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Evil, part 2.

Here are some of my “wrap up” thoughts from last month, before I launch into the next topic. As a reminder, we were talking about various ways of responding to evil (however one defines it).

I contend that Western American culture (including many subcultures) tends to think we’ve “moved on” from evil–we have this idea of sociological/technological/spiritual progress. In the early 20th century, we put a lot of faith in technology and were really surprised that this technology enabled nations to kill masses upon masses of soldiers during World War I, and then 6 million Jews in World War II. And while our culture has this collective memory that can assure us that technology will not eliminate evil, we still presuppose that humanity will “get beyond” whatever is bothering us.

We don’t trust technology as much as we did in the 1920s, but the approach to life lives on. Hegel gave it philosophical legs with his thesis/antithesis/synthesis model of world history. When you hear someone say, “Foreign country x needs to get into the 21st century as far as human rights goes”, or someone else say, “I can’t believe that today in America some people still think that we need to meddle in other countries’ affairs”, or someone else say, “Man, I’m so glad dance music got past the 70s disco phase and brought us to the 80s geniuses like the Pet Shop Boys,” you’re hearing this assumption in action.

I’m not saying any of those statements are true or false, but as I see it, that’s how we in western culture tell the story of how evil is dealt with in the world. Bad stuff happens, but the wheels of progress turn, running on the tracks of whatever we think will get us beyond whatever is vexing us—being more religious, encouraging free markets, learning to express ourselves and listen to one another, etc. The problem is, most of us have told ourselves this story, and it makes evil fairly surmountable, and when we do encounter evil, we can react in singularly immature ways. Our culture, I would say, doesn’t really know what to do with evil when it’s staring us in the face.

Other cultures have different ways of dealing with the appearance or reality of evil. I think the divide between the way we deal with evil vs. the approaches of cultures (ancient and contemporary) is at the root of some of the main things that offend us about other cultures. We can’t understand aspects of other cultures because we have assumptions about evil that differ greatly from other cultures’ assumptions about evil. Some cultures assume that evil is a part of every human person. Our culture—even the Christian subcultures within western culture—doesn’t really have this assumption. Even religious people tend to think that their religious zeal protects them from committing anything seriously evil. Lots of religious westerners have effectively “moved beyond” evil, too.

For instance, when I read my Bible, I am sometimes shocked at how angry God is portrayed and how fierce God’s judgment is. Other times, when I’m thinking about all those bad people out there committing radical evil around the world, performing acts of genocide, etc., I am sometimes shocked at how merciful God is. Why does God allow these people to keep living? The classic problem of Evil when directed against the God of the Bible is, after all, why does God allow evil to exist? I’m on the one hand offended at God’s judgment and on the other hand offended at God’s mercy. (Interestingly enough, various Biblical writers wrestle with the same two opposing questions throughout the book.) The Bible tells a story of God dealing with evil—an evil that infects every human being. And in dealing with evil, the God of the Bible is both more fierce and more forgiving than most of us are comfortable with. Perhaps we’re not comfortable because we’ve moved beyond these primitive approaches to conflict. Or perhaps it’s because we don’t really understand evil.

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17 Responses to “Evil, part 2.”

  1. You are correct: the problem of evil is a proverbial fly in the theistic ointment — not the only fly by any means, but definitely a fly. For me, the dual problem of excessive judgement as found in the Old Testament (and also in the NT…it’s just typically overlooked and overshadowed by passages focusing on mercy) and the apparent “hyper-mercy” of parts of the NT don’t create a thoughtful paradox as much as they create a doubly-difficult problem. Too much judgement. Too much mercy. Kinda hard to reconcile those opposites and even harder for me to appreciate them, I guess. Indeed, it rather makes god look more bipolar than complex or mysterious. I would suggest this textual paradox is simply the result of varying views of an ancient god from varying people in varying contexts ultimately being compiled into the same tome — a tome not orginally intended to be forced into being by these various orginal writers, much less a tome amenable to harmonization.

    When Christians — who tout the verdicality of divinely answered prayer — can simply allow that an omnipotent, omnscient, omnibenevolent god would allow, say, a small child to be molested, tortured and killed by some sick monster while her parents and entire church community are praying for her safe return “in the name of Jesus”, well, I simply cannot abide it. When I know that if *I* were in the room while the b*stard worked such evil on an innocent child, I would do all within my power to save her (indeed, I would be ethically mandated by the Christian god to do so) but that the omnipresent god is supposedly in the room all along, witnessing everything firsthand but unwilling to stop it, that makes no sense to me whatsoever. There need not be any recourse to “mystery” here or the “lack of understanding” on the part of mortals to understand the “will of God” since common sense itself should tell us that there exists no depth of goodness that would allow such a heinous act for some greater good….even the good of “free will”. After all, if I saved the suffering child, I would be compromising the free will of the perpetrator too. Would that be a sin? The idea seems ludcrous at best.

    I think we understand evil. Granted, different cultures experience different levels of evil as a norm of their everyday lives, thus they may vary in their views of the gradations of evil. Yet, ethics have grown and developed over human history as human beings have grown and developed. This can be readily shown. Thus, despite what some suggest, you don’t need the existence of a god to have a concept of good and evil — in fact, I would suggest that injecting the biblical god into mix only complicates matters where they can be much better understood naturalistically.

    Just my 2 cents. Not worth much. 😉

  2. And once again (and even better this time), Agnosticus provides the proverbial rubber ball in the face to all Christians who are reading this blog, thus bestowing upon us (at least upon that demographic which includes myself) the service this blog aims to provide—good and worthy challenges to our assumptions.

    I’m serious, Kevin, I know this isn’t the kind of conversation I can just “make happen” or demand from people—it takes guts to challenge people the way you did and to be as honest as you are being. It’s obvious that you’ve thought a lot about this topic, and you’re thoughtfully putting your thoughts out there. But it’s not just brainy stuff—it’s soul stuff, you’ve put yourself out there along with your thoughts. And you’ve put yourself out there with your massive objections to a particular perspective, you nevertheless did it with a certain amount of respect (e.g., you’re showing what you feel is problematic about Christianity by showing how you feel it is inconsistent internally, rather than being dismissive of the worldview simply based on your suppositions). These are some of the things I appreciate about you.

