Is Eru a good god? - Epithets and actions of a supreme being

Eru who in Arda is called Iluvátar was by his followers of course considered a good god. Numerous statements point at that, among others this: „the World, which is God's and [therefore!] ultimately good“ (L156). Even the Red Book of Westmarch was said to be „about God, and His sole right to divine honour“ (L183). Let us examine whether Eru's record justifies the epithet.

Flaws in the Design

In the beginning, there is the Ainulindalë. Ilúvatar found Melkor bringing discord into the Music of the Ainur, and because of that „his face was terrible to behold“. We should expect that the supreme god would draw the obvious consequences, remove the offender from the angelic chorus and kick him into the Void (of course, there would not be a story then. But hey, Iluvátar is not supposed to be the God of the Most Dramatic Tale, is he?!). But no way. Quite to the contrary he creates a vision of Eä exactly as the Music as heard described it, including all its distortions. And then follows Eä itself, the physical world. Iluvátar comments: „those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done.“
An analogy may serve us to understand this creative deed. Imagine you were running an engineering office and your task was to design a skyscraper. You discover that one of your employees is deliberately sabotaging the construction, writing flaws into the plans that, if turned into reality, would render the whole edifice unstable and prone to collapse. Now answer yourself: Is it a sensible way to deal with the offender if you, the responsible boss, will not correct the plans but tell your staff: „We will build it exactly as ye wrote the plans, that ye may see what ye have done“? And, if you further intend to rent the building to various Children of Ilúvatar despite its known defects, may you with good reason expect the inhabitants to call you a good housemaker? Certainly not. But this is what Eru does.
After the house of Eä has been established, various Valar and Maiar move in, so to speak, never to leave again while the world lasteth. Including Melkor. Including Melkor! Why is the entry not simply denied to him? Keeping out the evil spirit, that is what a good god would do. But this is not what Iluvátar does. And his way of self-justification is most ominous:
And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more won­derful, which he himself hath not imagined.“ (TA).
In other words: If you, as a parent, built a house for your children to live in, and then you locked them up inside, in the company of Anders Breivik, yes, then just keep telling around it was for the sake of devising wonderful things. If you are a god, you might even get away with that...
Well, not universally. Iluvátar's notorious statement, popularly known as the But-mine-instrument-Clause, has indeed met much criticism because it is belittling, if not outright justifying evil. Manwë would one day interpret the Clause like this: „Even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.“ (S, 11) One should not think that such a word was possible in a world like Eä. Just try to be more specific about „evil“ and tell for yourself whether it does not ring ttremendously false to your ears: „9/11 will be good to have been.“ - „Auschwitz will be good to have been.“ - „Stalinism will be good to have been.“ No, it is absolutely impossible to say something so naive and get away with it, even if you are a Vala. Manwë deservedly gets rebuked by Mandos: „And yet remain evil.“ Well said, Mandos! Now, if only Eru was that wise...
Conclusion: The But-mine-instrument-Clause is incompatible with the notion of Eru as a good god.

Where does the Orcish Soul come from?

