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The Question of Evil

 

AUC chatgroup discussion: June 8, 2003-June 17, 2003  

 

David M: If someone asked you why God allows bad things to happen to good people, what would you say?

 

Alan: This question elicits some of the most amazing answers. "God doesn't exercise total control"—either because He can't, or because He chooses not to, for reasons best known only to Himself.  "Everything's really for the best—somehow."  Once in a great while you'll hear someone challenge the platitude that God is good, just, merciful, and loving—but not often.


I, personally, side with the challengers, to an extent.  Not to say that God isn't good, just, merciful, and loving, but to say that these are human concepts that we apply to God because they meet our emotional need. That's why people cling to them and invent excuses about God being something less than omnipotent and sovereign, or that everything's really for the best in some mystical way.


A God worthy of the name has a purpose for His creation, and rules it for that purpose. A God worthy of the name knows what may happen and chooses what will happen.  A God worthy of the name is not answerable to His creatures; indeed, He would waste His effort by giving us an account of Himself, because we wouldn't understand.


The point is that "bad" things happening to "good" people is our perception; it has nothing to do with God's character or purpose, which are both beyond our comprehension.

 

David M: Ah, but aren't we made in God's image? Didn't he instill in us the values that he has—justice, love, conscience, etc.? Many of our beliefs are based upon this premise. So I don't know if I'm convinced by the can't-understand-God theory.

 

Alan: Fair enough—if you believe that.  I don't, myself.  Remember, it's based on a discredited biblical myth, the creation story.  One might argue that the idea of man being created in God's image is one of the few things about that story that needn't be considered discredited, but I would want to know why.  No, I think that idea is just the reverse of man creating God in his own image, to which few in those days would have wanted to admit.

 

David M: All our conceptions of the Deity—and I'm talking classical Unitarian concepts—are based upon the assumption that God has given humans attributes that he himself possesses. God is love, justice, righteousness, etc. He has what we have, but to a superlative degree.  One of the reasons we reject the doctrine of hellfire is that it contradicts our view of a just God of love. It offends our conscience. Our conscience is what connects us to God. Our God is transcendent, but he is not a mystery. He is near to us and in us. So we need to have an explanation for why bad things happen to good people that coincides with our view of a just God.

 

Alan: Where does this assumption [that God has given humans attributes that he himself possesses] come from?  I submit that it comes from wishful thinking.


And there could be no worse reason for rejecting [the doctrine of hellfire]. To reject a belief because it offends our consciences is to dictate terms to God.


How do we know that [our conscience is what connects us to God]?  Consciences vary radically among people; they are not shaped by connection to God, but by conditioning.


You will look in vain for an explanation of the "problem of evil" that affirms a God who meets our concepts of the good, the just, the merciful, the loving, and yet who is still a God.  It's worth bearing in mind that human concepts of a good, just, loving, and merciful God are not universal; that is, different people have different criteria and definitions for these concepts. If such concepts came from God, either (1) they must be universal; or (2) perhaps a blessed few have all the right ones, and all else are in error.  I think it makes more sense to acknowledge that they are human concepts of human origin.

 

David M: How can we love something that we can't know or understand? For those of us who consider ourselves Christian, we have the conviction that Jesus' teachings are a reflection of Divine thinking. Jesus taught a God of love and justice. He said we should view him as we would a father.


Regarding conscience, I fully agree that it can be warped or give faulty testimony. (That's why I put a lot of emphasis on collective conscience.) But, it is one of our fundamental Unitarian convictions that God gave us conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Would he give us a sense of morality that contradicted his own? Why would he expect us to use our consciences if they could not be trusted or reflect his own way of thinking?

Keeping all this in mind, here is my explanation (though it is hardly original): God is a parent who has given us free will. Just like a human parent who agrees to allow his child to make some of his or her own decisions, God cannot countermand the choices he has allowed his children to make, even if he knows some harm may befall them. Like a human parent, he can try to persuade them to do otherwise, but ultimately the decision is up to the child. And sometimes young people foolishly get themselves in trouble. Sometimes they actually hurt someone else, someone who may not deserve to be hurt. God can discipline us afterward, but he cannot prevent it from happening without taking away the gift of free will. I like what J. F. Clarke says about this:


"The trials and sorrows of this life are a wholesome discipline, meant to unfold and strengthen the powers of the soul.  We are to learn here the difference between right and wrong, between truth and error, learn to form habits of goodness, learn to love and trust God, learn to live with our fellowmen as brethren.  To do this, we must often examine and prove ourselves, and thus find out our strength and our weakness." 


In this learning process, we can hurt ourselves and others. But we do learn, and that's the good part of the experience.

