Answering the Skeptics: The “Cruelty” and “Capriciousness” of God
Updated: Jan 24, 2020
One of the New Atheists wrote that the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God becomes impossible to believe if even a single innocent little girl were to die once in a million years. The thinking behind this involves the idea that an omnipotent God, if He were truly benevolent, would prevent the death of the innocent because there is (presumably) nothing stopping Him. After all, He could save the little girl with barely any effort.
Alan Moore effectively articulated the Christian response to this criticism when he wrote, “God did not make the earth this way. We did.” God gave the human race at least some degree of free will, the ability to choose between good and evil. Man collectively and generally chose evil, thus making possible a world where the innocent can die.
So far so good, but what’s to prevent God from saving the innocent and supernaturally slaying the wicked? He could very easily do so if He wanted. The answer to this is multifaceted, I think. First of all, I think it is possible God supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of this world more often than people think. Secondly, God does not desire for anyone to perish; He wishes to redeem even the most wicked of men; the power of His Son’s sacrifice is great enough to turn even the most wicked to repentance. Thirdly, this is the world we chose for ourselves (a world where the innocent can die; a world where we can make our own rules even if they contradict reality) and I think God is not above respecting our wishes. And fourthly, the “wages of sin is death”, our own personal death and the death of those around us; if sin had no consequences, there would be no reason to avoid it.
The fascinating manga series "Death Note" presents a thought experiment about what the world would be like if the wicked were consistently struck down by supernatural forces. Another thought experiment still waiting for literary exploration is a world where the innocent are always saved by supernatural means.
If God were to shield us from the consequences of our sin, sin would cease to be sinful, a reality-ending paradox.
Atheists like to cast aspersions on the Old Testament stories where God commands the Israelites to wipe out certain enemy tribes, even their little children. I think many people would agree that defeating an enemy tribe sounds reasonable (especially if that tribe engages in practices like child sacrifice), but killing their children sounds diabolical and hard to square with the popular Christian conception of a loving and compassionate God. Even most Christians have difficulty wrapping their minds around this issue.
I can think of at least two possible answers for this conundrum. The first involves the conflation of human law and God’s law. Human law (at least Western law), generally forbids punishing children for the sins of their fathers, but we know explicitly from Scripture that God does not abide by that proscription:
Exodus 20 “ I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Once again, the “wages of sin is death”. One’s personal sin not only brings down death and destruction upon yourself, but upon those around you as well, including your children. This could be described as a natural law. Sin brings death.
Unlike human judges, God is not merely an arbiter of justice. As orchestrator of the universe, He also allows the consequences of sin to play out.
Also, God is not above employing human hands to wreak the punishment He decrees.
The second answer to the smiting-of-children problem involves our general inability to perceive that a vast gulf that separates us (even as children) from God. There is an infinite black void between us. God is infinitely holy and righteous. The tiniest speck of impurity cannot be tolerated in His presence. Consequently, although we might perceive a child as being “innocent”, God’s perceptive ability is far beyond ours. Even the tiniest of sins is enough to eternally separate us from God. We are born in sin, with a nature inclined toward wickedness, and this is apparent in human beings even from the tenderest age, such as when a baby bites his mother or strikes out when he does not get what he wants.
We are blessed that God is slow to anger and He has chosen to show us mercy.
The real question is not why God allows the death of the innocent, but why God allows any of us to live. In the Middle Ages this was more generally understood. People understood their own capacity for wickedness much better than we do in our much more "civilized" age. These days, people have difficulty imagining that God would damn anyone except rapists and murderers. People do not perceive their own wickedness any more, partly due to sin becoming socially acceptable, but also because people can more easily escape the pain that their sin has brought to them through the use of drugs, eastern meditation techniques, and distractions like blaring music pumped directly into their ears and the endless stream of content available on the Internet.