“It could well be that God has morally sufficient reasons to allow the finite suffering in the world […] God may have morally sufficient reasons to allow the evil and sufferings in the world, because of a greater good. […] And we are in no position to argue against that. How could we make that judgment? Just because we do not see the ultimate good in evil in the world, it doesn’t mean it does not exist.”
“It’s an impugning and compromising of our tawHeed to suggest that what’s happening in today’s world is not the direct will of Allah”.
Abdal Hakim Murad (A.K.A. Timothy Winter)
I have some experience with Christian-Muslim dialogue, and thus I am well aware that a charge, that the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice is contrary to God’s justice, often comes up. I am also a former atheist, and spent some time considering the subject of theodicy in years past. As a result, my familiarity with the latter subject always leaves me unmoved by the charge just mentioned.
That is to say, it seems to me incongruent to argue, on the one hand, that God is sovereign, and the Definer of justice, and yet, at other times, pretend as though there is a moral law above God which God must be subject to. An injustice, a crime, would be something illicit, but it seems an axiom of all classical theistic views would be that any action of God is de facto licit (no action or plan of God could ever be illicit).
Brief Note on Human Analogies
There are critics of Christianity (including, but not limited to, Muslims; rather also including atheists and others) who seek to show the absurdity (or at least injustice) of the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of others, by way of human analogies. For example, one might propose a scenario in which a criminal comes before a human judge. The judge informs the criminal that he will be set free if he sincerely apologizes, at which point the criminal promptly does so. At that moment, the judge notes that the apology is not by itself sufficient for such a release, so he will have another person –someone innocent– punished for the crime, instead. The suffering of that innocent person, in conjunction with the apology of the criminal, provides the sufficient ground for letting the criminal go free. After proposing analogies along these lines, the critic rhetorically asks, “would you consider such a judge just or unjust?”
The problem with such an analogy is that, at least for theists, God is not held to the same standards as human beings. For example, if advanced science provided a mere human the ability to create massive storms or tsunamis, and that human deliberately created a weather condition that killed thousands (including women and children), that man would be considered guilty of mass murder. However, most theists would presumably hold that God, on the other hand, can consciously create weather conditions which kill thousands (including women and children), without impugning God’s justice. This takes us back to a point made earlier, above: any act of God is licit rather than illicit (which is not the case with mere human beings).
To illustrate this, let us consider another human analogy. Suppose a woman consumed alcohol or drugs, in a society where such was prohibited. She is brought before a human judge. That judge has at his disposal the ability to choose between (a) the woman’s child being unaffected by its mother’s actions, or (b) her child being made to suffer as a direct consequence of its mother’s actions. The judge chooses the latter, decreeing that because the woman consumed the relevant prohibited intoxicants, her child shall be struck with physical deformities, brain damage, and an earlier death. The mother apologizes sincerely and profusely. The judge accepts her apology, forgives her crime, but holds that her child will still suffer (though he is careful to note that the child is not considered guilty). Who would consider such a judge just?
With that analogy in mind, now consider the very real phenomenon of some babies suffering brain damage, physical deformities, or even death, when their mothers consume drugs or alcohol while said babies are in the womb. From that, one can infer that it is possible for God to establish a system where one (presumably innocent?) person suffers as a result of another person’s actions. Under the standard assumptions of a classical theistic framework, God could have created a different system, e.g. where babies never suffered, irrespective of what their mothers consumed while they were in their wombs. Yet the omniscient God knew precisely what such a design would entail, and set such a design in place anyway. It cannot be considered accidental; rather it is part of God’s decree. And yet, unlike humans, God is sovereign in such matters, and thus the decision does not in any way diminish God’s justice.
Pondering the Food Chain
Similar to the section above, I would like to continue on the subject of pondering what can be inferred from creation. So we transition from the subject of deformed babies to the subject of the food chain. Watch a nature video which captures a predator catching, ripping apart and devouring its prey, or just watch a video about what happens in slaughter houses, and you might come away with the feeling that the current world can, at times, be a profoundly (and perhaps unnecessarily?) brutal place.
A theist who ponders such is left with the question of why God would create the world in this way in the first place. Presumably God could have created a world where living organisms did not preserve their own existence at the expense of the lives of other living organisms, so it begs the question of why God would create a world with so much suffering and death, if such was (apparently) not necessary.
It is here that one might see somewhat of a parallel between the food chain and the Christian conception of Christ’s sacrifice. While some non-Christian theists might balk at the idea that a just God would create a system in which the suffering and death of an innocent person could play a role in the atonement of sins committed by unrighteous humans, a theist can infer from creation that God does work roughly along those lines. From a theistic perspective, God clearly has created a world where one organism can preserve its own life at the expense of the life of another, often innocent, organism. If that is the system God has created for the biological realm, it begs the question of what would be implausible about God creating a roughly parallel system for a sort of spiritual realm, where humans preserve themselves from the destructive aspects of sin at the expense of the life of one innocent Person?
Couldn’t God Simply Forgive Sinners?
Critics of the belief in Christ’s sacrifice sometimes seek to show such is unnecessary, as God could simply forgive sinners (especially repentant sinners). Interestingly, here too, the food chain analogy can be helpful. Consider that Christianity asserts that…
(a) God has created a system where the death of one person can play a role in the atonement of another person’s sins.
…and critics of this belief object that…
(b) God can create a system in which a person’s sins can be atoned for without the death of another playing a role.
Bringing in the food chain analogy, note that most theists would agree that, in reality…
(c) God has created a system where one organism can preserve its own life at the expense of the life of another organism.
…and we can also agree that…
(d) It is possible for God to create a system where organisms preserve their own lives without the loss of another organism’s life being required.
Just as the truth of (d) does not render (c) false or impossible, it would seem that, likewise, the truth of (b) does not render (a) false or impossible. Pointing out that God can offer an alternative system does not justify the conclusion that the system currently under discussion is therefore not actual, or worse, impossible. Ergo, noting the possibility of God forgiving sins without the death of another playing a role does not lead to the conclusion that God therefore has not willed (or never will ordain) that the death of one person can play a role in the forgiveness of another person’s sins.
In short, God is not required to actualize a system simply because we can imagine it and find it more palatable.
Very Brief Note on the Faith of Abraham
The book of Genesis might be thought of as the earliest extant text to mention Abraham. In that text, it is noted that Abraham was led to believe that God wanted him to sacrifice his son (he was willing to do so, but God intervened before he carried out the act). It’s interesting that a human serving as a sacrifice was not outside the realm of possibility for Abraham. We might sum up this point thusly: according to the earliest known text to mention Abraham, the faith of Abraham included belief in the possibility that the sovereign God could decree that a descendant of Abraham might serve as a sacrifice (such a decree, if God so chose to make it, would not be contrary to God’s justice).
(1) This quote is from the 14:20 mark of Adam Deen’s 2012 lecture Is God Evil? Why does God allow pain and suffering? I would boil down his statement to this helpful rule of thumb: just because you are unable to discern a sufficient reason for God to bring about an event does not mean God therefore lacked sufficient reason for such.
(2) This line is from the 1:05 mark of the video Islamic Theology vs. the Problem of Evil – Abdal Hakim Murad. Contrast that with Stephen Frye expressing his inability to reconcile the idea of an all-knowing, all-benificent God who would create a world which includes bone cancer in children, or insects which blind children by burrowing into their eyes and then eating their way back out. Or contemplate the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed roughly a quarter million people, including tens of thousands of children, and note Sadat bin Anwar’s statement, in his piece Killing babies for who? Allah or Yah___/Jesus?, that “God is the Sovereign Creator, the Giver of Life. He can take that life away, either directly or through the use of His agents (the wind, water, angels, etc).”
(3) At this point one may wonder: so, then, what is considered to be the murder of Jesus was actually licit rather than illicit? Were the human perpetrators engaging in licit activity? The more nuanced answer is that God’s plan can be licit while incorporating actions by humans which God decrees to be illicit. It is perhaps worth noting that even in Islam, one can imagine scenarios where the omniscient God brought about good from out of an evil act. In such a scenario, God knew the evil act would be committed, and did not stop it (which could be seen as meaning the act itself happened, in a sense, according to God’s will, and played a role in God’s plan). Even so, God can still decree that the human role in the act itself was evil (i.e. God bringing good out of an evil act need not necessarily strip said act of evil, nor need the evil of the act be transmitted to God’s plan for incorporating it).
(4) And thus I’d like to think of this as being the second entry in a series on the subject of the plausibility of Christian doctrine in light of “natural revelation,” the first entry being Can God Sleep? A Brief Dyophysite Exploration of Christology, Neurobiology and Somnology.
(5) A human troubled by that might find a bit of consolation in meditating on the fact that the human species has been blessed with the ability to consciously make an (admittedly always imperfect) effort to rise above, or separate itself from, the more overtly brutal aspects of the food chain (e.g. just as many humans can clothe themselves with alternatives to animal skins and furs, so too many humans can sustain themselves with foods other than animal flesh). Beyond that, a believer in the Bible might turn to Isaiah 65:25. While a great many exegetes treat that verse as highly metaphorical, one might nonetheless find a semblance of solace in reading it quite literally, and thus believing that God intends to bring about a future in which living creatures do not have to preserve their own lives by destroying and consuming other living creatures (note that reading Genesis 1:29 and Genesis 9:3 can give the impression that humans generally did not consume animal flesh before the flood). Despite all that, however, the ability of such thoughts to assuage one’s discomfort is tempered a bit, by the knowledge that a great many humans see no point to trying to abstain from such destruction at this time, not to mention the fact those who do try to do so always fall short (i.e. even if one successfully removes oneself from relying on animal products, they are still sustained by what amounts of a certain level of destruction of other living things). From a Christian perspective, the very consumption of animal flesh, even if troubling for some, is nonetheless permissible (i.e. it is not a sin, though one might wonder if this is an example of something being permitted for a time, due to the hardness of human hearts [analogous to the idea conveyed in Mark 10:5]).
(6) If one claims God had to create the food chain, as otherwise there’d be too many living things, two objections come to mind. First, God could create a system where each living thing disappears painlessly (i.e. living things can be removed from an ecosystem without requiring them to tear each other apart). Second, no matter how many organisms exist, that number will always be finite, and thus at any given time only a finite amount of space and resources would be required to sustain them (and surely God could create a finite amount of space and resources).
(7) On an interesting side note, the belief in Christ’s sacrifice is partially rooted in the Old Testament system of animal sacrifices as well as the first Passover. In both cases, some humans were consuming the flesh of some of the animals which were slaughtered (perhaps providing a slightly strengthened parallel with the food chain?). This becomes more interesting when one holds to those interpretations of Christianity (e.g. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and certain Protestant sects) which posit that it is possible for the believer to literally consume the flesh and blood of Christ. Perhaps the lesson to be gleaned is that although the Creator has cast humans into this brutal world, where they too can be part of the food chain, in a show of love for the human species, their Creator entered Himself into a transcendent, supracosmic parallel to the food chain, for their benefit?
(8) While I, personally, feel it is of questionable relevance, I suspect someone will want to discuss Ezekiel 18 (at least insofar that it might be interpreted as setting a Biblical limit on God’s justice?), so I will comment briefly, here. The text in Ezekiel can be read as employing a prediction for the future (hence the future [or imperfect] tense constructions). If this is not clear enough, readers are invited to read it together with the 31st chapter of Jeremiah. Here are two relevant excerpts:
What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
Notice that both texts are addressing the same saying, yet the text in Jeremiah seems more clear about this being in the future (as the text can be read as linking it with the [at that time still forthcoming] New Covenant). So the text need not be understood as saying that it is at all times impossible for one person to suffer for another person’s sins. Rather, the text can be read as meaning that, in the future, there will be instances where one will not suffer for the sin of a parent or child. Such does not preclude Christ’s sacrifice.