Addressing the skeptic

Posted by tom | Oct 12, 2006

Below is a piece I wrote while engaging a CMU alum on the topic Is God Good? The original piece and subsequent conversation covers quite a lot of territory, touching on some of the topics which have been raised (evil, Canannite genocide, placing God on the dock). I intend to try to come back and address specific questions, but thought I'd get this posted as I was thinking of stripping down the piece and using it for my 15 minute introduction.

I look forward to your suggestions on tightening up the direction of thought, counter-arguments, and your own reflections. Also, keep posting on Skeptic's Night Warm-up, the posts are getting the mental gears in motion. They've stirred me to begin paging through the 779 page The New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics (IVP, 2006), in which I've found a quite helpful overview of apologetics and a number of articles addressing particular questions.

'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'

Henri Blocher begins 'Evil and the Cross' with these words, 'While it is evil that tortures human bodies, it is the problem of evil that torments the human mind . . . resists our unremitting efforts to understand it. Our intelligence stumbles and becomes irritated or dispirited, or perhaps even tries to avoid the real issue.' I have found this true in my life. It was not only been the abstract presence of evil/brokenness in creation that drew me out of 'my own world' and into the Biblical Story, but also a list of perceived, and some real, injustices including the loss of Elise Faith after 8 days in the neonatal unit.


I've found the Biblical Story to 'make sense' and to be transformative in a positive/loving/good direction in my own life, my family's life, the People of God, local communities, and in various written testimonies (eg., reflections on church history, reports from various parts of the world). This is not to say that evil/brokenness has not corrupted and led to issues/problems day-to-day and over long periods of time, but it is to say that glimpses of good are found in the carnage we are surrounded by, even in the most unexpected places. Sometimes we even find a glimpse so overpowering that it appears for a short time that 'heaven has been made on earth.' So it is important not only 'look at God's recorded deeds in the Bible, and determine from these whether or not he is good' but also to take in that which is around you and has been lived out over the years. Also, as one interacts w/those around you and in one's environment, it is healthy to raise the question of which religion(s) or a certain 'lack of religion' provides a framework for 'the good' to exist in a way that is not compromised by the presence of evil. But this is a topic for another time.

To begin at the creation is excellent, as you point out the Christian God is worshipped, i.e., given glory by our voices/hearts, because of the beauty of the creation, the bringing of life, and the continued care for it. In spirit and in truth, we delight in His Presence in which there is the fulness of joy as we are drawn near to Him and receive not only His delight in us as His people but also His mercy, goodness, and grace (eg., Gn 1:31, Is 62:3-5, Ps 16:1, James 4:8, Hebrews 4:16, John 4:23-4). You mention the devil, but fail to point out the misdirection, death, and destruction which he and his minions bring to the creation as human beings enter his 'alternative approach to being human.' The devil and those aligned with him are the ones who are at war w/the people, design, purpose, and direction of the creation given by God (Gn 3, II Sam 24:3, 10, Job 1, Lk 4:5-6, I Jn 5:19, II Cor 4:4, Eph 2:2). Why God created beings with the power and ability to seek their own way and yet none-the-less extend the grace for them to continue exist and at times even prosper is one of the evidences of the goodness of God as summed up by your quote of Jesus' from Mt 5:44-6.

So we are not just marred by the presence of evil, but also we daily choose sin (Is 65:12, 66:4, Zc 7:11ff, Mt 23:37, Mt 15:10-20), even though the creation cries out in testimony to this being the wrong direction as we find in the opening of Romans. But it is in that framework in which we are able to wrestle w/these questions (Gn 3:16-9, Ro 5:12). And many unreflectively follow/worship the gods of our culture including sensuality/progress/success/finanical gain at all costs, b/c going w/the tyrants of our culture works. We bow to Christ as Lord, not to our culture first. We need to be aware that we are accountable as a people for our culture, our family, our institutions, we share in the blessings and curses which flows from it.

As hard as it is for us to conceive, the gods of Canaan and their people had much to be cleansed of and even w/the radical nature of the taking of the land the gods/culture/people still exercised a significant influence on Israel as the ban/herem/devotion to destruction was not completely carried out for reasons of gain. Our good God is patient. He waited 400 years until the sin of the Amorites reached full measure before exercising his judgment through the Israelites (Gn 15:16, Dt 9:7). Our individualistic and 'family unit' oriented culture rejects the notion that we share both the benefits and the repercussions as a people. But as Paul points out multigenerational cultures/families have a closer identity even out to four generations and I would add that this practice of warfare was not unique at this time (and is not much different than our age of genocide, air raids, and nuclear/atomic bombs). Below is a sampling of the mythology of one goddess' work in Canaan's time, which I offer as a far cry from the Christian God and a small glimpse of what came under judgment:

