Showing posts with label #Theodicy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Theodicy. Show all posts

The Epicurean Paradox: Why is there evil?

by K.W. Leslie, 07 May

A reader wanted me to tackle the Epicurean Paradox, as it’s called. Yeah, why not.

Epicurus of Athens (341–270BC) was the founder of “the Garden,” a philosophy school. He’s a materialist and empiricist; he believed the gods didn’t involve themselves in human affairs; he believed the purpose of philosophy was to promote peace and tranquility and alleviate suffering. Over the centuries “epicurean” evolved into a synonym for “foodie,” which is weird ’cause Epicurus preferred simple meals. He wrote more than 300 works on all sorts of subjects, but we only have three books and various random quotes.

The Epicurean Paradox is one of those quotes. For all we know Epicurus didn’t even come up with it; it was a popular ancient meme with his name attached, much like the Prayer of St. Francis. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it predates Epicurus; somebody had to have thought of it before him.

In any event Christian philosopher Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (ca. 250–325) quotes the paradox in his book De ira Dei/“On God’s Wrath,” in which he critiqued the non-foodie Epicureans of his day. My translation:

Epicurus said God either wants to eliminate evil and can’t; or can, but doesn’t want to; or neither can nor wants to; or can and wants to. If he wants to and can’t, he’s weak—which fails to describe God. If he can but doesn’t want to, he’s jealous—which is equally alien to God. If he neither can nor wants to, he’s jealous and weak—therefore not God. If he can and wants to, which is the only proper conclusion… God, where are you? Lactantius 13.20-21

It’s obviously not an exact quote, ’cause Lactantius’s comments—“which fails to describe God,” “which is equally alien to God”—wouldn’t be part of the meme. Anyway, the gist of it worked its way down to Scottish philosopher David Hume, who put it this way in his 1779 book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—placed in the mouth of his character Philo.

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? Hume 10

Clearly Hume never read the source of the Epicurean Paradox, ’cause Lactantius actually does answer the old question. Which I’m now gonna quote from the Ante-Nicene Fathers translation, “A Treatise on the Anger of God Addressed to Donatus,” ’cause I don’t feel like translating the whole of it.

For God is able to do whatever he wishes, and there is no weakness or envy in God. He is able, therefore, to take away evils; but he does not wish to do so, and yet he is not on that account envious. For on this account he does not take them away, because he at the same time gives wisdom, as I have shown; and there is more of goodness and pleasure in wisdom than of annoyance in evils. For wisdom causes us even to know God, and by that knowledge to attain to immortality, which is the chief good. Therefore, unless we first know evil, we shall be unable to know good. But Epicurus did not see this, nor did any other, that if evils are taken away, wisdom is in like manner taken away; and that no traces of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in enduring and overcoming the bitterness of evils. And thus, for the sake of a slight gain in the taking away of evils, we should be deprived of a good, which is very great, and true, and peculiar to us. It is plain, therefore, that all things are proposed for the sake of man, as well evils as also goods. Lactantius 13

So for Lactantius, God can but doesn’t want to, not because he’s evil, but because he’s gonna teach us to fight evil alongside him, and that’s good. I like his answer. It’s not my answer, but it’s a darned good one.

But it’s an answer which won’t work at all for people who don’t believe in God, like Hume. Or who don’t think a relationship with God is even possible, like Epicurus. Or don’t even want such a relationship with God, like many pagans. They just want evil and suffering to stop already; they don’t wanna fight it; and they’ll preemptively dismiss any answer to the problem of evil and pain which involves God at all. My answer definitely won’t work for ’em.

Additions to the paradox.

So there’s this meme of the Epicurean Paradox on the internet, in which someone turned it into a flowchart. I don’t care for its design, ’cause I’m a graphic artist and I can definitely make it easier to read and follow. Looks like yea:


A redditor’s version of the Epicurean Paradox. Reddit

Like Hume, the person who created it doesn’t appear to have read the source of the paradox, ’cause it doesn’t end with “God, where are you?” It adds a few more steps.

The Epicurean Paradox part begins with the premise, “Evil Exists,” then asks, “Can God Prevent Evil?”, “Does God know about all the Evil?”, and “Does God want to prevent Evil?” These are not quite Epicurus’s questions; neither in Lactantius nor Hume’s versions. Not sure where the flowchart-maker got ’em. But after asking these three questions, it goes to “Then why is there Evil?” Which isn’t the question we put at the conclusion; it’s the very question we’re tackling. It goes up top!

I studied logic, and of course we learned to make flowcharts. Proper flowcharts reduce questions to binaries: They’re questions which can only be answered with a yes or no, a true or false, or otherwise only two options. (And not false binaries, where there’s actually a third option, but we neglected to include it ’cause we’re either being sloppy… or deceptive.) “Why is there evil?” is far from binary. The flowchart-maker only provides us three options, and there are way more than just the three. And when you have a question with dozens of possible answers, you don’t use a flowchart! You use a brainstorming chart.

Epicurus’s conclusion wasn’t “Why is there evil?” but “God, where are you?” And that’s where the flowchart goes all the way away from Epicurus. Now we get into its maker’s three rejected theories as to why evil exists:

  1. IT’S A TEST. To which the maker objects an all-knowing God shouldn’t have to test anything, since he already knows the answers.
  2. IT’S SATAN’S FAULT. To which the maker objects an almighty God should destroy Satan.
  3. ANY OTHER REASON. To which the maker objects an almighty God should’ve dealt with those reasons too.

And the maker also threw in some arrows so we can just go round in circles with these questions all the live-long day, till frustrated.

Y’know, all these additions to the paradox were actually dealt with by the paradox. Dealt with better and more efficiently.

