Search This Blog

TXAB’s index.

14 December 2016

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

Your handy-dandy introduction to theodicy.

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

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 absense 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! Except it’s more of an opportunity for us to misrepresent him, piss people off even more, and alienate them for life. As happens whenever Calvinist pastor John Piper gets it into his head to declare what he believes about God: Namely theory #3, where God’s there, involved… and occasionally smitey.

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

It’s since been taken down, but not after offending a lot of tornado survivors. Paul Wilkinson

To Piper, this verse and others like it give him a great deal of comfort. Seriously. ’Cause God’s in control!… even though it appears he likes to send tornadoes to rip down elementary schools, and kill random people.

But the reason Piper found comfort in his theory, was ’cause he’s had a lot of years to reconcile himself to the idea of God as a destroyer, and shatterer of worlds. Piper figures in the long run, God’s gonna let him into his kingdom, so it’s fine if he suffers in this age; God guarantees the next age will be all good. If a tornado were to knock down Piper’s house and kill his entire family, of course he wouldn’t be happy about it, but it’s precisely the sort of behavior he expects of God, where sometimes we get good from him, and sometimes evil, Jb 2.10 depending on his secret will. Or, as in Job, depending on whether Satan successfully dared God to let it lay waste to our hedges of protection. Jb 1.9-12 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, just as atrocious.

Anyway, someone finally clued Piper in on how he was being perceived, so he took this tweet, and another Job quote like it, down. One of his associates explained why it doesn’t mean Piper retracted his beliefs; he still believes God is behind every tornado, every hurricane, every plague. It’s just for the sake of Christian charity, he realized now’s the time to be kind to those who mourn. Save the party poppers for when there isn’t a huge, dangerous gas leak in the building.

That’s advice the rest of us would do well to remember. Okay, you might believe God’s actively or passively behind every disaster. Hopefully you realize this makes God sound, well, awful. Even after you’ve justified all the awfulness, most people’s first reaction is still gonna be, “Good Lord, is that who you believe God is?” And have all kinds of doubts about your level of compassion, ’cause if your God sucks at it, likely so do you. We aren’t called to freak out the lost with our dark Christian imaginings about God’s will, but share Jesus with ’em. Demonstrate fruit of the Spirit. Love the hurting and show them mercy.

Do the first things first. Then, once the ruckus has calmed down, then start pitching your theories about whether God did it. Or not.

In the long run…

I’m gonna write more than one theodicy piece, ’cause it’s a complicated discussion. And I’ll admit up front my own beliefs (which hover around theory #5, God’s self-limitation) are based on the fact God’s good. Not “good” in some weird redefinition which makes everything automatically good if God does it; not good in intentions but evil in execution. Authentically good. God’s not a hypocrite.

But regardless of my theories, or yours, hopefully we Christians all accept that in the long run, God’s going to restore the universe to the way he originally intended it, and everything will definitely be good.

When people are hurting, we’re only thinking about the short run. We want God to fix a hurt. Save a life, repair a building, restore someone’s health, provide a job, put back our finances. Of course, for a lot of us, after God solves the problem, we expect him to thereafter leave us alone, so we can continue through the life we had where he wasn’t involved. Which isn’t at all what he wants. But we don’t care; we aren’t thinking about his feelings.

Thing is, God doesn’t wanna just fix 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 on himself. 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—and all the rich man really wanted was his money.

Picture a poor woman, who tends to be truly awful towards her neighbors. Say she gets injured, and desperately wants her health back. You do realize God’s gonna want 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 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.