In his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis sets aside the task of theodicy that he shouldered in The Problem of Pain in favor of a searing personal account of pain and loss centered on the death of his beloved wife Joy. At one point in the book, he reflects, “Not that I am (I think) in much real danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there is no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
For Lewis, the fear is not so much that it might turn out that God doesn’t exist but rather that it might turn out that God is not particularly concerned about human flourishing, perhaps like that child who carelessly steps on ants on the sidewalk not because he’s especially cruel but because he doesn’t much care about ants.
What strikes me about Lewis’ words is the degree to which they already have a disturbing purchase within the Christian community. I am thinking, in particular, of the problem of divine violence in Scripture and especially the ease with which many Christians affirm claims such as that God has, in the past, commanded his followers to slaughter entire populations without mercy including crying infants, terrified small children, wailing mothers, helpless handicapped teenagers, and wizened old men.
Many of these Christians don’t embrace Lewis’ skeptical conclusion: so this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.” Instead, in a herculean display of cognitive dissonance, they simply avert their gaze to sunnier horizons or they adopt implausible and not-even-half-baked apologetic rationalizations of this state of affairs.
Others, however, do accept the dreadfulness. However, they don’t do it with reluctance but rather, so they insist, with an enthusiastic embrace by insisting that this is what God is like and so it is what we should be like as well. And so, they cauterize their feelings of love, mercy, and compassion for outsiders while proclaiming their commitment to being a foot soldier in God’s army should the need for such carnage rise again.
Needless to say, I find all of these options intolerable. I do not believe that is what God is really like. And I refuse to believe such dreadful things about him.