Why Didn't God Just…?

Many of us wonder, particularly in the face of evil, why an omnipotent God didn’t just do things differently–you know, the way you and I would do them if we were God. I mean, it seems so obvious, doesn’t it, that God could do a better job of running the world than God does? As David Hume remarked so long ago, it’s not just that we endure earthquakes and plagues and betrayals, we also endure irritations and nuisances and disappointments. The house we live in isn’t only lethally dangerous in places, it’s also shoddily built everywhere else.

Why, for instance, didn’t God create human beings immediately with such moral goodness that they freely would never sin? After all, Christians aspire to such a state in the life to come, such that, as Augustine put it, it is non posse peccare—not possible to sin. Just as it would be impossible for a loving mother ever to torture her children and enjoy it—no matter what the inducement, no matter if the whole world was at stake—because she is just not that kind of person, so Christians look forward to enjoying a state of moral maturity such that sin has lost its appeal and we invariably prefer the good. So why doesn’t God create us that way from the start?

The point I want to make here is that we may be asking God to create a square circle. It may be (I certainly don’t know) that it is simply the nature of things that a creature does not enjoy the condition of moral maturity without maturing, without undergoing a process of moral training, conditioning, and confirming. Thus Adam and Eve, in their original created state of moral innocence, were as good as God could make them immediately as free beings. They necessarily then had to embark on a journey of moral maturation—with its ever-present peril of moral declension.

We often ask other questions of the “Why didn’t God just . . .” variety. Why didn’t God just avoid the whole painful business of the Incarnation? Why didn’t God in particular just spare his Son the Cross? Why didn’t God just heal all the sick and raise all the dead at once in the career of Jesus? Why didn’t God just . . . and so on, and so on. In each of these cases, the Christian answer is the same: God elected either the best of the available choices or, indeed, the only choice available for God to pursue his purposes.

Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal is a key case in point. He badly wants to avoid the horrors to come and tells his Father so, begging him to find another path, to give him a different cup to drink. As he prays, however, Jesus becomes convinced once for all that there is no other path to take. So he willingly goes on to drink the cup of suffering and death.

The natural follow-up question, furthermore, might best be explained in a paradoxically similar fashion. Most people who encounter the Christian teaching about the Cross of Christ wonder why, if Jesus suffered all of that on our behalf, did evil and its effects not then immediately disappear from the world. Why isn’t Easter Sunday the day we celebrate the end of all evil two thousand years ago? Why are “the world, the flesh, and the devil” seemingly as vital as ever in their opposition to the Kingdom of God?

Sometimes preachers answer this question by invoking D-Day, 1944, and saying that the Cross of Christ is the huge battle that decides the war, but there still remain lots of “mopping up” battles to be fought. Leaving aside the accuracy of the metaphor itself (I used to teach European history and I can’t help noting that most historians think the German war with Russia on the Eastern Front was at least as important), the basic question remains: Why does there need to be any “mopping up” at all, for an omnipotent deity who has suffered “once for all” on the Cross? Why not instant and permanent shalom?

Several dimensions of God’s providence and omnipotence help us here. God is accomplishing good things through the evil that remains in the world after the death and resurrection of Christ—including bringing into existence you and me through the many generations of our forebears (and there is a lot of evil in that lineage!) and then doing what is necessary to bring us to eternal life. In fact, I am making here the stronger suggestion that perhaps there is no other way to accomplish these several purposes than to let the world run on this way and to let it run a while longer, in both its good and its evil, until all the good that God wants to accomplish has, at last, been accomplished.

When we ask, therefore, why God doesn’t take shortcuts, as in the question of creating human beings of instant moral maturity, it may be that there aren’t any shortcuts to take. To get there, to get to a paradise of morally mature, loving human beings enjoying shalom with each other, with the earth, and with God, may well require a journey, a process. To reiterate: to be mature may well require maturation.