My answer.

But enough with leaving you hanging, ’cause you probably want to know how I’d answer Epicurus.

And if I were answering Epicurus directly, I’d have to deal with some other things first. Namely that Epicurus was deist: He believed in God (or, being an ancient Greek, gods), but believed they didn’t interact with humanity. Evil exists because God might want to vanquish it, and be able to vanquish it… but he simply doesn’t intervene. He stays out of things and leaves us be. Functionally it’s the same as nontheism.

So the paradox isn’t really a paradox. I mean, it appears to be when you believe God is good, God is mighty, and God intervenes: If that’s so, why isn’t he intervening? But if you don’t believe God intervenes, or if you don’t think there’s any God there to intervene, the “paradox” simply explains the way the world works: God’s not part of the equation, so stop dwelling on it (or, for that matter, religion) and live your life.

To answer Epicurus, first I gotta show him God does so intervene. Otherwise he’s gonna look at my every potential answer as me, sputtering out inadequate arguments because the world clearly doesn’t work like my religion teaches me.

But to answer Christians who wanna know why evil exists in a good God’s universe, here y’go: God wants to eliminate evil, and can. And is.

Our problem, and the skeptics’ problem, is God isn’t eliminating it like we’d eliminate it, were we God. We’d do it faster. We’d smite evildoers harder. We’d be a lot more wrathful, a lot less subtle, a lot less gracious. We wouldn’t bother to try to save every human we possibly can first; we’d figure they weren’t worth saving. Like the dark Christians love to point out, everybody deserves hell, and we’d happily, recklessly throw them all into it so we could get our way. Much like the ancient Romans would indiscriminately crucify everybody till they finally got peace.

In eliminating evil, we’d do all sorts of evil. And because we think we have a handle on God (and we don’t really) we project a lot of our motives and means upon him, and want him to get all wrathful and smitey like we would, and fret when he doesn’t. Doesn’t he care about evil like we do?

Of course he does. But the way he’s chosen to defeat it is through love. And because we humans suck at love, we assume love is too passive for our tastes. We much prefer vengeance.

At the very end of God’s process, evil will be gone. Everything evil did, will be undone. Death will be undone. Tears will be wiped away. All things will become new. Those of us who trust him, know this era is coming. Those of us who don’t, are trying to create it already (and inadequately) through laws and peer pressure… and any other means than love. Or they’ve given up and presume God’s left the building, or isn’t there.

And they’re probably not gonna like my answer either. Oh well.

Did this coronavirus originate with God?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 March

As I write this in March 2020, the world is going through a pandemic of coronavirus, specifically COVID-19. We don’t have a vaccine yet—and plenty of fools will refuse it anyway once it’s developed and available—so meanwhile we’re largely under quarantine. I live in California, and people here are expected to stay home. It’s not illegal to leave home, and hopefully never comes to that… so long that people wisely stick to our leaders’ wishes instead of being defiantly libertarian. The thinking is if we all stay apart, the virus won’t spread, and we can spare some of the people who might be hit hardest by it. So for the most part we can only interact via internet, and can go out only for supplies—or if we have essential jobs. (I do, and have been working a lot of overtime.)

And yeah, since I’m posting this on the internet, you knew this already. I’m explaining ’cause people may read this article years from now, and know nothing about it, or have forgotten most of it.

Naturally people wanna know God’s role in all this. And naturally plenty of people think they already have answers to that question, and are happy to share them with anyone who asks. Even people who don’t ask. None of TXAB’s readers asked me what I think about it. Which is fine; I wrote this article preemptively. It’ll come in handy in the event of future viruses.

So as I wrote in my first article on theodicy, humans have five typical answers to “Where’s God?” based on how they imagine him. And there’s a lot of projection involved in these answers. By default, we humans fill in the gaps of our knowledge with ourselves and our motives. If we like to imagine we’re nice, kind, good people, we extrapolate these motives onto God: He’s a nice, kind, good God. If we’re self-centered and not so kind, we imagine God’s kind of a dick too. So the answers to “Where’s God?” run the gamut:

  • “God created this virus long ago; probably to kill bats. We unleashed it on ourselves. Shouldn’ta messed with nature.”
  • “God doesn’t create viruses, so don’t pin this on him. Humanity created it. Probably the government.”
  • “This is God’s wrath. His punishment towards a world full of dirty sinners. ’Cause it’s long past time the Baby Boomers reaped the consequences for their wanton ways. Repent!”
  • “God’s fighting this virus right along with us. He’s inspiring scientists to invent cures. He’s strengthening nurses to care for the sick. And I can sell you some essential oils, or silver-embedded tchotchkes, which’ll cure you too! I take Venmo.”
  • “God unleashed this plague so humanity would put aside all our petty differences and fight a common enemy—the virus.” (I like to call this theory “the Watchmen scenario,” based on the graphic novel where—spoilers—that’s what happens. But y’notice diehard partisans never actually do put petty differences aside. For anything or anyone. Bitterness can run mighty deep.)
  • “God had nothing to do with the virus, good or bad. Stop talking religion and go wash your hands.”

And variations thereof. Which one’s correct? I myself lean in the fighting-it-with-us direction, but let’s get closer to right, shall we?

Karma and natural disasters.

Most of our problem begins because people try to apply the rules of karma to plagues. Very few of us are comfortable with the idea this sort of thing just happens, randomly, and has no meaning. After all, the human brain was created to solve problems, to find meanings—even where there aren’t any. So we try ”connecting the dots,” if we think we can find any.

