Category Archives: Theodicy
In his latest book, N. T. Wright speaks of “broken signposts.” In his view, there are seven main sign posts:
All seven point to God. They are real signposts that really do point us toward God – we do not live in the world of John-Paul Sartre where all is absurd, nor in a Nietzschean world where might makes right. The innate longing for justice that is heard in every child’s cry for fairness, the beauty of the unpolluted natural world, the natural pursuit of meaningful human relationships, the universal longing for spiritual meaning, our unanimous yearning for freedom, and search for truth, and the necessity of owning one’s personal power in order to flourish are all indications that there is a Higher Power behind it all. We would not yearn for love or beauty, or truth or meaning, if there were no beauty, truth, meaning, or love somewhere in the universe. If those things were nonexistent, we would have no hunger for them. The presence of thirst is itself proof that water exists, whether or not it is at hand.
An ultimate Being who fully just, essentially beautiful, who lives in loving relationship, who gives spiritual meaning and purpose, in whom we find freedom, and discover truth and the real meaning of power, is in fact the Triune God of the Bible. Throughout scripture, God is revealed as a God of justice, beauty, relationship, spirituality, freedom, truth and power. Discovering those things, points us towards God.
And yet, all seven are, as Tom Wright points out, broken. Each can go wrong. Justice can, and too often is, perverted, denied to this or that group. The beauty of nature may be destroyed by greed, and the beauty of art or music can deviate into debauchery. Relationships, as we all sadly know, can become toxic or violent. Spirituality is morphed into self-worship; sacrifices are offered to consumerism, nationalism, or militarism. The freedom of one is built on the enslavement of another, and freedom degenerates into doing whatever I want to do even if it harms you. Truth, whether it be scientific, medical, or political has in many circles already been replaced with lies and propaganda. And, as Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Abuses of power are routine.
The signposts designed to point us to God can instead, if misapplied, lead us in the opposite direction. The rebellious nature has the ability to reduce beauty to ashes.
So-called “natural evil” presents a dilemma for theodicy. It is not difficult to see that we humans cause much of the evil in the world with our wars, racism, exploitive greed, and selfish choices. But what about tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes?
There once was a magnificent factory designed to produce all that the village needed safely and efficiently, without polluting anything or overworking anyone. The architect was brilliant. She employed the finest minds in engineering who employed the latest concepts in sustainable design. Empathetic industrial psychologists carefully considered working conditions, and the finest contractors in the land built the factory. It was a work of art.
The villagers were thrilled. Every adult had meaningful, enjoyable employment. The town prospered. The finest of schools were built. Every child had the latest computer technology. The teachers were the highest paid in the land. Music halls, theaters, art galleries, and sports facilities were built – all the envy of the land. There was no homelessness. People of all ethnicities lived together in safe affordable housing. The best of medical care was provided to all, free of charge – the factory paid all the bills. Firefighters and paramedics, like doctors and nurses, were paid wages triple that of anywhere else. There was simply no need of a police force. There was no jail, no prison, no criminal court. No one owned a gun. Anyone who showed the initial signs of emerging mental illness or addiction was swiftly provided with state-of-the-art treatment. Houses of worship were filled each week.
The towns people voted to give the newly open job of factory general manager to a golden boy. He had all the credentials. He was handsome, rich, and had an enviable resumé. He always had a stunningly beautiful woman on his arm. And, he knew how to tell everyone exactly what they wanted to hear.
At first things seemed fine, but after some time had gone by, little deteriorations were noted. The factory’s products became increasingly shoddy, working conditions grew dangerous, accidents occurred. Someone noticed sludge being pumped into the river. Clouds of foul-smelling dust covered the town. People started to get sick. The company stopped paying for medical care. Orders dropped off. Workers were laid off. Unemployment and poverty grew. Hungry and desperate people started to rob and steal. A police force was established and a jail built. Criminal courts emerged. Attorneys moved to town. Politicians made deals behind closed doors. They grew richer as the town grew poorer. The manager played people off one another. Prejudice, racism, scapegoating, gaslighting grew. Reporters warned of corruption. They were renounced as “enemies of the people,” threatened, run out of town, and replaced with propaganda masters. Truth came to be defined as whatever the factory manager said it was. Many of the artists and musicians moved elsewhere. Teachers, physicians, and nurses took jobs in other towns and were replaced by gamblers, grifters, and mobsters. Addiction, suicide, crime, and murder rose as education levels and church attendance fell.
