If I were in charge of the universe, I would make it a better place. In fact, being what I hope is a decent and good person, I spend each day trying to leave things a little better than they were, if by simply cleaning up after myself, and mowing the grass; let alone the beauty I might create, or the help I might render a fellow human being. So if I can imagine a better world, and strive to make it better, then what in the world is God thinking? This is not a very nice place; we are reminded of that simple fact, especially after the latest terrorist attacks. If God is good, and he loves us, then why does evil exist? Why is there suffering?
In his book Candide, Voltaire argues that to say that this is the best of all possible worlds is demonstrably ludicrous. Only a complete idiot would believe that.
I must be a complete idiot, then, because I disagree with Voltaire. I still believe that this really is the best of all possible worlds. Given free moral agents, this world has the least possible evil and the least amount of suffering in it that there can be. How can I say something so insane? It is not as silly a position to take as one might initially imagine.
If God is good, if he loves us, how could this not be the best of all possible worlds? To argue otherwise impugns God’s character. Suffering, after all, is not an end unto itself. Everything that happens does so because it must, in order for the
Eternal to be reached. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann argues that it is eschatology which makes sense of current misery; eschatology is the answer to the whole issue of theodicy. The ends justify the means, from God's perspective, and ultimately, from ours as well. I suggest that God does have a purpose, he knows what he is doing, and it could not have been any other way. Kingdom
I’ll use my own life as an example of this. If it were not for my wife and I meeting, if it were not for the fact that we are both infertile, if it were not for the fact that we went through some unpleasantness at a certain college in Newhall, California, which set us up for moving to Lancaster, California, we would not have found out about a particular foster finding agency, and we would not have wound up in the middle of December 1993 having a tiny, scared, and neglected 8 pound, 4 month old arrive in our home, nor would the next two little baby girls who came in 1996 have wound up with us either. Everything had to happen exactly as it did, in order for the enormous blessing and benefit that came to my three daughters to reach to them. The purpose of the misery that my wife and I experienced here and there, was for our adopted daughters’ benefits.
Doubtless, there is more to our suffering than just that, but I believe that is an obvious and clear cut example of what the hand of God working in two lives managed to accomplish, and the importance of the suffering that we endured. And my life is not unique in this regard; many who have gone through hard times say with certainty that there was a purpose to the agony they experienced. We can see the same pattern of unpleasant and uncomfortable circumstances in person after person in the Bible, and yet, from our perspective in our more comfortable situations, we recognize the necessity and value of what they experienced. Sometimes, we know, they did too.
In January 1998 our foster baby boy died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Why? And why did we suffer a long, agonizing period of being sued (the case was ultimately dismissed) by the biological parents afterward? What was the point of it all? Obviously, the point was not the suffering; suffering is not an end unto itself. No trial seems pleasant while it is going on. A seed doesn't bear fruit unless it falls to the ground and dies. I can think of quite a number of applicable Bible verses, applicable examples. If I cannot see a good reason now, does that mean there isn't one?
Of course not.
But what do I see now? This unpleasantness forced me to, at last, confront my life, my emotions, to examine more closely who and what I am. I have gained fuel for creative expression; my future books will be informed, colored, impacted, themed, and built upon what I have been through. Would the current book I’m working on become what it will be, will future books, perhaps yet unthought or imagined, exist only because of those years of my life? I think that might be a part of the explanation. We look at a lot of artists, poets, writers, musicians, and they have lives that are not always happy. They are sometimes emotionally and mentally unstable. But would the world be a better place had Beethoven not grown deaf? Should Mozart be granted a longer life, and more financial stability? One would suggest that the value of their work, their suffering and instabilities, are worth it for the great, enormous blessing their art has been to humanity. Which is better, to be Dostoyevsky and write Crime and Punishment, and suffer an uncomfortable, often miserable life, or to have a life of comfort, wealth, and ease, and not to have written that book? Which is better for the human race? Which is more enduring? Which benefits most? And really, if Dostoyevsky could be faced with the choice, which would he really pick? Of course, he wasn't given the choice, at least not after the fact.
I can and have looked back on my life, on the choices I’ve made. Has it all been worth it? Of course my daughters are worth everything I’ve gone through. And which is better, that I would have had a normal job, doing normal things, having no financial strains, facing no criticism—or that I wrote the books I have written, and the books I yet will write?
Many times I questioned the choices that lead to today; thankfully, questioning the choices of my life does not give me any chance to change them. Without a time machine, I am not granted the opportunity for making a different decision, and playing it out, and seeing whether it leads to a better outcome. Frankly, I have come to believe that a different choice would invariably have been a worse outcome.
Here are some what ifs. What if Hitler had died in the first attempt on his life, when in 1938 he missed being blown to bits by ten minutes, because he ended his speech uncharacteristically early? What was God thinking? Would the world wind up a better place, if Hitler died then? Or maybe if he had died of his childhood illnesses? What was God thinking? Or maybe if he had gotten adopted out and was raised by a nice Rabbi and his wife? What was God thinking? But if we assume that this really is the best of all possible worlds, we have to assume any alternate scenario is actually worse than what happened.
If not, then I have to give credence to the possibility that had I made different choices, the alternate reality would have been happier for both me and the world.
Frankly, I cannot accept that; otherwise, God is evil, because the more painful, the more vile of the alternatives is what became reality. But I don't think it is consistent with who God is. If passages like Proverbs 3:5-6 (Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.) and Proverbs 16:9 (In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.) have any meaning at all, then I must believe that this is the best of all possible worlds.
I do not accept the possibility that the universe is just a random act, or that my life is without purpose or goal. But arguing that this is the best of all possible worlds seems almost obscene in the face of the Holocaust, the events of September 11, 2001, or the intermittent misery of an individual life. And yet, I embrace it, because I think it is a greater obscenity to suggest that God doesn't love us, or that he doesn't know what he's doing, or that he doesn't have the strength to do anything, or that he doesn't care. And even worse, would be to suggest that Hitler was right and God simply is not. If there is no God, then why should we have the sense that suffering is bad, or that there is even such a thing as evil? Where does our concept of what is right, and just and fair come from then?
Do we tell a father when he holds his dead baby in his arms that this is the best of all possible worlds?
Having actually lived through such a thing, that is what I tell myself. And I actually believe it.
So, if God is good and all powerful, then why is there suffering? That summarizes the problem of evil confronting monotheists. It becomes especially clear as we contemplate the Nazi Holocaust or the events of
September 11, 2001. On page 284 of Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum (New York: Random House, 1998) writes:
God as Satan. Or an impotent nebbish. Are these the only alternatives open to us in the aftermath of the Holocaust? In fact, there is a strain of theodicy that attempts to argue that God is neither all-powerful nor impotent but has limited his own power to the extent necessary to give man free will, the freedom to choose good and evil. The most powerful argument for this -- a contemporary symbolic-logic version of G.W. Leibniz's argument that this is the best of all possible worlds consistent with individual freedom (as opposed to determinism or predestination) -- is the one made by Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who insists that without God permitting the possibility of evil, of man choosing wrong, of what Plantinga calls "transworld depravity" (that in any world in which there is freedom some will choose evil), there can be no possible world in which free will or moral choice is meaningful.
But to many, the Holocaust is a challenge to the notion of the best-of-all-possible-worlds-consistent-with-free-will theodicy. Why couldn't God have created a slightly less depraved human nature? Does the necessity for transworld depravity require a human nature so depraved that hundreds of thousands would collaborate in the murder of millions of children too young to be paying for any imagined sins? Can
Auschwitz be reconciled with any best-of-all-possible-worlds theodicy that doesn't require us to question the character of God's creation, the character of God's creative impulse? Or must we resort to what is generally known as an irenic (or "soul-making") theodicy -- that catastrophic evils such as Auschwitz are painful moral lessons that God intends will lead ultimately to a less-depraved human nature? Must we then say, in effect, "Thank you, God, we needed that"?
However, the conclusions too often drawn from a horror like the Holocaust—that God wasn't there, or that he doesn't exist, or that he doesn't care, or that he is somehow impotent—overlook one very critical point: Hitler lost.
