On God’s existence and justice

It should be stressed that this notion of sin being the root of evil was a radical contribution of biblical Israel.

July 17, 2019 19:06
On God’s existence and justice

‘IT IS man who makes the first mistake – Adam and Eve sin and are punished.’. (photo credit: PIXABAY)

Can God’s existence be demonstrably proved? It is interesting to note that this is in fact a rather new question.

In biblical times for example, the question never got off the ground. I don’t even think it entered their mind of ancient people that it was possible there was no God. For this reason the Bible is not a contemplative book. There are no proofs of God’s existence offered or other philosophical musings. The reality of God was manifest for them in a myriad of ways.

It is Israel’s experience with God that leads them to belief. “And Israel saw the mighty hand that the Lord demonstrated in Egypt and the people feared the Lord and they believed in the Lord and Moses His servant.” (Exodus 14:31). When God introduced Himself on Sinai, He did so by saying, “I am the Lord thy God who took you out of Egypt” and not “I am the Lord thy God who created Heaven and Earth.” God establishes His relationship with the people through their experience with Him.

In the biblical mind, the question was which god was responsible for creation and whether theirs was one true God or a multiple of gods? For the ancients, belief in God or gods was as obvious to them as gravity is to us. This is in fact a remarkable point leading Rabbi Louis Jacobs to wonder “how the belief in God could have been so obvious to the ancient Hebrews that no one doubted His existence. Surely, it can be argued, human nature cannot have changed to such a degree that a matter upon which there was so much disagreement in medieval and modern times should have been so clear to the ancients as to obviate the need for either defense or refutation.” Jacobs writes that even “the doubts expressed in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes deal with the injustices evident in the world which lead men to question God’s concern with human affairs, but not with God’s actual existence.”

I think Jacobs underestimated the power of science to offer convincing proof of the possibility of a universe without a God who created it.

As believing Jews, we would be wise to take the time to understand the arguments of the “New Atheists.” Their arguments are for the most part cogent and will serve to enrich the experience of believers if they dare take their arguments seriously.
Before the Enlightenment, there was no room for atheism; everyone believed in some sort of God, the question was always which one? In fact, the rabbinic term used for one who denies God is one who says “Leit din v’leit dayan,” “There is no judgment, there is no judge.” This person is not really denying the existence of God. That would be foolish. What he is denying is that there is a God who concerns Himself with Man. One can even argue that the real crux of the argument isn’t the existence of such a judge, but that man was important enough to be judged. In other words, the ancients didn’t doubt God as much as they doubted man!

THIS BRINGS us to the most basic of theological questions that perhaps every religion is based on: Why do bad things happen to good people? Biblical Judaism wrestles with this idea and shares with us two different approaches. The first is that the sin of man causes evil in the world. Time and again, evil is brought upon both the Israelites and the pagan world as consequence of their sins. Right from the beginning, we are told that the world God created was “good.” Yet, it is good because it is capable of good, not because there is some intrinsic goodness built in.

It is man who makes the first mistake. Adam and Eve sin and are punished. Cain sinned and was punished as well. The story of Noah demonstrates once again that evil is brought upon the Earth as a result of man’s actions, leading God to remark that evil was part of human nature. When Israel sins, God brings retribution upon them. When Egypt sinned, God brought punishment upon them as well. God is prevented from leading Israel in to the Promised Land right away for the sin of the Amorites was not quite done. The biblical prophets may have proclaimed the radical notion that God is not nearly as concerned with ritual sin as much as sins between man and his fellow, but still, the prophets see sin as the root of all evil.

It should be stressed that this notion of sin being the root of evil was a radical contribution of biblical Israel. Surrounded by pagan cultures that lived on the capriciousness of the gods, Israel introduces a God of Justice into man’s consciousness. Therefore, a drought isn’t caused by the god of rain, nor famine and childlessness by the fertility goddess. There were no warring factions in the heavens. There is but one God who was responsible for man’s blessings and miseries. As we advance into the Talmudic age, the sages record the crystallization of this idea in the opinion of Rabbi Ami: “There is no death without sin, no suffering without transgression,” and that seems to be the majority view of Rabbinic Judaism throughout the ages.

Yet while that may be true, this view was not monolithic. Even the Bible, which advanced this radical view, recognized the weakness of the argument and offers another voice in the Book of Job. Job opens with the fantastical bet between Satan and God as to whether Satan can cause Job to curse God.

The worst of calamities befall the righteous Job and still he does not curse God. But that is not the point of the story. The point of the story is that serious troubles can befall even innocent and righteous people and most importantly that tragedy is not evidence of sin.

A second view offered by the Bible is that of Isaiah’s suffering servant. This idea is less familiar to most believing Jews since the idea has been taken by our Christian friends as a prophecy foretelling the suffering of Jesus on the cross. But the truth is it is just as “Jewish” of an idea as Shabbat or feeding the widow and orphan.

In this idea, some must suffer so that others may live. It may not make sense but this is the way of the world. Innocent people suffer. In this conception, the world finds vicarious atonement through the suffering of the righteous. It may not be a palatable idea to us but it is a Jewish one, even if it has been buried by Jewish Christian polemics for thousands of years.
None of these answers bring comfort to those who are doing the suffering.

So again, why do bad things happen to good people? We just don’t know.

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

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