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The God Exception – Opening Shot

I’m going to try to divide this one up, because the topic promises to get a bit long. Also, objectors please note that I am aware of various approaches to theodicy and am not discussing them here. My point is simply that we assume some good explanation will be available for certain things, while do not do so for one particular topic.

One of the regular objections I hear to a Christian believing in evolution is the violent nature of the process. And indeed many creatures have died in the course of the evolution of life on this planet including more than one major extinction. It seems to be a very bloody process.

The objection then may take one of two directions. The first is that the example of survival of the fittest (the expression most commonly used in these cases) provides a violent and bloody example, and thus that those who think they are the product of such a process will feel justified in being violent, weeding out the week as nature does, and generally doing a bunch of other unloving things.

The second is that if we believe God is love–and we know from the Bible that he is–then we cannot imagine him using such a violent process in creation.

There is a third angle, but it is not as closely related to my topic. The [partially] random nature of the process is said to remove our sense of purpose, and thus make us into immoral beings. I’m not addressing this last point, though it is closely related.

The question that comes to me in these cases is this: In what way is the God potentially portrayed by evolution (the God who would do things that way) any less loving than the God portrayed in scripture? After all, in scripture we have a God who decides to destroy all of his creation except for eight human beings and selected pairs of varies animal groups (Genesis 6-9). Further on, in Numbers 31, we have the same God dissatisfied with the amount of killing carried out by the Israelites in battle, and ordering them to kill many more. In Joshua we have the depiction of the invasion of Canaan, with the command to kill everyone in the country. Finally, we have a God who is willing to throw a substantial portion of the people he created into hell. Just how many we’re not told, but lots.

Now the issue is not whether there is any way to read these chapters in a way consistent with a loving God. There are in fact, quite a number, with quite variable degrees of plausibility. The issue, rather, is why it is that we feel that we should construct such explanations for these Bible stories, but somehow if evolution is true, it is an indelible stain on God’s reputation.

Whether evolution has taken place or not, and I’m convinced it has, there are quite a number of violent events that need to be explained, always presuming we can explain them at all. Theodicy is alive and kicking, even if often not in such good health. I do have to say that the concept of theodicy occasionally amuses me. What can we do with God if we find we can’t justify his behavior?

It seems to me that evolution is one of the most minor issues of theodicy. The flood (even if it didn’t happen as such) or the Canaanite genocide (even if that didn’t happen either), require much more explanation in the light of God’s character.

What I’m calling the God exception here is this: There are a group of violent events that are part of the Christian scripture and tradition that we tend to protect from blame in influencing evil events. We do not allow the process of evolution such a free pass, or assumption that there is, somewhere, an adequate explanation. We make exceptions for some of the most difficult material, and then get hung up on the relatively easy.

(I describe this as an opening shot because I expect to say more on the topic.)

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  1. Perhaps we just have to accept that God’s idea of what is acceptable violence is not the same as our often hypocritical one. We condemn God for killing Canaanites but commend our armies for killing Iraqis. We commend doctors for using what would otherwise be considered violence in healing but don’t allow the possibility that God might do the same. We expect God to be the image of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, and get offended when he turns out different from our caricature.

  2. I agree with Peter here. I think our culture has an odd view of violence in that we seem to accept the pornographic form of violence that is splayed across TV and Movies for entertainment, but we condemn it when we encounter it in the larger struggle over real ideas like freedom and healing.

    I l like to think God is advocating for the largest and most real idea of all which is something along the line of our ultimate reconciliation to him, and the violence we see in the process may not be something to be regarded as abnormal.

  3. I agree with you both, though I recall that my philosophy of religion [professor] wasn’t so happy with my approach to the problem of evil. He kept saying I was messing with the definition of evil, which indeed I was.

    Peter, your comment about what violence we approve and what we don’t is particularly apt. I recall you mentioning this before when we were discussing casualties in Iraq. Less Americans are aware of the cost in American lives than should be, but many less than that have any real idea of the cost in Iraqi lives. I personally am not sure what numbers to believe, but the number is definitely very high.

    I will write a bit more about how I feel that some kind of violence will occur in a world in which negative consequences are possible at all, and it appears that God made the world in such a way that negative consequences are possible.

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