Archive for the ‘Problem of God and Evil’ Tag

The Census, the Plague, and the Altar   Leave a comment

Above:  Icon of King David

Image in the Public Domain





2 Samuel 24:1-25

1 Chronicles 21:1-22:1


Whenever I am afraid,

I will put my trust in you.

–Psalm 56:3, The Book of Common Prayer (1979)


Theology changes.  A careful reading of the Bible reveals theological evolution in the Bible.  This is the reason I cannot be a fundamentalist.  Inconsistencies exist in the texts.  For example, did God or “a satan”(“adversary,” literally) persuade King David to conduct the census for which God punished the kingdom for years?  The answer depends on whether one accepts 2 Samuel 24:1 or 1 Chronicles 21:1.

This discrepancy exists because of theological evolution.  As a serious student of the history of Jewish theology ought to know, Satan as a free agent (rather than as one of God’s employees, as the tester of loyalty to God, as in the Book of Job as in Numbers 22:21-40) is a relatively late development.  The understanding of Satan as a free agent and an opponent of God dates to the postexilic period, when Zoroastrianism was influencing Judaism.  The Persians may have been correct.  That is a separate matter for another post.  In terms of the history of religion, Satan as the chief rebel against God in Judaism and, by extension, in Christianity, is a legacy of Zoroastrian influence, objectively.

The question of God and evil interests me, an intellectually honest monotheist.  Saints, theologians, and philosophers have tackled the thorny problem.  I harbor no delusion that I settle it in this post.  I do, however, refer to C. S. Lewis, who acknowledged that God is in the dock.  Ultimately, I, as a monotheist, cannot honestly blame anyone except God for evil–for permitting it to exist, at least.  The author of 2 Samuel 24 accepted this perspective.  The author of 1 Chronicles 21, writing during the Persian Period, did not.

If, however, one accepts the pre-Persian Period concept of “the Satan” as one of God’s employees–the loyalty tester, as in the Book of Job, God remains responsible for evil, too.  God is still in the dock.  If one accepts “the Satan” as one of God’s employees, then one must accept that “the Satan” cannot function or exist apart from God.  In Genesis, the language in certain passages uses “God” and “angel” interchangeably.  This is not a difficulty if one accepts that angels can exist and function only in the context of God, that, whatever they do or say, they do on divine orders.  Therefore, the words and actions of an angel are those of God, practically.  Therefore, if one accepts the pre-Persian Jewish understanding of “the Satan,” one must accept that “the Satan” acts and speaks only when following divine orders.  God is still in the dock.

Or maybe the ancient Zoroastrians were correct regarding the existence of independent agents of evil.

If I preferred easy answers, I would not wrestle with God.  If I did not prefer wresting with God, this great monotheistic conundrum of the problem of God and evil would perturb me more than it does.  Ultimately, though, I must agree with David and Job.  God is God.  God refuses to fit into our boxes, regardless of how piously we define them.  And we have no feasible alternative to turning to God, do we?  Part of the life of spiritual growth is learning to distinguish between our biases and God’s thoughts.

Nevertheless, may we exercise caution in how we think, speak, and write of God.  May we refrain from portraying God as a celestial gangster.  I hear some people speak of God in terms that should lead one to recoil in terror from God.  An Episcopal priest I know has a wonderful strategy for engaging with people who profess not to believe in God.  He asks them to describe the God in whom they do not believe.  Inevitably, he hears a description of God he rejects.  “I don’t believe in that God either,” the priest replies.

I, as an Episcopalian, seek moderation.  I follow the Anglican Via Media, after all.  I am neither fully Protestant nor fully Roman Catholic.  I am not a Biblical literalist.  I reject, however, the excesses of John Dominic Crossan and that ilk.  My intellect is always in gear; it constitutes one-third of my faith.  Nobody who tells me I should think less often gets far with me theologically.  I accept the primacy of scripture without shutting down my brain’s higher functions and advocating for scriptural inerrancy and infallibility.  A frontal lobotomy and willful ignorance are not prerequisites for salvation.  And I affirm that God is trustworthy while admitting that no human being can fully understand God.  The image one sees when looking into one’s mirror may be the most alluring idol of all.





