I recently got into a discussion with a regular commenter about the parent-child nature of God’s relationship to humans. The commenter defended God’s unwillingness to prevent evil by arguing that a good parent allows his child to grow up and take responsibility for herself. That is why God does not intervene to prevent evil – he has given us the responsibility of looking after ourselves.
This analogy, I believe, actually casts the parenting skills of God in a rather negative light. To see how, we need to ask why parents allow their children to be fully autonomous. The answer is clear by looking at when such autonomy is bestowed: usually in the latter teen years or sometimes even in the early twenties. At this age, a young person has been through a long and (hopefully) careful grooming process that has prepared her for autonomy. She has demonstrated her ability to look after her own interests responsibly without putting other people in harm’s way.
The crucial point here is that autonomy is not some sort of right bestowed on an individual as soon as she is born: it is earned. If a young person fails to demonstrate self-reliance and responsibility then she has little hope of being truly autonomous, and will continue to rely on her parents until she can develop these skills.
This element of earning responsibility is what makes the parent-child analogy to the God-human relationship break down. This is because we as a species have not, in fact, demonstrated an ability to live autonomously without putting one another in harm’s way. We regularly and spectacularly fail to live responsibly. If God is our parent, then, it would seem that he has spoiled his children. He has given them something they do not deserve – something they have not earned. And they have misused this gift, as any children who’ve been given an age-inappropriate gift will.
People have recognized this fact for millennia. This is why we have devised laws and regulations that self-impose limits to our own freedoms. We know that we can’t be trusted. We are therefore trying to cope with the inappropriate, unearned gift that our God-parent has given us.
Far better it would have been had God not given us the gift of complete autonomy in the first place. God should instead have allowed us to mature, to prove our mettle, before laying such a potentially destructive responsibility at our feet. A good God-parent would surely have evaluated our character more carefully before allowing us the freedom to rape and murder and torture our fellow human beings. Instead, he has placed a gun in the hands of a child.
And now God sits back and watches as we use that gun against others. He watches as we blame ourselves for his mistake as a parent.
A quick endnote, lest my perspective be misconstrued: the above argument is intended to demonstrate a flaw in a Christian apologetic device. I don’t actually believe that God should have done X, Y, or Z, because I don’t believe he exists. I’m suggesting instead that a certain Christian argument does not make sense from the perspective of the believer, and that believers ought therefore to find a better argument.