 

Alan: If a person develops Alzheimer's disease, one wonders how that reflects any fault or failing of their own.  If a person develops colorectal cancer, ditto.  If scores or hundreds or millions of people die in a natural disaster, or in a terrorist attack, or in a holocaust, that's pretty stern discipline. This is the true meaning of "bad things happening to good people."


Upon reflection, it occurs to me that if one wished, one could indeed believe that "everything's really for the best—somehow"—granting that God is in charge and is good, loving, just, and merciful.  The idea is that God is working for good in the ultimate sense, though it may entail some individual (or mass) suffering.  I find my interpretation more practical.

 

David M: You make a good point. As far as I can tell, the ONLY reason an omnipotent God of love would refrain from helping people in these sorts of straits is because it violates one of his already-established laws. So, in my opinion, God has tied his own hands. There are physical laws and personal principles that he has set in place and over which he cannot cross. I like to believe he WANTS to help (and will see to it one day that we get what we deserve), but he is restricted by his own principles.

 

Charles S: The Gnostics had a solution to evil. The world is full of evil and thus God could not have created the world. They believed that a part of God, some might call Satan, created the world. But God him/herself did not actually create the world. To us this sounds strange but it does offer a solution to the idea of evil. The Gnostics believed that salvation would be obtained by knowledge and learning and not necessarily by faith.

 

David B: I must respectfully disagree with Alan on this. God created the universe and its laws.  As part of that creation, we have free will. God does not determine what we will do.  We can exercise this freedom for good or for ill.  Thus, we have an impact on the future of the universe and are co-creators of the future of the universe. In this sense, we are created in God's image. And in this sense, God is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. If it was otherwise, the world would, in effect, be dead. God did not create a dead Universe.


Channing said: "One of the greatest of all errors, is the attempt to exalt God, by making him the sole cause, the sole agent in the universe, by denying to the creature freedom of will and moral power, by making man a mere recipient and transmitter of a foreign impulse. This, if followed out consistently, destroys all moral connexion between God and his creatures. In aiming to strengthen the physical, it ruptures the moral bond, which holds them together. To extinguish the free will is to strike the conscience with death, for both have but one and the same life. It destroys responsibility. It puts out the light of the universe; it makes the universe a machine. It freezes the fountain of our moral feelings, of all generous affection and lofty aspirations."


Whitehead and Hartshorne say the same thing in a very different way with their process theology.

 

Alan: We've actually had this discussion before (before Mr. Miano began posting to the list), so at this point I'll defer to President Burton; though, of course, I stand by my beliefs, I accept the fact that I seem to be alone in them.

 

David B: Sometimes I cannot resist getting involved in the discussions we have on this list. When I post to this list, I try to make it clear when I am speaking only for myself and when I am speaking "corporately." 

In any event, on the point relating to free will, I was speaking for myself and there is no need to "defer" to me. Although I do hope that I can persuade you, we can obviously discuss and disagree on points of theology and learn from one another and still be part of the inclusive AUC family.

 

Alan: To tell you the truth, I just deferred at that juncture because I didn't see any point in going around in circles.

 

Kurt: I have to cast my vote with Mr. Cousin on this issue.  Any human interpretation of God's love, justice, compassion, or anything else could be nothing more than anthropomorphism.  We know better than to assume that God looks like us; why would we assume that God thinks or acts like us?

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus describes the killing of Galilean worshipers and the accidental death of 18 people when the Tower of Siloam collapsed.  Jesus is clear that those who died were no more or less righteous than others, and by implication, there is no reason to think that their deaths were anything but random.  If God "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45), why would we assume that God chooses who will live and who will die?  And one must wonder why God would have allowed Adolf Hitler to live long enough to engineer the deaths of ten million people.

 

Alan: Ah, thank you!  This discussion reminds me again of Isaiah 55:8-9:  "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."  In context, Isaiah may have been referring to specific ways and thoughts, but I think the principle applies universally.  God is a mystery; there is just no way that we, the finite, can comprehend the infinite; that we, the temporal, can comprehend the eternal; or that we, the imperfect, can comprehend the perfect.


I think the idea that we are co-creators with God implies that God was somehow incomplete, and required a creation (with co-creators!) to complete himself (but who should that be, if he existed from eternity before creating it?); that he was muddled about his purpose for creation, and therefore required his creatures to direct it (but how should that be, if he inhabits eternity and sees the end from the beginning, because he is above and beyond and outside time as we know it, as well as within it?).


I just can't get my poor little brain around that notion of a God.

 

David M: Why, if I didn't know any better, I would think you two were rejecting the very foundations of Unitarianism. We certainly allow for a multitude of beliefs, and I respect yours truly, but we do have certain central tenets that tie us together, one of which is that "true religion consists in proposing, as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being" (Channing, “Likeness to God”—I suggest you reread the whole sermon—it's a great one). How can we aspire to be like God, if we don't know what God is like? Why be moral if God isn't?


