Advisory: I recommend you not read this commentary if you are overly tender-hearted or you dislike having your religious sensibilities offended. To make my case for the kind of God I think we have, I had to delve into certain things that may disturb you.
I must admit I had a hard time making my case because of my own tender-heartedness.
I respect religious people. I will never condemn them or their views.
All of the following has been said many times before,
in different words and different examples.
As an agnostic, I believe God exists. It’s difficult for me to believe everything came from nothing with no “outside” force. (I suspect many physicists, astronomers, Big Bang adherents, and the like do believe this.) So I respect the religious person who is asked for evidence of God and replies, “Just look around you.”
Whether God exists, then, is to me not in question considering the endless examples of what I hold is proof, or strong circumstantial evidence.
What is in question to me is: What kind of God do we have?
“How absurd!” many may say. “We have a benevolent God who watches over us.”
No doubt all of my religious relatives and friends – and probably most religious people – view God that way. (Part of the reason they pray* is to praise and thank God for the benevolence and watchfulness.) As proof of God’s goodness, they may point out the “miracles” they hear of. Often a miracle cited is of someone surviving a disaster he or she “shouldn’t have survived.”
On January 8, 2011, then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Dee “Gabby” Giffords was shot but not killed by the delusional Jared Lee Loughner, who’d had every intention of killing her.
A TV news video showed an ambulance carrying Giffords away. A bystander, an unidentified woman, could be heard saying (I paraphrase), “Her guardian angel was looking out for her.”
Did the woman know that Loughner, in addition to severely wounding Giffords, had killed six people including a nine-year-old? If not, from her view a miracle had occurred at the hand of Giffords’ guardian angel — which is to say, at the hand of our watchful, savior God.
But if the woman had received news of the six homicides, by what reasoning could she say a guardian angel, acting at the behest of God, saved one adult but not five other adults and a young girl whose whole life lay ahead of her?
Over the decades I’ve heard the religious give mainly two answers to such questions: “God acts in mysterious ways” and “It was God’s will that the six die because it was their time to go.”
I don’t know how those answering the latter can know that. I don’t believe they have a direct line to God.
No one can provide me an acceptable reason God allows children to die, often in horrendous agony, and spares hideous criminals such as Hitler’s cruel Nazis who tortured and killed and escaped to live to old age, some in luxury. Might not some of these Nazis have thought a miracle of divine origin saved them?
When God “takes” children, they aren’t always taken harmlessly and dispatched smoothly to Heaven.
To illustrate, consider a 21st-century disaster, just one of possibly millions of such disasters over humans’ last 100,000 years. (I’ll provide only one example. The internet yields countless others.) It lends credence, I believe, to the kind of God I think we have.
(I remind you of my advisory above.)
On December 26, 2004, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, launched the deadliest tsunami in recorded history. It killed approximately 230,000 people. (Some estimates are as high as 280,000.)
The dead were of various nationalities, including many Americans vacationing there. Relief agencies estimated that perhaps one-third of the dead were children.
I ask you to do the unthinkable: Do not think of the children as simply dying in the tsunami. Think of how perhaps most of them died.
And don’t just think “children.” Think teens, adolescents, toddlers, babies, and infants. Nearly 80,000 or 90,000 of them.
Before they died, their lungs screamed for air under the water, and they wanted to cry out in unimaginable pain as they were battered or mangled or worse by trees, automobiles, structures, huge churning chunks of concrete…. (You cannot imagine how difficult it is for me to envision this, let alone write it. My wife and friends will tell you.)
If before dying those precious children had to endure such unspeakable horror for many minutes, maybe hours in some instances, how can we say we should protect our sensibilities and not write, read, or even think about what really happened to them – for just a few minutes? Isn’t it the least we can do? Don’t we owe it to them to play back in our minds, at least momentarily, the nightmare they experienced, to honor them, to understand and appreciate their sacrifice?
Although I don’t believe guardian angels exist, I do believe, as said, God does. But again, what kind of God do we have in light of the above?
As humans’ long history clearly demonstrates, our God appears to be utterly, unbendingly indifferent to us. In kinder words, God is non-intervening.
Some may gasp and say, “You think God is evil!”
No, I don’t. God is wise. The indifference, I believe, is for a vitally important reason.
I said above, “We owe it to the children killed in the 2004 tsunami to contemplate their horror, to honor them, to understand and appreciate their sacrifice.” We must also understand why they lost their lives and at whose hand.
The 2004 tsunami deaths resulted indirectly from our lack of knowledge and preparation. So did deaths from the countless other disasters over the centuries, such as wide-spread disease that includes the Black Plague, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, polio, and smallpox, the last of which killed an estimated 500 million in the 20th century alone.
