Saturday, November 14, 2015

Jeb Bush, Baby Hitler, and Prayer

Jeb Bush has recently said that if he could, he would go back in time and kill Hitler while the latter was still an innocent baby.  This was the wrong answer to a question that should have been ignored, and it invites some follow-up questions.  
Close-up photograph of a male baby (4424012923)
© Milan Nykodym, Czech Republic [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

  • Since you are willing to kill an innocent baby because you think it will save tens of millions, Mr. Bush, you apparently believe that the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are serious enough. What if you could save the most lives by deliberately murdering a baby who would not have grown up to be a mass murderer?  What if you "knew" that stabbing to death a baby who would have died of asthma at age 10 anyhow would save over a hundred million lives?  Would you murder that baby?
  • What if we were not talking about the past?  Suppose an angel with demonstrably preternatural abilities told you tomorrow that you could save a billion lives by murdering a certain baby.  Are you in fact prepared to murder this baby?
    • Would it matter whether the baby were a foreigner or an American?
    • Would it matter if the baby were your own grandchild?
  • What if you were not asked to murder a baby, but simply to offer a pinch of incense in worship of Satan?  Would your answer still be, "Hell yeah!"?
  • The most troubling questions probably revolve around situations that Jeb Bush might in fact face during his hypothetical presidency.  Suppose that all the important leaders of ISIS were known to be meeting in the basement of a building full of children -- not just "minors", who may actually be 17 years old, but youngsters who were unambiguously children, aged 8 and younger.  Your National Security Staff are all in agreement that this is a very real opportunity decapitate ISIS and throw them into so much chaos that they would fall apart in the face of the enemies they have already made -- but the only way to be sure is to completely destroy the building, leaving no survivors, say with a bunker-buster followed by two daisy-cutters.
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are the families of the ISIS leadership?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Syrian civilians?
    • Would you drop the bomb if the children are Western hostages -- American, British, and Canadian children?
Sometimes saying "Hell yeah" is literally saying yes to Hell.

Of course, we can take some comfort in the fact that time travel is, at the very least, technologically impossible, so the question asked of Bush is merely hypothetical.  But what about prayer?  Given that God is omnipotent, and God exists outside of time, is it appropriate to ask God to bring about some effect in the past?

My answer is that it is fine to pray for some outcome in the past if you don't know what happened, but it is wrong to pray for something to happen if you already know it didn't happen.  So let's say you have a Jewish great-uncle who was last seen in Warsaw just before the German invasion in 1939.  Things look very bleak for him, but you cannot be sure he was unable to hide, change his identity, and perhaps end up in a different country at the end of the war with no knowledge that any of his family survived.  Maybe he was never captured, maybe he survived, maybe he was able to lead a long and fairly happy life somewhere; you should certainly be able to pray for all these things, and God will already have known about your prayer back in 1939.  

On the other hand, we know that Adolf Hitler did not die as a baby, so we can be sure that his survival was, in some sense at least, the will of God.  In cases regarding the future, we can almost never be sure what the will of God actually is for events (as opposed to how we are to behave), and even those few events which we are assured will definitely happen are rather lacking in detail.  The past, however, is different:  we can often remember it or reconstruct it from the evidence in great detail, and I think it is safe to say that whatever has actually happened does represent what has been called God's "permissive will".  This, of course, is fraught with all the difficulties of the Problem of Evil, because we who know imperfectly and love imperfectly will often desire things different from what is planned by God, Who knows perfectly and loves perfectly.  To say that the Holocaust was part of God's permissive will is not really any different than to say that God did in fact permit the Holocaust; both are undoubtedly true, though I dare say it is well beyond human understanding to know why and even how either can be true.  At any rate, the phrase "Thy will be done" is at least implicitly present in every true prayer; any request for something known to be contrary to the will of God is not really a prayer at all.

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