Justifying God

Theodicy is commonly thought to concern itself with the problem of evil. The most banal expression of this is the phrase: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But it is more than that. So much more. In fact, theodicy has to do with the justification of God. It is a defense of God’s goodness and greatness in the face of evil, of suffering, and of death.

One of the best descriptions of the problem was recently expressed by Stephen Fry, who when asked what he would say to God:

I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I would say.

There are creatures who use humans as hosts for part of their life cycle, creatures responsible for a great deal of pain, suffering, and death. Take for example, the protozoan known as Plasmodium, which is responsible for Malaria. The five species of Plasmodium are all spread from human to human using mosquitoes, and all five species mature and reproduce in the human liver. The World Health Organization says that in 2013, around 584,000 people died of malaria, most of them children under the age of five. You could say that the existence of Malaria has as its primary purpose the killing of children.

Dracunculiasis is the formal name for the infection by the Guinea worm. The Guinea worm primarily infects humans (and possibly dogs) by drinking water containing guinea worm larvae. Once a human is infected, the worm matures, mates, and slowly travels through the body to the lower leg, often causing intense pain. Eventually the worm causes an allergic reaction. Blisters form, eventually burst, and the worm begins to protrude from the body. Slowly, over a period of weeks, the guinea worm exits the body. As it slowly makes its way out of the, the burning sensation causes people to seek relief by soaking their leg in water, allowing the worm to release larvae which are eaten by water fleas, continuing the life cycle. The sole purpose of the Guinea worm’s existence seems to be to cause great pain and suffering; it does this indiscriminately, and for the sole purpose of furthering its own reproduction.

If you are a creationist, you have to believe that God created these (and other) creatures whose sole purpose is to cause pain and suffering. Thus we must assume that God desires to see his creation suffer. It is not enough that some humans will suffer in the afterlife, but quite a number of the sufferings of this life are caused by creatures God created for this express purpose. We humans have a name for this type of personality disorder; if we are indeed created in the image of God, than this name would necessarily apply to a God who seems to enjoy the sufferings of his creation.

If you are an evolutionist who believes in God, you have other difficulties. The evolutionary process which led to the existence of humans has been the result of a great deal of suffering and death. There have been five great extinction events, known colloquially as the “Big Five.”

  • Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction: 443 million years ago; 85% of sea life went extinct
  • Late Devonian mass extinction: 359 million years ago; 75% of all life went extinct
  • Permian mass extinction: 248 million years ago; 96% of all life went extinct
  • Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction: 200 million years ago: 50% of all animals went extinct
  • Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction: 65 million years ago; extinction of the dinosaurs, allowing for the rise of mammalian life

So much death and destruction, leading the way to the development of human beings. How do we account for this? What was the purpose of death on such a large scale, occurring multiple times? If we accept the biblical creation accounts, death is the result of sin. Yet how could there have been sin before humanity existed? And if suffering and death existed prior to the fall, how then is God a good God? How can we love a God who seems to enjoy the suffering of His creation?

I have no answers, only questions. One day, I hope to ask God what was the point of it all. As Stephen Fry recently noted when asked if after death he found himself in front of the pearly gates: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?”

Seriously, what’s the point of it? In the book of Job, the answer given seems to have been: “Who do you think you are to be asking me that question?” But, if the Bible is true, humans were created in the image and likeness of God; I therefore presume upon that likeness to ask the impertinent, impolitic, and possibly blasphemous question: “Why?”

And yet, I know that God exists. I have experienced his providential care. Yes, what I call providence could be chalked up to chance, but I’ve also experienced miracles in my life — at least one of which was witnessed by others. My life (and those with me) has been saved twice in miraculous ways, at least one of which has no rational explanation. I have therefore personally experienced the hand of God working in my life.

When I begin to doubt the goodness of God, I am also forced to remember the goodness of God towards me. The God who seems to delight in suffering, also seems to delight in being good towards his creation. I cannot reconcile the two. One day, I hope to ask God the same question Stephen Fry asks: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?”

On The Existence of Suffering Amongst God’s People

Seven Maccabean Martyrs

Seven Maccabean Martyrs

Now I beseech those that read this book, that they be not discouraged for these calamities, but that they judge those punishments not to be for destruction, but for a chastening of our nation. For it is a token of his great goodness, when wicked doers are not suffered any long time, but forthwith punished. For not as with other nations, whom the Lord patiently forbeareth to punish, till they be come to the fulness of their sins, so dealeth he with us, lest that, being come to the height of sin, afterwards he should take vengeance of us. And therefore he never withdraweth his mercy from us: and though he punish with adversity, yet doth he never forsake his people. But let this that we have spoken be for a warning unto us. (2 Macc 6:12-17)

In nearly every case, the word “Holy” is used of God, of God’s law, and of the Sacred Scriptures. However, in Paul’s writings we begin to see the idea of God’s people becoming Holy through their connection with Christ. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he builds upon Christ’s metaphor of the vine and the branches: “For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.” (Ro 11:16) He indicates that holiness is both the normative state and the goal of the Christian life: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (Ro 12:1) Paul tells us the point of his crucifixion was to present us to God as holy. (Col 1:22) Writing to the Corinthians, Paul first states that the “temple of God is holy”, and then that we are the “temple of the Holy Ghost”. (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19) Paul describes the church as a holy temple, holy and without blemish. (Eph 2:21; 5:27) In his moral and ethical prescriptions that typically end the writings of Paul, he describes holiness as the goal of the Christian life. God wants us to be a holy people (Lev 11:45; 1 Pe 1:16).

In the second book of Maccabees we read that suffering comes into the life of God’s people not as punishment, but as a corrective tool. Suffering is presented as a sign of God’s mercy, in that he doesn’t leaves us to our sins, but guides us away from them. The point of our present sufferings is for us to avoid the judgment of God.

The apostle Peter writes how it is better to “suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.” (1 Pe 3:17) He then describes “the longsuffering of God”, how “God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Pe 3:20) In this passage the sufferings of the few are nothing when compared against the judgment of the world, a theme Peter appears to have taken from 2 Maccabees.

Divine Silence in the Face of Evil

A woman cries at the funeral of Christians killed in Maaloula.

A woman cries at the funeral of Christians killed in Maaloula.

The problem of the existence of evil and death, given the power and goodness of God, is called theodicy. Even young children sometimes ask questions about whether God created evil and, if He did not, how and why He allows evil to exist. This is a profound question, one that has been wrestled with by young and old, by the simple and the educated, by both saint and sinner alike. And yet there is another more profound question.

Why is God silent in the face of evil? Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica makes mention of this, the Divine silence, in connection with Christ’s own suffering and death. “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth” (Acts 8:32). Christ himself was silent in the face of this great evil being done to him. He did not object, he did not present a defence, he did not protest his innocence. All of which made the act of the Jewish and Roman leaders even more monstrous.

I do not have a satisfactory answer to the existence of evil, at least not an answer that will satisfy once and for all. Neither do I understand the Divine silence in the face of evil, especially the evil done to the Church, which is his body. Yet I also know that Christ is most present with us during times of suffering. He suffers with us, and we suffer with Him. In Mark chapter 13, Jesus tells us to give no thought as to what we will speak when we are called to give an account of our faith, for the Holy Spirit will speak through us.  Perhaps God speaks through  and with the voice the martyrs. If this is true, then the voice of the martyrs speaks not truth to power, but truth with power.

Job himself suffered, and no satisfactory answer for his suffering was given him. Yet Job spoke truth with power when he said: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me” (Job 19:25-27).

The psalmist cries out with us against the evil of this world. “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart. But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps 73:1-3). This is perhaps the clearest expression of the problem of theodicy, which becomes a problem when we take our eyes off of God and focus one our neighbor’s continuing good fortune in the face of their own sin. When we cease repenting our own sins and focus on the sin of our brother, the goodness of God seems far away. The psalmist continues his protest against God until something changes. “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me;  Until I went into the sanctuary of God” (Ps 73:16-17).

When reading this, I cannot help but think of Peter the disciple walking on the water, until he takes his eyes off of Jesus and focuses on his immediate circumstances. He begins to sink, until he cries out to Jesus, who pulls him from the water and places him back in the boat, which reminds us of Noah’s Ark, which is a type of the church.

I have no answers to the problem of evil. I only hope that when my time comes, that the Holy Spirit speaks through me as powerfully as He speaks through one of the new martyrs of Syria: “I am a Christian, and if you want to kill me for this, I do not object to it.”