Suffering and the good God pt 1

I’ve been a long time reader of The Punch, an online opinion website (and a good one at that). Shortly after the Queensland floods hit, this article was posted by Tory Shepherd which raised questions that both deserve and have answers. Tory’s piece focussed on God’s hand in the Queensland flood and certainly provoked a fiery response from many readers. Tory claims that the answers provided for where God was in the Queensland flood provide a classic case of cognitive dissonance, where two conflicting ideas of God’s goodness and the evil involved in such tragic floods cause the religious to flounder.

That might be case for some Christians; however, the Bible has no such issues. The question of how a good God is present in a world full of evil is not a new question, not even a new question in the Bible. From the time humanity rebelled against God in Genesis, the Bible is dealing with the question of what is the good God going to do about the evil in the world and over the course of the entire Bible we see a deep, meaningful and complete response to the problem of evil.

And we see the problem of evil, and what part God has in it, displayed no more prominently than in the death of Jesus. Here we have the ultimate expression of injustice – an innocent man, who never did anything wrong, was executed as a traitor and criminal by the religious and civil authorities at the time. How could God have a hand in such a terrible event?

Well fortunately, the Bible spells it out for us in Acts, chapter 2, sentence 23:

This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

So what role does God play in the execution of an innocent man? It was by his set plan and foreknowledge. God knew it was going to happen because it was his set plan. God made it happen.

But are humans responsible for it? Yes, as Peter tells us in Acts. He is talking to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem a couple of months after Jesus’ death and he clearly points out that it was the Jews (at the time), with the help of the Romans who put Jesus to death. Peter says that through the valid, un-coerced choices they made, they are responsible for the death of Jesus.

So here we have a clear case of God and humans both actively working in an evil act. How is that possible? How can both actively, without coercion, making choices that they are responsible for? It is here we must reject simplistic explanations that if God must be at work, then humans are being like robots, or that God must be a passive agent if humans are calling the shots.

It is at this point we must come face to face with the real God in all his power. If God is actually all-powerful, why would it surprise us that God would be powerful enough to actively work through the valid and un-coerced choices of humans? That is what the Bible presents to us – a God so powerful that even the un-coerced choices of humans are within his control.

We see this idea clearly when Joseph (of Technicolour Dream-coat fame) speaks of his own ordeal at the hands of his selfish brothers:

“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

The evil that Joseph’s brothers intended (selling their brother into slavery) was also God’s purpose to save his people.

Unlike these cases though (where God’s purposes are clearly stated), we cannot be sure of what specific purpose God has for the Queensland floods or Cyclone Yasi or any other disaster or evil act. The Bible doesn’t speak of the specific events we are going through. However, we can be certain that he is using these events for the ultimate good of all people, since he has revealed that he is both good and in control. Jesus’ death shows us that even in the most unjust event, God is working to save people and draw them into relationship with him, which is the ultimate good for everyone.

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2 comments

  1. Ok Incoming Evil Atheist Critisisms. I have to tow the party line after all.

    I'd understand you're point more if people didn't die in the floods. Maybe god already had those people in his embrace and used their deaths for the conversion of others? Or maybe he used their sacrifice in an event to solidify the magnitude of the ordeal?

    If the former is true, it seems more dangerous to be a Christian. If the Latter is true, why are some people worth saving and some are worth sacrificing? If Either are true then we need to have a serious conversation about the ethics of murder. After all we're held to his standard, one that recent and historical events have shown us, is one of bloodshed on a Genocidal Scale.

    But, we can always presume a greater purpose, so never mind that.

    As to the anology you draw, with the point being that god's hand guides humans wether they choose it to or not, you use the word "Control" which, while i know isn't you're intended purpose, leads an atheist like myself down the path of "So Evil actions are within his control then?" (This inevitably leads to people pinning evil actions like Murder and Genocide on god, such as "Why didn't god stop the Holocaust"..).

    What i assume you meant is that God is capable of manipulating Human Actions to accomplish goals he sets (ie, sacrficing jesus, freeing the slaves, helping crusaders etc) While i'm not sure if that's exactly the direction you were going, it makes me think "Loki" is a more apt name than "Yaweh".

    Either way, good read, you definately have the skills to write Articles, personally i enjoy your style roughly 9999999x more than anything i've read on the punch, but when it comes to content… I just can't help but think that This "Guiding Hand" theory is what our Courts of Law call "Entrapment" and their is a reason Police are barred from using it.

  2. Brad,

    Thanks for the compliments. Your feedback, comments and criticisms are always welcome. I would hope this blog would be a place where iron sharpens iron as they say – the clash of views providing an opportunity to be challenged and to grow through that.

    Tory’s argument was that when suffering occurs, it shows that either God cannot be good or that God is good but he is absent. My reply is that God is good and has an active hand in suffering but for their good.

    Some of the stuff you have brought up (like what death means to God), I will go into further detail in future posts but I’ll try and go through some of your criticisms here.

    Why are some saved and some not? I can’t tell you for certain. Some events in the Bible spell out why people have died in disaster but outside of God telling us through his word, I can’t tell you specifics because I don’t know.

    But at this point, trust in God’s goodness is relevant and this is where the attitude of Tory Shepherd (and many others) means suffering is a mystery. The Bible says that it is only those who completely put their hope in God in the midst of suffering that will receive the blessing through it. If someone is unwilling to cede to God his rightful place as the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe, then it will be impossible for them to understand God’s role in suffering. I think this point is one I will definitely explore further in a later post.

    On the issue of control, I used control exactly as the word means – that God has an active hand in all events in this world, including the evil ones. When you ask, “so evil actions are within his control then?”, you hit the immediate implication of God’s sovereignty. It is right to ask, “why did the Holocaust happen?”, though if you are unwilling to trust God (as I talked about above) then the answers are unlikely to be satisfactory.

    I hope that gives you a taste of some of the further posts I’m intending to put out. You have picked up half a dozen aspects of suffering and how it isn’t incompatible with God’s goodness.

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