This is Part One of a series.
Four tough questions: they are actually four versions of the same question.
In the Book of Job, we track the travails of a good, righteous man. Job loses his flocks, his health, even his family, through no fault of his own. His relentless efforts to make logical sense of the relationship between his righteous conduct and his deplorable circumstances drive him to the point of spiritual implosion. Finally, a stranger intrudes upon the scene, and asks a question of thunderous import: “If thou sinnest, what doest thou against [God]?” (Job 35:6). In other words, why should God care how we conduct our lives? What could make him want to punish me for what I do with my agency?
Now to the Book of Mormon. Alma has been struggling with a rebellious son. With fatherly insight, he goes straight to the crux of the problem. “My son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner, for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery” (Alma 42.1). It’s essentially the same question. Why can’t God just overlook our sins. Why his insistence on retribution for our wrongs?
Third, a young couple of differing religions were asking me about the LDS concept of temple marriage. Mormons believe that only a temple sealing, I explained, can establish a sealing bond that will survive death. “So you mean,” one of them asked, that if we die and are resurrected, but haven’t been sealed, God won’t let us live together eternally? Why would God do that to us?”
And the fourth question, which I will read at greater length. It comes from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, the Brothers Karamazov. The nihilist Ivan has just related to his brother Alyosha, the tender-hearted young priest-in-training, the harrowing true story of a young child torn to pieces by hunting dogs in front of his mother, at the command of a sadistic landowner, and another about the torture of a little girl thrown into a cesspool.
When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can't accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child's torturer, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' but I don't want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'! It's not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. . . . And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket. i
These examples from scripture, from literature, and from personal experience, all suggest a failure of the religious understanding that has been catastrophic. Many of us may have been worshipping the wrong God.
Some weeks ago, a young man came to talk to me in a personal capacity. He had been profoundly moved by some religiously themed literature he had been reading. He had no previous religious affiliation, but felt something stirring deep within, and had come to see me with a most unusual request. Perhaps sensing my own faith commitment, he said this: “I am embarking on a quest to find God. What questions should I be asking along my way?” I said to him, “The first question you must ask is, ‘What kind of a God do you seek?’” He thought that was a most curious response. But it’s exactly the right question, I believe.
Not all Gods are worthy of our allegiance. Even the God imagined by many Christians is not one deserving of adoration. Listen to Augustine’s defense of a God who blithely consigns to hell untold numbers of unbaptized children: “if another soul, not merely before it sins but at the very outset of its life, is placed under a punishment . . . it has a great good for which to thank its Creator, for the merest beginning of a soul is better than the most perfect material object.”ii In fact, he considered any complaint on the subject “slanderous”: some ask, he wrote, “if it was Adam and Eve who sinned, what did we poor wretches do? How do we deserve to be born in blindness of ignorance and the torture of difficulty? . . . My response is brief: let them be silent and stop murmuring.”iii
Or listen to Luther, writing more than a thousand years later on the subject of election by grace. God “ordains whom, and such as He will, to be receivers and partakers of his preached and offered mercy.” And that will, he continues, we have no right to try and understand, because it is “the most profound secret of the divine majesty, which he reserves unto himself and keeps hidden from us.” Exactly why God does not save those it is clearly in his power to save, but rather blames man for what, in Luther’s words, we have no power to avoid, “it is not lawful to inquire.” This clearly perverse will, he concludes, is not to be understood. “It is only to be feared and adored!”iv
Let me give one more example from literature, of a boy who refused to worship one of the Christian gods of 19th c. Christendom. His name was Huck Finn, and he went through soul agony in his decision to help a slave, Jim, escape his bondage. “It would get all around,” he fretted, "that Huck Finn helped a [slave] to get his freedom….The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven.