The problem of evil and of God’s justice (theodicy) may be the very core of what religion is all about. Why do these things happen, and if God exists, why doesn’t he prevent suffering?
Christians of course have a variety of both good and bad answers to this sort of question. However, our responses are probably never quite as good as we think they are. Someone journeying through this question recently sent me a little rebuttal to most of our canned answers, and I thought it was well written enough to warrant some considered response.
The Tale of Twelve Officers
The article, titled “The Tale of Twelve Officers” by Mark Vuletic, takes the common Christian answers to suffering and turns them into a parable. In the parable, a woman is raped with twelve police officers standing by doing nothing. Each officer then gives an approximation of a Christian response to suffering as a justification for his inaction. As you might expect, none of the answers are satisfactory. We are still outraged that anyone could stand by while a person is raped, and that is the point. Regardless of the rationalization, how can God stand by while a great many women are raped each day (each hour, each minute, each second)?
The parable is witty and honestly brilliant. It is a crafty piece of analogy that accomplishes its purpose, namely to make Christian attempts at theodicy seem feeble, or worse, morally deplorable. In every case, the author makes it clear that the justifications we offer for God would not be satisfactory for a police officer in the hypothetical situation. I applaud the style and tone of the piece, the absence of condescension and sneering, and the thorough treatment of typical Christian responses. As a point of a agreement, I concur that the “Don’t Worry The Rape Victim Is Going to Heaven” argument from Christians is lousy, and have written against such escapist theodicies elsewhere.
Having said all of that, I don’t think that this story proves as much as it attempts. The shortcoming of this parable is precisely in assuming that an analogy between God and a human police officer is possible in the first place. The Christian responses are not made to justify a human, but rather God. They make some measure of sense (we claim) when applied to him, but no one is claiming that they are equally valid for a human. That is to say, why would we believe that what is right or wrong for a human is necessarily right or wrong in the same way for God?
Moral Evaluation of God
Take the ten commandments as a test case. How many of the ten commandments are applicable to God? Some of them would be senseless. Unlike pagan gods, the Hebrew god does not seem to have the capacity to commit adultery nor any reason to be suspected of coveting his neighbor’s wife. He can neither honor nor dishonor his father and mother, having neither. It doesn’t seem reasonable that he could have another god before himself. Even the command to keep the Sabbath seems to commemorate God’s own “rest,” but not to suggest that he was obligated to keep Sabbath himself in any way.
Other commandments, while logically possible for God, seem not to apply for other reasons. Can God make an image of God (himself)? Actually, that is exactly what he did, saying, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and forming us out of clay. Humans are the original graven image of God, never to be duplicated. Can God steal? How could he? It is all his to begin with, and presumably a person cannot steal his own possessions. Can God be guilty of murder? This one is admittedly tougher, but if murder is unjustified killing, it makes one wonder if God would ever be unjustified in extinguishing all human life. It would not be nice for him to do so, but neither would it necessarily be immoral. If, as Christian theology asserts, our very existence is an act of his unmerited favor, then he would be doing no wrong in removing that favor and letting us all wink out of existence.
Really, of the ten commandments, the only one that might seem to apply to God in much the same way it applies to humans is the command not to lie or bear false witness. What does this discovery prove? Only that it may not be possible to construct a parable wherein the moral actions of God are weighed in the same fashion as the moral actions of humans.
The Value of Parables
But doesn’t Jesus do it all the time? Why is it okay for Jesus to compare God to people, but not for atheists? It is perfectly fine to compare God to any number of things, but it should not be forgotten that God is actually not like anything. When Jesus compares God to a father with a prodigal son or to a certain rich man travelling to a far country, he does not mean to say that God is like these people in every respect. God is being said to be like these characters in a particular respect, set forward in the teaching for comparison. So, with the atheistic parable, the question then becomes: Is God like the police men in the story in the respect that matters to the overall point? In other words, is God under the same moral responsibility and under the same circumstances as the police officers in this situation? The above discussion of the ten commandments suggests possibly not.
The author of the parable anticipates this objection, and offers a scenario wherein the police officer is in fact the creator of the woman being raped:
The tenth officer gave us all quite a start when he revealed a surprising secret about Ms. K. “I genetically engineered her from scratch. I made her, therefore she’s my property, and I can do whatever I want with her. I could rape and murder her myself if I were so inclined, and it would be no worse than you tearing up a piece of paper you own. So there is no question of my being a bad person for not helping her.”
However, even here, the analogy is far from perfect. A human who “creates” (possibly not even the right word) a human is not the same as a god who creates a human. A human and a human are still human, the same species, whereas God simply is not. Likewise, we call God “Father,” but we typically recognize that he is not the same as a human father. Different moral obligations apply. Even though I am responsible for my son’s life, we are both still human and in that since equals in value and worth. God simply is not the same as us, and therefore no human relationship is a perfectly suitable analogy for our relationship to God.
The Counter Parable
Having said all that, there is at least one more glaring failure of the parable. Namely, the parable itself relies on an assumed moral rule that can be applied to the police officers: “Rape is wrong,” and therefore, “Allowing rape is wrong.” However, if the parable is successful and disproves the existence of a moral God, then it is fair to ask by what standard the police officers can still be judged as morally wrong. As the profound philosopher and well-known atheist Juergen Habermas wrote,
For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance.Everything else is idle postmodern talk. 1
Or as C.S. Lewis explains, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? … If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?” 2
This leads to my final point, what I shall call the Dawkins Counter Parable. Suppose this atheistic parable we have read actually proves its point. The police officers (and by the logic of the flawed parable, therefore God) are all at fault and culpable.
Have any less women been raped by this accusation? Have we banished or addressed evil in anyway? Sadly, no. The facts of the rape case are now all very much apparent and permanent.
What if we ask the rapist, “Why have you done this thing?” Suppose he responds in the words of Richard Dawkins, “I was merely dancing to the tune of my DNA.” Having dismissed the police and their unsatisfactory answers, we are now forced to acknowledge that evil still exists, that we have no means of responding to it, and that we have no grounds by which even to rebuke it. A male mammal having intercourse, even forcefully and degradingly, with a female mammal is of no consequence and can be judged by no cosmic standard. What is the importance of the suffering of one speck size biped on a pale blue dot circling an otherwise inconsequential yellow star? The universe simply does not care, so why should I? Why are we distressed by the violent practices of one out of 7 billion homo sapiens? For that matter, why care about any of them or all of them?
If the parable successfully proves that the police officers may be morally judged, it more obviously proves that the rapist must be judged as well. However, without the God who has now been dismissed, we have no basis for disgust, other than our own personal “sense” of something other, a pull we are taught to dismiss as the inherited behavior that is no more noble than the rapist’s desire to satisfy his sexual urges.