Thursday, August 23, 2007

God and Hitler: The Problems of Christian Attribution

I heard a sermon last Sunday that troubled me greatly. The sermon was on the age old question: "If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?" For the most part, the sermon went okay. The pastor started off with the assumptions that Harold Kushner used in his classic book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People":

1) God is good
2) God is all-powerful
3) Evil exists

The idea behind this list is that all three of these assumptions cannot be true. And since we know that evil exists, God must either not be all good or all-powerful. The pastor's answer to this was to list a 4th assumption:

4) Therefore, God sent His son.

You can probably guess where it went after that.

It was a typical sermon about the subject with nothing really earth-shattering or particularly revelatory. But about 2/3rds of way through, the pastor said something that ground my mental gears to a halt and made me almost walk out. He said that some people ask the question, "Why didn't God stop Hitler?" The pastor's answer? "People don't realize that God DID stop Hitler. Hitler died a horrible death!"

Whoa, stop right there. That's a huge claim to make. In that instance, the pastor's question and answer encapsulates one of the greatest and most frustrating problems of modern Evangelical Christianity: The problem of Christian attribution.

There are two basic problems with this whole line of thinking that I think non-Christians simply find literally incredible: 1) The fact that Christians attribute only the good things to God and all the bad things to human evil, and 2) The fact that we must try to extract meaning out of every event.

With regards to the first point, I'm getting to the point where I'd rather just believe that we can't know what God does. Did God make me lose my keys today? Did he give me that promotion? Did he cause my grandmother to die of cancer? Typically, Christians attribute the good things to God and don't attribute the bad things to Him. However, they certainly believe that God allowed the bad things to happen; so how is that different than being responsible for them? Rather than spend copious amounts of my time contemplating what God is responsible for or not, I'd rather enjoy the life I have and feel blessed. Because ultimately, how can we really know?

Relatedly, regarding the second point, sometimes, stuff just happens. Tectonic plates shift on this planet. Rain falls. And people die. And even though Romans 8:28 says God will work all things for good, that doesn't mean WE have to try to work them for good. The insistence that we can derive meaning or pull something, anything out of tragedy can be blatantly offensive. Sometimes, there are no answers; only questions. To suggest otherwise is an act of sheer arrogance.

As for Hitler, what exactly was God doing before Hitler died? Biding his time while Hitler killed over 5 million people? And furthermore, isn't it easier and perhaps more respectful to just conclude that the death of those millions was evil and senseless, and not try to derive a deeper meaning from that fact (other than, of course, not allowing such a thing to happen again)?

Sermons like the one I heard make atheism seem appetizing.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I don't like that either. Here are a few thoughts I have on the good God/existence of evil though, which maybe you won't like either.

1) It seems throughout the Bible that God doesn't always insist on using the full extent of his power. It sometimes seems egregiously irresponsible to me that he didn't stop people like Hitler. The other side of that though is that he also hasn't struck me dead for the small or large sins I've committed, which are oftentimes completely intentional. He gives grace to sinners of all kinds (which the Bible seems to indicate are actually not that different from each other anyway).

2) God adopts us as sons and sends us out into the world to do things on his behalf. If something horrible is happening, it is our job to do something about it. I think that responsibility for things like the Holocaust actually resides with us -- the people who were too busy, ignorant, or apathetic to stop it.


Leslie said...

You make some good points here. I think the problem with Christian attribution is that Christians themselves have often done very little study on the topic, or ignore/overlook various important passages due to problematic exegesis.

I'll give you some examples of passages that are overlooked. I think the two most important ones are these: Ecclesiastes 7:15, 9:11 and Job 2:3, 42:11. In the Ecclesiastes verses, Solomon clearly indicates that "time and chance" happen to people. Some things just happen. It was not their fault, nor the fault of anyone else. Jesus himself also taught that there is sometimes more to the picture than someone deserving something or not. In John 9:2, he states that the man was blind so that God's works would be made evident. This man had been blind all his life just so God could be glorified! We see so little in the picture sometimes and assume such great things.

Furthermore, in the Job passages, we see God taking the blame for the bad things that happened to Job. A lot of Christians don't like to give God the credit for both the good and the bad, but I think this is because they do not realize that God is ready and willing to take it. The fact is, when you look at a God who is sovereign, a God who created all things, you are looking at a God who also takes the blame for the things he allows. I'm really not sure why Christians don't like this idea, because God does not appear to have any problem with it.

I think another interesting thing about Job is that God never actually tells him why he had to endure such suffering! Despite so much suffering, so many problems, so much stress and turmoil, he gets not a single answer. Notice what God does say however. I see God kindly but firmly telling Job that he really has no right to question. God is not just saying, "look, I can do what I want, and it's none of your business." He is simply saying, "you don't even understand the physical world which you are a part of - how can you expect to understand My ways?" (paraphrasing, of course) I think that answer is so important.

The reason most Christians don't get this today, I think, is because we have been so misled by modern thinking, that we actually believe we understand so much of how things work. Therefore, we almost feel like we have to defend God in this way. This just is not the case. For one, however cocky modern humans might love for us to be, the fact is, we don't know even a fraction of how the universe or even our own world works. God could still easily ask us the kinds of questions he asked Job. We really do not need to defend God - sometimes the right answer is, "I don't know why, but I have faith that God is in control."

As a side note, atheism to me is a rather useless worldview when it comes to things like this. I know this is an old argument, but it's true - if there is no God, no afterlife, nothing but "blind, pitiless indifference" as Dawkins writes, then what that guy did at VA Tech is really not evil at all. Who cares if he killed all those people? They were just going to die anyway, and so are we, and so is everything. We're all just going to end up in a state of nothingness, so everything here is irrelevant. What it leads to is exactly what that guy said in the article you linked to - no pity for the gunner, and in fact, happiness at his demise. When I look at the world, however, I see purpose, I see reason, I see more than the physical. As Paul said in 2 Cor. 4, we look not at those things which are seen, which are temporary, but those things which are unseen, that are eternal. Without those things, this life is meaningless. Atheism offers no answers. It offers ignorance of the questions.

Sorry this is so long ... just an important topic to a Christian who has struggled and continues to struggle through some of these hard questions.

(check out my blog sometime, if you like -