If God is like this
On the first day of January 2005 there was an item in the Timaru Herald which attacked God. By this I mean, the writer attacked God by questioning the basic teachings about the God of the Bible, suggesting (or implying) that this God was either deficient, imperfect or perhaps not even real. Such attacks have been made countless times, and many great writers have replied, including Augustine and C.S. Lewis, but as time passes these works tend to be placed further back on the shelf, which usually encourages new writers to repeat, in different words, much the same set of arguments in God's defense. This is yet another of these defenses. We will deal with the item from the Herald bit by bit.
“How did a God considered all-powerful
and benevolent allow
In our response, we will move through a series of views which all deal in some way with the question. Like pieces of a jigsaw, each view will support the others, and, hopefully, present a reasonable answer.
Cause and Effect.
I was sitting at a meal with friends one day when one of the people at the table, a child, asked me why Christians 'give thanks' for their food. I replied by asking where the food came from. She said, “the shop”. I asked her where did the shop get the food from? She said, “The farms”. From there the origin of the food was a mystery. I explained that the farmers got their seeds and animals from the parent plants and parent animals. “Where did they come from?” Their parents. I repeated this chain back for a few generations and the girl realized that all things in the present are connected by a process of cause and effect, to all things in the past. This principle has been exploited in a few movies, in which time-travellers go back to the past and alter something, which alters the future. Causes always have effects, and effects always have causes.
If one tracks back through the generations, one must inevitably arrive at a First Cause. In practical terms, this means there must have been a set of original waves on the ocean, birds in the trees, fish in the sea. Life itself must have had a beginning, and since life can come only from life, there must have been a first life – a chicken before their was an egg. The tsunami therefore, is the effect of a cause, which in turn was the effect of another cause. If we follow this back far enough, we come to an event which rearranged this planet, the global flood of Noah's day. Before that we have a world which was far better, but inhabited by wicked rebels. The flood was sent as a punishment to destroy these rebels. Before the rebels were there we can go back, through a decreasing population, to a first couple, Adam and Eve, who became the first rebels against God, and as a result the world was cursed. So the origin of the tsunami was the curse, which was put on the planet by God, but it was not God's 'fault' because it came as a result of Man's sin. Man is therefore the one at fault. If Man had been obedient, there never would have been a tsunami.
We must not underestimate the importance of this view because it shifts the blame off God and on to the correct villain, Man. All things are bound in an ABSOLUTE way to the causes which preceded them. It is an inescapable phenomenon. Just as the act of writing this essay, and your reading of it are going to cause other things to happen, and conversely not cause other things to happen, the whole universe operates on the same principle. Man sinned, (Cause), and the world was changed (Effect).
Take some simple examples:
A batsman hits a ball, a point is scored - one crucial point. The game is won. The team will be in the final. A gun is fired, a bullet misses its target, and the would-be target, a man of high aspirations, rising to prominence orders the massacre of ten thousand. A scientist nears completion of a major project but on the evening before his publishing, he runs out of milk for his cup of tea, so he walks to the shop, and is struck by a car. His invention is never completed. Thousands die. A downed pilot wanders in a desert and turns east instead of south, and perishes. If he had turned south he would have found water, survived, and gone on to become a minister in the government because his brother, a friend of the Prime minister, was ready to nominate him. A manuscript arrives on an editor's desk on the very day he has toothache. Due to a miserable disposition the editor cannot concentrate and it is returned. On any other day it would have been received and published, becoming a major addition to the literature of the decade – which happened many years later.
More obscure causes are hidden in our own lives, and are usually not even noticed unless they are specifically considered. Take, for instance, our parents. Every child is different, and some enjoy a good home life, while others wander from adult to adult like orphans. Did we pick your childhood friends? Did we choose our general diet? We have been born into a certain environment, a certain culture, a certain district. We have certain genetically inherited features. We are the effect of many causes, though we must not try to blame them for everything.
Returning to the child at the table, I was able to show how the food I gave thanks for was joined to the first food created by God. In this sense I was, like Adam and Eve, thanking God for the first food, received almost directly from His hand.
One of the unfortunate side effects of being “fallen” is our lack of discernment of connectedness. The generation alive today always tends to think it is the only generation which has any relevancy, but every generation has thought the same thing. Consciousness gives us the illusion of false immediacy. The true perspective is more like being a single tooth on a long comb – we are but visitors to consciousness, soon to pass away. There are many more teeth to come.
