On Floods and Faith – Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God (Part Two)

In this particular post, I want to continue my exploration of the question of evil, suffering and God. A rebuttal of atheistic critiques is all well and good, but that in no way automatically validates a theistic position; what is also needed is a positive account of how God’s reality can be reconciled with the manifold suffering and evil that we witness in this world. For some, the question is not so great, since they may have embraced nothing more than some variation of deism (the notion that if there is a god, then he is nothing more than a “prime mover” or a “first cause”). Others may believe something else about the divine, including the notion that God may well in fact be evil and corrupt. If that is so, then the apparent tension between evil and God’s existent is, as it were, non-existent.

That may be the case for some, but the author of this blog is deeply committed to the god of Christianity. As such, I am not talking about a god who at one stage brought this world into being but now has nothing to do with it (deism). Neither am I talking about a god who is to be identified with the material world (pantheism). Instead, throughout this post, I will be implicitly referring to the god who is deeply involved in his creation, who willed it into being, who governs it, and who is still passionately interested in it. This god is good and loving, grieved by suffering and moved by evil. But if these claims about God be true, then how can he permit evil and suffering? Indeed, how can the presence of these tragic and (sometimes) destructive forces be reconciled with what Christians maintain about the One they worship and follow? Recent events – floods in Queensland and Brazil, deadly earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the manifest corruption of governments in the Middle East – sharpens the question somewhat, and once more forces us to ask: just how can the persistence of so much suffering (and those events are just the tip of the iceberg) sit alongside the historic Christian claim of a good, loving and powerful god?

Before I go on, I must admit to the inadequacy of words for some who have experienced tragedy. Whether you have lost a loved one, been battling with depression, or been the hapless victim of nature’s fury, my defence of God’s existence in the face of such hardships may seem somewhat uncouth. I am of course aware that the question of suffering is not, in the final analysis, a philosophical problem to be solved; it is instead a sometimes-monstrous experience with which people wrestle on a daily basis. I cannot stress that enough, for it is not something that can be understood by writing a blog about it in the comfort of one’s living room, or inquired of in a university lecture hall. No; it can only be truly understood if it is first lived. That is why my essay may prove to be of shallow consolation to those who have experienced first hand the evil of other men, or the destruction of a ravenous disease. Nonetheless, I do pray that this post uplifts and encourages those who have been hit by the effects of evil in this world. What is more, I should point out that these arguments do not automatically bring one to full-orbed Christian faith. They do, I believe, show us that belief in God can sit alongside the presence of evil in the world, and that there is even room for belief in the Christian god. There is indeed a great deal of overlap between the more general philosophical and theistic claims made here and the specific claims made in Christian theology, despite the fact that this particular series has not argued for the reality of God as he has been revealed in Scripture and Christian theology. What I present here does not take into account what the god of Christianity is actually doing about evil and suffering, and how Christian theology interprets these tragic phenomena. To use the language of faith, what I present here may reflect a generalized theology of creation, but it does not embrace a theology of redemption. That will have to wait.

The above caveats notwithstanding, it is important that a response is forthcoming. To begin with, we need to make a distinction between human evil (that is, suffering caused by the immoral or imperfect actions of other human beings) and natural evil (suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones I have mentioned in this, and my last, post). Of course, the distinction is not nearly as neat as it may first appear, and it is important to bear that point in mind. In any case, if we concentrate for a moment on human evil, we cannot explore the possible tension between its presence in this world and the claim that God exists, without taking into account the wider purposes of the Creator. Many (perhaps speculative) reasons could be offered, but in this post I will focus on just one. Specifically, I am thinking of God’s desire to not only create a world, but to also have a relationship with it, including of course those created in his image – human beings. This is a cardinal Christian truth, helping to explain the theological rationale behind the creation of humanity. God did not create us – or this world, for that matter – simply in order to study us, or to keep us at arms length whilst he admired us from a distance. No, he created humanity, in part so that he could have a relationship with it, to bestow his goodness upon it, and to give it the privilege of being in communion with him. But in order to develop a true relationship with his image-bearing creatures, he first had to endow them with what we might call free will. Only with free will is it possible to respond, freely and genuinely, to the intimate proposal for a relationship by another. Anything else would be a sham. And so it was, and is, with God and humanity. The endowment of free will was a necessary requirement for the creation of a group of people who would be able to come to God of their own accord; people who would be no more than automatons – prisoners of the efforts of a totalitarian god. Love and devotion can only come about through the freely chosen acts of the one expressing them, necessitating the presence of free will in humanity.

