The recent tornado in Oklahoma has inspired feelings of gratitude in many Christians. After all, it could have been much worse. And they have downgraded the damage estimates. At the same time, atheists are in a frenzy over the apparent game of one sided tennis, in which God gets credit for saving people from disaster while escaping blame for sending the thing in the first place. In fact, he even gets credit in some circles. After all, if there was a disaster, it must mean that God was displeased in some way, and someone deserved a smiting.
There is no doubt that many people take comfort in the belief that God saves them from disaster. It’s also nice to think that disasters are part of some kind of bigger plan, in which things are better for everyone in the end. But is this belief reasonable? Can we reconcile the ultimate goodness of a deity who sends tornadoes to kill some people while saving others?
In philosophy circles, this is known as the “problem of evil.” God, if he is all-powerful, is responsible for every atrocity that happens, which must mean that he is not good. Alternatively, if God cannot keep atrocity from happening, he must not be all powerful. This dilemma has been articulated for centuries. Apologists typically try to sidestep the problem by removing God from judgment. That is, God can judge humans by whatever standard he wants because he sets the standards. On the other hand, God is good, no matter what he does. If we want to define “good” as “anything God does,” then of course this is true. However, this is something of a cop-out, since God’s “goodness” becomes meaningless, and we have no way of deciding whether he is worthy of admiration, apathy, or loathing. On the other hand, if we hold God to very basic standards of morality, the picture becomes quite clear.
We can illustrate the point by imagining a hypothetical doomsday scenario. Suppose we discovered beyond any doubt that if the human population was not reduced by half in ten years, the entire human species would die. Our choice would be difficult, but not unworkable. We could institute a policy of killing say… everyone with an IQ of 90 or lower. Or everyone over the age of 50. (Logan’s Run, anyone?) We would justify our actions because we would be sacrificing some to save many. We’d be committing a horrible atrocity to prevent a much worse atrocity. If those were the only two choices, we’d do what we had to do. But people would still suffer. It would be a moral decision of grave magnitude, and we would be guilty of unimaginable mass murder, regardless of the outcome.
In the same way, God is responsible for his actions towards people today, even if they are part of a long term plan. In fact, things are worse for God than they would be for humans instituting population reduction. In our case, we can imagine that we might be forced into such drastic measures if it became obvious that a horrible end awaited the entire population if we didn’t act drastically immediately. We could justify such a horrifying act by appealing to the much worse option of the entire species dying off. It still wouldn’t be good, but it would be the best of several terrible options.
Not so for God. He is never forced into anything. Everything he does is done because it is precisely what he wants to do, with no coercion or restraint by the laws of the universe. After all, he made the laws of the universe because that’s what he wanted. So any appeal to sacrifices now for the good of… whatever… in the future is a hollow argument. God did not have to do it this way. He could have done it in a way that the sacrifices didn’t have to be made, and bad things didn’t have to happen to billions of people. He chose atrocity.
We also shouldn’t gloss over my hesitation in the previous paragraph. If we are sacrificing something now for some greater good in the future, what is that greater good? In the case of environmental change, we could say that we were sacrificing lives now for the opportunity to continue the human species. But in God’s case, what good is coming from evil being wrought on humans today? And more importantly, who is it good for? There’s no way that it could be good for the humans experiencing evil now. They’ll be dead in the future, and either in heaven or hell. Nothing on earth in the future can possibly change their afterlives, since a sentence to either heaven or hell is permanent with no chance of relocation. If it’s good for humans in the future, that’s fine, but we’re still left wondering why God didn’t orchestrate events so that good things could happen to us now and good things would happen to other people in the future. Finally, we must reject the claim that bad things happening to us now are better for our immortal souls. According to the plan of salvation, all that is needed for access to heaven is believing in Jesus. People who live happy lives will be in exactly the same place as people who suffered horribly if only they believe.
Like so many apologist arguments, this one is really simple. Many of us were trained to be confused by it, but that is part of the brainwashing and indoctrination. If God can do anything he wants, then he is responsible for evil. If it is part of a bigger plan, he is still responsible since he claims to be able to do absolutely anything he wants, and could have accomplished the same good without the evil. End of story. Any talk of “mysterious ways” is just a substitute for waving our hands in the air and crying, “I really don’t want God to be responsible!”
The Oklahoma tornado was horrifying, and resulted in the deaths of innocent children. We can obfuscate as much as we want, but God could have chosen not to allow it to form in the first place. Children are dead, and God could have prevented it if he is, in fact, real and all-powerful. If it brings comfort to believe that God can be both responsible and blameless, then that is one thing. On the other hand, it’s worth asking if it’s easier to believe that bad things happen at random, or that God chose to kill innocent children. For my part, I take no comfort in the capricious will of a deity who could have created happiness and chooses instead to create suffering.