that happen, but rather one should move on. Dwelling on the negative can easily affect one's entire outlook on life. After doing what one can to offset the negative event (or whatever) one moves on to what is next. On the day that I was fired (not laid off) I started sending out job applications. It was caused by a financial exigency meaning poor management of the school (balancing income against outgo).
2. I was writing for those who believe in God and think that God is responsible for whatever happens in life. They take the view that God is omnipotent and manipulates the minutiae of our lives. I think we live in a dangerous world where nothing is determined by a higher power. What happens in our lives ultimately is either our doing or caused by someone else and neither God nor the Devil is to blame.
Many times, “bad” things last a lifetime. Some are temporary setbacks, but there are also long-term or even permanently disabling conditions that could be medical, economic, legal, and so forth. Example: A broken finger is a temporary setback, whereas heart disease is probably long-term. That is what I think of when I think of "bad things" happening, not of passing negative experiences.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Apparently the universe may be structured so that taking positive initiative results in positive feedback, thus breaking through those "bad" downward spirals of experience. And "bad" does seem to have some objectivity, not going away by not claiming its existence.
"Is there anyone among you who, if your Child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the Child asks for fish will give a snake? Or if the Child asks for an egg will give a scorpion? How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:9-11; Luke 11:11-13) (The Jesus Seminar attributed this saying to Jesus himself.)
I call attention to the Nov-Dec 2020 issue of The FourthR publication of the Westar Institute where one finds an article by Charlie entitled "The Blood of Jesus in Early Soteriology and Christology". You will find there a compelling ending to the following statement: "Calling upon the blood of Jesus was a way of________."
The problem of theodicy was a frequent theme of the Zane Grey (1872-1939) novels. Many of his later protagonists had early contact with a world that was brutal to them, for instance, with World War I, in which the lower ranking soldiers came back from the war with serious psychological and physical problems. They tried to fit in an America that had quickly forgotten the Great War, generally finding their “higher purpose” in nature. He constantly proposed the question of God’s existence in a harsh world , where the antagonists, whether human or forces of nature, harmed the most vulnerable, the innocent. These protagonists became strong through their contact with nature, finding God in the brutality of nature. Other protagonists were almost superhuman in strength and stamina, helping the vulnerable while questioning the goodness of God or the existence of God. He was a critic of missionaries on reservations, and his attitude toward “church” religion was generally negative.
While Grey was a man of his times, his books containing stereotypes and words considered racist or ethnocentric today, his books to me do a better job explaining the theological problem of theodicy than religious texts I have read. I have been re-reading the sixty or so that I have, taking notes for something I plan to write about this aspect of his writing. In the one I am re-reading now, “Wanderer of the Wasteland,” his protagonist travels the deserts of the Southwest helping those in trouble and meting out justice in a world of injustice. He becomes a “Jesus” with emotions, who, unlike Jesus, has few qualms about punishing the “wicked.” He must’ve liked the character, since a few years later he wrote another book that continued the saga. Here is a striking quote, one of many about theodicy from the book: “When Adam considered life in nature, he could understand this disease [consumption]. It was merely a matter of animals fighting to survive. Let the fittest win! That was how nature worked toward higher and stronger life. But when he tried to consider the God this stricken woman worshiped, Adam could not reconcile himself to the agony. Why?” (ch.22).
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Great analysis, Dennis! I can see that my education was neglected by not reading all the Zane Grey novels. I think I have only read one and with the passage of time I cannot remember its title.
My students never liked fill in the blank questions much or multiple response questions but let me try:
"Calling upon the blood of Jesus was a way of insisting that he was human."
Good Thanksgiving Eve Charlie,
Yes, the people who believe in God also believe he is responsible for everything that happens in life. And yes, they simultaneously believe he is 100% good at the same time. Since you do not seem to hold the opinion that God is responsible for everything that happens in this life, then why waste time attempting to reconcile those two seemingly opposite points of view? In order to reconcile them- first you would need to believe one or the other. Or at least give lip service to one. Otherwise- you'd have no interest solving the riddle.
Since that is not the case, then you are left with the position of being an outsider. As an outsider, you do not have certain pre-conceived notions or assumptions that most Christians contain... Number one being: what happens to humans in physical form does not matter. Only the destination of their eternal soul matters.
So if God allows bad things to happen in this physical time space reality to your mortal and limited physical form- so what? The part of you that is non-physical will be restored to perfection in Paradise. In that sense, bad things do not matter when they occur on earth because they are temporary and will evaporate over time. Bad things only matter if they occur in the afterlife because they are permanent and eternal. How do you not see that? Elizabeth
Thank you, Charlie. One question that becomes a motif in this book (and others) that I think is relevant (worded in different ways and speculated in several ways) is “What is ‘God.” This question of “what” must be answered to know “why.”
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Elizabeth,
1. It wasn't wasted time. The issue interested me. Obviously it is an issue that interests traditional Christian believers at large.
2. I think that it does matter what happens to people physically.
3.I do see it; I don't accept it.