As Channing says: "In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God, then, does not sustain a figurative resemblance to man. It is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of a kindred nature."

 

Alan: To me, being a Unitarian means believing in one, unitary God.  If it means anything else, perhaps I don't qualify.

 

Kurt: Theologians have wondered about the nature of God for centuries.  I'm glad you've cleared it all up.  Har har har.


Seriously, no one—not even Channing—could know with certainty just what God is like. So, any "growing likeness to the Supreme Being" has to be based on a great deal of assumption.  And even if we contain "elements of the Divinity," those elements are only a fraction of our total makeup.


Now, if we assume that Jesus provides a human representation of God's nature (and if we also assume that the descriptions in the Bible are reasonably accurate), we have a place to start.  But this is still a human representation.  We don't know what this looks like in non-human terms.

 

Alan: Let's do a sort of thought experiment (not precisely the right name for it, but it'll suffice for the moment).  I give you three scenarios: (1) a God creates a universe not knowing what will become of it; (2) a God creates a universe knowing what will become of it, and not necessarily liking it, but resolving to create it anyway and not to interfere in it; and (3) a God who creates a universe with a purpose, knowing how he will achieve that purpose.

 

What might God have thought when he created any of these universes?

 

Scenario 1:  "I shall now create a universe. I don't know what will become of it, but I'm going to create it anyway and see what happens."


There are still unanswered questions here:  Why would God do this?  Was he lonely?  Was he bored?  Was he in a bad mood? Or was he just curious?


Call Scenario 1 the Silly God Scenario.


Scenario 2:  "I shall now create a universe.  I know that millions of my creatures will live in misery, suffer and die—often at one another's hands, often through forces I'm about to set in motion—but it can't be helped, because I will not interfere once things get going, and I want my creatures to be free to do as they will."


The unanswered questions here are:  Again, why would God do this?  Again, was he lonely, bored, or feeling cranky?  Or did he, perhaps, create the universe in an unguarded moment, and then say to himself, "Oh, me!  Now look what I've gone and done!"?  Is it really fair to ascribe to such a God any degree of justice or love or mercy for his creatures thus created and abandoned?


Call Scenario 2 the Capricious God Scenario.


Scenario 3:  "I shall now create a universe.  I know what will become of it, and I know how, because I'm creating it for X purpose, and it must be so.  I know that millions of my creatures will live in misery, suffer and die—often at one another's hands, often through forces I'm about to set in motion—but it can't be helped, because (with my infinite knowledge and wisdom) I know that only thus can my purpose be truly achieved."


The unanswered questions here are:  What is God's purpose, and what role does each of us play in it?


Call Scenario 3 the Sovereign God Scenario.


I vote for #3.


We are all on this list because we value faith.  To me the best faith is faith that accepts and embraces the perfection and infinity of God's wisdom and judgment, even though I may not (read: cannot) understand it myself.


Consider, too, that humankind has spent the past 10,000 years trying to resolve the "problem of evil."  It began with a postulate that people had somehow displeased the gods.  It evolved into a postulate that people had somehow displeased the One God.  Greater minds than ours have grappled with it.  But we are no closer to resolving the issue now than we were 10,000 years ago.  Isn't that evidence enough that the answer is beyond our comprehension?  And isn't that evidence enough that all the answers espoused to date are answers of human invention, which have simply evolved as man's concept of God has evolved?

 

Kurt: I would have to vote for Option #1.  The very nature of our universe is random.  Not only are natural forces (e.g., earthquakes, lightning) unpredictable, but humankind provides the ultimate wild card.  We can be co-creators, or we can destroy anything we touch.


Now, of course, we also have to remember that we and our planet are but a small part of the universe.  Even if mankind destroys the earth, we have not destroyed the universe, nor have we destroyed God.  And if you accept the notion of a higher purpose, you must also accept the possibility that mankind is not part of that higher purpose.  Perhaps the inhabitants of some distant planet are the Chosen People.

 

Alan: Now there's a random creation indeed!  A universe created for a purpose, but with inhabitants who aren't part of the purpose?

 

David M: Alan, I think we are closer than you think on this matter. I also would opt for #3. And I agree that it may be difficult to ascertain what God's purpose might be. That purpose is the key here to the question of evil. It prevents him from stepping in and stopping evil (here and now, anyway). So, I must point out that you yourself are saying that God would do something about evil if he could.  Indeed, can any being who is wise and just not be good?


I wasn't trying to say that we can know everything about God. I was only saying that we can know something about him, because we are his offspring and we have inherited some of his attributes.