'Deciding on a massacre, she smote and slew from seacoast (west) to sunrise. Filling her temple with men she barred the doors and hurled at them chairs, tables and footstools. Soon she waded in blood up to her knees - nay, up to her neck. 'Her liver swelled with laughter; her heart was full of joy.' She then washed her hands in gore and proceeded to other occupations.' John W Wenham further elaborates on the gods of Canaan in 'The Goodness of God,' 'Molech sacrifices were offered especially in connection with vows and solemn promises, and children were sacrificed as the harshest and most binding pledge of the sanctity of a promise. Even Greek writers were disgusted with this Phoenician practice, which became a prominent part of the religion of Carthage, and might well have overspread the world had Hannibal won the day in Italy. Sholem Asch portrays the hideous fascination of the rite, with its combination of solemnity and spectacle, of excitement and horror, or merry-making and obscenity, in which, as its central act, a young lad (no baby) is thrown into the red-hot arms of the god. Such practices could only prove a cancer in the life of any society, bringing a legacy of callousness and viciousness and fear, yet exercising a fascination which such a people's debased moral sense could not resist. A society nurtured in unwholesome excitement does not know how to live without it. It is not surprising that the Valley of Hinnom (Ge-henna), where Molech worship was practiced in the days of Manasseh, should have provided the Jewish image of hell (for more elaboration go on-line).'

Human goodness is a difficult place to start in your argument (FYI: It would be a helpful piece to add a definition of human evil or evil in general). From where does one pickup an understanding of human goodness? Is it universally obvious across the world and in all religions, i.e., something inherent to being human. No. In our context, it is in large measure informed by the life of Jesus and his followers who in whole life devotion to God the Father have sought not only as individuals but as a community to be something not unlike your 'good person' who 'demonstrates sacrificial love and care for other people and animals. He is honest, generous and merciful. He is not spiteful, mean or cruel. Goodness is a moral choice: the rejection of evil and pursuit of what is right or best towards others. There is plenty more that can be added, but this captures much of what it means except for a further stipulation that good excludes great evil.'

It is very noteworthy that the tension, punishment, betrayal, and death of God the 'Innocent' Son was at the hands of humans who desired their own ends (Philippians 2). He came and took it about as hard as it could be dished out by His fallen creation w/o reverting to supernatural powers or a tactical rescue team of angelic warriors. God, in His goodness, resolved the dilemma of justice and mercy by offering forgiveness. We choose whether to accept the opportunity to break from sinfulness and embrace his forgiveness. People like Melchizedek, Naaman, the widow who cared for Elisha, and Ruth have even sought Him across what would appear to be impossible cultural barriers. He is known and can be found by those who seek Him.

As you, I find evil exists. It is not made up, sloughed off by evolutionary, educational, or environmental change. Quite to the contrary it is visceral, experienced internally and externally. Despite its presence within, external experiences come as a shock, an unjustifiable disruption of reality to which we yell at the top of our lungs 'stop!' Evil 'ought not to be.' Do we experience shame regarding the tyrannical acts of the Christian God and find ourselves incapable of rendering worship to Him?

Blocher argues, 'Scripture never tires of denouncing the reality and the danger of evil: it is evil totally, radically, and absolutely.' We are to 'Hate what is evil' (Ro 12:9) and there is much of the Biblical Story, both teaching and event wise to underscore this perspective. Evil may be defined as 'something that is contrary to the will of God and yet permitted by him' (Blocher, p.129). One of the most compelling denunciations of evil are the prophetic voices of the Old Testament, carried on in the very teaching of the Son of God. 'Woe to those who call evil good and good evil' (Isaiah 5:20) . . . 'I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be condemned.' (Mt 12:36).

The wrath of God takes into account the gravity of sin and that which it brings about on the creation. God takes action to punish gods/nations/people, laying the groundwork for redemption and change of direction. He alone has authority to give and take away life. The situation w/regard to Canaan was a unique historical phenomena, not replicable as He alone has the authority to wield holy war and set aside a 'holy nation' (not even Israel on its own, the disciple Peter in the Garden, the Crusaders, or 'Christians' today). As a sidenote, I think that it is helpful to note differences in heart orientation w/regard to sins resulting from ignorance, error, and inattention. As such we may 'just miss the mark,' ignore God, live in rebellion seeking our own way, pursue our own sensuality.

