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).