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God for a day.

A tale about the problem of evil

Today was the day! Billy Eaton was so excited! He had prepared all week. He had made long lists of things that he would do. He had asked questions of everyone on the ward to help him decide what to put on the lists without letting on what they were for. Yesterday he had asked Nurse Johnson, whom he considered pretty smart, "Johnson, if it was in your power to change the world and make it a better place, what would you do?"

Nurse Johnson looked at Billy with a professional eye. "Have you taken your medicine this morning, Billy?"

"Yes, I have. Come on, Johnson, what would you do?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said. "How much power would I have?" she asked, smiling.

"The sky's the limit!" he said, trying to suppress his excitement.

"Well, then, I would cure children of diseases of various kinds. I would stop war and famine. I would . . ." She stopped and looked at Billy. "Why are you asking me this question, Billy?"

"Just interested," Billy said, looking very sheepish.

"I don't believe you," said Nurse Johnson, moving on to the next ward as she gave Billy a playful slap on his rump.

He also asked Dr. White when he was making his rounds.

"Good morning, Dr. White," Billy said respectfully.

"Good morning, Billy," said Dr. White, sitting down beside Billy, whose several sheets of yellow paper were spread out on a table in the patients' lounge. "Aren't we busy this morning!" he said cheerily. "How are you feeling? Any bad dreams?"

"No. I haven't had any of those for several months."

"Good! Good! What about the voices? I believe you thought you were having conversations with President Lincoln several months ago."

"That's right, Doctor White. I also thought I was talking to old Sergeant Allen, my Marine Corps drill instructor. No, I haven't heard from either for sometime now," he laughed good-naturedly. "It must be that new medication you have me on."

"Yes, it has shown remarkable results in several clinical trials."

"By the way, Doctor White, to keep myself busy I am making a list of things to do to improve the world. So I want your opinion. If it was in your power to change the world and make it a better place, what would you do?"

"What do you mean 'in my power'? Do you mean with my present resources? These, as you know, are rather limited."

"No, I mean if you had all the resources there were! If you could do anything! Change anything! Fix anything!" Billy stopped when he noticed Dr. White looking at him intently.

"You mean if I were all-powerful?" asked Dr. White.

"Yeah, something like that." said Billy cautiously.

"Do you mean if I were God?"

"Yeah, I guess so," Billy said with a touch of annoyance in his voice.

"Billy, are you sure you are not hearing voices again?" asked Dr. White gently.

"No, honest, Doc!" Billy pleaded.

"I remember several months ago when you started asking questions about General Grant's Civil War campaigns. You lied and said you weren't hearing voices. You told us later that President Lincoln had asked you to take command of the Union Army from General Grant. We had quite a time getting you settled down. It would save a lot of time and trouble if you would tell me the truth now."

"No, Dr. White. There is nothing like that going on now." he said, looking Dr. White straight in the eye.

After Dr. White had gone, Billy went back to constructing his lists of things to do. "Dr. White was no help in making my list," he thought. "And he suspects something, too. But he doesn't know the whole truth."

Billy thought back to how it had started. He was having trouble going to sleep one night, and without warning God began speaking to him. It was easy to speak to God, easier than speaking to the nurses or the other patients, with the possible exception of Lois. God told Billy that He would like Billy to become God for a day. God told him that he could make any changes he felt were needed, and if he did a good job, he might be able to continue a while longer. God said that Billy could take over on Tuesday. God was not sure when on Tuesday He would have Billy take charge, but He said that Billy should be prepared at any time.

God for a day! Billy could hardly contain himself. He could not sleep for the rest of the night, and the next morning he started to prepare himself. What good works he would do! What miracles he would achieve! What works of humanitarianism he would accomplish! At the end of his day of being God, the universe would be unrecognizable. It would be a place of joy and happiness instead of misery and gloom! Let Dr. White find out! It would be too late. Mental hospitals would be one of first things to go. Mentally ill people and mentally retarded people would be cured instantaneously, and no others would be born or created. Sadistic drill instructors at Parris Island would have to go, too. He already had ten yellow pages of things he would do, and he knew that he had barely scratched the surface. Still, even if he did not do everything that should be done, he would make a big improvement.

