Earlier this year, comedian and talk show host Chelsea Handler asked Neil DeGrasse Tyson (astrophysicist, author, science communicator) whether or not he believed in God. As always, deGrasse Tyson gave a gracious, brilliantly explained, evidence based response. You can watch the interview here, he says:
Every description of God I’ve heard, holds God to be all powerful (very typical) and all good. And then I look around and I see a tsunami that killed a quarter million people in Indonesia, an earthquake that killed a quarter million people in Haiti, and I see earthquakes and tornadoes and disease, childhood leukemia: and I see all of this and I say I do not see evidence of both of those being true simultaneously. If there is a God, the God is either not all powerful or not all good. He can’t be both.
It’s the greatest contradiction of the traditional Christian God, and the most common question I’m asked by friends and family as a Christian: How can a God who loves the world and all the people in it let such terrible events occur?
Let’s first have a look at the traditional view on who God is.
Who is the God of the Bible?
The Bible paints God as all powerful. With power over the heavens, the earth and all people. God created the universe (Genesis 1-2), caused the Great Flood (Genesis 7-8), sent the 10 plagues to Egypt (Exodus 7-11), parted the Red Sea to free the Hebrew slaves (Exodus 14). God gave Sarah and Abraham a child late in life (Genesis 21), cured a man of leprosy (2 Kings 5), caused an Aramean army to go blind (2 Kings 6) and killed an Assyrian Army (2 Kinds 19: 35).
Through Jesus, God has performed countless miracles. He healed the blind (Matthew 9:27-31), the deaf and dumb (Mark 7: 31-37), resurrected the dead several times (Luke 7: 11-18 and John 11: 38-44, not to mention Jesus himself), and cured a woman who had bled for 12 years (Matthew 9: 20). The list goes on.
There is no doubt that if you believe these stories then you must believe that God is all powerful. With power over the natural world as well as life and death.
Despite having read the atrocities of the Old Testament and believing them to be the will of God, most Christian’s also believe that God is perfect, entirely good and that his love knows no bounds.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life – John 3:16.
It’s the most quoted verse of the Bible. During difficult times it brings many Christians comfort in the knowledge that God knows everything about them and yet still loves them. And there are countless other verses with the same message. We believe in a God that is good and loving.
One of my favourite Australian comedians, Jim Jefferies says: “Religious people will forgive God for ****ing anything. In their mind He does good things.” It’s easy to see why this contradiction is one of the common arguments made by atheists.
So how can we as Christians, reconcile these conflicting concepts of God? Well the answer is that rationally we can’t.
Nevertheless, Christians scramble to find an explanation that ensures their faith remains intact and their understanding of the world is steadfast. We want to know that things happen for a reason, that there IS a God who loves us and has a plan and all those other clichéd statements that make us feel warm and fuzzy when our world is falling apart.
So let’s examine some of these common explanations of God’s contradictory nature.
1. Free Will
At some point in my life, I am quite certain I used this argument in response to why bad things happen. But I’ve come to realise that in actual fact it falls quite short of explaining the nature of God.
The general idea of this is that God does not control people like puppets. We are not “possessed” by God. Therefore God allows people to make their own choices, whatever they are. We can choose to do good things, or not.
To an extent I would agree with this idea, which is why I’ve clung to it in the past. I’m sure God doesn’t want to control us like puppets and would prefer we make the right choices ourselves. But then I’m not a parent.
My mother explained to me the other day: imagine that two of your children were fighting and one was about to kill the other, if you had the power to intervene then of course you would. No parent who loves their children would stand back and allow that to happen.
Or do we think that God loves us less than our own parents?
Free will also does not explain natural disasters, diseases and accidents in the world.
2. God Sends us Trials to Help us Grow
It’s true that the best way to learn patience is to be confronted with an infuriating and testing person or situation.
Christians and non-Christians alike can agree that often it’s through the difficulties we face in life that we grow as people. Hopefully through these experiences we develop resilience, patience, a sense of gratitude and compassion for others.
In fact I’ve actually heard Christians pray for more opportunities for personal suffering for this reason.
Certainly most parents I know don’t want their children to coast through life with everything handed to them on a silver platter. They want them to work hard and develop perseverance through difficulties, so that they can fully appreciate the joys of life.
But do we really believe that the parents of a dying child were forced to endure such a tragedy because God perceived in them some personality flaw that needed correcting?
When children starve in poverty stricken societies across the world, what personality flaw is God correcting then? How is their suffering and death providing an opportunity for improvement?
It’s actually an awful thought when you take it to its extreme. If that’s why God allows suffering to occur, then God is (for want of a better word) an asshole.
3. This is Earth, not Heaven
This is a pretty logical argument. That obviously we cannot live forever. This world has limited space and finite resources, so clearly all life must come to an end at some point.
God cannot intervene in the way the world works all the time. If he saved everyone from death and suffering, then essentially we’d be living in the traditional Heaven and not on Earth.
Ultimately it means that God deliberately created a world where people have to die to maintain population control and sometimes disasters and murders assist in this process. What an asshole.
4. God Punishes Sinners
I am loathed to even write the above words. This clearly flies in the face of the idea that God is all good and loving.
