The God of Bill O’Reilly is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Maybe I should back up. Bill O’Reilly did an interview on his faith with The Washington Post in which he described God as follows:
“There’s an Intelligent Design in the universe that created the human race. And there is a free-will component to every individual — you either choose to do good or you choose to do evil. And if you sit it out, then you’re in the evil category. And then, what you choose to do in your lifetime will be rewarded or punished by the Intelligent Designer of the universe.”
Innocuous as this may seem, I want to suggest that this is a very dangerous conception of God. To be clear, my aim here is not to insult Bill O’Reilly personally, but rather to critique his idea of God, which I think is a fairly common one. Moreover, I understand that O’Reilly wasn’t offering a comprehensive theology, and that he is not a theologian. But this only makes critiquing his view more important, because conventional wisdom, uncritically accepted by millions of people, can have more devastating political and cultural consequences than any scholarly theory.
I think we can discern three clear propositions about God from O’Reilly’s comments. First, God created the world. Second, the world is designed intelligently with some divine end or purpose in mind. Third, there exists some set of absolute norms of good and evil, by which God will ultimately judge every individual human being. Given that God is an intelligent designer, and extrapolating from Genesis 1, we can say as a corollary that God’s creation is good. As a further corollary, we can likely assume that God has continued sovereignty over creation, and thus has the power to intervene in history. Finally, we can assume that God acts intentionally, meaning that God wills whatever exists to exist and whatever does not to not exist.
At a minimum, this framework is remarkably bland. O’Reilly’s God has apparently no concern for human affairs beyond holding us accountable to the divine law after our death. O’Reilly’s God does not love us, guide us, renew us, energize us, talk with us, laugh with us, cry with us. The actions of O’Reilly’s God appear to be limited to giving Bill O’Reilly book ideas and judging us after we die. God simply created a really great, wise, awesome structure for the world and left us alone.
But O’Reilly also says he accepts Catholic orthodoxy, which has many wonderful things to say about the mystery of God, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has a more nuanced understanding of God that simply didn’t find its way into the interview.
The basic framework he outlines is still dangerous. It assumes that God wants the world to be the way it is. But the world, empirically speaking, is not always a great place. This is a world where starvation, sex slavery, murder, poverty and all other manner of dehumanizing evils are widespread. As such, God is either apathetic and passive in the face of human suffering or actively causes it as part of the divine plan. The former possibility is totally inexplicable, and the latter attributes evil to God, which no person of faith should accept.
Yet if a world where, to quote Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino, millions suffer “the slow crucifixion produced by structural injustice,” is intelligently designed, how can we avoid attributing evil to God if we accept O’Reilly’s argument? His view necessarily incorporates oppressive structures into the divine plan, and thereby condemns resistance to oppression as contrary to God’s will. And evoking God to justify oppression is shockingly common throughout history, from Nebuchadnezzar to the Crusades to the Holocaust. When George Zimmerman was asked if he regretted anything from the night he killed Trayvon Martin, his response took O’Reilly’s view to its natural conclusion: No, he regretted nothing, because it was all God’s plan. The black theologian William R. Jones famously posed the question, “is God a white racist?” O’Reilly’s God, applied to the world of mass incarceration, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, et al, requires us to answer in the affirmative.
The theological tension created by professing a loving God in an evil world is complicated and longstanding and I don’t have an answer for it. There probably isn’t an answer that’s entirely satisfactory, and any possible answer (i.e., it’s just a consequence of human free will) will only raise more questions. But what we can’t do is incorporate evil into God by saying it’s all just part of a plan we don’t understand. To do so ratifies evil as part of the natural order, and therefore undermines the moral necessity of combatting it. The problem of evil here is not so much that evil and God cannot coexist, but that we cannot, as O’Reilly does, affirm that God allows or causes evil for some divine reason. True, we don’t and can’t understand why it happens, but we must resist the idea that it has some purpose.
Suffering is meaningless, dehumanizing and everywhere. Explaining away that suffering through some unsatisfactory theodicy only negates the necessity of grappling with that reality and benefits nobody but the already comfortable. The God who accepts or perpetrates suffering is an idol to the oppressors of history. This God, O’Reilly’s God, can never be a true God, and is certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Muhammad and all humanity, living and dead.