Where was God?

by Margaret Sholaas


When terrible things happen, we ask, “Why?” That in itself is interesting; apparently we think that life should not be this way. Especially when confronted by great evil, such as the Holocaust or the events of September 11, we ask, “Where was God?” As the all-powerful Creator of this universe, He should be able to get rid of evil, and, being good, He should want to. Yet there is evil. Why?

How do we reconcile our understanding of God with the fact that evil exists? Philosophers call this problem “Theodicy,” meaning, “justifying God.” It seems that either God is not omnipotent, because He would like to get rid of evil but cannot, or else God is not good, because He can get rid of evil, but does not. Another possibility is that God does not exist at all.

None of these explanations makes us feel very good. If God is not all-powerful, then He cannot ultimately guarantee our welfare, and if God is not good, then we cannot trust Him with it. If God does not exist, then the universe is ruled by randomness, which, by definition, is not “trying” to do anything, either good or evil; stuff just happens (to paraphrase a popular bumper sticker). If any of these is true, it means that suffering is meaningless—there is no necessary reason for it and no reason to think we will ever be free of it—and that feels bad. But how we feel about an idea is irrelevant to the question of its truth, and we should always believe what is true no matter how it makes us feel. Of course, there may be another explanation that makes more sense than these three.

Almost twenty years ago I was zooming around the park on my new bicycle while contemplating the novel and shocking idea that God had not promised me an easy life. I was attempting to practice calm acceptance while visions of torture danced in my head, when suddenly I slid on the smooth wood of a well-traveled footbridge and slammed into the ground, separating my shoulder and mangling my bike. As I lay there gasping and bleeding and surrounded by horrified bystanders, my mind, its quest for calm acceptance abandoned, was screaming, “How could He do this to me?” While I was wrestling with this very thing, God had just let me have it. Was He taunting me? Was He a sadist? What kind of God was He? In an instant my questions had gone from the hypothetical to the undeniably real, and I had gotten my first clue to their answer.

I am going to present a reasoned argument for a fourth explanation for why evil exists. It will not satisfy anyone in the throes of grief, but do not hold that against it. Strong emotion can make reason seem irrelevant, but reason is the only way to truth. This is not to denigrate emotion; emotion gives our questions an urgency that can keep us from accepting easy answers or not asking them at all. C. S. Lewis found this out when, after wrestling with and writing profoundly about the problem of evil, he had to do it all over again when his wife died. It is fascinating to compare The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed.

But first, what is wrong with the other three explanations? A warning: We are sailing into heavy seas. It is extremely ambitious (some might prefer another adjective) to attempt this in 2000 words, but that is what we have got. Here we go.

Let us consider the idea that God does not exist, that “evil” is just a part of what randomness spews, helter-skelter, into the universe. The main problem here is that if no purposeful intelligence created the universe, how do we explain its extreme orderliness? Randomness can account for apparent order when it is simple, such as duckies and horsies in the clouds, but no one in his right mind would study physics to understand how he happened to find “SURRENDER DOROTHY” in the sky. We know that such complexity could not have happened by accident; someone did it on purpose. The simplest living cell is so complex that Dr. Chandra Wickramasinghe, astronomer of University College in Cardiff, Wales, has said its creation via the accidental collision of nonliving components is as likely as that “a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747.” But the real showstopper for this idea is not the existence of order, but the existence of orderers—us. How could the purposeless bring forth the purposeful? The absurdity of the atheist, someone has observed, is in recognizing the intelligent design behind an arrowhead while calling its Indian designer an accident.

Next, perhaps God would like to get rid of evil but cannot. This is the solution offered by (among others) Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which camped on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year, lauded by our sages and declared by the Book of the Month Club one of the ten most influential books ever written. Kushner wrote it after the death of his young son from a rare genetic disease. His situation is heartbreaking, but his book is dangerous nonsense, a triumph of sentimentality over sense. He actually recommends forgiving God for His inability to protect us! I suggest that this is like a zookeeper encouraging us to go pet the nice kitty and then ushering us into the lion’s cage. Kushner obviously has no idea what he is dealing with, and, being a rabbi, no good reason not to know.