On the flipside, the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” also fails to recognise this point. This question also assumes that certain people deserve suffering and others don’t. I find it truly disturbing when people talk about what someone ‘deserves’ for their crimes. We do not live in a society that is ruled by ‘eye for an eye’ rules. And I am truly grateful for that, because I am a very flawed human being.
Taken to it’s extreme, it also means that anytime something bad happens to people then it must be punishment for something they did. Despite reading of God’s grace and forgiveness in the New Testament, many Christians find it hard to shake the medieval view of punishment.
Don’t believe that many ‘Christians’ actually think this way?
Jim Bakker, a US televangelist recently made this comment about the victims of the 2017 Manchester bombing:
What was the name of that concert? ‘Dangerous Woman concert.’ If we could tell you what we know — and we don’t have time today — but we’re going to talk about some of those things, they literally invited these kinds of things to happen. They almost cursed themselves with this concert. I tell you what, God’s not going to put up with mockery. ‘Be not deceived, God is not mocked.’
Or how about Pat Robinson (US media mogul, executive chairman, and former Southern Baptist minister) who when asked how to console a mother who had just lost her baby, gave the following response:
As far as God’s concerned, he knows the end from the beginning and He sees a little baby and that little baby could grow up to be Adolf Hitler, he could grow up to be Joseph Stalin, he could grow up to be some serial killer, or he could grow up to die of a hideous disease. God sees all that, and for that life to be terminated while he’s a baby, he’s going to be with God forever in Heaven so it isn’t a bad thing.
So how could God do that? How could a good God let happen? Well, the good God is going to take that baby to heaven right now, and that isn’t a bad thing.
Um yeah. Seriously. I’m pretty sure we can all agree this is disgusting and clearly flawed thinking considering that Hitler and Stalin and everyday criminals do exist and always have. So let’s move on.
There are a number of other similar arguments that generally face the same issues – the concept that God is both all loving and all powerful is contradictory when examining the suffering of this world.
Who is God then?
When truly examining the proposed characteristics of God rationally, it is hard to conclude that God can in fact be both all powerful and all loving.
Of course there will be many people who will sweep aside the resounding evidence that the traditional view is flawed and close their minds to rational thought. They will cling desperately to clichés such as ‘God works in mysterious ways’. When someone truly denies all logic and rational thought out of fear of the unknown, then there is nothing more than can be said.
But if like me, you have deeply examined these questions and reached the conclusion that these two characteristics are contradictory, then it means that you have some even bigger questions to ask of your faith.
For some people it means the end of their belief in a God.
For me, it raises the question ‘Who is God?’ And what I choose to believe about God has some huge implications for what I believe about the Bible.
A New Perspective
I don’t actually believe that God is an asshole. But I do believe in God. This means that I have rationally reached the conclusion that God is not all powerful.
I don’t believe that God has absolute coercive power over the world and people. Rather I believe that God is a force drawing me towards good decisions, towards being a compassionate and selfless person, towards actions that will create a better, more loving world.
God is love and He is always trying to nudge me towards better decisions in every circumstance.
I find that my new perspective align most closely with something known as Process Theology. My mother, Glennis Johnston (an ordained minister with a research degree in New Testament Studies) says the following in her book, Turning Points of the Spirit:
In each moment of experience three things converge to influence the next. They are: our past; our environment; and the ‘initial aim’ of life. That ‘initial aim’ of life, that many of us would name as God, engages us in each moment, luring us towards whatever is good, beautiful, true, just and loving in that particular situation…
No matter how we choose to move into the next moment of our lives, the divine invitation never ceases to be present with a call to whatever the best might be. This is grace. In more traditional terms, God never gives up on us or ceases to desire the best for us” – p 241-242, Turning Points of the Spirit.
How then do we give meaning to the bad things that happen in the world?
As humans we try to find meaning in every event – for Christians that meaning has traditionally been God, both good and bad.
So it’s difficult to let go of those clichés that comfort us in difficult times. It’s difficult to accept that life is harsh, cruel at times and events can occur randomly. But life is also beautiful, surprising and wonderful.
Harold Kushner (a prominent American rabbi and a popular author) says in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But we can give them a meaning. We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning on them…
The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” That is really an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
We need to appreciate what we have, because tomorrow it could be gone. We need to care for this world, because God is not going to step in and fix it for us.
What about the Bible?
Remember the Bible paints God as all powerful: the creator of the universe, the healer of the sick and dying, the champion of armies, the defeator of death.
So if you don’t believe God is all powerful, then what do you believe about these stories?
It’s easier for Christians to rationalise the Old Testament stories because they are so graphic and so contradictory to the God of the New Testament. It’s easy to say these stories were the interpretations of an ancient society who viewed every event as being the “will of God”. All of life, death, success and failure was (rightly or wrongly) attributed to God.
However it’s much harder for Christians to apply the same logic to the New Testament. The God of the New Testament is the one Christians want: forgiving, loving, good and capable of miracles.
So I set the challenge for you: if you are a Christian, then the next time you are asked to explain something about God that appears to be contradictory or you try to console someone in their hour of grief, take a step back from your well rehearsed responses and apply a lens of logic.
Reconsider your use of those cliches and know that it’s ok to reexamine your assumptions.
Ask yourself: what do you truly believe?