One further observation: The only other creatures we know of that possess similar free will such that they could accept or reject God and such that they could develop into creatures of established moral character are the angels. And they, apparently, followed a similar trajectory. Some chose God and became his faithful messengers of now-unquestioned goodness, while others chose to rebel and became his sworn enemies of now-unquestioned evil. Therefore, of the two kinds of creatures we know of that have been given free will to love or hate God, both have had episodes in which at least some chose badly. Neither sort of creature, that is, was created instantly mature and therefore incapable of sin. Maybe, again, to create a creature “instantly mature” is a contradiction in terms and thus nothing—literally no thing—that God can make.

So let’s press onward, friends, in the mystery and frustration and difficulty and reward and joy of growing up. If there were an easier way, I am confident our loving God would provide it. God hasn’t, so there must not be. So, onward.

_______

This blog post is adapted from the second edition of Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

0 Responses to “Why Didn't God Just…?”

  1. Keith Shields

    If I Were You
    (Wayne Watson, © 1995 Material Music/Word ASCAP)

    If I were You . . . if I ran this place
    There wouldn’t be no mercy
    There wouldn’t be no grace
    And people that wander off and go astray
    I’d make real sure that they would pay
    Yeh, that’s what I’d do
    If I were You

    And if I were You . . . if I ran this town
    The righteous would be sitting pretty
    And the rotten would come tumbling down
    They’d beg and they’d wrangle for a second chance
    I’d say, “Sorry boys, but I just can’t”
    Yeh, that’s what I’d do
    If I were you

    But You know me, I’m just a man
    Of unclean lips and unclean hands
    Some of the thoughts I have
    Make me want to run and hide
    I don’t know much but I’ve observed
    You’ve never treated me like I deserved
    Your loving arms are always open wide

    If I were You . . . a catastrophe
    What in the world kind of world would this world be
    I guess I’ll take my place
    Wrapped in amazing grace
    Let You be You
    That’s what I’ll do

    http://hungerandthirst4.blogspot.com/2009/11/if-i-were-you.html

  2. Jerry

    “Adam and Eve, in their original created state of moral innocence, were as good as God could make them immediately as free beings. They necessarily then had to embark on a journey of moral maturation—with its ever-present peril of moral declension.”

    Here’s more ‘Why didn’t God just…?’:
    * Why didn’t God guide the innocent child-like “Adam and Eve” through their moral maturation like we would for our children? If we knew who is and would be the most dangerous individual to ever exist, we wouldn’t let that individual come near our immature children.
    * Why didn’t God allow for moral maturity without requiring victims? We want people to have the freedom to train their inner court (if you will) of good and evil and be free to physically express themselves, BUT, do people NEED to be tortured, raped and murdered?
    * Why doesn’t God himself explain these things to us?

    “Why didn’t God just heal all the sick and raise all the dead at once in the career of Jesus? Why didn’t God just . . . and so on, and so on. In each of these cases, the Christian answer is the same: God elected either the best of the available choices or, indeed, the only choice available for God to pursue his purposes.”

    So, God commands us to heal wounds he allowed others to inflict on their fellow human beings, and feed those who are dying of hunger, BUT, for him to do it himself for those we’ve failed to help is just not a choice available to him… because he’s so smart?

  3. tim ellison

    Brilliant, John..so helpful for us to learn not to waste your sorrows…God is bringing about a greater good in those of us called according to His purposes. thanks so much for your blog, it is very encouraging and inspiring!!

  4. Mark

    After suffering through one of the most dispiriting overtime losses in memory, I came to your weblog for comfort and hope, and you did not disappoint. Thanks for the great thoughts!

  5. Mark

    Not meaning to trivialize your thoughts with a comment like that, I will add a more generally serious thought of my own.

    I find it curious that Jerry careened past your point with an elaboration of the very objection your post addresses. He does, however, strike at an important issue that I’ve been thinking about; namely, the question of why God does not help us on this journey to maturity in ways that our “enlightened” world would consider more tangible.

    The expectation that God would offer us some kind of “hands-on” guidance toward maturity attended with a more ostensible manifestation of his presence assumes that God *could* manifest himself in this way without overriding our free will (i.e. without his presence being so overbearing that we simply *have* to conform out of fear; a paradigm that would be ruinously out of step with God’s desire for a loving relationship with morally free creatures).

    Of course, Christian theology *does* have a place for God’s role in this maturing process, expressed in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The beauty of this doctrine (as I understand it) is found in the interplay between our choice to invite the Spirit in and the Spirit’s power in transforming us (an interplay that often takes the existential form of sheer “hard spiritual work”!).

    Perhaps the best possible world in which God could lead morally free creatures towards maturity is one in which his presence is (1) not so obvious that we have no choice but to conform and obey, and (2) not so veiled that humans throughout history would not have assumed its availability, as they apparently have, even in a century like our own that can look back on more than two hundred years of an attempt at training minds to reject the idea.

    As for the concern about the “victims” (i.e. those who suffer greatly, die tragically, or are otherwise denied a reasonably unobstructed path to Christian maturity), that’s not as much of a problem if you buy into God’s promises of a redeemed new creation in which such victims will participate. I thank God for providing a framework that offers hope for those victims, rather than leaving their suffering unassuaged in the abyss of death.

  6. C. Ehrlich

    While I suppose it may be possible, do you really find it plausible that ours is the best of all possible worlds?

    In our world, some particular baby deer dies a slow and agonizing death alone on a remote wilderness slope. No other creature witnesses this particular tragedy. (I assume you concede that such things occur.) Would it have been impossible for God to make this particular baby deer die quickly and painlessly instead? Or, is it plausible that it is best that this one additional baby deer so suffers?

    • John Stackhouse

      Funny how it’s always a deer. It’s never a weasel, or a warthog, or a moray eel. Always in the philosophical literature it seems to be a deer suffering, alone and unmourned. And now a baby deer!

      Friend Ehrlich, OF COURSE I think I can imagine a world being better without the suffering of such a baby deer. (It’s stunning to me how often critics seem to think we Christians lack imagination, self-criticism, or even a familiarity with the basic literature on the question we’re addressing.) So OF COURSE I would need an awfully good reason NOT to believe that I could run the world an awful lot better than I see God running it. My goodness: that’s just the problem of evil!

      I have suggested in the post, then, what that good reason would be–or, given the limitations of a blog post, I have at least gestured toward the neighbourhood in which it resides.

      Forget the baby deer for a second. Do I think it is plausible to believe that God could not have saved the world without letting an innocent human being suffer and die on a cross? It’s only plausible to me because I have lots of reason to think the Biblical explanation of things is correct and therefore, yes, Good Friday fits that explanation. But on its own, as an isolated instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, OF COURSE it doesn’t make sense–as the Bible itself suggests, even in prophetic anticipation (Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53). Jesus on the cross looks cursed, not blessed, and looks very dead when it’s all done, not the Victor over all God’s enemies.

      So I can believe that this is the best of all possible worlds ONLY because I believe that God is in Jesus Christ showing me and telling me the truth about things, a truth far stranger than you and I could possibly have imagined. Indeed, it’s a truth so strange that you and I still have trouble imagining it, hence our puzzlement over the baby deer–or the cross of Christ.

      That’s why I wrote the second half of “Can God Be Trusted?” about the grounds for faith in God in the revelatory career of Jesus–because formal arguments about the goodness and power of God-in-general, typical of theist/atheist debates since at least Hume’s time, take us only so far, and not far enough. The only reason, finally, to believe that God is good, and so good that God allows no suffering beyond what is strictly necessary, is to believe that God has revealed Godself to be just that kind of God. Since I do, then I do. And I only believe all THAT because I believe I see God in Jesus Christ, not in theodical arguments on their own.

      • C. Ehrlich

        I suppose deer, babies and such appear in the literature to suggest innocence in the minds of readers sympathetic with overly harsh, retributive judgments. By its bloodthirsty nature, the weasel in some minds deserves the eternal fires of hell!

