The Day God Overslept (Well, One of Many Days)

Theodicy, AKA The Litany of Excuses

In March 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, a gunman walked into a school and killed sixteen children and their teacher. Among the many flowers that were left outside the school in the days following, one bouquet was accompanied by a Teddy Bear with a note tied around its neck: “Wednesday 13 March 1996–the day God overslept.”

For those raised to believe in a good god who also happens to be all-powerful, such evil is inexplicable. Theologians have given it their best shot—over and over, throughout the millennia—but none of their explanations really satisfy. As one of them, Uta Ranke-Heinemann has admitted, “The question of the origin of evil, of what causes the tears and deviltries of the world, the question that no theologian has so far managed to answer, is one that humans have always posed.” (Putting Away Childish Things, p. 62)

Many serious thinkers have concluded from the existence of massive evil and suffering that there probably isn’t a good god overseeing the Cosmos. Most believers can’t go that far, and reach for other explanations. Hence one mourner in Dunblane chose the metaphor of oversleeping to excuse God’s inattention. This metaphor is milder than Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is dead,” but “God overslept” is still just an attempt—tinged with cynicism it seems to me—to come to terms with God’s absence or indifference. Why didn’t God—almighty God who knows if even a sparrow falls to the ground (Matt. 10:29)—jam the gun that day?

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? God could have jammed the gun. Why not? But even many Christians would respond, “Well, the world doesn’t work that way.” Of course not. But why not, if “he’s got the whole world in his hands”? The disconnect between such sentimental religious banalities and the real world can be very jarring. With so much evil and misery on this planet, how is it consoling, let alone true, that “he’s got the whole world in his hands”?

Many explanations have been offered to account for suffering in our tiny corner of a Cosmos supposedly supervised by a caring and all-powerful god. The result of this major theistic preoccupation can be labeled The Litany of Excuses (although it’s officially called theodicy). Most Christian laypeople can usually round up a few of the standard apologies if asked point-blank why God tolerates so much evil and suffering.

But I’ve found that believers balk at any hard thinking that would require serious homework on this issue. They usually don’t grasp how fraught with difficulties the common excuses are. The apologies sound okay only on the surface. Folks who blithely offer two or three excuses for God’s tolerance for suffering and evil usually have not thought deeply enough about the excuses to see how vulnerable they are. For example, those who claim that free will lets God off the hook on a lot of suffering don’t grasp how free will goes off the rails before it accomplishes much of anything. Nor do they seem to be aware that the standard excuses have been vetted by non-religious philosophers, and commonly found wanting. They seldom—if ever—ask where they can find the exhaustive theodicy literature that is available. I’ve never heard a Christian say, “I’d better read up on this. There must be lots of books on my favorite apology for God. Where can I find them?”

Secular philosophers understand that the excuses don’t hold water—that’s commonly why they became secular philosophers—and theologians differ as to which are worth clinging to, and offer strained and forced defenses of those that they prefer.

David Madison was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in August 2016.