 

Alan: “You yourself are saying that God would do something about evil if he could.”

That wasn't exactly what I meant to imply.  I meant to imply that God has chosen the purpose and the means to achieve it, knowing that those means would be painful for his creatures.

 

Kurt: Does every organism have to be part of the purpose?  Were dinosaurs part of the purpose?  Is the AIDS virus part of the purpose?  Is every organism from amoeba to whales part of the purpose now?  If not, why do we assume that humankind has a special purpose but other organisms do not?


(I’m not saying we don't, but the question needs to be asked.)

 

David M: Well, for one, we are the only living creatures capable of even conceiving of a God and his purpose.

 

Jacqueline: And just how do we know that? If one can know God, does one have to know God in our human way of knowing or can other creatures/plants ("his creation") know the creator, too? We assume too much, perhaps. The dolphins smile at us....

 

Alan: Perhaps it is an assumption, but it's based on our belief that we are far more sentient than other creatures—that we have an ability to conceptualize that they lack.  I think it's a valid assumption, though I'm sure I've run across animals who were a lot smarter than you'd expect! :-)

 

Kurt: You're sure about this?  You've ruled out the possibility that there are other creatures somewhere in the universe capable of conceiving of God?  And are you also assuming that one must be able to conceive of a higher purpose to have a part in it?

 

David M: I was speaking of known creatures. Of course, there could be other intelligent life—I'm not ruling that out—but the fact is that we have the ability to conceive of a God and worship him, and we received that ability from him. That's meaningful.

 

Alan: I would say that every organism is part of the purpose; each contributes to it in some way, however minuscule or far in the past.

 

John: This response is part of the "teleological" argument, which dates back at least to late antiquity.

 

David B: The "problem of evil" arises because God is postulated to possess the following attributes:


1. Perfection (which is taken to mean [a] God is "good" and [b] God would intervene to stop "evil")

2. Omnipotence

3. Omniscience


Relax any of these postulates, and the "problem" of evil goes away — or largely so.


If God is not “perfect” or “good” in the sense that God's justice is our justice
or if God can be “good” or “perfect” but still not intervene in human affairs, then the problem goes away. “Good” or “perfect” may mean something a little different to God than it does to us.


If God is not omnipotent, then the problem goes away since God cannot be held accountable for things God has no power to change.


If God is not omniscient, then the problem goes away since God cannot be held accountable for things God could not foresee.


Personally, I am comfortable relaxing all three postulates. 


I think it is plausible that God's sense of goodness or justice is different from our own since, to put it mildly, God has a different perspective.  It may be, for example, that freedom, the source of much suffering, is a more important good than many people seem to think.  Or it may be that in the "greater scheme of things" (e.g. an eternity with God) that the suffering on earth is an acceptable price to pay toward some other aim.


I do not believe, personally, that God is omnipotent. Or, if God is omnipotent, the power is not in practice exercised.  God has granted freedom to creation.  It is a live creation.  The choices made by us are not God's but our own. 


God does not know our choices before we make them, so God is not omniscient either.  On this third point, however, a mathematical point is interesting.  There is reason to believe that the physical characteristics of this universe can be explained by a 4-dimensional model (Einstein's space-time) or by a 10-dimensional model or a 28-dimensional model.  I do not understand the math re: the 10- or 28-dimensional models but evidently those are the 3 options.  If, we live in a 10- or 28-dimensional universe, all bets are off with respect to anything related to our ordinary conceptions of time.

 

All of which is by way of saying that the "problem of evil" is a function of a particular conception of God that, in my view, cannot withstand the pressure put on it.  It can be solved by changing one's conception of God.

 

Alan: I think God is perfect, but not in this sense; rather, in the sense of being complete, lacking nothing, absolutely whole, self-sufficient, self-existent, and infinite. In my view, omniscience, omnipotence, and perfection go together; God could not be perfect if he were not omniscient and omnipotent; he would not be truly omnipotent unless he were omniscient. I agree [that the problem of evil goes away when you relax the postulates]; because my definition of "perfect" pertains to "natural" attributes rather than "moral," I personally don't acknowledge a "problem of evil." Here again I agree [that God's sense of goodness or justice is different than our own].  It is possible to believe that God is good—even, generally, as we understand it—if we accept that God's transcendence to mean that his goodness and his eternal aims transcend what we consider good. These points are where the idea of God breaks down to me.  I can't conceive of a perfect (i.e., complete), eternal, infinite God without perfect, eternal, infinite power and knowledge.  It may be my failing, but to me it just seems like an irreconcilable contradiction.  Of course, inconceivability does not equal impossibility, but it does mean, for me, that the probability of the existence of an eternal, self-existent Being who is not perfect, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, etc., is, as I like to say, "vanishingly small."

