Ted Grimsrud—March 31, 2023
I still remember the intensity of one of my college Philosophy of Religion class sessions from nearly 50 years ago. We were reading the novel, The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter DeVries. It tells of the impact of the tragic death of his daughter on the ex-Christian protagonist. It was an agonizing book and elicited some agonized questions from our professor. How can one believe in God in the midst of such suffering? I only learned many years later when I read his obituary, that our professor, a man named Arnulf Zweig, was a Holocaust survivor. As a child in the 1930s, he had escaped the Nazis, though almost all of his extended family had not. No wonder he was so intense in raising these issues.
I think of Professor Zweig’s agony now as I reflect on what we may call “the problem of evil.” How do we understand the reality of evil in our world—and how does this reality fit with our belief in God? These are not simply brain teasers; they are for many people matters at the very heart of human existence.
Good but weak God?
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, sets up the problem in this way: We have three possibilities—God is good, God is all-powerful, and evil is real (bad things do happen to good people). He suggests that only two of these three affirmations can be true. Logically, it could be any combination, but all three cannot be true. He goes on to say that based on the evidence of the world we live in; we can’t deny the reality of evil. So, we must choose between “God is good” and “God is all-powerful”. Kushner believes that we should choose the former. He believes that God is not all-powerful. To insist that God is all-powerful in a world where evil is real, would require us to believe that God is evil (or at least allows evil while also having the power to stop it). In other words, Kushner’s is a weak God.
As I have made clear in my earlier posts in my Questioning Faith series, I agree with Kushner. While I recognize the reality of evil in our world, I also affirm that we have a lot of good in the world as well. This kind of world, I think, is what we should expect in a world where God is love. Love is weak; it is non-controlling, non-coercive, and non-interventionist. But it is also powerful; it is creative, healing, and pervasive.
The idea of God as good but weak is not simply a concession to the logical difficulty of Kushner’s dilemma. Nor is it simply a desperate attempt to salvage some kind of (admittedly anemic) faith. I suggest it is the logical result of recognizing that God is love. If we start with a quite optimistic and positive sense of God’s reality in the world, we will see God at work all around us, God the go-between-God who empowers connections of love and creativity and beauty. We may find strong evidence to support such an optimistic and positive view. But let’s think through how this kind of God would be present in the world. If God loves everyone and love is non-controlling and non-coercive, would not that mean that God does not exert power-over in a controlling or coercive way toward anyone? That is to say, does it not seem that a God of love will by definition be a weak God (or should we say, “a weakly powerful God?” or “a powerfully weak God?”—or, if we don’t like the term “weak,” a “profoundly vulnerable God?”)?
Continue reading “Can we trust in a good God in a world full of evil? [Questioning faith #17]”