It remains one of the most perplexing mysteries in all of theology: if an all-powerful god has infinite love for all of us, how can They allow untold suffering in the World? Events such as indiscriminate natural disasters and childhood ailments that cut innocent lives short. The question has attracted the attention of theologians and philosophers alike throughout the ages and their quest to find answers has come to be known as theodicy.
I have discussed this topic before but it has remained at the forefront of my thinking. Enough so that I will attempt to explore it here in a little more depth so as to provide one possible rationale for the god I believe in.
One could argue that moral evil is an inevitable side-effect of humanity’s free will. That evil manifests as a result of human choices which The Greatest Love has relinquished control over. But suffering due to natural causes, whether they be medical, environmental, or some other source independent from human free will is different. A child does not choose to have leukemia. A man does not choose to have his family taken from him in an earthquake or tornado. These examples of natural evil are not a reflection of human free will. They are a reflection of something else and they can be troubling.
Some people believe such suffering originates with the Fall of Adam and Eve. That it is an eternal punishment for humankind’s disobedience to Yahweh. I do not believe this. Science teaches us that the biblical story of Adam and Eve cannot be real but even as a metaphor it represents a disproportionate response in this age of sacred love to inflict all of humanity with untold suffering, in perpetuity, due to the disobedience of our ancestors. What kind of god would do such a thing? Certainly not the one loving god of today which I believe in.
Some atheists have used the existence of natural evil to argue that a god is either imaginary or evil. Their sentiment is exemplified in this interview with Stephen Fry from 2015, a well-known author and atheist:
Now I agree with one of Mr. Fry’s points that a god that demands our worship should be viewed skeptically but disagree with his overall argument. Mr. Fry devotes most of his time denouncing this “evil” god but only has one short sentence fragment to find anything positive to say: “Yes the world is very splendid but …“. Splendid? Is that the best that can be said about our World? A World of breathtaking beauty and countless wonders but also one that contains so many simple pleasures: a hug from a friend, a child’s laugh or a partner’s embrace. A World with so much love and yet Mr. Fry chooses to focus on the most painful parts of it. When he says it is “not right” I agree. His argument is not right for it fails to properly account for the love that is all around us. When citing the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of a higher and loving power we should also be prepared to balance that view against the problem of beauty.
Theodicy asks why a supposed omnipotent and omnibenevolent god allows such suffering and natural evil to occur in the world. Various proposals have been put forward to address the question. Many based on religious doctrine such as the original sin introduced by Adam and Eve mentioned above. Other proposals posit a god who introduces evil and suffering in the world in order to test us. Still others describe a god with impenetrable motives whom we cannot possibly understand in this regard. An omnipotent and omniscient god that can peer into the future with certainty to see a greater good that will come as an eventual result of the tragedies in the past and present.
I have a few beliefs about the god I believe in, The Greatest Love, which form the basis of a defense that allows natural evil to co-exist with that god. Those beliefs are:
- I believe first and foremost The Greatest Love is all-loving. So much so that They have forsaken Their omnipotence and omniscience so that we may be more free.
- I do not believe in a god that continually tests our worthiness. For me such a being is as Mr. Fry describes: capricious and mean-minded. Not the all-loving god I believe in.
- I believe in a god who instead is not continually trying to test us, but to teach us, the knowledge and compassion we must attain in order to achieve Their Divine Plan.
Why not simply present all knowledge to humankind, in some form of Book of Knowledge, delivered by a prophet? In it would be all the cures to all our tragic suffering. Because, I believe, the accumulation of knowledge is only a small part of The Greatest Love’s Plan. Yes knowledge will provide some of the raw tools necessary to realize Their Plan. But the wisdom to use those tools properly will be based on our collective love. Love becomes the much greater and much more important piece. And love cannot be learned from books. Nor can it be dictated from on high. Love needs to be experienced, in all its pain and glory, and higher forms of love need to evolve from those experiences. This takes time and, I believe, suffering along with the associated empathy in order to be realized. And without that understanding we risk wielding newfound knowledge without the necessary compassion to do so wisely. The result can be even greater suffering, not less. I believe the World must come together first before it can properly harness some of the knowledge we have yet to learn. Knowledge that when combined with greater compassion will elevate our civilization even more.
To answer Mr. Fry’s question: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?“. I believe The Greatest Love has allowed great tragedies to unfold in order to grow humanity’s empathy and teach us the critical lessons of collective love. They are teaching us that a young life cut short from a terrible disease is something we all must feel, and support the efforts to find the answers for. That there is much more medical research that needs to be done. And in that pursuit of answers we may discover new therapies, eradicate more disease, and eliminate some of the pain and suffering in the World. Humanity’s true power lies not in our military arsenals, economic indicators, or religious fervor. It lies in our love. And the love for our children is the most sacrosanct. By investing in the cures to childhood ailments we elevate our civilization by protecting that most precious of treasures.
