Why do people thank god when something good happens or when something really bad is narrowly avoided? Do they really think that god is actually making an effort to reward them for something they did? If they win the lottery, does that mean that they were favored over millions of other people or does god let chance rule most of the time? If someone just avoided getting hit by a tractor trailer, does it mean that the Devil was out to get him, but god intervened just in time to save him and, instead, allow somebody else less deserving to die? Some people think that god actually kills people in retaliation for bad behavior. It doesn’t even have to be their own behavior, it could just be group punishment for the actions of an entire country or the whole world. Why would god really want to punish us by group affiliation? Does he really care if someone is an American? It isn’t like we each get to choose what kind of stupid policies our government often inflicts upon us.
People love to “Thank God” when things go well for them. They mostly thank him when some catastrophe is narrowly avoided or when they recover from some devastating situation or illness. I find this curious because one might also assume that it was god who put them in the situation in the first place. Are we to assume that all bad things are the result of the devil or of chance and that all good things are the conscious interventions of god? Is this rational thinking? Let’s think about this by dividing up all situations into three categories, good, bad, and neutral and applying a sanity check.
First, there is the situation wherein something bad happens, but eventually everything turns out OK. Maybe it even seems like a miracle that we survived at all. This is the best-case scenario for god lovers. Obviously, the devil tried to do something bad to us, but god intervened and stopped him cold. Hurray for god! Hurray for us, as we obviously have god on our side!
The situation wherein something good happens out of the blue is similar. God decided to reward us–hurray for us! Of course, maybe it was just a test to see what we would do with our good fortune. If we win the lottery or are born into great wealth, what we do with the money might determine the future of our souls. When does someone qualify for such a wimpy test? I’m certainly willing to volunteer for this softball rather than the kind where your life falls apart for no apparent reason and you have to struggle every day until you die a miserable and lonely death. Come on, test me, please! Make it a whopper. I don’t buy lottery tickets because it is basically a waste of money (“a tax on the poor”), so you’ll have to send me one of those winning tickets that some sucker loses or forgets to check and throws away. By the way, that would be a pretty good punishment, so let him know he lost it. Note to Oprah: You are definitely passing your “great wealth” test.
Now, consider the case where something bad happens and it only goes downhill from there, eventually resulting in sickness, poverty, disgrace, and death. Now, we have to wonder if the devil or chance did the dirty deeds and then god either was too busy to care or decided not to intervene. Either way, it doesn’t look too good. He obviously didn’t want to intervene on our behalf. The reasons, however, get complicated, but here is a stab at some of the more likely reasons for not making everything turn out OK. Either (1) we were not worth the effort to help and he was willing to see what would happen by chance; (2) we needed to learn a harsh lesson before we died, so he consciously decided to punish us and see how we react; (3) we already earned a place in heaven, so he decided to use us to punish or test someone else; or (4) we were already guaranteed to go to hell, and he needed to use us to reward, punish, or test someone else.
The first case, where we are not worth the effort, could be true of the mediocre majority. We’re borderline cases and could go either way towards good or evil. But this implies that god’s resources are limited and need to be expended on those who really need the attention. If this is the case, we have a problem. We’re pretty much on our own unless we are special enough to take note of. How can we get god’s attention? Does it help to have more people pray louder and longer on your behalf for your prayer to be heard? Scientific studies on prayer have showed that having many people pray for people with medical conditions does not seem to help.
In the second case, where we are in need of a harsh test, we have to resign ourselves to “god’s will” without complaint and without turning towards evil. This is the standard position of most religions. Put up, shut up, and be happy about it. I guess that makes life a bit like a frat house initiation. It really sucks for a while, but if you want to get into the club, you’d better take it like a man. My opinion is that any deity that has an initiation procedure really ought to apply it to everyone. No letting in your favorites with a couple of pats on the backside. Either we all go through the mud, or nobody does. Why can’t we all just take the lottery test?
In the third case, where we already earned a place in heaven and are just being used for another purpose, come on! Do I really need to comment on this? Is that they way to treat your favorites? I thought that our good deeds were supposed to come back to us in kind several times over? Isn’t that what the bible says? If you punish the best people along with the worst, what kind of message do you think that sends to everyone? You know that we humans instinctively respond to short-term rewards and punishment, so this isn’t a very smart way of getting good behavior.
What if a good person is so pushed over the edge, that he does something really, really, bad? Does he then get sent to hell even though he was doing just fine before god decided to use him like a punching bag to test someone else? Or is there a point beyond which you can do anything and still get into heaven? We would all like to think so. I would definitely like to be able to take my own life if I were suffering from a painful, fatal illness, and don’t think that should cancel out the rest of my life’s work. I would also like to be able to blow away some bastard if he just killed my entire family. I’m sure most juries would probably let me off on the basis of “temporary insanity.” Didn’t Jesus even question god while he was on the cross? It certainly didn’t hurt him.
Now, we’re down to case four, where we are already guaranteed to go to hell, so god is just using us for another purpose. If you believe that we only have one life, then we only have one chance to prove ourselves. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair to cut our lives short just because we were bad-even if we were really, really bad. Don’t we get the chance to redeem ourselves? Is there a point beyond which we are a completely lost cause? The Catholic Church doesn’t think so. As long as you are still breathing, you have the chance to accept Jesus and confess your sins. But in the Old Testament and in the Koran, god does seem willing to kill us as punishment for doing bad things. Time is up, you’re out of here! Go straight to hell. The answer is obvious if you look at the exceptional case: when someone who has not yet earned a place in Heaven (i.e. a bad guy who has not yet redeemed himself) is killed instantly. Maybe he is hit from behind by a truck, has a massive heart attack, or is blown to bits by a car bomb. If we only have one life, then god is obviously willing to kill us or let us die by chance without giving us the chance to save ourselves. Your time may be up at any moment and he doesn’t care. So, if you thank god for the good things that happen, you have to blame him for the bad.
On the other hand, if we have more than one possible life, then maybe we do get another chance. This changes the whole equation. Now, death can be as much of a test as life. It means that god can use us at will without worrying about the ramifications of killing us. He can kill a perfectly good person just to punish or test someone else, knowing that the good person will always get another chance. Does that mean that we humans can also kill someone good just to test or punish someone else? Obviously, god could just send him back again. I think my attorney just wet himself, so I don’t think I’ll answer that question. I just can’t afford the liability.
So, let me ask this corollary question instead. If we kill someone bad, will it matter? Won’t he just get another chance anyway? Correct. If reincarnation is possible, then killing someone doesn’t do anything other than free up some resources for someone else. If you think the death penalty in this country saves us money in prison costs, think again. It probably costs us more to keep someone on death row for decades while lawyers keep things tied up in court. Yes, it would be cheaper to take someone out back and string him up 30 minutes after the trial, but we don’t do that anymore. Anyway, I wouldn’t trust our legal system to stop convicting innocent people. Of course, couldn’t they just be reincarnated anyway? Forget I said that.
Sometimes really bad things happen to really good people and it doesn’t seem that anyone benefits or is deservingly punished. What if god always tries to help save us from bad situations but is not always able to succeed? Yes, we always assume he is all powerful, but what if he is not? What if the forces of hell or chance are sometimes stronger? Is there a balance of power in the universe and a war between good and evil whose outcome is in doubt? Can god lose? Is god too busy to help everyone? Is managing the universe just too overwhelming and complicated a problem considering all the seemingly random interactions that affect us all? The “butterfly effect” implies that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the world can affect the entire global weather pattern through a progression of small, seemingly insignificant, actions occurring in progression. Maybe god just can’t handle the complexity of the universe.