 

David M: I agree with Alan that perfection suggests omnipotence and omniscience. And a further problem that arises, I think, from relaxing any of these postulates is that God somehow becomes more human and then we should wonder how much he deserves to be revered.


To me, we can only adjust the "omnipotence factor," and yet maintain God's excellence, in one way: by making God subject to his own power. It's the old "Can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?" routine. God has the power to do anything except defy his own power. I think the problem of evil is tied up in this somehow.

 

Alan: But there's a paradox, if not a contradiction, between God being sovereign, and his sovereignty being limited, even by his own choice. God is not like a human king, who might limit his own sovereignty out of understanding his own personal limitations and fallibility.  God is not fallible or limited, so there is no reason for him to limit his own sovereignty. He knows what is best for his own creation, and it would seem to me that he owes it to himself to enact it; if he creates a universe with a purpose, and allows that purpose to be frustrated, he has betrayed himself.

 

David M: But you're practically saying the same thing that I am. If his purpose is what governs his actions, if, as you say, "he owes it to himself," then his power is still being limited by something that he determined beforehand. He betrays himself if he interferes. He still looks on at the evil taking place, and it must affect him somehow emotionally—at least I'd like to think so. But he is powerless to act, because he made a pact with himself.

 

 

Alan: Yes, in this instance we are practically "on the same page."  We both seem to be saying that God could intervene if he wished, but has chosen not to do so, for reasons of his own. But to someone who believes in a "good" God (as we define "good"), I don't see that that answers the problem.

 

Stephen: The answer is not as complicated as we make it out to be. Evil is not a mistake, it is a side-effect of free will. God knows that if humans have no free will then concepts of virtue, and the soul have no meaning. If human beings cannot choose to be evil they cannot choose to be good.

 

Alan: There is some disagreement among us about free will. I, for one, do not believe in it, because I believe it is incompatible with God's omnipotence and omniscience.  I make a distinction between free will on the metaphysical level and free will on the physical level, maintaining that it does not exist on the former, while it (apparently) exists to us on the latter.

 

Bear in mind that there are two types of evils: human evils and natural evils.  Human evils are, ostensibly, a by-product of free will, but in reality they result from a lack of good—a lack of love, a lack of tolerance, a lack of understanding, or a lack of economic goods.  Often they result from fear. These "evils" have defined God's earthly creation since humans first walked upright and gathered in groups.


Natural evils, such as natural disasters or unpreventable illnesses, are, of course, not a by-product of free will.  If there is a "problem of evil," this is it.

 

David M: Natural evils are just that: natural. If we humans just so happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (to catch a virus or to encounter an earthquake or fall off a cliff), the evil happens to us because of what we chose or happened to do. Did God have anything to do with it?


We could say that he shouldn't have made anything dangerous to human life. But is that possible? The sun is dangerous, but it's also necessary. We can't have it all.

 

Alan: Now there's an interesting point: a part of Creation that is both essential to our lives, and inherently dangerous to them (unless we recognize the danger and protect ourselves).  What do you make of that?  I take it you'd agree that God knew this would be the case, and that lives would be lost due to harmful sunrays.

 

The rock question is actually more interesting than it looks at a glance.  My first inclination would be to say that, no, God cannot create a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because all physical things have finite mass, whereas God's power is infinite.  The difference between finite and infinite is not only quantitative, but qualitative.  But of course my first answer begs the question, "Why couldn't God break his own rules (i.e., the rule that all physical things are finite) and create a rock of infinite mass?"  In that case, the rock would have to have either infinite volume or infinite density, but presumably God could still do it.  To me a more pertinent question would be, "Why would he?"

 

Jacqueline: "Absolute equality of opportunity" should define God's position—not just opportunity for us humans, but opportunity for all—viruses and bacteria exist and have an opportunity, no matter how inconvenient to us...we are certainly an inconvenience to them with our medicinal efforts. It balances out somehow, in spite of us.  That may be closer to the Big Picture from the God perspective…this email thread keeps looking at everything from the human position as the penultimate. If everything has an equal opportunity, there is no good nor evil, only one thing or the other in a position of power, temporary as it may be. This is a more neutral outlook, and needs no philosophical delving into the whys and wherefores…the flow continues. We accept where we can and fight what we deem undesirable, but from the other side's viewpoint, our fight against the evil of the disease is a killing of that organism…not a good thing for it, even though we think it is. Balance. Objectivity. Equal opportunity.

 

Alan: This is an interesting way to put it, but I think you're essentially saying something similar to what I say—that everything has a place in God's purpose.  Of course it's true that we have been examining this issue from a strictly human perspective.  That's not too surprising, for two reasons: (1) human is what we all are; and (2) it's natural for us to take for granted that, since we believe we have greater sentience than any other species, our impressions count for the most. Certainly they do to us!

