Can we trust in a good God in a world full of evil? [Questioning faith #17]

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?”)?

Has the idea of an all-powerful God ever actually made sense in the real world? While we have plenty of evidence of the presence of healing and beauty and compassion and love, we also have plenty of evidence of brokenness and randomness and cruelty and violence. We have little evidence of some strong intervening order-enforcing and evil-eradicating agent in our world. Besides the strong evidence of randomness and chaos, we also have strong evidence of the presence of evil, the terrible sense that even efforts to do good and to oppose evil so often actually end up adding to the dynamics of evil. If we are going to have a good God, can we truly have an all-powerful God? I actually wonder if we should even want such a God.

So, then, what about evil?

Since we do have evil and since we do have reasons to believe in a good God, our challenge is to figure out how to understand these together. Let’s start with one basic question: Where does evil come from? While this question is kind of a conversation stopper (who of us has a definitive answer for this?), I do think it is not impossible to think of possible answers that have at least some plausibility.

I’ll start by making a distinction between two types of evil, broadly understood. The first is evil in nature and the second is evil among human beings. We can debate whether the evil in nature is best called “evil.” Without making the case for saying that it is, I’ll just state that indeed there is brokenness, destruction, arbitrary death, overwhelming violence, and other similar phenomena in nature that we see as bad, even if not immoral. They do, though, simply seem to be a part of the physical universe. The origin of this kind of “evil” does not seem particularly mysterious. It is simply part of the way the world works. There is a fundamentally chaotic and at times destructive element to the natural world—though often the destructiveness is creative and life-giving. At the same time, we cannot deny that often, as well, there is a lot of collateral damage with natural catastrophes—many “innocent” creatures suffer during natural catastrophes. This “unfairness” can cause us to wonder about God’s power in relation to God’s goodness. It does seem, though, that natural evils (mislabeled as “acts of God”) are simply the inevitable by-product of the physical universe that we inhabit.

The second type of evil, though, is plenty mysterious. Perhaps we best think of it also having its origins in the natural processes of life. Human beings evolved as fragile, love-needing, communal animals. For example, consider the utter vulnerability of newborn children. We are helpless and require caregivers for much longer than any other animals before we can manage for ourselves. We require physical care but also what we could call social care. Our needs for relationships of care and mutuality remain with us for the duration of our lives. Yet, these needs are not always met. The failure to have our relational needs met, if serious enough, leads to frustration and significant emotional problems.

Should we say that the fragility of our emotional health—we need love, we need nurture, we need protection, we need communal relationships, all of which are sometimes hard to come by—is the origin of the social and psychological dynamics that over long periods of time lead to brokenness, alienation, and many other evils? We may observe the problems in our own lives and the lives of people we know: When one experiences childhood trauma one tends to pass it on to others. This dynamic continues over generations and can lead to extreme problems. The Swiss psychologist Alice Miller traced the origins of profound social violence to childhood trauma (see her book, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence). Pioneering anthropologist Ashley Montagu in The Nature of Human Aggression also links childhood trauma with the spread of massive violence. Political philosopher Andrew Bard Schmookler shows how social evolution since the emergence of “civilization” has led to our current dilemma where individual human beings desire peace but are profoundly constrained by structural violence and injustice (see The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution).

The question then is this: Is it accurate to say that human evil has emerged as the traumas of frustrated needs for love and connection have shaped human cultures? I suspect this is at least part of the explanation. These traumas have tended to take on a life of their own, in a sense, and become embedded in the various structures of human society—ideologies, political entities, belief systems, et al. As someone once said, human beings create boundaries and then the boundaries create human beings. The dynamics that facilitate evil include how destructive biases such as racism, nationalism, sexism, classism, and religious exclusivism get embedded in cultures and shape people from birth. The “Powers”—our belief systems, our social structures, our traditions, our institutions, all of which have their own “personalities” (see Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers)—are the products of human culture and need not be hurtful and destructive. However, due to the dynamics of trauma and frustrated human emotional and attachment needs, so often the Powers are shaped in problematic ways—something that does lead to evil. And this evil so often seems to act on us in difficult to notice and resist ways.

