Why Does God Do Bad Things?

Why did God order all those people killed in the Bible? Why does he condemn people to Hell? Why did he let so-and-so die or such-and-such terrible thing happen?

Even Christians like myself wrestle with these things. Unfortunately, giving a satisfactory answer (or rather, answers), would take ten books, four articles, and three Youtube videos. I only have a single blog page, and I doubt you want me to ramble forever.

So instead of giving you a rushed answer with too many holes to be useful, I’m just going to ask you five question in order to get your brain working. My hope is that these questions get you asking new questions, questions most people don’t bother asking, questions that lead to real answers.

Some of these questions sound glib and insulting. That is not my intention, and I apologize if they hurt anybody. I’m only asking stark, frank questions in order to get your brain working, not to make fun or deride. When we talk about the “evil deeds” of God, we come to them with certain assumptions and presumptions. My purpose is to shake off these presumptions so we can get deeper.

So here we go: five questions to probe the original question of why God does so many terrible things.

1. Do You Really Want to Know?

When we ask hard questions, we need to do one of three things: drop the snark, grieve, and/or prepare yourself for hard study. Are you willing to do one or all of these things? If not, then you don’t want to know the answer, so none should be given.

A) Drop the Snark. More than once, I’ve heard something along the lines of, “Go ahead, explain why God committed more genocide than all parties in history combined. I’ll wait.” But they’re not waiting. This glib reply is a shut-down, not an opening. People focused on put-downs aren’t listening, just waiting so they can speak. If they’re not listening for an answer, none should be given.

B) Grieve. When the bad thing is personal, no rational answer will satisfy our raging emotions. When the pain is near, we first need to grieve. This means crying, screaming, ranting, punching the wall, shoveling ice cream, or lying in bed for days. Only when the haze has cleared, even a little, can reason be of any comfort. So if you’re hurting, don’t turn to rationality just yet. It’ll only sound cold and unhelpful.

C) Prepare Yourself. There’s a reason I’m not giving a short answer to the question of why God commits such horrible deeds: there isn’t one. No short answer will suffice, no one-size-fits-all rationality satisfies. The answers are deep, complex, and often inspire more questions. Are you willing to take that journey? I hope so, because it’s the only journey there is.

So are you willing to put down the hatchet, cry it out, and/or dive into deep waters? If so, you may find the answers you seek. Otherwise, you’ll only waste your own time.

2. Do You Know Everything?

I doubt anybody would answer “Yes” to this question, but we act like it, don’t we? How many of us scream at God because of something he did without ever truly asking why? It’s because we think we already know. God’s a jerk. God is fake. God is a liar. And so on.

But let’s go deeper. Often times, the reason we get mad is because nobody seems able to answer our questions. “Why, God?” We don’t know, God’s not spelling it out, and nobody else can answer, so we reason that God is just plain mean.

Did you catch it? The missed step? We ask why, don’t get an answer, then judge God. But how can we judge God without an answer? This assumes that because we can’t find a good reason for God’s actions that God must not have one. But how does that work? Just because we don’t have a good answer does not mean that a good answer doesn’t exist.

Hence my question: do you know everything? If not, we must admit that a perfectly good reason for God’s actions may in fact exist, we just don’t know it.

So why doesn’t God just tell us? That brings me to question number three, and I’ll warn you: it’s going to make you mad.

3. Why Should God Answer You?

Once again, I’m not trying to be derisive. I’m only asking a calm, simple question. When we cry out to God, why should he answer? After all, simply asking a question does not entitle the questioner to a response.

If God is, well, God, then he is high and above us, and not bound to our rules in any way. And if he’s not God at all, then our anger is just. But not answering doesn’t make him not God. In fact, it could very well be a sign that he is God: he decides for himself when to speak and when to be silent.

Job spends his whole book questioning God, and when God finally shows up in chapter 38, he never answers Job’s question of why. He merely reminds Job of who he, God, is. And Job walks away satisfied, with a newer understanding of God (Job 42:1-6), which is more satisfying than any answer.

Let me make one thing clear: it is NOT wrong to ask God questions. Job got a lecture, but he was deemed more holy than his friends who didn’t question God (Job 42:7-8). Why? Because Job’s heart wanted to understand God while his friends thought that God was a formula and didn’t need further understanding. Questions can certainly bring us closer to God, so don’t be afraid to ask. Only be afraid when you give orders to Him who cannot and will not be ordered.