        To imagine a world in which the one baby deer dies a less painful death is no more difficult than imagining the world in which the same deer dies in greater agony. And to think that the former world is marginally better certainly doesn’t entail the judgment that you yourself could run the world “an awful lot better than I see God running it”!

        So let us not forget the baby deer. The example of the baby deer is nice precisely because, doctrinally, it’s a lot less central than the cross of Christ. So, while you may think that, as a Christian, you must affirm the necessity of the cross for mankind’s salvation, the idea that you likewise must affirm the necessity of the extended suffering of the one baby deer would be a lot more surprising!

  7. John Stackhouse

    Yes, of course that’s why cuddly animals are used. But I’m not sure everyone would agree with you that weasels and other predators deserve everlasting punishment for being true to their natures. That’s a whole ‘nother aspect of the problem of evil there…!

    Yes, of course I don’t think that imagining the world slightly better ENTAILS thinking I could run the world much better than God could. But there are so many such instances that one might well be tempted to come to the latter conclusion.

    Yes, of course the baby deer seems insignificant and therefore its suffering an example of gratuitous evil. But the Cross is not in a separate category, as you suggest. The Gethsemane Question, as I put it, is the same: “Isn’t there an easier way to do this?”

    Given that the Cross of Christ is the hinge of world history, it isn’t surprising that God has gone to great pains to explain it to us, versus the hypothetical incident of the baby deer. What I’m suggesting is a deductive argument: “Given this…, then that….” I’ve already granted that it’s a strange argument, but we believe lots of strange things–about physics, about love, about God–because we think we have good reasons to do so. I think I have good reasons in this case, too.

  8. C. Ehrlich

    As soon as everyone sympathizes equally with bloodthirsty weasels and baby deer, deeply feeling them both to be equally innocent, then we can of course change the example. Until then, let’s stick to the illustration that illustrates!

    My particular illustration is partly motivated by the idea that we can have judgments about it without drawing the more radical conclusion that we generally know better than God (similarly, a student can thinks that her math teacher has made a particular error without concluding that she knows more than her math teacher). We needn’t argue about the latter and more ambitious conclusion; to do so is a version of a straw man fallacy.

    Finally, it is fully intelligible to give one answer to the Gethsemane question and a different answer to the baby deer question. That was a point I made earlier: while Christians might understandably feel the need to affirm that Christ had to suffer, it’s substantially more surprising to think that the Christian must also affirm that some particular baby deer must also experience comparable physical sufferings!

    • John Stackhouse

      Sure, let’s leave the animals out of it before PETA or Peter Singer arrive.

      Your question is simply the question of whether there is gratuitous evil in the world–that is, evil that serves no good purpose that warrants God allowing it. It’s a good question, and one that bothers anyone who pays attention.

      I’m concluding that there is no such thing, despite (strong and many) appearances to the contrary. Why? Because the God I believe is in charge of things is not the kind of God who would allow gratuitous evil. And since I also recognize that I (a) lack all the pertinent facts in a given case–or, at least, I recognize that I don’t know that I have all the pertinent facts of the given case and (b) have good grounds to believe that God is this kind of God, then I maintain that there is no such thing as gratuitous evil.

      To return, then, to your initial story: to say that there is a baby deer dying a painful death alone, etc., etc., and to wonder whether God could have eased that baby deer’s suffering is perfectly fine, of course. I wonder about that sort of thing, too.

      But to conclude, or even to imply, that (a) God DOESN’T intervene to ease that deer’s suffering (for, if there are no other observers, how do we know God doesn’t?) and (b) there is no good such that the baby deer’s suffering is not somehow justified and redeemed would be to answer the question in the question. And since I do not grant (a) or (b), then we’re left with, as you say, not just plausibility (could it be true?) but credibility (is it true?). And, given what I think I have learned about God on lots of other grounds, I maintain that God doesn’t allow gratuitous suffering.

  9. C. Ehrlich

    Your argument is essentially of this form:

    Premise: God only allows the best of all possible worlds.

    Conclusion: Therefore, either baby deer don’t actually suffer, or the suffering of any particular baby deer is essential (to the best of all possible worlds).