In the Old Testament, we find those who are to be following God and representing Him in the creation going in the wrong direction. At times they also are struck down (eg., Jehoiakim in Hab 1, death of David/Bathsheba's child, Achan's family in Jos 7:24-26, Uzziah when the ark is improperly transported, Judah's judgment for a previous generation's king despite a change of heart by Josiah in II Kgs 23:26-7), at others their 'evil is changed into good' by God (eg., Joseph in Gen 50:20). There are also conflicts w/people who have chosen to align themselves w/other powers, Ps 103:19. Sinners are the enemies of God (Ps 5:10), but He is grieved by our sinfulness (Gn 6:6). As we consider the Biblical Story, it seems that the strong prophetic voices are intended to bring out the sovereign majesty of God (Is 45:7, Ez 14:9, 20:25). God acts toward the blessing of His creation as manifested most clearly in the ministry of Jesus, He permits the structure/framework of creation to go forward. Only creatures bring forth evil, there is Satan the tempter (II Samuel 24:1 on I Chronicles 21:1) and there is the depth of our own soul (II Ch 32:31 on Hezekiah).

Amid the judgment of Canaan, there are also passages which teach how to care for outsiders, including special care for the weak and the helpless (especially women and children), attention to the unique needs of foreigners, or the humane treatment of an enemy (Dt 22:22; Dt 10:18; Ps 10:14-18; 68:5; 146:9; Ex 22:21; Lev 19:33-34; Dt 10:17-19; 24:19; Ez 47:22-23; cf. James 1:7). We also find God arguing w/Jonah, "Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people, . . . and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city" (Jonah 4:11). Yahweh's attachment to His people is an indefinite faithful love for a thousand generations, far eclipsing the judgment upon four generations in the second commandment (Dt 5:9-10).

As it should be clear by now I come to a different conclusion than you, 'Unfortunately, the Bible details numerous examples of God's cruelty in punishing people for the sins of others. As argued, these actions cannot be explained through a requirement of justice nor by God's rights over us. These actions must surely be condemned as morally reprehensible, and so the Biblical God cannot be good.' Instead like Job and the author of Ecclesiastes, I find myself learning to worship transcendence, acknowledging that human beings are not the measure of all things. For "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised . . ."

Then Job answered the LORD: 4 "I am unworthy -- how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. 5 I spoke once, but I have no answer -- twice, but I will say no more." (Job 40:3-5)

The beauty/forgiveness of God the Innocent Son captures me in the Scriptures, in my own life, and what I have observed and experienced around me.

Faith rests on a foundation, at some point one will find a tautology. I acknowledge the answers to the questions you raise are not readily forthcoming and have enjoyed the opportunity to wrestle w/your piece (and look forward to the possibility of more conversation). I choose to place my hope in the divine instead of the human when seeking perspective and taking action in the creation. God does define 'the good' not only by who He is, but also by His battle w/evil that is only overcome by the cross, a deliberate choice of self-sacrifice on behalf of His creation (Acts 2:23, 4:28). I look forward to the day when God's kingdom has come in fullness and evil/sin is vanquished. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

Helpful pieces, that I have let influence my thought on these topics over the years, and I have borrowed from heavily in writing this piece include

John W Wenham's 'The Goodness of God,' available on-line, dissertation on evangelical treatment of 'Herem,' available on-line

Henri Blocher's Evil & the Cross

Gregory Boyd's God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy

Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology

J.G. McConville's Deuteronomy

3 Comments & 0 Trackbacks of "Addressing the skeptic"

    I have learned through God's guidance, that man, though is created by God, fails to be "good" because we have knowledge of good and evil. Because we are not God yet we have the knowledge we failed to be gods ourselves; Thus humans bring evil to the world through Satan's deceptions of good.
    Satan teaches us that we can be good without God himself because we were created by him in his image thus we can know good because we the godliness is engraved in us. However, God teaches us that we are instruments of God's goodness meaning our actions reflect God's goodness not man.
    Man did not create goodness thus we cannot express our goodness because it does not exist. The goodness comes from God.
    Suffering and attrocities in this world come from the invented goodness from man. AKA, holocaust. Hitler thought he was good because he depended on his image of goodness; therefore the fruits of his goodness was evil because it did not come from God.
    People like to blame everything on God because He is the supreme parent. We are children so we want to fight our dad for his "incompentence". children think that parents are imbicils so we want to do everything ourselves. God allows us to do what we want until we come back to him for him. Sadly, most people refuse to run to God because we hate being wrong. It's easier to blame God for everything.

    Posted by Sergey, Mar 7 2009, 17:22

    Good stuff Sergey. What are your thoughts on:

    1. Defining "good and evil"
    2. Whether human beings were "good" or "knew"/recognized good before the fall
    3. If human beings would have been given the ability to know "good and evil" as God knows "good and evil" (in the image of God) if they had chosen "good" at the time of temptation.
    4. What does it mean that human beings "know good and evil" and have "died?"