Is all suffering, moral or natural, meant to teach us the lessons of empathy, compassion and love? Yes I believe so. Whether those lessons, for example, inspire scientists and researchers, broaden public support for euthanasia and dying with dignity, or increase donations and funding to home care services and hospices, I believe they are all love. And I believe that through science and understanding, the promise of eventual control over such natural evils comes into our reach.
There are similarities to this line of rationale and the greater good argument noted above but with a key difference. I believe humanity must act in the face of natural evil and not simply stand aside and say “It is God’s Will out of which They will provide a greater good“. Humanity must act, and not ignore, or worst cower, to such natural evil. We must attack it as forcefully as we do moral evils. We must support the efforts of science and technology to better predict natural disasters and the medical community’s efforts to find future cures for today’s incurable ailments. I believe it is our own empathetic reactions and subsequent actions to predict, reduce or eliminate such natural evils that will result in the greater good. It must not be left to The Greatest Love. Occurrences of natural evil are not the consequence of some master plan that can never fail to derive a greater good because it is orchestrated by an omniscient god. Instead greater goods may not be forthcoming because humanity can fail. When that happens the tragedies can be missed opportunities to learn and improve our societies. The Greatest Love is not controlling us. We must step up and find the greater good in such tragedies ourselves.
I believe that terrible illnesses taking innocent lives is not based directly on the work of The Greatest Love. They intentionally introduced suffering into the Universe in order to grow our love but I do not believe The Greatest Love causes a given individual’s pain and suffering. They do not choose who to torture and who to not. They do not choose who to take from their family well before that family is ready to say goodbye. They are not a master puppeteer pulling the strings of nature. Instead, I believe, They allow the laws of nature and the dispassionate machinations of the Universe to proceed as designed. The diseases and ailments that ravage our bodies are not the work of The Greatest Love. They are nature’s work. Yes The Greatest Love created nature and chose its laws and in so doing allowed pain and suffering, disease and pathogens, to be a part of our Universe and afflict the most beautiful and innocent of Their creations. But once nature was set in motion at the dawn of time I believe They handed over Their power of life and death to it.
Divine Executioner is not one of Their titles. Instead They have put in place a Universe that will take a number of our most loved family members and friends well before we are ready to lose them. It is at these times that I believe The Greatest Love suffers most grievously alongside the stricken. They do not want to allow such suffering, but They need to allow it. They need to stand aside and let nature take its course. Their words of the seventh message resounding in my memory: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. But it had to be this way.“
Nature and the ailments and diseases that are a part of it will be culpable in many of our deaths. Can The Greatest Love prevent such diseases. Yes. Will They? No. I do not believe so. I do not believe The Greatest Love will intervene to miraculously prevent a disease from running its natural course. To do so would sew chaos into our understanding of nature and the Universe. I believe that “miraculous” recoveries point not to the Invisible Hand of the Divine but instead voids in our current medical understandings. That in such recoveries there exists knowledge to be gleaned. To believe otherwise is to acknowledge that the opposite, the tragic deaths of the most beautiful and innocent of children, is Their choice as well. And that is even harder for me to believe. I cannot believe that a merciful and loving god chooses to inflict unbearable pain and suffering on such individuals. The Greatest Love looks to us, our doctors, and our scientists, to understand such “miracles“, in the hopes they can direct us toward future cures. In so doing we make our World a little more perfect, and bring it a little closer to Heaven.
I believe The Greatest Love introduced pain and suffering into our Universe in order to teach its inhabitants empathy along with related forms of love such as kindness, compassion, and humility. Through those lessons our love will be exercised, strengthened and eventually evolved. For there will always remain a higher love to be achieved in the Universe and along with it pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are the catalysts that allow higher forms of love to be attained. These higher forms of love are the ultimate greater good. We must never simply stand aside and say such pain and suffering is the mysterious work of The Greatest Love out of which will always come a greater good. That leaves all the work to Them and absolves us of any duty to act. We must weep with those who suffer. We must provide relief to those who are in pain. We must strive to eliminate such afflictions wherever they reside. We must work to achieve the greater good. In so doing we elevate our humanity further by continuing to evolve our love. This is as The Greatest Love intended despite the pain it causes us and Them.
Can an all-loving god with the power to cure ailments coexist with bone cancer in children? I believe so if we are willing to open our hearts and listen to what that god is trying to teach us.