But, God Loves Us And Knows What He Is Doing
If I were in charge of the universe, I
would make it a better place. In fact,
as a decent and good man, I spend each day trying to leave things a little
better than they were, if by simply cleaning up after myself, and mowing the
grass; let alone the beauty I might create, or the help I might render a fellow
human being. So if I can imagine a
better world, and strive to make it better, then what in the world is God
thinking? This is not a very nice
place; we are reminded of that simple fact, especially after the terrorist
attack in New York and Washington. If
God is good, and he loves us, then why does evil exist? Why is there suffering?
In his book Candide,
Voltaire argues that to say that this is the best of all possible worlds is
demonstrably ludicrous. Only a complete idiot would believe that.
I must be a complete idiot, then, because
I disagree with Voltaire. I still believe that this really is the best of all
possible worlds. Given free moral
agents, this world has the least possible evil and suffering in it that there
can be. How can I say something so
insane? It is not as silly a position to take as one might initially imagine.
If God is good, if he loves us, how
could this not be the best of all possible worlds? To argue otherwise impugns God’s character. Suffering, after all, is not an end unto
itself. Everything that happens does so
because it must, in order for the Eternal Kingdom to be reached. Jurgen Moltmann argues that it is
eschatology which makes sense of current misery; eschatology is the answer to
the whole issue of theodicy. The ends
justify the means, from God's perspective, and ultimately, from ours as well. I
suggest that God does have a purpose, he knows what he is doing, and it could
not have been any other way.
I’ll use my own
life as an example of this. If it were not for my wife and I meeting, if it were
not for the fact that we are both infertile, if it were not for the fact that
we went through some unpleasantness at a certain college in Newhall,
California, which set us up for moving to Lancaster, California, we would not
have found out about Hannah's Foster Finding agency, and we would not have
wound up in the middle of December 1993 with a tiny, scared, and neglected 8
pound, 4 month old coming into our home and lives, nor would the next two
little baby girls who came in 1996 have wound up with us either. Everything had to happen exactly as it did,
in order for the enormous blessing and benefit that came to Vanessa, Toni, and
Brittany to reach to them. The purpose
of the misery that my wife and I experienced here and there, was for our
adopted daughters’ benefits.
is more to our suffering than just that, but that is an obvious and clear cut
example of what the hand of God working in two lives managed to accomplish, and
the importance of the suffering that we endured. And my life is not unique in this regard; most Christians, who
have gone through hard times, can look back and say with certainty that there
was a purpose to the agony they experienced.
And if nothing else, we have the perfect example in the life of Jesus
himself: leaving behind a perfect environment, absolute power, complete
control, infinite knowledge and experience, to become a baby, born in a stable,
growing up in a dirty, pre-industrial society, leading a handful of men in long
peripatetic walks about a rather hilly country, doing good, only to be betrayed
by one of his best friends and executed in one of the most painful ways
imaginable. And yet we know how the
story ends, and we understand clearly the enormous benefit that his suffering
produced. It was worth it to him, even
as he was uncomfortable going through it.
We are called upon to imitate Christ, to consider his way of life. We can see the same pattern of unpleasant
and uncomfortable circumstances in person after person in the Bible, and yet,
from our perspective in our more comfortable situations, we recognize the
necessity and value of what they experienced.
Sometimes, we know, they did too.
In January 1998
our foster baby boy died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Sydrome). Why?
Why did we suffer a long, agonizing period of being sued by the
biological parents afterward (the case was ultimately dismissed)? What was the point of it all? Obviously, the point was not the suffering;
suffering is not an end unto itself. No
trial seems pleasant while it is going on.
A seed doesn't bear fruit unless it falls to the ground and dies. I can think of quite a number of applicable
verses, applicable examples. If I
cannot see a good reason now, does that mean there isn't one?
But what do I see
now? This unpleasantness forced me to,
at last, confront my life, my emotions, to examine more closely who and what I
am. I have gained fuel for creative
expression; my future novels will be informed, colored, impacted, themed, and
built upon what I have been through. Would the current novel I’m working on
become what it will be, will future novels, perhaps yet unthought or imagined,
exist only because of the last couple of years of my life? I think that's a part of the
explanation. We look at a lot of
artists, poets, writers, musicians, and they have lives that are not always
happy. They are sometimes emotionally
and mentally unstable. But would the
world be a better place had Beethoven not grown deaf? Should Mozart be granted a longer life, and more stability
financially and emotionally, and should he be less of a reprobate? One would suggest that the value of their
work, their suffering and instabilities, are worth it for the great, enormous
blessing their art has been to humanity.
Which is better, to be Dostoyevsky and write Crime and Punishment,
and suffer an uncomfortable, often miserable life, or to have a life of
comfort, wealth, and ease, and not to have written that book? Which is better for the human race? Which is more enduring? Which benefits most? And really, if Dostoyevsky could be faced
with the choice, which would he really pick?
Of course, he wasn't given the choice, at least not after the fact.
I can and have
looked back on my life, on the choices I’ve made. Has it all been worth
it? Of course my daughters, Vanessa,
Toni and Brittany are worth it all. And
which is better, that I would have had a normal job, doing normal things,
having no financial strains, facing no criticism -- or that I wrote the books I
have written, and the books I yet will write?
That I should teach in an already existing school, or that I should
start my own?
Many times I
questioned the choices that lead to today; thankfully, questioning the choices
of my life does not give me any chance to change them. Without a time machine, I am not granted the
opportunity for making a different decision, and playing it out, and seeing
whether it leads to a better outcome.
Frankly, I have come to believe that a different choice would invariably
have been a worse outcome.
Here are some
interesting what ifs. What if
Hitler had died in the first attempt on his life, when in 1938 he missed being
blown to bits by ten minutes, because he ended his speech uncharacteristically
early? What was God thinking? Would the world wind up a better place, if
Hitler died then? Or maybe if he had
died of his childhood illnesses? What
was God thinking? Or maybe if he had
gotten adopted out and was raised by a nice Rabbi and his wife? What was God thinking? But if we assume that this really is the
best of all possible worlds, we have to assume any alternate scenario is
actually worse than what happened.
If not, then I
have to give credence to the possibility that had I chosen to accept a full
time position teaching at a different college than the one I chose, my life
would have been better, that the outcome in that alternate reality would have
been happier for both me and the world.
Frankly, I cannot
accept that; otherwise, God is evil, because the more painful, the more vile of
the alternatives became reality. I
don't think that's reasonable. I don't
think it is consistent with who God is.
If passages like Proverbs 3:5-6 (Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and
he will make your paths straight.) and Proverbs 16:9 (In his heart a man plans
his course, but the LORD determines his steps.) have any meaning at all, then I
must believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.
I do not accept
the possibility that the universe is just a random act, or that my life is
without purpose or goal. God knows what
he's doing; he always has, and I have a lifetime, a life, that illustrates it. Thus, Christianity is optimistic; it rejects
pessimism utterly. This is the best of
all possible worlds, a statement which on the surface seems almost obscene in
the face of the Holocaust, the events of September 11, 2001, or the
intermittent misery of an individual life.
And yet, I embrace it, because I think it is a greater obscenity to
suggest that God doesn't love me, or that he doesn't know what he's doing, or
that he doesn't have the strength to do anything, or that he doesn't care. And even worse, would be to suggest that
Hitler was right and God simply is not.
If there is no God, then why should we have the sense that suffering is
bad, or that there is even such a thing as evil? Where does our concept of what is right, and just and fair come
Do we tell a
father when he holds his dead baby in his arms that this is the best of all
Having lived such,
I tell myself that; and I actually believe it.
So, if God is good and all
powerful, then why is there suffering?