If you wanna analyze the average human’s quick-’n-dirty thought process in more detail, it loosely goes like this: Viruses cause suffering; suffering must happen for a reason; the reason must be that people deserve to suffer. Usually because they did something evil. The universe is punishing them. They racked up some bad karma.

Too much karmic thinking has wormed its way into Christianity, and the result are far too many Christians who think God uses viruses, and other forms of suffering, to punish the wicked. Like Jesus’s students asked him before he cured a blind man, “Rabbi, between this man or his parents, who sinned so he’d be born blind?” Jn 9.2 KWL Somebody had to have sinned. It simply didn’t occur to the kids this man’s blindness might have no meaning behind it at all. That the only way it has any meaning is if Jesus gives it one—by becoming its cure. Jn 9.3-5

And if this idea ever does occur to people, they put it out of their heads right away. They don’t wanna live in a random universe, where bad things can happen to just anyone for no reason. They want to know, no matter what, everything happens for a reason; everything’s going according to a divine plan; the universe is gonna sort everything out; all things are working together for our good. Chaos terrifies them. So they gotta have determinism: God has his hand on absolutely everything that ever happened or will happen. There are no accidents.

And if there are no accidents, disasters therefore have a purpose. Chaos has a cause; it’s not simply the way things naturally are before God starts to sort things out. Ge 1.2 Suffering has a meaning—namely, that somebody sinned. Doesn’t have to be you that sinned, ’cause Jesus didn’t, and clearly suffered because others sinned. But it’s gotta be somebody’s sin behind our suffering. Like Adam’s original sin or something: We’ll blame Adam, at least, for the fallen world we live in, and the occasional virus which gives us anything from sniffles to violent death.

But is a deterministic universe what the scriptures describe? Nope. Read Ecclesiastes again. Time and chance happen to everyone. Ec 9.11 Accidents, disorder, mayhem, illness, and disaster can strike for no reason, kill for no reason, and ruin one’s life for no reason. If you don’t wanna live in a universe like this: Tough beans. You do.

Could God control absolutely everything in it, if he wanted to? Of course; he’s easily that powerful. But does he? Nope. He created a universe where bad things might and do happen. It’s risky, and many of us would really rather he not take such a risk. But I remind you, God is so almighty, it’s not really a risk to him. He knows precisely how everything’s gonna turn out, regardless. (Being unlimited by time, God already exists way beyond the point he sorted everything out; he sees exactly how good it’ll be.) So if we’re his kids, we’re gonna be better than fine in the long run. If we’re not… well, don’t choose that option!

In the short run, we gotta put up with the chaos. Which includes dealing with accidents, disorder, mayhem, illness, and disaster. And recognizing that sometimes they mean nothing. They just happen. It’s the universe we live in. God’s not behind them; God’s not smiting us with them; God’s not manipulatively using them to build character. They happen.

Karma is what people believe in, and cling to, when they can’t handle this idea. And karma is never based on grace. It’s always gonna be harshly judgmental: We’ll take little, minor things—stuff which had little to no consequences; stuff which God forgave long ago, and Jesus’s blood entirely wiped out—and we’ll blow them up into the entire reasons for our suffering. Like “The reason you got cancer was because you gossiped that one time.” As if little sins throw God into a crazy homicidal rage… but then again, when people don’t know God, they’ll believe he’s that kind of psycho. (Even teach it in church!)

So if we’re gonna talk about what God does or doesn’t do through natural disasters, we first gotta shove aside any of this determinism nonsense, or this karma nonsense. Both these things will simply mess us up, and make us think God’s behind all the evil in the universe. No he’s not. Bad stuff happens. But God is good.

God isn’t behind every disease.

When the LORD permitted Satan to take a dump all over his faithful follower Job of Utz, Satan gave Job boils. Not the LORD; Satan. Job’s plague didn’t originate from God; it came from Satan. Says so in the bible and everything.

Job 2.7-8 KWL
7 Satan went forth from the LORD’s face.
It struck Job with evil boils, from the sole of his foot to his scalp.
8 Job got himself a pottery shard to scratch himself with.
He sat in the middle of the garbage fire ashes.

Doesn’t say whether the boils were the result of a massive allergic reaction, a bacterium, or a virus. All we know is they didn’t come from God.

Where’d this disease come from? Duh; Satan. But certain Christians are gonna insist God’s the only creator, so therefore Satan can’t have engineered a disease; it must’ve borrowed an old disease, like the plague of boils God used on the Egyptians. Ex 9.9 Thing is, if humans can do it, I don’t see why the devil can’t; and since humans have learned know how to edit gene sequences, clearly this is an ability not limited to the Creator alone. I don’t rule out the possibility an evil spirit stole some DNA and repurposed it to kill and destroy; that’s exactly the sort of thing Satan does. Jn 10.10 I also don’t rule out the likelihood a beneficial bacterium or virus devolved into something destructive and deadly; chaos happens too.

Determinists are gonna insist every disease has a divine reason, a divine cause, and a divine origin: God created ’em, causes them, and has his reasons. Even when the devil makes someone sick, or some terrorist nation tries a little biological warfare, determinists are gonna insist God’s hiding behind the scenes, allowing disease—again, for divine reasons. They’re mighty insistent on pinning the blame for every disease upon God. ’Cause if he isn’t behind every single disaster, it implies in their minds he’s lost control of his universe; we’re boned.

On the contrary: If God’s behind every disease, yet Jesus cures people of disease and actively fights disease, we are so boned. Because all of Jesus’s compassion for sick people would be an act. Would be hypocrisy. He set everything up, endangered people’s lives, all so he can look like the hero, but it’s entirely for show—and he’s only pretending that hypocrisy annoys him more than anything. He’s a fraud; you can’t trust him… and if we can’t trust Jesus, like I said, we’re boned. Christianity falls apart, and we’ve no idea whether we’re even saved. So yeah, determinism isn’t quite as comforting as you’d imagine. No matter how you struggle to explain it, determinism always turns God into a secretly-evil schemer.

