This post is a continuation of the last post on State Fair conversations. In the course of talking to the Evangelical woman and man who visited Wednesday night I also had an interesting conversation with the guy. This discussion was regarding the question of whether or not is was moral for God to cause/allow people to suffer. He offered the typical response I have heard to this question: that God has the right to do anything he wants with humans because he created us and he owns us. Then he gave this as an example: If he built a beautiful handcrafted chair, he would be perfectly in his right to chop it up with an axe and use it for firewood if he so desired. This is because he made the chair, and it is his to do with as he pleases.
This same sort of analogy of God’s ownership relation to humans is in the Bible too. In Romans Chapter 9, Paul compares humans to clay that is shaped by God (the potter) to whatever purpose God desires, even if it’s for the purpose of wrath and destruction. Paul also makes it clear in this passage that the purpose for which this clay is formed has nothing to do with either the desires or merits or “works” of the clay. The clay just has no right to talk back to the potter because, well, the potter is God and can do anything he wants with it. This is all very well when you are talking about clay and potters, but clay does not feel happiness or sorrow or pain or joy. Clay has no interests of its own — only the potter has interests in the clay.
Speaking of ownership rights, there is also a passage in Exodus (I said Leviticus before, but it’s actually Exodus 21:20) that says that slaveowners may beat their slaves without any reprisal, as long as the slave gets up again in a few days, because the slave is their property. (For a nice summary of slavery rules in the Bible, visit Bible Verses Rarely Read on Sunday.) In other words, as long as a person was considered property, the owner could do what he wanted to them, short of beating them to death. There was clearly no indication in the Bible that humans have any right to live free of the threat of pain and terror.
Since the comparison of humans to wooden chairs or to clay is obviously flawed, I offered up what I think is a much better analogy. Not too long ago there was a movie where the main character hears narration in his head that not his voice and it is driving him crazy. As it turns out, he is only a character in a book, whom the author intends to kill off in some horrible and tragic way at the end of the story. So I asked this question of this Christian guy: if you had the power to write a novel in which the characters were real people who had real families and feelings and who could feel pleasure and pain, do you think it would be alright for you to decide to just strike one of them with cancer or some other horrible painful disease? Or to harm them in other ways? After all you would be their creator, and you would own them.
When I asked him this, he was visibly uncomfortable and clearly saw that there was a problem with this scenario. It’s easy to say that you have the right to chop up a chair that you make and that you own, but clearly human beings and other sentient creatures are not like inanimate objects that do not suffer. He still tried to work around it and say it was different in God’s case. In response I said that it sounded to me like a rationalization for a really horrible and immoral belief, and he admitted that he could see why I would think that. So it looks like I got him to understand my point of view on the subject, and I was very happy with this conversation.