That summarizes the problem of evil confronting monotheists. It becomes especially clear as we contemplate
the Nazi Holocaust or the events of September 11, 2001. On page 284 of the recent book, Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum (New
York: Random House, 1998) writes:
God as Satan. Or an impotent nebbish. Are these the only alternatives open to us
in the aftermath of the Holocaust? In
fact, there is a strain of theodicy that attempts to argue that God is neither
all-powerful nor impotent but has limited
his own power to the extent necessary to give man free will, the freedom to
choose good and evil. The most powerful
argument for this -- a contemporary symbolic-logic version of G.W. Leibniz's
argument that this is the best of all possible worlds consistent with
individual freedom (as opposed to determinism or predestination) -- is the one
made by Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who insists that without God
permitting the possibility of evil, of man choosing wrong, of what Plantinga
calls "transworld depravity" (that in any world in which there is
freedom some will choose evil), there
can be no possible world in which free will or moral choice is meaningful.
to many, the Holocaust is a challenge to the notion of the
best-of-all-possible-worlds-consistent-with-free-will theodicy. Why couldn't God have created a slightly less depraved human
nature? Does the necessity for
transworld depravity require a human nature so depraved that hundreds of
thousands would collaborate in the murder of millions of children too young to
be paying for any imagined sins? Can
Auschwitz be reconciled with any
best-of-all-possible-worlds theodicy that doesn't require us to question the
character of God's creation, the character of God's creative impulse? Or must we resort to what is generally known
as an irenic (or "soul-making") theodicy -- that catastrophic evils
such as Auschwitz are painful moral lessons
that God intends will lead ultimately to a less-depraved human nature? Must we then say, in effect, "Thank
you, God, we needed that"?
the conclusions too often drawn from the Holocaust -- that God wasn't there, or
that he doesn't exist, or that he doesn't care, or that he is somehow impotent
-- overlook one very critical point: Hitler lost.
question is sometimes asked, "Where was God during the Holocaust?"
There is an
answer: "He was bombing the crap out of Nazi Germany."
legitimately wonder why he didn't just snap his fingers and end it
instantly. But then again, when has he
ever done that? It took ten plagues
over at least a year to get the Israelites out of Egypt. And even then, the Egyptians weren't so
impressed that it prevented them from pursuing the Israelites to the Red
Sea. And then, another forty years
passed before the Israelites began the conquest of Palestine -- a conquest that
took another few years of long, hard and bloody fighting -- and was far from complete by the end of
Holocaust would be a more serious challenge to the existence of God only if
Hitler had won. He didn't. He lost.
gives us the hope that God will ultimately triumph and good will prevail. We ask why God doesn't do something about
all the evil in the world. But that
overlooks the simple fact that he has done, and continues to do something about
it. Every day. We're just too impatient.
didn't God just kill Hitler when he was a soldier on the field of battle in
World War I? Or better yet, why didn't
Hitler succumb to his childhood illnesses?
consider all the soldiers who do die in war, and all the children who do die
young. And when these sad events
transpire, we moan, "Where's God?
How could God let that innocent die?" So God is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.
question of why doesn't God do something about evil is actually, "Why
doesn't God solve it the way I think would be best." It is a disagreement over tactics.
following fable may also help us as we consider the problem of evil:
quite clear that there can be no such thing as the Owner,” said the old dog. He
had perched himself on the edge of the chair and surveyed the pups below them.
“Consider the obvious fact of the existence of the Veterinarian.”
pups shivered in fear.
anything positive that might be said about the Veterinarian?” asked the old
is to teach us something?” squeaked one little pup.
The old dog
laughed. “What possible thing can you learn from being jabbed and prodded and
tormented in that little cage? That you don’t like being poked? I could have
told you that without the experience.”
free will has something to do with it?” suggested another little pup.
Again, the old dog laughed. “We assume that the Owner is
all-knowing and all-powerful and that on top of that he loves us and cares for
receive food every day,” pointed out another small pup.
is there the suffering of the Veterinarian?” demanded the old dog. “If the
Owner was all-knowing and all-powerful, couldn’t he keep us from having to
endure such suffering?”
certainly,” agreed the pups.
doesn’t he? If he loved us, wouldn’t he keep the Veterinarian away? In fact,
why is there even a Veterinarian at all? It is obvious that the existence of
the Veterinarian is incompatible with the existence of the Owner. Either that,
or the Owner is not powerful, or else the Owner is not good. There is no way of
reconciling the existence of the Owner in the traditional sense with the
obvious reality of the Veterinarian.”
