4 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you….”
— Jeremiah 1: 4-5a (ESV)
Springboarding off of these verses in the book of Jeremiah, in my last post I asserted that every person was a deliberate creation of God. To put it another way: each person exists because God specifically and individually decided to create him or her. There are some strong objections to this claim; I gathered them into three broad groups, and considered the first two already. The third and most significant remains.
Objection 3: “What about the ramifications?”
As positive as it may seem to say that God cares enough to craft each person, some rather dark consequences emerge pretty quickly when we start to think about the specific people created. As the most obvious example, does this mean that God knew who Hitler would become and yet formed him anyway? Did God make all of the various historical figures whom we commonly call monsters, even though he knew the evils they would perpetrate?
It gets worse though. What about the children who are born in countries where they’ll starve to death? Did God intentionally put them in that position? Consider a small child suffering from Tay-Sachs disease, a genetically inherited condition that will inevitably result in suffering and death, usually before the age of four. Did God deliberately craft that child too?
The idea of God’s involvement in the creation of individuals becomes a locus for what’s called “the problem of evil.” Why would a good god do these things? It seems like there are three possibilities: God doesn’t actually exist; God isn’t actually good (at least not how we would usually use the word); God wasn’t actually involved in the creation of those people. Atheists embrace the first (quite frequently citing the problem of evil as their reason). A lot of modern pagans and eastern mystics embrace the second (usually referencing some sort of divine neutrality or indifference rather than postulating an evil god). A lot of Christians embrace the third (not least because of the naturalism I previously discussed).
(To be fair some Christians instead abandon the traditional understanding of God’s knowledge, usually in defense of human freedom. This rather neatly spares them the trouble of Hitler–maybe God didn’t know what Hitler would choose to become–but not the child with Tay-Sachs disease.)
To the problem of evil there are no easy answers. I think there are satisfying answers, but not easy ones. All of them depend on faith, which is a demanding endeavor.
(But not an irrational one, contrary to popular sentiment. Christianity has never asked people to be unreasoning, as though thinking might get in the way, nor has it asked them to reason only along specific paths, as though its vision were too fragile for any but a careful approach. In fact, Christianity has largely been the voice entreating the world to think clearly, thoroughly, and deeply, while its opponents have been the ones who refuse. But I digress again.)
First there is faith in the supernatural at all, the belief that there is more in the world than what we can see and experience. Then there is faith in an afterlife, the belief that a tragic death is not a tragic end, because it isn’t actually the end at all. Most importantly though, there is faith in God who is bigger and better than we are: his perspective is better; his judgment is better; his motives are better.
A lot of the persuasive force of the problem of evil comes from a very human desire that it be resolvable according to our values and within our own scope, which it almost certainly isn’t. If we demand that the world make sense without reference to anything outside of it, if we demand that the world make sense to our judgment no matter how small our judgment may be, if we demand that the world make sense in a way that leaves us in secure control of ourselves, then the presence of evil is philosophically crippling.
If however we allow for even a little faith, freedom follows. Lets look again at the examples listed above–the various difficult instances of evil–but this time with a little faith.
Imagine an artist with a vision for an amazing work of art, the sort he decides is worth making. Now imagine that he knows his masterpiece is going to be destroyed. Maybe he decides it’s worth making regardless. Now imagine a parent, wanting to give a treat to his son. Treats can’t be forced on kids, or they stop being treats. Now imagine that he knows his son will refuse the treat, or worse revile the treat. Maybe he decides it’s worth offering regardless. Then combine the two, where the masterpiece is a son, and the treat is that amazing, evocative, lasting, power art has. Maybe the artist parent decides it’s worth making his masterpiece and worth giving it freedom, even though he knows it will choose to destroy itself.
What if Hitler was that son? What if God had an idea for a man who was passionate, charismatic, driven, and devoted, the sort of man who becomes a champion of goodness, the sort of man who becomes a saint. What if God decided that masterpiece was worth creating, was worth endowing with the freedom to become a righteous hero, even though he knew it would choose to become a terrifying spiteful villain instead? What if God liked the idea of the man Hitler could have become so much that he refused to be deterred by man Hitler chose to become?
