About a week after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, I received an email from a good friend who knows someone struggling with the goodness of God in the face of such evil. Why, if God is good, would he allow this? While there are many “miracle” stores that have come out of this incident, those who lost their lives needlessly would not so readily agree to the so-called “good” that might result.
Many responses have been given and, at first, I did not intend to writing anything further. I was simply going to respond to my friend in email. However, a confluence of readings and life events since that time have yielded further reflections, which I share here.
First, it’s important to note that too often we come to moral evil as if it were an equation to solve. I wonder if this is just another way of diverting the sheer pain and sadness that we all have when such tragedy strikes. Moral evil is not a problem to solve but a fact of our fallenness. [For my philosophically minded readers: As Alvin Plantinga has done and in concert with the Fall in Gen 3, I am collapsing what is known as “natural evil” into moral evil.]
Sometimes our belief in God raises more questions than it does in providing answers. It’s easy to view evil from an abstract distance and offer analyses that make sense to those of us untouched by it. But for those directly affected, evil defies all analysis. Perhaps that’s why philosophers readily admit that moral evil is the most difficult of all topics for any kind of theism.
Our concerns over the goodness of God in the face of evil are legitimate and our questions deserve answers. They must be taken seriously. Too often Christianity says to those with honest questions in effect “Shut up and submit to God.” This is the way of Islam, not Christianity. However, there is some kernel of truth here; we must humbly admit that perspective is everything. We simply do not nor will we ever have the vantage point that God does on how every event is woven together to compose the final picture. Only God knows the end from the beginning and this raw fact alone should make our pronouncements about tragic events tenuous. We would do well to recall Job’s lesson (chapters 41-42).
Yet, Scripture does not turn a blind eye to these kinds of questions. “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter” (Ecc 4:1). In fact, the entire biblical storyline is important to remember. After the first two chapters of the Bible (Gen 1-2), all hell has broken loose. It’s not until the last two chapters of Holy Writ (Rev 21-22) do we find evil absent. The majority of Scripture radically affirms the presence and power of evil in this world. The reality is that we live in that time between Gen 2 and before Rev 21. Note too that the book of Job essentially follows the same pattern (chapter 1 = all is well; chapters 3-40 = all hellish inflictions and inadequate reflections; chapters 38-42 = God steps in and sets the record straight).
And so, it follows that our faith does deal objectively with the reality of pain and evil and Scripture is clear there is some mystery involved regarding why God permits evil rather than keeps it from occurring. The mystery, mind you, is on our part and not on God’s. If indeed God is omniscient and knows precisely what he’s doing, and is good permitting only what will, in the end, bring about the optimal amount of good from every event, and if he is able to bring about the end from the beginning, then it follows that God is meticulously discharging his will in this universe, one second and one event at a time.
Our reaction to this mystery is intriguing as well. As Eleonore Stump has observed, evil may serve a purpose to solidify the fact that it’s beyond our grasp to understand. Evil is like a mirror. Not everyone has the same reaction to it. “Some look into the mirror of evil, acknowledge what they see, and move on; others can’t shut out the sight of its horror. We’re all different in how we react to what we see. Some walk blissfully through life, while others stare intently at the face of evil and cannot shake its effects. But as both disparate views look more intently at the mirror, we find that evil refuses to be codified and principlized. It defies all reason and eludes our grasp; it is pure chaos and disorder. This, as Augustine observed, is the very essence of evil, so it’s not surprising that we cannot come to grips with it, psychologically or rationally” (paraphrasing her essay “The Mirror of Evil”).
I find it interesting that identifying which faculty allows us to have moral intuitions (e.g., goodness, mercy, justice) is unknown to neuroscience. Brain states can be measured and monitored, but the content of my thoughts cannot. This comes as no surprise because I would argue that the faculty for moral intuition is not a material thing; it is part of the imago Dei (God’s image within), which every human possesses. The same tears of agony over the needless suffering of others come from the same human ability as tears of joy at the beauty of music or of nature. Both encounters (whether horror or happiness) produce in us a sense of longing for something more and the tears we shed express this longing. Practically speaking, the extent to which we fail to grant forgiveness or mercy to others is the extent to which we are unable to receive them. Just as the same muscle in our bodies enables us to accomplish some extraordinary feat, that same muscle will inhibit us as well if it is not duly exercised.
It is ironic that this ability to see the face of evil may in fact speak to God’s existence and to his goodness. Doug Geivett offers the argument like this:
- Evil exists and is a departure from the way the world ought to be.
- If evil is a departure from the way the world ought to be, then there is a way the world ought to be.
- If there is a way the world ought to be, then there is a master plan or moral design for the way the world ought to be.
- If there is a master plan or moral design for the way the world ought to be, then there is a Master Planner or Moral Designer for the world.
- This Master Planner or Moral Designer we call “God.”
This may not satisfy everyone, but it does show the plausibility of believing in God in light of the existence of evil.
Finally, (paraphrasing again, Eleonore Stump) “When evil is incarnate and people are at their moral worst, we must remember that when we would not come to God, he came to us, not to rule and command, but to be despised and rejected, to bear our griefs and sorrows, to be stricken for our sake, so that we might be healed by his suffering.” The cross of Christ sets everything right side up and deals once and for all a death blow to evil. Though the sentence upon evil has been declared at Calvary, it continues to be discharged in time and in space until such day that “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”