The origin of Orcs – whether they are distorted Elves, Men, Maiar, or other (no one seems to have suggested Dwarves?) - is the subject of much debate and speculation, any argument meeting profound objections. What all experts at all times, though, agreed about is that Melkor did not, and in fact could not, make Orcs out of nothing. He needed some pre-existing stock to „twist“, „corrupt“ or „remodel“: „They would be Morgoth's greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad. (I nearly wrote 'irredeemably bad'; but that would be going too far. Because by accepting or tolerating their making – necessary to their actual existence – even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God's and ultimately good.) But whether they could have 'souls' or 'spirits' seems a different question; and since in my myth at any rate I do not conceive of the making of souls or spirits, things of an equal order if not an equal power to the Valar, as a possible 'delegation', I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them, not making them. That God would 'tolerate' that, seems no worse theology than the toleration of the calculated dehumanizing of Men by tyrants that goes on today.“ (L153)
This sounds unambiguous enough. Alas, it addresses only part of the problem. We may admit to the matter of the primordial Orcs, the very first generation of Orcs, that the above statement holds scrutiny. - Alright. But where do more Orcs come from?
Contrary to what Peter Jackson might think, Orcs are not bred out of mud. They reproduce in quite the conventional way: „For the Orkor had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar(MR). We also learn of „orc-imps(H), i.e. infant orcs, and even „orc-women(Unpublished Letter to Mrs. Munby, dated 21 October 1963). Now, we learn from MR what happens when Children of Ilúvatar reproduce: a feä, a little spirit or, in more Christian terms, a soul, approaches and enters the newborn body to dwell therein and make it more than a comatous lump of flesh. That is true for Elves, Men, Hobbits and, we may presume, Dwarves. What about Orcs?
The issue has once been addressed like this: „Would Eru provide feär for such creatures? For the Eagles etc. perhaps. But not for Orcs.(MR) That spawned the hypothesis that Orcs were irrational animals, driven only by the dispersed spirit of their masters (Morgoth or Sauron). But this assumption is clearly in conflict with numerous evidence for Orcs behaving as if indeed they had a soul, arguing rationally (to their profit), acting consciously in the absence of any puppeteering masters and, if they could, even against them. But if Orcs have a soul, who gives it to them? It is the uncontested belief by all the Wise that „the new feä ... come[s] direct from Eru and from beyond Eä.(MR) Which can only mean this: Eru equips evil Orcs with evil feär!
Obviously, there is a huge moral difference between mere toleration and active collaboration with Evil. But there is no escape: Providing Orcs with feär means to collaborate, and not only once when the primordial Orcs came into being, but all the time. If Eru would only stop that, Arda would have one big problem less! But no: the good god happily continues sending feär to any begotten orc-imp, and he sends them in huge numbers. For despite the common misconception that „Evil is fissiparous. But itself barren“ (MR), Orcs are the most fertile of rational creatures, much more so than the rather barren Elves, not to mention the almost sterile Ainur. So if the primordial Orcs were indeed corrupted Elves, as was the most widely accepted belief in the Fourth Age, then the horrible but inevitable conclusion is that Orcishness is the default condition of the Elvish feä and pure Elvishness the rare exception. But the thought is horrifying that becoming Orcs was the standard fate which the Elder Children of Iluvátar met.
The existence of the Orcish soul provides even more detestable consequences for Eru. Let us ask how Orcish feär come at all into existence. Are they originally normal, good and uncorrupted Elvish feär which Eru would just lock into miserable Orcish bodies where they will inevitably become twisted, corrupted, misshapen? For what did they deserve that? Or are they already evil before they enter the Orc-imp? Who would then twist them into Orcs outside of Eä – since Melkor has no agents there, who else could but their maker? Do we ultimately have to confess maybe that they are already made evil, that they have no choice nor free will about becoming Orcs, and that Eru thus professes in creating giant numbers of „naturally bad“ souls?
The thought of what must be going on in the Timeless Halls is sobering. Is this what a good god is supposed to do? Can a god be called good who actively supplies and restocks the armies of his Enemy, condemning his own Elder Children to serve the wrong side?
Conclusion: The existence of Orcs is incompatible with the notion of Eru as a good god.