    Anyway, you didn’t come here for a pat on the back. But this is the kind of challenge I like to see out here. As a Christian, I spent a lot of my life looking for pat answers to this kind of thing. I still do sometimes, because it’s comforting to have life be uncomplicated. The problem is life is complicated. The world is too fierce, too messy, for pat answers. I don’t want the communities I’m a part of (my local church, people who follow Jesus worldwide, but also the city of Fitchburg or the United States of America) to explain away horrific acts like the one you describe with pat answers like, “God’s ways are higher than our ways” or “Everything happens for a reason”, or “Shit happens” or “It’s the other guy’s fault” or “It’s my fault”. Etc. Your example in itself shows that these pat answers avoid the problem.

    OK, so the challenge is out there. And while I could have more to say, I will be my moderator self and realize that less is more, and that saying less may encourage more folks to chime in. I asked before, and I still want to know, how do you deal with evil? Unavoidably, our conversation has tipped over to “Why does evil happen?” as well as “How should one respond given bad things happen?” That’s cool. But the point is, how do you deal with evil? I certainly want to encourage Christians and other theists to answer this question, given what agnosticus said, how do you deal? But this isn’t just a problem for Christians and other theists. I’ve yet to see a mature, compelling, applicable-to-my-life response from the “it just happens” crowd to the same question–“How do you deal with evil?” That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen helpful, interesting, mature conversation from this crowd (as well as others) about what it means to live a moral and ethical life. I do all the time. But the question still remains, how do you deal with a world so full of evil without God?

  3. BTW, everyone, in case you think my appeal to moderator status is a form of avoidance–it’s only temporary. I’ll be back with some comments that deal with some of agnosticus’ specific challenges later. But my comments naturally aren’t the be-all and end-all of the “Christian” response, or a generic response to evil, so I continue to hope others will chime in.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Dave. I do appreciate your respectfulness equally…maybe more. It is hard to find Christians who will be so open-minded.

    How do I deal with “evil” without God? This is an interesting question since it presumes that one might need the existence of a god to know how to more effectively respond to evil to begin with. It might be just as well to ask how I would deal with evil without Zeus or Apollo or Ba’al. The Christian’s faith in Jesus or Yahweh may fuel her altruistic response to hurtful things in the world; but I doubt she would find much motivation or solace from the Egyptian god Horus. The Buddhist may find his religion to be a help to him in this way as well, but I doubt he would look to Elohim of the Hebrew Bible to guide him. Thus, my immediate response would be to suggest that I can just as effectively respond to hurtful things in the world without recourse to or reliance upon the existence of *any* gods. I need nothing more than that sense of ethics and morals (that I share with most other human beings) to be horrified at tragedy, angered by cruelty, and motivated to try and make a positive difference in my world. Incidentally, I have no doubt that certain teachings in Christianity potentially *discourage* believers from vehemently fighting evil in the world. After all, this is the devil’s world and should be expected to be evil; many people are just reaping the harvest of their own sin; the increase of evil in the world is said to be a “sign” that Jesus is returning soon; and this world is just going to pass away anyway …but heaven (our ultimate goal) is forever. I’m not saying Christians don’t do good things in the world, but the Bible is certainly not the best source for guidance and motivation to rid the world of evil — that can be argued quite readily. Frankly, I think I may be more motivated now to make a positive difference in the world than I ever have now that I have more or less abandoned my former religious beliefs.

    If you’re asking me how I deal emotionally with evil without the help and comfort of a god, my answer would be: “Much better than when I was trying to reconcile evil with the Christian/theistic God!” What we’re calling “evil” in the world makes better sense to me from a naturalistic standpoint, hands down. Inject God into it, and the level of “comfort” I’ve received pales in comparison to the cognitive dissonance it produced and the mind tricks I had to play on myself to try and hold the contradictions at bay. I would love to believe that there is a loving, powerful god who genuinely cares for us, but the level of evil and suffering in the world (among many other reasons) betrays that possibility. It would be nice to believe that God will one day judge all evil and make everything “right”, but that hope is based on nothing more than wishful thinking and does nothing to help the situation in the world right now. So, I find comfort where most people do: loved ones, friends, hope for the future of humanity and all of life, etc. I don’t need to invoke a divine being for any of that.

    So, in a nutshell, I don’t believe that the existence of God is necessary for me to ether be motivated to respond to or be comforted in the wake of evil in this world. But…that’s just me. 😉

  5. What a difficult topic. And what a fascinating discussion so far.

    Especially fascinating to me (and painful) is agnosticus’s scenario of God witnessing the molestation, torture, and killing of a child. I don’t know, agnosticus, if this scenario is real or hypothetical for you—I sure hope the latter. Regardless, my outrage at the offender and the offense is like yours, as is my view of the correct human moral response. (A side note: While you may be more motivated to do good since you abandoned your religious beliefs, I’d say just the opposite has been my experience. The more I am devoted to the Christian God, the more I am motivated to do good in the world.)

    So, we’re both outraged at the offender, and if there were a God like the one you described, I think we would both be outraged at him. But here’s where I think we may disagree: in some major ways I believe in a different God than the one that it seems like you disbelieve in. Of course, you’ll have to correct me if I’m misunderstanding you.

    It seems like the God that you’re denying is all-powerful—that is, he is capable of doing whatever he wants—and all-knowing. And despite what a minority of Christians would claim, this is the kind of God that I think the Bible clearly portrays. So, in this aspect, it seems like we’re talking about the same God. However, I don’t think that the Christian view of God limits him to the two possible roles that you mentioned: either interfering in the act (and thus stopping it) or witnessing it as a bystander. God, because he is God (i.e., Spirit) and not human, has more options than a human does.

    I believe that God has revealed himself in big (and little) ways as the great deliverer/rescuer/savior of people, but I also believe that he has revealed himself as the present comforter in the worst imaginable scenarios, even if they don’t end in immediate deliverance/rescue/salvation. And in my experience, he doesn’t just act as comforter to adults, but also to children. This may sound like I’m just letting God off the hook—making up some “spiritual” category called “Presence” or “Comfort” to stick up for God. But both “Deliverance” *and* “Divine Presence” are important Christian themes that describe how God relates to his people (in the Bible, about which agnosticus and I apparently have very different views; I take the view that its different human voices are the result of the divine word made incarnate in human language—but that’s another topic for another time!). This is tough to talk about on a theoretical level, as God’s presence and comfort isn’t easily distilled into formulas that can easily be reduced to “this is what God would do in your hypothetical scenario”—because hypothetical scenarios don’t exist, people exist. And God manifests presence and comfort to people on different timelines and in different ways. But while God doesn’t often provide reasons why something terrible was allowed to happen, and while terrible things are indeed terrible and have long-lasting effects, God’s comfort and presence (in my experience and in the lives of countless others) is just as real.