 

Jacqueline: Yes, and that is my point...we are trying to look at what God is thinking or reasoning, and we are looking at it from our perspective only. If we would step back and look from another point of view we might see that what we think isn't all that important in the whole picture...if everything had equal importance, including us, as it would from God's view perhaps, then the total picture could be quite different. Surely we are not so arrogant as to believe that we are so supremely important as to discount all else??

 

David: So, let's say someone gets AIDS. And they pray to God for help. God's reply would be: "…and kill that poor HIV? I don't think so!"


I don't mean to be facetious, and I know this sounds anthropocentric, but I think we are able to pray for a reason. God has a purpose, and he has allowed us special capabilities that permit us to connect with him on certain levels to get a glimpse of that purpose. The gap between human life and all other forms of life of which we know is so great (and it seems that God MADE this gap) that I think this also is part of his purpose. Why are we capable of religion?

 

Alan: On the other hand, why did God create the AIDS virus in the first place?  Or any other viral or bacterial disease? I would say we are capable of religion for the same reason we're capable of love, honor, patriotism, etc.—it's part of our intellectual and emotional evolution.  I think we must admit that ultimately all human conceptions of God are just that—human conceptions.  Although I believe there is a God, who created, sustains, and rules our universe, I also believe that all the gods we humans worship are of our own making.  Yes, God gave us the ability to pray and to worship, but I don't believe that connects us to him in any special way.

 

Nathan: What an interesting discussion!  I’ve just gotten caught up, or as close as I’ll get  :)


I have to say that I agree with Jacqueline.  I’m suspicious of any “purpose” the end to which we happen to play some starring part.  I don't know anyone whose prayed a viral or bacterial infection away, or prayed away a shark attack, or a tiger attack, etc.  If there is some gap between us and other forms of life that somehow endears us to God at the expense of other forms of life, I fail to see it.

 

Jacqueline: Thank you, Nathan...Someone sees!  We are so human-centered we cannot get beyond our myopia. As you say, has anyone prayed away those things? "Absolute equality of opportunity."

 

Charles V: I am persuaded Jacqueline and Alan press the most persuasive perspective regarding a reason for the existence of evil as ultimately within the mystery of God. I am further persuaded we err when we consign to "natural" events the quality of evil.

 

I best understand evil in the human context only, which for me is best conveyed in the defining of sin as "chosen" evil, which I think puts me firmly in the school, I think, espoused by D. Burton as rooted in our free will. 

  

The quandary this leaves me in, I think, is that I am suggesting (more correctly agreeing with more erudite predecessors) that we are exercising free will in a preponderantly deterministic universe. Further, that this is a uniquely human attribute (sorry Jacqueline) and that Plato's cave provides an ameliorating metaphor to enable living with the seemingly inherent contradiction. The probable existence of similarly "superiorly sentient" beings elsewhere in the universe is no bar to asserting our primacy among earth’s lifeforms, but merely coequal status with them in relationship to God.

 

I think I have a headache now, so I will now retire. A belated Happy Father’s Day; mine certainly was.

 

Kurt: It is certainly appropriate to pray for strength, serenity, or guidance in times of trouble.  But, in my opinion, unless you believe that God caused the bad thing that happened to you, there is no reason to pray that God do something about it.  This is just another version of the Santa Claus prayer.  And there is certainly no reason to expect God to spare us from the foreseeable results of our own actions.  Prayer will not help the student who does not study for an examination, or the man who insists on building his house on a flood plain, or the pilot who does not make sure his plane is in proper working order before taking off, or the person who refuses to take the medication prescribed to control a potentially life-threatening condition. In the words of Robert Green Ingersoll, "In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are only consequences."

 

David M: My HIV anecdote was not intended to be a comment about prayer. Perhaps it wasn't the best illustration of my point, which is that I don't think God believes the happiness of a virus is as important as our happiness. Why? Because viruses can't experience happiness.

 

Kurt: Now it's God's responsibility to make people happy? Still sounds anthropocentric to me.

 

David M: He gave us the capability for happiness. I think he does everything for a reason. Don't you?

 

Kurt: There is a difference between giving the capacity for happiness and giving happiness itself.  If God gave us anything, he gave us the power and responsibility to work things out for ourselves.


I can't answer your question without a better sense of what you mean by doing "everything for a reason."  Does God directly cause tornadoes, landslides, and epidemics?  Did he create a universe that allows these things to happen in a more-or-less random manner? Assuming your position corresponds to the first scenario (God directly causes harmful events), my answer would be an unequivocal "No," for this would be consistent with Pat Robertson's conception of a God who sends hurricanes and epidemics as punishment.  And assuming your position corresponds to the second scenario (God created a universe that allows harmful events), there would be no reason to answer, because certain people will be in the wrong place at the wrong time through no fault of their own.

