Boston and Theodicy

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/

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13 Replies to “Boston and Theodicy”

  1. One might also ask “where was the police?”. And in the same way, the police not preventing the bombings does not mean that the police do not exist, or are themselves evil.

    Simon Barron

  2. The best Scripture I know regarding this is Deuteronomy 28-30. The Lord sums it up by saying “I have set before you life and death, the blessings and the curses, THEREFORE CHOOSE LIFE” Deut. 30:19. Note He doesn’t say He has set the good before us and the devil has set the bad before us. Note also the huge emphasis on CHOICE.

    Ian Brearley

  3. When society rejects God, why do they then ask – ‘how could God let this happen?’

    People commit evil acts. As you have said Bill, God has given us free will and we have to choose between good and evil. For God to take this away from us would mean the end of the world and then we will all be called to account for our sins.

    Madge Fahy

  4. Further to Simon’s point – well the police did prevent about three others or so from exploding. So they were demonstrably not evil.

    And, in the same way, God does so often limit our evil, even so much more than the police. Think of our conscience, think of His direct influence, think of His character imbued in us that we could sacrifice our efforts and selves for others (that can’t come from evolution), and Scriptural examples of God controlling Satan – e.g. Job; Pharaoh; Judas etc.

    Nathan Keen

  5. Thank you Bill
    I found this very helpful. In my opinion, the humanistic belief system is much worse. Because it’s so very hopeless, there is no reason for anything.
    If we fully embrace a country remove all right and wrong with no Godly principles, we will hit the target, anarchy.
    I don’t want to live there.

    Daniel Kempton

  6. As difficult as the problem of evil is for Christians to answer and respond to, at the end of the day what Christianity does provide (if nothing else) is that the story does not end with the disaster. It gets better. True and everlasting justice is served.

    That ought to be a great comfort to many in tragedies like these. Because on a Christian worldview, objective morality exists and is presided over by a moral lawgiver – the Creator God himself. There is no escape for the evil doers in this world. None. And the loss of life in this finite world, along with its troubles, pales into significance when compared to the infinite life of glory in the hereafter. (2 Cor 4:17 comes to mind here.)

    By comparison, what does an atheist have to offer? A big fat zero. Which is not to say that they cannot offer words of comfort – they do so and ought to (and often do better jobs at it than many Christians I know, myself included) – but that by definition they cannot ground their offers of comfort in anything objective at all. They borrow from the Christian worldview to provide comfort. Else all they have in response is the proverbial Forrest Gump response: It happens.

    And if the atheist worldview is correct, there are no tragedies and no wrongs and no acts of evil. Just a whole series of events and circumstances that you don’t like.

    Mathew Hamilton

  7. Adam and Eve had free will before the fall, since then the whole of mankind has a bias to do evil. Test yourself, exercise your free will and determine to live a perfect and righteous life, see how long you can do this for. See how long you can love God and others perfectly. Man however, is responsible for his actions and will have to give an account for every sin. Praise God for the gospel: the sinless life of Christ – his righteousness has been put to our account; his sacrificial death – by which he redeemed us and his triumphant resurrection – by which he assures us that our sin nature is temporary.

    Des Morris

  8. “Why should/did this happen to me?’ is always a valid question. However comparably “why shouldn’t this happen to me”? is also valid.
    As you say evil people do evil things – usually by choice. Modern man has great difficulty in reconciling God’s sovereignty & man’s responsibility.
    Few, if any, Old Testament prophets had any difficulty.

    Arthur Hartwig

  9. Dear Bill, thank you for all those good, helpful and interesting articles keeping us informed about what is going on and what to pray about and what to do if possible.
    My late wife used to ask me quite often “why did God bother creating this whole show in the first place, seeing all the trouble it has resulted in?” My answer was always that He knew all that, including his own suffering in Christ, and yet, He evidently thought it worth it any way. Therefore, just think how wonderful the end product is going to be!
    However, there seems to be at least one problem with the 2 possible alternatives of choice, freedom and love with evil, or no evil with the loss of choice, freedom and love. If the final state of the realised new earth and heaven is absence of evil, can choice, freedom and love prevail, and if so why wasn’t that possible from the beginning of creation?

    Joost Gemeren

  10. Thanks Joost

    But perhaps you offer a bit of apples and oranges here. You assume the state of humanity before the fall is identical to that after the resurrection. Before the fall Adam and Eve were in a state of untested innocence – but not perfection. But our post-Calvary, post-resurrection lives will be ones of perfection. Life on earth is in part one of testing. Those tests will be over in the next world. So all our important choices are made in this life. In a sense we will be like God – he is totally free, but only free to conform to his own character, to who he is. So too us in the next life.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Bill you have written a very convincing explanation about why God might allow evil. For the last few months I have been trying my hardest to convince someone I know with the points you have made, though perhaps not as well as your article does. However, I have sadly come to the conclusion that he is too angry and bitter both with God [whom he insists can’t exist because of all the suffering in the world] and himself to accept what is a perfectly reasonable explanation. He is a Vietnam veteran and so has probably seen more suffering than most and also suffered himself but I think until he is prepared to first let go of his anger and bitterness I am wasting my time trying to convince him with my arguments. I think people do choose to stubbornly cling on to their angry and bitter feelings because they have become a habit don’t you?He has felt angry and bitter for so long he doesn’t know how to feel any other way even though they are destroying his physical and mental health.It is so sad when you see a soul in torment like this. They just don’t want to accept that God might have His own reasons for allowing suffering. Reasons that because we are human we can only begin to barely understand.

    Patricia Halligan

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