Yes God has used plagues and disease to punish people in the past. He used boils on the Egyptians, hemorrhoids on the Philistines, 1Sa 5.6 leprosy on Miriam Nu 12.10 and Uzziah 2Ch 26.19 and Gehazi. 2Ki 5.27 It’s not like viruses are outside of his toolbox, if he’s gotta get people’s attention, and sometimes even punish them. It’s just when he does smite people with disease, he makes it abundantly clear that’s what he’s up to. Has he done likewise with our current plague? Nope.

Some natural disasters have nothing to do with God, 1Ki 19.11-12 and this is one of them. He’s not the cause. He can be the cure, when we turn to him; same as every disease. And he can also answer no, if he chooses. But let’s not start with a disastrous initial mistake, and automatically presume he’s the cause.

Why does bad stuff happen in a good God’s universe?

by K.W. Leslie, 18 March
THEODICY θi'ɑd.ə.si noun. Explanation or argument for how God can be good, despite the existence or activity of evil.
[Theodicean θi'ɑd.ə.si.ən adjective.]

Disaster strikes our world on a daily basis.

Might be a huge natural disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, or plague. Might be a “man-made” disaster, like a war, famine, mass shooting, or some terrorist activity. Might be a small disaster: One person unexpectedly dies. Or it’s a wholly expected death; a long illness, and we knew that person wasn’t gonna recover, despite doctors and treatments and prayers.

Every time these disasters strike, people wanna know why God didn’t prevent it.

’Cause that’s his job, they insist. He’s almighty, right? He could totally stop it. But he didn’t. Why the [angry expletive] not? What’s his problem? Doesn’t he care? Does he want evil to happen? Maybe he’s not really almighty. Maybe he’s not really there.

These questions and accusations come out of suffering and loss and rage. They’re totally natural. Most of us wonder ’em from time to time: If God’s almighty, why doesn’t he intervene? ’Cause we’d intervene. If we were God, we totally would step in and put a stop to the suffering. We’d rescue everyone. Or at least the good people. I mean, if a tornado’s gonna smite a trailer park full of child molesters, meth cooks, and white supremacists, that’s fine; they’re getting what’s coming to them. But good people oughta live!

Anyway, whenever people have these questions, out come the Christian apologists, who take it upon themselves to answer the questions, instead of just letting emotional people vent for a bit. Because they’re afraid these people will get so angry with God, they’ll quit. They’ll turn apostate. They’ll spread doubt and nontheism and unbelief, and we’ll be in an even bigger mess than before. We gotta defend God. So they do.

This particular field of apologetics—defending God from people who aren’t so sure he’s good or almighty—is called theodicy. And no, it’s not an abbreviation for “theological idiocy,” though some of its arguments sure make it feel like that. It’s a compound of the Greek words Theós/“God” and díki/“behavior”—it’s an attempt to explain God’s behavior. Or absence of it.

“Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” is the usual way it’s phrased. And when it gets right down to it, there are about five typical answers.

  1. God’s not there. Nobody’s there to stop evil from happening. It’s up to us.
  2. God is there… but doesn’t get involved. Again, up to us.
  3. God’s there, does get involved, and this was him getting involved: He’s behind the disaster. (For reasons. Bigger picture, secret sins, you name it.)
  4. God’s there, involved… but isn’t God as you imagine him. (He’s not almighty, doesn’t actually know the future, isn’t actually good, has some special arrangement with Satan, etc.)
  5. God’s limited himself, and won’t always intervene. (For reasons.)

And—no surprise—those who’ve just suffered a loss, don’t like any of these answers. Because they’re not actually looking for reasons. They just want the disaster undone, and defending what we think God is actually up to, isn’t helping.

Know your audience.

There’s a time and place to talk theodicy. It’s not after a disaster just happened.

Yet a lot of Christians assume it’s the perfect time to talk about it. ’Cause hey, people are thinking about God! Yeah, they’re royally pissed at him, but they’re thinking about him, so here’s our opportunity!

Trouble is, we use the opportunity to misrepresent him. Which pisses people off at God (and us) even more; and in some cases alienate ’em for life. As happens whenever Calvinist pastor John Piper gets it into his head to declare what he believes about God. That’d namely be theory #3, where God’s there, fully involved… and occasionally smitey.

Back in 2013, right after a tornado killed 24 and injured 377 in Moore, Oklahoma, Piper tweeted this:


Piper has since taken this tweet down—but not after offending a lot of people. Paul Wilkinson

What the heck is wrong with Piper? Believe it or not, he finds comfort in such verses.

No, seriously. To him, they mean God’s in control! And in the long run, God’s gonna make everything all good, and restored, and better; God’s gonna let Piper into his kingdom, happy and whole and living forever. Therefore it’s totally okay if Piper’s miserable, broken, and dying in this age; the next one’s gonna be awesome, and makes up for all the misery of today.

Piper’s had a lot of years to reconcile himself to the idea of God as a destroyer, a shatterer of worlds. So if God were sic a tornado on his house, and lay waste to his entire family, of course Piper wouldn’t be happy about it… but it’s precisely the sort of behavior he expects of God. To his mind, sometimes we get good from God, and sometimes evil. Jb 2.10 It feels kinda arbitrary and random from our end, but it all makes sense to God; it’s sorted out within his secret will. Sometimes God keeps us under his hedge of protection, Jn 1.9-12 and sometimes he lets Satan use us as its toilet paper. Whatever. God knows best.

