No need for divine damage control: a response to Bruce Wildish in the Story of the Magi

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The three wise men traveling by way of the Star of Jesus. Image Credit: Universe Today

Many believers will object that, through the device of dream revelation, God provided for both Jesus’ escape to Egypt and his safe resettlement in Nazareth some time afterward, thereby thwarting Herod’s plans to have him killed. But this hardly demonstrates wisdom or virtue on God’s part, given that the crisis that God seeks to redress is of His own creation in the first place. If God had never put Jesus in danger by revealing so dramatically both the time and location of his birth to people who clearly bore him ill will, God would have had no need to engage in yet another act of miraculous intervention in order to rescue him. It simply makes no sense to credit God for engaging in what is essentially damage control. Second, and arguably more important, an unidentified but presumably significant number of innocent infants and children paid a terrible price for God’s actions…To the contrary, to judge from the enormity and grievous nature of the collateral damage involved, it can be said that God mishandled this entire affair from start to finish and in the worst possible manner. [Bruce Wildish, “The Great Messiah Blunder: What Hath God Botched?” Free Inquiry 25 no. 1 (December 2004-January 2005), page 32]

I’ve been reading my way through the December 2004-January 2005 issue of Free Inquiry magazine, a publication devoted to secular humanism, and I’ve already covered some of the terrible argumentation of the magazine edition: that is, that Christianity’s common Scriptural themes regarding Jesus with those of ancient traditions means that Christianity and the Bible are unoriginal and thus, artificial. I’ve done my best to show that the claim isn’t valid, that it is only made in the context of atheism and secular humanism.

The quote above provides an interesting take on the Story of the Magi in Matthew 2, an account that is unique only to Matthew’s Gospel (it isn’t found in any of the other three Gospels of Mark, Luke, or John). What Bruce Wildish is saying in the quote is that God is to blame for the horrible events surrounding Jesus: that is, God is to blame for Herod finding out about Jesus, God is to blame for Herod’s plan to massacre all the male children ages 2 and under, God is to blame for it all.

If God hadn’t sent the Magi to ask “Where is the King of the Jews?,” then Herod would’ve never known, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would’ve never had to flee to Egypt, and a generation of Jewish males would’ve never been slaughtered. As Wildish says elsewhere in his article, “It is no real exaggeration, then, to say that, through the combined miracles of the prophecy in Micah and the star seen by the Magi, God literally set Jesus up for assassination” (page 2 of the article, page 32 of Free Inquiry magazine). In short, the evil of the massacre is all God’s fault.

Why should we trust Bruce Wildish’s wisdom?

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Image Credit: Pinterest UK

But is it? Let’s look at the facts. Wildish is writing for Free Inquiry, a magazine that is opposed to all things religious. So, writing this polemic against Matthew 2 is his way of making a case against God and Christianity, if you will. So he uses Matthew 2 to accuse God of not being “wise, compassionate, and in full control of human events” (page 33), but how can Wildish say this?

If God exists, then clearly, He would be wiser than Wildish, right? Scripture calls God the one “who alone is wise” (Jude 1:25), so to accuse God of being anything but Wise is presumptuous: by so doing, Wildish thinks he knows what wisdom is better than God does. If he can make the claim that God isn’t wise, then let me turn the tables on him: who is Wildish, that we should trust his “wisdom”?

The problem with Wildish’s claim lies in his problem with evil. When one looks at the evil of the situation and King Herod, the problem of evil is seen as the problem of man, not God.

Herod and the Problem of Evil

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

Wildish says that God isn’t fully in control of human events, but what does it mean for God to be in control? This is a debate that Calvinists and Arminians (and non-Calvinists, who think of themselves as neither Calvinist nor Arminian) have had for the longest time. Wildish’s argument, that “God set Jesus up for assassination,” is what you’d expect a Calvinist to say — so perhaps there is some truth to the idea that Calvinism and atheism are related. That remains to be discussed in another post.

Wildish is writing from the perspective of, “God could’ve done things in such a way that the star guided the Magi without their visit to Herod.” In other words, if God has foreknowledge of all events, down to the slightest detail, then He could’ve prevented Herod from discovering that the Jews had a king being born. He could’ve sent the Magi away from Herod so as to prevent the massacre. And yet, what kind of God would He be if God were to always prevent every evil action because He is aware of it?

Atheism and the Problem of Evil

Wildish, along with many atheists, struggle with the problem of evil. The Problem of Evil, as it has been espoused for many years, says that God’s failure to prevent evil and suffering in the world make it problematic that He exists. If God exists, and He were good, He wouldn’t allow suffering of such magnitude to exist in the world, the view says. And yet, while this makes sense on the surface, it doesn’t make sense when one digs beneath the surface because part of the good in this world involves human freedom and the power of choice. Every human gets to make choices, whether good or bad.