The Problem of the Númenorean Oarsmen

The one moment that Eru physically takes action inside of Eä is the Downfall of Númenor. The circumstances are sufficiently remarkable, for the Valar, on seeing Ar-Pharazôn's fleet approaching, go to strike and call for Iluvátar to solve problems which they have created themselves. For why would they not simply reactivate the Shadowy Isles which served so well to fend off the Noldor ships? Why not set up a larger edition of the impenetrable Girdle of Melian which the Númenórean armada would just bump into? One futile attempt has been made to rationalise the attitude of the Valar to Ar-Pharazôn, and it goes like this: „The Valar had no real answer to this monstrous rebellion — for the Children of God were not under their ultimate jurisdiction: they were not allowed to destroy them, or coerce them with any 'divine' display of the powers they held over the physical world.“ (L156) Sorry, Mr. Tolkien, but this is bullshit. How shall we reconcile that rather helpless sounding claim with the divine display of powers which made Beleriand sink during the War of Wrath, with the unhesitating butchering of Easterling Children of God by the Valar, indeed with the cold-bloodedness with which the Valar observed helpless Noldorin ships founder in the Shadowy Isles? Why now they chicken out remains unexplainable. And with regard to the following, inexcusable.
For to Iluvátar, granting help means inflicting genocides. Not as if he, supreme and almighty god, did not have more subtle means! We should assume be might just halt Ar-Pharazôn's heart - and while we are at that, those of his senior officers, too – and with all their tyrants dropping dead on the afterdeck, the survivors would fall onto their knees, praise God for delivering them from Evil, and rejoicingly return to freedom. Oh no, not that! Iluvátar resorts to divine displays of the most coercing kind: „And all the fleets of the Númenóreans were drawn down into the abyss, and they were drowned and swallowed up for ever.“ (TA)
This raises the Problem of the Númenorean Oarsmen. For Iluvátar acts like a nuclear bomb dropped, making no difference between guilty and not guilty. Thus the fleets of the Númenóreans moved against the menace of the West; and there was little wind, but they had many oars and many strong slaves to row beneath the lash.“ (TA, emphasis by me) Many strong slaves, the Númenorean oarsmen: Why were they destroyed by Iluvátar? They meant no harm! They did not volunteer to attack Aman! They were simply pressed into service and could do nothing about it. And even if Iluvátar was most primitively determined to abort the Númenóreans as a race and nation – infants, embryos, elderly, sick, retarded, and all -, it does not serve as an excuse, for the oarsmen were not Númenoreans! Indeed the Númenoreans „hunted the men of Middle-earth and took their goods and enslaved them.“ (TA, emphasis by me) So Iluvátar leaves a most unsettling image of himself: He bullies everyone accessible, asking not for reasons or for motivations, but You deserve to die because You are there. This is not what a just god is supposed to do!
Ultimately, Iluvátar causes the most impressive collateral damage in the history of Eä. He drowns Númenor, the entire island, with all the people who did not even participate in Ar-Pharazôn's crime, with all non-combattants, infants, babies in the womb, yea, all the plants and animals including many endemic species, with all the remaining innocent slaves from Middle-earth who were also now mistreated twice, first by becoming enslaved and then for being enslaved. Who will also count the innocent bystanders in Middle-earth who on Eru's behalf were killed by the subsequent floodings and upheavals while the World was Made Round? And if Iluvátar was really, really determined to punish justly, why did he let some of the worst criminals escape? Sauron – how could Sauron escape from the wrath of the Almighty God unless the Almighty God willed him to escape? And the Black Númenoreans of Umbar and Harad: How could all-seeing Iluvátar overlook them? Why did he slay good oarsmen but let evil Black Númenoreans escape? Where they just lucky not to be there where the thunderbolt fell? But what does luck mean if you deal with an almighty?
Sorry, Mr. Eru: Justice is a different thing. You could have done better than that, if you only wanted to.
Conclusion: The Drowning of Númenor is incompatible with the notion of Eru as a good god.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Tolkien conceived of Eru as a good god. After all, he more than once identified Iluvátar with the Christian God he himself believed in.
But Tolkien did not manage to depict Iluvátar as the good god whom he intended.
If we go by his deeds, then Iluvátar looks more akin to the Sumerian supreme deity or to the one from the OT: Not taking action when it was wise to do so, if taking action then resorting to the wrong one, even inflicting a global holocaust indiscriminatingly destroying the just with the unjust, judging never for reasons or motives but just for being present where he strikes – all this is incompatible with any notion of justice.
As a character of literature, Iluvátar fails to fulfill his author's expectations. He may be called a good god as often as he is, but he does not act like one.

Essays collected in printed or electronic books:


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Middle-earth seen by the barbarians: A compilation of Tolkien's references to the Middle Men of Eriador and Gondor: the pre-Númenóreans and the Dunlendings; the concealed history of Dorwinion, the fate of king Bladorthin and the origin of the Lossoth, the culture and history of the peoples in the east and far south of Middle-earth, with special consideration of the Wainriders, the Black Númenóreans and the Corsairs of Umbar. The appendix discusses the name Bladorthin and gives a new interpretation of this enigmatic king, shows how to apply a grid of latitudes and longitudes to the map of Middle-earth and in a previously unpublished essay discusses various comments by Tolkien on Pauline Baynes' recently recovered LotR map. This volume includes updated versions of “The Indigenous Peoples of Eriador and Gondor”, “The Lossoth and the Forodwaith”, “The Men of Darkness”, “The Third Realm in Exile”, “The mysterious King Bladorthin” and “A meridional grid on the map of Middle-earth” from these Science Pages.

The Moon in ‘The Hobbit’: A discussion and digital simulation of the lunar phases stated in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The History of The Hobbit’ and their astronomical background, with special regard to the identification of Durin's Day and the threshold of winter; including an analysis of the various calendar systems in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Many hints are given on how to use the moon and the seasons as plot elements in your own stories. This book has updated versions of the essays “The Moon and Durin’s Day, 2941 TA”, “Midsummer’s eve and the Moon-letters“, “The Reckoning of Time”, “An ephemeris for Bilbo Baggins” and “(Flawed) Astronomy in the History of the Hobbit” from these Science Pages.

Words of Westernesse: A light-hearted introduction into the grammar of Adûnaic, based on Arthur Lowdham's spiritual research in HoMe IX, and (tentative) etymologies of Adûnaic and Westron as far as the corpus of vocabulary has been established. This volumes includes updated versions of the essays “Lalaith’s Guide to Adûnaic grammar” and “Etymologies of the Atani Languages” from these Science Pages.

Dynasties of Middle-earth: Genealogical tables and comments on the lines of the kings of Númenor, Arnor, Gondor, Rohan, Dale and the Princes of Dol Amroth. A shorter version of this volume had been previously presented here as “Genealogies of the noble Mannish houses”.