I imagine that most people are having one of two knee-jerk reactions. The first is caused by the deaths Hitler inflicted on millions; I’ll talk about that in a minute. The second is based on our experience of failure. We are people who are easily deterred. We are also people who tend to imagine we have more control than we do. Hitler’s failures weren’t God’s though, and God is not tempted to believe that they are. As for deterrence, imagine it as a confrontation: God saying, “I will do good,” and Hitler saying, “I will do evil.” If Hitler’s evil stopped God from doing good, evil would win. God’s persistence in pursuing the good of creation is a victory, a refusal to let evil control him. We mostly have trouble seeing it that way, but maybe the trouble is our perspective.
A large part of our perspective is dominated by death. We might be more willing to allow the “Art for art’s sake” analogy if Hitler hadn’t caused a world war and engineered the Shoah. What if our perception of death–the fearful posture of people who live under the shadow of something mysterious and thoroughly wrong–is the problem?
Think about children born in countries where they’ll starve to death. Suffering and death are abhorrent, and never more so than when they happen to children. Then there is eternity. If we believe in a perfectly and infinitely good God, and we believe in the possibility of spending an everlasting life with that God, then our perspective of death changes. It’s still a bad thing, but it’s not the looming, terrifying, monstrous thing that it is in the experience of those who still await it. From the other side it probably registers in retrospect as barely even an inconvenience.
Now, of course I think we should work to prevent starvation. I think when anyone starves its evidence that a lot of people have failed; I’m sure I’ve been part of the problem before. Again though, that failure isn’t God’s. If God makes a child knowing that he or she will be failed by others, he also makes that child in light of eternity.
Perhaps again he imagines a child/masterpiece, a gracious and vibrant daughter with a quick wit and quicker smile, and he decides she’s worth creating. Perhaps his only option for creating her is in a place where she will starve. (As I said before, God is determined to let us participate in his efforts, so his options are frequently limited by our unwillingness to be amenable.) This is tragic, but not for the girl. She will still get to be that gracious and vibrant creation with God forever, and she will no longer have any reason to fear. It’s tragic for us because we can’t see that yet. That tragedy also will pass.
But what about the child with Tay-Sachs? What about that child’s suffering? Why specifically give to a child genes that will torture and kill it? Again, we’re repulsed by the evil we understand. Maybe our understanding isn’t complete though. Maybe those same genes hold some greatness we don’t see. Maybe they’re an essential component in some kind of wonderful gift, which in our fallen world is unfortunately accompanied by a rather horrifying side-effect. In this world none survive that side-effect, but what if this world is not the whole picture? Maybe in their everlasting lives these children manifest a strength we can’t yet fathom. Right now their form might be deadly, but maybe God can see, when mortality is washed away, that their form will be a special sort of glorious. Maybe again he pursues goodness and refuses to be thwarted by evil.
I can’t say any of these things for certain; I don’t have God’s perspective. I’m as limited as the next man. However, if we’re willing to accept that we’re limited, that a larger and better perspective might exist, the problem of evil stops being insurmountable. If the rest of the evidence seems to point to the idea of God individually creating every person, then we shouldn’t be swayed by the this sort of philosophical boogeyman.
If we have evidence to believe that God is thoroughly and attentively good, enough to devote himself like a craftsman to the creation of each person, then we have a foundation for having faith in spite of evil. Only someone larger than us could perform the task, and only someone good would perform it. If he’s larger than us, maybe he understands more than we can. If he’s good, then we can trust his understanding.
Now, as it happens the bulk of the Christian testimony says exactly these things: that God is bigger than us, that God is thoroughly good, that God can be entirely trusted, and that each of us is God’s creation whom he knows, forms, and loves. (The rest of Christian testimony doesn’t disagree, it just talks about other subjects.)
To be continued…