So let us talk about Mark Twain and the problem of evil. Twain was a fool on this subject, albeit a talented one. But even though his folly is evident on every page of his “Letters from Earth,” his ability to grasp and follow the argument exceeds the ability of most superficial Christians. In this Twain has a lot to offers Christians, in that he plainly shows the necessity of Calvinism. He does not go so far, but we can see our destination from where he halts and points.
First, let us get a few things out of the way. It is clear from how he has structured this piece that he is not talking about God (if he exists) as Twain actually thinks he might exist. The God he mocks is the Christian God, God as he assumes Christians have falsely conceived him. This means that he thinks he is blaspheming a doctrinal construction of ours. This does not excuse him, but it points out his attemption at rationalization. The God who banishes Satan at the beginning is not the God as man conceives him to be. Twain is attacking the teaching of Christians. “He has salaried teachers who tell him that” (p. 6). Answering one question, Twain says, “It is God! This race’s God, I mean” (p. 9, emphasis mine). For Twain’s “real” God, “Man is an experiment” (p. 4). And the God whom Twain blasphemes is the creation of man. “When he is at his very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the tiem he is a sarcasm” (p. 5). Twain represents his problems with God as though they are problems with man.
Two other side notes, one more important than the other. One of the devices that Twain employs here is that of outraging Victorian sensibilities, and then defending himself by pointing out that it’s “in the Bible.” This is a junior high game, but it works because on such subjects a lot of Christians are still in junior high. “A person could piss against a tree, he could piss on his mother, he could piss his own breeches,and get off, but he must not piss against the wall — that would be going quite too far” (p. 47). This is all taken from the King James Bible, where the Elizabethan translators rendered a Hebrew idiom for “male” literally as “everyone who pisseth against the wall.” This also shows that Twain was having too much fun with the Victorians to read the text very carefully — there was no problem in the pissing, so to speak. The males were killed because they were males and therefore a military target.
He does the same thing on the subject of sex, although it is plain that Twain himself had some sexual obsession going. “Real gods. They came down out of heaven and had wonderful times with those hot young blossoms. The Bible tells about it” (P. 19). This is just another example of him tweaking the Victorians, because the Bible does tell about it in Gen. 6.
But Twain makes a point of sexualizing certain things that were not sexual at all. He identifies the Fall with sex, for example. “In the midst of one of these celebrations . . .” (p. 16). And Twain illustrates that his knowledge of human sexuality is limited to the plumbing, and even at that it is a pretty paltry knowledge. “The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in woman’s construction, is this” There shall be no limit put upon your intercourse with the other sex sexually, at any time of life” (p. 37). This is a view made possible by the hazy fog of lust, which clearly helps Twain see some of his visions.
But the center of his argument concerns the problem of evil, which Twain sees and states far more clearly than most evangelical Christians do.
According to Twain, the Christian God does not answer prayer. Speaking of the Flood, Twain refers to “weeping fathers and mothers and frightened little children who were clinging to the wave-washed rocks in the pouring rain and lifting imploring prayers to an All-Just and All-Forgiving and All-Pitying Being who had never answered a prayer since those crags were builded, grain by grain out of the sands, and would still not have answered one when the ages should have crumbled them to sand again” (p. 23).
God is responsible for disease. “All of the Creator’s specially deadly disease-producers are invisible” (p. 31). Because they are invisible, they are particularly hard to discover, and so many millions die before we do. And when we figure the problem out, God somehow gets the credit! “If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is!” (p. 30). But God is behind the spread of all disease, and has some particularly ingenious ones. “And so, by foreordination from the beginning of time, this fly was left behind to seek out a typhoid corpse” (P. 24).
Twain looks at the marvelous — “fearfully and wonderfully made” — human body, and notices something else about it. “For each one of these thousands of mechanisms the Creator has planned an enemy, whose office is to harass it, pester it, persecute it, damage it, afflict it with pains, and miseries, and ultimate destruction. Not one has been overlooked” (p. 26).
Twain tells of a particularly grusome murder and rape that occurred in Minnesota, perpetrated by some Indians. And he points how the obvious fact that God had something to do with it. “The Midianite episode filled him with joy. So did the Minnesota one, or he would have prevented it” (p. 52). Since Twain wrote these words, many other outrages have happened, and most Christians still have not had the courage to face up to Twain’s argument. And it is an argument, a powerful one, granted the premises.
Twain tells a story about a convert to the Christian faith who was told to imitate his Father in heaven. And so he went out and committed a series of awful crimes, and came back and told his priest about his obedience. “Then he reported to the priest, who said that that was no way to imitate his Father in Heaven. The convert asked wherein he had failed, but the priest changed the subject and inquired what kind of weather he was having, up his way” (p. 34).
In certain places, Twain makes his argument explicit. “He [God] has one code of morals for himself, and quite another for his children” (p. 17). “He [man] equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing! Yet he would deny that a malevolent lunatic and a Sunday School superintendent are essentially the same. What do you think of the human mind?” (pp. 27-28). What do you think of the human mind? Indeed. What are we to make of the evangelical mind, which will not grapple with the terms of this argument? “You would not suppose that this kind of a Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-FOrgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily” (p. 18).
Now this is what makes the argument work. “There are no accidents. All things that happen, happen for a purpose. They are foreseen from the beginning of time, they are ordained from the beginning of time” (p. 24).
“The Christian begins with this straight proposition, this definite proposition, this inflexible and uncompromising proposition: God is all-knowing, and all-powerful. This bei the case, nothing can happen without his knowing beforehand that it is going to happen, nothing happens without his permission; nothing can happen that he chooses to prevent” (p. 27).
Twain is exactly right. This is an inflexible and uncompromising proposition, and all Christians (not just Calvinists) are committed to this propositions. Some Christians admit that they are, and they are called Calvinists, and many other names besides. Other Christians shuffle, clear their throats, and inquire as to what kind of weather you are having, up your way. Every Christian who affirms that God created this world ex nihilo is committed to these propositions. The world Twain describes is really here, and it got here somehow. Somebody put it here. The one who put it here is responsible for putting it here. He either saw what was going to happen if He did this (Calvinism and Arminianism) or He didn’t (openness). But this is just a matter of whether He is (on Twain’s terms) a murderous lunatic or a cosmic bumbler. He is responsible for what is going on in any case. There are only two responses possible for Christians who would be intellectually honest. They must either embrace the problem, and resort to the Augustinian answers, which are theologically demanding and intellectually honest, or they must continue to hem and haw and resort to hand-waving solutions that would not slow an infidel of Twain’s caliber down for a moment.
Chesterton once famously said that if a man can get pleasure out of skinning a cat, then we must either deny the fellowship between God and man, as the Christian does, or deny there is a God, the way the atheist does. The new theologians, he goes on to say, think it a great solution to deny the cat. And this is what Twain will not let us do — deny the cat.