God, On the Hook   1 comment

Above:  A Hook


Ezekiel 9:1-7 (TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures):

Then He called loudly in my hearing, saying,

Approach, you men in charge of the city, each bearing his weapons of destruction!

And six men entered by way of the upper gate that faces north, each with his club in hand; and among them was another, clothed in linen, with a writing case at his waist.  They came forward and stopped at the bronze altar.  Now the Presence of the God of Israel had moved from the cherub on which it had rested to the platform of the House.  He called to the man clothed in linen with the writing case at his waist; and the LORD said to him,

Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who moan and groan because of all the abominations that are committed in it.

To the others He said in my hearing,

Follow him through the city and strike; show no pity or compassion.  Kill off graybeard, youth, and maiden, women and children; but do not touch any person who bears the mark.  Begin here at My Sanctuary.

So they began with the elders who were in front of the House.  And He said to them,

Defile the House and fill the courts with the slain.  Then go forth.

So they went forth and began to kill in the city.

Ezekiel 10:18-22 (TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures):

Then the presence of the LORD left the platform of the House and stopped above the cherubs.  And I saw the cherubs lift their wings and rise from the earth, with the wheels beside them as they departed; and they stopped at the entrance of the eastern gate of the House of the LORD, with the Presence of the God of Israel above them.  They were the same creatures that I had seen below the God of Israel at the Chebar Canal; so now I know that they were cherubs.  Each one had four faces and each had four wings.  As for the form of their faces, they were the very faces I had seen by the Chebar Canal–their appearance and their features–and each could move in the direction of any of its faces.

Ezekiel 12:1-16 (TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures):

The word of the LORD came to me:

O mortal, you dwell among the rebellious breed.  They have eyes to see but do not see, ears to hear but hear not; for they are a rebellious breed.  Therefore, mortal, get yourself gear for exile, and go into exile before their eyes.  Go into exile from your home to another place before their very eyes; perhaps they will take note, even though they are a rebellious breed.  Carry out your gear for exile by day before their very eyes, as one who goes out into exile.  Before their eyes, break through the wall and carry [the gear] out through it; before their eyes, carry it on your shoulder.  Take it out in the dark, and cover your face that you may not see the land; for I will make you a portent to the House of Israel.

I did just as I was ordered:  I took out my gear by day as gear for exile, and in the evening I broke through the wall with my own hands.  In the darkness I carried [the gear] out on my shoulder, carrying it before their eyes.

In the morning, the word of the LORD came to me:

O mortal, did not the House of Israel, that rebellious breed, as, you, “What are you doing?”  Say to them:  ”Thus said the Lord GOD:  This pronouncement concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the House of Israel who are in it.”  Say:  ”I am a portent for you:  As I have done, so shall it be done to them; they shall go into exile, into captivity.  And the prince among them shall carry his gear on his shoulder as he goes out in the dark.  He shall break through the wall in order to carry [his gear] out through it; he shall cover his face, because he himself shall not see the land with his eyes.”  I will spread My net over him, and he shall be caught in My snare.  I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, but he shall not see it; and there he shall die.  And all those around him, his helpers and all his troops, I will scatter in every direction; and I will unsheathe the sword after them.  Then, when I have scattered them among the nations and dispersed them through the countries, they shall know that I am the LORD.  But I will spare a few of them from the sword, from famine, and from pestilence; that they may recount all their abominable deeds among the nations to which they come; and they shall know that I am the LORD!

Matthew 18:15-9:1 (J. B. Phillips, 1972):

[Jesus continued,] “

But if your brother wrongs you, go and have it out with him at once–just between the two of you.  If he will listen to you, you have won him back as your brother.  But if he will not listen to you, take one or two others with you so that everything that is said may have the support of two or three witnesses.  And if he still won’t pay attention, tell the matter to the church.  And if he won’t even listen to the church then he must be to you like a pagan–or a tax-collector!

