God’s Credibility Is Running on Empty

His “goodness” is hard to detect

In case this hasn’t come to your attention: one of the bullets that struck Pope John Paul II, 13 May 1981, was later inserted into the crown of our Lady of Fátima in Portugal. The pope was sure that Mary had guided the bullet to miss a vital artery, thus sparing his life. This conviction arose from his deep piety, but for those of us who are skeptical of the brain-on-piety, we wonder why Mary hadn’t guided the bullet to miss the pope altogether. Something is wrong with this theology.


Following an earthquake in central Italy in August 2016 that killed almost 300 people, Pope Francis issued a statement: “I hope to come to see you as soon as possible, to bring you in person the comfort of the faith, the embrace of a father and a brother, and the support of Christian hope.” What about the hope that God could have done something—within his almighty power—to prevent the earthquake? Comfort and hope after the fact seem anemic. Something is wrong with this theology.  


The frightful god Yahweh rages through both the Old and New Testaments, but there are feel-good texts meant to divert attention from this dreadful theology. They enable popes and preachers to sell comfort and hope as essential properties of God. It’s no wonder that the 23rd Psalm, with its unrealistic worldview, is a favorite:

‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”  (KJV)

God is gentle, peaceful, protective: no evil is to be feared walking through ominous landscapes; goodness and mercy are his gift for a lifetime. The poet/theologian who wrote this probably couldn’t stomach the nasty deity who invented genocide (The Flood), and ordered so many other killings and massacres (see Steve Wells, Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible). Believers who cherish this psalm today want to avoid thinking about the promise of Jesus that, when he comes on the clouds to bring his kingdom, there will be as much suffering as at the time of Noah. At the very opening of the New Testament, John the Baptist spoke about “the wrath to come.”  


This is a prominent theme in scripture: God causes suffering: he threatens it, engineers and orchestrates it. Jonathan MS Pearce has pointed out: 


The Hebrew Bible is filled to brimming with accounts of the times that God has intervened, interfered and got generally involved with events on Earth…God spent some three thousand years or so intervening, and making sure cities got burnt here; armies got massacred there; entire tribes and nations were killed there, right down to their women, children and animals; a man was struck down there for picking up sticks on a Sabbath; or, over there, making sure that forty-two children got mauled by two bears for calling Elisha ‘bald’.” (The ResurrectionA Critical Examination of the Easter Story, Kindle, Loc 3349)


Is this still going on? Can we conclude that so much suffering in human history has been contrived by God, working behind the scenes? That’s simply our fate? Christian apologists would have us believe otherwise—despite the God-imposed suffering described in the Bible. Although, of course, they wouldn’t put it this way: has God gone through anger management training? 


Well, no. It would seem that Christian theologians are stuck with this concept—and it gets even worse: God watches suffering and does nothing


John C. Wathey, in his book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Religious Longing, tells the Parable of the Mysterious Witness:


A sexual predator has been stalking a family, watching their house. His eye is on the young daughter: “He enters her room through the window, silences the frantic child with duct tape, and carries her to his car. In his haste, he fails to notice a car slowing to a stop at the end of the street behind him. The driver of that car is an undercover police officer just returning home from work. He is attuned to spotting suspicious behavior…He is also skilled at surreptitiously following suspects, and he decides to follow this one.”


The predator’s destination is a wooded area, and he carries the girl a distance into the woods, where he beats and rapes her. The policeman has been following on foot, and even recognizes the girl. But he watches—taking no action whatever—even as the kidnapper buries the girl in a shallow grave:


“The sexual predator now gathers his belongings, walks to his car and drives away, while the policeman looks on in silence. He then returns to his own car and drives home, leaving the little girl to suffocate. Oh, and there is one more salient piece of information about our mysterious witness, the policeman: he is the girl’s father, and he dearly loves her.” 


John Wathey concludes: 


“The crime of the sexual predator must surely be among the most despicable imaginable. Yet I expect most readers of this story are even more appalled at the behavior of the mysterious witness. How can one possibly rationalize his utter failure to rescue this poor little girl, his own daughter? And yet, for the believer in the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent personal god, every horrendous act of evil in the world, every natural disaster, every injury, illness, and genetic defect that causes senseless suffering has just such a mysterious witness: God himself.”  (pp. 38-39)


To drive home this point, a few months ago I began a series of articles here on the DC Blog: Where Was God When This Happened? This week I posted Part 17, describing the bloody, stalemate trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I. The end came on 11 November 1918, when Germany surrendered, which prompted this comment from The Times of London:


“…four years’ killing and massacre stopped, as if God had swept His omnipotent finger across the scene of world carnage and cried, ‘Enough!’”


“…as if God…” This is a major challenge for theology: God watched for four years, then finally brought it to an end? What was God up too all this time? I suspect the author of this comment was not a believer, since it reflects too much cynicism. Indeed the war became a scene of world carnage because major European nations had been building their far-flung empires. This was a calamity for humanity, but God was powerless in the face of it? Perhaps incompetent or negligent? After all, the major European powers—for example, England, France, Italy, and Germany—were “Christian” nations, whose leaders supposedly appealed to God for protection and guidance. God had no power to change their thinking? How could it be that Christian nations assaulted each other so brutally…convinced they were doing God’s bidding? Something is wrong with this theology. 


As Tim Sledge has also pointed out: “Decent parents protect their kids from danger. If your toddler grabs the liquid Drano container, you don’t watch in silence. But that is exactly what God the Heavenly Father has done through the ages. He just watches, invisible and silent.” (Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief, pp. 45-46)


Of course, Christian apologists rise to the occasion. Well, not really, but they try hard. Since belief in God and Christ is the key to eternal life, they have to defend God at all costs: their very souls depend on it. Theodicy was developed for just this purpose. Here is the Britannica definition:


“Theodicy, (from Greek theos, “god”; dikē, “justice”), explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The term literally means “justifying God.” Although many forms of theodicy have been proposed, some Christian thinkers have rejected as impious any attempt to fathom God’s purposes or to judge God’s actions by human standards.”   


Superstar evangelists commonly offer crude theodicies that seem to sell well, e.g., hurricanes and earthquakes are God’s punishment for gay marriage and abortion, but serious thinkers in apologist ranks know they have to try harder. We still hear variations on the themes: God is testing us; he throws bad stuff our way to strengthen us; sometimes he is punishing us. He has a bigger plan—he sees the big picture—that makes sense of suffering. He gave us free will, so we’re on our own. And, of course, he works in mysterious ways. 


But if we look at any one example of horrendous human suffering—the trench warfare in World War I, the Holocaust, the 1918 flu pandemic (the list is endless, of course)—none of these attempts at theodicy work. They fall far short, and make their authors look like bunglers. Their task is impossible.


[Be on the lookout, by the way, for John Loftus’ anthology coming this fall: The Incompatibility of God and Horrendous Suffering.]


Apologists have to work on many fronts. Jonathan Pearce’s book on the resurrection provides many examples of Christian theologians trying, with such determination, to make sense of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e., they have to prove that it actually happened! This requires considerable ingenuity since the gospel stories of Easter morning don’t qualify as history, for so many reasons; they are theological tracts. But never mind, hey, if they put their minds to it, couldn’t these apologists demonstrate as well that the other dying-rising gods in the ancient world were just as real? The apologists work so hard on the Easter myth because they desperately need to believe that God raised their Jesus. Again, eternal life is at stake. They’re pretty sure that their flawed methodologies work. 


But alas, they’ve landed in an even bigger mess: they’ve marshaled the “evidence”—so they think—that the God of the Bible is their one true God, who could pull off the resurrection miracle. But wait a minute: full stop. This grim god required a human sacrifice to save people from sin. Who wants that kind of god? The Bible God is famous for causing suffering; he threatens it, engineers and orchestrates it. And has watched our suffering, century after century. So the apologists are stuck with another task. They have to move from resurrection-defense to theodicy. 


The last word here I’ll leave to Jonathan MS Pearce: “If you really have to work that hard to make your religion make sense, to harmonise everything, then perhaps your religion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”



David Madison was a pastor in the 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 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.


Thank you for reading and for your support! We think you'll find a perspective here that you don't usually find elsewhere. Never miss out on future posts by becoming a follower. To make a donation of any size please click here. If you buy anything on Amazon [US] through this link it provides a kickback at no cost to you. Thanks again!