Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Does God Allow It?

Last year, I wrote about 46 pages on the problem of evil, pretty much all but the concluding section.

So I thought I would write the conclusion today:
The problem of evil and suffering is the question of why God allows it.  Pain and suffering in themselves are not evil. God can actually use them to help us grow. Even death, from one perspective, is simply the beginning of a joyful eternity. It is those of us who remain who usually suffer the most.

Even then, some of our concern over the problem of evil comes from imagining our own suffering and death rather than from our own suffering per se.  We imagine ourselves in the shoes of those who may have suffered only for a moment. Sometimes our sense of the magnitude of the issue comes from fear as much as from actual suffering.

But if God loves us and is able to stop evil and suffering, then why doesn't he? Here again, we do not know the extent to which he does.  God may be intervening all the time, constantly, without us knowing it.  We are mostly aware of the times when he doesn't.  It is quite possible that they stand out to us in great disproportion to the number of times he does step in and change the course of history.

Why doesn't he step in every time?  We must ultimately trust that he has some larger reason not to step in.  We must believe that he doesn't step in because there is some greater good either for us or for humanity as a whole.

For example, one old explanation for the bigger picture has to do with moral freedom.  It is not a perfect answer, but it suggests that a world in which we can choose the good (and thus can choose evil) is a better world than one in which we are simply God's robots playing out a script he has written for us. But if some individuals will choose the good, then some will choose the evil, and suffering will result.

This answer to the problem of evil is the "free will" explanation.  In its classical form, it says that God gave Satan and Adam a choice between good and evil, and they made the wrong choice.  In Adam's case, the result was a world where people have a tendency to do wrong and where the created realm is enslaved to corruption and decay (cf. Rom. 8:19-21). St. Augustine in the 400s saw the evil and suffering in the world as a direct consequence of Adam's sin in Genesis 3.

As someone from the Wesleyan tradition, I believe that God still empowers us to make choices for good in this world.  We can of course go with the human default of selfishness, usually with a resulting detriment to ourselves and others around us.  But I believe God makes it possible also for us, both individually and collectively, to do good in the world as well, if we will.

A supplemental answer to that of free will is the "Irenaeus" answer, proposed some two hundred years before Augustine.  Irenaeus suggested that suffering can make us stronger.  Without hardship, our wills would not face the kinds of choices that enable us to grow and become morally great. We can understand natural laws as a mirror of the principle of freedom, where God allows the laws of nature to play themselves out without regularly intervening. Sometimes, those laws play out in a way that results in our suffering, and we face the choice to grow or become bitter.

But ultimately, it comes down to faith in the mystery of God's goodness.  By faith we believe that God is good.  I do not believe that God orchestrates evil or that he directly causes all suffering.  For reasons that are usually beyond our full understanding, he certainly allows it.  Sometimes he intervenes.  Sometimes he doesn't.

Ultimately, we must believe that there is a big picture that we often do not see.  We as Christians believe that, if God allows evil or suffering, he must do so because it is either beneficial for us in some way or that it benefits the big picture.  We do not see the big picture.  We cannot know how the alternative would play out.

We believe by faith that God is good and that the sovereign king of the universe will do right (Gen. 18:25).  Sometimes we can guess at why God might allow something, but we cannot be certain in this life.  We must have faith in the mystery of his goodness, that he is working everything for good in his ultimate game plan.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Evil has to do with power. Power has to do with leadership. Those that are under power that is not limited, that is presumptuous upon others is evil. It is leaders who play "God" with another's life. Another's life "ideally" should be within their own power, not limited by another's "choice". But, since our lives are interfacing with others, often our lives are affected by others in their choices.

I would prefer to understand things in a realistic way, and not in a supernaturalistic way. That way people are accountable, not God. Theology is a way to make people passively accept "their Fate", instead of make another choice.

Your presuppositions are medieval, not according to what we know about modern physics....Natural law was the Church's apology for "God" and "the moral order", so that people could be controlled and "social order" could be established. Although "order" is important, Americans have believed in the right to grievance and a right to petition government about injustices.

Since the establishment of our government, Americans also do not believe in a "social order", because opportunity is the name of American ideals to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Just as a practical question; is such theology to be "useful" in the Connecticut tragedy, so that the parents that lost their little ones can "grow" or "repent and turn to God"? How suffering serves the "greater good" of these parents "testimonies" of "God's faithfulness"?????!!!!!

John Mark said...

Ken, thanks for this post. I have a son who insists that God simply does not care: he has been influenced by Christopher Hitchens. Last night he came to church-I didn't expect him-and heard me preach on Psalm 42-he told my wife he disagreed with everything I said-it only solidified his thinking. I am at a loss as to how to deal with him.

I have read a bit of David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions, but Hart's writing is so dense (to me) is is tough sledding. My son has almost no formal education, but is brilliant, in my mind, certainly more articulate and capable of critical thinking in ways I struggle with.

Frankly, I wonder myself where God is, I think any thinking person wonders where God is in times of terrible tragedy. I have read the story by Elie Weisel of the death camp execution (you are probably familiar with it)....where one man says "Where is God? Where is he now" and there is a soft reply from another "He is here, in the middle of our sorrow."

I'm no philosopher, and can't really argue on that level. I cling to my own experiences of God's goodness and the testimony of others. But what stuck out to me on your post was your statement that God is perhaps working far more than we are aware.
Again, thanks. I know I 'unloaded' a bit here, but my heart is heavy today. This really spoke to me.

Ken Schenck said...

JM, I may work through Randy Alcorn's If God is Good after I finish the book Bishop. I hear it is really good.

Angie, I am exactly NOT suggesting that God caused the Connecticut massacre. Will the people grow from this. Absolutely they will. I am absolutely NOT suggesting God caused it for that reason. Greater good can be the way things are structured, not greater good for a specific individual.

Power is a tool of evil, but evil itself is always a matter of intention.

Natural laws can be reconceptualized in a quantum age. Things still fall down, not up.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do not see a dichotomy of understanding evil as a matter of "trust" (belief, faith, etc.) or bitterness, but a matter facing reality in a real world...the real world functions on power (leadership, and money). Therefore, suffering can sometimes be imposed by one's own unenlightened choices. But, all of us will make our choices within our own contexts, value driven goals, "worlds", until we "wake up" or re-evaluate our contexts, value-driven goals, "worlds"....which doesn't happen to all of us in the same way, at the same stage of life, or sometimes at all....

Scott F said...

I don't think the Problem-of-evil debate has made much progress in the last century (or more) and is unlikely to now. Every argument on either side is interesting yet inconclusive.

I was not "influenced" by any of the so-called new atheists. I am too old. Among my influences were Asimov and Sagan - more like humanists really. Surely you imagine how the preponderance of one's experience can weigh mightily in favor of God's absence. Most pointers to a creator are much more subtle and, in my view, ambiguous. No book of clever apologetics is likely sway your son. Probably the best approach to take is to honor your son's views and treat them as reasonable if ultimately mistaken. If there is a God and the witness of your life demonstrates His power and goodness, your son may well come around.

Ken Schenck said...

P.S. All the material is available via this post and the links in it. I've also collected and edited all the material and published it here: The Problem of Evil and Suffering: Why Does God Allow It