18 March 2020

Why does bad stuff happen in a good God’s universe?

THEODICY θi'ɑd.ə.si noun. Explanation or argument for how God can be good, despite the existence or activity of evil.
[Theodicean θi'ɑd.ə.si.ən adjective.]

Disaster strikes our world on a daily basis.

Might be a huge natural disaster, like an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, or plague. Might be a “man-made” disaster, like a war, famine, mass shooting, or some terrorist activity. Might be a small disaster: One person unexpectedly dies. Or it’s a wholly expected death; a long illness, and we knew that person wasn’t gonna recover, despite doctors and treatments and prayers.

Every time these disasters strike, people wanna know why God didn’t prevent it.

’Cause that’s his job, they insist. He’s almighty, right? He could totally stop it. But he didn’t. Why the [angry expletive] not? What’s his problem? Doesn’t he care? Does he want evil to happen? Maybe he’s not really almighty. Maybe he’s not really there.

These questions and accusations come out of suffering and loss and rage. They’re totally natural. Most of us wonder ’em from time to time: If God’s almighty, why doesn’t he intervene? ’Cause we’d intervene. If we were God, we totally would step in and put a stop to the suffering. We’d rescue everyone. Or at least the good people. I mean, if a tornado’s gonna smite a trailer park full of child molesters, meth cooks, and white supremacists, that’s fine; they’re getting what’s coming to them. But good people oughta live!

Anyway, whenever people have these questions, out come the Christian apologists, who take it upon themselves to answer the questions, instead of just letting emotional people vent for a bit. Because they’re afraid these people will get so angry with God, they’ll quit. They’ll turn apostate. They’ll spread doubt and nontheism and unbelief, and we’ll be in an even bigger mess than before. We gotta defend God. So they do.

This particular field of apologetics—defending God from people who aren’t so sure he’s good or almighty—is called theodicy. And no, it’s not an abbreviation for “theological idiocy,” though some of its arguments sure make it feel like that. It’s a compound of the Greek words Theós/“God” and díki/“behavior”—it’s an attempt to explain God’s behavior. Or absence of it.

“Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” is the usual way it’s phrased. And when it gets right down to it, there are about five typical answers.

  1. God’s not there. Nobody’s there to stop evil from happening. It’s up to us.
  2. God is there… but doesn’t get involved. Again, up to us.
  3. God’s there, does get involved, and this was him getting involved: He’s behind the disaster. (For reasons. Bigger picture, secret sins, you name it.)
  4. God’s there, involved… but isn’t God as you imagine him. (He’s not almighty, doesn’t actually know the future, isn’t actually good, has some special arrangement with Satan, etc.)
  5. God’s limited himself, and won’t always intervene. (For reasons.)

And—no surprise—those who’ve just suffered a loss, don’t like any of these answers. Because they’re not actually looking for reasons. They just want the disaster undone, and defending what we think God is actually up to, isn’t helping.

Know your audience.

There’s a time and place to talk theodicy. It’s not after a disaster just happened.

Yet a lot of Christians assume it’s the perfect time to talk about it. ’Cause hey, people are thinking about God! Yeah, they’re royally pissed at him, but they’re thinking about him, so here’s our opportunity!

Trouble is, we use the opportunity to misrepresent him. Which pisses people off at God (and us) even more; and in some cases alienate ’em for life. As happens whenever Calvinist pastor John Piper gets it into his head to declare what he believes about God. That’d namely be theory #3, where God’s there, fully involved… and occasionally smitey.

Back in 2013, right after a tornado killed 24 and injured 377 in Moore, Oklahoma, Piper tweeted this:

Piper has since taken this tweet down—but not after offending a lot of people. Paul Wilkinson

What the heck is wrong with Piper? Believe it or not, he finds comfort in such verses.

No, seriously. To him, they mean God’s in control! And in the long run, God’s gonna make everything all good, and restored, and better; God’s gonna let Piper into his kingdom, happy and whole and living forever. Therefore it’s totally okay if Piper’s miserable, broken, and dying in this age; the next one’s gonna be awesome, and makes up for all the misery of today.

