A terrible thing happened to me some years ago. I ached so badly I lay down on the floor and cried and cried great heaving sobs of anguish, and as I gasped for breath between my sobs I repeated one word over and over, “why? why? why?”
Why indeed? When terrible things happen, whether a personal tragedy such as my own or a natural disaster in which hundreds of thousands perish, we seem compelled to ask, “Why did God let this happen?” Before answering this question let me discuss two extreme and equally erroneous answers to the question from two opposite schools of thought. One school I will call the “sadistic maniac” school and the other I will call the “amiable bumbler” school.
The sadistic maniac school asserts that God actually causes horrible things to happen in order to accomplish his purposes. God, they say, is utterly sovereign, omniscient and omnipotent. If he wanted to keep something from happening he surely could. We can assume, therefore, that when he does not keep a thing from happening it is because he wants it to happen, and it follows every event that has ever happened or ever will happen is specifically desired by God. When my heart is broken or a tsunami wipes out a quarter million people, God wanted those things to happen. Indeed, the hyper-Calvinist goes so far as to say that God creates some people for the very purpose of damning them to hell.
The “amiable bumbler” school is repelled by the sadistic maniac school, and they go to the opposite extreme to avoid its implications. God is love they say, and if this means anything it must mean he is omni-benevolent. How can an omni-benevolent being be responsible for (far less specifically desire) personal tragedies or natural disasters? He cannot. It follows that God does not have absolute knowledge of and power to change future events. Thus, open theists assert that God knows the future only in a probablistic, not an absolute, sense, and just like the rest of us he is waiting around to see how things are going to turn out. And when bad things happen he slaps his forehead and says, “didn’t see that coming, hope no one blames me.”
Adherents of both schools would have benefited from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Chesterton takes for granted the fact that we cannot understand the universe (far less the God of the universe) fully, and efforts to do so lead quite literally to a sort of madness. Using poetry as a metaphor for mysticism, he writes:
Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion . . . The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Chesterton would be the first to admit that the internal logic of both the “sadistic maniac” and the “amiable bumbler” schools is unassailable, just as the internal logic of a madman’s arguments cannot be defeated:
If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humor or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
Chesterton concludes that only the ability to hold truths that appear to be contradictory keeps us sane:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them . . . Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also . . . It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
The sadistic maniac and the amiable bumbler schools are both wrong. God is powerful enough to combine apparent contradictions in his person. He is three, yet he is only one. He is both immanent and transcendent. He is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent; yet despite the evil that exists in the universe he created, he is also omni-benevolent. It never ceases to amaze me that skeptics are surprised when they are unable to fit God into neat human categories. But if we could understand God completely, would we not be gods ourselves? I know I am no god, so I am unsurprised to find that I cannot comprehend God in his fullness or understand fully how such contradictions can be combined in him. Nevertheless, I am quite certain they are.
If God is neither a maniac nor a bumbler, what are we to make of evil? Shortly after the Indonesian tsunami David B. Hart addressed this question in an extraordinary article in First Things called “Tsunami and Theodicy.”
Hart notes that in the wake of the tsunami Christian writers had tried to “justify the ways of God to man, to affirm God’s benevolence, to see meaning in the seemingly monstrous randomness of nature’s violence, and to find solace in God’s guiding hand.” Hart rightfully worries that efforts to discern how God might “use” evil to accomplish a “greater good” are bound to backfire:
Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan [Karamazov] with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to ‘dear kind God’ in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.
But what makes Ivan’s argument so disturbing is not that he accuses God of failing to save the innocent; rather, he rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—’for love of man I reject it,’ ‘it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child’—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable?
Hart responds to Ivan’s accusations by explaining that he has God all wrong. God does not “use” evil to accomplish good. Evil is a privation of the good. It has no nature of its own and it plays no role in God’s determination of himself or purpose for his creation (though Hart does allow that, as everyone who has ever read the story of Joseph knows, God can bring good from actions men intend for evil). As Christians, Hart argues, we are simply not allowed to take comfort from a “grand cosmic scheme” in which God balances out all of the good and the evil in the end, because that comfort would be purchased at an enormous price: “it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of—but entirely by way of—every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known . . .” We must not while trying to render the universe morally intelligible render God morally loathsome.
I do not believe we Christians are obliged—or even allowed—to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. . . . while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy . . . God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; . . . He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’
Amen. Evil never accomplishes some great cosmic purpose. God hates it, and in no sense does he intend it so that he can use it to accomplish his purposes. God did not intend for Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. He did not intend for Potipher’s wife falsely to accuse him of rape. He hated the evil visited upon Joseph. It is true that God worked in Joseph’s life to help him overcome the circumstances into which he had been thrust by the evil acts of others. But most emphatically God did not “desire” those evil acts (or, far worse, specifically cause them to happen) to accomplish a greater good. He accomplished the good in spite of those acts, not because of them.
Which brings us back to where we started. After a while I stopped crying and picked myself up off the floor. But I did not stop asking myself why? why? why? Months passed. At times I was half mad with grief and anguish as I wrestled with that question, sometimes literally groaning out loud as I tried to figure it all out. I never did figure it out. But quite unexpectedly I figured out something else entirely when I finally came to understand that I would never understand. Evil is absurd and senseless, and my healing did not begin until I finally came to grips with the fact that I would never come to grips with what had happened, that I would never wrap my head around it and make sense of it all. This realization was liberating. Freed from the compulsion to figure it all out, I was able to get on with my life.
And what a life it has been. For, as he has done for countless others before me, God has redeemed me from the terrible evil that brought me low. As the prophet wrote, he has given me beauty for ashes and joy for mourning. But please. None of this (often well meaning but wrong nevertheless) cant about how God uses all things to work together for the good of the called. The evil that happened to me was senseless and absurd. God never intended that I should suffer that evil. Yes, he redeemed my life and I am in a better situation today than I was in before the evil happened. But let us never confuse God’s redemption with his original purpose. He does not intend evil to happen that good may result. To me, the very thought is absurd.