    Very often in the great Christian stories (in the Bible, and outside of the Bible), deliverance and divine presence show up at the same time. These include wonderful stories like the crossing of the Red Sea and Lazarus coming out of the tomb alive. Not surprisingly, the co-occurrence of these two themes is a big piece of the Christian view of God’s ultimate plan for humans: saving them to be with him (and honor him) forever. But there are plenty of times (in the Bible and outside of the Bible) when divine presence and deliverance aren’t simultaneous. The absence of deliverance does not necessarily indicate the absence of divine presence. I don’t like this, because this isn’t God’s ultimate plan for people, but I’m learning how to live in the meantime, because of Jesus. More on this below.

    This brings me to Dave’s question about how I deal with evil. One way is by going to stories that I can live my life by, stories that help me deal with God’s seeming absence in evil times—stories that help me experience his presence.

    A classic one (for good reason!) is the book of Job (which many critical scholars are now reading more or less as a unified composition, minus a few chapters, if anyone out there cares). Job and his friends represent three basic positions to Job’s problem of evil (in this case, the suffering of the righteous):
    1. I understand this situation, and I’m going to explain it to you. (friends)
    2. I don’t understand this situation, and I have a problem with God. (Job for most of the book)
    3. I don’t understand this situation, but God does, and I’m okay with that. (Job at the end)
    Remarkably, Job never understands the situation. When he experiences the divine presence, he does not get all of his questions answered, but Job decides that he is going to let God be God and be content with that. (Only later are his fortunes reversed.) This all sounds so stark when told in a nutshell like this. 🙂 Believe me (or read it for yourself), Job is much more profound than this sounds! This is a long, wrenching struggle of faith for Job, and his complaints come from the depths of his being. It is no small thing for him to finally tell God that he (Job) has spoken of things that were too wondrous for him!

    When I consider the Christian gospel and the problem of evil, I think especially of the gospel of John. One of the book’s major themes is the exaltation of the Christ (the God-man) through suffering—culminating in Christ’s suffering on the cross. This is a bizarre thing. First, that God would suffer with us. And second, that it could in any way be glorious. But there it is. Agnosticus sees this as bipolar. I see this as profound and mysterious—and I am in awe. God suffered, and it was glorious?! I live my life by this (not that I’m a big fan of suffering), because I’ve seen God use suffering and evil to make people like himself (e.g., overflowing with joy and selfless love), and to bring people into perfect communion with himself. Agnosticus denies that “greater good” could ever justify God’s allowing suffering, but self-centered humans becoming more like God sounds like a legitimate greater good to me.

  6. […] the comments on this blog, you’re missing some good stuff in response to the question about evil and the one about sucking. I will respond to those comments, if not tonight, […]

  7. I apologize that it has taken this long to respond. Unfortunately, I just saw the previous post a few days ago. I must also apologize for the length of this response. Though it is still quite abbreviated, it is nonetheless very lengthy for a blog post. Anyway, here we go…

    [cristiana said: “I don’t know, agnosticus, if this scenario is real or hypothetical for you—I sure hope the latter.”]

    Well, I’ve personally never been molested or tortured (or, obviously, killed), but Jessica Lunsford certainly was. Her killer, just convicted, raped her repeatedly and buried her alive in a trash bag. When she was discovered, upon being exhumed, was found clutching a stuffed animal. It was determined by the coroner (in corroboration with her killer’s testimony) that she was very much alive when buried in the trash bag. Unfortunately, in the history of human events, such atrocities have occurred innumerable times and continue unabated.

    [cristiana said: “(A side note: While you may be more motivated to do good since you abandoned your religious beliefs, I’d say just the opposite has been my experience. The more I am devoted to the Christian God, the more I am motivated to do good in the world.)”]

    I do not deny that many Christians are motivated to do good things, but “doing good” is certainly not something exclusively (or even close to remotely) associated with those who claim to be Christians as opposed to people of other faiths (or people of no religious affiliation at all). I’m glad you want to make a positive difference in the world, but I believe people do not need religious myths to have this desire or act upon it. The desire to encourage human happiness and oppose those things that cause human suffering is a general human trait without need for religion to explain or prompt. Indeed, religious beliefs can often be an impediment to effective positive change and suppression of human suffering in the world…and statistics show this quite readily. (But that is another topic).

    [cristiana said: “It seems like the God that you’re denying is all-powerful—that is, he is capable of doing whatever he wants—and all-knowing. And despite what a minority of Christians would claim, this is the kind of God that I think the Bible clearly portrays. So, in this aspect, it seems like we’re talking about the same God.”]

    So, you are admitting that the god(s) of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is indeed portrayed in this way; yet, you are also suggesting the god of the Bible is not an accurate reflection of the *real* god…your god…a god you associate with the texts of late New Testament writings, specifically the Gospel of John (a more theologically “advanced” biblical text than others from an inspirational standpoint?). Thus, the god in which you believe is indeed somehow the god of the Bible; however, the Bible does not accurately reflect the nature of this god. I’m actually quite familiar with this perspective (since I too held this view for a number of years before seeing it for what it is and moving beyond it), and it’s nothing new, really. Christians invariably look for ways to adjust and massage the diverse biblical portrayals of God to make it all “make sense”. Christian philosophers are notorious for this (as are most lay people) – cherry-picking verses to suit the rendering of God they have pieced together…a rendering *at odds* with the biblical god in many ways but more amenable to how we actually experience reality. Thus, the Bible is touted as the authority for knowing the person and nature of God, and yet its use in this regard is actually and ultimately gauged by human-created ideas about God. This is obviously circular and incongruous reasoning, but it’s common among circles of faith and simply excused as being a product of “divine mystery”.

    [cristiana said: “However, I don’t think that the Christian view of God limits him to the two possible roles that you mentioned: either interfering in the act (and thus stopping it) or witnessing it as a bystander. God, because he is God (i.e., Spirit) and not human, has more options than a human does. I believe that God has revealed himself in big (and little) ways as the great deliverer/rescuer/savior of people, but I also believe that he has revealed himself as the present comforter in the worst imaginable scenarios, even if they don’t end in immediate deliverance/rescue/salvation. And in my experience, he doesn’t just act as comforter to adults, but also to children. This may sound like I’m just letting God off the hook—making up some “spiritual” category called “Presence” or “Comfort” to stick up for God.”]

    But of course, that is precisely what you are doing. That is the nature and purpose of theodicy: to justify the (professed existence and nature of the) theistic god (and his obvious lack of action) in the face if gratuitous evil in the world. Nevertheless, now things begin to take on that romantic tone indicative of more metaphorical and liberal theology. Continuing with the example above, to suggest that God has options that we don’t makes little difference when contemplating Jessica Lunsford helplessly raped, tortured and buried alive. Obviously, God chose the option of comforting her in those last hours of her life (which I would guess she probably didn’t pick up on in the midst of terror, pain and shock) as opposed to delivering her… need I even finish the thought? The police were within mere yards of the mobile home in which she was being held, still alive…so close. Couldn’t God at least have tipped them off in one of an infinite number of ways that she was *right there*? Wouldn’t you have? Wouldn’t that be a better option than just trying to comfort her? Of course it would, and anyone capable of delivering her but choosing instead to offer her comfort she couldn’t even comprehend in those hours, should be held liable as a practical accessory to the crime. Comfort is a last option of “what to give” in such awful situations when deliverance is not possible. Nevertheless, my guess is that the only comfort little Jessica received was the stuffed animal she held close as she slowly suffocated under a hundred pounds of dirt. The kind of theology you are endorsing gives the impression of being deeply profound and insightful, and as such can be quite attractive on a certain level…that is, until you really start putting it to the test. Rigorously introduce it into real life tragedies, and it loses its luster – to the point of being grotesque in my opinion.

    The tragic thing is, while you’ve been reading this, statistically speaking, another one or more little girls in the world have suffered equally horrific fates. It would appear that God chooses the “comfort” option far more than the “deliverance” option. The comfort option or the deliverance option (or a combination of the two) are simply ways to make religious beliefs seem to make sense in the aftermath of some event, whether tragic or celebratory. For me, injecting “God” into what happened to Jessica Lunsford and innumerable other events unnecessarily complicates things and turns what may be understood rationally (though perhaps grievously) into something irrational and even heartless.

    [cristiana said: “This is tough to talk about on a theoretical level, as God’s presence and comfort isn’t easily distilled into formulas that can easily be reduced to “this is what God would do in your hypothetical scenario”—because hypothetical scenarios don’t exist, people exist.”]

    Theology *is* theoretical. Further, it is far too easy for the religious to retreat to mystery when reason fails to make sense of their conflicting ideas. Anyway, as I just illustrated, one may not be able to say what this imagined, mysterious god *would* do, we nonetheless have a definite sense of what he *should* have done. If God’s moral sense is that much different (and often practically opposite) than our own, how are we supposed to know when *we* are right or wrong in alleviating suffering or promoting happiness? How do we follow his example? I have to tell you, if I was able to help a child being tortured and killed, but I somehow knew that God’s plan was to opt for comfort, I would never be able to stand by and acquiesce to such an option. I’d have to go with my higher moral sense and rescue her. I would agree, however, that hypothetical scenarios don’t count (though they exist) as much as real people do…but there are plenty of real people who suffer in real situations without the need to resort to hypothetical ones to illustrate my point.

    [cristiana said: “But while God doesn’t often provide reasons why something terrible was allowed to happen, and while terrible things are indeed terrible and have long-lasting effects, God’s comfort and presence (in my experience and in the lives of countless others) is just as real.”

    I do not disagree that religion can bring people comfort. So can many others things not associated with religion. So do other religions not Christian. I experienced the comfort of religion for many years of my life, and I have experienced comfort apart from religion. But comfort does not legitimate belief in things not supported by empirical evidence. Children often have imaginary friends who offer them great comfort. Santa Claus is a source of almost ineffable joy to children. Of course, eventually, it is learned that neither are real. While the comfort and joy these myths offered were very real to the subject, the objects of comfort were not.

    Incidentally, I have also counseled many, many good Christian people who have been caught up in the dissonance caused by Christian theology in the wake of their own personal tragedies. They are trying to make it work, trying to experience the comfort preached so eloquently, but when the rubber hits the road…it often ends up producing more confusion and angst than comfort and reassurance.

    [cristiana said: “Very often in the great Christian stories (in the Bible, and outside of the Bible), deliverance and divine presence show up at the same time. These include wonderful stories like the crossing of the Red Sea and Lazarus coming out of the tomb alive.”]

    It is the very existence of these kinds of stories (which I believe are both very much fictional) that create the dissonance of a god apparently able to deliver from evil in amazing ways but doesn’t do so (or if he does, doesn’t make it so immediately obvious as in these stories).

    [cristiana said: “…the book of Job…”]

    The ultimate question behind the book of Job that is being asked is not “Why do bad things happen to good people” but “Is there anyone willing to be righteous (i.e., do good) for the sake of being righteous (i.e., doing good). Try to use Job to create a good theodicy and you’re going to run into problems.

    [cristiana said: “I don’t understand this situation, but God does, and I’m okay with that. (Job at the end) Remarkably, Job never understands the situation. When he experiences the divine presence, he does not get all of his questions answered, but Job decides that he is going to let God be God and be content with that. (Only later are his fortunes reversed.)”]

    Again, attempt to use the story of Job as a theodicy and you will find people protesting this kind of unrealistic expectation you are suggesting. And rightly so. Not only is it simply ridiculous to presume than an all-loving God would destroy a decent man’s entire family (or allow another supernatural entity to do so simply to prove some point) and practically kill him with some horrible disease until he concedes – because he’s obviously infinitely outranked – that God can do whatever he wants and should be thanked for it. But that he was rewarded and restored materially and physically in the end (though obviously he never got his family back) is simply not true to life in most cases. “Job” is a *story* meant to ask a question about ethics, not a lesson to teach us how to accept that God can do whatever he wants…and our job is simply to glorify him no matter what.

    [cristiana said: “When I consider the Christian gospel and the problem of evil, I think especially of the gospel of John. One of the book’s major themes is the exaltation of the Christ (the God-man) through suffering—culminating in Christ’s suffering on the cross.”]

    The Gospel of John is the latest and most theologized of all the Gospels in the Christian Canon. It was written some 60+ years after Jesus’ death; thus, it contains the most developed Christology as evidenced by the unequivocally boldest claims of Jesus’ divinity (mixed with some Greek metaphysics) and atonement theology (though Paul really was the mastermind of spiritualizing Jesus’ death into a Jewish theme of atonement). The effort afoot during those years after Jesus’ shocking death was to make sense of it somehow, to keep his vision of the Empire of God alive (a vision, incidentally, of which the vast majority of churches today are ignorant). John has Jesus crucified on the day of Passover to theologize him as the Passover Lamb – an ingenious metaphorical picture, but one that was born out of the minds of those who followed Jesus’ teachings and, over a relatively brief time, elevated him to the level of divinity…something which I believe the historical Jesus would never have claimed for himself.

    [cristiana said: “This is a bizarre thing. First, that God would suffer with us. And second, that it could in any way be glorious. But there it is. Agnosticus sees this as bipolar. I see this as profound and mysterious—and I am in awe. God suffered, and it was glorious?!]

    I am more than fully aware of this perspective since I preached it for some 2 decades. It sounds wonderful in the pulpit, but it is much less poignant to those in the midst of intense suffering. Contemplating the romantic idea that God incarnated himself on earth and chose to share in our suffering on some level makes for a wonderful story, but it is purely the stuff of mythmaking, unable to be based upon anything more than human creativity. There are many wonderful myths, stories, and ideas that have been codified in human history, and these can have an effect on our lives in various ways, but their power to transform human behavior does not prove that they have any historical or empirical basis.

    I don’t think God is bipolar per se, I think that the varying ideas and portrayals of God found in the Bible have perpetrated contradictory doctrines and dogmas that those who wish to believe that the Bible is the guidebook for understanding God and reality must try and reconcile. The “deliverance/comfort” idea is an example of this effort, but it ends up being used at the convenience of the believer to justify theism in the face of suffering. When one idea doesn’t work, default to the other, and back and forth we go. It just makes more sense to me, is more simple, to leave God out of it.

    [cristiana said: “I live my life by this (not that I’m a big fan of suffering), because I’ve seen God use suffering and evil to make people like himself (e.g., overflowing with joy and selfless love), and to bring people into perfect communion with himself. Agnosticus denies that “greater good” could ever justify God’s allowing suffering, but self-centered humans becoming more like God sounds like a legitimate greater good to me.]

    This, I believe, is one of the most overused, overstated ideas in theodicy. The fact that difficulties in our lives can be the catalyst for making us better, stronger people is undoubtedly true. However, there is a gradation of suffering, and with that gradation comes various other effects on people. Many people suffer immensely and never recover physically, mentally, emotionally or otherwise to *be* better, stronger people. It’s not nearly as “clean” as Christians like to preach.

    No, I do not believe that “greater goods” justify evil and suffering. This actually suffers from many problems. First, it erroneously reverses the causal connection between the two. Bad things happen – period. In certain cases, people then may choose to allow those adversities to strengthen their desire to make the world a better place. Yet these are two different things: suffering and the human response to suffering. The good things people may do after experiencing some level of suffering do not “justify” the suffering itself; rather, their response is merely just that: a response. If you were to lose a child to a long fight with brain cancer, I doubt you would “justify” the brain cancer and your child’s suffering on the basis of your desire to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital and cancer research. You may raise that money, but it doesn’t *justify* the suffering your child experienced. Nothing does and nothing needs to. It was horrendous, but it was part of living in this natural world. (This doesn’t mean we should let it continue, of course, and scientists and doctors (many of whom are not believers) are working around the clock to cure cancer. Stem cell research is the most promising prospect in history, but Christians have effectively all but halted it.)

    The “greater goods” idea further presupposes that you can quantify the suffering and “the good” in some way that they can be measured and compared objectively. Such a comparison is hopelessly subjective.

    Finally, if God allows suffering for people to become more like himself (or Jesus), then I would say that his plan is a dismal failure. Suffering is no guarantee that people will become “better people” – some are forever scarred despite (or because of) their religious convictions. Others never survive to become better people. Still others become better people through their own set of non-Christian beliefs.

    I wonder what greater good could ever *justify* Jessica Lunsford’s suffering in the Christian’s mind?

    Let me end this with a short comment about Heaven. Many Christians (and I was picking up these vibes from your post) will use Heaven as their ultimate justification for all suffering. After all, God did indeed “deliver” Jessica from suffering when she finally succumbed to death, right? Two questions: first, does Heaven really *justify* her suffering? Of course not. It would be analogous to me torturing my child only to reward them. The torture still happened. God could have transported Jessica to Heaven before she was killed if Heaven was the ultimate goal. Second, what evidence (other than anecdotal) do you have of Heaven anyway? Heaven is being used as a panacea, a catch-all, to answer all objections. But with regard to having any explanatory power, it sits somewhere between wishful thinking and bad philosophy.

    I could say much more, but I will stop here….finally. 🙂

  8. Thanks, agnosticus, for your response, and such an in-depth response at that. I do wish, though, that you wouldn’t assume that, because I am a Christian and you once were a Christian, you know how I think and what I believe. Or am I misinterpreting your statement in the final paragraph about “vibes”?

    It is apparent that you have done much academic reading, so I’d like to make a few comments on the books of Job and John. And given that the original topic was how one responds to evil, rightfully so, since I’ve given these two books as examples of stories that I live my life by.

    First, you say that “The ultimate question behind the book of Job that is being asked is not ‘Why do bad things happen to good people’ but ‘Is there anyone willing to be righteous (i.e., do good) for the sake of being righteous (i.e., doing good).’ Try to use Job to create a good theodicy and you’re going to run into problems.” This is a rather simplistic reading of Job. The well-respected (secular) scholar of biblical Wisdom Literature M. V. Fox has written an article called “Job the Pious” (ZAW 117), in which he discusses the two dimensions of reality in the book of Job: the world within the narration and the world above the narration. The meaning of the book (and yes, both I and Fox ascribe to the notion of authorial intention when discussing the meaning of biblical books) is communicated to the reader through the interplay of teachings on both these levels.

    The Satan indeed raises the question that you call the “ultimate question”—but this is certainly not the only question that the book raises, nor can it stand in isolation from the others! The following questions are also raised (in one or both narrative worlds), some explicitly, some implicitly: Can the righteous suffer (and inversely, can the wicked prosper)? If God sometimes brings bad upon the righteous (or inversely, good upon the wicked), is he unjust? If the righteous can indeed suffer, how should they respond during suffering? Do human actions affect God? Does God derive pleasure from true human piety and fear of him?

    I disagree with agnosticus’s view that Job is “a *story* meant to ask a question about ethics, not a lesson to teach us how to accept that God can do whatever he wants…and our job is simply to glorify him no matter what.” As Fox argues, the teaching of the book “is essentially pietistic, which is to say, it makes faith the prime virtue. It teaches the need for humble acquiescence to God’s inscrutable will and a firm conviction in his justice even in defiance of one’s own experience, in the belief that one’s suffering ultimately has meaning. Whether one finds this theologically or ethically satisfactory is a critical judgment from an external standpoint. The author, in my view, would have us believe it” (p. 351).

    Notice the distinction here between what the author of Job is trying to communicate and the external judgment by the reader. A reader may believe that Job has nothing to contribute to a good theodicy: fine, but be aware that this is an external judgment. The book may not ask or answer questions in a way that suits you theologically, but please respect the ancient author enough to listen to what he is trying to communicate.

    Second, you say that “The Gospel of John is the latest and most theologized of all the Gospels in the Christian Canon…John has elevated [Jesus] to the level of divinity…something which I believe the historical Jesus would never have claimed for himself.” This is one common perspective on the book of John and the history of Christianity, but there are others in academic circles as well. In _God Crucified_ by well-respected New Testament scholar R. Bauckham (Eerdmans, 1998), Bauckham argues lucidly that “the highest possible Christology, the inclusion of Jesus in the unique divine identity, was central to the faith of the early church even before any of the New Testament writings were written, since it occurs in all of them. Although there was development in understanding this inclusion of Jesus in the identity of God, the decisive step of so including him was made at the beginning of Christology” (p. 27). I won’t outline Bauckham’s arguments here; I refer those interested in this topic to this popular-level book as well as to other more academic books by Bauckham (for example, _Jesus and the Eyewitnesses_).

  9. [cristiana said: “…This is a rather simplistic reading of Job.”]

    I have a fully accredited M.Div. and even took an in-depth, exegetical and expositional semester-long class on the book of Job. Of the many books we used, the Anchor Bible Commentary on Job written by Marvin Pope of Yale University comes to mind. I’ve never heard of M.V. Fox, though he is apparently a legitimate scholar. His conclusion that Job is a book affirming piety does nothing to contradict my assertion. Of course it is shot through with ideas of piety toward the ancient god Yahweh. Ultimately, however, it is about living righteously for the sake of living righteously (in the Hebrew sense) as opposed to a book explaining why bad things happen to good people. It does little to answer that latter question (obviously enough). If Job is intended to encourage us to have faith despite the worst of life’s troubles and tragedies, I daresay the author has failed miserably to convince many people…including me. If Job is to ever be used today as a story to help people in some moral/ethical way, it cannot be taken literally. Oh, and in short, my understing of Job is not simplistic.

    [cristiana said: “…The Satan…”

    Indeed “ha Satan” is an interesting figure in Hebrew writing. You should do a study on the evolution of this character from Hebrew to Christian literature and thinking. You might be surprised at what you discover.

    [cristiana said: “Can the righteous suffer (and inversely, can the wicked prosper)?”]

    Without question. Insert God into the question and it becomes very convoluted and confusing, requiring a great deal of attempted explanation/justification. Leave God out and the explanation is simple and makes perfect sense.

    [cristiana said: “If God sometimes brings bad upon the righteous (or inversely, good upon the wicked), is he unjust?”]

    Not according to those whose reason has been programmed by religious belief and dogma. For those whose thinking is free from the constrictions of religious commitment, this kind of statement is a serious problem.

    [cristiana said: “…please respect the ancient author enough to listen to what he is trying to communicate.”]

    Cristiana, understanding authorial intent is more complex than you obviously think. I don’t claim to omnisciently know what the author of Job intended; however, I do believe that (1) if his intent was to create some ancient, dogmatic theodicy, we have no obligation to take it literally and believe it as absolute truth, and (2) if Pope (among many other top scholars) is correct in his view, the deeper and more meaningful intent of Job is not the flat reading of the story itself, but the message of living according to Yahweh’s laws whatever may come to pass in your life. The ancient Hebrew Wisdom literature that endorses “the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer” is brought into question in Job such that even in suffering one should continue to live righteously. Job’s character was created as the quintessential righteous man, blessed for his righteousness, but succumbed to suffering against the conventional thought of his culture. In the end, Job learned that despite what suffering may come upon him, living righteously despite how your life was going was what was most important.

    [cristiana said: “This is one common perspective on the book of John and the history of Christianity, but there are others in academic circles as well.”]

    This is by far the predominant perspective among scholars who do not allow their faith presuppositions interfere in their study. Of course there are people with Ph.D. degrees who argue for the accurate historicity of the Gospel of John, but these scholars are not among those who study the text as text (literarily, historically, redactionally, etc..) apart from their personal religious beliefs.

    Bauckham’s statement (and viewpoint) does nothing to contradict my statement that Christology developed over time. Even if Paul (who, again, was a mastermind of creating a divine, resurrected Jesus without ever even having met him in real life) was the originator of such thinking, that doesn’t offer evidence than Jesus claimed it of himself or that he actually was divine (something which must be taken purely on faith…but then why not also believe the Koran when it proclaims in no uncertain terms that Mohamed ascended into Heaven on a winged horse?). Of course, there is absolutely no denying that one can see this development in the Gospels, from Mark through John. Compare Mark to John and you will see their contrast very, very clearly. Incidentally, Bauckham is also not anywhere close to reflecting the mainstream in NT scholarship (though he does a nice job defending evangelical presuppositions and defending conservative dogma). He has been refuted quite thoroughly as well (see, for one example, David C. Sim, “The Gospels for All Christians? A Response to Richard Bauckham” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 24, No. 2, 3-27 (2001)); however, even those who have not formally refuted his arguments have done so informally with the mountain of literature written over the last several decades on John and the developing theology of the NT church. His kind is not uncommon among evangelicals (e.g., Blomberg, Evans, Craig, Bock, Wilkins, Moreland, Habermas, McKnight, Geivett, etc…); however, his presuppositions are easily identified.

    I would encourage you to read outside your comfort zone. It is the only way to truly be educated on any subject.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. Cristiana,

    Upon reading through my response, it dawned on me that it came off rather harsh at times. I apologize for that. I wasn’t trying to be belittling and am enjoying our conversation. In the heat of debate, sometimes things can seem to come off more personal than they were intended. Just thought I would clarify.

    Thanks,
    Kevin

  11. Thank you, Kevin. I am not troubled by harshness in your comments—harsh critique is a big part of my field of work, both on the giving and receiving side. What I am troubled by, however, is the assumptions you have drawn about me, based on my two posts. In my first post I talked about my response to suffering and evil, based upon my personal faith. In the second I challenged some of your readings of the biblical text, based on my reading of the biblical text and readings by just two (of many) scholars that I respect. From this you have made these assumptions about me:

    1. That I am not “truly educated.”
    2. That I have not “read outside” my “comfort zone.”
    3. That I, with Bauckham, belong to a certain “kind” of evangelicals.

    These assumptions are absurd, and I will address them one by one.

    1. I prefer to have discussions about texts based upon the texts themselves, not the readers’ credentials. However, since you brought it up: I have three academic masters degrees in different areas of biblical studies from two accredited institutions (one religious, one secular). I am well into my PhD work in Hebrew Bible at a secular university that boasts faculty who are giants in their academic fields, and my honors from this secular university include a prestigious fellowship, an essay award, and two prestigious student awards. Far be it from me to see myself as an authority in any of the matters we have been discussing; however, I have evidence that I am “educated” and can dialogue about these matters respectably.
    2. I could not be in the PhD program I am in without having read outside my “comfort zone.” In academia, nearly everything worth reading contains ideas that are challenging in all sorts of ways! My approach to the biblical text is profoundly shaped by both scholars that I am very distant from theologically and also scholars that I resemble theologically. I respect scholars’ work based upon their scholarship, and thus a scholar’s faith background is irrelevant to whether I model my methodology after him/her or whether I adopt his/her arguments as plausible. Of course I do not deny that presuppositions affect scholarship—but in my field the honest scholars acknowledge that presuppositions affect *everyone’s* scholarship, and then they dialogue/defend/argue as well as they can based upon the evidence available. Thus, I consider “consensus” views as important, but I never accept a consensus view simply because it is a consensus view—and no respectable scholar would!
    3. I am content to call myself an “evangelical”; however, if that means you are going to peg me as a certain “kind” and not listen to me, based upon an ideology you have rejected, I ask that you withdraw the label and try to be a bit more open-minded! And regarding Bauckham: his students whom I have studied under say he does not consider himself an “evangelical,” and unless you hear otherwise, it would probably be best to refrain from doing so. Presuppositional thinking is essential to evaluating arguments, but it can also turn into an ideological tool that prevents people from listening to each other.

    For someone who appears to highly value beliefs based upon data and evidence, I am surprised at your own presuppositions about me that simply are not warranted. Do you think I find this conversation productive? I have engaged in many dialogues (with evangelical Christians, people of other faiths, agnostics, and atheists) that have been much more conducive to mutual understanding and challenging dialogue. I wish you the best, Kevin, and I thank you for this conversation, but I’m going to sign off and seek such dialogues elsewhere.

  12. cristiana, my assumptions are based upon what you wrote, nothing more. I could very quickly tell that you leaned strongly toward the “evangelical side” of matters and I stand by that judgment. I was an evangelical most of my life and an academic nut to boot. However, this is not about ideologies, it is about responding to comments you made. Sure, you share some or many of the ideas in the “evangelical Christian” camp as I do the “atheist” camp…shall we pretend that you are not a believer and I’m not? But that would seem silly in this kind of exchange. It is, after all, at the very heart of our disagreements. Just because I use the word “evangelical” doesn’t mean that I assume that your beliefs coincide with every other evangelical; nevertheless, there are some basic faith or confessional presuppositions most evangelicals make that are very commonplace. Your responses reflected some of those things…and you yourself have just confirmed that you are of the “evangelical” flavor. Big deal. I’m more or less atheist…it is what it is.

    As for your educational history, I never suggested that you had not been to school or even acquired degrees; however, I think it worth noting that just because someone has attended school doesn’t mean their education has been well-rounded or even effective (not assuming this about you, it’s just a fact in general). Further, there are many people with PhDs — even some from fully respectable institutions with outstanding scholars — but who, nonetheless, have not allowed themselves to be truly educated. For them, their dogma overshadows and controls their educational process. I have been there myself. I’m quite glad that you’ve earned such degrees, as you are I’m sure, but instead of going off on this tangent, I would like to see your responses to my critiques and points. I’ve made several points in direct response to your initial ones, but you are no longer really responding in kind. My *guess* is that you simply do not have strong answers for much of what I’ve said about God and Evil, so you lobbed the “ideology” accusation grenade at me and are backing out.

    I wish you well, and I’m saddened that you’ve decided to stop debating this important topic wth me (and others).

    Take care.
    Kevin

  13. Kevin–

    Again, I need to ask: Whose posts are you reading?

    I don’t think Cristiana was hiding the fact that she is an evangelical. She has a problem with (again):

    1. Your assumption that she is not truly educated.
    2. Your assumption that she has not read outside her comfort zone.
    3. (Here I’m interpreting based on the rest of her post): Not your interpretation that she is an evangelical (I don’t think she’s hiding that at all!) but your assumption that she lives by the same theodocies that you brought into the conversation. (These assumptions/blanket statements you make based on what you see as typical evangelical ideology are unfair because while they rhetorically put you in a position of power–your reader may perceive that you know the person you’re talking to and that you can thoroughly refute him or her–you have made no attempt to know the actual position of the person you are trying to refute.)