4. Why is God here and why are you here?

One reason we all get angry when life goes wrong is that we assume God, if he exists, should stop hardship, pain, and suffering. He can snap his fingers and fix the world, so why doesn’t he?

But where did we get this idea that God is here to make us happy, healthy, and wise? Yes, God wants what’s good for us, but no part of the Bible says that God exists for mankind. The creation may be for us, the rules may be for our benefit, but God himself does not exist to be our servant. Not the Christian God at any rate.

And why are we here on this Earth? What purpose makes us think our lives should be good, free of suffering and devastation? If we have no inherent purpose, then why are we surprised at the chaos of the world which thwarts our plans? If life is random, there’s no reason life should be good.

We’ve got it backwards. God created us for his glory, not ours. You want a Bible verse to prove it? Open your Bible to any random page and put your finger down. I bet you just found one. God is constantly talking about his glory, not ours. God does delight in meeting our needs (Matthew 6:25-26), binding up our wounds (Psalm 147:3), and saving us from darkness (any Gospel), but it is not ultimately for our sake. If God is real, we exist for God, not the other way around.

And when you realize that God was never, ever your butler, you start wondering just why he did any good things for you at all…

5. What makes things good or bad anyway?

This is the kicker: why do we say these bad things are so bad, anyway? What’s our standard for right and wrong? I would wager that many people are measuring God by a ruler that only exists if God doesn’t.

Here’s an example: God says, “Do not murder,” then slaughters friends and foes alike. Why do we say this is wrong? One might say, “It’s hypocrisy.” The other might say, “Human life is sacred.” But both of these responses eliminate God as a factor, and if God is not a factor, why are we yelling at him?

God is God. If he’s real, we have to re-frame everything. If God is real, then he made humankind and has authority over them. If neither of these statements is true, he is not the Christian God and we have a big problem up in the sky. But if he is, then he has the right to choose who lives and dies. Not us. So God’s actions are not hypocritical because that rule was for us, not him. Like how an ambulance can run through a red light but you can’t. And human life is only sacred because it’s God who gives and takes it.

In my experience, most people who yell at God do so because they’ve taken him out of the equation. They yell at God for reasons based on his nonexistence. In that sense, we only say God is wrong because he’s not fitting our world that runs without him. But if God is real, the Christian God, then he is the creator of the world and the moral rules on which it runs. Which means right and wrong have to be reshaped to fit him if we’re ever going to get to the bottom of why God does the things he does. 

The Most Important Question

As I said in the beginning, this is not a complete defense of God, not by a long shot. If you find holes in my arguments, I’m not surprised because this was meant to be more of a proposition than an argument.

But at some level or another, there is no straight answer. Christianity seeks to understand God as best it can, but also knows that it can never do so fully because God, on some level, is unknowable. He’s God.

So the most important question of all becomes, “Can you trust?” This is the crux of Christianity, to believe there’s a God bigger than myself, that he knows what he’s doing, that he’s good, and that he doesn’t always explain himself.

I’m not so bold to think you’ll suddenly trust God by reading this. My only hope is this will challenge you to think in new ways, and, by God’s mercy and intervention, find the trust that frees you from the addiction to understanding, an addiction which is never fully satisfied in any realm of life, much less God.

I welcome further discussion and questions in the comments.

 

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13 thoughts on “Why Does God Do Bad Things?

      1. It reads like fiction. And very badly written, at that. Like all the other ones. You ever read the Bhagavad Gita? It can get pretty corny, but has more and better advice on living a good life than the Bible.

        The real treasure of religious texts isn’t the supposed truth of the fanciful stories. It’s the messages they contain. Read the Good Samaritan: was there really the five characters of the story doing those things in actual fact and Jesus was just being a news reporter?

        Or was he putting forward an amazingly useful bit of advice to a smart-arse lawyer, and by extension, the rest of us? This advice is common to many faiths, but I think the Good Samaritan delivers it best.

        People get all wrapped around the axles about the colourful details, that were obviously just made up to carry a message, and that’s silly. It’s like my mother, when I ask her what sort of car she needs, and she says a blue one.

        I’ve written on these topics in my blog. Feel free to comment there.

