God is not a Good Parent

Mother’s Day fell on a Sunday this year and I found myself in a familiar setting — church. Listening to the pastor speak about the goodness of divine parental love, I looked down lovingly at my three-year old daughter and was struck by how wrong that sounded. Is God really a good parent? I’m not just thinking of the Old Testament God who demanded Abraham agree to filicide as a test of faith. Nor am I focused on Jesus of the Gospels whose message of love, mercy and forgiveness seem pretty much on target (never mind that his father demanded his death as sacrifice). I am thinking more of the philosophical all-powerful, all-knowing God who is watching from on high.

My thoughts as I smiled down on my daughter would be familiar to many parents — boundless affection, pride, and worry all rolled up with a fierce desire to keep her safe and show her the wonder and joy of life as best I can. There are countless times I fall short of this goal, whether through frustration at the latest tantrum or everyday stress and exhaustion. At times, however, my imagination takes me to a place of omniscience, where I know exactly what is happening and what is to come. It is there that I am a perfect father. I know what outcome will result from what course of action and I can guide myself and my daughter to a place of health and happiness. Confident in my knowledge and power, I am fully there to relate to my child and show her the path to happiness and fulfillment.

In contrast, the God we sing to at church and pray to in times of joy and despair is silent, with only ancient texts and imagined whispers to fill the void. I would never ignore my child in the face of suffering nor fail to comfort her. I would never hand her a piece of stone or parchment with a set of rules and then leave her alone to decipher how to live a good life. Being the creator of all that is, I would not allow such immense evil and violence to befall my children. On my watch, there would be no Aleppo, no Sandy Hook, no Dachau. Whether “man-made” or natural disaster, I would intervene, as any good parent would to protect my child from harm.

Obviously, these are not the thoughts of a faithful acolyte, who might call such observations blasphemous and advise that I “lean not on my own understanding.” Who am I to question the almighty, who exists outside the realm of human reason and morality? Yet I find this a poor excuse for the abuse of carelessness or indifference to suffering — our moral outrage is set in high gear when a parent leaves their child in a dangerous position, such as a toddler left in a car on a hot day. Are we not created in the image of God? If a fallible human parent should have such standards of minimum care, how much higher should they be for a divine one?

I left church troubled by these thoughts. Often called the “problem of evil”, theologians and philosophers have argued over this for centuries. Stated in a similar way, if God exists and is as powerful as they say, he just isn’t a very good parent.