Tuesday, January 24, 2012

God the Tyrant?


Christopher Hitchens
I was fascinated to read all the interesting stuff written about Christopher Hitchens on his recent passing. Hitchens was a renowned atheist, orator, hardy partier and all-around stick in the mud who died of esophageal cancer at the age of 62.

A number of evangelical leaders spoke highly of Hitchens, which gives me some degree of hope for him. But it was another prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, who did Hitchens' final interview. After Hitchens died, Dawkins tweeted that Hitchens was the “finest orator of our time, fellow horseman, valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.”

This statement, the concept of "God as tyrant," caught my interest. I think the reason was the fact that I've gotten to know at least one other (not-so-famous) atheist fairly well, a friend who attended the youth group at my church when I was in high school. He later disavowed his faith.

One of the things that has so fascinated me about my discussions with my friend has been his perception of "God as tyrant." We read the same exact Bible, but my friend walks away with conclusions about God that just don't make any sense to me. He jumps on specific verses or passages and interprets them as God (if He existed) delighting in doing great evil to innocent and helpless people. I look at those same passages and see them as indications of how much God hates sin (knowing better than all of us, apparently, how destructive it is), how concerned He is about justice being done, how utterly holy He is, and how longsuffering (patient) and kind He is.

And I also look at the vast preponderance of Scripture that demonstrates how much God truly loves us, how compassionate He is, how patient, and how badly we wound Him ... or at least try to. And when I try to point these out to my friend, he dismisses them without a thought. He wants to focus on those few he thinks support his case that God is some sort of big meany in the sky.

Since my friend is an atheist, I'm assuming he does this to try and prove that if God did indeed exist, he wouldn't therefore be a very good God; and therefore, He must not exist. But I really am amazed at how much energy he spends, trying to prove not simply that God does not exist, but that if He did exist (as the Bible claims He does), He would be a tyrant.

My definition of a tyrant is a person who has the means to make others suffer, and who wields power over them for His own sake, disregarding them and their needs.

But the Christian worldview holds that God causes suffering to no one, that we have brought an immense load of suffering down upon our own heads because we have rejected the best alternative which God offers to us: obedient partnership with Him in living life the way our Creator designed and intended, choosing instead to follow our own sinful hearts.

While God does not cause suffering, does He allow it? (The distinction between the two, many think, is a moot point when it comes to an omnipotent being ... but I disagree. God may be omnipotent, but He chooses, in many, many cases and for all the right reasons, NOT to wield His power.)

Yes, He allows suffering. Why? So that justice might be done, for one thing. So that people would be disciplined and learn the consequences of rebellion and sin. So that they might be pointed a better direction. And so that, ultimately, His purposes would be shown to be right and desirable.

Jesus gave a very clear and compelling depiction of His Father in the parable which we call "The Prodigal Son." The father figure of the parable (which should really be called "The Prodigal Father," since the word "prodigal" indicates one who gives grace extravagantly) is anything but a tyrant. He lovingly allows his wayward son to choose evil, to squander his inheritance, to spit in the face of his father. After he is gone, the father prays and waits for his return. When he finally does see his broken son returning in shame, he picks up his garments and does something a dignified Jewish father-figure would NEVER do: he runs to meet him with arms open wide! He forgives. He rejoices. He kills the fatted calf.

What a tyrant! (NOT!)

So, I just don't get it. I don't understand how different people can read the same Bible and walk away with two totally opposite perspectives on who God is and what He is like. The only possible explanation is that we are reading the same material from two totally different mindsets, two very different interpretive filters.

Which makes sense to the Christian, to the one who believes. Scripture itself has a number of very interesting things to say about this phenomenon. For instance, 1 Cor. 1:18-19 says: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

The question is, why? Why are these interpretive filters so at odds? And why does God appear to claim responsibility for frustrating the "intelligence" of "the intelligent?"

I think that's a subject I'll wait until next time to tackle ... suffice it to say, for now, that I believe the answer can be found in Christ's parable of the sower and the seed. It goes to the reason Christ even spoke in parables in the first place ... because some types of soil are more receptive to seed than others.

The man who acknowledges his own sinful need looks at a holy and compassionate God and cries, "Abba, Father!" (Literally, "Daddy!") The man who persists in a desire to be his own God, looks at the same Creator of the Universe and cries, "Tyrant!"

Of course, now that I think about it, my own kids have said the same thing about me ... hmmm.


Dave said...

Hi Larry,
I am glad to see that I am still the subject of some of your writings, I feel special. The reason you and I read that same passages and see two totally diametric versions of them is because you are emotionally connected to them and I am not. If you want to understand my view point think about how you would view the Koran or the book of Mormon. From your perspective you can easily see how erroneous these books are and how deluded their readers must be to believe them. These people view there scriptures to be the word of God and absolutely true, but if you were to pick up one of these books you could pick it apart in no time at all.

I know you will never do this but if you could put aside your emotional attachment to the bible long enough to read it as literature and not scripture you might be surprised at what you read. But you would have to read the bible in the same emotionless context as you would any other non-Christian religious book.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not hate God or think he is a Tyrant in the literal sense because I would have to believe he actually exists first, which obviously after reading the bible I do not.


