Good God, Wicked World

How can God be good, and loving, yet allow so much evil, pain, and suffering in the world? This is an acutely agonizing question that has been asked for centuries with no really satisfactory answer. Yet, of course, there have been plenty of explanations put forth by philosophers, theologians, religious scholars, priests, rabbis, and so many more. Whether one seems more acceptable — or shall we say digestible — than the others is, perhaps, up to the individual considering the subject.

Alvin Plantinga, for example, says that if God is good then it logically follows that God would create the best of possible worlds, so that if we grant that God is, indeed, good, then we must conclude that this world, as it is, is the best of all possible worlds. Two questions come to mind, though: 1) why is it so many of us humans can conceive of a much better world than the one in which we reside if this really is the best possible world? 2) And even if it is, does this really “excuse” God for all of the pain, suffering, wickedness, natural disasters, etc.?

Surely an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, and good God could do something, and would do something, to dislodge the evil. But, then, was it David Hume who said that either God is omnipotent and omniscient, but not good and loving, or that God is good and loving, but not omnipotent and omniscient? It’s easy to see his reasoning on this point, (if indeed it was Hume who made this observation), because it seems utterly senseless that an all-loving and good God, who is also all-knowing and all-powerful, would allow so much pain and suffering.

It may be, then, that God is not quite “GOD,” but rather “god,” and so s/he is quite loving and beneficent, yet simply unable to exercise sovereign control over all of life and the entire world.  Or it is very possible that God is all-powerful and all-knowing (and everywhere present, for that matter), yet is also malevolent. Or it may be that there are two equally powerful gods, one being completely good, while the other is completely bad. Although some would say evil in the world is not God’s fault at all; it is humanity that is culpable.

This is a particularly frustrating argument from free will, though, as several questions come to mind: 1) who gave humans free will in the first place? 2) Who instilled within humanity the capacity to commit evil, atrocities, acts of violence, and so forth? 3) Who “set the stage” in which these evils could be committed? 3) How are victims of atrocities, violence, and so forth at all responsible for their suffering? 4) Does free will cover every human being anyway, such as: infants, invalids, the mentally handicapped, sufferers of dementia, etc.?

Then again, maybe God counter-balances all of the evil with good … maybe more than counter-balances it. Perhaps s/he outweighs the evil with an overabundance of good. Within this we could/should very well include eternal life in the bliss of an heavenly realm, of course. Certainly an eternity spent in heaven — perfected with love, joy, peace, happiness, health, and so much more — would make up for all of the pain and suffering, for all of the wickedness and atrocities, right? Many human individuals would say unequivocally, “no.”

Naturally, the atheist takes care of this nasty conundrum very neatly by merely pointing out that, of course, there is no God. The atheist is, nevertheless, left with the problem of evil in the world, but s/he can always foist that off on the brutal, impersonal, and naturalistic/materialistic world in which we live. In other words, we are no more than biological machines fighting, not only for survival, but for our own perceived greatest good, or fortune, thus humans oftentimes act worse than fierce animals all to satisfy themselves.

There is another explanation laid on the table, however, and it is that of an aloof, cold and detached God…. perhaps the God of deism. In this case, God created the cosmos and at least kicked off life within it, but then just “sat back” to watch it all unfold, maybe like some grand soap opera on a divine scale. Who knows? But this is definitely not the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of Christianity. What precisely is the God of Judeo-Christianity is an open question and has been for, perhaps, just as many centuries.

Is there still another answer? Surely we have not exhausted all of the explanations for evil, pain, and suffering in the world. There are, in all likelihood, many more to consider, but at present they escape the author’s knowledge … except for possibly one more. It seems in one sense the least satisfying of all answers, but could it be that God simply has an altogether different “measure” of, or perspective upon, pain and suffering and evil? Could it be that all of this looks quite differently from his/her vantage point? Doubtless, this is the case.

Does this satisfactorily explain the presence of so much evil, though? Well, as humans we would not charge the dog with an act of wickedness in catching and killing a rabbit; rather, we would say that this is just a dog being a dog, instinct and all. And again, we would not claim the cat is acting wickedly in prancing on a mouse, for that is what cats do as part and parcel of being cats. Perhaps, then, humans are also living out very fundamentally human lives — both good and bad, righteous and evil — and this is what God sees.

And maybe this leaves God rather undaunted by war and pestilence, disease and starvation, violence and gross neglect, and all sorts of pain and sufferings endured by countless millions upon millions of individuals, families and communities. In other words, it may be that God views all of this from an entirely divine perspective without being able to relate to the uniquely human viewpoint. Which is almost (if not entirely) to say that God cannot, perchance, “lower” him/herself to the crude level of humanity.

This won’t fly with Judeo-Christianity, though, because this is exactly where the Incarnation of Christ Jesus comes into crucial play. According to this central doctrine, God the only-and-eternally-begotten Son was conceived in the human womb of the Virgin Mary, from whom he assumed an authentically and completely human nature. And it was in this capacity that he suffered torture and death on the cross, being completely innocent of any wrongdoing, enabling him to literally understand pain, suffering, and victimization, (and so much more.)

Moreover, through his resurrection he is said to have somehow sanctified pain and suffering. At least, believer-followers of Christ are somehow able to mystically participate in the sufferings of Christ Jesus in and through their own pain and suffering. Does this satisfy the question/problem of the good God and wicked world? Well, it does seem to move closer to an important resolution, that is: God did not (and does not) stand idly by, watching all of the evil and wickedness in the world… No, s/he has actually, fully participated in suffering.

This still does not quite answer why an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, completely good God would allow so much evil, pain and suffering when it (seems) well within his/her ability to mitigate it all. Yet this may well be where some kind of free will argument, coupled with some best-of-all-worlds claim, enters into the equation … both carefully refined and nuanced, then astutely tied in with the argument from the Incarnation. Even still, this probably cannot be sufficient. So long as horrendous evil exists, nothing will likely entirely satisfy.

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