We hear this a lot: “If God is so great, why is the world so messed-up?” Often followed by, “I’d rather die than kneel before a God Who hasn’t earned my respect.”
These ideas aren’t unique to modernity. The Bible itself teaches that, while God created the world to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31), justice does NOT necessarily prevail in it.
The whole Book of Job explores this problem of theodicy (Greek theos, God; dikei, justice): “If God is good, why do bad things happen to good people?” Near the end, Job acquires the power of prophecy - God communicates directly with him. HaShem explains that, despite the inscrutability of His plans, He is invariably always near. And asks the man, “Where were YOU when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4).
How can the Holy God suffer phony piety?
Ecclesiastes – Koheleth – tells of a poor man who, when an enemy attacks a town with his army, saves it, through bravery and wisdom. “Yet,” says the writer, “no man remembered that same poor man… the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.” Ecclesiastes 9:15-16.
Israel cherishes stories of Rabbi Akiva, a saintly giant of Torah scholarship. Moses asks God to show him Akiva’s fate and God shows him his last moments: the Romans flaying the rabbi alive – torturing him to death. With his dying breath he cries out Israel’s great declaration of faith, the Shema (“Hear O Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem alone/HaShem is one” – Deuteronomy 6:4). Moses asks, “Master of the Universe, why would You have such a man die so terribly?” HaShem answers: “Be silent; such is My will.” (Talmud, Menachot 29b.)
Incidentally, ever since Akiva’s death, Jews have consciously – when called to martyrdom, after all is lost – followed his example.
How can the God of truth suffer phony oracles and conmen?
Whenever God connects a Torah commandment to a reward – long-life for honoring mother and father (Exodus 20:12), for instance, or not taking a mother bird together with her offspring (Deuteronomy 22:7) –He’s speaking mainly of life after death, the Sages teach. They ask, “where is the long life promised to one who dutifully climbs a ladder to send away the mother bird but breaks his neck coming down?” “In the world to come” (Talmud, Chullin 142a, Kiddushin 39b).
As for this world, evil does NOT rule it. “One lesson, and one lesson only, history may be said to teach us with distinctness. and that is the world is built somehow on a moral foundation; that in the long run it is well with the good; that in the long run it is ill with the wicked.” (James Anthony Froude, England, 1818-1894). As Martin Luther King put it (1956), "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Yet we wonder, if God is so good, why do we suffer so much misery and trouble?
Answer: Because the natural order is itself a miraculous manifestation of His will. “The Holy One changes nature only for some great need or to publicize some lofty matter, for the order of nature is His will, which was ordained and is maintained by Him.” (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Germany, 1876).
How could the God of justice let this happen?
Pursuant to that thinking, Orthodox Israel prays every morning: “You [God] have made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. Who among all Your handiwork, those above and those below, can say to You, ‘What are You doing?” (“Ata hu,” ancient Hebrew prayer.)
Naturally, one of Orthodox Judaism’s principal opponents, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), did ask that. He taught, “Only a Moloch [a horrible Canaanite idol] requires human sacrifice.” A rabbi asked back, “In all of human history, was there ever a great cause or achievement that did NOT require sacrifice – even sacrifice of life itself?” (J.H. Hertz, 1937).
How can the Father of Compassion suffer human cruelty?
Abraham Lincoln considered these issues very deeply. He spoke about them - unforgettably - in his second Inaugural Address (“With malice towards none,” March 4, 1865), about six weeks before he died.
… “Neither party [North or South] expected for the [Civil] war the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already achieved… Each asked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes…
[Shall we discern in this terrible war] any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” [from Psalm 19:9].
“The Almighty has His own purposes.” That’s a fact to keep in mind.
500 Times More Good in the World Than Evil
Readers asked us to furnish more clarity here, from the last issue:
God’s loving-kindness extends at least 2,000 generations, yet His retributive justice lasts no more than four generations (Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 7:9). That showed up in the great theophany (Godly revelation) to Moses after the sin with the Golden Calf (Exodus 32; Deuteronomy 9:9-21).
How can the One Holy God allow people to worship false gods?
Scripture speaks of “thousands” (elephim) of generations of loving-kindness: the plural implies at least two, minimally. In fact, even if the term here translated as “thousands” is figurative, rather than literal, the clear sense of these passages is that God’s kindness, mercy and goodness is many times greater and much longer-lasting than the evil – the punishments – that sinners might expect.
If we take these passages literally – as referring to at least 2,000 generations of loving-kindness and mercy, versus just four generations of punishment – 2,000 divided by four equals 500. That is, the Torah gives us insight into how things really work: that is, the basic nature of the universe, with its cosmological constant (again, whether or not we take the numbers here literally): God’s merciful, compassionate loving-kindness is an inbuilt, invariable, universal quality of Creation which massively outweighs and extends far, far beyond the limits of all punishments and evil.
By Michael Dallen