To prevent future tsunami deaths, Indonesia installed an off-shore earthquake warning and alert system. Although the system’s warning buoys still malfunction, reportedly due to “vandalism and inadequate maintenance,” the system will eventually be improved by new technology. Soon Indonesia and all other coastlines will have better, low-maintenance buoys that can be set in much deeper water and equipped with the proper signaling devices.** The countries will get there by trial and error.
Vaccinations and cleanliness (i.e., water treatment) have wiped out many formerly catastrophic diseases. Smallpox, which as mentioned cost half a billion lives in the 20th century, has been eradicated.
Many other diseases no longer kill or debilitate nearly as much as in the past. Polio cases have dropped by over 99 percent just since 1988 (!), from an estimated 350,000-plus cases to only 37 in 2016. This reduction is the direct outcome of our global effort to eradicate the disease. See also “World leaders rehearse for a pandemic that will come ‘sooner than we expect’“
God is non-intervening, in my view, so that we learn to solve our own problems.
On some level, I believe, we realize this when we say, “God helps those who help themselves.”
I cannot imagine the world if God intervened to prevent death from disease, accidents, shootings, disasters…. At a minimum, it would have been over-run with people thousands of years ago.
And we might be no better than cattle and sheep, our brains turned to mush.
Explore in your own mind the world you think we’d have with a watchful, protective God who prevents death.
I understand that the religious, especially religious leaders, might not take kindly to this. That seems a perfectly normal reaction for anyone who has spent most of their lives believing, preaching, discussing, and investing time and careers in their views of God as benevolent and watchful. Being told you are “wrong” after a lifetime of knowing you are “right” is not something easy to take.
I am convinced there may be as many opinions on the kind of God we have as there are people!
* I would never say prayer is not necessary. It definitely helps many people. See this.
**See: “China’s early earthquake warning system gives people life-saving seconds to prepare for tremor. Technology introduced after a devastating 2008 quake alerted people up to 71 seconds before Tuesday’s tremor in Sichuan.”
I was inspired to write this commentary in part by such poignant outcries as that (unedited) by Dennis Brown on November 28th, 2014, in Comments at Jen Hatmaker:
How can you be so brainwashed! What kind of world are we living in when a “supposed god” allows old and young to suffer unmercifully? Why does he allow this…is it because of his enlarged ego to allow a young person who has hardly experienced the joys of life to suffer and die, or to allow the elderly to suffer pain through the last days of their life? How narcissistic can he/she be?
Why does innocent people have to die in earthquakes and tsunamis?
I read recently where a group of young children were being bussed home from a religious retreat and a boulder came loose, hit the bus and killed quite a few children. Why would a loving god allow that?
Don’t give me the answer that he wanted them in heaven…how absurd! Why did he allow them to be born in the first place if he wanted them in this supposed place called heaven.
Religion is nothing but a crock! …A belief in a sky fairy that don’t exist!
When you can show me a snake or a donkey that talks, let me know.
Why did he kill all the men, women and children and save only Noah and his family in the great flood. Imagine all the bloated bodies of the little innocent children floating around for days…..just because your god made a mistake a destroyed everything on earth so he could start over again.
I thought he was supposed to be perfect and made a perfect world in the first place.
Oh blame it on Eve for biting the apple that the talking snake persuaded her to do…how foolish!
And then he curses all women and causes them to suffer in childbirth for generation after generation after generation. Quite the loving god you have there! Quite the forgiving god you have there! Give me a break!
You’re worshiping a nobody because if he was a somebody he would have saved all those innocent men. women and children who innocently walked to their deaths in the gas chambers Hitler had erected.
He could light a burning bush and feed thousands with a few loaves of bread and a few fish…yet he couldn’t stop the holocaust and refuses to help the thousands of children who die of starvation every day.
I’d rather spend my time in hell ( another fairy tale ) than in a place where we have to lick his feet every day.
What a crock!!
After I wrote “What Kind of God Do We Have,” my best friend told me (March 2018) that after his 40-ish cousin died suddenly of a heart attack (about 30 years ago), the cousin’s wife forsake God.
Over the decades I’ve heard or read of many such renouncements of God after similar tragedies. Religious leaders in general unintentionally set up the renouncements to happen. Many if not most seem to condition us at an early age to see God as benevolent and responsive to our prayers.
This, I think, builds up in some people a huge expectation of God. If we attend church, pray, and are obedient, God will spare us of incidents causing deeply painful grief and protect us from “evil” in the form of violence by humans, disease, or natural catastrophes.
In my view, religions should — this is a monumentally huge “should” — stop preaching the idea that prayers are the answer to a happy, problem-free life, when all the evidence shows they aren’t. To the degree that evidence shows God exists, evidence shows God leaves us alone to solve our own problems, as we are doing, slowly but inexorably.
That’s the message I believe religion should convey to us at an early age. It might help us come to grips with reality as early as possible. It might also inspire more of us to solve our problems on our own. That would help us make more great discoveries faster and fulfill sooner the adage “God (indirectly) helps those who help themselves.”