If you have a spare half-hour or so, please read the following chapter from the Brothers Karamazov, “Rebellion“. Now, I give this reading to my students to prove two points: first, that utilitarianism has some fundamental flaws; and second, that atheists can be good moral thinkers too. (I should hasten to add that Dostoevsky was devoutly, fanatically Orthodox Christian, it is his character here who is an atheist (kinda)).
This chapter comprises the most thorough and convincing argument against a Benign God that I have ever stumbled across. It is not so much the examples that Ivan uses, but rather it is the fundamental question that he asks: If it is true that all injustice will be corrected in the end and we will all be filled with God’s infinite compassion (even for those who have despitefully used and abused us), what exactly is the reason for all the suffering in the world?
This is somewhat different than the question I heard all the time on my mission: Why would a Benign, All-powerful Deity let bad things happen to Good people? How? The people who I talked to on my mission were generally upset that people suffered, that is true, but they usually operated from a position of assuming that there would be no reckoning in the afterlife, that the afterlife was offered only as a balm to the weak-headed who couldn’t get along in this life without supposed other-worldly support.
Ivan, on the other hand, is looking straight at the possibility that God will make it right, that God will really correct the inequities that we have suffered in life. For Ivan, there is nothing more unjust than the establishment of justice after this life, because he reckonizes that there are some injustices that can only be overcome in us through divine help. The mother is unlikely to be able to forgive the murderer of her child without divine aid. The abused daughter is equally unlikely to be able to forgive her parents. So, in order to make everything Christian here, God is going to have to intervene to help the wronged forgive their abusers.
But, if God can intervene and make it possible for us to forgive or if forgiveness is sometimes impossible without his aid, what exactly is the point? If life is just a series of tests to show us how we are nothing without God, how does suffering (in particular the suffering of children) make this point more clear? If God can make it all better with a wave of his hand once we’re dead, why put us through it in the first place? How does suffering teach us anything if its effects are only overcome through divine intervention? Is God a sadist or a megalomaniac?
These are actually some hard questions that aren’t necessarily quickly dismissed by a reference to opposition in all things. The system that God has established for bringing his children back to Him appears terribly inefficient. The whole world is drenched in the blood of the innocent, is all of it necessary for our redemption?
I believe in a benign, all-powerful creator. I believe that we have been given free will. I believe that this establishes some limits on how God can interact with us and it makes it possible for us to sin. I believe that if there was any other way to get us back to Him, knowing the things that we should know and being the beings we should be, he would have used it. Think about how he had to answer the following question:
Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.
God loves us a great deal. He has spilt an awful lot of blood for us. It is my sincere hope that someday I will make it back so that I can tell Him face-to-face how grateful I am that He did what he had to do.