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  • Dan Connors

The Trilemma and the eternal debate on the nature of God

"So, was the Holocaust part of God's great plan? Is that why he allowed it to happen? Is that why God didn't answer the prayers of all those Jews who begged him to make Hitler drop dead? Why didn't God just make Hitler have a heart attack before he could start World War 2? Why didn't he simply prevent Hitler from being born? How could a God who is supposed to be all good all the time allow something like the Holocaust? Or did God not just LET it happen? Maybe God MADE the Holocaust happen, because everything that happens, happens for a good reason? Are our minds simply too tiny, too inferior, to understand God's divine plan? Are we just too stupid to see the greater good that came out of the Holocaust? If that were true, and everything that happens, including the Holocaust, is part of God's perfect plan, then that means that Hitler really wasn't a bad man at all. He was actually doing God's work. And if Hitler did exactly what he was supposed to do in God's great plan, then Hitler obviously didn't have free will, but was just God's puppet. So that means Hitler was a good guy. A man of God." Oliver Markus, Sex and Crime: Oliver's Strange Journey

The trilemma of Epicurus, (pictured above) is probably the most important question about the nature of God. It was famously enunciated by Greek Philosopher Epicurus around 300 BC. Is God all-powerful, as most religions depict Him? If He is all-powerful, how are we to make sense of His Great Plan, which apparently involves wars, plagues, racism, sexism, and many evils that mankind creates, often in the name of God? Where does evil come from? Does God allow it? (In which case He is not all-powerful.) Or does He consciously tolerate it? (In which he is not all-good.)

Organized religions have struggled with these questions for centuries, and have yet to provide a satisfactory answer as to why at some level their God allows them to participate in evil, but for a greater purpose. Consider:

1- In Myanmar, Buddhists have risen up and committed war crimes against the Muslim minority there.
2- Indian Hindus, a majority of the country, have been accused of oppressing the Muslim minority of India as well.
3- When Vladimir Putin and Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, the powerful Eastern Orthodox church supported it, even as it has led to thousands of deaths of civilians and children.
4- In Africa, the religious conflicts are often between Christians and Muslims, with one of the biggest ones being in Nigeria where Boko Haram, which has dominated the Northern states and introduced Sharia law.
5- Israel, established for Jews since 1948, has drifted into armed conflicts with Palestinians, who live in the same country, but enjoy fewer rights.
6- And finally Christianity and all of its denominations have twisted the words of Jesus Christ to justify wars, slavery, genocide, selfishness, and whole host of evils for centuries.

If organized religions have been so flawed in presenting a useful concept of God, why do they still exist? If God is omnipotent, why would He tolerate all these different religions with different teachings that twist theology to suit their own purposes? The God presented by most of these religions is a nasty, vengeful God who rewards those He favors and punishes everybody else. If you take that as gospel, then it makes sense to suck up to the Big Guy, and do whatever it takes to get in His good graces while avoiding bad people and bad ideas He doesn't like.

Having a tough, unforgiving and zealous God is a great way to build a group of believers. They get to feel safer because God is on their side. With God on your side, how can you possibly lose? And they get to have easy explanations for anything that goes wrong- blame Satan, (through his many agents of non-believers and sub-human subversives), and not your own shortcomings This explanation worked for many centuries, but has faltered as the 21st century came into existence.

Organized religions, while still very powerful, are losing followers worldwide and especially in America. Is this because evil is winning, or because people, especially the youngest among them, are seeing the flaws that the trilemma exposes? The main culprit appears to be science, which most religions have resisted because it offers a competing view of reality. Science explains who we are, how we got here, and what to expect in the future. The one thing it can't explain is why we are here. Religion tries to fill that gap, but it's reliance on tribal allegiances that are rewarded in Heaven rings hollow for many today.

What is the uncomfortable truth that science can't resolve? Death. We will all die and cease to exist, as will all those that we love. This truth terrifies us so much that we often chose to cling to the all-powerful God concept to perhaps rescue us from it. If we just do whatever God says, even if that requires some morally questionable behavior, we have a guaranteed spot in Heaven. But the notion of an all-powerful escape through God's fickle graces is losing its appeal as the 21st century goes on. Many of us now believe that it's not God who chooses winners and losers, but humans, through the messy process of evolution, politics, and day to day imperfect choices.

People are rejecting the idea of a God that plays favorites, drowns a planet save for a few chosen ones on an Ark, or promises earthly rewards to a chosen few through the prosperity gospel. If God is unable to protect us from evil, and we are truly on our own, what purpose does God serve? To get to a better answer to this question, we need to back away from the traditional picture of God as a big old bearded guy in the sky.

What if God was more of a spirit than a mighty being? A spirit of pure love and goodness that all of us could tap into whenever we choose? This makes more sense to me personally. If there is some sort of Great Spirit, Life Force, or bright light of unconditional love, then there is an answer to the uncomfortable truth that goes beyond our petty concerns about existence. Perhaps God is not a being exactly, but more a beacon of love and truth that guides us in our darkest moments. If life were truly meaningless and empirically based, then love would have no meaning beyond temporary bonding rituals of families. But love is much more, especially when it is unconditional, which is the type that a loving, accepting God could provide.

Having an unconditionally loving but not very powerful God isn't likely to animate many religions, because fear and tribalism are what has motivated humans throughout history. The most exciting development of the 20th and 21st centuries for me have been the melting away of tribalism. Women, racial minorities, LGBTQ people, and many of those who were traditionally shunned by religious people have become more integrated into society. Tribalism still exists of course, but it is gradually losing its pull, which forces us to acknowledge others who don't look like or think like us. And to get there means tapping into the spirit of love and understanding.

To answer the question of the quote at the top, God did not choose Hitler to kill most of Europe's Jews, nor did He sit idly by while it happened. Hitler may have claimed a special relationship with God, but his hatred pushed him about as far away from the love of God as is possible. The holocaust was a horrible chapter in mankind's history. It encouraged great evils, but also gave rise to great heroes as well. It was never part of a great plan, but it provided us with an important lesson on the need to avoid hate and blame as a basis for a religion or a nation. God didn't allow or create the holocaust, but it happened anyway. Finding a way to believe in a loving God with that in mind is the challenge we faced after that traumatic event.

At the end of Les Miserables, one of the most powerful and moving musicals ever made, they sing the line "To love another person is to see the face of God." That line has always stayed with me. It gets me past the trilemma, past the uncomfortable truth, and animates my every choice. We are here to love and be loved, and hopefully after we've accomplished all of that in one lifetime, we'll get more chances in an afterlife we can barely imagine right now.

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1 Comment

Thomas Cairns
Thomas Cairns
Jul 06, 2023

God is not a “He”!

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