“The Scream,” Edvard Munch’s painting of a a hairless person’s primeval scream standing on a bridge in a sunlit day came to mind as I witnessed unbelievable horror and tried to feel the unimagined suffering of parents as they raced to the elementary school in Newtown Connecticut to find their children.
Questions about “who” died quickly shifted to “whys.” Why this town? Why this school? Why my child? Syrians in a refugee camp asked me weeks ago what millions through millennia wondered, “Why does God allow evil?”
I know attempts to answer will not bring back a child, erase memories of a shooter blazing away at little children, extract justice for the community or ease the fright of a possible reoccurrence in another school. Even so, a framework for discussion (called theodicy – why God allows evil and suffering) matters for those in Newtown and us on the sidelines, as we grieve and wonder.
There are two paths down this road of a theodicy: first are questions of logic – how is that God who is sovereign and good doesn’t or can’t eliminate suffering? Secondly, we follow the biblical narrative – the Jewish-Christian scriptures leading us through generations, learning over time what God is doing about evil. The first is humans examining God, questioning him in the courtroom of human reason. The second is a story of human life in its genesis, often devolving, yet given a lifeline from its seeming inevitable slide into chaos.
The first path is logic: Why doesn’t God who is loving and all powerful eliminate evil? Hume (18th century philosopher) asked, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” On neither score God wins. But what if we explore beyond Hume’s two options (if he is willing, but unable he is weak; if able but not willing, he is not good) with another: He wills to allow choice, and thus is both sovereign and good.
Or what if we posed this: Could God create a world in which there is free choice but only one choice and that to do good? The counter argument would be, “But that’s hardly an exercise of free will. It sounds more like angels.” Which in turn begs the question, is there something God cannot do? Can he make a world in which humans have the freedom to choose for themselves, but only allow one choice in their choosing? Logic disagrees. So there is something God cannot do which is to be self-contradictory.
We do know that being made in his image – imago Dei – we are wired with choice. Augustine, 4th Century theologian put it this way:
Such is the generosity of God’s goodness that He has not refrained from creating even that creature which He foreknew would not only sin, but remain in the will to sin. As a runaway horse is better than a stone which does not run away because it lacks self-movement and sense perception, so the creature is more excellent which sins by free will than that which does not sin only because it has no free will.”
God, who is both all-powerful and good, gave human will space to choose good or evil. Keep in mind that the biblical story describes our human parents in a state of innocence, not perfection, and it is within their innocence they made their choice to obey either their Creator or evil. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga sums up the heart of the argument: “God can create a more perfect universe by permitting evil.”
A second path of this theodicy begins with the Hebrew Scriptures as we search for an explanation of God’s dealing with evil. Here a narrative of people, events, choices, interventions and consequences answer to evil. Beginning with creation we learn of the Divine and human, its subsequent unravelling of relationship and generations of disasters interspersed occasionally with flashes of brilliance and goodness.
Here, let me insert a comment on the notion of evil itself. 20th century wisdom tended to discount evil as real and substantive, making it an effect (what happens to someone) rather than its own reality (what causes something to happen). Instead dysfunction and brokenness in life and society, it was reasoned, was due to many factors – social decay, chemical imbalances, genetic malfunctions, hormonal roller coasters, and the explanations go on. Surely much of what we know today as medical and psychological was in the past categorized as evil. Even so, American psychotherapist, Scott Peck, an atheist came to Christian faith in part because he saw a larger force at work in some patients, a factor he called “evil” which he outlines in People of the Lie.
We feel the tension in the Divine’s offering of freedom, sometimes taken and creatively managed, but most often dissipated by greed, anger and lust. Abraham, father of both Jews and Arabs, accepted the promise to beget a nation, yet lied about his wife to an Egyptian Pharoah and distrusting the promise of a son, bred another and in the end was called on to sacrifice his son, ending with two people forever at loggerheads with each other, as Israel and Gaza demonstrate.
We see in many stories a manoeuvring of human will to exercise freedom, at times leading to doing good but often exploring the deep places of moral depravity, all the while wrapped in fig leaves to camophlage the Divine from knowing.
How then does God wrestle with his choice to give humans freedom to be good or bad? The constant double thread woven through the old and new Testaments promise presence – God is with you – and promises of future – the coming Redeemer who will recompose the human heart and destroy cosmic forces of evil.
Jesus of Nazareth fills out that narrative – he enters as king of creation and child in a stable. The fusion of Divine and Human – we call it “incarnation” – brings together the two and in course of his mandate in death asks what parents of Newtown asked last week: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
And his answer? I’ve come so you might have life, with abundance. Evil – the prince of this world (John 16:11) – is defeated and will be no more. While the good of God wrestles yet with evil, the triumphant Easter morning declaration of Jesus rising declares that evil, an earthly constituent, is defeated. The Christian hope puts the finality of that defeat in the future, but in faith, that too is assured.
The arguments of logic are feeble at best. Yet they frame a wider picture of our world in which God gives us right to choose. For parents in Connecticut, Syria or Afghanistan, that won’t fill the emptiness of a child gone. But it reminds us that each has the right to make choices. The cause(s) of the killing rampage need not go unaddressed. We can rise the next day and make changes for good.