Posted by Peter Kazmaier
It’s no bother …
Accessibility to one’s readers is one of the benefits of being an indie author. So it’s no bother at all when someone sends me a question. Indeed it is a special delight.
I asked permission to share this conversation with my blog readers and it was granted providing I maintained the reader’s anonymity. I propose to do so by using the Latin name Aulaire (means well-spoken) for the reader.
The tough questions
Aulaire, you do ask me the toughest questions! Like you these situations you mention make me ask: “How can this be?”
Let me begin with a disclaimer: these are tough questions facing Christians (and for others too). I have some partial answers, but if we ever find ourselves in these these troubling situations, we will find out pretty quickly how hollow and incomplete my answers are.
Aulaire, on describing what troubled here about some passages, wrote:
“I find even in the old testament when God had Joshua going into the promised land [and] King David fighting nations opposed to Israel, how they slaughtered & killed whole people groups, even the women and children.”
1. We know that God is omnipotent. We often don’t realize, however, that omnipotence is inherently self-limiting. For example, when I write a book, I am, humanly speaking, omnipotent. I can write a romance, a book on economics etc. Indeed, I could write about anything at all. But as soon as I write my first line (“Dave Schuster sat in the Chancellor’s office …”), I have already limited my own “omnipotence” significantly. Many possible books are now ruled out. I believe God is in the same boat. As soon as He begins creating, He is limiting his own omnipotence. Thus Aslan (from Lewis’ Narnia books) growls when it is suggested the Emperor-Over-The-Sea not follow His own rules. This implies, particularly when sinful people are deciding for Him, that often God is left, in a given situation, with only bad choices on His plate. I believe He will, play His poor cards as well as He can at the time and still make it right when the story is complete, but in a given situation He may, because of our deal, only have poor cards to play (I know, Aulaire, you’re reading The Dragons of Sheol. You might check out the chapter on Al and Floyd’s discussion of God as a Bridge Partner).
2. I think genuine mercy was always an alternative to Old Testament law punishments. Joseph, as he sought to apply the Old Testament Law, could have had Mary stoned for adultery (betrothal had the weight of marriage) but he had a right to a merciful option and “resolved to put her away quietly.” The trouble in Joshua and David’s time: Israelites, acting like the people around them, had no problem exterminating their enemies. They sometimes showed a false mercy by sparing the bits they wanted (e.g. the cattle) and God condemned this self-serving, false mercy.
3. Jesus did not spare Himself our injustice. When God wrote Himself into our story, He took on all the bad bits. He grew up in a poor family in a subjugated nation. He was thought an illegitimate child of sin. His father likely died when He was young. He was hated by his own people, and of course, He was crucified unjustly at the young age of 33. God didn’t spare Himself, so how can I complain?
4. We must not assume that if actions occur in the Old Testament without comment that God approves.
Aulaire, speaking of historical events that bother her, wrote:
“And also allowing Hitler to continue as long as he did to exterminate the Jewish people.”
Fifty-two million people lost their lives in WWII. Given my background I had friends and relatives who lived through this terrible time from inside the Third Reich. I have seen the scars it has left on their lives. Asking when God should intervene to override our foolish and downright evil decisions is a difficult question. I think we almost all agree, we wouldn’t want to lose our God-image-bearer humanity by having Him control all of our decisions. So where would we have Him draw the line? I don’t know. I trust He knows best.
A mentor of mine used to draw a dot with an arrow going to the right. He would say the dot is my life now; the arrow is eternity. I trust God will use eternity to make things right.
I want to end again with the disclaimer: I don’t really have a completely satisfying answer (to me and likely to anyone else) on your questions, Aulaire. This is the best I have. Others likely could say much more.
Some additional material from QUESTIONING YOUR WAY TO FAITH
Questioning Your Way to Faith is a short book that has two friends talk respectfully about some of life’s most difficult questions. I hope this chapter excerpt is of some value as it touches on the questions Aulaire raised.
Chapter 5 The Problem of Evil Committed by Christians
Around five o’clock, Al said “How about supper?”
“Why don’t you clean the fish,” responded Floyd, “and I’ll get the fire started.
“Sure thing; sea bass always tastes best when it’s fresh.”
Floyd nodded and headed to a sheltered dell beneath a rocky ridge to a small fire pit.
They had only kept one of the sea bass. Al began cleaning the fish. He heard twigs snapping.
Floyd reappeared. “Do you have any matches?”
“In the second drawer of my tackle box.” Al went back to his task. He deftly gutted the big sea bass and cut four generous fillets. He buried the head and entrails and carried the four fillets in the frying pan along with his knapsack into the dell. Floyd had a small fire going.
Al set the skillet down and unpacked a small grill, placing it between two rocks.
“You’ve obviously done this before,” said Floyd.
“This is one of my favorite things!” Al pulled out the small lunch cooler and produced a package of potato salad from the cafeteria.”
“What would you like to drink, Floyd?”
“What do you have?”
“My favorite wheat beer from Benson’s Microbrewery or cola?
“I’ll take the beer.”
Al flipped the fillets with his hunting knife and a freshly cut stick. He added salt and looked critically at the fillets. “I think they’re done.”
“Good. I’m starving.”
“Can you get the two plates in my knapsack, Floyd?”
“Sure. Boy I don’t normally like fish but that smells great.”
“There’s something special about fresh fish. Here, help yourself to the potato salad.”
They ate in silence. Then Al rinsed off their plates and the frying pan in the sea. When he came back, Floyd was nursing his beer and leaning back against a driftwood tree trunk looking up at the sky. “This is the life Al.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Floyd.” The evening sun tinged the sea orange.
The beauty of the sea and the sky is almost a meal on its own.
Floyd was silent for a while. Al looked at him. His friend seemed to be thinking.