Piper’s had a lot of years to reconcile himself to the idea of God as a destroyer, a shatterer of worlds. So if God were sic a tornado on his house, and lay waste to his entire family, of course Piper wouldn’t be happy about it… but it’s precisely the sort of behavior he expects of God. To his mind, sometimes we get good from God, and sometimes evil. Jb 2.10 It feels kinda arbitrary and random from our end, but it all makes sense to God; it’s sorted out within his secret will. Sometimes God keeps us under his hedge of protection, Jn 1.9-12 and sometimes he lets Satan use us as its toilet paper. Whatever. God knows best.

Whereas your average pagan—heck, your average Christian—isn’t used to this idea, and finds it atrocious. And any God who runs the cosmos by it is just as atrocious.

Anyway, someone finally clued Piper in on how he was being perceived. So he took down this tweet, and another Job quote like it. One of his associates explained this doesn’t mean Piper retracted his beliefs; he still totally believes God is the first cause of every plague. It’s just for the sake of Christian charity, he realized now’s the time to be kind to those who mourn. God definitely slew their family, but the news has to be broken to people gently.

That’s advice the rest of us would do well to remember. Even if you believe, as Piper does, God’s actively or passively behind every disaster: If you present the news like a thoughtless a--hole, people will immediately assume your God is likewise a thoughtless a--hole. Hey, it’s the fruit you’re bearing. Take that into consideration for once.

But hopefully you realize this description of God makes God sound… well, awful. Even after you justify all the awfulness, most people’s response is still gonna be, “Good Lord, is that who you believe God is?” And even if they’re pretty sure you’re wrong about God, they’re gonna have all sorts of doubts about your level of compassion.

But more often they’re gonna confuse your dark Christianity for the real thing, your bad news for the good news… and want nothing to do with it.

That said…

I’m gonna write more than one theodicy piece, ’cause it’s a complicated discussion.

And I’ll admit up front my own beliefs. I begin with the premise God is good. Not “God sovereignly determines all,” which is usually what leads people in John Piper’s direction. Because the way they define sovereignty, they can’t reconcile God’s micromanagement of the universe with the character of a good God. There’s so much evil in the universe. If it’s all a necessary part of God’s plan, it’s bluntly an evil plan. You can’t reasonably call it anything else. This insistence on determinism inevitably makes Christians redefine “good” till it’s not goodness anymore, and God’s turned into a cosmic hypocrite who only pretends he’s good. I’m absolutely not going there. God is authentically good.

Hence my beliefs hover round theory #5, God’s self-limitation. But regardless of my beliefs, hopefully we Christians all accept that in the long run, God is gonna restore the universe to the way he originally intended it. Everything will be definitely good.

Meanwhile, when people are hurting, we can’t only think about the short run. Yes, we want God to fix things. Mend our hurts, save lives, repair buildings, restore health, provide jobs, put our finances back. Thing is, for most people, after God fixes things… we kinda want him to leave us alone from now on. We wanna go back to the life we had where he wasn’t involved. Which isn’t at all what he wants. But we aren’t thinking about his feelings.

God doesn’t wanna fix just one thing. He intends to fix everything. Including stuff we were kinda hoping God would never, ever touch. God’s in the process of eradicating sin. Some of us really don’t want him to interfere with our sins.

Picture a rich man who’s only used to spending his wealth selfishly. Say he invests with a con man and loses everything. He’s gonna want God to restore his fortune, right? But God’s gonna want to restore him, to righteousness. But all the rich man really wants is his money.

Picture a poor woman who’s awful to her neighbors. Say she gets injured, and desperately wants her health back. You do realize God wants her, once restored, to make nice with the neighbors. Again, all she really wants is to be well. But God isn’t content to only fix us in part. He wants us whole. He wants to heal everything. That’s his goal.

We only want God to return everything to status quo ante, then go away. So of course we don’t understand him. And of course we don’t like the answers which suggest God’s trying to bring about his endgame—his kingdom here on earth—as part of his restoration process. We don’t want that. (Or we do, we claim… but we want it way, way in the future, or after we’re dead, or someplace where it won’t interfere with our plans.) When that’s the way we think, our beliefs about God are swiftly gonna tilt in every other direction. God’s gonna be judgey and vengeful. Or passive and absent. Or have a secret evil plan kinda like we have secret evil plans. Or in any other way… not actually good.

Yep, theodicy’s a minefield. It’s gonna make these articles an interesting little dance.