Dennis, I would answer "What?" by repeating the first post under this present topic. In my opinion, the question "Why?" cannot be answered.
While that might provide an answer for a thinking church-goer who studies theology, it becomes more complex than that in the situations in which the protagonists (who do not consider themselves "Christians" but people searching for answers) find themselves. That "solution" is one of those found, which of course makes, from time to time, missionaries and others, makes their god into a "knock-off," as Zappa sang, "A little bit cheesy but nicely displayed."
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Evening Charlie,
The reason the issue interests believers at large is because the issue isn't a riddle to them- they actually believe both premises and bank their eternity on them. They don't sit around sipping tea while contemplating mental abstractions and theological concepts. This is 100% real to them. The pastor who used to counsel me (I don't want to publicly give out his name) once said that a large majority of his clients were angry at God because they hold him responsible for bad things happening to their loved ones... But they felt horrendous guilt at the same time for not believing in his goodness. It's called a double bind. Double binds can actually lead to mental illness according to some experts. So this is not a game with traditional Christians.
You could never be a traditional Christian since you don't believe in the temporal nature of man's existence and the concept of crucifying the flesh... (Gal. 5:24, Rom. 8:13) What do you think Jesus meant in Matt. 10:39? Why were there so many martyrs in early Christianity? What was Paul talking about in 2Cor. 5:4 "what is mortal being swallowed up by life?" Bad things didn't matter to Paul and Jesus... They only matter to people who refuse share in the sufferings and afflictions of Christ. Everyone else is happy to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
I'm not saying that I agree with any of that claptrap... but for true believers, those scriptures are the only avenue through which they can overcome this double bind they are in. You may not accept it (I certainly don't accept or agree with any of it either)... However you cannot deny the fact that these orthodox Christians wholeheartedly accept this self-sacrificial explanation 100%. Otherwise, they'd lose their faith altogether.
My eyes were opened this nonsense a long time ago- but I lived in their twisted world for much of my youth and I know these kinds of people like the back of my hand. Elizabeth
This blog topic "set me" to thinking about a flaw, inasmuch as modern thought is involved, with the god of Judaism and the god of Christianity. The Eden fable suggests that God cursed humanity for trying to aspire to the gods by eating of the forbidden “tree of knowledge,” leading to misery in childbirth for women and men having to till unproductive soil until death. Christianity turned that into a congenital condition caused by the sin of the “first man,” for whom God needed to send a son to redeem or rescue. I reckon if humanity had eaten from the “tree of life” folks would have lived forever. It wasn’t “forbidden,” far as I can tell in Genesis and was a metaphor for “wisdom and happiness” in Proverbs 3. But, if you will pardon the pun, that was the difference between “apples and oranges.”
This led me for some reason to what the “form” of gods in that part of the world was. I was influenced by Mark S. Smith’s “Where the Gods are.” In the Bible, there was the “human and fleshy” god found in households, in nature, where seeing God was not critical to the story in Genesis. Then, there was the “supersized” God called the “liturgical god” found in temples in shrines, something that was sometimes luminous, quasi-human in form, where seeing God was part of the story. Finally, there was the “cosmic” god, found at or above the heavens, difficult to describe or explain. Whether this was the view of the culture or times these books were written or merely the view of the particular author I don’t know, but the “picture” of the gods seems to have developed over time. (Within this are figures of anthropomorphism, theriomorphism and physiomorphism.) Now I need to look at the personalities of these divergent “portraits” of “god forms” to look at their character traits, to see how that relates to the topic of suffering, yet another topic for me to explore. Thanks!
Though I am not a Buddhist, I tend to see their explanation of suffering as more lucid. Buddhism states up front that life is unsatisfactory, painful. Instead of attributing this to the “will of God,” it is seen as caused by attachments, by craving. One ends this desire or craving by understanding and practicing wisdom, morality and consciousness, having the mindfulness to do what is right, and by realizing “all things are transitory.” Ways to do this are found in a plethora of “canonical” books (which differ from sect to sect, one of the more influential being The Dhammapada).
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dennis, part of what opened my eyes to the warped nature of Christianity's teachings on suffering and crucifying the flesh was Eckhart Tolle's lectures on Buddha's awakening in his early life- the name means "Awakened One." Like you, Eckart is not a Buddhist either, but his insights resonated really well with me.
Charlie, I wish to change the sentence that reads "Everyone else is happy to take up their cross and follow Jesus." That's a mistake- traditional Christians are not at all happy to do that. A better word would have been "willing," they are willing to take up their so-called cross... Again, it's because they believe that by experiencing bad things, they will somehow be transformed into a holy being like Christ.
It's a precarious dance for them... Because when the rubber hits the road and real life asserts itself into this idealistic fantasy... Things get rather messy for traditional Christians. All of the sudden (and understandably so) those pious scriptures about "taking up the cross" and "losing one's life for Jesus's sake" do not assuage the grief and shock with which real life smacks you in the face from time to time... At those unfortunate times, their doctrinally perfect belief systems collapse all around them like a house of cards. Elizabeth
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