Reader Ben Goren often makes comments on this website about a major flaw of Christian belief: the failure of God (or Jesus, who’s the same thing if you accept the Trinity) to intervene in dire situations involving endangered lives. This is, of course, the insoluble “problem of evil.” Ben sent me a longer piece on it, which I reproduce it below:
The One Question a Christian Can’t Answer
by Ben Goren
Imagine you find yourself in one of any number of calamitous situations — somebody you’re with clutches her chest in pain and falls to the floor; you hear, coming from the far end of a dark alley, the voice of a frightened old man crying for help; a tree falls as you’re driving down a lonely road, missing you but smashing the car following you.
In all such cases, the very first thing you — or anybody else — would do is call 9-1-1. By now, it’s practically an instinct, even to the point of being unthinkable that you wouldn’t make that call. You might not know CPR; you might not be a big and burly cop; you might not have a MEDEVAC helicopter … but the 9-1-1 dispatcher has people standing by who meet all those qualifications and more, and will make sure they get where they’re needed the most as fast as humanly possible.
Though far from perfect, our first responders are amazingly effective. Sure, they might not be able to save everybody they’re sent out to help, and, of course, they can only help when they’re aware they’re needed. . . but hold that thought for the moment. Nonetheless, they do help, and help hugely, in ways that are regularly mind-blowing and humbling to those of us who aren’t in their line of work.
Which, of course, is why we all call 9-1-1 whenever their help is needed — and why we have such a low opinion of those who, when the need arises, fail to make the call. We’d be sympathetic if they tried but failed because of an equipment malfunction, of course, and we’d join them in expressing sadness at the missed opportunity to save the day. . . but, if the reason was anything other than that, the questions start to get probing, if not outright damning.
The claim, “I was afraid to get involved” might again garner some sympathy, but only in cases where the person with the phone was being at least implicitly threatened — the proverbial “gun to the head” or some other realistic concern of retribution. Even so, we would still hope that the person would find the courage and ingenuity to place the call anyway, despite the risk.
But an excuse like “I had too many other important things to do” isn’t going to win any sympathy at all. Even if you’re the world’s most important brain surgeon hurrying to the operating room to save the life of the world’s most important scientist, you’d still be expected to make the phone call—even as you’re rushing to save someone else.
And imagine the questions that would ensue if your reason was something along the lines of, “I had planned for this to happen since forever and did not see fit to interfere in the course of events as they unfolded according to my expectations.” No matter what, you’re gonna get grilled by a detective. . . and, if that statement turns out to be true, you can expect to spend some quality time in prison for some pretty serious crimes — conspiracy, at the very least.
Now, imagine that it’s not just a single incident you observed and yet stood silently by, but every such case everywhere. Never mind the fact that you’d be a pervert for looking in everybody’s bedroom windows, but to look in a bedroom window, see a lit cigarette fall from sleepy fingers and catch the curtains on fire and then not call 9-1-1 to get the firefighters on the scene before the baby in the crib burns to death in uncomprehending screaming agony, well, that would go unimaginably far beyond mere perversion and move solidly into the worst brand of criminal psychopathy. There are those who get their kicks from so-called “snuff” films, in which victims are murdered on camera for entertainment purposes, but you’d be hard pressed to imagine a more horrific type of criminal mind than the one who would seek out or produce such.
Yet that is exactly how every god of every religion is described. Most modern religions claim an all-knowing ever-present all-powerful deity, but even the ancient gods were far-seeing, far- and fast-roaming, and very strong.
Theologians offer all sorts of obfuscatory excuses on this subject, with an entire field of “study” devoted to it: “theodicy.” In common language, it’s the “problem of evil,” or, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But the official discussion leads far astray from the reality of everyday life, getting tangled up in obscure questions of “freedom of the will” or placing the blame on an ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.
Even more unsatisfying, theologians often reassure us that their gods do dispense justice, but they do so only after death— as if post-mortem divine retribution is of any help to the person bleeding out by the side of the road after running into a falling tree, or of any comfort to the umpteenth victim of a serial criminal who enjoys continued success despite the desperate efforts of investigators hoping for a lead or even the slightest hint of a clue.
A certain class of divine taciturnity can illustrate the point most graphically and also show the irrelevance of theological attempts to divert attention from this issue.
In recent history, a number of religious orders have been discovered to harbor vicious sexual child predators. The Catholic Church has been the most notorious in this regards, but the predation has spanned many denominations of many religions — and, indeed, to be fair, is far from an exclusively, or even predominately, a religious problem.
But the religious case is especially relevant to this discussion.
Whatever the religion, whatever the denomination, there are trusted official authorities who have committed some of the most horrific and repulsive crimes known to humanity. These people will, in the morning, convey to the congregation the commandments and desires of the corresponding deities and even actually manifest them in any number of ceremonies (such as transubstantiation); and, in the afternoon, they might rape children placed in their care.
And these monsters even use their positions of divine authority to compel the cooperation and silence of their victims. Children have been told by their priestly rapists that they’ll burn in Hell for all eternity if they tell anybody about the crime — and, again, these are the same priests who, along with their non-rapist colleagues, publicly preach similar messages of divine retribution for moral transgression in sermons and in classrooms. The exact same divine retribution, it must be noted, that (or so theologians say) excuses the lack of divine intervention in the first place.
Most corporations that discover an employee committing violent sexual assault would practically instinctively — once again — call the police. The perpetrator would be immediately fired, and the company may well issue a press statement condemning the crime and the criminal and putting as much distance as possible between itself and the horrors. And, of course, the company would bend over backwards to help in the investigation and prosecution. Many companies would also have the decency to voluntarily provide or make available all sorts of assistance, financial as well as medical and emotional, directly to the victim.
Yet not once in all of history has any deity ever alerted any civil authority to the misdeeds of one of its official representatives. For that matter, there hasn’t even been a single case of some minor insignificant demigod showing up at a press conference to read a “notapology” expressing vague regret over possible unspecified mistakes that might or might not have been made by an unnamed individual.
Even — indeed, especially — if you’re a non-Catholic Christian, this is a problem, even if all the members of your denomination are and have always been as pure and innocent as the driven snow. You may well think that the Pope is the antichrist and all Catholics are devil worshippers … which just gives Jesus as you understand him all that more incentive to call 9-1-1 on every last devil-worshipping Catholic priest every time he spots one of them sacrificing a child’s sexual innocence to Satan — exactly as you yourself would do should you be the one to stumble upon the priest raping a child behind the altar or in the confessional.
And that, at last, brings us to the question that nobody from any religion can satisfactorily answer — at least, not if at least one of its gods (however many there are) has enough awareness and ability to answer the simplest of prayers—or, for that matter, merely has a cellphone and the compassionate instincts of even a young child.
Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?