Of course, there was still beauty to be found in the stars above, the hills outside of town, in the eyes of babies and lovers. There was still some music, some art, and some (mostly elderly) devout souls. The oppressed hungered or justice; the young yearned for authentic relationships, and the wretched longed to breathe free.
What had gone wrong? There was nothing wrong with the original design. It was all the fault of the manager and those he hired.
So it is with our world, designed by a loving God and created in perfection. But humans gave their power to a manager, an angel of light, the god of this world, the prince of darkness, and under his malevolent oversight, things are amiss. Hurricanes, tornados, pandemics, parasites, and toxins exist because satan in managing the factory we call earth. Most of the other bad stuff we humans cause ourselves, albeit with satanic influence.
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Though the Mountains Be Shaken
Collectively, we humans have thousands of fears – fear of loss, harm, abandonment, failure, darkness, monsters under the bed. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve had them all. Fears are the water in which we swim. Fear has ushered many a tyrant into power.
Although one cannot legitimately extrapolate from personal experience to universal applications, for me, the fear of death undergirds all other fears. To be more specific, it is a fear of nonexistence. Fears of abandonment, rejection, failure, and loss of control are the offspring of existential meaninglessness.
Lesser fears cluster in tight groups under the fear of nonexistence. Those clusters spin in circles. Worry leads to self-blame, which leads to shame, which leads to anxiety, which produces more worry. Round and round I go, spiraling downward into depression.
Existential angst, the terror of annihilation and nonexistence, has power by virtue of the fact that, if true, annihilation renders life meaningless. The thought is not original. Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche all went there. Death as the end of all seems to be the default philosophy of the intelligentsia. Bravely facing the darkness and busying oneself with useful projects gives them purpose and meaning. That has never worked for me. I find no joy in either stoicism or hedonism. As far back as I can remember there has been an ache within me – a yearning to experientially know Truth.
Truth corresponds to an external reality. We’ve all heard the parable of the four blind persons approaching the elephant – each reaching their own opinion of reality – the elephant it likened to a rope, a huge snake, a tree trunk, and a leathery wall because one blind person handled the tail, another the trunk, a third a leg, and the last the animal’s side. Each has their own “reality” because none bothered to collaborate with the others or invite outsiders to expand their knowledge. Regardless, an elephant is an elephant.
Truth is not my opinion, nor my perspective. Truth is not superimposed dogma. Although I never have the complete picture, there is nevertheless an external reality that exists regardless of what I believe.
Whatever my personal beliefs about God, God exists. I need not try to prove that to anyone. The evidence is overwhelming when I consider the beauty of the intricate mathematical equations that describe the universe, when I consider the logical improbability of quarks flying from a hot big bang producing rational beings without a prime mover, or when I know in my gut that love is more than psychobiology.
Since God is, it is not surprising that God has made Godself knowable. Galileo argued (in his 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina) that God has written two books – the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, which do not, because they cannot, contradict one another, having come from the same Mind, the Ground of Being. There are contradictions between interpretations of the Bible and the natural sciences, but none between the Bible and science.
It is not surprising that a Prime Mover capable of imaging a universe of quantum theory and soul-stirring symphonies is not fully discoverable. I would not want it otherwise. There is joyous energy is the discovery. Both books are amaranthine ceaseless mines of wonder. It is not only about the destination. There is joy and purpose in the journey.
The Apostle Paul was neither the despicable misogynist, the ivory-tower intellectual, nor the religious fanatic imagined by some. He was a man. He had all the same emotions and problems common to humanity. At one point in his life, he was so deeply depressed he despaired of life itself.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NIV)
By “Asia,” Paul is referring to modern Turkey. Two things seem to have collided in his life to produce despair – persecution and hardship in Asia Minor, and news that the community of faith he founded in Corinth had disintegrated into bickering and division. It would seem that Paul felt that his life was useless, that he might die having accomplished nothing. Purposelessness. Meaninglessness. Worthlessness. Existential angst.
What lifted Paul from the “slough of despond” (to borrow John Bunyan’s phrase) to a life – not a life of grim Nietzscheandefiance, not a life of narcissistic indulgence, nor of coercive political power – but to a life of interior freedom, true joy, and eternal purpose, was learning to rely on “the God who raises the dead.”