    Some thoughts before I send it back your direction, "The Fall" (Genesis 3) tells the story of human beings coming to an active understanding of evil by choosing to doubt God's Word/Reality and live as their own gods in evil/disobedience, following the lead of the tempter. We must be careful not to imply that God extends to us the ability to become gods. Yes, we are created in the image of God to worship Him by reflecting His image with all our whole being, but it is the tempter who asserts our ability to 'become like God, knowing good and evil.'

    There is a subtle difference and as we walk through Lent, we are reminded that this sinful act of striving to become gods occurs again and again as 'whole new worlds' open before our eyes. But in reality we find ourselves caught up in the self-delusion of understanding ourselves (and various cultural/technological/economic wonders) to be self-sufficient/determining/directional.

    I'm not comfortable equating disobedience (pursuit of being gods) with a self-referential understanding of goodness. Why? As you note above 'goodness comes from God,' and I encounter God's goodness (even justice or at least calls for proper justice) in daily life and when reading (history, religious material, and current events) from places/people which 'do not follow God.' Goodness has been dimmed and subjugated to other motives, but has not been completely lost to individuals and whole countries/ethnicities. There is a sense of 'goodness' existing beyond one's own self and a limit to one's ability to 'force' one's own 'goodness' upon others. ... Otherwise many would not have come to faith in God by acknowledging that they are 'evil'/sinful and chaos would have eliminated human beings long ago.

    Although we tend to live in and embrace the darkness around us (instead of the Light, Romans 1:18ff), God the Father has chosen to give us new life/light through the life/words/death/resurrection/Lordship of His Son Jesus the Christ (Romans 5:12ff, I Cor 15:21ff). In some ways, by the work of the Son and the Spirit, we can glimpse and live in the proper relationship of "good and evil" ... But it will not be until the new heaven and new earth, that God fear-ers will properly display the image of God as we are embraced by and live in the reality of "the good alone."

    Posted by Tom, Mar 9 2009, 11:56

    1) Defining "good and evil"
    We know that God is good becuase by nature he does things that bless us with his love. Love is his way to comfort and lead us to ultimate salvation. Salvation is the key to heaven which is good. In order for humans to reach heaven, we need to follow the path that God gives us becuase our actions that he wants us to show through faith reflect his goodness which love. Love encompasses all the laws that is insribed in our hearts. The laws through faith from God reflect the image of absolute goodness which lead us to salvation.
    Evil is the opposite of good. Evil is hate. Love allows to reflect the image of goodness from God. Hate has us reflect the image of Satan. We know that Satan is evil. Satan teaches us to hate because through hate comes pride, envy, sin, and darkness. In continuation, darkness is the way to death through sin which is the reviling nature against God himself. Evil is the defining reflection of hatred which comes from Satan not from God. Humans that are "evil" practice a nature that reviles the name of God whom is good. When we revile the name of God, we practice hatred, doubt, self-desire, lust etc(AKA SIN). Evil is the preversion for what is goodness becuase evil twists the true nature of human beings. Evil was not meant to enter the world becuase God whom is good through love and faith created us to love and live in his image. However, Satan deceives man to pervert the nature God intended. Therefore, the evil that presents itself in humans is accumilated into a pile of trash which polutes the world through starvation, death, poverty, murder, famine, unnatural events, and attrocities. As we continue to increase the polution of sin through our own selfish ways through evil we will see an increase in darkness and destruction among nations.

    2) In the beginning when God created man, Adam and Eve, God intended us not to know Good and evil becuase then our focus veers off on Good and evil instead of God. Once we focus on that knowledge of "good" and "Evil" we focus on the direction of sin.
    I believe that Adam had some slight understanding of good and evil when God taught Adam obedience. He only knew the concept of obedience so if Satan attempted to deceive him he would be equiped to overcome temptation. Before the fall, man only knew God and his teachings of obedience through faith and relationship with God. However, becuase Adam and Eve focused on selfish desire to know good and evil, they succumbed to temptation and fell from Grace. That knowledge is the curse which kills us becuase the knowledge allows to choose sin. We both know that the flesh is corruptable thus we become valnurable to do what is evil. Humans inherited the knowledge of good and evil which permits us to defile God by sinning. What most believers don't understand is that Adam's sin was not inherited into us, it was the knowledge to sin. (To sin not be sin) We are cursed with the knowledge of good and evil thus we are open to the clutches of the devil to sin. Our flesh is corruptable to sin not already corrupted. Through the knowledge of good and evil comes death becuase of the curse.
    3) Anwser 2 has answered question 3 but if you are confused please do address it.
    4)The reason why man dies is becuase of sin. The knowledge exposes us to sin therefore we can die. Adam and eve committed a sin becuase they knew very well not to eat the fruit of good and evil. Disobedience is a sin therefore they must pay a price for their iniquity. Death is that punishment for iniquity (their disobedience).

    Posted by sergey, Mar 9 2009, 15:23
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