God is a Monster

First I saw a link (via a Facebook friend) to this “Dear John” post, which offered a final dismissal of John Calvin and his doctrine of predestination. The author, Zack Hunt, explains that if God is the controlling cause of everything as John Calvin says, then “I think your God is a monster.”

Then another Facebook friend posted a link to a video lecture, commenting that “most Calvinists […] make God out to be a moral monster.”

And then another Facebook friend offered a link to a critique of something Rachel Held Evans wrote. One of her comments: “Belief in a cruel God, they say, makes a cruel man.”

Some disclaimers below, if you need them, but let me get right into it: I sympathize, and very nearly agree. It does seem like a God who arranges and controls all things must be a monster. I’ve felt like God was treating me monstrously and can recite an argument or two in that vein. I’ve thought about some of those horrific situations (rape, murder) and the implications of God really being in control, enough to feel unsettled and dubious. Rachel summarizes it pretty well: “If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable.”

And I agree that saying God is beyond our comprehension doesn’t really help. Sure, it’s true, but if what we are saying is that God, who has a value system of X, and he creates and designs us to have a value system of Y, so that we are forever thinking things are good that aren’t, and thinking things are evil that aren’t, then it seems like the very best one can do is give up on it all and let that Almighty God sort it out when he wants, how he wants–without trying in any way to participate in this system of which we have been deliberately made ignorant.

Rachel, though, goes on to suggest that perhaps God wasn’t actually doing what he was said to be doing, or understood rightly by those who thought they were listening to him. Maybe God didn’t really kill all the first-born Egyptian males (regardless of their view on Israelite freedom). Maybe God didn’t want the death of everyone in Canaan. Maybe instead we should look to Jesus.

Well, I agree we should look to Jesus, but I don’t see how this solves the problem of God being a monster.

You want to frankly and honestly consider Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac? I will not be the first to compare that with the sacrifice of Jesus. Here’s this guy, supposedly the “only begotten” beloved son of God, supposedly with with access to thousands of angels to get him out of a horrible death, supposedly praying to God “please please please don’t make me do this”, and supposedly, God tells him to do it. Go die.

Okay, supposedly the deal is “go die to save the whole world,” but who’s dumb rule is that? “I have an idea. How about you die a horrible death, and then I will save the whole world?” says God to Jesus. And then Jesus says, “I have a better idea. How about I don’t die, and you save the whole world anyway?”

“Nope,” says God. “You gotta die, or no deal.”

C. S. Lewis dealt with this in his Narnia story. Aslan died to save a sinner because the “Deeper Magic” allowed an innocent to substitute himself for the guilty. Okay, where did the Deeper Magic come from? From the Emperor Beyond the Sea. And who is that?

See? God is a monster.

Now, some random guy on the internet says that I am misinterpreting the meaning of this arrangement; it is not that God cannot make another way and cannot overpower these rules of sacrifice, it is that he chooses to defeat evil with evil’s own rules. To extrapolate beyond what that author wrote in his piece, God allowed a real choice to humanity between good and evil. He made them to be truly free because it would be more marvelous for a truly free being to choose God (goodness) than for an automaton to function as designed – for a rock to obey gravity, as it were. And there are real consequence for choosing evil; it brings real suffering, which can extend beyond the one who initially makes a choice for evil. But God will eventually persuade some (all?) to choose good freely, as they learn to recognize that it is good.

Okay. But in that Garden of Eden (whether you consider it fact or parable), why didn’t God send an angel there to argue against evil? Couldn’t God offer a more persuasive argument than Satan? Again, however it is that you imagine reality being represented here. Basically, once we posit that God offered Adam / humanity a choice between Good and Evil, we must concede that God was incapable of showing the goodness of goodness to Adam / humanity–or at least incapable of showing it without the brutal sacrifice of his son, Jesus.

We know that people sometimes deliberately harm themselves. But it is generally held that people only harm themselves (for example, cutting) because of some other harm that they’ve already experienced (for example, sexual abuse). I am not aware of anyone who thinks that a fully healthy person will take a rock and start pounding on their fingers, or take a stick and poke themselves in the eye. So when Adam or Eve or each one of us chooses evil, it is because in that moment we perceive it to be the better choice. We might be wrong; there might be consequences we don’t fully appreciate when we make the choice. But we choose what, according to the totality of our comprehension in the moment, seems good; seems likely to please.

So in this scenario we have God making this plan: “I will make a creature which is capable of choosing good or evil, but which is not capable of fully understanding evil. That way, they can unwittingly choose evil!”

See? God is a monster.

The only way out of this is if there is something which makes it impossible for God to do any better job of it. Somehow it just was not possible for God to make us able to choose and able to understand our choice; somehow it was just not possible for God to demonstrate goodness to us in a way that would be convincing and persuasive, without first allowing all the horrors of history (and those yet to come). Or God tried to, but kind of failed, and he’s been working as hard as he can to patch things up. You go, God! Fix it good! Let’s hope you don’t make another mistake!

If we say that God cannot show the beauty of grace and mercy and love without allowing the ugliness of resentment and retribution and hate, he is a kind of underwhelming God. Who says they can’t show their children beauty, grace, and love without first exposing them to the opposite, so that they’ll be able to appreciate the good? Who says that the only way to be good is in contrast to evil?

So: God is a monster. I almost agree.

But if I almost agree, that means I don’t quite agree. So how do I take my belief that God was supremely sovereign in the creation of the universe, creating with perfect anticipation of all consequences even the laws of physics and any other constraint that might now exist, how do I take all that and not blame God for evil and call him a monster for allowing such things as we have seen here on earth?

I think it has been put most poignantly by Paul: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1. Corinthians 15:19). The author of Hebrews chimes in, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). And Paul again, in Romans: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

Now I don’t say that I understand this, because I don’t. I can point, as Paul does, to childbirth as an allegory, and say that even as it is possible for a mother to consider the joy of her child to so far surpass the suffering of labor that it is a disgrace to even ask, “Was it worth it?” But that begs the question, doesn’t it? Why does the joy of holding a newborn have to come after the pain of childbirth? Who made that dumb rule?

I don’t understand it but I do believe it. I believe that in the new creation, every sorrow experience, remembered, or heard of will be forgotten — not by a failing memory, but abandoned a something so exceedingly trivial as to be not worth mentioning. I admit that this doesn’t make sense in terms of our present experience; why must childbirth be painful in the first place? But even though I do not know how and cannot explain how, I believe it is no idle promise for God to say that he will justify himself.

This does require belief that it will someday be possible to view the horrors of history – yes, even the rape and murder of children – as trivial. I do not pretend to see it so now. I do not think we are meant to see it so now; I certainly believe that in this life we are to be outraged by injustice and appalled by evil. But I believe also that there is a sense in which the life that we now live is not life; that in the new creation we will regard the life that we live now the same way that we now regard a ball of clay.

That is the core of my disagreement with the three authors I mentioned in the beginning. I assume from their position that it is unacceptable and invalid for any point of time or eternity, and perspective on reality or being or life, to look at any suffering or evil in this life and say: “That didn’t matter. That has no lasting significance. That does not touch upon or mar Life Itself.”

I can understand why they would feel that way, because I feel that way myself more often than not. But I cannot understand how they can think that way. It requires very little thought at all to realize the even if one were supremely good, and poured only goodness into the life of every person you met, eventually you will die and all those people will die, too. And let’s say all that goodness you shared lasted a little longer than that: another generation, or another. They will all die. No fact of our existence can be more incontrovertible than our death, and therefore the conclusion that nothing really matters is the only sure conclusion. The twist is not in saying that evil doesn’t mar eternity; the twist is saying that good does glorify God. That’s where the mystery really begins.

Why does good glorify God? Because to seek good in the face of all that inevitable death is an act of confession, a performance art, a borrowing on the credit of God, to the effect that he has such power and goodness so as to wipe every tear away. It takes no faith at all to say that God wishes things were different; so do we all. But it takes true faith indeed to say that God will make things different.

Come, Lord Jesus.


Finally, some disclaimers. You’ll see if you go to critique of Rachel Held Evans that the author has since apologized “for the tone and aggressive nature of this post;” that’s between him and Rachel. The link to his critique is what got into my Facebook feed, so as a matter of accounting for how I was motivated to write this it stands in the record. Also for the record: I for my own part would not choose to criticize Rachel or anyone else along the lines of “She was never mature enough (as far as theological training) to tread the waters she started treading”. I don’t see where anything in the Bible and particularly the New Testament requires us to have “theological training” before we ask questions and ponder the ways of God. 

Next disclaimer: I do not like to call myself a “Calvinist,” because we are told not to say that “I am of Paul” or “I am of Cephas,” let alone “I am of some guy who is not an apostle”. And Calvin certainly had his errors. What I do believe would generally be termed Calvinism, and I don’t think in most cases it is worth the pedantry to insist that I am not a Calvinist even though I believe what a Calvinist believes. But just to be clear: there is no use telling me about the awful things Calvin the man did or said, because I agree Calvin the man did and said awful things.

Finally, I did not watch the video lecture. It was over an hour long and presently that seems like too much time to give to listening to a critique I think I might have already heard, coming from someone with whom I have no personal relationship.