 

Alan: [Regarding the first scenario] Not necessarily. God may do these things for a purpose, but it need not be for punishment.  That's a particularly anthropocentric view.

 

David M: I was thinking of the second scenario. And yes, it still is an issue, because we are assuming God can see all. He can see people dying in natural disasters. How does it make him feel? Would he not feel some degree of responsibility for what is happening? If someone lets their ferocious dog out without a leash, and it bites somebody, whose fault is it?

 

Alan: Quite right.  If God can stop something, but allows it, it's as much his doing as if he caused it willfully.

 

Kurt: "I think he does everything for a reason. Don't you?"


Why does there have to be a reason?  Randomness is built into the universe. It is possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I refer again to Luke 13:1-5.


I can see your point, but I can't help but think that to ascribe any human emotion—including guilt—to God is to assume a similarity that may not exist.  We may as well assume scientific curiosity, as if we were all amoebae on a gigantic microscope slide.

 

Alan: Referring back to the New Testament, it seems to me to indicate that God is intimately aware of and involved in our fates, as well as those of all his creatures.  It says God has counted the very hairs of our heads, that not a sparrow falls without his knowledge, that he feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field.


The idea that there has to be a reason for God's actions stems from the assumption of omniscience, omnipotence, and sovereignty. Randomness has been greatly overrated. There's a lot that appears to us to be random, but that doesn't mean that it is. And some of us find patterns in the randomness.

 

I see no reason to believe that God feels anything the way we feel things, least of all guilt.  Emotion of any kind is another human function, which I think we ought not to ascribe to God.

 

David M: God has no feelings? I find this difficult to accept. He invented emotion. And he created things that evoke emotion. No, God feels. He may not feel guilt, but he certainly loves.

 

Alan: Obviously I question that, but as to God feeling in general, let us not forget that feelings are a result of human evolution, and they are a biological function with discernible anatomical loci.  There is no reason to suppose God would have them.

 

Kurt: Actually, I am inclined to agree with [Mr. Miano].  But it is still anthropomorphizing.

 

David M: You've got it reversed. God is theomorphizing.

 

Alan: David Miano's original question was, "If someone asked you why bad things happen to good people, what would you say?"  I think this has to be taken to include natural occurrences—in fact, because there's little or no choice involved in many (or most) such occurrences, that is the true meaning of the problem.  Bad things don't happen to us as a result of our bad choices—we bring them on ourselves, we make them happen.  But, for example, when a good person contracts any of several types of cancer, or Alzheimer's disease, that's when something bad has happened to him or her. That's when people have the most legitimate grounds to ask, "Why would God do this (or let this happen)?"  That's where free will isn't a factor, and God's goodness, justice, mercy, love, omnipotence and omniscience really come into question.

 

David M: Right. And this is why the "equal opportunity" theory does not work. It doesn't explain natural disasters. Does a tidal wave come and destroy a village because God wants the water to have equal opportunity? Does a tornado destroy people's homes because God wants equal opportunity for the wind?

Here, to me, is why natural disasters and diseases happen: because they are an impetus to human progress. We are learning to combat sickness and catastrophe. And we're getting better at it as time passes. Some day, we will conquer these enemies to human life. This must be what God wants. He wants us to mature and grow and better ourselves. Without these challenges, we would stagnate. God's purpose must be related to human progress.

 

Alan: I quite agree.  The great bulk of human advancement has been aimed at overcoming adversities.

 

Kurt: So, are you saying that God cares for humanity, but individuals are expendable?

 

David M: Yes, I guess that is what I am saying. Humanity comes first—individuals second. I think that helps explain a lot. It reminds me of the laws of robotics that Isaac Asimov developed for his robot novels, if you'll forgive the analogy. Robots are not permitted to harm individual humans, but they have an overriding program—they are not permitted to harm humanity. Sometimes the first law must be sacrificed in order to obey the second.

 

Alan: Yes, that would be my position too.  God's purpose for humanity has more to do with the species' development than with the welfare of any individual.

 

David B: At some level, it is a simple fact with respect to creation that all individual organisms clearly are "expendable" since they (we) all die. 


It is not a question of whether a person will die but how and when—that is the nature of the world in which we live. It is also the nature of the world that most human death involves pain.  Pain to the person dying and pain to the family and friends of the person dying or dead.

