Some time ago I agreed with the worship committee at Potters Bar that I would structure my services there into a set of “themes” that would seek to address the big questions of faith that they brought to me. In this series we have now reached the problem of evil, which has been lurking as a feared destination ever since I began. The first of four themes in this general area is the relationship between sin and judgement and bad things happening.
This feels particularly weighty, difficult and sensitive given the dual context of my recent time at the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and the appalling tragedy of the Philippines typhoon. In one case there is the demonic attempt by a depraved government to wipe out the Jewish people, in the other a natural event that visited destruction, death and suffering on the population of a whole area. At the same time we continue to be confronted by the agonies of Syria and of the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other dreadful situations.
In every case people innocent of any special wickedness are subjected to awful things.
What are we as people of faith to make of this, in our relationship with God?
1) We might try to absolve God of any responsibility for what happens. We could reject the idea that God rules, providentially, over the world as we know it. The bad things that happen would then be ascribed to human fault. In on case this would involved saying that sin IS the origin of suffering but that this effect does not pass through the judgement of God being internal to the operation of human society.
2) As a variation on this removal of God from the problem we could say that some, at least, of what happens is simply “chance”, the indifferent working out of natural processes that have no moral significance at all. Something like this must, surely, be the attitude of atheists to “natural disasters” or to some forms of sickness. It is simply mistaken, on this view, to believe that what happens has reference to human beings at all. We are no more part of the meaning of it than are any other animal.
3) Alternatively we might try to take what we think we know about God and use it as a framework to interpret events. Among the most notorious recent examples of this is the initial response to AIDS from some Christians. The disease appeared to primarily affect people who engaged in behaviours (same sex activity and drug use) they were certain that God disapproved of. They therefore suggested that the disease was God’s response, God’s judgement. This kind of immediate link of particular “sins” and particular events might enable strong and visible evidence both of God’s presence and rule and of God’s opinions and judgments.
4) Another alternative is to say that God does indeed rule and events should be understood as God’s actions (or at least as permitted by God) but that the reasons for them are opaque and impossible for us to understand. This finds support in the Book of Job and while at Yad Vashem I watched a powerful short video in which a former Chief Rabbi of Israel took this line in respect of the Holocaust. We are simply incapable of understanding why God allowed this to happen but this should not lead us to imagine that it happened somehow beyond or outside the realm of God’s rule.
I’m suggesting four options, then:
1. it’s all our fault, God is innocent;
2. some things just happen without God’s involvement or any moral significance at all;
3 bad things are judgement on bad people;
4 all things should be understood as God’s doing (or letting) but we cannot judge their significance since God’s ways are not our ways
My difficulty is that none of them seem satisfactory to me.
To make God innocent of our suffering seems to me to be neither faithful to what we are taught about God through the history of his involvement with us as reported in the Bible and received through our traditions. We are told that God is active in the world and in regard to those he chooses to represent him. In particular we are taught that God judges and enacts judgement.
To posit a world in which God is not active is to depart so radically from what we are taught as not to be an option (in my view) for anybody within the Christian tradition.
To suggest that all misfortune is deserved judgement for sin is inconceivable to me and without making it universal in this way it does not address the problem. If one innocent person suffers this is not an adequate response to the problem.
While I have some sympathy with the “God’s ways are not our ways” approach it cannot be a satisfactory end point. We have the responsibility, it seems to me, to try to understand. A God whose actions are simply and completely incomprehensible does not accord with the witness we have received.
And I still don’t know what I’m going to say on Sunday, except that I feel (rather than think) that we need to believe that we stand under God’s judgement and that this judgement will be enacted. Our own ability to judge is so inadequate that the meaning of our lives depends on the judgement of God. Without it we will collapse into meaninglessness and nihilism, I fear. This implies, though, both that there are categories of God’s judgement that make sense within the domain within which we exist and thus, perhaps, that we should be able to grasp them.
Further for this to make sense, to me, it requires that God is active in our lives and in the world. A God who is powerless would not be the creative and reigning God we proclaim in our creeds.
What is more, if we are to be judged according to the standards set by Jesus in the gospels I don’t believe that any will be found innocent. If we requires God’s judgement to give our lives meaning and if that judgement is inevitably against us then we may well have no other alternatives than meaninglessness and guilt.