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      2. I looked at your blog, but couldn’t find posts particular to the Bible. I read “The One,” pts 1 and 2, but wasn’t sure if those were the ones you’re referencing, so sorry if I missed them.

        You make some good points, especially about Jesus’s use of parables, which are not literal truth, to convey a point. Even Job, which I quoted, is often understood as a parable, not actual history.

        However, to say the Bible as an entirety reads like fiction, I’d have to disagree. You say it reads like poorly-written fiction, and I’d argue that’s because it was never intended to be read as fiction.

        You also say the Bible doesn’t have the best advice on living a good life. That’s because it wasn’t meant to be an advice book. Rather, it was a book meant to point its readers to God.

        The great majority of the Bible is summed up this way: God did this, so go do that. If God did not indeed do X, Y, or Z, there’s little pushing the reader to do, well, anything. If Jesus isn’t risen, the letters of the New Testament make no sense. Revelation makes even less. How can you tell people to hope for a bright future through the power of fiction? Anyone could look at it and say, “But it’s just a story. It doesn’t mean good things will actually happen.” The only way the writers could give hope and meaning to their audience was to imply that God and his actions were real.

        When Paul wrote his letters, he often claimed that Jesus’s resurrection was real and pointed to eyewitnesses who were still alive. That’s a dangerous thing to do if you’re making it up. Any random person could question these witnesses and find the truth themselves, removing the power from Paul’s statements. Why would Paul point to eyewitnesses if he wasn’t trying to say these things were real? And what’s more, how could Christianity have taken off, and remained so powerful today, if the hope it contained wasn’t meant to be taken literally?

        You say a story can still inspire even if it’s not true. Yes, but only to a limited degree. For example, The Good Samaritan. Yes, it’s a good story, but why should one obey it? It can illustrate a point, but not invoke morality. I can abandon my neighbor on the road and who’s going to stop me? But if the parable is backed up by the existence of God, the whole thing changes. Suddenly, there are consequences to my not living like the parable. More importantly, I have a reason to WANT to live like the Good Samaritan: the goodness of Jesus.

        You could argue that the Bible is just plain wrong. You could also argue it’s all a clever lie to manipulate people. But to say that it was not a lie, but fiction meant to help people, I’m afraid the Bible doesn’t lend itself to that.

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      3. You read like someone who thinks a Chevrolet is the best car because they drive one, their friends and family drive Chevies, and they are happy with their ride.

        Religions, like cars, fit into a wider world. There’s more than one brand. I’m glad you’re happy with the only thing you know, but I’m not happy to restrict my conversation to the world of Chevrolets.

        My point with The One is that someone can not claim to be an authority on a subject if they only read from one book. Where do you think the Trinity came from? Not Jesus. If you don’t understand Plotinus, you don’t understand Christianity. If you don’t understand Zoroaster, you don’t have Judaism in context.

        If you claim the truth, you need to know what others say on the subject.

        If you have something to say that isn’t preaching your little corner of the world of big questions, say it, I’ll listen.

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      4. And you speak as one who has no counter-arguments to the claims I’ve already made. So far, you’ve spoken your side as fact without attempting to back it up with evidence or cross-examine my claims. If I am truly so small-minded, surely a well-read philosopher such as you, who has found the final authorities on Christianity and Judaism, should be easily able to refute my claims. I await your reply.

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      5. With all respect, you’re not getting it. I didn’t say you were small-minded. In fact I believe the contrary.

        But I’m not so stupid as to constrain myself to a discussion on the advantages of Chevrolets with someone who has never driven another make.

        The world and its history is full of people who have sought to find answers to the great questions. This desire for truth is common to all of humanity, and it has most frequently and most dramatically been displayed in religious structures.

        If you want to tell me that the people who built the Parthenon were wrong in their views, and that those who blew it up were in the right, then you have a difficult task ahead of you.

        You are wise, but insular in your outlook. Go, seek the thoughts of other great thinkers. You will find many ways of answering the same questions.

        There is more to the School of Athens than the two central figures, and even that pantheon is just a corner of the world of philosophy. Philosophy, as you know, is the love of wisdom. Plato stressed that you cannot find wisdom by remaining in a comfort zone of familiar thoughts.

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      6. I think I see what you are saying, and I appreciate the compliments and the attempts to diffuse the discussion–thanks for that.

        If I’m understanding correctly, you think that I am only understanding the tenants of Christianity without proper study of the others (driving Chevys religiously–pun intended–but never another make).

        If that’s the case–and correct me if it’s not–then let me continue the Chevy metaphor. It seems to me as though I’m driving a Chevy and loving it. You come along in, say, a Toyota, and say I need to try it and other cars to see if Chevy really is the best. I then ask, “What makes the other models so great?” and then, it seems to me, you say you’re unwilling to answer that question until I try out other cars because I’m too glued to Chevys to understand.

        These are the two issues I have with that. For one, your assumption that I’ve only driven Chevys is just that: an assumption. You assume I’ve never really looked at other cars or analyzed them. To be frank, that’s unfair and insulting. While I’m nowhere near all-knowing, I have certainly had my opinions challenged and examined by myself, my friends, and my enemies. This isn’t some faith I picked up because it sounded nice. I chose it because it was still there when the flames died out.

        This brings me to point 2: Despite your earlier comments that I should try other “cars,” and despite all I’ve seen from other makes, I remain unconvinced that I have any pressing need to abandon the car I have now, and that’s what you’re asking me to do: abandon my faith and search for truth.

        This is where my car metaphor breaks down. You can try out multiple cars, but trying out multiple beliefs isn’t so easy. You can’t stop believing one thing while you test-drive another. You can only equally measure two beliefs when you believe neither of them. Otherwise, you’re going to keep on with that believe until it’s proven wrong in some way.

        So in that sense, you’re right. I am a “Chevy” enthusiast and I don’t bother driving other vehicles. But this is not merely because I was born a Chevy man and only associated with Chevy drivers. It’s because of all the cars I’ve seen come and go, this “Chevy” is the only one that holds up, so I believe.

        So when I ask you to respond to my claims, I’m asking you to give me some credit, rather than dismiss me as blind to all but one idea. To reword what I said before, if I am “insular,” as you said, then wouldn’t it be better to enlighten me then write me off?

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      7. It’s not about belief. I believe in the pantheon of Hindu deities as much as I do in Santa Claus. That is to say, not at all.

        I adore Plato, but I cannot swallow his notions of the afterlife and the underworld.

        I don’t mean to be insulting, but you give no indication of seeing things from any but a Christian perspective. I’m glad that you enjoy this, but Christianity is just one of numerous religions, and even Christianity itself is irretrievably fractured. When Humbert of Silva Candida arrived at what was then Hagia Sophia in 1054, it split Christianity as much as did Luther five centuries later.

        I’ve driven cars all over the world, to continue the metaphor. A Jaguar in Scotland, a Skoda through Scandinavia, something Japanese through Turkey, and a Mustang along Route 66 to name a few.

        Likewise religions and philosphies. They all of them have their flaws, and they all of them have their clever adherents who can explain away the discrepancies and gaps.

        The Bible opens with a clear example. There are two inconsistent creation myths. The first is majestic and heroic, much loved – including by myself. The second, a less elegant version, is notable only for its introduction of Adam and Eve and the beginning of the attempt, like those of the Greeks at an earlier time, to link notables of the current age with the presumed founders of humanity.

        We may identify many themes linking religions and philosophies. A creation myth is a common example. It is a poor sort of priest who cannot answer questions about the beginning of the world, and of course, the more colourful and memorable are the ones which endured. You should look into some of the tales; Genesis is actually pretty second-rate for drama and excitement in creation tales.

        But my point is that your particular variant of Christianity is just one among a great number of essentially similar philosophies. It is sweet and delightful that you believe that yours is the one true narrative, but billions of others have the same position with regard to their own views. You can’t all be correct, no matter how fervently you all believe.

        And what happens, when you get to the afterlife and it turns out to be Ahura Mazda who was the one true god, and he’s as pissed off with you for wasting your time on a false god, as he is with me for believing in none of them?

