I am not a philosopher and any philosophy I studied was extremely rudimentary and undertaken as a prerequisite to pursuing some other qualification of which I have a few. Nevertheless every now and again I reach into my forgotten philosophical bag and pull out a thing or two as I do here now. First, the philosopher will say, define your terms and lay your foundation or premise; so let me sheepishly follow that instruction and define my main terms.
To commence let me state emphatically that I will not define GOD for even if I could do so entirely to my own satisfaction, and I admit it would take many pages to do so, it would serve no useful purpose whatsoever because everyone has his own conception of God and I am quite satisfied if you adhere to your cherished conception. I will however define GOOD because it is foundational to our topic question and the word BAD cries out for definition because its common usage may not suffice in this context.
When we ask, "If God is good" in this context we are viewing good in a fatherly sense not in some philosophical abstraction for polemic debate. Picture a normal father with his children and we can make some valid assertions. A father will not sit idly by and allow outside entities; wild animals or criminals and such like do his children harm. He will not see his children walking into disaster and show indifference. He will not allow his children to suffer the pain of terminal disease or any physical or mental sickness if he could prevent them. He will not withhold that which is beneficial to his children except and until they ask him. He will not exhibit mean-spiritedness towards his children and their aspirations and development. These cogent assertions define a good father anytime and every time. These are our criteria for defining good in this context. In similar vein can we assert that God is good?
Yes God is good because the Bible says so, "...O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever" (Psalm 106:1)
Yes God is good and providence affirms it, "He loveth righteousness and judgment: the earth is full of the goodness of the LORD" (Psalm 33:5)
Yes God is good and every Christian affirms it and the refrain, "God is good. All the time" is not a mindless rote but affirmation based on compelling evidence rooted in everyday experience.
In defining bad I want to use a simple term: detrimental to us physically, mentally or spiritually. If we accept that humans consist of body, soul and spirit then our definition is adequate and would encompass commonalities: dreadful, horrible, ghastly, awful, etc. There are times when what is indisputably bad for one person is undoubtedly good for another but we are not venturing along that path for that avenue throws up numerous anomalies. The sun that warms one person and makes him cheerful burns another's skin and gives him cancer but the sun is neither good nor bad and, like a gun, depends on usage. So we shall stick with our definition for now.
Let's get back to our topic and the question at hand. Why does a good God allow dreadful things to happen? Remember that it is agreed that God is good and it is readily evident that bad things have taken place and are still happening at this very moment. Our focus is on the why and nothing else for if we can understand the why then everything else makes sense or at least fits into the broader pattern of benevolent providence to which humans are subject.
First we should note that God permits dreadful things to happen because of man's freewill. Many are the benefits of man having freewill and I have met no one who prefers that man was made like a tree or a stone or a zombie. Man is able to do things that in all creation only man can do. Further, man is capable of doing things similar to God, like creating high order things like for example robots and computers and artificial hearts, and perform at the conceptual level exceeded only by God himself. All possible because man has freewill. And here is the nub of the problem. Because of man's freewill his choices often lead to consequences that are bad and God is duty bound to honour his own laws as regards cause and effect.
We should remember what the Bible says, "Whatsoever a man sows that will he also reap" and there is no biblical or historical references where the contrary applies. If you intended to sow carrots but instead by mistake planted tomatoes well then do not be surprised when tomatoes spring up. A loving father points his loaded shotgun at his beloved son and accidentally pulls the trigger will do the same damage as if he had pointed it as at a striking rattle snake and deliberately pulled the trigger. Your stupidity or error in no way prevents the law of natural consequences from operating. A man who out of spite takes a gun and kills the family next door and then kills himself is acting through freewill just the same as a man helping an old lady to cross a busy street. God can neither take away the former however desirable that may appear to us nor interfere with the latter and be consistent with his giving us freewill to begin with. The power to choose as God intended us to have means that we can also choose to do bad. Man's freewill therefore means that God permits bad things to happen as a consequence of man's awful choices.
