This is an ambitious essay. Who can claim to know what God thinks ? Well, people claim to know such things. I am not one of them. I would try to resolve the idea in the title sideways. I won’t deal with it head on. In essence, this essay is a conjecture. If you want to know exactly why God allows horrible things to happen to innocent people, you won’t find the answer here. What you will find here is why I think bad things happen, why I think there is no escape from it so long as human beings are able to act ( so long as we have free will, whatever it means), and why the idea that there is evil in the world doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that there is no God.
First, the idea of God in the simplest way I understand it is that there is goodness in the world. That there is a final arbiter. That we will pay for the evils we do in one way or another. I haven’t been able to see how this idea is foolish. Of course, we can build edifices around this idea with its accompanying rituals and revelations. The rituals and revelations around this idea may be useless, false or meaningless, but I haven’t found a way in which this idea is not useful. I have personally not yet seen someone who hasn’t paid for his sins. I haven’t yet seen someone who treats people like shit and all is well with them till the end. Not one. But I can imagine that someone like that may exist. People often claim they exist. They would say they died rich; they enjoyed their life to the full end. I think only someone sociopathic or pathological can treat others terribly and be tranquil on their death beds. I am talking about the eulogy virtues. But all I say can only be conjecture because I have no way of knowing the broadest range of human experience. So it is a matter of faith to believe in God. To believe there is a grand judge who is watching us, so we better act right. It is a matter of faith to believe wrongs will ultimately be punished, if not in this world then in another to come, whatever that means.
There are those who claim rituals and revelations are all there is to a believe in God. Therefore if they attack the rituals and revelations as false then they kill God. I think this idea is erroneous. We should ask ourselves why almost all civilizations have a divine deity although the rituals are often different. But let me not go off topic. I introduced the idea of God because it is linked to what this essay speaks to. The question, if God exists then why do bad things happen? Or its corollary, why do bad things happen to innocent people? Why did God allow the Inquisition, slavery and Auschwitz? Why does He tolerate all the suffering we see around us?
This can be asked as a genuine question. When it is asked as such the point is to remind us that we shouldn’t expect miracles; we are responsible for all that happens in the world. This same question can be asked as a taunt. If your God is so kind, why did he allow that little girl to be raped and mutilated? Hahahahaha. You are a joke. Then there is this insistence that there is no God, and that the universe is meaningless. It is this insistence that baffles me. Especially that there is no meaning to anything. If there isn’t, is there meaning to saving the little girl?
But it isn’t obvious that disbelief in God should lead to the assertion of meaninglessness in the world- to nihilism. Sam Harris argues in the Moral Landscape that we don’t need erroneous ideas in order for us to live a fulfilling life. Like Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now he seems to argue that there are so many problems we could be solving, and there is no need to be a nihilist. Sam argues that you appreciate people here and now when you recognize that life is fleeting and there is no life after this one. Well, there is no way of knowing if there’s none after this.
I tried to walk through Sam’s idea, because I don’t want to set up a straw man. Atheism doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily lead to nihilism. The problem I find with some of us atheists is the insistence that there is no meaning to life. There is a difference between saying I don’t know if there is a meaning to life, or that I don’t accept the traditional meanings slapped on our consciousness, and the conclusion that everything is meaningless. Saying everything is meaningless is also different from saying I don’t know what this ultimately means but I will try my best to make meaning out of it. I agree with Jordan Peterson when he says meaning is found in adopting responsibility. It just hit me that Pinker’s idea that there are many problems in the world to solve so there is no need find the world meaningless is no different from adopting responsibility as posited by Jordan.
When the question- why do bad things happen to innocent people?- is asked as a genuine question and the conclusion is made that we are responsible for our own actions, there seems to be a suggestion that we don’t need God. What some of us forget is that God is an ideal, and an ideal is your judge. There are few things more profound than that. Besides, it’s almost impossible to trick ones conscience. You insult someone who didn’t deserve it and you can’t sleep half the night. Why’s that? For whatever reason there are some of us who believe that the idea of a personal God isn’t profound. We even think it’s kind of lazy. How do you chase your ideal when it isn’t close to your heart? What is wrong with praying to God when your daughter is sick or your business has royally failed and you’ve lost everything? Maybe one expects a miracle. Is that even something to taunt? I know from personal experience that one often doesn’t know what to expect. You hope for nothing. You only surrender.
I have also observed that people don’t ask why God allows good things to happen to us. End of slavery. Few wars. Democracy. Women and children’s rights. Air travel. Washing machines. Sanitary pads. The list is almost endless. It seems to be as a result of our tendency to feel negative emotions more acutely than positive ones. Or better a disrespect for the religious impulse.
Now let me address the subject proper. One of the best arguments I have heard for why God allows bad things to happen is that God has given men agency. If God performs miracles whenever men deem fit then God will be robbing men of their freedom to choose. This argument was put forward by the fallen late preacher Ravi Zacharias. He also adds no one can say an event is disastrous because we haven’t seen the end of all things. I mean you get blinded but that leads you to a richer and fuller life. I think people who make such arguments are in a privileged position. You don’t say that when you have acid poured in your face. You don’t say that when someone has senselessly run into you son with a car, killing him. Although it’s not impossible to think of how the good can arise from bad situations, it isn’t always true. And we ultimately can’t explain all the suffering in the world. That’s why I am not pretending I have the answers. Uncritical optimism can be dangerous. I haven’t listened to Ravi Zacharias a lot. But the few videos I have seen he has a method I find problematic. He tries to explain everything away even when people introduce incontrovertible scientific facts. Then he starts quoting scientists that support his position.
I think Jordan Peterson’s position is more straightforward and honest. In his Biblical Series, Noah and the Flood, he says something I find profound. We can’t blame God for what man can control. We can’t blame God for human actions, and happenings that result from our inactions. Maybe we can blame God for natural disasters, like typhoons and floods. But can we blame God when we know where we are is disaster prone? When you think about it this way, you come to the conclusion that there is incredibly little that we can blame God for. In the Book of Joy, a collaboration between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Douglas Adams who helped them write the book was worried about the settlement of Tibetans in slums close to the hills the Dalai Lama resided in India. His fear was that if there was to be a deluge so many people would die. Could we blame God if there is actually a flood, given that people turned a blind eye to the waiting disaster?
If we can’t blame God for catastrophes what then do we need him for? If all lies in our power why conceive an omnipotent being? Whatever God means, a God is an ideal. The more excellent the better. We try to get closer to being like him. That practically means reducing the suffering in the world. That means being our brothers keeper. That means carrying our cross. That means being in the world but not of the world. That means being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God.
Thank you for reading.