    All of these objections are accurate descriptions of statements or insinuations you made. And you haven’t justified any of those statements or insinuations in your subsequent post. You merely defended the existence of people who are not truly educated or well read or people who hold the opinions you assume she has–but you were saying and implying *she* was like this. You can’t make these judgments about her unless you’ve met her and spent a lot of time with her. And they’re really irrelevant to the discussion, so why did you bring them up? (Perhaps because many of your arguments are based on authority?)

    I have a hunch that Cristiana is not exiting the conversation because she can’t dialogue with your views. Conversations are based partly on trust, and if she can’t trust you enough to dialogue without you making condescending remarks or assumptions about her character, do you think she’s going to continue to dialogue without first having your respect? I would not. This same dynamic, admittedly, is part of my own reticence to respond to these posts. I think your own views are rational (i.e., they make sense, they can be defended); I think my views are rational too (they make sense, they can be defended). But it’s pointless to talk if the result will be dredging up a whole series of arguments that have occurred time immemorial, and yet we don’t actually get to know each other or understand how we tick.

    And honestly, Kevin, if you continue to be of the opinion that certain worldviews are uneducated, and if you continue to assume that people who hold to those views haven’t learned to think for themselves, then I don’t know how productive a dialogue partner you can be here. You may enjoy sites that are places for apologists to argue. That’s not really what this site is about. This site is about challenging each other, but it is also about respecting each other and learning from one another, despite our differences. It is about conversation, which only sometimes means defending a position.

    There was a guy who came on Thursday nights who had a similar approach that you do: “I’m rational, people who disagree with me are not rational, it’s my job to defend my position.” He was a Christian. He talked a lot, listened little, and didn’t learn to interact. I think we scared him away. I don’t think he could handle the diversity, nor did it seem that he could respect people or truly open himself to learn from them, and he thus made himself look foolish. It was sad, he was a smart guy and otherwise very pleasant and good to know. I’d like to see him again, but as a moderator, I would be cautious if he showed up at Gray’s again.

    I would love for there to be hard-nosed, honest debate about the big questions on this site–from regular folks and PhDs. I would love to talk about many of the topics you introduced in this thread someday with people who want to converse. But for that to happen, there needs to be mutual respect and a willingness to talk within the boundaries of discussion. There needs to be more information gathering (“so do you really think that? How does that relate to… etc.”) before debate, if debate happens to become part of a particular conversation. I will try to explain more what this looks like in a major post. However, folks who assume that other worldviews imply character flaws in the people that hold them–without getting to know the people themselves–will probably continue to be frustrated here.

  14. I was reading her posts and responding directly to them. She, however, was not responding to mine but spiraled off into another subject. So…

    (1) She assumed first that I was not educated (re-read her post before you join her in her accusations of me). Saying my views of Job were “simplistic” is precisely what spurred on my response to let her know of my educational background. So, she presumed before I did.

    (2) She struck me as one who had not read widely outside her viewpoint. If I was wrong, all she had to do was say so. Instead she (and you) come back and make accusations about me “assuming” things…something of which I am certainly not alone in doing…. We all make assumptions…sometimes correct, at other times not. If they are incorrect, they should be corrected instead of going on and on about how terrible it is that somebody made the assumption.

    (3) Are you kidding? She outlined a theodicy using Job. Read what she said. I simply responded to that. If I assumed other things about her based upon the stance she took (not an illogical thing to do), all she had to do was correct me by more clearly stating her position.

    Obviously you know her well…and you don’t know me. I understand your desire to defend her, but I also think you are being far from objective about this exchange. She presumed my lack of understanding first…that’s OK. I presumed she held certain views based upon what she in fact said (I even quoted her to ensure that I was responding to her comments). If I was wrong, all she had to do was say so. Instead, she became offended, lobbed her “ideology accusation” grenade, and left. Now you are simply repeating what she said and defending her. That’s fine. I apologize for assuming anything about her based upon what she said. I will try to ask more questions instead of make assumptions (though I have asked plenty that people do not answer). Perhaps I’m being singled out because my views contrast vividly from others on this blog, not because I am being a jerk? Perhaps I’m not really assuming any more than some who have taken offense to my comments? Perhaps you and Cristiana should have asked me more questions?

    But then, it appears that no matter how I say it, when I state my views, I will run the risk of offending somebody…so this will likely continue no matter what I do. That said, I think I should cease being a part of your group. That’s very disappointing.

  15. It is disappointing that both of you are gone.

    As for whether Cristiana was being heard, or using the same rhetorical moves Kevin was, I’ll let other readers sift through the arguments and decide. For me, as I read through these exchanges, I don’t agree with Kevin’s assessment. It’s tempting for me to go point by point, blow by blow, and if anyone is really interested in finding out why I see things this way, email me (find me at meetup) and we can do that offline. But I don’t see dragging through the arguments here as productive.

    I do think that much of this discussion rests in misunderstanding of what this blog and what our group at Gray’s is for. I will try to clarify that over the weekend, and I do want to apologize for the sad results this lack of clarification can lead to (and has led to). Stay tuned.

  16. sorry, Dave. My vote still goes for Kevin.
    “What I am troubled by, however, is the assumptions you have drawn about me…” I’d say, “Well, Christiana, grow up and get over it.”

    And BTW, neither of them should get any points for “answering the question.” // And BTW2, we academic types do tend to get pretty windy, especially when we have an unlimited forum to state our opinions and theories. Which may be part of the problem at the blog…we get too far down the road before anyone gets a chance to ask those information gathering questions.

    I would really, really, really like to discuss in person with Kevin! Christiana…eh, not so much…I’m pretty much gagging on Bible studies. However, I might have to take Kevin in the smoking area of Greys… b/c this could be too stimulating for me…

  17. Tere,

    I’m sure I’d throughly enjoy our exchange. I get the distinct sense that we would have a genuine, educational dialogue where we would be able to talk through assumptions and challenge each other. While I doubt I would feel very comfortable at a Gray’s Theology meeting after what I have experienced here, I would be open to discussion with you online or in person anytime. My e-mail is kdhuddleston@gmail.com. Feel free to contact me; I’m always looking for good discussion.

    Thanks,
    Kevin


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