Next we should observe that God permits bad things to happen because God alone knows all the right options. This is something that all humans stumble over time and again. So often we speak as if we know all the answers, see all the options, are privy to all the shenanigans and criminal conspiracies surrounding what we consider bad things. Take for example the Holocaust; indisputably a bad thing. Why did God not prevent the Holocaust from happening and save all those innocent people? How, may I ask, was God to do that? Should God not have killed off Hitler because he was planning to kill all those Jews? If God did that he would be eliminating Hitler because he was sinning. Fine but what about Hitler's local hate-filled supporters and allies; God in all fairness would have to eliminate them too and that would mean eliminating millions of Germans. What about countries outside of Germany, many of them in the West and some in the East, that supported Hitler and hated Jews just as much? Many people have a blurred view of history and forget that anti-Semitism was widespread across the developed world. God in order to be just would have to eliminate the culpable millions in those countries too. And since the criteria here for elimination is sinning why stop there? If God should have eliminated Hitler for his sin of planning the Holocaust why would he not eliminate the sinners engaged in fornication, adultery, thieving, lying, witchcraft, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, pride and such like. In truth God would in fairness have to kill all of us and bring the world to an end. Is killing all humanity a better option that allowing Hitler to plan and execute the Holocaust? Whatever we may think God alone sees the big picture and bad things happening are not necessarily inimical to man's overall redemption.
Finally we should realize that God permits bad things to happen because man's defiance and stupidity is to his own detriment. No one should ever view God as unsympathetic, lacking in compassion or in any way uncaring and any such accusation is grounded on falsehood. Whenever we hear of natural disasters that destroy lives we always get a torrent of abuse and accusation towards God along the line of "Why did God allow that to happen?" or "If there is a God that will never happen" or "God does not care about us". It boggles the mind how easily and unconscionably we tarnish the image of God by blaming him for man's stupidity. Take the cases of earthquakes, mudslides and flooding all referred to as natural disasters and therefore under God's control.
Earthquakes have been going on long before man was created and for sure will continue long after man has vanished from this world. God has given man sufficient knowledge to know where earthquakes are, what they are capable of doing and even the frequency of their eruptions. Earthquakes are naturally occurring phenomena and form part of the cycle of earth's existence in much the same way as wind or rain. Primitive people without any access to technological marvels avoided earthquakes and any collateral damage was extremely minute. Yet modern man knowing the earthquake zones, knowing the raw power and potential of their destructive forces does what? He constructs buildings in those zones, he establishes communities and communication pathways across those areas, he acts as if earthquakes are of little consequence and when earthquakes does its thing he does what? He blames God.
Let us look at mudslides. Most mudslides are called natural disasters and in truth they seldom are because on investigation the vast majority are caused by human activity. Mudslides are usually caused when people divert water to unsuitable ground, undermine soil at the bottom of hills and mountains, saturate or overload soils and embankments or interfere with the stability of the soil in a number of different ways including cutting down trees. But let us assume that none of this is at fault in the mudslide and it occurred out of the blue without warning. This then could be described as a natural phenomenon but it should not have disastrous consequences. Mudslides happen in my country all the time and nobody gets hurt as a consequence. The areas where mudslides occur are called gullies and no one lives in vulnerable areas below in the gullies. A heavy shower hits the area, the land slips, a few sheep or cows grazing in the gullies run away and the mudslide is scarcely picked up in the news. Contrast that with people building structures and living below steep hills and embankments, often in defiance of the authorities, and you should clearly put the blame where its merited. Most disasters involving mudslides have occurred where people defy the authorities and erect homes on susceptible slopes, mainly because those slopes are available and free, and then when slippage occurs they suffer the dire consequences.
And what about flooding. There has scarcely ever been a flooding anywhere where human activity was not responsible or a contributing factor. Humans do dreadful nonsense and suffer as a consequence. Even animals and birds avoid permanence in flood zones and even then they heed warnings and are always on the ready to escape to higher ground. Like earthquakes the flood zones in every country are known and the application of caution and common sense should prevent any and every disaster. This is also true of hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis and the like. Avoidance of those prone areas, due diligence in suitable construction and necessary day to day precaution and awareness should prevent bad things from happening.
So there you have it. The next time you hear someone berating God for this, that and the other disaster then please spend a few moments to seriously consider the situation. You will find that in nearly all cases that awful accusing digit pointing towards God should more accurately and justly be pointing towards ourselves for the bad things that are happening.
Books by this author (non-fiction except indicated otherwise)
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BASTARD: A STORY OF REDEMPTION (fiction)
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ONE MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT ON GOD'S CLOCK
Dr. Henderson Ward received his Doctor of Divinity in theology, with distinction, from Masters International School of Divinity, USA, where he is currently a post-doctoral fellow. Dr. Ward's career involved pastoring, evangelism, and teaching. Copyright 2013
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