Larry Short said...

Hi Dave! You ARE "special!" I was starting to worry that I hadn't heard from you yet!

(In truth, you do seem to be one of my most faithful readers/commenters. I am starting to wonder if this blog is mainly a private conversation between the two of us!)

Seriously, I appreciate your perspective and hear what you are saying. You are correct of course about my emotional attachment to the Bible, and about the fact that I don't have that for the Koran or the book of Mormon. I would also hypothesize/propose, perhaps, that you have an "emotional disattachment" to it based on your life experiences, perhaps.

A key truth for me here can be found in Matthew 6:21 (Jesus said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.") I've invested in my faith, you've divested, so our hearts go accordingly. C.S. Lewis taught that the further you walk down that path in either direction, the more difficult it becomes to turn around and go back.

If true, good news for me and bad for you (or perhaps vice versa, depending on your perspective.)

I do believe that I also filter all three books through the lens of rationality, and that my acceptance of the Bible has been at least partially because it has survived this test.

For me, the Koran survives the rationality test more than the Book of Mormon, but less than the Bible. In addition, because I have accepted the Bible as truth, I recognize that this colors how I interpret both the Koran and the book of Mormon, and in my case has caused me to reject either as truth.

I think this is more or less self-evident in the fact that both Muslims and Mormons reject the Bible as authoritative.

I am thankful to hear that you do not hate God or think He is a tyrant. I was under that mistaken impression based on the way I'd read some things you've written in the past.

I do hope you don't mind me occasionally referring to you in my posts! I value our friendship and have learned a lot from you.

Dave said...

Ya sorry Larry, I had not checked in on your blog for a while, and of course I do not mind you referring to me, it is actually fun to be mentioned in them.

Yes I do have an emotional disattachment to the bible and I did write about it in one of my notes on my facebook page, but to recap, it had nothing to do with a bad emotional or religious experience. It was simply my ex-wife’s Mormon friends coming around and challenging me to read the book of Mormon. The more I pointed out the fallacies and errors of their book the more they seemed to dig in and refuse to even entertain that they could be wrong. These people were also my friends and were very down to earth, good working class people, who in my opinion, were just deceived. Two of them went so far as to tell me that it did not matter how much evidence I were to show them that they would never believe that the book of Mormon was not true.

This kind of shocked me and I wondered if I too was not also deceived and decided to test my faith. I read the bible from an outsiders point of view, rationalizing that if the bible was the word of God then it should stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I know you will rationalize that the bible does stand up to scrutiny, but I can tell you that until you really distance yourself from it emotionally and read it from an outsiders perspective you will never really know if it does or does not.

And no I do not hate God, if you will recall the exchange I had with your other friend here on your blog, she was of the conviction that to prove Christians are wrong you need to show them that there is no way of knowing for sure that a God exists in the first place. I, on the other hand, was coming from the perspective of trying to show the irrationality of believing in a God that the bible portrayed as a tyrant. I have since stopped trying to prove anything to people because everyone is basically set in their ways and will probably never change their minds based on someone on the internet telling them they are wrong.

The path to Atheism is a journey that pretty much must be traveled alone.

Ayako said...

He hates sin infinitely, but not worshiping him is a sin. Sounds pretty tyrannical.

Larry Short said...

I disagree. There are certain actions that we owe others simply because of who they are and the role they play in our lives. I owe the President of the United States respect simply because he is my president. I owe the policeman on the road my obedience; if he shines his red light upon me, I must pull over. I owe my wife my love.

None of these debts makes the one to whom I am indebted a tyrant.

Doesn't it likewise make sense that if God really created us and holds our destinies in His hand, if He alone has the authority to determine our eternal fates, if He alone is worthy of worship, that we owe Him our worship and to fail to do so (to fail to acknowledge all these truths, to our own peril) is an error of ours rather than an error of His?

Dave said...

Seriously Larry? We OWE people respect simply because of who they are and the roll they play in our lives? If you want to give these people unconditional respect then go for it. For me people need to earn my respect. Just because someone is the president of the United States does not automatically earn my respect. He would need to lead this great nation with dignity and honor, and not do anything that may be detrimental to the freedoms we enjoy. If his policies cause our standard of living to degrade then please explain to me why I must give him respect!

If a police officer pulls me over I give him respect because he has a gun and could shoot me if I give him probable cause, and these days listening to the news it does not take much probable cause for a group of police officers to beat the living crap out of someone or even kill them. I will reserve giving them my real respect until they have retired from law enforcement without a blemish on their record.

I wonder how long you would love your wife if you found her cheating on you with another man. Now having said all this it would be ridiculous of me to try and find a parallel with a supernatural being that I do not believe exists, that would be silly, but instead I can make a parallel with the fictional character of your bible. And you made my point in your last response quite well. “if God really created us and holds our destinies in His hand, if He alone has the authority to determine our eternal fates….”

If your fictitious character had the power to choose who he wanted to send to paradise and who he wanted to send to hell then he is definitely a tyrant of the worst kind and would not deserve anyone’s respect. Your Deity’s whole argument comes down to this statement, “Love me or I will send you to hell”. So please explain to me why I should respect something that would allow me to be tortured for eternity simply because I did not have sufficient evidence that he even existed?

