The God Squad: Free will not a theological trick

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Question: It's amazing how you "learned theologians" always toe the party line: God is always responsible for the good things that happen, but good gosh, never responsible for the bad things because of "free will." And God doesn't make garbage.

Bunk. Hitler, Bin Laden and too many more names to fit on the page are all bad because of their environment? When a product is junk, you blame the manufacturer. I'd have more respect for you guys if you'd say God can and has been a screw-up, instead of the way you all tap dance around very valid questions with that "free will" nonsense. — Anonymous, via godsquadquestion@aol.com.

Answer: OK, let me see if I understand you. You say that God makes evil people who are evil from birth because they're morally defective "garbage." Do you actually believe that Hitler came out of the womb as a genocidal murderer? This is both obviously untrue and unhelpful. Even if it were true that there are "garbage people," how would we recognize them and what would we do with them? The obvious truth is that we are accountable for what we freely choose to do.

Free will is not a theological trick to get God off the hook for evil. It is the truth of our moral lives whether God exists or not. We are free moral agents, either because God so loved us as to give us the gift of moral freedom, or because we evolved this capacity all on our own. Either way, people are free to choose, and people are not garbage.

Those who freely choose to do radical evil must be stopped so the world can be free and so that death and oppression can end. Hitler should have been stopped in 1933 when he rose to power, or in 1939 when he invaded Poland, but our choice to be weak in the face of radical evil helped him gain and solidify power. His ultimate defeat finally came, but at a high price: The world ran with blood. All this is on us, not God.

God didn't "screw up" by giving us moral freedom. People without free will are like ants or robots, unable to make the choices for good that help us all live virtuous lives. God did the best thing and the hardest thing by saying to us: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The evil in the world is not the work of our Creator, who loves us and wants us to choose the way of salvation, happiness, compassion and hope. And that belief is not garbage!

Q: Someone on a cable TV channel recently made a prediction that the world would end on May 29, 2011. He was very sure and adamant about this and is announcing it daily. What do you think about this? Please let me know before May 29. — K., Lindenhurst, N.Y., via snail mail

A: The temptation to know the date the world will end has occupied people with nothing better to do for centuries, particularly in the time between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Various movements and sects whipped themselves into a frenzy after the death of Jesus, passionately believing Christ's second coming was imminent. As time passed without a second coming, some of these millenarian and chiliastic movements lost their appeal.

The Gospels are full of wise advice to avoid such inflammatory speculation. In Matthew 24:36 we read, "But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." (See also Mark 13:32; Matthew 24:42)

The textual loophole some have used to predict the second coming (which, by the way, is not the same as the end of the world) is the use of the words "hour" and "day." They interpret this to mean that although we cannot know the time of the day when Jesus will return, we can know the year. This has become a sad old song as the predicted years have come and gone.

The main reason to avoid speculation about the second coming, the rapture, the end of time, or the end of the world is that it leads to fatalism — the idea that there's no reason to do anything productive, healing, or good in the world because the world will end soon, regardless of what we do. There's a great Jewish legend about this. The rabbis of old taught that if you're planting a tree and you hear that the Messiah is coming, first plant the tree and then go out to greet the Messiah.

My advice to you is not to worry. Sunday, May 29, will pass by and the sun will rise as usual on Monday, May 30. I know this because I have a golf outing scheduled on May 30 and I don't think The Boss would want to wreck my day!

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