Whereas your average pagan—heck, your average Christian—isn’t used to this idea, and finds it atrocious. And any God who runs the cosmos by it is just as atrocious.

Anyway, someone finally clued Piper in on how he was being perceived. So he took down this tweet, and another Job quote like it. One of his associates explained this doesn’t mean Piper retracted his beliefs; he still totally believes God is the first cause of every plague. It’s just for the sake of Christian charity, he realized now’s the time to be kind to those who mourn. God definitely slew their family, but the news has to be broken to people gently.

That’s advice the rest of us would do well to remember. Even if you believe, as Piper does, God’s actively or passively behind every disaster: If you present the news like a thoughtless a--hole, people will immediately assume your God is likewise a thoughtless a--hole. Hey, it’s the fruit you’re bearing. Take that into consideration for once.

But hopefully you realize this description of God makes God sound… well, awful. Even after you justify all the awfulness, most people’s response is still gonna be, “Good Lord, is that who you believe God is?” And even if they’re pretty sure you’re wrong about God, they’re gonna have all sorts of doubts about your level of compassion.

But more often they’re gonna confuse your dark Christianity for the real thing, your bad news for the good news… and want nothing to do with it.

That said…

I’m gonna write more than one theodicy piece, ’cause it’s a complicated discussion.

And I’ll admit up front my own beliefs. I begin with the premise God is good. Not “God sovereignly determines all,” which is usually what leads people in John Piper’s direction. Because the way they define sovereignty, they can’t reconcile God’s micromanagement of the universe with the character of a good God. There’s so much evil in the universe. If it’s all a necessary part of God’s plan, it’s bluntly an evil plan. You can’t reasonably call it anything else. This insistence on determinism inevitably makes Christians redefine “good” till it’s not goodness anymore, and God’s turned into a cosmic hypocrite who only pretends he’s good. I’m absolutely not going there. God is authentically good.

Hence my beliefs hover round theory #5, God’s self-limitation. But regardless of my beliefs, hopefully we Christians all accept that in the long run, God is gonna restore the universe to the way he originally intended it. Everything will be definitely good.

Meanwhile, when people are hurting, we can’t only think about the short run. Yes, we want God to fix things. Mend our hurts, save lives, repair buildings, restore health, provide jobs, put our finances back. Thing is, for most people, after God fixes things… we kinda want him to leave us alone from now on. We wanna go back to the life we had where he wasn’t involved. Which isn’t at all what he wants. But we aren’t thinking about his feelings.

God doesn’t wanna fix just one thing. He intends to fix everything. Including stuff we were kinda hoping God would never, ever touch. God’s in the process of eradicating sin. Some of us really don’t want him to interfere with our sins.

Picture a rich man who’s only used to spending his wealth selfishly. Say he invests with a con man and loses everything. He’s gonna want God to restore his fortune, right? But God’s gonna want to restore him, to righteousness. But all the rich man really wants is his money.

Picture a poor woman who’s awful to her neighbors. Say she gets injured, and desperately wants her health back. You do realize God wants her, once restored, to make nice with the neighbors. Again, all she really wants is to be well. But God isn’t content to only fix us in part. He wants us whole. He wants to heal everything. That’s his goal.

We only want God to return everything to status quo ante, then go away. So of course we don’t understand him. And of course we don’t like the answers which suggest God’s trying to bring about his endgame—his kingdom here on earth—as part of his restoration process. We don’t want that. (Or we do, we claim… but we want it way, way in the future, or after we’re dead, or someplace where it won’t interfere with our plans.) When that’s the way we think, our beliefs about God are swiftly gonna tilt in every other direction. God’s gonna be judgey and vengeful. Or passive and absent. Or have a secret evil plan kinda like we have secret evil plans. Or in any other way… not actually good.

Yep, theodicy’s a minefield. It’s gonna make these articles an interesting little dance.

Elections and God’s will.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 November

One of the myths American Christians like to tell ourselves, is that democracy reflects God’s will. Vox populi, vox Dei/“the people’s voice [is] God’s voice,” is the old slogan.

A slogan which doesn’t come from the bible, of course. It’s a very old Roman slogan… which is actually derived from the old Roman pagan religion. The Romans believed one of the ways they could deduce the gods’ will was to observe the masses. If suddenly everyone in the city wanted something, they figured it was a sure bet the gods wanted it, and were influencing humans to express their desires. It gave them a religious justification for democracy… and at the same time, gave the priests a religious justification to ditch their traditions when they were no longer popular.

But it’s not Christian thinking whatsoever. You might recall it was the crowds (riled up by the head priests, but still) who called for Pontius Pilate to execute Jesus. Mk 15.9-15 You might recall because the crowds regularly defied God, he had to flood the world, scramble Babel’s languages, burn down Sodom, have the Hebrews slaughter the God-resistant Amorites and Philistines, then have the Assyrians and Babylonians slaughter the God-resistant Hebrews. The cycle of history is full of people who not only didn’t reflect God’s voice, but blatantly defied him.

It’s why Alcuin of York, who did know his bible, commented to King Charles of Lombardy (whom historians call Charlemagne) in a letter in 798, “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” For those who don’t remember their Latin classes: “Don’t listen to those who keep saying, ‘The people’s voice is God’s voice’: The commoners’ rowdiness is always just on the edge of insanity.”

As we’ve seen demonstrated in just about every American election. If you deny it happens in your party, you gotta admit it absolutely does happen in the opposition party.