* * *
It is absolutely impossible for the
dogs to ever understand why the Veterinarian is necessary, or that the
Veterinarian is actually an element in the Owner’s love for them. Certainly
this is not a perfect analogy, but just as the Veterinarian is nothing but
horrible for a dog, perhaps the why of the existence of evil, the reality of
suffering, and all that entails is simply beyond our comprehension. That it
seems so “obviously” incompatible with the nature of God or even the existence
of God does not mean that it necessarily is.
Evil is an
intractable problem. It is very
difficult to solve, given the allowance of freedom. An analogy may illustrate this.
Censorship is a bad thing.
Pornography is a bad thing. We
would like to keep pornography out of the hands of children. How do you avoid censorship and protect
children at the same time? In a very
small way, this helps illustrate the sort of dilemma facing God when we think
about the importance of freedom and the inevitability freedom gives for
individuals to make appalling choices.
relation to the question of evil and the difficulty some think it creates for
simultaneously allowing the existence of a good, all-powerful deity: if there
is no God, is the problem of evil thereby eliminated? Would the non-existence of deity improve the human
condition? Is the Holocaust now more
bearable if there is no God?
Even though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your
staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
alone in that valley, then this life really
But I don't
think I'm alone.
The Complaint of Jacob by R.P. Nettelhorst
Jacob’s life was not a particularly easy one and his family life, both growing up, and then as an adult was certainly what would fit the modern definition of being “dysfunctional.”
So, to say the least, Jacob was not at all happy. The one true love of his life was dead. Joseph, his favorite, the oldest son of his beloved, had been dead for twenty-five years. And now Simeon had been taken from him, and this monster in Egypt was demanding the last link he had to his dead lover. Beside himself with grief, we find his reaction in Genesis 42:36 where it all comes down to this:
Their father Jacob said to them, "You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!"
And certainly it was the case that the circumstances of his life, from his perspective, from the perspective of his sons standing around him, made his complaint fully reasonable and perfectly understandable.
And yet, the fascinating thing about his words, for those of us reading the story, is that we know that he couldn’t be more wrong, despite the fact that his words seemed so obviously true to Jacob – unassailably true, in fact. But we the readers of this little episode, know something that Jacob doesn’t: we know that Joseph is not only not dead, but he is second in command in Egypt, the most powerful and most wealthy nation on the planet at that time. We also know that there’s no way for poor Jacob to know that.
So the reality of Jacob’s existence is that everything could hardly be better. His favorite son has done very well for himself, thank you. Good job, and great future, with money to burn. Poor Jacob simply doesn’t know this yet. His perception, his perspective of reality, is incorrect.
And we, the readers, can do nothing to alleviate Jacob’s suffering just now. And God didn’t do anything about it either. It’ll be another year before Jacob learns the truth of what his life is really like. For twenty-five years he mourned for someone who was not dead at all. He bemoans his fate as a miserable one, though his family is absolutely powerful and prosperous. But he doesn’t know any of that; in fact, he has no way of knowing any of that.
September 11, 2001 was thus an exceptionally bad day (to say the least) and raised numerous questions in the minds of many people about the nature of existence, about the goodness of God, about what it is really, that God wants and expects out of all of us. How do we live in a world where this sort of thing can happen? How do we face the crises of life, both small and great? Is there some key to life, some playbook we can get, some list we can follow, some formula we can memorize that will get us through life in one piece, with ourselves and our families living productive and prosperous lives? What does Jacob's complaint tell us about our relationship to God and the world?
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John of the Apocalypse by R.P. Nettelhorst
If everything in your life went wrong, wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus came and told you why? “Why doesn’t God do something?” It was a question heavy on John’s mind. He had seen all his companions bleed and die; thousands of his compatriots had been slaughtered by a brutal tyranny. It seemed such an odd way for God to treat his most faithful servants. John was just a lonely old man exiled for his beliefs on the island of Patmos. And then Jesus unexpectedly showed up with good news and an explanation.
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