 

John: I fear I must be extremely dissentient in your explication of evil.  Once any man or woman is perceived, not just slightly lesser than God, but only equal to the great horned owl or snail-darter, then any man or woman may be "sacrificed" to save them at the whim of the powerful at any time in history.  This position is Comtian altruism adust, which says one must be sacrificed for the demands of the good of the whole; in fact, altruism demands it. This misguided thinking is the basis of Marxism, NSDAPism, Fascism, and almost every totalitarian scheme in the past two hundred years.  No, no.  This position must be rethought at the most basic philosophical level.  Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is for humans, not dinosaurs.  We, of course, compromise in saving life, but never to granting "degree" rather than "kind" to lesser creature, for whose care we have been charged by the Hebrew God.


The life process seems to lead ever onward and upward toward complexity, perhaps eventually to God, himself.  If "evil" is, as Augustine thought, an absence of good or a kind of misplaced good, then our humanity remains intact.  Evil is an absence of God in some mysterious way we do not yet grasp.  I fear we are, still, as children within our universe. Pantheism, or “Ecologicalism” as a faith will not do, even for Unitarians.

 

David M: I don't think any of us are endorsing an attitude that individuals can and should be sacrificed for the greater good. We're talking about God only. He is all-knowing. He is the only one who understands what is really best for the human race. We trust his judgment. We humans cannot make those sorts of decisions, so we best not. We leave that up to God.

 

Kurt: "The great bulk of human advancement has been aimed at overcoming adversities."


Why would sending tornadoes, landslides, and epidemics as punishment be any more anthropocentric than sending them as a means of stimulating humanity's capacity to deal with those events?  Either way, we are assuming that God is doing something for our own good.

 

David M: God doesn't send these things. He's not doing it to us. It happens naturally. He simply refrains from protecting us from it.

 

Alan: Exactly. God alone can make these decisions, and appears to make them all the time, if his infinite judgment, wisdom, and sovereignty are accepted.

 

Nathan: But this takes us back to the one of the original concerns—if God isn't sending them directly, God, as the creator, is certainly responsible for their existence in the first place.  Nature is a system built by God.  If tornadoes are part of that system, then we have to wonder why, as you stated, God refrains to protect us from them.  God therefore would be doubly guilty-once for creating something so dangerous to us, and twice for refusing to protect us.

 

David M: Right. And that's the problem of evil.

 

Alan: If it's true that God "maketh his sun to shine" and "maketh the rain to fall," then it seems to me that it is not too much of a leap to say that God sends natural disasters—whether by causing them directly or by allowing them.

 

Yes, it does take us back to one of the original questions, but it's debatable whether this makes God doubly "guilty."  If it were true that God created a system in which he had no intention of ever interfering, he is only responsible for creating a dangerous system in the first place.

 

Kurt: Unless I misunderstood Mr. Cousin's agreement with [Mr. Miano’s] statement, there is no real difference between God's deliberately sending a disaster or simply allowing it to occur.  Whether God's purpose is to punish or to challenge, we are still assuming that God is doing something to impact humanity.  This is anthropomorphism, however you slice it.


Whether natural disasters are a punishment or a stimulus toward progress, it all looks the same to us.  When the plague wiped out a third of Europe's population, did the survivors see it as a punishment or a stimulus?  For that matter, do our fundamentalist friends see AIDS as a punishment or a stimulus?  Is it not a matter of perception?


Note that I see natural disasters as neither punishments nor stimuli.  They just happen.  It is well and good if humanity can learn from them, but I do not assume any divine intent.

 

David M: You're assuming that the disasters happen for no other purpose except to impact humanity somehow. Now that’s anthropomorphizing. Does everything God make have to do with us? No. The disasters affect us, but that don't have to be for us.

 

Kurt: It's not my assumption.  I have said all along that disasters happen randomly.

 

Alan: "For our own good" depends a lot on your perspective.  The biblical perspective is that earthly punishment equals chastisement, which would be for our own good.  But punishment on the grand scale of a natural disaster is more apt to be retributive, I think.  I would say that for God to indulge in retributive "justice" is to assign to humankind and its actions a lot more innate significance than they warrant.  But you have a point; there is a fine line.

 

You understood my agreement, but I differ with your conclusion.  If God sends or allows natural disasters as a stimulus, it has to do with his ultimate purpose, not with our welfare as such.  I regard it as thoroughly theocentric. Fundamentalists do view AIDS as a punishment. But it is only a matter of perspective to us, not to God.

 

Here, again, I would say [randomness] would indicate a haphazard and negligent divinity.

 

Stephen: Tornados happen in predictable areas...if people choose to live in these areas, is this God's fault?


As for the idea of a "dangerous system," life isn’t supposed to be perfectly safe. If it were, we would still be living in the buff, eating everything that was provided for us.

 

David M: You're right. Life doesn't have to be perfectly safe. And this doesn't mean God is negligent. Why does everything have to be created for our convenience?

 

  


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference