Two years ago, I gave my final exhortation at my home ecclesia, and last year I wrote about the experience. This year I’d like to talk about an interesting fact I noticed that I wasn’t comfortable sharing with the congregation.
Psalm 78 provided an overview of the history of Israel, leading up to the appointment of Judah as the chosen tribe and David as the appointed king. Because of this, I suggested that it was actually propaganda - a deliberate PR move to encourage the rebellious northern tribes to return.
Why does God respond differently to different events?
The Psalm itself describes a god who is at best subject to mood swings. The people of Israel are continually rebelling against him, and he reacts differently at different times. Sometimes there is a direct punishment. Sometimes he lets other nations come in and punish them. And sometimes he shows compassion and doesn’t punish them. Even if he has condemned them to punishment he may swoop in later and save the day. Why?
Well, I put a possible answer in my private notes for the talk, which I flagged as a “BOLD THOUGHT”:
Was it because this is just reading God’s hand into history, and the history was different at different points?
Needless to say, I didn’t share this as part of the talk.
At a minimum, it would have required a different model of inspiration from the one I was meant to hold. But it would probably also have required a deeper conversation about how God’s justice works, and even whether God exists. Not quite exhortation material…
Was the Psalmist inspired?
The Psalm makes numerous statements about what God did through Israelite history, and more importantly why he did it. How could the Psalmist know this?
As a believer, my response would probably have been that the Psalm is part of the God-inspired Bible. With God’s infallible inspiration on his side, everything the Psalmist wrote about God must have been correct.
However, there is another option: the writer was presenting his view of how God worked through history. As a human opinion, it had built in fallibility: Maybe it was correct, but maybe it wasn’t.
Is this compatible with inspiration? Well, I as a Christadelphian would not have thought so, but I suspect less fundamentalist religious traditions would be totally happy with this. It’s not that different from a pastor today drawing on his understanding of scripture to see how God has worked in the past and how he continues to work.
I don’t see the hand of God working in the world around me today, and I have no reason to accept an inspired proclamation from over 2,000 years ago of how the hand of God worked through a possibly mythical history. But if the psalm is the work of a fellow human trying to make sense of the world around them - to me, that’s much more interesting.
A simple model of justice
When it comes down to it, I think many of us like a very simple version of justice: The good guys win and nice things happen to them, while the bad guys lose and have bad things happen to them. Whether we call it divine justice, karma, or a story, it feels satisfying when it happens.
Super-hero tales often have this view of the world, and so do simple morality tales. For example, consider the “Sunday-School books” expertly parodied by Mark Twain in The Story Of The Good Little Boy and The Story Of The Bad Little Boy. In the Bible, much of the book of Proverbs has this implicit message.
Of course, we recognise that the real world is a much less black-and-white place. Few people are totally good, and few people are totally bad. Many things cannot be judged right or wrong without understanding the context, and there are plenty of shades of grey. In fact, one of my problems with Christianity, at least as I was taught it, is that it decreed much harder lines between good and evil than I thought could be justified.
Why doesn’t it always work?
But there’s a slight problem: Sometimes bad people get away with hurting good people. In fact, sometimes they positively seem to be rewarded for it. Similarly, sometimes good people help others and do badly out of it. Other times, a good person gets a horrible disease and is crippled or dies way too soon. Why, God? Where’s karma when you need it?
An omnipotent God who was totally committed to justice could make a world that was totally just. But clearly this hasn’t happened. Since this challenges our simple model, we feel a need to understand why, and over the years many explanations have evolved.
However, to me this raises a deeper problem: Since there are many different explanations, and since believers will not always agree which explanation fits which scenario, almost anything can be proclaimed to be God at work. It may be confusing that God didn’t behave as believers expected, but with hindsight they can be totally confident that somehow God’s hand is at work in their lives. This makes history a blank canvas on which we can project our deep conviction that God is in control no matter what.
When it comes down to it, there may well be as many explanations as there are believers, so I can’t deal with them exhaustively. But to give a feel for some of the many ways the same event can be explained, I’d like to discuss eight common alternatives to the simple model (they are not mutually exclusive).
1. The hidden sin
This is one of the most obvious answers: The simple model is actually correct, and we just don’t realise it. In particular, if a good person has bad things happen to them, it must be because they are being punished for a hidden sin. All they need to do is to confess their hidden sin and reform, and everything will be OK. This comes out strongly in Job: His three friends pressure him to reveal the secret sin responsible for his sudden change of fortune.
It does get more complicated: for example, if a seemingly innocent child has bad things happen to them, it might be a punishment for the actions of their parents or grandparents. But the same basic principle applies: The simple model still applies, it’s just our understanding of the situation that is faulty.
I think this explanation can be tempting because it allows us to judge others easily. All we need to do to determine how good or bad a person is to see how well off they are. It also makes for a very visible God: One who is obligated to treat people nicely because of their goodness, and preferably to punish those who do wrong.
But it particularly appeals to one group of people: the well off. It allows them to justify their wealth and status as “a blessing from God”, and to criticise the poor for their unrighteousness rather than helping them. It also assists those who are preaching a “prosperity gospel”, particularly if it makes giving to
God the preacher a good deed.
However, while this model works well for judging others, it’s not so great when it exposes one’s own hidden faults. I suspect many who hold this view when things are great seek for new answers once the wheel of fortune turns against them.
2. Adversity is character building, wealth is a temptation
The starting assumption was that good things should happen to good people, and bad things should happen to bad people. This completely flips it round. And it’s at least to some extent true: There can be a tremendous feeling of accomplishment from overcoming difficulties, while living in ease can breed apathy. However, adversity can also be exceptionally painful, and people can break under the pressure.
This already gives us quite a few solutions:
- If good things happen to good people, it’s probably a reward (though it may be a temptation or a test from God).
- If bad things happen to bad people, it’s probably a punishment (though it may be to convert them to good people).
- If good things happen to bad people, it’s probably to keep temptation away from the good people.
- If bad things happen to good people, it’s probably to make them better people.
3. We’re all sinners
We started by assuming that there are “good” people and “bad” people. But what if everyone is really a sinner? After all, some may appear better than others - but surely everyone has done something wrong?
Maybe God is justified in sending any punishment upon any person.
4. Mercy and forgiveness
This follows naturally from the previous one. If everyone is a sinner, then do we really want God to be “just” and punish everybody? It doesn’t match our mental model that some people are better and thus more deserving than others (even if they’re not perfect).
Conveniently, though, the same authority which created the problem by declaring everyone a sinner also provides a solution for that problem. That solution is divine mercy and forgiveness.
Maybe good things happen to bad people because of God’s mercy, whether or not they deserve it.
5. God moves in mysterious ways
It is said that everything must have a reason, but as humans we can’t expect to know what that reason is. So we should just stop thinking about it, trust God, and accept his will.
This marks a retreat into unfalsifiability. Basically, it’s just dismissing the question. Unlike earlier models, it leaves us with no way of knowing what God’s justice looks like now, or what should happen next. Accepting whatever comes makes good sense if there is no god, but I think it makes less sense if there is a god with defined standards of justice.
6. God only controls some events - others are chance
If you don’t like the previous idea, there’s another option: There are some things that God doesn’t get involved in, but just allows to happen. There’s no mysterious reason that we can’t understand - that’s just the way life works. This defence is commonly used after major natural disasters, disasters in which the good and the bad alike are harmed.
Of course, this doesn’t actually answer the “justice” question: saying that God wasn’t involved doesn’t make it just that he wasn’t involved. It also has problems with unfalsifiability: We have no way of knowing when God is involved and when he isn’t. It’s not as if Christians are consistent about it: Typically, after a natural disaster some Christians will proclaim it was a specific judgement on a nation astray from God, while others will proclaim that God had nothing to do with it.
