Judith Marie: Jesus’ Divine Injustice and Malevolence

Contra “Believe it or Not” by David B. Hart…part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

I return to David Hart’s lamentation of the “utterly inconsequential” to address his flippant dismissal of the problem of theodicy. Theodicy, in short, is an examination of an omni-god’s benevolence in the face of the existence of evil. In other words, it’s an attempt to get a god “off the hook.” According to Hart, noting the incompatibility between the god of Abraham’s omnipotence and his omnibenevolence given that evil exists is an “incorrigibly impressionistic” recycling of an old argument. He’d like us to believe that this issue is somehow resolved despite the fact that it is eminently problematic to many people. This belief matters and it impacts the live of atheists and believers alike. Bad things being explained as happening in accordance with the god of Abraham’s will, for example, is an often heard platitude intended to comfort the suffering: “It’s all according to God’s plan” and “God has a special plan for you” are consolations offered to those who suffer. However, a consequence of this explanation is that it betrays an unflattering concept of this god; namely, his eternal cruelty and injustice. Assuming that this god does exist, let’s examine the “comfort” provided for in his plan and what this idea says about his understanding of justice.

For a contemporary, pop-culture illustration of the problem, I offer the song “Judith,” by A Perfect Circle. Watch the video and pay careful attention to the lyrics that follow. (This is an official video on YouTube. Therefore they require that you watch it only on the YouTube page and sometimes after a commercial. If you don’t wish to do this you can refer to the lyrics for the rest of the discussion).

You’re such an inspiration
For the ways that I will
Never, ever choose to be
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How your savior has abandoned you

FUCK your god, your lord, your Christ
He did this, took all you had and
Left you this way, still you pray, never stray, never
Taste of the fruit, never thought to question “Why?”

It’s not like you killed someone
It’s not like you drove a hateful spear into his side
Praise the one who left you broken down and paralyzed

He did it all for you…

Oh so many ways for me to show you
How your dogma has abandoned you

Pray to your Christ, to your god
Never taste of the fruit, never stray, never break, never
Choke on a lie even though he’s the one who
Did this to you, you never thought to question “Why?”

It’s not like you killed someone
It’s not like you drove a spiteful spear into his side
Talk to Jesus Christ as if he knows the reasons why

He did it all for you

It might be tempting to dismiss this as a simple rebellion for its own sake.  But there is something much more serious here. It is a revolt against the so-called “justice” of Jesus, a revolt against the idea of divine justice.  “FUCK your god, your lord, your Christ” Maynard James Keenan sings with an intensity loaded with visceral emotion and venom. His rejection of god and Jesus is contextual and deeply personal. Judith, for whom the song is titled, is Keenan’s mother who was paralyzed by a stroke when he was a young boy. We can infer from the song the manner in which Judith comforted herself for this affliction: she accepted it as being part of Jesus’ plan for her or as a punishment for some unspecified sing (“He did this, took all you had and left you this way…He did it all for you”).

The inherent cruelty of intentionally crippling someone as part of a plan is nearly self-evident and would cause a significant problem for anyone to use as a defense of Jesus’ sense of justice. Let’s assume then that this intentional crippling wasn’t just part of a plan but was a punishment for some sin. What was the sin? According to Keenan, she did nothing…certainly nothing worthy of this kind of punishment. What crime is great enough that a just punishment would be an intentional crippling? By almost any measure, intentionally inflicting upon a person permanent paralysis – and the cognitive handicaps that can coincide with a stroke – as a measure of punishment for any crime is unjust. Keenan’s mother is not the only person to experience such a tragedy and equate its cause to Jesus. Every one of them who do so implies a conception of god and Jesus whose justice is indefensible, whose justice is inherently malevolent.

One of the common defenses used as a solution to the problem of theodicy is human free will. Very simply stated, the free will argument proposes that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god cannot interfere in the commission of evil acts because that interference would negate human free will. The problem with this solution is that it does not address the existence of “natural evil,” the harm and suffering caused by natural means such as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and medical conditions like the stroke in question. Free will has no part in this equation.

If we are to believe that Jesus is god, and we are told that he is, then we know from the biblical texts that he is responsible for natural evil. He makes lands desolate, sends floods, sends plagues, and lays waste to entire cities. We are also told in the biblical accounts that he is responsible for a distorted sense of justice. Punishing children for their parents’ sins (Isaiah 14) and killing children and fetuses because parents worship other gods (Hosea 13) are just two examples of the god of Abraham’s repugnant sense of law and justice, fulfilled through Jesus (Matthew 5). We are also told that those who do not believe in him are destined for eternal suffering (eternal evil) solely for the commission of a thought crime. If this were true, then I can think of few examples of a greater injustice than this. It is a colossal misfit between punishment and crime.

The problem of theodicy has been a convincing argument against the existence of a god for many people. It seems odd then that Hart, as a theologian, would dismiss this issue so easily. Those who are convinced by this argument are in good company. Noted biblical scholar Bart Erhman cites it as the reason for his agnosticism as does Lutheran pastor-turned-atheist Larry Cartford. If Hart has somehow discovered the enigmatic solution to the problem of theodicy then he should, perhaps, make greater efforts to relay that solution to more people so that they are not swayed into disbelief because of it. Dismissing its importance and its power to sway others betrays Hart as being incorrigibly naive.

(part 1) (part 2)

Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin

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About JP Laughlin

Originally intent on Christian ministry, I attended the College of Charleston where I earned a BA in Religious Studies (and where I also nearly completed a BA in Biology) and where I met my wife in our New Testament class. I attended graduate school at the University of Washington and earned a MA in International Studies – Comparative Religion. My areas of focus were Religion-and-Culture and American Religion. Somewhere along the way, I escaped from the prison of religious belief and found a new joy in living.

4 responses to “Judith Marie: Jesus’ Divine Injustice and Malevolence”

  1. Nathan Duffy says :

    .. Hart has written a book specifically on theodicy (‘Doors to the Sea’). It’s a thin volume, but it’s clear he takes it very seriously indeed, at least in certain venerable formulations (those of Voltaire and Ivan Karamazov, for instance). He also has written on divine providence, contributing a chapter to ‘The Providence of God’, which has consequences for his views on theodicy. As does his short story ‘The Emerald World’ in ‘The Devil & Pierre Gernet’.

    You seem to be taking his dismissal of *these* particular arguments, made by *these* particular people, for dismissing the issues themselves, which he doesn’t do.

    • JP Laughlin says :

      Nathan,

      Thanks for the reply. I’ll add ‘Doors to the Sea’ to my list of must reads. Can’t get to it yet…but soon maybe.

      I try to give everyone a fair shake and change my opinions of them (if warranted) when I learn more. I will admit in advance, however, that if he’s addressed this problem himself before, then my opinion of him is tentatively even worse. I’ll save my final impression until after I’ve read the book.

      The fact that he might take “certain venerable formulations” of the problem of theodicy seriously is part of the problem. I don’t think that there’s much excuse for a theologian to even hint at the idea that if you’re not up to the standards of Voltaire in your writings then your opinions on the matter can be dismissed. There’s not much excuse to call those for whom theodicy is a problem “incorrigibly impressionistic.” Why? Because we are talking about real people who have real problems with theodicy and have often struggled with the issue for a long time before giving up their beliefs. Everyone, not just the Voltaire’s and Philosophes of this world, has the ability to look at this issue then see and understand that there is a problem to address. Indeed, many do. His response to them is nearly a Courtier’s Reply, as is much of the article in question.

