Why does God allow it?

Editor's comment This is the age-old philosophical question that emanates from the atheist corner. And the article written from a Christian perspective attempts to answer that by accepting the initial premise that ‘calamity equates to evil’. In that case hardship and toil is also evil on a smaller scale. This is the fundamental flaw in this article, all evil things may be bad, but not all bad things are evil. In any case, how can an atheist ask about evil when he does not believe in God in the first place? The question perhaps should be - if God exists why he permits calamities and disasters that are harmful, where sinners and saints perish indiscriminately. Therefore, the implication is - if God exists, we should face no hardship, it should be like heaven. If God exists, by definition he is the sovereign, owner, hence why he cannot take what he created in the first place as a means to test the rest of us? If I build a sand castle then I have every right to destroy that as it belongs to me.

Why does God allow bad things to happen? (No, I don’t mean same-sex marriage.) I mean the Oklahoma tornado disaster. Why? A most succinct, elegant answer was given by a chubby Italian priest some centuries back. His name was Thomas Aquinas. He wrote:

‘God allows evil to happen so that he may bring good out of evil.’

Intellectually – even stylistically - I admire St Thomas’s riposte. So neat, concise, to the point. And yet, I must also admit to a nagging sense of unease. Are the dead and wounded of Oklahoma simply opportunities for God to do good? Put that way, it does not seem quite right. The question is real, though. Of perennial importance. It must not be ducked. But how best to investigate it? Going straight to the horse’s mouth, why not?

Last night I dreamt of God. Please, do not be shocked. It is not an infrequent occurrence in the Bible. True, he usually sends angels but…not in this case. I dreamt I was questioning him on the matter at issue. Saw no one – only heard a voice.

Me. Lord, I would like to know…

G. (interrupting). Yes, yes, no need to tell me. I know all about it.

Me (caught off-guard). Oh, do you?

G. Of course. I am all-seeing, all-knowing. You ought to know that.

Me. I am sorry. Of course. I ought to have remembered…

G. Indeed. God sees and knows everything. Even a black beetle, on a black rock, in the blackest night.

Me: Ah, Al-Ghazzali. Yes, a Muslim philosopher. I am glad you quoted him.

G. All right, all right. Let us get on with it. You want to know why I allow bad things to happen?

Me. Yes, please.

G. But you already know. To bring good out of evil.

Me (clearing my throat). Ahem, a brilliant answer. Unfortunately, some would say it is part of the problem, rather than its solution.

G. Yes, they would. And they would be wrong.

Me. Well, yes. They would in a way. Rationally speaking. But many a morally sensitive person may be left with a bad taste in his mouth. Not feel quite satisfied.

G. Explain yourself.

Me (taking the bull by the horns). Why do you need to use us, your creatures, as means to an end? Even a good end? The Bible itself says somewhere: Do not do evil, so that good may come.
G. It is St Paul, actually. In Romans.

Me (taken a little aback). Oh, is it? I had forgotten. Thanks.

G (sternly). You are not keeping up your Bible reading, are you?

Me. Well, not as much as I ought, I suppose. But last night, in bed, I was reading Jeremiah…

G. I know. Chapter XXXI, vv. 29-30, in particular, caught your eye. The passage about collective punishment being wrong. I trust my children will keep it in mind when it comes to fighting the next war.

Me (cheering up). It makes me very happy to hear you say so. You stand by the Just War tradition then?

G. Naturally.

Me (cautiously). Some think you are a pacifist.

G. Of course.

Me (a little bewildered). But…how can you say that? I mean, a pacifist rejects all war, fighting, altogether. A just warrior believes war isn’t always an evil. Fighting for a just cause, he claims, is justified.

G. They are both right.

Me. Isn’t that a contradiction?

G. It isn’t, actually, but what if it were? Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.

Me I have read that before somewhere…

G. Of course. It is Walt Whitman. Even the Almighty enjoys poetry, didn’t you know?

Me. But then, if you can hold two opposite, incompatible positions at once, how do I know which is the right one? I mean, the innocent victims in Oklahoma, for example. Are you going to tell me it is both right and wrong that they should have perished?

G. Yes and no.

Me (flabbergasted). I am sorry, Lord, I should not say this but… it is a cop-out. Playing with words. The oldest trick in the book. Unworthy of you.

G. (patiently). Don’t worry, Fr Frank. I understand. You think anthropomorphically.

Me (cattily). Oh, finding refuge in polysyllables now, eh?

G. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Me (embarrassed). All right. Touche’. I myself like big words…But this is frustrating. This conversation is getting lost in trivia…

G. You may think so. But nothing is trivial in my eyes.

Me. What I mean is that I thought we were discussing something terribly important. The problem of evil. Theodicy. Why you allow bad, evil things to happen to innocent people. You, a God of love.

G (sweetly). Yes, I realize that. Well, I am going to satisfy your curiosity. Completely. And to your total satisfaction. Ready?

Me (incredulous, delighted). Yes, please!

G. Here it is. The reason why I allow evils, like the human loss of life in Oklahoma, is…Where do you keep the cereals, daaad?

Do not fear. That wasn’t God. It was Linus, my offspring. Visiting from Sweden. It was precisely at that point that his chirpy voice woke me up.

You may not believe any of the above. Feel free. But it is all true – more or less.

Like Coleridge over the unfinished Xanadu poem, I wonder what the ending - God’s tremendous reply - would have been – if indeed he did not make sure in advance I was never going to hear it. I hope none of the corny old lines about freewill, original sin and the like. I have no doubt God would have surprised me. He is, after all, a God of surprises.

But what does Fr Frank himself, at the end of the quest, believe? Well, I am going to surprise you. And disappoint you. And annoy you, probably. So, fasten your seatbelts. Why does God allow evil things to happen?

God allows evil to happen in order to bring good out of evil.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 01:20

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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