Believe me, whatever you forbid upon earth will be what is forbidden in Heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be what is permitted in Heaven.

And I tell you once more that if two of you on earth agree in asking for anything it will be granted to you by my Heavenly Father.  For wherever two or three people have come together in my name, I am there, right among them!

Matthew 18:21-19:1 (J. B. Phillips, 1972):

Then Peter approached him [Jesus] with the question,

Master, if my brother goes on wronging me how often should I forgive him?  Would seven times be enough?

Jesus replied,

No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!  For the kingdom of Heaven is like a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants.  When he had started calling in his accounts, a man was brought to him who owed him millions of pounds.  As he had no means of repaying the debt, his master gave orders for him to be sold as a slave, and his wife and children and all his possessions as well, and the money to be paid over.  At this the servant fell on his knees before his master.  ”Oh, be patient with me!” he cried, “and I will pay you back every penny!”  Then his master was moved with pity for him, set him free and cancelled his debt.

But when this same servant had left his master’s presence, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a few shillings.  He grabbed him and seized him by the throat, crying, “Pay up what you owe me!”  At this his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and implored him, “Oh, be patient with me, and I will pay you back!”  But he refused and went out and had him put in prison until he should repay the debt.

When the other fellow-servants saw what had happened, they were horrified and went and told their master the whole incident.  This his master called him in.

“You wicked servant!” he said.  ”Didn’t I cancel all that debt when you begged me to do so?  Oughtn’t you to have taken pity on your fellow-servant as I, your master, took pity on you?”  And his master in anger handed him over to the jailers till he should repay the whole debt.  This is how my Heavenly Father will treat you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

When Jesus had finished talking on these matters, he left Galilee and went on to the district of Judea on the far side of the Jordan.


This is bleak material.  The readings from Matthew speak of forgiveness and how, important it is, but the lections from Ezekiel are harsh.  Idolatrous abominations have polluted the Temple, the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian forces will destroy the Temple and slaughter much of the population (including young children), the divine Presence will depart the city, King Zedekiah will go blinded into exile, and Ezekiel will also go into exile.  God will spare from death those who had objected to the sinfulness, but apparently this protection will not extend to young children.  And the texts depict God as being in charge of all these events.

As an intellectually honest Monotheist, I acknowledge the main problem of Monotheism:  There is no good and honest way to let God off the hook.  If I a were to accept the existence of multiple deities, I could blame one or more for evil and other events I do not like.  Yet Monotheism requires me to accept that God is responsible for good and for bad, for what I like and for what I consider detestable.  Brains older, wiser, and better educated than mine have pondered this quandary, which remains, so I will not untangle it today or any other day.

Father Robert Farrar Capon offers the following analysis:

Just remember that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the liver fluke, the killer whale, and the loan shark–that if God is holding all things in being right now, he’s got some explaining to do if he hopes to maintain his reputation as the original Good Guy.  Or, more accurately (since God steadfastly refuses to show up and explain anything, except by announcing mysteries and paradoxes) we’ve got a lot of explaining to do if we are to go on thinking of him in terms of his creation.

The Third Peacock:  The Problem of God and Evil, 2d. Edition (Minneapolis, MN:  Winston Press, 1986) , page 11

A few pages later, we find these words:

God is still firmly on the hook.  (That he is actually on the hook, of course, is God’s own final answer to the whole matter.  According to the Gospel, he himself hangs on the cross with the rest of his free creation.  If you believe that, it is great comfort; it is not, however, one whit less a mystery.–page 14

The greatest fault of Fundamentalism is its pretense of knowing more than it does.  My theology, in contrast, flees from the false comfort of easy and pat answers.  I embrace the unknown, claim the mystery, and catalog the questions I want to ask God one day, in another life.  Until that day, however, I choose not to refrain from recognizing that there is only one God and seeking a deeper relationship with God.  Certain matters are too great for me, not that my acknowledgement of this fact prevents me from remaining inquisitive.







Published originally at ORDINARY TIME DEVOTIONS BY KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR on October 5, 2011

Adapted from this post: