God , suffering, and long-term plans


NT Wrong provides some insightful comments on blogger Rebecca Lesses's posting about John Hagee's theology of the Holocaust, specifically remarking on the idea of Satan and the book of Job.

Hagee, as you might recall, claimed that the Holocaust was the fulfillment of God's will because it served God's long-term plan for the Jews to form a state in Palestine. This long-term plan was supposedly outlined in the Bible, although one has to know how to interpret the pertinent passages to realize this; and, apparently, when God lays out his plans for history--well, as the saying goes, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Or, in this case, six million eggs.

There are at least three key assumptions that lie behind Hagee's view: first, that God has laid out a script for history; second, that God intervenes directly in world events in order to ensure that the script is followed; and third, any mass slaughter, genocide, torture, or other atrocities that might take place in the service of the divine plan can be dismissed as mere collateral damage.

It is easy to feel outraged at Hagee's crude theodicy, which is predicated on a simplistic interpretation of the meaning of Divine prophecy as found in the Bible. Many people object, and rightly so, to the idea that God would use such unmitigated evil to serve Divine purposes. And yet, as I pointed out in my commentary on the blogversation between N.T. Wright and Bart Ehrman, Wright's vague and incoherent theodicy also involves a "long-range plan" on God's part that does not concern itself with the suffering that individuals undergo along the way to the fulfillment of that plan. Though not as crude or simplistic as Hagee's theodicy, N.T. Wright's theodicy nevertheless also conceives of God as having a "plan" that happens to offer no resolution for those who suffer and die long before the plan is fully carried out.

For example, Wright says to Ehrman that the call of Abraham is

the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery. In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to ‘Israel sinned; God punished them’, etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: ‘this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights.’ Hence the promises of Isaiah 11 and so forth.
When push comes to shove, how is this really any different from what Hagee proclaimed? Can short term suffering really be dismissed in favor of some far off future solution that won't help the victims who happened to be born in the wrong place and time, but instead will be enacted further on down the road for those lucky enough to be born later, when God finally gets around to "putting things right"?

Some turn to the book of Job for answers to explain away human suffering, but I think that this story offers no answers. For one thing, Job's suffering was really just a special case; he was the object of abuse, basically in order to settle a bet between God and Satan, and his experience provides no explanation for suffering in general--unless one thinks that all instances of suffering are the result of experiments done to us by powerful forces just to see how we will react. The final non-answer from God out of the whirlwind was simply to tell Job, "You aren't me, I can do what I want, so shut up and take your lumps." I think that those who suffered under the Holocaust, as well as all of those who suffer in other circumstances, deserve a better explanation than that. A God who can intervene but who does not do so has some explaining to do.

The question of how much God has scripted out the future of the world, or for that matter our individual lives, depends on how much free will and uncertainty you think exists in the world, and also whether you conceive of God as a supernaturally interventionist omnipotent being. As I see it, there are several questions involved:

First, is the future of human history predictable with absolute certainty? If yes, is that because there is an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, such that, given absolute knowledge about the current circumstances, anyone (even humans) could predict every subsequent outcome? In that case, then God needs only to set up the initial conditions and watch the world unfold according to plan (Deism). (Alternatively, maybe the world has greater free will than that and is not predictable to humans, but predictable to God because he has super telekinetic powers.)

Second, can the future of the world only be predicted in terms of short term probabilities of immediate outcomes of events decided by freely choosing agents? God might know that I will have an 87.3% chance of going to church on Sunday, and a 12.7% chance of staying home and surfing the internet. God might calculate this probability with absolute accuracy--but maybe even to God, it is only a probability. This would also mean that the world thus becomes decreasingly predictable over time as the uncertainty of each possible outcome in turn leads to one or more possible outcomes with varying degrees of certainty, resulting in the distant future being all but unpredictable--even to God. Life in this scenario is not a linear, deterministic chain of cause of effect, but rather an ever expanding decision tree with various probabilities assigned to each branch.

Third, if the universe is not absolutely predictable, can God nevertheless influence events via interventionist course corrections that steer the world back in a desired direction? Or is God only capable of exerting influence via persuasion, without the power to either absolutely predict or deterministically control the outcome of future events (process theology)?

The blogger Simon H writes this about the idea that God has planned out our lives:
When I was a bright eyed young Fundamentalist the passage from Jeremiah was oft quoted during difficult times: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

This is supposed to give the hearer a feeling of security and comfort - life has been planned out for us. The good times are God's blessing, and the bad times are there for a reason.
But, he suggests (and I agree),
Life is not planned out. It just happens....Process Theology gives me comfort, not because it tells me that God is "in control", but because it says that God suffers with us.
Here, I think, we have two different levels of "control". At one level, the Jeremiah quote suggests God is said to be in control of our personal destinies. This idea of divine control over our individual fates is hardly restricted to Abrahamic religions. The ancient Greek gods were also said to be in control of personal destinies. Oedipus, for example, didn't have any choice about what his fate would be--he was just a victim of fate. Is human life little more than just a Greek tragedy?

At a higher scale, according to Hagee, God is in control of the destiny of entire nations. This level of planning, however, can easily clash with the destiny of individuals. You can trust God to have your fate in your hands all you want, but if you get caught up in the sweep of history, your individual fate may just suffer in service to the greater cause. You might, as Hagee suggests, get thrown into a gas chamber, because God's script for history demands it.

When talking about either nations or individuals, however, the basic idea in both cases is that God scripts out a future for the world. If you believe in free will, this is hard to fathom. If you believe that God doesn't script our lives (or the lives of nations) in absolute detail, but instead intervenes just from time to time, then does that mean there is no script?

I suppose one might believe that God is an improvisational director, who lays out the broad outlines of a plot but mostly lets the actors do what they want. As the Divine Director, maybe God yells "cut!" from time to time, and then intervenes--maybe fertilizing a virgin here, resuscitating a Son's dead body there, curing a sick aunt's cancer because she had enough friends who were willing to pray for her, and so forth. The problem with this is that once you've let the omnipotence cat out of the bag, you are stuck with explaining how it is that God didn't bother to prevent horrible evils like the Holocaust. Hagee's answer is that God didn't prevent it because it actually served God's long-term plans. It also does seem to me that an omnipotent God could surely have created a Jewish state in Palestine without using the Nazis, but in any case, Hagee's point seems to be that nothing happens without God's permission or active complicity--which, it seems to me, is a more logically consistent view to take if you think that God has intervened in history at all. The "free will" defense for the existence of evil , I believe, falls apart as soon as you accept that God intervenes at all. If God didn't intervene to prevent the Holocaust because of "free will", then wasn't God also violating free will all the other times that he intervened?

I think that the desire to believe in an omnipotent God is very strong indeed. It is comforting to think that there is a method to the world's madness, that someone with greater wisdom and authority than us actually is in charge. A Jerusalem Post article from two months ago about Rabbi Harold Kushner describes the negative reaction that he received from many Jews in response to his suggestion that God is not omnipotent:
Kushner committed his gravest offense, as the Orthodox see it, in When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He labored to reconcile the twin Jewish beliefs in God's omnipotence and his benevolence with the reality of human suffering, ultimately sacrificing the former to salvage the latter.

Kushner's God is limited in his ability to control the random hazards of life that result in tragedy on a widespread and a smaller scale, like the Holocaust and the death of a child.

It is a view that runs afoul of traditional Jewish teaching about God. The Orthodox, who Kushner says feel obliged to defend every writing by an Orthodox rabbi, accuse him of propounding un-Jewish ideas. Among the top Google hits for "Harold Kushner" is an article from an Orthodox Web site titled "Why Harold Kushner is Wrong."

Given all of that, I have come to my own conclusions about omnipotence and Divine activity. I work from these assumptions:

First, I think the world is characterized by free will. Each outcome, each event, represents the expression of a freely chosen decision.

Second, I believe that there is no overriding script that dictates the course of either national or individual histories. I would instead suggest that God responds to each set of circumstances as they arise and evolve over time. As circumstances change, as the result of the freely chosen decisions, God offers new responses.

Third, I think that the nature of the responses that God offers to each set of conditions is not coercive intervention, but rather the offer of creative possibilities, which are the best possibilities imaginable according to God's perfect values.

I thus see God as always responding lovingly to the immediate conditions of the world, trying to persuade the world to act according to God's overall ideals. But there is no script, there is no omnipotent intervention, no predetermined plan for the coming millenia--just continued improvisational responses by God, rooted in persuasive love at each moment in time. And God's perfect sympathy means that God is with us when we undergo suffering--suffering that God did not cause in order to serve some deeper purpose, and suffering that God cannot prevent.


Connor said...

I've often wondered what would have happened if some Roman soldier in the British Isles 2000 years ago had killed the guy on the left instead of the one on the right. Maybe myself and millions of others wouldn't exist today. Of course there is an infinite amount of other reasons that could have removed my existence.

Did God plan and ordain for my existence? If so then God must have directed the whole world around me. I think I will go with there is no script.

D said...

Great post. We discussed Job, Ehrman and theodicy on my blog last month. I floated the idea that the story of Job is essentially a theodicy in itself.

I've always (mis)interpreted God's answer to Job as intimate revelation. All the poetry, I assumed, was a way of saying that God was revealing God's self to Job. And that was the answer to suffering. The experience of God.

Just a thought. I like you blog a lot. I think we share a similar outside-the-box seeker mentality.

Mystical Seeker said...

D, thanks for visiting my blog.