Now again, Larry, so that you do not misunderstand me, I do not hate God. I simply do not believe that a tyrant like that exists. If a God does exist you will not find him in the pages of your bible.

Callie Bertsche said...

Hey Larry and Dave! I just thought your conversation was interesting, because I recently have had a series of conversations with a friend who cannot come to terms with the God of the Bible, because of the miraculous nature described - my friend says that if God is all-powerful but allows evil, that makes Him a monster.

I thought it was interestingly different than your conversation, because my friend says his view comes from feeling emotionally connected to the world around him, whereas he thinks I can only have my views from the grounds of emotionless logic.

Just interesting because Dave your argument seems the opposite, that Larry's view (like mine) requires emotion. Interesting.

Balaam's Ass said...

The notion of a tyrannical deity was eloquently expressed some 300 years before Christ by Epicurus. The idea is known as the "Problem of evil", and can be summarized simply:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

This is the line of reasoning along which Richard Dawkins condemns the notion of god as tyrannical. The man is an outspoken atheist in addition to being famous biologist, so it would be folly to assume that he actually believes that the god of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity is a literal tyrant. It is the common misconception among theists that atheists harbor anger or hatred toward a deity; they simply do not believe in the existence of that deity for lack of compelling evidence. I presume this is the same process that you would use to dismiss the veritable pantheon of other deities vying for your adulation.

I interpret Dawkins' comment to refer the self imposed tyranny of serving a deity with well documented track record for evil. If you believe the Bible to be accurate, God has condoned, endorsed, or was directly responsible for: Slavery (Leviticus 25:44), rape (Judges 21:10-24), child murder (Exodus 12:29-30), adultery (II Samuel 12:11), abortion (Numbers 5:27-28), human sacrifice (1 Kings 13:1-2), sex slavery (Exodus 21:7-11), genocide (Judges 21:10-24), and that was all before breakfast.

Of course, these things are only evil if you are a human created in God's image and not God himself. And fear not, if any of these things were ever to be visited upon you undeserved, your justice awaits in the sweet by and by. Christopher Hitchens, had this to say on the subject:

What about Fräulein Fritzl, in Austria? Whose father, unwilling to get out of the way, kept her in a dungeon where she didn’t see sunlight for twenty-four years. And came down most nights to rape and sodomize her, often in front of the children who were victims of the previous attacks and offenses… Imagine how she must have begged him. Imagine how she must have pleaded. Imagine for how long. Imagine how she must’ve prayed everyday. How she must have beseeched heaven. Imagine, for twenty-four years. And no, no answer at all. Nothing. NOTHING! Now, you say, “That’s alright that she went through that.” Because she’ll get a better deal in another life? Are you- I have to ask you if you can be morally or ethically serious and postulate such a question. “No, that had to happen, and heaven did watch it with indifference. Because it knows that that score will later on be settled. So it was well worth her going through it, she’ll have a better time next time.” I don’t see how you can look anyone, anyone in the face, or live with yourself, and say anything so hideously, wickedly immoral as that. Or even imply it.

Perhaps you would be equally fascinated to read all of the interesting stuff written by Mr. Hitchens, at least before declaring one of your generation's most brilliant journalists and accredited humanitarians to be a stick in the mud.

Larry Short said...


Thanks for the energy that you put into this response. I enjoyed reading it.

I do think there is at least one other possible option than those you have expressed above (per Epicurious), and that is that:

God is both willing, and able, to confront the problem of evil ... and is clearly in the process of doing so. In fact, that's what Easter is all about, is it not? If you understand the death of Christ you must know it's a demonstration of God's willingness and ability to defeat evil.

I know you will say, but then, if He is willing and able, how come He hasn't done so already? Why must so many innocents have had to suffer? And that's a good question; I don't know the answer exactly. But I do believe that the higher moral good for God (in creating us as free agents) was liberty -- freedom of choice. If beings created in the image of God are to be free, they must be free to choose evil. It was (apparently) a higher imperative for God to create free moral agents than to nip evil in the bud before it ever blossomed.

God assures us that evil will ultimately be defeated. That's why Christ died, that's what the end of the Bible is all about. I think our freedom of choice means we can choose to believe that, or not.

Most of the other things you mentioned (God supposedly condoning slavery, etc.) are red herrings which have been dealt with many times. I believe they are based on a very biased reading of Scripture. The Bible clearly acknowledges the reality of slavery, and instructs those who find themselves thus sinned against how to best endure it, but it does not condone. I think on an historical basis it's reasonable to conclude that the initial abolition of slavery (and the ongoing efforts today to fight it in all its insidious forms) are largely divinely-inspired activities.

Also, thanks for the opportunity to clarify the "stick in the mud" comment about Hitchens. I have read and enjoyed some of his material. I know he was widely admired by many Christians. In saying what I said, I was quoting an obituary I read in the secular press and referring to how he frequently and effectively tripped up those who disagreed with him. I didn't intend it as an insult. :)