Monday, October 8, 2007

... Continued ... IS GOD GOOD?

Background: A reader, Jac, noted an inconsistency in Post #8 in which I tested four standard Christian Theodicies against a set of defined criteria. One of these criteria was that “a working theodicy must result in an omnipotent, compassionate God with his honor and integrity firmly intact in the face of a cosmos brimming with evil.” Jac’s question, very simply stated was this: how could I insist that a viable theodicy must uphold the honor of a “compassionate” God when so many Old Testament stories cast him in a light that is far from compassionate (as we might define compassion). Jac wrote, “By society’s definition of compassionate, many would consider the God of Exodus 11 and other Old Testament passages to be no different than your baby killing Nazi.” Jac cited the killing of firstborn sons in Egypt (Exodus 11:4-6), the slaying of innocent children in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the drowning of innocent children in the flood of Noah. So the question has been raised. And before we move forward to suggest an alternative theodicy, we must return to reexamine the very presumptions of theodicy. Is God good? Is he compassionate? Do we define compassion in the same way he does?

Readers Comments: Several readers wrote comments suggesting ways in which this dilemma might be viewed.

Jac suggested that these O.T. stories portraying God as an apparently uncaring child slayer are troubling to believers, and are often “insurmountable barriers to the skeptic.” He sees them as irresolvable, and suggests that I ought to be more tentative in my dismissal of the free will/free process theology theodicy. He argues in favor of that theodicy, and contributed this C.S. Lewis quote (from Mere Christianity): “If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will--that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings--then we may take it it is worth paying.”

Steve Martin suggests that the answer might lie in the concept of progressive revelation. His explanation seems to me to be two-pronged. Either the revelation is accurate, but God accommodated the infant state of man’s faith in his actual dealings with man, or the recounting of the stories is a little fuzzy, representing a less-than-accurate view of what God did and why. This concept would suggest that the true character of God comes into clearer focus as we progress through the ages of written revelation. Jac concurs that this must be part of our approach when he writes, “I agree with the concept of progressive revelation – we definitely understand God better now that we did before.”

Timothy takes a similar tack and writes, “When we look at historical accounts from the old testament scripture, it would seem to me that we are watching a God who is some how engaged in the affairs of man on a different level then we have experienced in the last couple thousand years of recorded history.” He expands on this idea, suggesting that we assign greater weight to later revelation. Early revelations concerning God's character, Timothy contends, may be tainted by the authors imperfect understanding of God. The authors might be giving what amounts to an inspired, but nevertheless human, rendition of the interactions of God and man; but their writings would not necessarily represent the final word on God's nature.

About himself, God declares “I do not change” (Malachi 3:6). The loving, kind, good God that Jesus came to show us is the God of Creation, the God of Moses, the God of the Old Testament. My own solution to Jac’s dilemma (which I will elucidate in greater detail later) is found in progressive revelation. It is a subject to which I will necessarily return, and which will involve a major discussion of Biblical interpretation and inspiration.

My Conclusion: I must agree with Jac’s central objection to the way in which I discounted the free will argument of theodicy as not upholding the compassionate character of God. Considering the stature of those who have forwarded the free will / free process theology argument (Lewis, Guinness, Polkinghorne, many others), I may have oversold my somewhat cavalier dismissal of it. Nevertheless, my argument is unchanged: this theodicy fails to satisfy the skeptic, it fails to satisfy most believers, and it fails to satisfy even its own proponents. So the quest for a better theodicy continues. I will suggest my own approach to the problem of evil in my next post.


David McMaster said...

Hey, Cliff

Just wanted to let you know I've been following closely, and have been enjoying the discussion. I tend to be in the same camp as Jac on this subject, and have used the Lewis quote--or some form of the concept presented--myself many times in conversations with skeptics.

Regarding skeptics, hopefully I'm not being too provocative when I say that, like the poor, skeptics will be with us always. Put another way, no explanation will be satisfactory to the skeptic because...well, they're skeptics. I don't say this to cast doubts on the merits of your efforts here. On the contrary, your blog is of much benefit. I just happen to believe that we of the faith will be the main beneficiaries. One who habitually doubts Christianity or does not believe in absolutes might need a much stronger Persuader.

Anyway, thanks for this! It is so true that too many of us believe that God is done revealing Himself to us. How could that possibly be? He is the God of the living, not the dead.


Cliff Martin said...


Good to hear from you! Thanks for your thoughts. No, I am not so naive as to think that any new, more powerful argument could persuade even one skeptic. The reason to form a more satisfying theodicy is, in part, to remove a very powerful argument from the skeptic's arsenal. He may never choose to believe. But there is nevertheless value in at least putting a crack in his foundation. He bears then the greater responsibility for his choice of unbelief.

And you are right about the primary beneficiaries being believers. If finding a stronger theodicy can keep one believer from abandoning faith, it will be worth the search.

Anonymous said...


Thanks again for accommodating me in your blog. I definitely appreciate those who think “outside the box” and are willing to be challenged on their assumptions. In addition to satisfying the skeptics and ourselves as believers, we need to be able to answer the new believers and young believers (like my daughters aged 10 and 12) when they ask us about those troubling passages and the problem of evil. So far, my approach has been a combination of CS Lewis (as Timothy put it – giving God the “benefit of the doubt”) and progressive revelation (understanding God better now than before, especially taking into account the NT and the great act of redemption). But I’m definitely open to better explanations so please carry on and outline your approach.


Cliff Martin said...

Thank you, Jac. Today begins a week long vacation at Sunriver, OR with my family. That, coupled with the fact that the hard drive on my 6-month-old MacBook Pro died this morning (resulting in a loss of about 1 weeks worth of data and hours of rebuilding when I get my laptop back from the repair shop!) might set me back on writing a little. Please be patient with me, and I will try to get the next post written in a few days.