It is far too early to say too much with certainty about the Boston bombings. We do know at this point that three people were killed and over 130 injured. There are no firm suspects at this point, and we will have to wait and see if this was another Islamic attack or something else. (We do know sadly that at least some Muslims already around the world have been celebrating this.)
Of course we can and should be praying for all those involved, and showing our support to the beleaguered city. I write this piece because I have been in the middle of an exchange with a young person about these sorts of theodicy issues (why does God allow suffering and evil; is he really just to do so?)
His concerns were more about the original appearance of evil on planet earth, and why God allowed Satan to do his thing, and cause so much grief. These are of course legitimate and important questions – ones which millions of others have asked as well.
And it is not just angry atheists who raise these objections and demand some answers; concerned Christians can and do also ponder such matters and make such queries. My reply to this young person went something like this:
Of course entire libraries have been written on this topic, so I am unlikely to please anyone with a few short sentences in response here. But for those who are interested in learning about how biblical Christians would seek to answer these concerns, I offer some initial considerations.
The Bible amply affirms that we are made with free will, as were the angelic beings. Some of these latter rebelled against God, resulting in Satan and demons. God – who is too wise to make a mistake and too loving to be unkind – thought this freedom was worth the risk. And as an all-knowing God, he knows more than we do, so he may well have good reasons for doing what he does.
It seems that genuine love can only happen if there is genuine freedom. And with real freedom comes the possibility of making bad choices – thus evil. So God in his wisdom must have thought that freedom was worth it, even with suffering and evil made possible. But this is temporary, and one day it will come to a complete end. So evil does not have the last word here.
We, in our very limited and finite perspective, may say that the cost of freedom was too high. But God in his infinite wisdom and love evidently thought otherwise. A perfect and fully loving God is likely to do a better job and have a better understanding of all these things than we ever will.
As to the situation in Boston, similar sorts of questions are being asked: Where was God? Why didn’t he do something? Why does he not put a stop to evil? Similar sorts of answers can be provided. The simple truth here is that there is real evil in the world, and evil people.
And evil actions are done by evil people. This is the immediate explanation for the Boston bombings (assuming they were in fact actual attacks, and not just some sort of accident). So if you want to put the blame somewhere, put the blame on the bombers – on those actually responsible for this.
Yet critics will still cry, ‘Why did God not stop them?’ Well, go back to my original premise: real loving relationships are not possible without real free will. Robots and automatons can do what they are programmed to do, but they cannot be said to freely love anything or anyone.
Sure, a completely controlled world will result in safety – but you get that in a prison, or a police state. If you want to see genuine love relationships taking place, you have to allow for the possibility that the free will given to achieve this end will be misused and abused.
Instead of loving others and doing good with our free will, we can choose to hate others and do evil. One option is not possible without the other. So God could either have made a world with no freedom – and thus no love – or he could have made a world where freedom exists, but so too the possibility of this freedom being wrongly used.
The same with the Boston bomber(s), if that in fact is what happened. Yes God could have thwarted that act of evil. But then critics will complain about other acts of evil. OK, so let’s grant God the right to thwart all acts of evil everywhere, right now.
The only problem with this is, because we are all evil, sinful, and selfish, for God to now halt all evil would mean for God to now put a halt to every single one of us. Is that the best option here? It does not sound all that helpful. To stop all evil immediately, God would have to put an end to all of us – that too is a pretty high price to pay.
So God in his grace and patience allows us to do our thing, even though we are constantly making wrong choices which results in real pain, suffering and evil. We do know that God does intervene on occasion – he is God after all and is allowed to do so. But because he so highly values the free will we have, he often allows us to go on making bad choices – and to face the consequences as well.
But as I already noted, the biblical storyline informs us that this is all just temporary. One day all evil will be brought to an end. One day a just judge will reward good and punish evil. Every Hitler and Boston bomber will get his just deserts. And all innocent suffering will also be properly dealt with.
This in very sketchy form is partly how biblical Christianity addresses the problem of evil. Obviously far more can be said, and obviously not everyone will like what was said. Of course the problem of evil does not disappear if you reject the biblical response.
Everyone else also has to give an account of evil, why it is here, and how we deal with it. To my mind, the biblical worldview offers the best take on the issue. It does not give us as fallen and finite creatures a fool-proof answer, or perfectly deal with every objection we might come up with.
But it provides a reasonable and palatable framework for understanding, and coping with, evil and suffering. But for those who want to take this further, I have another 30 articles on theodicy and related issues which I have penned here: billmuehlenberg.com/category/apologetics/theodicy/