    So, WHATEVER EVIDENCE WE MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE TO THE CONTRARY, your steadfast faith in the premise guarantees for you the truth that either baby animals do not suffer, or that their suffering is just as necessary for our world as the suffering of Christ. Now, while you may be entirely comfortable with this line of thinking, my only observation would be this: yours looks to be less a process of reasonable deliberation than a merely dogmatic insistence on the truth of the initial premise, with the corresponding refusal to take seriously any contrary evidence.

    Or do I misread you? Can you imagine encountering anything that would count for you as evidence that we are not living in the best of all possible worlds? Is there nothing that counts against all your supposed evidence for that initial premise?

    While it is of course true that you may have further evidence favoring your initial premise, I am suggesting that reasonable deliberation is generally also marked by an openness both to the possibility of contrary evidence (at least when we’re talking about substantive premises such as the one you offer) and to the contrary evidence itself, with corresponding willingness to revise one’s confidence in one’s former premises.

    So while I understand your curious insistence that baby deer either do not suffer in distant forests or that the suffering of any particular deer is absolutely essential, I also see that your insistence here is simply a function of your refusal to downgrade your confidence in the belief that ours is the best of all possible worlds. I am suggesting that you would do well to be more open to the possibility that baby deer probably do suffer in distant forests and that, on some occasions, the universe probably wouldn’t be negatively affected if the suffering of the baby deer lasted one minute less.

    To put it pointedly: be more hesitant to forsake common sense for fantastic theories that merely protect your favored creeds.

    • John Stackhouse

      The mistake you’re making here is to assume, somehow, that this is a new question for me and that I have never thought it through before, let alone come to an answer sufficiently well grounded that I now presume the truth of that answer in my further deliberations.

      But I did think it through–twenty years ago–and after teaching a university course in it a number of times, wrote a book for the Oxford University Press on the subject. I have since revised the book for another press, InterVarsity Press, that wanted to issue a revised edition. Some would count that as evidence that I’m not as stupid and fanatical as you apparently think I am.

      Why the snarky tone? Why the lofty presumption of rational superiority because you haven’t come to the conclusions I have and so, since YOU find them dubious then *I* am supposed to find them dubious. But I don’t find them dubious because I actually have thought about them and read about them and debated them for quite a while now. Is it even possible in your view that maybe you haven’t perhaps thought and read about them quite as much and maybe aren’t quite caught up in the argument?

      All of that doesn’t mean that my premisses are beyond question, of course. They’re not even beyond doubt: the problem of evil continues to bother me, too, as I have acknowledged already.

      But you seem unable to appreciate the situation of someone who has indeed wrestled pretty hard and long with the situation, come up with what he thinks is a well grounded answer that also fends off possible defeaters, and thus maintains his Christian commitments, which you finally come clean and slander as “fantastic theories.”

      The two billion of us who just celebrated Easter don’t think they are fantastic theories and we don’t think we’ve taken leave of common sense. For you to presume that we have because you see the world differently is, alas, just the usual pompous wind typical of atheists in our culture–Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, and the other Not-So-New Atheists. It’s not good philosophy: it’s just bad manners.

      So if we’re going to go any farther, bethink yourself for a few minutes that I might just have thought about a deer dying alone–since it’s been in the philosophical literature for generations–and come up with an answer that, strange as it is to you, might be well enough evidenced to be true.

      Or will you stick with “common sense” and, say, deny quantum theory or the evolution of the species or wave-particle duality or even heliocentrism? I’m all for “common sense” when it is sufficient, and all for hard, complicated thinking when it isn’t. The problem of evil is one of those hard, complicated questions.

    • Logan Runnalls

      I hope it is not unseemly for one more anonymous voice to enter late into the discussion. It seems to me that the conversation starts to slide off the rails at comment 9. C Ehrlich, you ask “Can you imagine encoutering anything that would count for you as evidence we are not living in the best of all possible worlds? Is there nothing that counts against all your supposed evidence for that initial premise?” This question comes immediately on the heals of Prof. Stackhouse asserting that “I’m concluding that there is no such thing, despite (strong and many) appearances to the contrary.” Does this statement not already answer your question?

      Prof. Stackhouse, what falls apart when this world is simply good rather then the best possible world?

      in peace

      • Logan Runnalls

        Regarding my last question:
        Claiming that we are living in the best possible world holds both God’s sovereignty and humanities free will together. God created humans to be stewards of the world as well as making us free to choose. The lone suffering deer is at least as much (more so?) a critique of human stewardship as it is a critique of God’s care.

        Am I close? You just need to nod at the computer.

        • John Stackhouse

          The lone suffering deer doesn’t strike me as a victim of human mismanagement. It’s certainly not supposed to function that way in the conversation. The basic point is, If God can alleviate suffering and chooses not to do so, he needs to have a good reason not to do so or he would not be good. That’s what “falls apart” in a “simply good” world: God is doing a “good” job of running it, but not a God-like job of running it.

  10. C. Ehrlich

    John, no one here is questioning either your struggles with this question or your capacity to authoritatively represent your particular position and the scholarship behind it. Your assertions to the contrary come across as ill-founded and overly-defensive. What is challenged—no more and no less—is your present post on the topic and your responses in the commentary. So, either use your wonderful scholarship to inform your responses in this interchange or accept the inevitable observations that your off-the-cuff responses are less than satisfying, and that you raise more honest skepticism than you answer.

    • John Stackhouse

      Perhaps you could knock off the insults and pose actual questions, offer evidence, probe arguments, and so on? I’m up for that. But merely saying someone is arguing badly isn’t an argument. I’ve tried to respond directly to what you’ve been asking, only to be told that I’m merely dogmatic. But you haven’t actually mounted a counterargument. So what’s left to do except recognize what you’re doing for what it is?

  11. C. Ehrlich

    John, I diagnose the first problem as follows. What you take to be insults or slights to your scholarly career are nothing of the sort, but are instead the very questions and criticisms that you now profess to invite.

    Consider the point I made about what I take to be involved in “reasonable deliberation” (as opposed to “dogmatic insistence on the truth of the initial premises). I suggested that reasonable deliberation generally involves not (or not simply) holding premises for which one has further evidences (I granted that you had this) but also “an openness both to the possibility of contrary evidence (at least when we’re talking about substantive premises such as the one you offer) and to the contrary evidence itself, with corresponding willingness to revise one’s confidence in one’s former premises.” I offered this characterization to further motivate the questions I had just previously asked: “Can you imagine encountering anything that would count for you as evidence that we are not living in the best of all possible worlds? Is there nothing that counts against all your supposed evidence for that initial premise?”

    We have yet to hear your answer to these questions. They are, at least to my mind, particularly pressing insofar as you apparently reject what I suppose most thinkers would regard as rather strong prima facie evidence to the contrary: the prolonged suffering of a baby deer in some remote forest just before it dies in isolation from all witnesses. Given your apparent rejection of such prima facie evidence (we find this rejection in your insistence that such suffering either never occurs or that its avoidance would be like squaring a circle), what could count for you as evidence against the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds?

    • rebekah

      C. Ehrlich, as a newcomer to this blog, I have to say I’ve been fascinated reading your exchange with the good Professor here in this discussion. Thanks for holding his feet to the fire (metaphorically, of course), for the rest of us who find his theodicy seriously lacking, and his response to critique overly-defensive.

      • John Stackhouse

        Well, good for you, Brother Ehrlich, gaining a cheerleader along the way. Welcome, Sister Rebekah! I’m sure I have cheerleaders, too…although they all seem to be away just now, perhaps recovering from excitement over the Canucks-Blackhawks game last night…

        Anyhow, I appreciate your question and can see that I have assumed some epistemological matters that I should not have assumed, and I apologize for that. The issues you raise are sufficiently interesting and different from the main thrust of this post (although they are related, of course) that I’ll reply to them in a new post presently.

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