      The issue that he is dismissing, while dismissing these *particular* people without warrant, is not theodicy itself, it’s that he’s dismissing the impact that the problem of theodicy has on many people. He’s dismissing the fact that it is still a convincing argument against the existence of god for many people. As I said in the conclusion, if he has discovered  the enigmatic solution to the problem (in ‘Doors to the Sea’ maybe?) then his solution certainly isn’t trickling down to those who’d like to hear it before they have to go through the personal struggles with reconciling this problem. I would think that if he did take this issue seriously then this would be high on his list of importance because the problem of theodicy is a ‘gateway argument’ that many former believers cite as their entry into disbelief. In the case of this article, he chose to demonstrate that it was not that important to him by dismissing these *particular* people (does he think *unworthy* since they are not “venerable formulations” like Voltaire?) instead of using it as an opportunity to respond with his solution.

      If the people who are leaving or have left the “flock” because of this problem, the people he’s dismissing here, are not his audience, then who is he writing his solution for?

      • Nathan Duffy says :

        I understand your point, but I find it to be of limited relevance in this particular context. I would classify those as “pastoral” concerns, and Hart has admitted elsewhere he hasn’t a pastoral bone in his body. Nor does it seems like that should be a concern in the context of a kind of overview-dismissal of the New Atheism at large.

        And, while I haven’t read the book he was reviewing, there really, truthfully are juvenile, petulant arguments and complaints in the vein of theodicy (on both sides, as Hart points out in ‘Doors’) that deserve heaps of scorn and derision, not sympathy.

        Also, while Hart certainly doesn’t dismiss the problem of evil out of hand, I suspect within his tradition (Eastern Orthodox), it’s seen as largely a specifically Western, post-Enlightenment/Reformation ‘problem’ to some degree. Using Eastern categories, language, and concepts, it’s much more difficult to see that there is any ‘problem’ in the first place. This would partly explain his impatience with the perennial insistence that there is a ‘problem’, at least in the logical sense. But, when all of our thought is rooted in Western, post-Enlightenment ideas and concepts, it isn’t easy to extricate someone from them and just reform their epistemological foundations. Which is why it’s not a task for one fraction of a book review of which that isn’t even the central topic, like you’re asking him to do.

      • JP Laughlin says :

        Nathan, I think it is entirely relevant in this context because the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists was not the vitriol of some of New Atheism’s “Four Horsemen.” It was personal accounts from quite ordinary atheists answering a question that is of pastoral concern. I just cannot agree with Hart that their voices are “utterly inconsequential” regardless of how they arrived at their atheism or the attitude with which they express it. It doesn’t take a pastoral bone to recognize that someone is struggling with questions that he has an answer for. I think his response was deserving of criticism.

        I’m not yet convinced of the label ‘petulant’ regarding some versions of the arguments is appropriate. This seems more of a label to apply to the attitude of the person making the argument. And if the petulant and the learned thinkers come to the same conclusion regarding the problem, how is one conclusion better than the other? Both conclusions are the same regardless of the attitude of the person providing them. Making this distinction appears like another manifestation of ad-hominem. In fact, labeling them ‘petulant’ is akin to throwing one’s hands up in exasperation…from no longer having an answer maybe? And I disagree that any manner of losing one’s belief deserves scorn or derision. Remember, if Christianity is true, then souls are at stake. The conviction of one’s soul to eternal damnation isn’t cause for sympathy from a believer? If not, that runs counter to every ounce of the Christian upbringing that produced me. At the very least, as a former-Christian-now-atheist I can empathize with the struggle.

        Eastern categories, to me, only serve to exacerbate the problem. But this is me speaking from a Western, post-Enlightenment framework. In fact, it’s funny that you mention it because my belief ended officially (after fighting many years to retain it) as a result of two classes. One of them was a graduate course in modern Christian theology focusing on Eastern Orthodoxy. I’ll just leave it at that and say, I see your point.

        Ultimately, I’m not asking him to do anything. He offered a critique. I responded in kind. He said in his own words that he wasn’t being dismissive. I pointed out that he was, in fact, being dismissive (and unjustly so). He thinks (apparently) some problems are solved. These problems remain.

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