Central to his thinking is the idea that God constructed the universe out of the preexisting building blocks of chaos, some of which remain, wreaking havoc, to God’s and our mutual helpless dismay. There are many problems with this idea (for example, if chaos is so intractable, how did God manage to create anything out of it?), but let us focus on evidence from the book of Job. Kushner refers to Job in developing his thesis (as a rabbi, he could hardly avoid doing so), but if it were not for the name, you would not recognize it. You will remember that after God praises Job, Satan responds that Job only loves God’s gifts, not God Himself. Take them away, Satan says to God, and Job will curse You in a second; let me show You. God consents, and soon poor Job is bereft of family, health, and wealth, but he refuses to curse God. Friends urge Job to repent of the sin for which God is obviously punishing him. Job denies any sin. They keep insisting until Job finally suggests that God is being unjust and challenges Him to justify Himself. Unexpectedly, God answers Job out of a whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know” [Job 38:4-5]. Job wisely backs down. Kushner maintains God is saying, “If you think that it is so easy … to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it” [pg. 43], totally ignoring the fact that everything that happened to Job was authorized by God! This is not “God having a hard time keeping chaos in check”; this is God deliberately causing Job grief, as his family and friends recognized later, when they came to console him for “all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him” [Job 42:11]. Kushner would have God making excuses, but such defensiveness is completely incompatible with the outraged majesty of His demeanor. In fact God is saying, “You, Job, are in no position to judge Me. You have no clue how the world was made, yet one thing you do know is that I, Who made it, am doing wrong?” There is nothing at all apologetic in God’s response.

Kushner also argues that God cannot interfere with man’s choice; therefore when men do evil, all God can do is grieve alongside us. Many Christians agree, saying God would not “violate our free will” because that would make us puppets: our choices would be meaningless, and we could not be held responsible for them. This idea is also unbiblical: Exodus tells us God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh refused to let the Jews go, yet God judged him for that choice. Everything about us is created, including our will, our “chooser.” God controls our choices by creating us to be the kind of people who choose as we do; therefore our choices necessarily reflect God’s purposes. Nevertheless, they are still ours; we are not being coerced, and it is appropriate to hold us responsible for our choices because we are doing what we want to do. This is why Exodus also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Joseph referred to this synergy of God’s choice and ours when he said to his brothers, “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” [Genesis 50:20].

So, God is ultimately responsible for the existence of evil. Is God evil? A bereaved C. S. Lewis seriously considered this possibility. Then he realized it created another problem: how to explain goodness. Perhaps God is a Cosmic Sadist, he thought, giving us loveliness for the sheer delight of ripping it away and seeing us weep, daffodils and dear ones just so much bait in His trap. But how could such a God create anything, he wondered, much less the extraordinary beauty we find in the world? The goodness God has created is just too good for Him not to be good also. Lewis finally concluded that what we do know about God justifies our trust in Him for the many things we do not understand. No doubt Job would agree.

Having eliminated three answers, we are still left with the question: Why does evil exist? Let us consider a fourth explanation: Evil exists, not because God does not exist, nor because He is not omnipotent, nor because He is not good, but because He is not finished. We know that one day there will be no evil—God has so promised—but since it still exists, its job must not yet be done. But should not an omnipotent God be able to achieve His purposes without evil? Not if, paradoxically, evil has a logically necessary role in its own destruction. Some insist omnipotence means God is not “limited by logic,” and when asked how that could be, they intone that all-purpose mantra for theological challenges, “It’s a mystery.” However, this is nonsense masquerading as piety or profundity. God does not see Himself as beyond logic; if He did, there would be no point to His claiming that He is like this or like that, because it could also be true that He is not like this or like that.

We find an important clue to evil’s job in the Garden of Eden: the knowledge of both good and evil were found on the same tree. There is no knowledge of good without the knowledge of evil. As creatures made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were knowers, and they hungered for wisdom. However, they were so ignorant that they did not understand the most elementary thing about it: like everything else, wisdom comes from God. It therefore makes no sense to pursue it apart from God, and if God has told you not to touch the Tree of Wisdom, you do not touch it. To do so would be to cut yourself off from the very source of Life itself. But they did, and immediately got Lesson One, to their sorrow. Their choice to disobey was evil, but God ordained that choice because “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” [Psalm 111:10] and it set them on wisdom’s path. Notice at the path’s end we find a Tree of Life but not a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There is no need for it; this is New Jerusalem, not Eden. Crosby, Stills, and Nash were wrong; we do not have to get ourselves back to the Garden—we were never meant to live there any more than a baby is meant to stay in the womb. We were meant to grow up and into our destiny, to wed the One to Whom we were betrothed before the foundation of the world, to be the worthy bride of the Lamb.

So we are right, life should not be this way, and some day it most emphatically will not. Is this destiny worth a Holocaust, a September 11? Our Creator seems to think so; shouldn’t we trust Him? Those who refuse will always be stuck east of Eden, on Lesson One.

Copyright January 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Margaret Sholaas