The reality is that humans are totally messed up. Christians included. We’re selfish. Human nature is not “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Lv 19.18 which is why God had to command it; it’s to think of ourselves first, others second—if at all. Some of us even claim it’s a virtue to think of ourselves first, others second. Sometimes individually, like those who claim charity demoralizes those who receive it, so don’t be charitable. (They certainly aren’t.) Sometimes collectively, hence those “America first” slogans, which too often really mean “America only.”

And because of this human depravity, what does this make our democracy and our elections? Collective depravity. We’re not voting God’s will into power, much as we’d like to imagine we are. We’re voting for our will. We vote to lower taxes, not because don’t care about our government’s crushing debt, not because we don’t care about infrastructure and security, but because we individually want that money more than economic stability and the general welfare. We vote to legalize the things we want, and criminalize the things we don’t want.

We might claim Jesus likewise wants or doesn’t want them, but he’s an excuse. We use him to justify our own behavior, or project our ideals upon him to salve our consciences. The votes of any nation might be influenced by how Christian the people are, or aren’t. More often—as proven by how people tend to tell surveys and polls one thing, but vote very differently in secret—they’re a barometer of how hypocritical we really are.

So when an election doesn’t go our way—and we’re naïve enough to imagine it therefore didn’t go God’s way—let’s not foolishly ask, “Where was God in this election?” He was, as usual, sitting it out. Because the United States is not his country. His kingdom is. He rules us that way. Not through our system of government.

The flood story and theodicy.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 September

As I said yesterday, when skeptics ask me about the flood story, primarily what they wanna deal with is the idea of a global flood. Earth doesn’t have enough water to cover all the landmasses, and the young-earth creationist explanations for whence and whither the water, generally sound stupid to them. Pointing out how Genesis states the land was flooded, not the world, quickly sorts that out to their satisfaction.

I have yet to run into a non-Christian skeptic whose problem with the flood story is that God flooded the world. I have met Christians who struggle with it though. Generally their problem comes from their Pelagianism.

Y’see, Pelagius of Britain believed humans are inherently good. ’Cause we were created good, y’know. Ge 1.31 But sin bollixed all that, and now humanity is inherently selfish and corrupt—but Pelagians can‘t believe that. After all, they know lots of good people. And optimistically figure all most people need is a nudge in the right direction, provide us good influences, and we’ll straighten right out. This being the case, nobody oughta go to hell; a loving God, if he’s truly loving, would universally save everyone. Right?

Wouldn’t that be nice. But ’tain’t so. Like I said, we’re inherently selfish and corrupt. We could have the best influences ever—like Judas Iscariot had Jesus of Nazareth—yet still figure we know best, rebel, betray, and die in despair and nihilism. It’s not that God doesn’t wanna save everyone; of course he does. It’s that people would rather go to hell than have anything to do with him.

So when Pelagians look at the people of Noah’s day, their issue is they don’t actually believe God when he declared humanity, except for Noah, was ruined.

Genesis 6.11-13 KWL
11 To God’s face, the land was ruined. The land was full of violence.
12 God saw the land. Look, ruin!—all flesh ruined its way in the land.
13 God told Noah, “To my face, the end of all flesh is coming:
They fill the land with violence before them. Look, the land is ruined!”

No, they insist, it wasn’t. A loving God could’ve unruined it… in some other way than flooding it.

To their minds, a loving God should’ve found another alternative than judgment and punishment. The problem—the dirty little secret of universalism—is the only way God could fix ’em without punishing them is to reprogram them. If rebellion is their freewill decision, all God needs to do is abolish their free will, and force them to love him. In so doing, God’s gonna destroy them—you know, like hell will. Only difference is, it’ll look like God never actually destroyed anything—but of course he did, just like a computer with a swapped-out hard drive. Looks the same; isn’t at all.

Y’know, replacing humans with Stepford humans is hypocrisy, and completely undermines God’s character. But universalists don’t care about that so much as they do their character, which they insist is inherently good. Better than God’s, too. (Not that they’ll ever say this. They’ll simply claim instead that the violent bits of the bible which they disapprove of, weren’t literal. Or inspired. Or otherwise count.)

Evil’s existence, and God’s existence.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 April

The belief God and evil can’t coexist in the same universe is based on some bad logic.

Every so often I bump into a nontheist who complains God can’t be real, can’t exist… because there’s such a thing as evil in the universe.

Here’s how they’re figuring: If God’s real, God’s almighty, and God’s good like we Christians claim, he should’ve done something to get rid of evil, right? After all they would, if they were God. They’d have wiped out evil long ago, like with a great purging flood or something.

They can’t fathom a God who’d be gracious enough to grant his wayward kids any leeway, any second chances to repent and return to the fold. He’d shut that s--- down on sight. So since God isn’t their kind of God, he must not exist.

This is hardly a new idea. It’s been around since Epicurus of Athens first pitched it in the 300s BC. Or at least we think Epicurus pitched it. That’s what Christian author Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius claimed in his anti-Epicurean book De ira Dei/“On God’s Wrath.” The way Lactantius described Epicurus’s argument, breaks down into four views about how God and evil work, sorta like yea:

  1. God wants to eliminate evil, but he can’t. (’Cause he’s not really almighty.)
  2. God doesn’t wanna. (’Cause he’s not really good.)
  3. God’s neither willing nor able. (’Cause he’s not really God.)
  4. God’s both willing and able. So… why does evil still exist then?

This, folks, is what Christian philosophers call “the problem of evil.” We’ve been knocking it around ever since Lactantius.

Nontheists have obviously taken the third view: God’s neither willing nor able. But their explanation is a little different from Epicurius’s: It’s because he’s not really there. Evil exists because there’s no God to stop it.

