God As The Great Extorter In The Sky - It's Not Enough
Updated: Jun 1
Extortion is the practice of obtaining something by means of force or threats. If a priest comes to you and says, “Join my church or I will kill you,” that would be extortion. If a rabbi declares, “Practice the tenants of my religion faithfully or I will kill not only you but your family as well,” that would also be extortion. Some believe that their God works in a similar manner. Punishing nonbelievers and rewarding adherents depending on whether you are are practicing their God's commandments. Obeying God's commands is the avenue to avoid his wrath. If so, God is running the greatest and longest lasting extortion racket ever known. Do it my way or die!
To be clear from the outset, I do not prescribe to the idea that God punishes, and rewards individuals based on whether we are obedient to his/her/its commandments. I believe that we are born with free will and that while God exists, he is not actively interfering in the world to create a desired outcome. Whatever reward or punishment that will take place is unknown and the decisions we make are based on our own sense of justice rather than a fear of eternal retribution.
Frankly, I am not sure what is the interrelationship between God and man and I know that the conclusion I reach may not be satisfying. Even for me. For decades I have searched for an answer and have been terribly frustrated by the inability to find one. I have been stuck on the question of God's role in the universe since I was forced to go to Hebrew school decades ago. My son has questioned the existence of God and asked me why bad things happen to good people. I wish I had a better answer for me and for him. Whatever the truth is, I have decided to but down my thoughts on paper as a way of getting the jumble out of my head. This is what I got.
In the end, humans make the decisions that affect the majority of the outcomes of our lives. Human agency, even if affected by natural disasters, is the predominant factor. As an example, whether an earthquake occurs is not controlled by human agency. Building codes and earthquake preparedness are in our control. While we cannot control if an earthquake occurs, the effects of the quake are at least partly in our power to control.
Regardless of how you view God, he is not stopping humans from acting badly, either collectively or as individuals. And if he is punishing evil doing, its not working. However, if we believe that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and supremely just, it is difficult to reconcile at least the supremely just part of the equation with the realities of the world. Maybe, though, God uses a different definition of justice. Godly justice may simply be synonymous with following his commandment, but that leads to some very difficult questions.
What do millions of people in the world do to deserve death from cancer? Why would a God who is supremely just allow these people to die? Are those who died and those who will die being punished for some theological crime or for their lack of faith? Is God, to paraphrase the Oxford philosopher Jonathan Glover, the great extorter in the sky? Is it simply that we fail to obey God's teachings and commandments at our own risk? Should we practice God's commandments out of fear of retribution rather than a belief that they are right?
Today is not the first time that people have asked how an omnipotent, omnipresent and supremely just God can allow so many people to die. It has been a question that philosophers, and many who have lost loved ones, have asked since the concept of such a deity came into being.
One well-thought-out debate about the role of the Almighty took place after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. At the time, Lisbon was the fourth largest city in Europe. It was a city known for its superstition and idolatry, and it was a center of the Inquisition. On the morning of the earthquake, many of the city’s residents were at mass. A major fire destroyed much of the city left standing after the earthquake and a resulting tidal wave. Estimates of dead were as high as 70,000. The Royal Palace was destroyed. There was significant housing damage and only 3,000 of 20,000 dwellings remained habitable. The city was nearly obliterated.
The earthquake took place in the middle of the Enlightenment, with the prevailing philosophical view being called philosophical optimism. That belief rejected much of traditional Christianity, especially the power of the Church. Its chief proponent, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, wrote in 1710 that faith and reason were consistent and that the world was good. More to the point, it is the best of all possible worlds since a just and all powerful God would only create the best of all possible worlds.
Voltaire, the leading philosopher of the Enlightenment , took exception with philosophical optimism and used the Lisbon earthquake as his proof. Voltaire's Poem on Natural Law, written in1756, used the earthquake as a means to attack optimism. He wrote that "Say what advantage can result to all from Lisbon's lamentable fall?" Voltaire came back to the earthquake in his masterpiece Candide. His main character, Candide, traveled throughout the world in order to see and experience the insanity and folly of people's lives. On arriving in Lisbon, an earthquake occurred and Candide said to herself: "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"
François-Marie Arouet known by his nom de plumeVoltaire
Voltaire was not the last to question the contradiction between traditional views of the all-powerful and a just God with the evils present in the world. Perhaps this contradiction most clearly came into focus with the emergence of Hitler's Final Solution. While the Holocaust affected the entire world, the group that had the hardest time reconciling the Holocaust with their world views were the victims themselves.
It is a tenant of Judaism, that originated with Abraham, that there is a covenant between God and the Jews. In exchange for Abraham and the Jewish people obeying God's commandments, God would take special care of them. This is the basis for the idea of the Jews as the chosen people. Yet, the real world had not been kind to Jews, even before the Holocaust. The fictional character, Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, said it best when he mused to God that "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?" Whatever questions existed before the Holocaust were mere trifles compared to the questions raised afterwards.
