Visiting Twitter earlier today, I was stopped in my tracks by a quotation attributed to Pastor John Hagee:
God is too wise to make a mistake and too loving to be unkind. – John Hagee
— Ervin Tagoe (@SirErv) June 10, 2014
What an odd thing for John Hagee of all people to say, I thought. After all, this is the same Pastor who claims God is about to destroy the world (which is kind of rude), the same Pastor who claims that God destroys cities and kills babies living in those cities because gay people living there hold parades. Isn’t that kind of unkind?
I had to check up on John Hagee to see whether he could actually be spreading this phrase around, and it turns out he is, repeatedly:
Twitter, 2014: “God is too wise to make a mistake and too loving to be unkind.” — Pastor John Hagee (@PastorJohnHagee) March 7, 2014
Twitter, 2012: “God is too wise to make a mistake and too loving to be unkind.” — Pastor John Hagee (@PastorJohnHagee) November 29, 2012
Facebook, 2012: “God is too wise to make a mistake and too loving to be unkind.” — John Hagee Ministries November 29, 2012
218 people replied to Hagee’s Facebook post; most of these replies consist of the single word “amen.” Lucas Wedgeworth provides the single critical response: “except for that whole making the devil thing… and that whole to do about Job.” Remember the Book of Job from Sunday School? That’s the passage in which God sics Satan on Job and ruins Job body and soul. Why? So God can see what happens. A curious torturer is “too loving to be unkind?” The book of Job is just the beginning, of course. God as described across many books of the Bible is unkind in many ways. Heck, in Genesis God considers wiping out all of humanity (the little babies too, how nice) because he thought that creating people was such a mistake.
And if it is true that “God is too wise to make a mistake” and “too loving to be unkind,” then how do we react to the unkindnesses of a universe run by an omnipotent God, like the electrocution of children in a swimming pool or the death of a two-year old who fell from a roof? For a God who could have prevented these, was allowing these events to happen not a mistake? Not unkind? What would you say if I let your two-year old climb up to a roof and wander off its edge? What would you think of me if I let kids get electrocuted in a swimming pool? Do you hold an all-powerful being to a lower standard?
Fyodor Dostoevsky thought about the problem of worshipping a God who lets innocents suffer in his book The Brothers Karamazov, in which the character of a monk has no kind words for such a God:
It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell?
… I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.
And then there’s the older version of the critique, shakily attributed to Epicurus and set out as a paradox:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
The set of questions is meant to be exhaustive of possibilities if one believes in a God. If one believes “God” is a fictional character, the paradox disappears.
By the by, although John Hagee’s name is associated often with this quote in recent years, the phrase far predates him. The Baptist Bulletin does a good job of tracing the quote back in time, debunking the other common claims that religious leaders Robert Ketcham or Charles Spurgeon came up with the phrase. The earliest source for the phrase that the BB can find is a book of hymns by Samuel Medley from the late 1700s — you can read it yourself right here. In the hymn Medley quotes or writes (which is unclear), “too loving to be unkind” is replaced by “too good to be unkind”:
In all his holy, sovereign will,
He is, I daily find,
Too wise to be mistaken, still
Too good to be unkind.
Although I can’t see how the idea expressed in this phrase can be reconciled with a cruel or indifferent universe, many people seem to find the idea appealing. The hymn is certainly popular. A search for “too wise to be mistaken” and “too good to be unkind” on Google leads to 51,600 results. Can 51,600 people be wrong?