When I was a child, the question of theodicy, why God allows evil to exist, plagued me.
I read all the books about why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But none of them satisfied me. This is what eventually led me to reading Loraine Boettner’s book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination on Calvinism and predestination (and later made me keenly interested in Jack Crabtree’s book The Most Real Being: A Biblical and Philosophical Defense of Divine Determinism).
It made no sense to me that God was all-powerful and created everything yet evil was a special exception. Evil was like God’s own prodigal child that no one talked about at the dinner table. So I found temporary peace in believing that, if God truly was all-powerful, God must be the origin of evil—but had an ineffable plan to use that evil ultimately for good. All the child abuse, all the rapes, all the wars, all the starvation and plagues and death, they all ultimately worked out somehow for God’s glory. I just couldn’t see the whole picture because God is beyond human understanding.
Now I know this is all bullshit.
All the child abuse, all the rapes, all the wars, all the starvation and plagues and death… none of that is worth an eternity of denim and harps. That is a cruel, unfair trade, and no good, moral God would force conscious beings through all that just to self- pleasure Godself.
Furthermore, I do not believe in this ineffable plan beyond human understanding. We are made in the image of God, the Bible tells us, and we inherited sin specifically because Adam and Eve acquired the knowledge of good and evil. All signs indicate that we as humans are capable of understanding God and consequently loving or hating God. For how can we truly love or hate someone or something if we don’t actually know them? We can’t. That’s not true love or hate. If it is impossible to understand God, it is impossible to be in relationship with God, irregardless of whether that relationship is one of love or hate. No healthy relationship involves one party remaining a mystery to the other party (or parties).
That makes for a great film script, but not for a functional relationship.
Now that I am an adult, I can say confidently that this ineffability business is nothing more than a cop-out. It is a thought-terminating cliche, like Robert Jay Lifton talks about in the book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. It is a phrase meant to shut down doubt before doubt takes root in your mind.
“But Ryan,” you protest, “what about free will?” I am pretty sure God can let us all make our own choices while still not allowing some of us to abuse and harm the rest of us. We have laws and law enforcement and those don’t erase free will. Why can’t God similarly enforce morality on earth? God sent a full-blown flood to wipe out nearly all of mankind at one point. That wasn’t a giant erasure of many human wills? Come on. We can allow people to make choices without allowing them to abuse and harm others. That’s just common sense.
But God seems to have other priorities. So either God is not all-powerful or God won’t raise a finger to stop injustice—and an omnipotent being that won’t raise a finger to stop child abuse or rape or war is not worthy of love or respect. No C.S. Lewis allegory or Josh McDowell argument will convince me otherwise. I’ve read them all and they all fall short. (A less-than-omnipotent deity could certainly still be worthy of love or respect, but that would make God a liar, as the God of the Bible makes abundantly clear that God is indeed Sovereign, the Creator of All, the Alpha and the Omega.)
When I was a child, the question of theodicy plagued me because I was sexually abused as a child. So this is personal. If God is all-powerful, God could have spared me a lifetime of nightmares and suicidal ideation. But God chose not to. If God was a person, we would rightly, consequently, call God an enabler. God knew, God saw, and God was silent.
But we are afraid to say these dark thoughts aloud. Because they challenge God. Because they are sacrilegious. Because they make us into Adam and Eve in Eden again, deciding that knowing what is true is still, after everything we’ve suffered, worth a lifetime of pain. Because if at least we know what is true, we can die with integrity.
And if Hell ends up being real, we can walk into Hell with our heads held high.
4 thoughts on “Into Hell With Our Heads Held High”
First, greetings and gratitude for your writing. I always find it generously informed. I also began to question the almighty triune (but not till I was an older youngster!)
Early on, in the mirrored bubble of IFB’esque faith, I had no way to really question anything as that would be dealt with as a lack of faith, childish foolishness. When I matured, the hard questions kept pestering me and these included the vicious business of the Old Testament. Another bit that troubled me to no end was the exhortation to desert loved ones in order to follow God, Jesus and his ‘follow me’. I could not quite grasp the desertion of family and daily responsibility to go walking around with Jesus.
It took me better than three decades of life to be able to finally say comfortably, “I just don’t believe it.” The vast majority of my extended family is still deeply sunk in the rabbit hole of faith in God.
I have been very fortunate to find writers around who share my heart challenges and they are all child advocates. The first for me was Alice Miller, then John Holt and a dear champion for children, Norm Lee.
I have used these folks and many others to guide me in parenting my own kids while they grow up, now in their early twenties.
I laughed when I read, “Now I know this is all bullshit.” Yep.
Hey Brian! Thanks for the comment and sharing. Yeah, anything IFB’esque is, oof, rough. Sorry you had to experience that.
I’m glad you mentioned Alice Miller as she has been on my must-read list for a while. What book of hers would you recommend starting with?
For Your Own Good:…
If you have not looked at Norm Lee’s work I highly recommend it, if only to support your work. Norm was viciously harmed as a child and turned that abuse into child advocacy and life-long work to help stop parents hitting children. His only book used to be available as a .pdf on Jordan Riak’s site but Jordan has passed on now…. I will search my old archives and see if I can find a copy (if you are interested and have not already been through it.)
Ok, cool, that’s the one I was eyeing. Thanks!
And yeah, I’d definitely be interested! Thank you. If you can find it, my email is rlstollar at gmail dot com.