Cause and effect is two-sided of course. It would be irresponsible to omit the positive side, which is probably the one most forgotten. Why is it, when disaster strikes, that people begin to question the benevolence and power of God, yet when life is a deep pleasure, they almost never give thanks? Could it be the sinful heart of Man prefers to fling insults at God rather than thanks?
Life is a patchwork of good and bad, as we subjectively decide. Rain for one farmer is a blessing, but for another it is a curse. It is the same rain, but each farmer sees it in a different way. One man may receive a promotion and drive home in a new car, while another man on the same factory floor, loses his job and has to sell his gold watch to pay the food bill. The man with the promotion may be unhappy because now he must pay higher taxes, higher insurance, and work longer hours. The man who lost his job may be happy because now he is rid of a daily grind, and his dream of being a full-time painter is finally possible. One woman may have three normal, healthy children, and think they are a burden, while another woman may have three retarded children and think of them as a blessing. Our attitude decides a great deal, while the daily events of life provide us with opportunities to make value judgments of our own. As the saying goes, “Two men looked through the prison bars, one saw mud, the other stars.”
The Herald item goes on to say:
“Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?”
asked a woman in
On TV the pictures of the aftermath of the tsunami showed wreckage, but also a shrine set up for Mahatma Ghandi, and the piles of bodies, stacked in body-bags in temples. The fact that the land hit by the tsunami was well supplied with temples and shrines ought to sound a warning. These people were not Christians, but idol-worshippers. The first of the Ten Commandments, given by the true God, warns Mankind about worshipping anything, or anyone but the true God.
Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu all reject the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. All three religions turn their backs on the Man who claimed to be the Son of God, and who worked many miracles to prove his claims. Jesus alone died and rose from the grave. Jesus alone is the only acceptable sacrifice for sin. Jesus alone is the one to be worshipped, and served as Lord. Ask any Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu if they put Jesus at the center of their lives and they will say no, they do not. Yet the Bible says:
“And Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger; and he that believes on me shall never thirst.” John 6:35. ”I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep.” John 10:11. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” John 17:3. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” 1 Timothy 2:5
So where does this place the three religions? They are rebels against the truth, refusing to worship the one true God, and choosing rather to follow the wrong beliefs of alternatives. This places them on exactly the same footing as the people before the global flood. If the tsunami was sent as a punishment, then it was a merciful one.
In the Bible the most obvious parallel to the recent tsunamis is the Biblical, or global flood, which God sent to destroy the whole world, as described in Genesis 6-8. The reason for this flood is explained to us, by God Himself. Mankind had become too wicked to escape punishment. Instead of obeying God, and living in harmony with Him, the world's population at that time had turned to astrology, alternative religion and other corrupt practices, and despite 120 years of warning by Noah, not a soul repented. Is there any similarity between the people of Noah's day and the people who lived along the coastal areas where the tsunamis struck? Yes, great similarities. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have all turned away from the True God, and His Son Jesus Christ, and have followed the vain teachings of false religion and polluted philosophy. Many of them may not be aware of their rebellion, having been raised from birth in their religion, but the fact remains, they are not obeying Jesus. Thanks to the media, TV and Radio, millions of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus have had access to the gospel, yet they still refuse to accept Jesus, so they really have no excuse when judgment comes.
But having said this, we have to be very careful. First we must not assume that the tsunamis struck particularly bad people, because all people are sinners, all are bad, so all deserve to be judged, and second, we must not interpret the tsunamis as God's judgment on just one small portion of Mankind. God has not specifically spoken about these particular people. The Bible gives us many examples of God's judgment on various nations, i.e. Egypt, Assyria, Rome, Edom, Israel, Judah, and many others, each detailed carefully, and their doom pronounced., but there is not a mention of the area which the tsunamis struck, so we must reserve our opinion.
Another view, which has some credence, is that the people who died in the tsunamis were living in a naturally dangerous area. Much of the land they perch their fragile houses on is close to sea level, and much of it consists of floodplain, so it is liable to be flooded quite easily. In a similar way, despite the sight of smoke puffing from a volcano's peak, people are content to build their towns and cities right at the base of the mountain. In other parts of the world people build houses on top of known fault lines. There is a prevalent lackadaisical attitude in the human race which says, “It won't happen to me”, and “Not in my lifetime!” If the people who chose to live so close to the ocean had seriously considered the possibility of a tsunami, would they have stayed or moved away? We think they would have stayed. This would account for the large numbers of tourist hotels and holiday houses along the coastline. Is it therefore correct to blame God for something which could have been prevented?
Jesus told a story about a wise man and a foolish man, who both built houses, but one built on sand, and the other into a rock. When storms came, the wise man's house stood firm. While this is definitely not a story about building houses, but lives, it illustrates perfectly how God expects humans to use their common sense, to plan ahead, and to be wise in their activities. If we lived in earthquake-prone lands, we would not build with drystone walls of rocks balanced on each other. If we lived in flood-prone areas, we would not build down into the ground, but upwards, on posts. Apply this principle further and we have a whole gamut of wise choices. Too many sweets can cause tooth decay, too much alcohol can ruin the liver, too much food can cause obesity, too much exercise can cause exhaustion, to much speed can cause an accident, too much sun can cause burns and skin cancer, too many late nights can cause weariness . . . humans cannot avoid the consequences of their choices, whether good or bad.
This brings us, as you can see, right back to the matter of cause and effect again. Theologically speaking, God is the First Cause, and Man is the Second. Man cannot hold God responsible for Second Cause effects. It was not God who stripped the forests from the land, and increased run-off, and thus caused flooding in parts of the north island, NZ last year. It was Man who denuded the land. It was Man who hunted to extinction many of the plants and animals he needed. It was Man who plundered and burned native forests. It was Man who sprayed the land with toxic chemicals. It was Man who started wars, who poisoned wells, who burned and pillaged, and destroyed his own kind and the lands he need for crops. It was Man who spread STDs by failing to restrain his urges. It was Man who invented animism, atheism, evolution, humanism, and so on. Man is the author of his own misery, and God cannot, and MUST not be held accountable for what Man chooses to inflict on himself.
Take the Jewish nation in the days of Jesus, for
example. Here was a Man, who had worked publicly for about three years,
performed thousands of astounding miracles, spoken words of incredible wisdom,
never sinned, who died and rose, who ascended into heaven, yet many Jewish
leaders totally rejected him. Jesus warned them that if they turned their backs
As we write this essay, thousands of bodies are being collected and buried. We are not unmoved by the reality of the disaster, and we are not so unfeeling as to sit in some detached, mental state and resort to unfeeling intellectualism. The tsunami was a terrible event, and we are saddened by it. However, it is, in our opinion, foul play to throw mud at God, as if He was somehow the deliberate cause of the tsunami, when we know He never acts without love.
We also need to rethink our understanding of God. The Herald article is typical of the smallness of Man's view:
“Traditionally, the Judeo-Christian God, considered the most supreme and perfect being in the universe, has been ascribed the following necessary attributes: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (present everywhere at all times and at once), omnipotence (almighty and powerful) and benevolence (all good and caring). How, then, did a God as powerful and benevolent as this allow such a thing to happen? If he is benevolent then he cannot also be omnipotent, for a God who has both these attributes would have wanted to, cared to, and been able to prevent such a catastrophe.
Perhaps, though omnipotent, he is not benevolent. That might explain why, although it was within his power to stop the tsunami, he simply chose not to: God has his own reasons and we are not to ask why. However, this answer will not suffice since by definition God is perfect. Being perfect, he must of necessity not merely be omnipotent but benevolent as well.”
The above reasonings show a great lack of understanding. Certainly, if God is reduced to a few simple expressions, one may juggle with them and prove some sort of inconsistency, but the definitions (of which only four are here listed) are quite inadequate.
By way of illustration, let us imagine two children walking along together. One child says to the other, “Your mother is good at cooking, and funny.” The other child says, “Yes, and she's very good at cricket too!” The first child, in his naivety, had an incomplete picture of the other boy's mother, and now, with the addition of “cricket” he thinks he has a complete picture. We know he is very wrong. There is a lot more to the child's mother than just three attributes.
Take another illustration. Suppose we said to you that our solar system consisted of one sun and three planets. You might say, yes, there are three planets, but there are also six others. The first definition was true, but inadequate. There was a time, not long ago, when astronomers knew nothing of Pluto. There was also a time when astronomers thought the rings of Saturn were plane and simple. Recent discoveries have shown that not only does Saturn have many rings, but that there are also spoke shapes radiating through the rings. As Man explores, he finds more information. The same is true of our definition of God. We cannot limit him to a mere four-part list: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and benevolence. There is a lot more to God than this.
Think of a child again. When first born a baby
stares unblinking at mother from the bottom of a bassinet. Later, the child
walks about the house. Gradually the child understands a world of new concepts,
until it reaches adulthood, and even then it is occasionally surprised by
hidden qualities in its mother. “I didn't know you could ski!”,
“I didn't know you went to
As well as this, the reasoning in the Herald item is faulty. To say that God is all-knowing must mean that He never needs to learn anything. If He knows everything, (just sticking with the logic for a moment) He cannot think, because thinking means working something out, and if God knows everything, He never needs to work anything out – hence, God cannot think. How demeaning and limiting this reasoning is! How degrading! By compressing God into a single word (omniscient) the Herald writer has made a puppet of God, a mere decoration, which he can now tie a string to and drag about like a toy.
If God is like that, then we think God is not big enough, or grand enough, or wonderful enough to be worthy of our praise and worship. His universe, along with Him, becomes small and miserly. He is demoted to the status of a demigod, or worse.
The writer to the Herald suggests that God is omnipotent, or all powerful. Logically, if God is all powerful He can do anything, so why did He not prevent the tsunami? But this simplification of God is quite stupid, because it is patently obvious that God cannot do many things. He cannot sin, He cannot lie, cheat or deceive. He cannot steal, or break a promise, or fail in His plans. There are hundreds of things which are absolutely impossible to God, so to label Him as omnipotent is almost a nonsense.
The solution to the dilemma of defining God is to sort out the true statements about Him from the nonsense statements.
Let us pause for a moment, and consider some of the acts of God, as recorded in the Bible, which reveal something of His character. To begin, He created the whole infinite universe, and the Earth and all life. Within the confines of this material creation Man was created, at first perfect, but after he sinned, Man and the whole of creation fell into a state of degradation. The first recorded act of God was to speak into existence everything knowable to Man, and the second great act (a response to Adam's sin) was to reduce or degrade the perfection of creation, and also to place Man in a responsible position. Despite being made subject to decay and weakness in every sense, Man is still capable of a reasonable level of communion with his Creator – but Man usually chooses not to seek this communion, but instead turns to Manmade and Devlish inventions. As a result, God has had to act as a Judge, and deal out punishments from time to time, but always He is restrained by His love and mercy. While some would object to this view, the fact is, not one human would be left alive if God did not exercise restraint. God says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked . . . and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ez.18:23) Paul tells us that “all have sinned”(Rom.5:12)
God would not have destroyed certain nations except that He is a God of justice and their evil could not go unchecked or condoned indefinitely. In the case of the Amorites, God gave them hundreds of years to repent, yet they did not (Gen.15:16), the Egyptians were given 400 years to repent, and as we have said He gave the people of Noah's day 120 years. The proper picture of God is one of patience. Just as a loving parent holds back the hand of punishment until the child has pushed their luck over the limit of tolerance, God always holds back judgment for as long as He can. Remember, although the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus, God waited until 70 AD before Titus arrived. We can be sure, since God has shown the same consistent pattern since Creation, that He is the same today. This does to mean that the tsunamis were God's judgment, but it does mean that, if God had so chosen, He could have sent a wave 10 times bigger.
Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, the world is not normal. Things are not as they should be. Mankind is separated from God. Nature is not always in harmony with him – germs are not always his friend, neither are viruses. Man is attacked by fungus, sting, barb, bite, venom, tooth, spine and poison. Mankind is divided by language barriers, and relationships must be worked at to remain healthy. The weather buffets and burns, the land floods and blows away as dust. For many people life is a battle from birth to grave, yet this was never the way God originally intended it to be. Although evil (moral rebellion) and natural disaster is here, and it is real, it too is only temporary – part of the great hope which Christians hold, and one day a new world will come, in which the laws of degradation will be reversed. Everything will incline towards life, like a ball rolling up a hill, or a dead stick growing healthy leaves, or an old man becoming a young boy.
Tsunamis are not an isolated event. They are part of a wide range of 'natural disasters', and should be seen in context. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, the world has experienced an almost continuous battering, by natural disasters – volcanoes, landslides, floods, storms, tornadoes, whirlwinds, hurricanes, earthquakes, ice ages, blizzards, hailstones, big freezes, heat-waves, and so on. These events are the result of Man's rebellion, not God's cruelty. Man brought these things on himself. To blame God is to side-step the blame.
The writer to the Herald makes the following statement, “Even if solutions are forthcoming to these philosophical conundrums, humanely speaking they make little sense. Perhaps that is why some people remain skeptical about the presence of any divine providence ruling over us.”
If we read this correctly, what he is saying is that even if a convincing answer is given, the writer has already decided he will not believe it. 'Humanely' speaking means, 'speaking as a compassionate human only', but how can someone be compassionately skeptical? I would suggest that the writer stops thinking 'humanely' and starts to think Biblically, because all the answers are in the Bible. Skeptics come in two classes, first those who are sincerely skeptical, and will change their minds if they are given good data, and the other kind, who use their skepticism like a smokescreen to hide from God. The biggest tragedy is really the lack of understanding. The Islamics, Buddhists and Hindus have all created a god after their own hearts, and now they cannot reconcile the disaster with that God. If they had the Biblical view they would see how a God of love can also allow floods to strike. It is part of the character of the true God.
The final statement in the Herald article is a fine piece of skeptical misunderstanding. Speaking of the “love” which shows so nicely at Christmas, the writer says, “Perhaps this is the essence, if the legend is true, of what God learned from us when He walked and suffered as a man among us. Ultimately, the problem of evil confronts us not as a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be experienced.”
First of all, the Bible never suggests that God needed to be a man so He could learn how to love. The fact that Jesus came to Earth was God's great act of love to a sinful, ungrateful and rebellious planet. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” 1 John 4:10. The conception of Jesus within the womb of the virgin Mary was the great miracle for which godly people had been waiting for 4000 years, and with his birth Jesus began a 30 year time of hardship and difficulty, not because he needed to learn about Man, but so he could reach manhood and then give his life as the one final sacrifice for Mankind's sin.
The message of Christmas has been clouded and confused so much that many people fail to understand what the Bible says about it. Every year yet another rash of programs pumps out the fact that Santa Claus is real, and children are given presents which hardly ever relate to the Biblical basis of the season. Selfishness, materialism, indulgence, profligacy, hedonism, vanity, gluttony and so on, are all promoted in the name of Christmas, yet the Bible depicts quite the opposite: two poor peasants in a stable, watching over a baby in the food trough.
The writer to the Herald takes the side of all unbelievers when he says “If the legend is true” and then makes the non-Biblical statement that “evil” is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be experienced. This assertion is wrong, because the Bible tells us what evil is, where it began, and how it can be overcome. It is not a puzzle to be solved, but a reality to be resisted. According to the Bible evil is not a mystery either. It is easily identified.
Dorothy Sayers wrote, “God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – (yet) God had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. . . . He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from Man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money, to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace (yet He) thought it well worth while.” ('Creed or Chaos' 1949)
The God of the Bible, as defined in the Bible, and Biblical history from Creation through to today, together supply all the necessary information to provide Man with a complete answer as to why events such as the tsunami occur. What skeptics and unbelievers willfully refuse to accept is that God is not exactly like the God they would prefer to have, and that He is wiser and more loving than they understand. His goodness extends to all people, despite their rebellion and ignorance. Human wickedness needs to be restrained, or checked, at times, so God is responsible for judgment, though always with the restraint of love and mercy. God holds Man responsible for Man's own actions. Freedom of choice is always permitted, but the consequences of choice are seldom obviated. God will not violate the process of cause and effect simply to make our lives more comfortable. If He did, Man would become a spoiled, rude brat, breaking and spoiling things with impunity. Repercussions usually teach us a little caution.
We also need to take into account the fall of the world, and the fall of Man, from original perfection, into the state in which we find it today. Human pain and suffering, disasters and accidents, are all part of this present age, and will not last for ever. Heaven awaits those who put their trust in the Son of God, Hell awaits those who reject Him, not because God wants it this way, but because people choose which way they want to go. Children, babies and others like them cannot be held accountable for their sins since they are too ignorant to understand, yet they are often damaged or killed by the foolishness and wickedness of those who should know better. Animals experience disasters just as much as humans, and not because they are sinners. “For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.” Romans 8:22.
The writer to the Herald set up several 'straw men' and then, not surprisingly, he demolished them. He would not however, stand a chance against the real God. It is all to easy to fling nonsensical criticisms at a false god, but let the real God step forward and critics must speak with reverence and respect.
I leave the last word to C.S.Lewis, “As our earth is to all the stars, so doubtless are we men and our concerns to all creation; as all the stars are to space itself, so are all creatures, all thrones and powers . . . to the abyss of the self-existing Being, who is to us Father and Redeemer and indwelling Comforter, but of whom no man nor angel can say nor conceive what He is in and for Himself, or what is the work “which He makes from the beginning to the end.” For they are all derived and unsubstantial things.” (The Problem of Pain, page 122)