Of course, God took a risk when he brought humanity into existence. Free will can be used for good, but can quite easily be used for its opposite, evil. If this were not the case, it would not truly be free will. Similarly, if humanity was not free to choose to spurn God’s offer of a relationship, then neither was it free to accept that same offer. This applies to our relationships with each other as much as it does to our relationship (potential or actual) with God. For God not only created humanity to act morally towards himself; he also created humanity with a view to them acting morally towards one another. Moral responsibility – reflected in, and manifested by, our ethical treatment of other people – is a necessary corollary to one’s relationship with God. To claim the latter without committing the former renders both non-existent. But just as one’s relationship with God must be freely chosen, if it is to be a true relationship (and not just a fait accompli), so our moral acts towards one another can only be truly moral (in the sense that such morality becomes an deeply interwoven part of our identity) if they are, to some extent at least, truly and freely chosen. For instance, if one is forced to commit a moral act, we may say that the act itself is moral. However, the person committing it is not; he is simply adhering to a predetermined path, the nature of which does not impinge upon him. Humans have been created to be moral agents, freely choosing to pursue the good. And that necessitates the possibility of choosing the alternative, of rejecting the moral choice. That is one basis for authentic moral responsibility, rather than the product of divine pre-programming.

What we see around us, then, are the effects of the abuse of free will and the rejection of moral behaviour: murder, slander, corruption, exploitation, selfishness, greed. These are the inevitable consequences of the corruption of free will, which is itself the unavoidable concomitant of the creation of a group of beings that would be able to freely choose and freely love their Creator. This wider goal explains, in part at least, the persistence of evil in the world. The value God has placed on the free will of humanity is such that, even if is abused, as it has countless times throughout history, God does not necessarily remove it. In order to preserve part of the “essence” of humanity and its ability to freely come to the One who created it, the parallel preservation of free will, despite its corruption, is important.

Some may not like the above answer – that God apparently remains unmoved by the persistence of evil in this world. I shall respond to that objection in the next post in this series. Others may object that the presence of so much suffering does not make the preservation of free will worth it. To that, I would argue two things. On the one hand, I am quite sure that those who might be tempted to adopt this line of thinking would dispense of it once they could see its implications. If the history of the world has been consistently marked by human iniquity, then it has also been consistently marked by the struggle for human freedom. It is a prize to be upheld; not discarded because of the way it has been grievously abused. Of course, that is of no comfort to the one who has lost his spouse to the destructive behaviour of a drunk driver. In my effort to provide an explanation for the importance of human moral choice and free will, I do not wish to minimize such a tragedy. Nevertheless, I can only return to the answer I have supplied: that present free will is a necessary element in an authentic relationship with God, and an authentic moral existence. On the other hand, I would suggest that a freely chosen life with God – not to mention the choice to act morally towards others – is of such incomparable beauty that its reality cannot be jeopardised. If God is what traditional theism says he is – the great architect, who has not only created this world but continues to uphold and animate it – then some kind of relationship with him is a relationship with the foundation of life, truth and goodness. It takes us beyond our own finiteness, mortality and moral ineptitude since we have come into contact with a god who is beyond all three. What is more, according to a specific Christian theological account of the situation (which I will discuss in a future post), it is the very rejection of this reality that has led to the pervasive evil that we witness in the world. Once again, the creation of morally responsible, morally free individuals who possess the ability to choose the ultimate good – to choose God – could not proceed without the possibility that those individuals would end up choosing its opposite.

