Well, I’m back. Did you miss me?
What finally brought me back was this essay, from a Dallas minister, trying and failing to rationalize away the “Problem of Evil” that’s been vexing smarter christian apologists than him for centuries. It’s titled “Why Does God Allow Tornadoes, Tragedy and Suffering?” It’s such an egregious example of the religious tendency to say nothing and prove nothing, but with great certainty and authority, that I simply had to write a rebuttal. You can go read it there first, and then come back, or you can just dive in here, because I’ve quoted most of it.
The agnostic philosopher David Hume claimed that tragedies in the world such as the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma last week constitute prima facie evidence that God is either evil, impotent, or non-existent. Admittedly, reconciling the reality of suffering with faith in a loving, all-powerful God is difficult.
I would say impossible, but let’s continue.
The late rector John Stott claimed that the existence of suffering in the world posed the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.
When Lee Strobel was preparing to write [a book I won't help him plug here], he conducted a nationwide survey asking, “If you could ask God anything what would you ask?” The top response was, “Why is the suffering and evil in the world?”
I think the actual question is more like, “Why does god create suffering and evil?” The use of the word “allow” in the essay’s title is disingenuous, because (as we will see) this essayist credits god with creating the tornado, not just “allowing” it. He probably hopes you don’t notice that part, but don’t worry, we’ll get there in a moment.
As a pastor for more than 30 years, I realize that when people pose that question they are not as concerned with suffering in the world in general as they are with the reality of suffering in their own lives. If there is a God, why would He allow this unwanted divorce, undeserved termination from a job, or unexpected illness?
This appalling claim is the part of the essay that most moved me to respond. Is this really his experience? Are his parishioners so self-centered and narcissistic that they’re only concerned with their own suffering and don’t care about anyone else’s? That’s certainly not the case with most atheists I know who ask this rhetorical question of the religious. It’s not the case for me. When I ask, why would the hypothetical all-powerful and all-loving god create so much suffering?, I am not talking about the relatively insignificant problems of my own privileged American life. Unwanted divorce or undeserved firing? Really? I’m thinking more about children dying of preventable diseases while their parents watch helplessly, or people in Africa getting their hands chopped off by soldiers for daring to vote. I’m thinking of Kim Jong-Un, not Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. Never once have I asked that question with my own petty complaints in mind; it would literally never have occurred to me, and I’m amazed that this guy would even suggest it. Is this truly how he sees it? Or is he just trying to reframe a difficult question into a easier one that he can answer?
One night my wife and I were traveling on an interstate highway in the middle of West Texas in a driving rainstorm when our headlights went out due to an electrical malfunction in our car. We could not see two inches in front of us, but we were hesitant to pull over to the shoulder of the road for fear of being hit by another car. Thankfully, we spotted an eighteen-wheeler in our rear-view mirror. We allowed it to pass us, and then we simply zeroed in on its taillights and followed it safely into the city limits of our town.
Once, when I was a kid, I was walking to school and I saw a spot on the sidewalk. It was a medium-sized spot, a little bit brown in color… oh, sorry. I thought we were telling irrelevant and pointless stories here. Never mind. Let’s move on.
God is loving. The psalmist declared, “The earth is full of your lovingkindness, O Lord.” Even apart from the Bible, the world is filled with the evidence of a benevolent Creator. Yes, occasionally floods and tornadoes bring indescribable heartache and even death. But such disasters are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time rivers stay within their banks and winds are held in check.
Most of the time? Why not all of the time? Surely that’s within the reach of an all-powerful being. What a mealy-mouthed piece of verbal sleight-of-hand. “God is benevolent, except when he isn’t.” This is like letting a serial killer go because he didn’t kill most people.
The outpouring of help by first responders and the financial support for those whose lives are destroyed by the occasional disaster are a reflection of the goodness of God in whose image we are made.
Wait, what? God throws a tornado at a town, and other people rush to try to undo the damage, and those people are a “reflection of the goodness of god”? Maybe only in the sense that a reflection is the exact opposite of something.
God is all-powerful. Again, the psalmist claims that God is in control of all His creation. Some people find this truth troubling. If God has the ability to prevent natural disasters and human tragedy, why doesn’t He?
In an attempt to acquit God of responsibility for evil in the world, a growing number of people think of God as a loving but impotent old man who would like to help us, but is incapable of doing so. But do you find any comfort in the belief that you are simply a victim of random events and people? Fortunately, the Bible assures us that there is a God who is in control of everything that happens in our lives.
This section asks the question again, and purports to answer it, but actually explains nothing. In fact, it lays all the death and destruction directly at the feet of god. “There is a god who is in control of everything that happens in our lives.” Then he’s saying god deliberately sent the tornado to kill those people? That’s sure what it looks like. I don’t see any other way you could interpret those statements taken together. In fact, he specifically says he does not want to “acquit god of responsibility for evil.”
He asks rhetorically if there is any comfort in the belief that you are “a victim of random events.” Well, even if I were religious, I’d sure prefer that interpretation over the idea that god has a plan to kill me and a tornado with my name on it. Better the uncertainty of randomness than the notion that the creator of the universe has it in for you personally.
God’s ways are beyond our understanding. One of the most famous analogies about God’s purpose in suffering is that of a bear caught in a trap in the woods. [Excisions, excisions; it's a story about a hunter who frees a bear from a trap. Go read the original again if you want.]
At some point God will seem unfair to those of us trapped in time, but we make our judgment too soon. One day, perhaps not until heaven, we will understand what the Hunter was up to in our lives. Until that time, God says “Trust me. I have a plan I’m working out in your life, even though in the darkness of the storm you cannot see what that plan is.”
Leaving aside the bizarre analogy – god is a hunter who carries a tranq gun to free bears? What is he hunting then if not bears? – this part of the essay is the most frustrating non-explanation of all. “God works in mysterious ways” is basically saying, “We got nothin’.” It’s religionists admitting that even they can’t cook up a rationalization to explain something. Instead, we are now asked to assume we are too stupid to understand why millions of people must suffer and die. Yes, god created a world full of misery and suffering, and yes, he dropped you into it like a meat grinder, but hey, if you can’t see why you should have to go through a meat grinder, well, it just shows how dumb you are. You should be happy to go through the meat grinder. Maybe you should offer to help turn the handle.
What a crock of self-serving crap.
The essay offers various explanations, and as is common to religious arguments, they tend to contradict each other. The third part, for example, would have us treat “evil” as good in disguise, part of god’s perfect plan. In that case, why call it evil, as he does in the second part? And why consider it as something god needs to be “acquitted” of? If god’s violent and murderous actions are really “good,” as the third part argues, then why are the actions of the first responders described in the first part as “a reflection of god’s goodness”? Surely they are undoing god’s work. God wrecked the houses and killed the children on purpose – the essayist says so in the second part. Therefore those emergency workers and rebuilders should have stayed home. God wanted the houses wrecked and the people hurt. If you believe in god’s perfect plan of universal benevolence and goodness, you should want to leave them that way. Don’t clear the wreckage, don’t help the injured, don’t bury the dead children. Don’t interfere with god’s plan. And if we are unable to understand why evil is actually good, as the third part would have us believe, why doesn’t all-powerful god set it up so that we can understand it? This is where the hunter analogy breaks down, by the way. If the hunter were to the bear as the religionists claim god is to us, then the hunter would have the power to magically make the bear understand that it was being helped. Instead he shoots him with darts and freaks him out. Why? Not explained.
Let’s review the arguments, shall we? God loves you, and he can do anything, and he is in control of everything that happens to you, and he sent a tornado to kill you, and you should feel happy about that because most people don’t get killed by tornadoes, and if you don’t like it you’re stupid. Does that about sum it up?