All of Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. Either Jesus was raised from the dead or he was not. The evidence is again overwhelming:
- A cruel Roman crucifixion
- A certain death
- A sealed and guarded tomb
- Terrified disciples
- A huge entry stone lifted out to reveal an already empty tomb
- Grave clothes wound as if still around a body
- A turban neatly folded
- Bodily appearances to hundreds of people in many different places and under many different circumstances
- Thousands attesting to the reality of the resurrection
- None of them recanting in the face of torture and death
- A faith that exploded across the Neareast, Africa, Asia, and Europe
- Millions of radically changed lives over the next 2 millennia
God raises the dead. God conquers the essential fear. Death, where is your sting? Annihilation, nonexistence is an illusion. Life has purpose. Life continues forever. All of the lesser fears that cluster in bundles under the fear of nonexistence dissipate in light of the God who raises the dead.
In the new covenant, there is but one negative commandment and but one positive commandment:
- Do not be afraid
- Love one another
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
(Isaiah 54:9-10 NIV)
I’ve been in the habit of confusing confession with repentance. They go together, but they are not the same thing.
Not only did I confuse confession and repentance, I left out lament. All three are vital and necessary to effect change.
Neither confession, nor lament, nor repentance has to do with shame. Shame is the belief that one is unlovable, beyond the reach of love. Shame is toxic, demonic.
Confession is admitting that what we’ve done is wrong. Not only admitting what I personally chose to do or say, but what the systems I’m a part of have chosen to do and say. I am not an island. I’m a part of an immediate family, a family of origin, a culture, a society, a nation, and a world. At various times in my life, I am a part of institutions, neighborhoods, friendship groups, work teams, and so on.
I’ve done and said things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or just not nice. The systems of which I am a part – those nations, neighborhoods, family groupings, and workplaces – have also done or promoted things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or simply not very nice.
Confession means I honestly admit that. No sugarcoating; no excuses. To whom do I confess? God and those I have hurt. I confess to God and those hurt by the systems of which I am a part. Confession means apologizing to my wife when I’m inattentive, to my colleague when I’m overly critical, to the Black community for the racism of my privileged station, to Native Americans for the genocide of ancestors, and to the LGBTQ community for the vitriol of my faith community.
Confession is essential because it allows us to realize the harm we have caused. It opens the door for empathy and understanding. It is not meant to leave us down on ourselves, guilty, or ashamed; but instead, kindhearted, understanding, and sympathetic.
Lament is the expression of grief. Lament creates space to grieve the harm caused by neglect, selfishness, greed, bigotry, unforgiveness, or social injustice. If I truly enter into confession, it will produce empathy for the victimized, whether individual or collective, and empathy will express itself in lament.
Confession is not repentance. Lament is not repentance. Confession allows me to realize the harm done; lament allows me to express grief over the harm done.
Repentance repairs the harm down.
As much as is possible, repentance undoes the harm. It aims to make amends, restore, repay, rebuild, reconcile, set things to rights.
While talking heads scream at one another, while dueling protestors shout insults and hurl bottles, while guns are brandished and lies are repeated, we who seek to follow Jesus are called to confess, lament, and repent in order that love, peace, and justice may rain down upon us all.
God (along with those whose hearts were aligned with God’s) was appalled that people who claimed to follow the only true and living God, whose very nature is pure love, would go into the Valley of Ben-Hinnom (later referred to as Gehenna), heat up images of Molech until they were red-hot, strap their live babies onto the images’ arms and work themselves into a frenzy while children fried to death.
Jeremiah 32:35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
In the time of Jesus, Gehenna was the town dump where all the sewage, garbage, and refuge was dumped and continually burnt. It was also where the brutal Romans tossed the bodies of the many people they executed by crucifixion. It was a horrible place of stench, where the fires were always burning and where worm-like maggots lived in abundance.
Some English translations render Gehenna as “hell.” We sometimes hear people speak of “hell on earth.” At times, it can be. Imagine being thrown into Gehenna alive.
Something like that happened to Jeremiah about 600 years before Jesus was born. He was thrown into cistern because his message was deemed unpatriotic. A well connects to underground water; a cistern simply collects rainwater. It is a hole chiseled out of rock. This particular cistern had no standing water in it. Around five feet of mud sat in it. Most likely, people dumped their sewage in it, and perhaps their garbage as well.
Jeremiah38 Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people: 2 “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. 3 Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken.” 4 Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” 5 King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.” 6 So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Hell on earth.
Sometimes, we wind up in a hellish situation through our own choices. A drunk driver faces prison. Hell on earth.
More often, we wind up in hellish situations because we live in a broken world. Our hell on earth might be the loss of a loved one, a chronic ailment, eviction, job loss, debt, addiction, mental illness, divorce, or being victimized by prejudiced people. Maybe it was partially our fault; maybe it was the fault of others; maybe it just happened.
Hell on earth.
We cry out to God. God never seems to answer quite as quickly as we would like.
Most often, God rescues us by using other people. Frequently, they are people we wouldn’t expect.
An outsider rescued Jeremiah. Reminds me of the good Samaritan. This person was gender-neutered – not female, not male. He (they?) was a black African, not Middle Eastern. He was a slave. He had no wealth and no privilege other than the fact that he worked in the government building, so he regularly saw the people in charge.
Jeremiah38:7 When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate— 8 Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, 9 “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” 10 Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” 11 So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. 12 Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.
I’ve met people who would rather stay in mire up to their necks than accept help from “that kind of person.” I’ve seen very sick patients so full of hatred that they refuse the care of physicians and nurses of color.
Who are the strangers, the “others” in our lives? Undocumented workers? Those who do not speak English? Alcoholics? Drug addicts? Pro-life folks? Pro-choice folks? Young black men? Old white men? The poor? Wealthy? Red Necks? Harvard elitists? Prisoners? Muslims? Refugees? LGBTQ? Democrats? Republicans? Liberals? Fundamentalists?
Each one of us is “other” to someone.
Who are the people in our cities and towns who are living a hell on earth? Are they sleeping under bridges? Incarcerated? In hospitals, nursing homes, or hospice programs? Hiding in the shadows? Hiding in plain sight? Harassed by law enforcement because of their skin color?
How can we lift others out of their personal hells?
Do we, perhaps – some of us – find ourselves in a living hell?
Expect rescue from unlikely sources.
Scriptures are quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
I came to God because of love. I came to fundamentalist Christianity because of fear.
Growing up I had a ton of anxiety. I was what some might call overly sensitive and fairly easily traumatized. Yet, from the time I was a toddler I sensed a divine presence. Occasionally, I found myself in a thin place of connectedness. Once, my room flooded with light and God spoke to me of God’s perfect love for me. I intuited God’s presence and love in scriptures, religious texts, philosophy, literature, music, psychology, and biology. I felt God in sunbeams, crashing waves, 60-knot winds, old men, and Christmas lights. I came to God because of love.
Then I got into church.
A lot of church was great – music, worship, washing feet, baptism, communion, preaching, teaching, laying on of hands, prayer, celebration, dance. It was exciting and fun, refreshing and inspiring.
But the mainline liberals and the conservative fundamentalists pushed back. Hard. The tribe I joined, at the time I joined it, was warm, accepting, tolerant, and loving. It was neither liberal nor conservative. As the decades rolled on, however, it became increasingly inflexible, dictatorial, and pejorative. Unperceptively, I became dogmatic, judgmental, and theologically confined. To gain and maintain acceptance with my tribe, I distanced myself from all the other tribes. I woke up one morning and realized I was a militaristic bigoted ideologue quick to condemn a very many people.
Unconsciously, I had become gripped by fear – fear of judgment, fear of divine wrath, fear of hell, fear of rejection. I feared being rejected by my primary mentor and by my tribe. I knew what would happen. There’d be no formal hearing, no appeal, no ecclesiastical court, but I would be functionally excommunicated and effectively shunned. At some level I thought God would join my condemners. Fear of rejection drove me deeper into intolerance, toxic escapist eschatology, untenable cosmology, and reactionary political views. I turned my back on most of the world out of fear that a handful of fundamentalists would turn their backs on me. They did anyway, and I was, just as I feared, excommunicated, shunned, rejected, and demonized.
It hurt me deeply. After all, I am deeply sensitive. Gradually, however, as the hurt healed, I discovered that that which I had feared, that which had indeed happened, was a divine gift. I came to God because of love. I descended into fundamentalism because of fear. I came up into the light because I rediscovered God’s infinite love.