Dear Russell & Friends,
Is God good? Of all the skeptical questions to consider as life unfolds, this one rings truest to me. If you answer the way I used to, please stop here. I thought that the objectors protested too much. Why care about the qualities of the non-existent? Then I considered – – does the skeptic care more about God’s character than I do? Couldn’t God exist and be bad? Why conflate goodness and existence? Probably because the faithful say and mean – – God is good, and that’s how I can handle the bad. So this is no straw man. Is God good?
I’ll start with a syllogism that logical people of faith could accept on this Passover & Good Friday: God created everything. Evil is part of everything. Therefore, God created evil. Maybe God only created the capacity for evil with natural laws and crooked hearts that could do wrong. Would do wrong. Nature and the heart of man are violent albeit beautiful places. They are broken. How can a good God willingly create evil?
Passover and the Hebrew Scriptures
Perhaps you’ve seen the new Exodus movie about Gods and Kings. I have not yet. I’m fairly sure that this retelling of the Moses story will at least include the last plague that occurred on the night we now celebrate with the Passover meal – – every first born son of Egypt from heir of Pharaoh to slave — murdered by God’s agent. Every first born of the Jews spared by the substitute blood of a sacrificed animal. Follow Moses and the Israelites into the 40 years of desert wandering and find a record in Deuteronomy 2 of Sihon the King of Heshbon when he refused Moses safe passage to the promised land:
And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors. (v. 34)
Why did Moses do this?
And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin to take possession, that you may occupy his land. (v. 31)
Why didn’t Sihon just let Moses pass?
But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand as he is this day. (v. 30)
Don’t stop yourself from asking – – is God good? Can’t I find passage after passage of what could honestly be called genocide without sensationalism? I am glad that the skeptic asks this and says: one reason I can’t believe is that I can’t reconcile this God with what my heart wants to be.
Several posts ago I was asked, “Does the Bible read like I think it does in Deuteronomy? Did God instruct Moses to kill men, women, and children?” I had just finished Karen Armstrong’s book. She spoke of the Deuteronomist editors in Babylonian exile who constructed the book and others from the 7th to 5th century BCE. She thought, as do many Biblical scholars, that God’s wrath was written into the text as an explanation of Israel’s failure to maintain sovereignty.
Armstrong vindicated God and ascribed the violent depictions to human invention. I was tempted to join her, just as I’m always tempted to blame humanity instead of God for the evil that is all too evident in my own heart and all around me. Another syllogism for believers: God created humans, humans are violent beings, God created violent beings. Did God instruct the death of men, women, and children? Did Moses and his soldiers obey the order with dread or glee? The line between good and evil runs down the middle of every human heart.
Does this bother you? It has always bothered me. It bothers me because I don’t have a clear answer. It bothers me because I desperately want to worship someone good – – clearly better than my instincts and selfishness.
See a man on the cross dying. It is a common sight in imperial Rome and others before and since have certainly had equal and greater physical pain and humiliation. But this man claimed to be from God, even to be God. Is it cosmic child abuse? Is it God completing what he asked Abraham to be willing to do to Isaac? What could be good about the God who requires his son to suffer for others?
Heaven & Hell
If heaven is a restoration of our intended humanity – – complete, not selfish, and a restoration of a groaning earth – – green, not black topped, then what is hell? Isn’t it the place where suffering lasts forever? Isn’t it the place where 100 years of evil purchases 1 trillion years of pain? Isn’t it exhibit A-Z writ large that God cannot be good? And so, says the skeptic, it causes me less dissonance to say – – God does not exist. Who lives in Heaven and who can’t die in Hell? God decides, even chooses – – just as he did with the hearts of Pharaoh and King Sihon.
If separation and suffering like this does not cause you grief, then how do you call yourself compassionate?
I’ve just tried to be honest with the questions – – to show you that a follower of Christ agrees with a skeptic’s stumbling block: If God is like this then I cannot worship him. How have I answered the questions?
Passover and the Hebrew Scriptures
I see more than wrath and genocide in the pages of the Old Testament. I see new instructions on how to treat the poor, dispossessed, and sojourner. I finished Deuteronomy yesterday. With this reading I opened my eyes to both – – wrath that I cannot understand, mercy that I cannot live authentically. Did we put words in God’s mouth to define our behavior? Did God command us to the evil that our genes enjoyed? I don’t know.
I do see that the Exodus began something different in my heart. I was a slave to my nature and my nurture. I fear that I would have enjoyed the command to battle. I was invited into a new covenant and way of life. Justice and mercy came to oppose fearsome wrath. I found both in Deuteronomy. That resonated with reality.
Why does a triune view of God matter to the Christ follower? Consider two scenarios:
You are distracted while crossing the street, bending down to pick up an important dropped slip of paper. A woman behind you in the crosswalk sees your danger and responds:
a) She pushes her stroller and the child in it ahead of her to divert the vehicle that will hit you. It works. You are saved. Her baby dies.
b) She leaves her stroller on the curb and jumps herself to push you out of the way. It works. You are saved. She dies.
We can easily accuse God of being the woman in scenario A, doing a wonderful thing in a truly awful way – – the ends just can’t justify the means. But — if Jesus was the body and God the mind, joining the Holy Spirit in divinity – – it makes more sense. I understand and admire someone dying for me in sacrifice and hope that I would have the courage and love to die for my family or even for you.
I am so thankful for the God who came himself to join our suffering then conquer it.
Heaven and Hell
I’ve meditated on hell before and it still causes me grief. I think that hell avoidance is a poor theology and is the main reason I reject Pascal’s wager. I don’t know if the flames of hell are a metaphor or actual. I do, however, believe in God’s ultimate justice. I actually believe, with C.S. Lewis, that the door to hell will be locked from the inside. It is less about flames and more about continuing to get your own way and be your own center. I fear a perpetual self-centeredness. It is taking all my life to be less self-centered and Jesus has been the way that allows it. So no – – I don’t understand hell. I’m not sure that I was ever supposed to.
Heaven? I don’t think it is escape – – rather restoration. I’ll be kind without constant struggle. I’ll love you for who God created you to be. We’ll enjoy a new earth that looks and feels and smells like it was supposed to be. Fantasy? When religious faith wanes through history, utopian hopes rise. I’m glad that we have hope. It is a good way to live and a better way to not fear the death that comes to us all.
Is God good? Yes. Is he complicated? More than I every imagined. I feel loved by this good God and feel called to love you, whether you believe with me or only want a safe place to rest and talk. I won’t promise you answers that I don’t have. But I’ll tell the truth to the best of my ability.
photo credit: Church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Avranches, Manche, Normandie, France. Fourteen enamel paintings, technique from Limoges, representing the Stations of the Cross by Tango7174 (Tango7174) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons