We will not easily recover from the tragedies in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut. These tragedies successively became the worst mass shootings in American history. My sympathies go out to the survivors, and I urge support for them, especially from the secular humanist community.
When any tragedy occurs by the hand of a human person, people often ask, “Why did God allow this?” But a better question would be “If God did exist, would he allow this?” If the answer is no and yet the tragedy occurred, then the only reasonable conclusion is that God almost certainly does not exist. Any effort to provide an explanation of how God could and would allow human tragedies in which there is suffering, disability, and/or premature death, is called a “theodicy.” The theodicy makers have been busy providing explanations for God’s inaction in these recent mass shootings.
For the purposes of this essay, I will define “God” in the way that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims define him: as an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good, supremely authoritative spiritual being who created our universe, including humankind. Based on this definition of God and the implicit assumptions about his nature, we can make reasonable predictions about what he would do and would not do with respect to different situations, including tragedies. We will focus here on mass shootings, such as those in Aurora and Newtown, but our conclusions can be easily generalized to similar situations. In the real world, mass shootings just aren’t compatible with the nature of God as he is conceived by most persons in this country.
As has been the case with other tragedies in the last fifty years, Christian apologists have been quick to offer their illogical and disturbing theodicies in response. Chief among them is Lee Strobel, a former self-declared “atheist” and legal editor for the Chicago Tribune who was “saved” and became a Christian evangelist. Strobel has published over twenty best-selling books, participated in interviews, debates, sermons, and lectures all over the country, and served as a teaching pastor at two churches. Among Christian apologists, his influence may be unsurpassed in the United States at the present time.
Shortly after the Aurora tragedy, Strobel delivered a sermon to a congregation in the vicinity of the murders. Although he was responding specifically to the Aurora mass shooting, the theodices he presented in his sermon can be easily generalized to other mass shootings such as the one in Newtown or to others that might subsequently occur. I will paraphrase and critically evaluate these theodicies.
Theodicy #1: God did not create mass shootings. This is a nonstarter, because it contradicts the assumption that God created our universe, including humans. If God exists and creates all things, then he creates tragedies too. Even the Bible supports this idea in Isaiah 45:7 (KJV): “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these.” If God exists, then with respect to the Aurora and Newtown tragedies he did create the men who did the shooting, the victims of the shooting, and the circumstances that led to the shooting. So if he exists, God would be at least partly responsible for the tragedies, because he could have created a different world in which they did not occur. Moreover, if he was at least partly responsible, then this contradicts our assumption about God’s perfect goodness.
Theodicy #2: God caused or allowed the mass shootings because tragedies are his punishment of the human race for the sins of Adam and Eve. Although this ludicrous idea is reflected in the Old Testament, it conflicts with our modern view of ethics and even with God’s nature as defined earlier. If God happened to exist, he would not punish the human species as a whole, groups of persons, or successive generations of humans for the sins of individuals such as Adam and Eve (who are probably fictional characters anyway). If he existed, consistent with his perfect goodness, God would implement the principle of individual accountability. The selection of victims of mass shootings appears to be random and arbitrary.
Theodicy #3: God gave human beings free will so that they could choose to love him or hate him, accept him or reject him, obey him or disobey him; he desires love, acceptance, and obedience from his creatures. The unfortunate by-product of this free will is that human beings are able to choose to kill other human beings, and this is what happens in mass shootings. This doesn’t work. It is possible, even likely, that there is no free will, as Sam Harris points out in his recent book, Free Will (Free Press, 2012). However, for the sake of this essay, let’s assume that there is. To achieve his purposes, God could have (and if he has all the qualities ascribed to God, would have) created human beings with a different nature. Either he would have given them no free will at all and caused them reflexively to love, accept, and obey him, or he would have given them limited free will so that they could still choose to love, accept, and obey him without choosing to kill other human beings, or he would have given them free will to decide and plan to murder others but not the free will to actually engage in the act.
God would not have endowed humans with the free will to choose to murder, along with some aggressive tendencies, and then commanded them not to murder; that would be like setting humans up for failure, the outcome of which he would know in advance. He would not cause or allow some human beings to suffer just so he could test the choices of other human beings; that would be like using human beings as pawns in some sinister game. God himself would have the free will to withhold or limit the free will of humans, and he would not have given them the free will to murder.
Theodicy #4: God is a good parent, and good parents allow their children to make mistakes and learn from them. Sometimes children make big mistakes and kill others, as occurs in mass shootings. Good parents do everything in their power to prevent their children from making irreversible, life-changing mistakes, such as running into a busy street, eating poisonous substances, and killing other people. Any parent who had the qualities of God—being all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good—would surely prevent any of his children from killing any of his other children. He or she would love all his or her children equally and desire to protect them all from harm.
Theodicy #5: God causes good to come to the victims of tragedy, a good that outweighs their suffering and serves as a compensation to them. Victims of mass shootings, including those who were killed, wounded, and broken by grief, will be compensated greatly in this life and/or in the next. Our ethics have matured over the past two millennia from what they were when the Bible was written; we now have a better idea of what “goodness” is. Because of his perfect goodness, God would have set up a system without any tragedy rather than one with tragedy followed by compensation. But even if he were to do the latter, the delivery of compensation would be nothing like what we see in real life now. God would personally warn people in advance that a tragedy was about to come, but he would tell them that they need not worry because they would be justly compensated for it. God would begin the compensation immediately and reliably after any tragedy and wouldn’t wait till later. God might even give people a choice between taking the tragedy plus compensation or no tragedy at all. Can you imagine the victims or their families and friends choosing the Aurora tragedy on the promise of future compensation? If God were to cause or allow tragedies, what he would not do is cause or allow them in the ways they now occur. There is overwhelming evidence that at least in this life, the good does not outweigh the bad in the vast majority of tragedies.
Theodicy #6: God is going to justly punish those who cause tragedies for others, and so he will punish the mass murderers. God will do this when offenders die or when they all come before him on the Judgment Day. Those who suffer from tragedies at the hand of another should focus their minds on a future comeuppance for the offenders. Once again, this hypothesis is incompatible with the nature of God, as defined earlier. Rather than causing or allowing people to murder other people and then punishing them for it, God would prevent them from murdering in the first place. He, like most rational people, would prefer prevention over punishment. But even if he did decide to allow murder and punish it, he would not wait until later; he would punish openly, immediately, reliably, fairly, and proportionally. He would know how to best use punishment in a humane way to correct and deter; he wouldn’t vaguely promise to punish on some future occasion. The aftermaths of tragedies that we see in the real world do not match what we’d expect if God existed and was the master of just punishment.
Theodicy #7: God intends to eradicate tragedies caused by human beings, such as mass shootings, but he has chosen to do it later because he wants to give more people the opportunity to choose to accept him. This is not what an all-powerful and perfectly good being would do. He would prevent or stop the tragedies before they occurred. Once again, if God had a need to test people, which is doubtful because he would be all-knowing, he would do it without permitting people to kill others. In addition, as soon as anyone did accept him, God would promptly remove that person from the danger of being harmed by others; the test would be over for the believer. We don’t see this type of protective behavior in the real world.
Theodicy #8: God will provide extra reward to compensate those victims who had already accepted him. God would not engage in blatant discrimination like this. Given that he has provided little or no evidence of his existence and his wishes, he would not expect people to accept him and would not reward the victims of tragedy who believed in him more greatly than he rewarded those who did not. In fact, he would likely do the opposite and give the greater reward to those who rationally concluded that he probably does not exist.
Theodicy #9: Because Jesus has conquered evil in the world, victims and survivors of tragedies should be courageous and peaceful. If Jesus had conquered the world, God would have made this fact perfectly clear for all to see through proclamation and demonstration; there would be no doubt about it. After the death of Jesus, tragedies at the hand of man would have ceased to occur because Jesus would have eliminated them. Of course, this is not what we see. Critical examination of the New Testament in modern times has led us to see that the Christ savior figure could not and does not achieve what he was alleged to achieve.
Theodicy #10: God has provided the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus in order to comfort the victims of tragedies, including the victims in Aurora. If he were a good parent, God would not have allowed, or even arranged for, his only-begotten son to be tortured, humiliated, and executed. If Jesus had really come back to life, God would have provided much better evidence of this, but the evidence is very weak. There are no firsthand eyewitness reports corroborating each other. There are inconsistencies and contradictions in the Gospel narratives, all of which were written years after Jesus’s death. If God existed, he would either have prevented human-caused tragedies in the first place or at least met with all victims afterward to comfort them. We would expect nothing less from a perfectly good being with ultimate power. If God allowed tragedies, which is unlikely, he would surely find a better way to comfort victims and survivors of tragedies than referring to a single incident of torture that he arranged two thousand years ago.
These theodicies are similar to those that have been offered throughout history by religious apologists, especially Christians, for other tragedies, whether man-made or natural. They imagine decisions by God that would be incompatible with or contradictory to his presumed nature, and ironically, they are supported by the Old Testament picture of God who often acts unethically and violently.
Alternatively, I have proposed how God would behave, if he did exist, and it would essentially be as an all-powerful secular humanist might behave; but we see no evidence for this kind of being in the real world. My detractors might claim, “Come on now, you can’t and don’t know how God would behave!” to which my reply would be “And neither do you!” We don’t need to “know”; we just need to make reasonable predictions and test them in order to guide our worldview and behavior. Religious apologists such as Lee Strobel do not make reasonable predictions. They don’t take their own definition of God and assumptions about his nature seriously.
Real solutions to the problem of suffering and evil remain what they have always been: either God does not exist, or he exists and lacks one or more of the primary characteristics normally attributed to him, in which case he would not be the god imagined by followers of the Abrahamic religions. And so, our choices are clear. Either God does not exist, in which case we can and should free ourselves of one more ancient superstition. Or God exists and he is not all-knowing or all-powerful, in which case we can and should quit praying to him and worshipping him. Or he exists, and he is not perfectly good but in fact partly evil, in which case we can and should despise him and rebel against him. Given other considerations, the first of these three options appears to be the most reasonable.
- Harris, Sam. Free Will. New York: Free Press, 2012.
- Strobel, Lee. “Why Does God Allow Tragedy and Suffering: Reflections on the Shooting Tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. Based on a sermon delivered on Sunday, July 22, 2012, at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/july-online-only/doesgodallowtragedy.html.
- Whittenberger, Gary J. God Wants You to Be an Atheist. Denver: Outskirts Press, 2010.