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      8. I fear we may have reached an impasse. Time and again, you have said, “Your way is just one of many ways,” but this alone does not mean that my way is wrong. Only one lottery number in a hundred million is correct. Billions of women are similar to my wife, but only she is my wife. Just because something one of many doesn’t automatically mean it is less valuable or less correct. You invite me on a quest for the Holy Grail. I hold aloft my cup and say, “Already found it.” You say, “How do you know that’s the real Grail until you’ve checked all Grails?” I reply, “How do you know that what I hold isn’t the real Grail?” And round and round we go.
        I am not going to continue searching for “truth” because I think I’ve already found truth, which would make all other “truths” naught but lies. If, of course, I am shown that my “truth” is itself a lie, then and only then will I abandon it in search for another truth. You tell me to search for knowledge, but I fail to see how all this knowledge competes against what I already know. Perhaps it does, but you haven’t used it. You’ve shown me you have it, but not what it can do. Can it prove Christianity wrong? Can it bring about justice? Can it answer the hard questions about life, which is what this blog post was originally about? Perhaps your accumulated knowledge can do all these things, but you have yet to show me that it can. And if it can’t do these things, then it is just trivia, not knowledge.
        I’ll stop there because, as I said, I fear we may be at an impasse and I don’t want to escalate this into the usual internet shit storm. I thank you for the challenging discussion because it has indeed pushed me on more than one level, and I see the benefit in such experiences, but it seems we’re going in circles and I’d rather shake hands.
        However, if you feel you have more to discuss, some counterpoint yet to be made, then I’ll certainly hear it. Comments are still open.

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      9. You are very sweet, Michael, and thoughtful enough that we’re never going to get to the shitstorm part.

        You make a good point. Yes, you may have the winning lottery ticket, and indeed it is plain that you consider this to be the case.

        But I know that you are mistaken in your views, not because you and I have tested each and every religion, but because your deity is like all the others in fundamental nature.

        Here’s a question to think on. Does the Christian God have a soul?

        Because all deities that involve themselves in human affairs, such as answering prayers, or smiting down Sodom and Gomorrah, or healing the leper, or turning water into wine, are necessarily part of the same realm that we ourselves inhabit. We may observe them and their actions directly.

        You yourself say that God performs actions in our world. We might not know the reason why, and I’ll agree with you on the point that whatever God is, it is not something we can cram into our heads and claim we know everything, but still, your whole argument is based on a deity, that like all the other ones, has interactions with humanity.

        In philosophical terms, your god is part of the realm of change and becoming, not of being. Like all the others.

        When the Romans borrowed the model of Plotinus for the Trinity, they must have loved the way that it began: “What can it be that has brought the souls to forget the father, God, and, though members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and It?” (Plotinus, Ennead V, Tractate 1)

        But in so doing, they invited heresy in. They did not understand that Plotinus, like Plato, held that all three hypostases were eternal, infinite, and unchanging, and yet their god was out there in the world doing stuff, and here’s our holy book describing his glorious deeds.

        Like every other deity. Far from being the author of Creation, the Christian God is part of it. Like the weather. Like Thor the god of lightning, if the Christian God is displeased for reasons you and I can only guess at, then Bango! people die, the cathedral catches fire, six million Jews are murdered. You say we need not assign labels of good and evil to these things, but you do not deny that they occur and that your god is the cause of them.

        A god that involves themselves in human affairs or any affairs at all, is clearly not inhabiting the divine realm that Plotinus described. Like every other god in every other religion.

        So that’s why I know you are wrong. Like every other religion based on a deity that interacts with our world, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Christianity.

        You may not be able to grasp this, or you may think that there is some clever way around it, but be honest with yourself here, it’s just you and the Bible, isn’t it?

        You don’t seem to be drawing on any other resources. Humanity has had twenty five centuries of contemplating these deep matters, and you are ignoring everything since the Nicene Creed of 325. I suspect you are ignoring a lot more than that, but let’s be generous.

        How can I or anyone else have confidence in your assertions? It’s just you thinking stuff up, Bible in your hand, declaring that all is for the glory of God. Plato was able to dispense with that model of rhetoric in the Gorgias dialogue, long before Christ arrived.

        If you want your declarations to be taken seriously by me, or anyone else, you need to draw upon a wider range of resources. Find some wise people who have had their arguments examined and tested and quote them.

        Otherwise, it is just you declaring with increasing stridency that you alone possess the truth, and let’s face it, anybody can make the same declaration with equal fervour. Such a person may happily believe in what they are saying, but it is thin stuff when out of all the seven billion of us alive today, and all the billions gone, not one voice is quoted in support.

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  1. Does God do bad things? I understand where you are coming from, but I find the book of Job to be very enlightening. We don’t do very well when we try to face up to God and accuse Him of doing bad things. Job came close to that. God simply showed Job His greatness and Job got the point.

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