The Conversational Atheist raises a good point:
When you ask a person to explain God’s apparently contradictory actions, you will inevitably get a shoulder shrug, and perhaps a “How am I supposed to know the mind of God?”
Atheists need to figure out the kinds of questions that get a bit deeper. Don’t ask a person to explain God’s actions. You’ll eventually get to the “mysterious ways” layer if you ask deep enough.
The real question is, given that you are dealing with a creature whose motives are mysterious — why are you worshipping it? It’s really fairly simple, either you can know something substantive about God’s actions, morals and motives and can make a judgment; or you can’t know something substantive about God’s actions, morals and motives and have to refrain from making a judgment.
A theist should not be allowed to hide behind “God is unknowable” and simultaneously claim that “God is praiseworthy”.
Do not ask a theist to explain God’s actions, ask a theist to explain his own actions. If the theist worships the God of the Bible, ask something like, “How can you worship a God that commanded His followers to kill children and infants as 1. Samuel 15 claims?”
A theist will likely reply you are not dealing with a creature whose motives you don’t know but rather with a creator whose motives you don’t know. And therein, it is often argued, lies all the difference. Paul in Romans 9 argues as much.
But this argument assumes that creating someone gives you full rights to use or abuse them in whatever ways you desire. And that assumption is entirely out of bounds when thinking about parents and the children they create. Children of parents are not morally subordinated to their parents such that their parents’ motives never need to be scrutinized or evaluated.
If it is not an issue of power and creative origination giving God these rights over us then maybe it is the qualitative gap in kind of being he is. Since we are supposedly “creations” and of a different order of being than the source of being itself, then we cannot fathom the source of being’s mind as though it were like ours or its motives as though they were scrutinizable like ours. But in that case, then we must drop all this moral language with respect to this creating source of being because if its mind is that radically different than ours such that we cannot understand its motives, then we do not know if they are good motives or whether, therefore, this being is anything like what we would call morally good. Again the Conversational Atheist’s point would stand.
Finally the argument would be that God has motives like ours, they are moral like our best ones are, and the mystery is just discerning the particularities of why he does what he does. He is omniscient so he sees the bigger scheme of things that we just don’t get because of the limitations of our perspective. But if that were the case, then again we would have to be agnostic about God’s motives and goodness because of our ignorance of the bigger picture. Since we do not know the longview and what God’s “end game” really is, being just creatures with finite powers to know, then again God’s motives could be either good or bad and there is simply no way to verify their intentions. Even what look like blessings may be just traps he is using to increase our pain down the road, as that great theologian Chef postulated:
Stan : “Why would God let Kenny die, Chef? Why? Kenny’s my friend. Why can’t God take someone else’s friend?”
Chef : “Stan, sometimes God takes those closest to us, because it makes him feel better about himself. He is a very vengeful God, Stan. He’s all pissed off about something we did thousands of years ago. He just can’t get over it, so he doesn’t care who he takes. Children, puppies , it don’t matter to him, so long as it makes us sad. Do you understand?”
Stan : “But then, why does God give us anything to start with?”
Chef : “Well, look at it this way: if you want to make a baby cry, first you give it a lollipop. Then you take it away. If you never give it a lollipop to begin with, then you would have nothin’ to cry about. That’s like God, who gives us life and love and help just so that he can tear it all away and make us cry, so he can drink the sweet milk of our tears. You see, it’s our tears, Stan, that give God his great power.”
Stan : “I think I understand.”
If God’s mind and motives are mysterious, then this explanation of why apparently good things happen (only as set ups for worse evils) is equally possible as the reasons that religious apologists give for why bad things happen (because they will pave the way for greater goods).
And a being whose motives are so inscrutable does not deserve worship.