This important point may help to explain human evil, but it cannot necessarily be applied to the suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones we have witnessed in Australia and elsewhere recently. Climactic conditions and the earth’s convulsive movements cannot be explained via moral categories (at least, they cannot be held morally accountable for what occurs). There is (apparently) no intentionality, no moral responsibility – only causation. Of course, I have already made the point that the distinction between human evil and natural evil is blurred. An earthquake may shake buildings and structures, but the presence of a city on a known fault line, as well as the shoddy nature of building construction in the area, can lead to a high death toll. Similarly, floods may wreck havoc on a hapless village or town, but the creation of dams could have stopped such a tragic event from occurring. Moreover, one may suffer from a seemingly inexplicable form of cancer, but given the many risks posed by certain foods and environments, it is impossible to rule out human action in such an event. Thus, even when a natural disaster strikes, one cannot so easily discount the effects of human action, which may lead to or exacerbate human suffering.

Nevertheless, we face a problem, for in many cases, human activity cannot account for the destruction wrought by a natural calamity. God’s existence and human evil can be explained via the argument from free will, but how does one account for the presence of natural evil? Surely God has control over nature in a manner that is unlike his relationship to humanity? Indeed, this is the case, but not to the extent that one might first assume. I spoke earlier about the free will argument as an explanation for the presence of human evil in spite of the claim that there God who is loving and powerful. Much the same could be said of the natural world. Just as free will explains human evil – and its corollary, human suffering – so free process explains the sometimes destructive nature of, well, nature. At this point, I should acknowledge the influence of John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and priest, whose work in developing this concept has been significant. I don’t want to follow him too far down this road (he also apparently claims that the future is unknown to God, with which I disagree). However, the point is well made. Rather than controlling the world like a puppet-master pulling the strings of his lifeless minions, God has endowed the world with the ability to freely develop, much like he has endowed humanity with the capacity to freely choose. Creation is not static; it is instead dynamic. And although its development has sometimes been messy and chaotic, the metaphysical independence of the natural world (and by “metaphysical independence,” I am referring to the distinction between God and his creation) is preserved in this developmental freedom.

This does not mean that we follow the god of deism after all; just because God has given the natural world the ability to freely develop in its own way does not mean that he also does not have unfettered freedom to involve himself in its affairs. We should not think that because God has endowed his creation with this kind of dynamic quality, he is therefore bound to refrain from activity within it. I have already dealt with this point above, in my discussion of human evil. Suffice it to say, God has created a world with a freedom to develop in a distinctive manner, just as he has created humans with a moral freedom that enables them to choose good or reject it. Because of that freedom, the natural world sometimes heads in a direction that occasions pain and destruction, and that is deeply contrary to God’s purposes. That does not mean that the world is simply chaos; there is enough order and regularity to suggest otherwise. But there is also enough unpredictability and flexibility within the natural world to suggest that it is more than just an animated diorama. And with that flexibility comes the sometimes-painful reality that nature will cause human suffering.

Such is the complexity of this issue that I have not been able to touch upon all aspects of it. What’s more, I have obviously not touched upon the specific Christian claims regarding evil and suffering in any detail. Thus, this post does not take into account the relationship between human sin and the corruption of creation. Nor does it note the pernicious effects of sin on human beings themselves. Furthermore, many questions remain. For example, what role does God’s providence play in a discussion like this? I have argued that humans have free will, but how does that relate to God’s activity in the world? Human free will is not unfettered, but when – and how – does God actually intervene in the affairs of his creation? Why does he appear to stop evil in some cases, and not in others? Why might he rescue a drowning child, but not millions of people dying at the hands of corrupt governments? And even if free will does help explain the presence of human evil, why has God not put a stop to it already (given that Christians believe he will do so at some stage)? Why does God allow human free will to remain, even in cases where it means the suppression of another’s free will? It could be said that God simply giving ample opportunity for people to freely choose the good, even if they continue to indulge in immoral acts, but the tension still lingers. Also, when should suffering be construed as a consequence of divine judgment? This may have more to do with a Christian perspective on the question of evil, but it arises nonetheless whenever God is invoked. Finally, how does God remain sovereign over the natural world, whilst also giving it a freedom to develop in its own, sometimes-destructive, manner? These questions may never receive adequate answers (though in upcoming posts, I shall attempt to do so), for to know them properly is to know the mind of God. Hopefully, however, I have given some account of how a belief in God is not inconsistent with the presence of evil in this world.




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