The Final Solution was a systematic, technology driven plan to eliminate all European Jewry and eventually all that existed in the world. Even 75 years later, with incontrovertible proof of its existence, via eye witness testimony, pictures, documents and film, it is almost impossible to conceive of the barbarity and raw evil that was required to accomplish much of its goals. In the end, 6,000,000 Jews, 1.5 million of whom were children, were purposefully butchered for no other reason other than their religious belief.
Where was God at the death camps? What can be said of a God who had the power to stop the slaughter of his chosen people and stood by and did nothing 6,000,000 times? A God that allowed this to happen cannot be called just. One explanation put forth by some Jewish theologians is that the Jews had broken the covenant and this was God's retribution, that high rates of assimilation, and the growth of non-Orthodox Jewish movements had caused God to treat the covenant as null and void. The truth, however, is that the Jews who were murdered were not the least religious, but rather they were the most religious. The more assimilated, and well-off, Jews had already left Germany behind.
Are we to believe that these Jews, who were devout and pious, with Jewish names, who observed the minutiae of Jewish law pertaining to kashrut and the Sabbath and prayed thrice daily for the Jewish return to Zion were punished with extinction while the “sinful” culprits of German Jewry mostly survived? And what of the more than one million children who were gassed and cremated, who were utterly innocent? The theory of the Holocaust-as-punishment is not just abhorrent. It is factually absurd.
The Jewish intellectual response to the Holocaust covered the entire spectrum of thought. Some blamed God. Some blamed the victims. And some believed that the fact that the Holocaust happened was incontrovertible proof that God was dead. Richard Rubenstein, in his book After Auschwitz, wrote that any idea of an all powerful and just God died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He wrote in the New York Times:
There is a potentially irreconcilable conflict between the Judaeo‐Christian image of the Biblical God as the just Lord of history and the terrible events of the twentieth century. The problem is especially urgent within Judaism. The traditional Jewish doctrine of the chosen people, no matter how interpreted, is difficult to maintain in the face of Auschwitz. If history expresses God's purposeful activity, especially toward his elect community, God himself must be regarded as ultimately responsible for the death camps. Contemporary Biblical faith, whether Jewish or. Christian, must either assert that God had his mysterious reasons for permitting Hitler's genocidal activities or that faith must see its image of God dissolve together with Auschwitz's other victims.
Albert Camus, the French existentialist writer, faced similar questions in his 1947 classic The Plague. The book centers on a plague that strikes the French Algerian city of Oran in the 1940s. It is seen by many as an allegory for Camus' time spent in the French resistance during World War II. As the plague ravages Oran, the book traces the reaction of many of the city's residents, including the priest, Father Paneloux. When the plague first strikes Oran, Father Paneloux preaches to his congregation that the plague is God's wrath for the way that the people of Oran have lived their lives. He states that
[i]f today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck fir taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world. His thrashing-floor, and implacably. He will thresh out His harvest until wheat is separated from the shaft.
Father Paneloux’s beliefs are put to the ultimate test when he is personally confronted with the death of the child, Jacques Othon. While Father Paneloux had previously witnessed the death of others, this is the first time that he has had to watch "a child’s agony minute by minute." Father Paneloux realizes that there is a big difference between the abstract ideas of his sermons and the reality of a defenseless child’s death. The underlying question of how God could allow Jacques to die is crystallized when he calls out in the midst of Jacques’ suffering, "My God, spare this child!"
It is impossible to reconcile the irreconcilable. If God plays an ongoing and active part in our lives, the reality of what we see before us makes believing in an all powerful and just God at the very least difficult. We are not dealing with anything that can be empirically proven; rather, we are dealing with faith. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) For some, regardless of the lack of empirical evidence, God as all powerful and actively present in our lives is very real. That belief has led to various responses from the victims and witnesses of evil.
Perhaps the most direct and defiant response was that of several rabbis during the Holocaust. According to Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, three rabbis imprisoned by the Nazi's put God on trial and found him guilty of breaking his covenant with the Jews. In a fictionalized account, called "God on Trial,” a group of prisoners in Auschwitz are awaiting word about who will survive and who will not. New shipments of prisoners had arrived early and room had to be made for them. In Auschwitz, that meant that existing prisoners had to be exterminated. One prisoner, rightfully angry at his possible death, demands that God be put on trial.
The ultimate answer to the role of God and whether there is a conflict between the concept of God being all powerful and just is well beyond my pay grade. Some theologians have answered the question by arguing that what God does is beyond our comprehension and should not be questioned. Maybe that is true, but it sounds like a copout. Some theologians argue that punishing or allowing nonbelievers to die is not unjust. Maybe that is true, but it is not justice since it results in the Christian commandant of the death camp being saved and his victims condemned to hell. Yet, in the end, it may not matter.
Whatever the role that God may play, it is readily apparent that human agency plays an overwhelming role. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading philosopher of the Enlightenment, corresponded with Voltaire and took exception with what he saw as Voltaire's attack on religion and his failure to take into account the human contribution to the damage that the earthquake caused. He commented that "[m]ost of our physical ills are still our own work." Rousseau pointed to the decision to build multistoried buildings, to the great density of the city, and to the failure to respond properly once the earthquake had occurred.
Rousseau's observations apply equally to cancer deaths and the Holocaust. Whatever God's role is in failing to stop the extermination camps, the role that humans played is clear. Humans created the Final Solution. Humans allowed Hitler to come to power. Humans manned the extermination camps, caused the gas pellets to be dropped into the gas chambers, and ushered the victims into the chambers. Humans, knowing that the extermination was taking place, failed to take steps to stop it.
Humans did not create cancer. But both the impact and effect of cancer have human fingerprints all over the deaths that it has caused. Humans have developed pesticides and decided to use them regardless of the cancer risks. Humans have decided that there is an acceptable level of new cancers that can occur in order to allow economic development.
In the end, even if we accept the premise that the breaking of God's commandments will lead to divine punishment, that does not help those who live in this world. The idea that perhaps Hitler was condemned to the deepest circle of Dante's Inferno is small recompense to the millions of his victims. If God is the great extorter in the sky, he really is not very good at it. We cannot not look at God's punishment as the source of the behavior that a civilized society requires. We need to look deeper into ourselves to find the answer.
In 1762, Rousseau published his work The Social Contract. Rousseau argued that in order for modern society to thrive it was necessary for all to work toward a common good, with reciprocal responsibilities between those who govern and those who are governed. The governed also have the same obligation to each other. In this way society works in a just manner to benefit the whole.
The Holocaust, as well as all of the events for which the human race should be embarrassed, can be viewed as breaches of this social contract. From the massacres in Rwanda and the reign of Stalin to climate change, humans, not God, are directly responsible. To look to God and to cry out like Father Paneloux on witnessing the death of Jacques is to shirk our responsibility.
If God is truly omnipotent and omnipresent then perhaps the verdict by the prisoners at Auschwitz was correct. In fact, it is not an exaggeration that any other verdict would have been incomprehensible. But frankly the role God played is irrelevant. Man perpetrated the Holocaust. Man made the decisions that worsened the effect of the Lisbon earthquake. Man made the decisions that have dramatically increased the risk of cancer deaths. Man has made the decisions that have spoiled our planet and put the world on the edge of a climatic catastrophe.
The recognition that human agency, and not God, is the cause is not to say that those who preach that God plays no role in our lives are correct. While I believe that God exists, I do not believe that he is the great extorter in the sky. I do not see God as the ultimate umpire, calling balls and strikes, and determining whether we get a walk to heaven or a strike out with a one way ticket to hell. But I do believe that God may have created the rule book by which we should live. You do not have to believe in God to recognize this. A good friend of mine, who is a rabbi, told me that at times he is not sure that he believes in God. But even in these times his life is better when he acts as if he does.
The answer to the proper intersection between God and man can start with the teachings of Rousseau and Voltaire. While both rejected traditional religion, they believed in a divinely ordered universe. This is similar to the comment of Einstein that "God does not play dice with the universe." Although Einstein was referring to the laws of physics, it has equal application here. Moreover, it is impossible to divorce the the moral and ethical thoughts of Rousseau, Voltaire or any of the great teachers from those of the world's great religious prophets.
Rousseau's Social Contract can be viewed as nothing more than an updated and expanded version of the teachings of Hillel the Elder. Hillel was a rabbi and is one of the icons of Judaic teachings. He was born in 110 B.C.E. in Babylon and lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod. There is a famous story that Hillel was approached on the road by a nonbeliever who said that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could explain the entire teachings of the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel took up that challenge, stood on one foot and responded:
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!
Hillel later expanded on the "Golden Rule" when he asked the ultimate question of one's personal morality.
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But when I am for myself, then what am "I"? And if not now, when?
What Hillel was preaching was the existence of a social contract with interlocking obligations and responsibilities. These teachings carry more power than any threat of delayed cosmic justice. At this point whether God should have prevented the Lisbon earthquake and the Holocaust or whether He has allowed cancer to exist, is not a relevant question. Any explanation of the reason for such occurrences is limited to an intellectual endeavor. The simple facts are that cancer does exist and that we are not doing what we can to prevent it. The Holocaust did happen and knowledge of its evil did not cause the world to intervene to stop genocides in Cambodia or Rwanda or the Balkans.
If God is the great extorter in the sky he needs to do better. Maybe the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the great flood were just too long ago to have any impact. What has survived and is still impactful is the moral teaching that gives humans a goal to strive for and a barometer by which to judge our own behavior. Although we did not prevent the Holocaust or do everything we should have done in the Balkans, we have since recognized that what was done was wrong, and made efforts through the Nuremberg trials and the World Court to punish the guilty.
International Criminal Court
The Rabbis in the death camp were correct to have found God guilty. But this does not absolve the human race. We had not lived up to the social contract and should have been found guilty as co-conspirators. We have not embodied the teachings of Rabbi Hillel. But in the absence of a God who will make everything alright, it may be that all we have is the knowledge that we have not lived by the concept that "[w]hat is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”. What is left to us, what is required of us, is the desire and then the actions required to achieve that goal.