The question is sometimes asked, "Where was God during the Holocaust?"
One answer: "He was bombing the crap out of Nazi Germany."
We may legitimately wonder why he didn't just snap his fingers and end it instantly. But then again, when has he ever done that? Four hundred years the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt. Generations were born into slavery and died in slavery, with nothing ever getting better. Then, once God finally got around to sending Moses, it took ten plagues over at least a year to get the Egyptians to let the people go. And even then, the Egyptians weren't so impressed that it prevented them from pursuing the Israelites to the
Red Sea. And then, another forty years passed before the Israelites began the conquest of Palestine—a conquest that took another few years of long, hard and bloody fighting—and was far from complete by the end of Joshua's life.
The Holocaust would be a more serious challenge to the existence of God only if Hitler had won. He didn't. He lost.
The Bible gives us the hope that God will ultimately triumph and good will prevail. We ask why God doesn't do something about all the evil in the world. But that overlooks the simple fact that he has done, and continues to do something about it. Every day. Perhaps we're just too impatient.
So why didn't God just kill Hitler when he was a soldier on the field of battle in World War I? Or better yet, why didn't Hitler succumb to his childhood illnesses?
Yet, consider all the soldiers who do die in war, and all the children who do die young. And when these sad events transpire, we moan, "Where's God? How could God let that innocent die?" So God is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.
The question of why doesn't God do something about evil is actually, "Why doesn't God solve it the way I think would be best right now." It is a disagreement over tactics.
The following fable may also help us as we consider the problem of evil:
“It is quite clear that there can be no such thing as the Owner,” said the old dog. He had perched himself on the edge of the chair and surveyed the pups below them. “Consider the obvious fact of the existence of the Veterinarian.”
The little pups shivered in fear.
“Is there anything positive that might be said about the Veterinarian?” asked the old dog.
“Perhaps it is to teach us something?” squeaked one little pup.
The old dog laughed. “What possible thing can you learn from being jabbed and prodded and tormented in that little cage? That you don’t like being poked? I could have told you that without the experience.”
“Perhaps free will has something to do with it?” suggested another little pup.
Again, the old dog laughed. “We assume that the Owner is all-knowing and all-powerful and that on top of that he loves us and cares for us.”
“We do receive food every day,” pointed out another small pup.
“Then why is there the suffering of the Veterinarian?” demanded the old dog. “If the Owner was all-knowing and all-powerful, couldn’t he keep us from having to endure such suffering?”
“Well certainly,” agreed the pups.
“Then why doesn’t he? If he loved us, wouldn’t he keep the Veterinarian away? In fact, why is there even a Veterinarian at all? It is obvious that the existence of the Veterinarian is incompatible with the existence of the Owner. Either that, or the Owner is not powerful, or else the Owner is not good. There is no way of reconciling the existence of the Owner in the traditional sense with the obvious reality of the Veterinarian.”
* * *
It is absolutely impossible for the dogs to ever understand why the Veterinarian is necessary, or that the Veterinarian is actually an element in the Owner’s love for them. Certainly this is not a perfect analogy, but just as the Veterinarian is nothing but horrible for a dog, perhaps the why of the existence of evil, the reality of suffering, and all that entails is simply beyond our comprehension. That it seems so “obviously” incompatible with the nature of God or even the existence of God does not mean that it necessarily is.
Evil is an intractable problem. It is very difficult to solve, given the allowance of freedom. An analogy may illustrate this. Censorship is a bad thing. Pornography is a bad thing. We would like to keep pornography out of the hands of children. How do we avoid censorship and protect children at the same time? In a very small way, this helps illustrate the sort of dilemma facing God when we think about the importance of freedom and the inevitability freedom gives for individuals to make appalling choices.
Finally, in relation to the question of evil and the difficulty some think it creates for simultaneously allowing the existence of a good, all-powerful deity: if there is no God, is the problem of evil thereby eliminated? Would the non-existence of deity improve the human condition? Is the Holocaust now more bearable if there is no God?
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
If I'm alone in that valley, then this life really sucks.
But I don't think I'm alone.