For the most part Christians have taken the fourth view, then pitch various explanations for why evil nonetheless exists. Most of them have to do with free will: In order for free will to truly exist, evil has to be a possible freewill option—so that’s the risk God chose to take in granting his creatures free will. Of course that’s not the only explanation we’ve come up with, but it’s the most common.

Hurricanes and bad theodicy.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 September

The Atlantic hurricane season begins in June and ends in November: Weather agencies keep track of all the warm-weather tropical cyclones which crop up in summer and fall. (They give ’em names, in alphabetical order, and mix up the names every year.) The heat lets ’em grow in speed, size, and moisture, and warmer-than-usual weather means they grow extra large; often into full-on hurricanes. And if they make it to land, they create extra mess.

The United States is was hit with two hurricanes in 20 days. Hurricane Harvey flooded southern Texas on 26 August. Hurricane Irma is currently working on the west coast of Florida. At its largest, Irma was a category 5, with 185 mph (295 kph) winds; this prompted widespread evacuations in Florida, and rightly so.

Of course these aren’t the only natural disasters we get in the States. We get wildfires: I live in California, which has fires every year. Has ’em in drought; has ’em in flood years. Fire is how brush naturally clears, but humans built houses in all those places, so we can’t just let the fires burn anymore. (We also get earthquakes, but most of them are small, and most of our buildings are earthquake-proof.)

Still, between the burning and the flooding, we wind up hearing the very same stupid thing from Christians as we do every year: “All these disasters are part of God’s plan.”

Really? Tell me, oh diviner of the divine will, why God decided to ruin the homes of all the good Christians in Texas and Florida. Or burn down the homes of all the good Christians in Montana and Oregon. Or kill good Christians in Chiapas, Mexico, with an 8.1 earthquake. Or any of the other ways nature wrecks stuff and takes lives.

Most of the time they’re pretty sure God’s smiting sinners. And even if you didn’t ask, they’ll tell you exactly which sins God’s busily smiting. No surprise, and no coincidence: They’re the very same sins they especially don’t approve of. Seems God thinks like they do. And rather than patiently deal with these sins on a case-by-case basis, and lead these folks to repentance and restoration, God’s again taken a page from their book, and decided to just punish the state entire.

Interestingly, in such a way that any sinners who happen to be wealthy, can usually get most of their wealth back with a little hassle, and go back to their sinful lifestyles with nothing more than a few interesting stories about how they braved a disaster. While in the meanwhile, the devout, obedient Christians who happen to be poor, who happened to suffer the collateral damage from God’s wrath-fest? Still destitute. Still ruined.

Doesn’t sound at all just of God. Which should kinda be our tip-off God has nothing to do with it.

Misreading and mistreating those who mourn.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 April

Job 4–5

After Job suffered the tremendous disaster of having his children, employees, and livestock all killed in one day, three of his friends came and sat shiva with him. Jb 2.11-13 For a week they said nothing.

Then Job vented for a chapter.“Wish I’d never been born; Jb 3.3 why didn’t I die at birth; Jb 3.11 I wish I were dead.” Jb 3.20-22 The usual stuff people say when they’ve suffered an earth-shattering loss, particularly when loved ones die. Stuff we’re supposed to listen to, sympathize with… and watch these people in case they actually try to act upon any of it. (Half the time they’re all talk, but sometimes they’re not, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.)

But you know how humans are: We try to fix one another. We don’t leave it in the hands of professionals, who know how to guide people to make good choices. We tell ’em, “You know what you oughta do,” and tell them so. Or worse, we try to do it for them.

So in Job, here’s where all the bad advice begins. The first to talk was Job’s friend Elifáz of Teyman (KJV “Eliphaz the Temanite”). Therefore he’s gonna get picked on first. It is, as the LORD told Elifáz at the end of the book, wholly inaccurate information about the LORD. Jb 42.7 Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my fellow Christians proclaim all same foolish things. It’s like they never even read this book… well, beyond the first chapters and the happy ending.

Job 4.1-6 KWL
1 Elifáz of Teyman replied. He said:
2 “Are you too weary for anyone to prove a thing to you?
Who’s able to stifle your sayings?
3 Look, you’ve strengthened many, and made weak hands strong.
4 Your sayings upheld the stumbling and strengthened bent knees.
5 But now this comes to you, and you’re ‘weary.’ It smites you and you panic.
6 Wasn’t your fear of God overconfidence? Your path of integrity your hope?”

There y’go, Elifáz. Start smacking him while he’s down.

Before this disaster, Job was a great man, a wise man, full of good advice, ready to help people when they were in need. Then disaster struck, and he understandably fell to pieces. “So where’s your God now? Where’s your faith? Did you even have faith before?”

Okay. In the Christian life, sometimes we’re gonna go through crises of faith. Which is totally normal: When we don’t know any better, we mistakenly put our faith in the wrong things. Rituals instead of relationship, things instead of people, feel-good ideas instead of truth, “I now know best” instead of “I’m wrong but Jesus is right,” putting people on pedestals where they don’t belong, declaring doctrines non-negotiable when they totally are, and conversely prioritizing favorite attitudes over the real non-negotiables.

In order to set us right, sometimes the Holy Spirit has to smash these idols. Which will really discombobulate us. We thought God gave these things to us, or wanted us to believe or have them, or would never interfere with such things… and how mean it was of him to take ’em away. Like pouty children, sometimes we even don’t care to talk to our Father for a good long time afterwards.

But this wasn’t at all what Job was doing.

