Evil and God’s Will
God is good; God is all-powerful; Evil Exists. Do we really have to pick only two?
Dec. 29, 2012
On Dec. 14th, 2012 the United States was visited with yet another massacre at the hands of a deranged man who had easy, convenient access to lethal firearms. After fatally shooting his mother at home, the gunman (whom I refuse to validate by naming him, as the media seems bent on doing) went to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and shot 28 other people, killing 26 and wounding 2 before taking his own life. He was armed with a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, and 10mm Glock 20 SF and 9mm SIG Sauer semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines and fragmentation rounds. For those who are unfamiliar with them, fragmentation rounds are designed to break apart on impact and “tumble” through the body like grenade shrapnel inflicting as much tissue damage as possible. They were developed for military use in combat theaters, where severely wounding an enemy (thereby draining battlefield medical resources) is often more “useful” than killing him/her immediately. They serve no purpose whatsoever in hunting, target shooting, or anything other than killing large numbers of human beings with as much pain and suffering as possible. Of the 27 Sandy Hook victims, 20 were children ages 6-7 and the adult victims were all women who lost their lives attempting to protect the little lives in their care. All were shot multiple times. The event was so horrific that even the NRA was silent for a few days before responding in the usual manner. A few leaders among their ranks even went so far as to admit (!) that perhaps the time had come for thoughtful dialog regarding gun laws.
Naturally, tragedies like this raise many questions about our national appetite for lethal military weaponry, and our penchant for relying on violence rather than dialog for conflict resolution. But being as we are (at least according to our national anthem and money) a “nation under God” they raise many other questions as well. According to the Bible, the Quran, and most other major world religions, God is;
- The omnipotent, all-powerful creator of the universe and all that is, including us—the one before who even death must ultimately submit.
- Good and just, and a God who loves and cares for us.
The Bible goes so far as to say Jesus loves us so much that,
"...though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross." (Phil. 2:6-8)
But if this is really true, why does God allow events like the Sandy Hook massacre to happen? There are those who believe He is good and loving but not powerful enough to prevent them, and we can certainly sympathize with this view. But if we take most world religions seriously this cannot work. It just isn’t reasonable to believe that God is powerful enough to create the entire universe, fill it with galaxies, black holes, planets exploding with life and more, and raise His Son from the dead as Christians believe… yet utterly helpless to prevent a skinny, deranged 20-year-old from gaining access to firearms and killing women and children.
Then there are those like Job’s friends (Job 15:1-9). You know… the people who never lack easy, sanctimonious platitudes that explain everything away. Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, for instance, even went so far as to claim that the Sandy Hook massacre was God’s judgment on America for being tolerant of abortion and gay marriage (Huffington Post, 2012)… as though elementary school children and their teachers have anything at all to do with either, and their violent deaths are actually just! Remarks like these require no further comment –they speak for themselves and are beyond contempt.
Which brings us back to the original question: Why would God allow such things to happen? A friend of mine and former street ministry partner summarized the dilemma well at his blog;
"If God is in control of EVERYTHING (and people are always saying that God accomplishes His will), then the things that happen are the things he wants to happen… or at least the things He’s OK with. And if he 'allows' (or as Calvinistic Christians would say, actually ordains) children to be slaughtered and people to starve to death or women to be raped and murdered and more, then he’s not good or loving... If we try to disguise this with a lame 'people have free will' argument, that basically says that God is not in control... it makes no sense to me to say that God has the power to stop these things, but chooses not to." – (stuffthatmattersblog.com)
Far be it from me to be so glib as to suppose that I have God’s Will and evil figured out. But from my own perspective as a Christian, I believe there are a few things we can say that might shed some light on it all, and perhaps, maybe even give us some comfort and hope.
First, whatever our beliefs about God may be, most of us tend to assume at least two things about His Will;
- That it is synonymous with His desire—with what pleases Him most.
- That it is a “here-and-now” state of affairs rather than a process—a goal yet to be fully realized.
Historically (and Biblically) there is little justification for either. If the Bible is clear about anything, it’s that God’s Will—the fullest realization of His kingdom—is yet to come, and until then He suffers with us. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ tomb. He cleared the temple. He railed against the Scribes and Pharisees. And finally, He went to the cross, despising the shame, but obedient unto death (Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 12:2). Note how the Bible holds the suffering and shame of God Incarnate side-by-side with His obedience. It’s difficult to see how any of this can be squared with either of the above.
Second, we must remember that what God ultimately desires is our fullest wholeness and humanity… fulfillment in Him, and in each other. It’s difficult to see how anything remotely approaching this could be achieved, even in principle, apart from our own freely made choice to enter into relationship with Him and embrace His Will. The very idea of this precludes the possibility of our being denied the ability to choose the opposite—not only for each of us as individuals, but corporately for us as a global society. God didn’t shoot up a Connecticut elementary school—a deranged individual who said “NO” to Him did. That individual didn’t get his weapons from God—he had access to them because he dwells amidst a people of unclean lips who, although they would angrily deny it, believe that access to their own personal weapons of limitless lethality is ultimately more important than the safety of their society and their children.
Likewise, pestilence and natural disasters occur because of natural law, but the devastating nature of their impact is often due to human choice as well. Disease is often a consequence of poor health choices (e.g. smoking) and/or inequitable distribution of wealth and medicine. Earthquakes and landslides kill tens of thousands in impoverished areas where human wealth distribution has led to communities with inadequate earthquake-resistant structures, unsafe locations driven largely by poverty and injustice. Floods devastate regions like the American Midwest and Pacific Coast estuaries where careless logging, real estate development, and other land use activities have all but eradicated nature’s erosion control, etc. etc. And we haven’t even gotten yet to climate change… This is not to say that the consequences of such things are always just (or even mostly so), but it does mean that a great deal of what we like to call “acts of God” are actually not. And none of this is God’s doing. Sometimes He spares us the consequences of such things. Other times he allows our individual and corporate choices to impact us. It’s not at all clear (to me at least) that any of this is inconsistent with His goodness, His justice, or His loving kindness.
Third, contrary to popular belief, God’s Goodness is not the same thing as “niceness.” It is grace, kindness, and mercy to be sure, but if we take the Bible seriously at least, it is many other things as well… Justice, Holiness, sanctification via trial by fire if need be, and more. No, this is not to say that the gunning down of innocent children is in any sense just! Nor that it is easily explained away with sanctimonious platitudes as Job’s friends and so many others these days would have us believe. It is merely recognition of the messy and uncomfortable fact that there is fierce side to God’s Goodness.
Living as we do in a Western consumer society where feel-good pop-psychology, Oprah, and fragrant New-Age opiates are the order of the day, for most people it goes without saying that God just a kindly grandfather in the sky—a divine, sweet-natured Mr. Rogers dufus whose job it is to guarantee sugar, spice and everything nice without accountability. According to the Bible the Living God with whom we must contend is very different. There we see a God who has some expectations of His own for us, who comes before us with justice as well as mercy, and is as likely to confront us out of the whirlwind as the easy chair, if not more so. And when He does there’s no guarantee that the end result will always be pretty and bloodless… or that the burden of proof for anything and everything will always be on Him.
Which brings me to the third point: Free Will is not the same thing as License, and being God’s children does not make us His infants. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus tells us, “For they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:10). “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house…” (Matt. 5:12-17). “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God,” says Paul (Rom 8:14). “What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?” the Psalmist asks. “Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands. You have put all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:4-6).
Peacemakers… Sons of God… Rule over… Under [our] feet… Salt and light… Little less than God…
It’s difficult to see how words like these could be meaningful in any sense that matters, yet involve no individual or corporate moral responsibilities of any kind whatsoever. And where there is responsibility, there is accountability, and real consequences for dropping the ball… accountability not for the Angels, for Creation, for Karma or Manifest Destiny, not even for God… but for us.
Over the years I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel the Third World. I’ve been to sub-Saharan Africa, to impoverished regions in the Republic of Kiribati in the South Pacific, to poor regions of China. Interestingly, for all the people I met in these places… people who have spent their lives on the receiving end of the worst suffering and injustice the world has ever dished up… not once did I ever hear any of them question God’s goodness or demand answers from Him as to why their world is the way it is. Not once. Without exception, virtually every person I’ve ever encountered who did (myself included) was richly blessed with a comfortable, Developed World life and had the luxury of doing so. This does not make the questions irrelevant or meaningless, of course. Nor does it eliminate the need for answers. But it does make me wonder… These people, who live their lives far closer to the front lines of suffering and gross injustice than I ever will—why are they not as troubled by such things as I am? What do they know about God’s Will and life in a fallen world that I don’t?
Years ago I read an essay by Jim Wallis (in Sojourners magazine if memory serves me) in which he told of meeting a poor black man on the streets of Johannesburg years before the fall of Apartheid. “Do you believe there will ever be an end to Apartheid in South Africa?” Wallis asked him. Without missing a beat, the man stood tall and looking him in the eye said, “Yes! I will see to it!”
Consider these words. Consider the man who said them. Here is someone who had none of the rights, privileges, or power we in the Developed World take for granted… unable to vote, without a voice of any kind in his society, barely able to feed his family no doubt… a man who had likely been beaten senseless by police and military personnel on multiple occasions… someone who unlike most of us, had lived every day of his life enduring the very suffering and injustice we in America demand that God answer for. Yet when confronted with this question he responded by saying “I…” not my government, not the Angels, not the U.N. or America, not even God… but “I” will see to it! When was the last time any of us heard something like that said here at home during an election year…? At a Town Hall meeting…? From a Fox News commentator or talk show host…? From a condescending, brandy sipping Atheist in the lounge who felt it was his self-appointed job to “enlighten” the rest of us about theodicy and belief in God…? From James Dobson…?
I understand all too well why so many people cannot get their heads around a “loving” God who didn’t stop 20 kindergarteners from being slaughtered. I can’t get my head around it either… And for that matter, few things in life worry me as much as people who actually can. But the older I get, the more I find myself confronted by other less easily avoided questions first…
What if there is more to this than helpless, responsibility-free infancy?
What if this means that it was we who dropped the ball, not God? We who were responsible for being His Peacemakers… salt and light to a world in need… to actually (God forbid) obey Him… yet chose instead to build a society that willing sets aside the safety of our children for paranoia and my responsibility-free “right” to military weaponry and fragmentation rounds for “home defense” against “leftists” and U.N. black helicopters? Who did so despite strident, never-ending demands in God’s Word and the words of His prophets to do otherwise? The other day I came across a parable of a little girl who asks, “God, why do you allow violence in my school?” to which God answered, “I don’t Sweetie. But I’m not allowed in your school.” Valid concerns regarding Church/State separation aside, in the larger picture what if there actually is something to that?
What if the God who is in control didn’t intervene in Connecticut, not because He “respected my free will,” but because as His Son, the responsibility to intervene had been entrusted to me… to us as a society?
What if I dispensed with demanding “why” and instead took my Sonship seriously enough to come before Him saying, “Here I am Lord! I will see to it!”…?
Was it wise of God to entrust so much responsibility to the likes of us… we who in fact do value paranoid worldviews and “home defense” against the “gummint” more than the safety of our children? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, it seems to me that He has. Call me old-fashioned, naïve, or idealistic if you will, but to me this is anything but “lame.” It is the dignity, and responsibility of Sonship. And the consequences of that go with the job of being “Little less than God, and crowned with glory and majesty” (Ps. 8:4-6)… My job.
Does any of this make the questions go away or ease the suffering? Hardly. Will choosing Sonship over accountability-free infancy cleanse the world of all evil and injustice? Probably not.
But I guarantee you… it will make it a damn sight better than it is, and the Kingdom of God will be that much closer for all of us.