Floyd cleared his throat.
“Al, going back to our previous discussion, your argument about God being good simply doesn’t add up. How many wars have been fought over religion? I remember reading that in the Thirty Years’ War, a Christian religious war between Catholics and Protestants, about two thirds of the population of what is now Germany was killed. The Philippines were converted to Catholicism from Islam by the sword, all except one island, which the Spanish couldn’t easily land on in force. Look how the Jews have been treated by Christians. How can God be the moral force you make Him out to be if so much evil is done by His followers in His name? Your argument would be much more convincing if Christians were actually a force for good rather than evil.”
“Floyd, in a great many ways you’re right. Much evil has been done in the name of Christianity. In fact G. K. Chesterton and others as I recall, made the point that the best argument against Christianity is Christians.
“Still I don’t think the argument against Christianity on this ground is as strong as you make it,” continued Al. “First of all, if you look at nations and peoples before the French Revolution, every one of them was religious. Therefore it’s easy to look at a multidimensional problem and say they committed evil because of religion. And what about politics? What about greed? What about power? Didn’t these play a role?”
“I’m sure they did. But the Thirty Years’ War was ostensibly a religious war wasn’t it?” asked Floyd.
“That’s exactly my point,” said Al. We pick from a host of causes and label it a ‘religious war’ when we could just as easily call it a war for political power and control. Have we stopped fighting just because we’re less religious?”
“I suppose not,” conceded Floyd.
“We haven’t,” said Al. “If we focus on governments that are openly antagonistic to religion, have they done any better? The French Revolution—after proclaiming the noble sentiments of equality, fraternity, and freedom—moved quickly on to the Reign of Terror, and then on to Napoleon’s long war to dominate Europe.
“Have the Communists done better? They’re avowedly atheistic and have killed a great many people in the pogroms and mass exterminations of dissenters. I think the root problem is not really religion, but a lack of respect for Freedom of Religion. If we respected the rights of people to make up their own minds without coercion, then we wouldn’t do these things. But all governments prefer a homogeneous populace. So there’s a tendency to make us all the same because then we’re easier to manage and govern. Coercion can just as easily be secular as religious.”
“How do those excesses excuse the Christians?” asked Floyd.
“They don’t, but I think people who raise this issue are overlooking an important fact.”
“What’s that?” asked Floyd.
“If you’re a power hungry tyrant, and you want your followers to join in a cause that’s dear to your heart, it will never do to say ‘Let’s beat up on our neighbors. I know they pose no threat. They haven’t done us a stitch of harm, but let’s kill them, take their land, and enslave them. Come on—it’ll be fun.’”
“The vast majority of people are too fair minded to risk their own lives, and the lives of their children on such an escapade. But if the war monger builds a case that the neighbor poses a threat and will attack us, take our freedom, our children and our lands, then the call to war becomes much more credible. The appeal to religion has worked for tyrants because religion was so valuable to the people. It gave meaning to their lives. And so by having that threatened, one could bend them to commit atrocities because in their fear they succumbed to the argument that the end justified the means. Today with the decline of religion in the west, we make the same calls using our new values. The threat is that others will impose their unwanted religion on us, take away our wealth, our children and our freedoms. The same story works. The same people are pulling the strings. Still religion is not seen as being as valuable as it once was, so it’s no longer used to justify evil. But other things are.”
“Still that doesn’t excuse them,” said Floyd.
“No not at all. If you follow the teaching of Jesus, the end never justified the means. That is a great trap. What makes things worse is that our evil nature always makes it seem as if the injustices foisted on us are grievous beyond words. And yet when we do the very same thing to someone else, it was a justifiable necessity on our part. We are hopelessly unsymmetrical in our evaluations.”
“Still why did they fall for it?” asked Floyd.
“I don’t know. The New Testament teaches us to regard others—even those who think differently from us—as brothers. We are to return good for evil and love our enemies. The end never justifies the means—yet Christians still can be moved to do things that go against their fundamental teachings. Why do they do it? Why do I do it? I wish I knew. I’m far from perfect, and so are they, I guess.”
“Floyd, I think you and I could agree on this question a good deal more if you substituted “religion” for “God” and “Christians.”
“Al, I don’t see how that will help you. Isn’t Christianity a religion?”
“That depends on the definition. If you think of religion as the institutions, the laws, the regulations that are supposed to bring us close to God, then Christianity, as far as I can tell from reading the New Testament, was never meant to be a religion. Indeed, in the Gospels, Jesus’ strongest words of censure were directed toward the Pharisees, the religious heavyweights of his day, and he accused them of keeping people who were truly seeking God away from God by loading them down with regulations, duties, and obligations which were the constructs of men and not of God. Christianity is much more about meeting a person, than following a program.”
“Okay you’re trying to draw a distinction between Christianity and religions. I’ve heard that before,” said Floyd.
“Floyd, getting back to the question about ‘religion being the root of all evil…’”
“I never said all evil, but I believe Christians are responsible for much of the evil in our world.”
“I can see why that behavior should bother me since I see clearly how they do not conform to the behavior God has set out for Christians. But why does it bother you? At the risk of being repetitive, if all people, including Christians, are the product of millions of years of evolution, through which we have been conditioned by our genes to eliminate competition and reproduce as prolifically as possible, then wouldn’t we expect the killing off of competition to be the most natural of activities? Would rape and pillaging not be entirely consistent with that conditioning? At their worst are these “Christians” from the Thirty Years’ War not acting exactly as one would have predicted based on evolution? So why the surprise? Why the expectation that they would be better?
“It seems to me the anomaly—from your point of view—would be those people who rise above this ‘ethic’ of me and mine first.”
“You have a point,” said Floyd. He shook himself and looked around. “It’s getting dark. We should be heading back. Will you put out the fire while I collect up our gear?”