Job hadn’t made an idol of his kids, employees, and livestock. He didn’t turn on God; he’d made a big point of saying such behavior was stupid. Jb 2.9-10 Job had integrity: He didn’t follow God only when times were good. We get like that. We love him when we’re prosperous, but when times get rough we’re no longer sure he’s around—or if he even exists. Job wasn’t going through any such crisis of faith. But Elifáz’s words suggest that’s what he assumed was happening. He totally misread the situation.

Jesus getting abused by his guards.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 March

Mark 14.65 • Matthew 26.67-68 • Luke 22.63-65 • John 18.22-23

I’d already mentioned Jesus getting slapped by one of his guards:

John 18.22-23 KWL
22 Once he said these things, one of the bystanding underlings gave Jesus a slap,
saying, “You answer the head priest this way?”
23 Jesus answered him, “If I speak evil, testify about the evil. If I speak good, why rough me up?”

The other gospels likewise tell of how the people in charge of him began to abuse him. In Mark it was after he’d been found guilty. But in both Matthew and Luke, it was before his actual trial before the Judean senate. They didn’t care to wait for a trial; they’d already judged him guilty themselves.

Mark 14.65 KWL
Certain people began to spit on Jesus; to cover his face and punch him,
to tell him, “Prophesy! Which underling gave that punch?”
Matthew 26.67-68 KWL
67 Then they spat in Jesus’s face and punched him.
Those who hit him 68 were saying, “Prophesy to us, Messiah: Which of us hit you?”
Luke 22.63-65 KWL
63 The men surrounding Jesus mocked him,
roughing him up 64 and covering Jesus’s face, saying, “Prophesy: Which of us hit you?”
65 Many other slanderers said such things to Jesus.

This sort of behavior offends many people nowadays. Irritatingly, not all.

Our laws have declared prisoner abuse illegal. Rightly so. Even when a person is guilty, we’re not to punish ’em in ways they’ve not been properly sentenced to. The judge sentences a person to five years, and that person should determine community service or prison, hard labor or solitary confinement. Not the sheriff, nor the warden. Separation of powers, y’know.

Of course there are a number of people who take a lot of perverse glee in the idea of convicts experiencing worse in prison. Jokes about prison rape are a little too commonplace, considering this is a crime that needs to be exterminated. But some people love the idea of murderers and rapists experiencing especially rough treatment in prison. Serves ’em right, they figure. Thing is, violence doesn’t discriminate. Someone incarcerated for fraud or theft can be attacked, same as someone in prison for lesser crimes. People won’t make rape jokes when it’s a beloved family member serving time. And definitely won’t find it amusing if it were them who, thanks to some mixup, found themselves in a holding cell with some angry, rapey thugs.

To hear such people talk, if it were up to them, we’d go right back to the bad old days of beating confessions out of suspects. Some of these folks even claim to be Christian. So how come Jesus’s experience at the hands of his accusers, never convinced ’em otherwise? Never made ’em realize “innocent till proven guilty” is always the way to treat suspects?

God, Job, and the cost of unexamined theodicy.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 February

Job 1–2.10, 42.10-17

Since we’re gonna talk theodicy, it’d be all kinds of stupid to not begin with Job. Worse, to ignore it… as so often happens.

The entire book, and entire point of the book, is why bad things happen to good people. The problem? Your average person only reads the beginning and ending, and skips all the discussion in the middle. And the middle is the meat of the book.

I intend to bring up Job a lot in the theodicy articles, so brace yourself. I’m gonna dig into it a bit.

Job is part of the ketuvím/“Writings,” the third section of the Old Testament, collected round the 400s BC. Job was written at some point in the 500s, as we can easily deduce from the Late Biblical Hebrew vocabulary (with lots of Aramaic loanwords) and historical context.

The book’s about iyóv/“Job” of Utz, a land located in Edom. Lm 4.21 Job’s friend Eliphaz of Teman Jb 2.1 had a really obvious Edomite name: The same name as Edom/Esau’s oldest son, 1Ch 1.36 and his city had the same name as Eliphaz ben Esau’s oldest son. 1Ch 1.36

Job was a famous guy in Ezekiel’s time, Ek 14.14, 20 so he must’ve existed before, if not around, the early 500s BC, when Ezekiel was written. Clearly Job was known for his morality, so the author of Job borrowed Job’s story to begin the discussion about theodicy: Here’s a moral man, who nonetheless lost all his kids and property. So what does that say about morality, God, the way God governs the universe, and evil?

Your average Christian hasn’t read Job. Well, they read the beginning two chapters, where Job lost all his stuff; and they read the last chapter, wherein God gives him 10 more kids and all his stuff back, and let him live a really long time. Jb 42.10-17 In skipping the middle part, we also mistakenly skip all the discussions between Job and his friends about theodicy… and figure we needn’t bother, ’cause Job was right and they were wrong, like the LORD said. Jb 42.7 Besides we already know why Job was suffering: The first two chapters were a great big spoiler!

In so doing we also miss the point: What Job’s friends said is exactly what people still say about theodicy. Same bad advice. Same platitudes. Same cold comfort. Read Job, and you’ll quickly begin to notice how many other Christians have never read Job.

(I should also point out: In the churches I grew up in, a number of ’em assumed Job is the oldest book in the bible… because they were young-earth creationists. Because Job lived so tremendously long, and because Job refers to creatures with names we can’t translate precisely—like vehemót/“ox” (KJV “behemoth” Jb 40.15), liweyatán/“crocodile” (KJV “leviathan” Jb 41.1), or reym/“antelope” (KJV “unicorn” Jb 39.9) —various YEC enthusiasts have embraced the idea these creatures are dinosaurs, and that Job took place shortly after Noah’s flood, back when humans were still long-lived. Ge 11.10-32 Edomites notwithstanding.)