Human evil in relation to love

Does it follow, then, that human evil appears to be the consequence of both the powerful aspect of love and the weak aspect of love? That seems possibly like a helpful way to frame it. First, in relation to the powerful aspect of love, the way love shapes us in positive ways, I suggest that evil emerges in the face of failures to have the fundamental needs of nurturing and communal connections met—that is, due to a lack of powerful necessary and humane influences of love. These failures happen because the entire process of human life is fragile and we are extraordinarily vulnerable, especially in early childhood. It is also part of the powerful aspect of love that we create relatively small communities with our families and neighbors. Sometimes, such communities, necessary for our wellbeing though they may be, experience destructive rivalries with other communities. By now, this tendency to pit communities against each other finds expression in nationalistic and tribal conflicts. Ironically, the United States military, for example, has learned to exploit the need for community to create fighting units where loyalty to one’s “band of brothers” strengthens soldiers’ commitment to fighting even in wars they do not believe in.

The weak aspect of love in relation to evil may be seen, for example, in the inability of brute force to defeat evil and evil doers. Certainly, violence can kill evildoers, but that rarely ends the evil. In fact, we see throughout human history examples of where violence in the name of defeating evil quite often leads to more violence and other new evils—and, of course, most participants in wars in some genuine sense lose the war (in which case, almost by definition, evil is actually empowered).

How to resist evil?

It turns out, it seems, that there may be actually only one effective way to resist evil. That is to find ways to break the cycle, to find ways effectively to resist evil while refusing to use evil means. This truth leads us back to love. As mentioned above, the dynamics of love themselves have made us vulnerable to the problems of human evil. And yet, the only effective way to resist evil it to double down on our commitment to the paths of love.

As I wrote above, love does contribute to evil by the fact that human beings are born with a profound need for love, so profound that failure to meet the need will likely lead to frustration and possibly some kind of violence and evildoing. However, the only path to healing is to find ways to meet those needs—to find ways to love and be loved. Coercion and brute power will not be powerful or effective paths to get what we truly need—even when they are trying to defeat injustices, evil social structures and systems of oppression.

Love is the only effective response to evil. Love empowers us to break the cycle. We can believe that human beings do not naturally want to be violent and to do evil. We usually contribute to evil because of distorted views of reality. When love is embraced, we can gain sight and see the dynamics of evil for what they are. We can withhold consent from our evil structures and ideologies. We can respond with love even to hate.

Such an understanding of evil and of how to respond to evil can help us recognize the truths that are present in the story of Jesus, including his death. Jesus perceived the structures and ideologies of injustice in his social setting—the Empire, the religious institutionalism, the cultural exclusivism. He lived free from those Powers and exposed them for what they are. They retaliated, but he still refused to be separated from God, holding fast to the path of love. So, the Powers committed the ultimate evil—they killed Jesus. In doing so, they exposed themselves as agents of Satan, not agents of God. God, in raising Jesus from the dead, vindicated his path and made it clear to all with eyes to see that God was on Jesus’s side over against the Powers. (I develop these points in my book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness).

The story of Jesus and his death has generally been misunderstood in the history of Christianity. Rather than being the key to resisting the evil effects of the fallen Powers, the story of Jesus’s death has been distorted and doctrinalized in ways that leave the Powers unchallenged. However, it remains in our scriptures. It remains available, and it offers us a path through our broken world. The story of Jesus shows us that we can trust in a good God in a world full of evil.

Questioning Faith blog series

One thought on “Can we trust in a good God in a world full of evil? [Questioning faith #17]

  1. Another excellent post, Ted. I especially like the way you explore the consequences of humanity’s often unmet (or at least only partially met) need for love.

    You wrote “there is brokenness, destruction, arbitrary death, overwhelming violence, and other similar phenomena in nature that we see as bad, even if not immoral. They do, though, simply seem to be a part of the physical universe. The origin of this kind of “evil” does not seem particularly mysterious. It is simply part of the way the world works.” I agree entirely with that view but I’ve observed that many Christians find it difficult or impossible to countenance. They simply cannot accept that a good/loving God could conceivably create a world where suffering is baked into the system (in fact, arguably an essential component of the system). So they are forced to rely on the doctrine of a metaphysical “Fall” whereby human sin somehow mysteriously poisoned the physical world, which God had created to be free from suffering of any kind. I find this quite baffling, even though I myself used to believe something similar.

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