While Wildish harps upon Matthew 2 and his claim that God isn’t wise to let the Jewish babies get massacred at the mercy of an evil king, he hasn’t taken time to examine other parts of the Bible that may explain the grand scheme of things (he is an atheist, after all, and many atheists tend to “cherrypick” Scripture instead of reading it in context and digesting it as a whole canon unto itself). For example, Scripture tells us that man is responsible for the evil in the world because he brought it into the world (Romans 5:12, “Through one man, sin entered the world”). Genesis 3 tells us a lot about how sin entered the world, and how Satan was part of it all. Mankind, though, is responsible, despite Satan’s temptation, and Adam, Eve, and the serpent are all cursed because of their roles in the Fall.

God made the world good, and called it “very good” when He made it (Genesis 1). Man is to blame for sin as we know it. Man is to blame for the tragedies that are around us. When it comes to the massacre or slaughter of the innocents, Herod is to blame. Herod was an evil man, simply put, a man who didn’t want any political threats to his throne, a man who was so paranoid about his political career that he believed a babe in a manger could at least challenge his rule if not put an end to it altogether.

And Herod is the one responsible for the slaughter of the innocents.

The Problem of Evil is ultimately The Problem of God

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Slaughtering of the innocents, a carving. Image Credit: Huffington Post

The Problem of Evil, for Wildish, is ultimately the problem of God. It’s not God’s problem because He isn’t responsible for evil, but it shows that Wildish and other atheists struggle with the problem of God.

Wildish blames God for evil and says that God is responsible, “He set up the whole thing,” as Wildish says (I paraphrase). And yet, his real issue is with God. He can’t stand God. God is his problem. He says “evil” is the problem, but it’s not evil; it’s God. God is what Wildish rejects.

By making Matthew 2 out to be a case of “an evil God,” Wildish is really saying “I have a problem with a God who would allow evil to exist.” And to that I respond, “Wildish, who are you to tell God what He can and cannot do?” Wildish has a problem with a God who would allow evil, but I have a problem with atheists who believe that they can tell God how He should be, what He should do, and how He should do it. If the whole earth is His, and humanity belongs to Him, then can He not do with it what He pleases? And who is Wildish (or any other atheist, for that matter) to judge God as if they, human men, are as immortal or divine as God?

Back to the Discussion: Matthew 2

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Window art of an angel visiting the Magi. Image Credit: New Christian Bible Study

Outside of Wildish’s problem with God, whom he thinks set up His Son, Jesus, to be forced to flee from danger because of Herod, God is the One who is seen as having done everything right and good in the account of Matthew 2. First, the Lord God let the wise men see His star in the East and used that Star to bring them to the region where Jesus was.

Next, the Lord prophesied in Scripture that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem hundreds of years before His birth, informing His people of the birth of the Messiah so that they wouldn’t be ignorant or misinformed of the coming of God’s Son. Then, upon sending the wise men (Magi) to worship Jesus, the Lord warned them in a dream to not return the same way, leading them another way to return to their home country. The Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, warning him of Herod’s plans to kill Jesus (and all Jewish males ages 2 and under), so that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus could escape to Egypt.

All these actions show the goodness of God, even in the face of evil (God is still good, despite tragic events such as the Las Vegas Massacre that occurred three and a half months ago). The Lord doesn’t force men to not commit evil acts because He has designed the world in such a way that humans can make both good and bad choices, can choose both good and evil.

Thus, despite stepping in to violate evil choices from Herod, the Lord intervenes in the lives of the righteous to warn them and prepare them to escape before tragedy strikes. The goodness of God in the face of evil is seen in the Lord’s forewarning Joseph to flee from the hand of Herod, though Herod is allowed to kill all the Jewish males aged 2 and under in Jesus’ generation. Even in the slaughter of the innocents, God reduces the evil of Herod by protecting the Magi from being killed by Herod and protecting Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.

Conclusion

Wildish believes that God put Jesus in a place of danger by telling everyone in Scripture that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, but the Lord also warned everyone of the tragic loss of life that would result in the event by including the prophecy of Jeremiah in Scripture (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:16-18). Claiming that God isn’t good and pointing out what Wildish believes to be “His evil” doesn’t undermine His goodness; rather, if one looks at humans as responsible for evil, then God’s power and goodness shine all the more.

Wildish would not agree with such a conclusion, but his conclusion, that one can’t affirm Matthew 2 as a believer because it is littered with problems, is also problematic; for, if there is a God but He is not good, then the events of Matthew 2 can be chalked up to nothing more than the evil acts of human men; “might makes right” in this scenario, and the goodness of God is nothing more than wishful thinking. As Alister McGrath says, if there is no God, then all that happens in the world, including the evil, is laid at man’s feet — and man is responsible for it.

God is good, and no evil resides in Him, but Herod is an evil king, regardless of whether one believes in God or not. Perhaps Wildish still wouldn’t like the story if there was no divine revelation involved, but there’s no denying that humans do evil things.

At least in the case of Christians, there is a sovereign God who displays His goodness and glory in the midst of evil. What solace, comfort, or hope does one find in Wildish’s atheism in the presence of evil?