7. God can’t make it too obvious
In mission work, people sometimes talk about “Rice Christians”: people who convert to Christianity because it offers them material benefits, not because they believe it to be true. It is conjectured that the same might apply to belief in God: If all Christians did well and all non-Christians did badly, then some might convert just to receive God’s favour. Sometimes this is even presented as if God would be forcing people to believe in him against their will.
Like the last one, this doesn’t answer the “justice” question. It’s saying “It wouldn’t be fair for God to reward you for your goodness now in case it makes other people good.” But isn’t a reward for goodness meant to be part of justice?
This explanation is yet another retreat into unfalsifiability. By saying that God’s works can’t be too visible, it is saying that anything in history which doesn’t look like God was involved clearly had God involved. At its extreme it is saying that God wants people to believe in spite of the evidence, not because of the evidence.
8. Future reward and punishment
This is the last defence when things that happen don’t seem fair: In the after-life, cosmic justice will prevail, and everyone will get what they deserve. It’s particularly handy if a seemingly good person died early (“God wanted another angel”) or a seemingly bad person lived a charmed life (“They went straight to hell”). It also ties in nicely with God moving in mysterious ways: Mere humans can’t know the full details of his plan, so they just have to trust that things work out OK.
I mentioned Proverbs earlier. A few years ago, I gave a talk on Proverbs which demonstrated (at least to my satisfaction) that the proverbs presented an overly simplistic model of justice here and now, similar to our concept of karma. Many audience members were unhappy with this: They wanted their proverbs to remain infallible, even if it meant they only applied to some perfect future justice rather than the present day examples they seemed to be written for.
This model does actually offer justice, unlike the last few. But to make its purported justice fit the real world we see, it has to double down on unfalsifiability. It may sound appealing, but we have absolutely no way of knowing whether justice will be done until we get to the promised afterlife.
Evaluating the explanations
I think most of my readers will have heard most of these reasons before. And some of them can sound quite reasonable in isolation. But when considered together I think it becomes clear how inconsistent and arbitrary they can be, since the believer switches between explanations as it suits them.
Which brings me back to the Psalm I started with. In the telling of this Psalm, the people of Israel were the chosen people of God, and they mostly did not live up to this calling. There is lots of judgement, and lots of punishments are sent by God. However, sometimes in spite of his anger he sends blessings, and other times he shows compassion and spares them from judgement. There is some repentance as a result of these judgements, but it’s not necessarily sincere, and people certainly haven’t been forced to believe by God’s judgement.
In short, it’s a bit of a mix. The Psalmist has tried, but it’s hard to draw any consistent message about how God’s justice works from this retelling of history. Which makes sense if it is just history working itself out without any kind of cosmic justice involved.
It’s easy to start reading patterns into these events, but I don’t think the patterns hold up to scrutiny. There are just too many different ways to explain away the absence of a clear method to God’s workings.
Do we even agree on what is good and bad?
Another interesting aspect of this question is “How do we actually determine who is good and who is bad?” So far, I’ve been assuming it is clear, but the reality is that we don’t find complete agreement on what characteristics or actions make a person good or bad.
Even if we did have the complete list, how much could it tell us? I suspect most people, myself included, do some things that we would consider “good”, and other things that we would consider “bad”. The world is a much greyer place than the black and white world I was brought up with.
For example, consider the hot button topics of abortion and homosexuality. Some crusade to get better civil recognition for these. To one group, these activists are the good guys, trying to advance important human rights. To another group, the activists are the bad guys, supporting and enabling evil in its purest form. And if there is a setback, the first group might consider it a trial sent to strengthen the activists, while the second group might consider it judgement from a justly outraged God.
War provides another example. Two nations go to war, both claiming protection from their god (possibly the same god). In the context of our Psalm it might be the North and the South, Ephraim and Judah. The victor sees the hand of their god upholding their just cause. The loser sees a temporary set-back of their just cause. But maybe God faced a conflict of interest and recused himself?
Finally, some think that good or bad is not a matter of what you do, but whether you belong to the right tribe. For example, to many Christians I am on the bad side, the side of “the world”. It doesn’t matter how many good deeds I do, or whether I seem to be a nice person. God is entitled to send any punishments on me he likes. In fact, the most terrible of sinners who has repented is better than me. And this stretches to the hereafter: Despite making few changes to my way of life other than rejecting God and the Bible, I am now told that I deserve to burn in hell forever.
A major problem with looking for justice is that we tend to be hopelessly biased (yes, even me). We start by assuming we’re right, and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. This can be true for individuals, and it can be true for nations too. If, as I’ve conjectured, the Psalmist was truly a PR guy, then he and his nation had this in spades.
Even if we do acknowledge we’ve done the wrong thing, I think we tend to excuse ourselves fairly easily. For our own faults, we know all the mitigating circumstances, and we’re convinced that we would do better if we had a second chance.
However, we are less likely to apply this leniency to those around us. All we care about is that they hurt us and they need to be punished.
Having so many possible ways for divine justice to work can mean we think we deserve mercy, while our neighbour deserves justice. We’re decent people, so if something bad happens to us it’s definitely not punishment. However, if something bad happens to our no-good neighbour, how could it be clearer that it’s direct punishment from God?
Is God’s judgement proportionate?
So, I’ve argued that there is no easy way to establish absolute good and bad, and that we are hopelessly biased observers. Does that leave enough room for God to hide in as the God of sure but inscrutable justice? I don’t think so. As humans, we may not agree 100% on what is right and wrong, and we may not apply our standards consistently, but I think there is still fairly widespread agreement on what things are “fair” and what things aren’t.
Take these two scenarios:
Someone tries to steal something, they get caught (preferably in some embarrassing way), they are punished, and what they stole is returned to the original owner. Nowadays that would be called karma at work, and makes a great cautionary tale.
Someone steals something and sells it on. A week later a tree falls on them and kills them. They leave behind a wife and three children unsupported, and the thing they stole is never returned to the original owner.
I think we would view the first scenario as justice. We might also view the second scenario as justice, but I think it should make us a bit uneasy (do we really support the death penalty for simple theft?)
For scenario two I went serious, but it could be much more trivial and still open to interpretation. Imagine this: Three days after the theft they sell the goods for 10% more than they expected. They also happen to get a parking ticket.
In this case, the theft and the high sale price seem connected, while the parking ticket seems completely unrelated. An outside observer might see the parking ticket as just punishment for the theft. However, the thief might consider the extra profit as a sign of God’s blessing on them, and the parking ticket as an unlucky chance. They could even view the parking ticket as a trial, and the 10% extra as God’s sign he is with them to overcome trials.
I think these kind of scenarios are much more reflective of reality than my first scenario. Events happen which are largely unrelated, and we draw the connections depending on what we are looking for. Yes, things happen that we can call “punishments”, but they don’t really fit the crime. Similarly, things happen that we can call “rewards”, but they’re not closely linked to the things we are being rewarded for. It’s just not proportionate.
Christianity has plenty of ways to explain why the version of God shown in history responds inconsistently and doesn’t match our simple version of justice. But none of that answers the question why? Why has God responded completely differently to two different situations that seem almost identical to us?
These different models present very different images of God. Some of the models require God to visibly reward and punish the world in a way that would make his existence dead obvious. Other models basically make his action indistinguishable from time and chance except in the mind of a believer. And one consequence of this is that each believer looking for the hand of God in their lives is free to remake God in their own image (whether consciously or unconsciously).
I think in our era many believers favour the non-interventionist models. But to me that’s not explaining what God does, but explaining away the fact that he seems unjust and invisible.
And this is where I think the “it’s just history” model makes more sense. Things just happen, without there needing to be any divine thread of justice running underneath the currents of history. And even when we try to fit these events into a larger narrative, it’s hard to discern the justice in that narrative.
This doesn’t have to lead us to despair. If the narrative of justice comes from our shared humanity rather than from an indifferent universe, then we have the opportunity to try and fix injustices we see rather than waiting for an ephemeral divine justice. But that would be a topic for another blog post.