After breakfast on Tuesday, when God had not yet put him in charge, Billy decided to visit Lois. He had not yet told her the news, and he thought that this might be the time. He found Lois sitting on a bench under the big elm tree near the infirmary, reading a thick book. She smiled as she saw Billy approaching. "Hello, stranger!" she said. "Where have you been keeping yourself?. I haven't seen you in over a week."

"Oh, Lois, I'm so excited! Wait 'til you hear what's going to happen today!"

Still smiling, she looked tenderly at Billy.

"God is going to put me in charge today. I am going to be God for the day!" Billy said breathlessly.

Lois's smile faded, and she said slowly, "Well, Billy, that is big news."

"I can do it, Lois. I've been preparing all week. I've made lists of things I will change and things I will improve. One of the first items on my list is to get rid of your depression."

"That's very sweet of you, Billy."

"Yes, wait 'til you see the things I'm going to do when I become God!" he said, pulling yellow sheets of paper from his pocket. "First, I'm . . ."

"Billy," Lois said gently, "I have a few questions I would like you to think about."

"Sure, Lois! You can be a big help to me when I become God. You have a terrific education, and there's nobody whose mind I admire more than yours. I want you to ask questions!"

"Billy, you say that you are going to change things and improve things when you become God. But why haven't they already been improved?"

Billy looked blank. "I don't understand what you mean."

"Well, if you become God, you will be all-powerful."

"Sure, Lois. Everyone knows that."

She went on, "So you will have the power to make improvements. You would also be all-good, so you will want to make them. Furthermore, you would be all-knowing, so you will know how to make them."

"Sure," said Billy, sitting down on the bench, still clutching the yellow sheets of paper.

"But, Billy, don't you see? Right now, before you become God, before you become all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, the real God - the Being whose place you are taking - already exists. Why hasn't He made the improvements on your lists? Why hasn't He cured my depression and achieved all the other noble goals you have considered? Why are there any bad things that need improvement if God exists?"

Billy was stunned. Lois always asked great questions, but today she had outdone herself. "I don't know, Lois. Do you?"

"Let's consider some of the things on your list and see if we can come up with any answers."

"One thing I have on my list is to stop parents from abusing their children. Is your question, Lois, why didn't God do this long ago?"

"Yes, but some people think they have an answer. They say that if parents were prevented from abusing their children, this will be preventing God's creatures from exercising their free will. These people believe that a world with free will and child abuse is a better world than a world without both free will and and child abuse."

Billy thought for a moment and then said, "I think that is a dumb answer."

"Why?" asked Lois, placing her hands in her lap and leaning forward.

"Why? If I am God, I will make the world a place where people have free will and never abuse children and things like that. Why can't God do this? If people have free will, it does not mean they must do bad things. People in Heaven have free will and don't do bad things. Why do people in this life?"

"Do you think there is anything else wrong with appealing to free will?" Lois asked.

"Well, even if people choose to do bad things, God could prevent the bad consequences of what they do. If I fire a gun at someone intending to kill them, God could make the bullet miss its target or make the gun misfire. So I could have free will, choose to do evil, and yet not do evil," Billy said with great energy. Lois laughed in spite of herself.

"Let's forget about the free will argument for a while. You want to hear some of the other things on my list?" asked Billy.

"Please!"

"Well, when I become God, I will cure children of crippling diseases and of mental retardation. I will also prevent any more children from being born crippled or retarded. Now is your question, Lois, why hasn't God already done this?"

"That's right. Obviously appealing to free will would not help in these cases."

"Why not?" asked Billy.

"The evil is not brought about by human choice," said Lois as she got up and stretched.

"Oh! But how do they explain these evils?"

"One answer they give is that crippled and mentally retarded children are necessary for achieving a greater good. Having no such children would make things worse!"

Billy did not dismiss this idea out of hand. "Gosh, I guess that's possible," he said thoughtfully, "but it doesn't seem very likely. Anyway, there are all sorts of other things on my list that also have nothing to do with free will. It seems crazy to suppose that all of these evils - tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, mental illness, cancer - are necessary to attain some greater good."

"But couldn't these evils be important for building human character? After all, human beings do develop character by fighting against evil. All the things that you have just mentioned provide us with lots of character-building obstacles to overcome," Lois said.

Billy was not sure from the look on her face whether she was completely serious. "Oh, come on, Lois! God could build character without making mentally retarded children! Anyway, sometimes the evil is so great it crushes and destroys people. Look at what happened to me in the Corps, and remember I told you once about my Aunt Beth who had cancer. Well, . . ."

Lois held up her hand to stop Billy from telling the story about Aunt Beth that she had already heard many times.

"Yes, Billy, I agree," she said. "I just wanted to see how you would react."

"Are there any other ideas of why God has not already done the things on my list?" asked Billy.

"There are. But you might not like these any better," she said.

"Try me!"

"Suppose God is not all-powerful. Then He might not be able to bring about any improvement," she said, pretending to shield herself from Billy's forthcoming attack.

"What? God would have to be pretty weak! Some of the things that could make the world better even human beings could do. Who could worship a weak God like that?" he demanded in a loud voice.

"Suppose God is not all-good. Then He might not want to improve things!" she said.

Billy laughed. "Come on, Lois, be serious. By definition God is all-good."

"Yes, but perhaps not in our sense of 'good,'" she said, sitting down in her chair.

Billy thought this over for some time. "Yes, I see what you mean. But unless God is good in our sense, why should we worship Him? This doesn't mean, of course, that humans define 'good.' However, unless God was good in our sense, He would not be our moral ideal. My uncle Joe was good in his sense of 'good' but . . ."

"Enough, Billy!" Lois said emphatically. "Let's try to wrap this up. I have to go take my medication in a few minutes."

"Okay by me. I must confess I am a little confused. We have talked a lot, but what can we conclude? Anything?"

"Well, the question was, why hasn't God already done the things on your list? We considered some answers, and they all seem to be unsatisfactory."

"Where does that leave us?" asked Billy softly.

"There is one possibility, old friend, that I have not broached, although it seems like this is the time. Perhaps there is no God," Lois said, looking at Billy intently. "This would fairly well explain why the things on your list remain to be done. There is no God to do them."

"But God talked to . . . you mean I didn't really talk to God?"

"It is possible," said Lois, touching Billy's hand softly.

"Well, who did I talk to? That's what I'd like to know."

Lois said nothing and locked at Billy compassionately.

"So I won't become God today?"

"I think it's unlikely," said Lois.

As the hours of the day passed and he did not become God, Billy kept hoping that Lois was wrong.

But when it became nine o'clock in the evening and nothing had happened, Billy had resigned himself.

He was depressed for only a few moments. "What a great God I would have made," he thought sadly "What works of humanitarianism I would have accomplished!"

He saw Dr. White making his evening rounds and waved. "Well, Billy, how is your list coming along?" asked Dr. White.

Billy took several crumbled sheets of yellow paper out of his pocket and threw them in the wastepaper basket. "Oh, I've given up on that, Doctor. Lois has convinced me that . . . never mind, I just don't think it is a good idea anymore. By the way, Doctor White, do you believe in God?"

"Why, yes, Billy I do," he said, rather startled.

"I don't!" exclaimed Billy, and he wondered if the doctor had ever considered the problems that he and Lois had discussed. "It's too bad you do," he said, waving goodbye to Dr. White and walking into the recreation room. Then he heard a deep, familiar voice speaking to him out of what seemed like eternity. "Are you ready, my son, to take over my work?"

"Knock off pretending to be God, Sergeant Allen! Get off the line!" Billy said. "I want to speak to President Lincoln."

Michael Martin is Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. "God for a Day!" is taken from his book The Big Domino in the Sky (Prometheus Books, 1996), which makes the case for atheism through fictional stories. Dr. Martin's other books include Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and The Case Against Christianity.
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Title Annotation:the problem of evil
Author:Martin, Michael
Publication:Free Inquiry
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:2638
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