Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is God Just?

Christians always protray God as being a just judge. But on what basis do they claim God is just? I think primarily it is because they want it to be so; "If God is the ultimate judge, well he better be just." Or if he is not just, then he is not perfect and surely God had better be perfect. At least since the ancient Greeks people have created an ideal of perfection which is ascribed to God. And to Christians perfection includes justice, and so God must be just.

But does this ideal actually correspond to reality? One can mathematically describe a perfect circle, but that does not mean there are any in reality. To decide if this ideal is true, we need evidence. What would make good evidence for God's justice is debateable, but there is one thing that Christians will definitely accept: the Bible. What does the Bible indicate about God's justice?

But before going to the Bible, let me lay the groundwork for my argument. To show that someone is just is hard. Let's take a judge as an example. It would entail going through all (or a very wide sampling) of his cases and confirming that they were justly decided. But to show that a judge is unjust, one simply needs a few examples of unjust decisions. For example, if we found a judge accepting bribes by his clients who he gives favorable decisions to, well we would conclude he is not just, even without going through all his other cases.

We can do an analogous examination of God's judgements that we find in the Bible. For many we do not have enough information to determine whether they are just or not, or it may not be easy to determine from our vantage point. But there is a class of judgements which I believe we can clearly judge as being unjust. This class involves punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else.

What could be more unjust than being punished for someone else's crime? Surely an inherent aspect of justice is that one is punished according to one's crime, which does not happen when one is being punished for someone else's crime. Let me motivate this with two examples. Consider someone steals a car, but the judge sends his neighbor to jail as punishment. Surely that is an injustice, and one would not excuse a judge who did that intentionally and knowingly. Another example of injustice is group punishment. I remember a teacher in school punishing our whole class for making too much noise when it was just a subset of the class that was talking, and certainly not me. Group punishments might be an effective way to control his class but they are not just punishments as some people are punished for the actions of others.

Now on to the Bible. Certainly the writers of various Psalms and the book of Isaiah ascribe justice to God. Such claims are easy to make in the abstract, but are they actually true? To decide that, let's look at some of God's judgements.

Here are three examples, from many possible ones in the Bible, where God punishes or promises to punish someone for the sins of another. The first is God promising to punish children for the sins of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Moses has gone up to meet God, and then God appears to him. Exodus 34:5-7: Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

The important thing to note is that it is not just that children suffer the evil consequences of the sins of their parents. Rather, God says that he [actively] punishes children for the sins of their fathers. Tell me, how can that be just? If that is just, does justice have any meaning?

Now here is another example. Pharaoh won't let the Israelites leave Egypt, so God's final punishment on him is not just a punishment on him only but on everyone in Egypt, recorded in Exodus 11:4-6: 4 So Moses said, "This is what the LORD says: 'About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. 5 Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6 There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. Is that just, to kill the firstborn of the slave girl because of Pharaoh's sins? What did she do wrong that God is punishing her? Clearly he is punishing her for Pharaoh's sin.

My final example is recorded in 2 Samuel 24. It starts: 1 Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah." David takes the census, but then apparently that was a great sin: 10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing." God's answer is to let him choose his punishment (or actually the punishment on Israel) which turns out to be a plague: 15 So the LORD sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. So God kills 70,000 people as punishment for David's sin. How can that be just? It is not hard to find many more similar examples in the Bible. It seems to me that speaking of God's justice is a form of double-talk. If any one else killed 70,000 people to punish David for his sin, we would call it a grave injustice, but when God does it, Christians call it justice.

There are some potential replies to this argument. One is that sometimes justice entails incidental suffering on others. For example, if a father is sent to prison for his crime, then his family suffers. But note that this incidental suffering is quite distinct from active punishment; if the whole family were sent to prison for the crime of the father we would call that unjust. The examples I listed involved active punishment of the innocent, and not just incidental suffering.

Another reply is that since God gave us life, he can take it away without being unjust. But this reply goes too far. It says justice makes no contraints on God at all with regard to his creation, and so he can do anything at all to us while still being just. That is, saying "God is just" is saying nothing about how God acts towards us. If we are nothing but clay in the hands of a potter, let's scrap the whole pretence of justice; when did clay ever claim to be wronged or demand justice? But actually I think this reply fails for another reason: if one gives someone a gift, one no longer has a right to take it back. So if God has given us life, he does not have a right to take it back whenever he feels like it.

My conclusion is that God, as we see portrayed in the Bible, is not just. Read and see, you will find plenty more examples of God punishing some people for the crimes of other people. Furthermore, if God is not just in this world, why should we think that he will be just in the next? I think Christians have to either give up their cherished ideals of God or else give up the Bible. They can't both be right.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

My Great Fear

My great fear is to be passionate for a cause that turns out to be a fraud. That is, I fear pouring my energies into achieving a goal that I later find out to be empty and false. I'm not saying that everything I am passionate for must be guaranteed to work out or succeed. I can still be passionate for social or political goals in so far as they bring good. No, what I fear is dedicating my life to a cause that is based on deception. The reason for that fear is that that describes a large portion of my life so far.

Until my mid to late twenties, my life had been dedicated to the cause of Christ; that is furthering the message of redemption, salvation and a future life in heaven, and seeking to overcome the opposites: sin, death and hell. I fervently believed the key claims of Christianity and was eager that others would be similarly enlightened. I admired those who died for the faith, and those who spread the gospel message to the unsaved. I read the Bible through at least once a year and actively participated in Christian events.

But now I see that it is a great fraud. I feel betrayed by others and by my own credulity. Looking back I see myself as deluded and unwilling to see the problems with my belief. How did I manage to blind myself to the truth for so long?

That is not to say there aren't many good teachings in Christianity, and that its followers don't do many good things. I have benefited in many ways by the good aspects of Christianity; by friendships, by support of other followers, by helpful guidance and similar things. All that, however, does not mean that its core claims are true. Rather now I see that the core teachings about God, the afterlife, the incarnation, the spiritual world, and obtaining truth through faith and inspiration are baseless.

This blog is in part an exploration into reasons why I have concluded the message is not true. What if I had continued to believe and spread the gospel message until I was 50 and then found out it was a fraud? What if I had brought up my children to believe in a false message? I can thank God (in a figurative sense) that I avoided that. But I know many good people who are blithely pursuing a fraud. Why don't all Christians give some heed to the possibility that they may be being deceived? Perhaps this blog will help some to come closer to the truth. Perhaps it is also an atonement for my holding onto those beliefs so ardently for so long. Also I hope it will be an exploration into what are the alternatives going forward.