“Why do bad things happen to good people?’” “If God is good, why does suffering exist?” “What does it mean?” These are questions that have been around as long as human beings have been around to ask them. And, for just as long, attempts have been made to provide a theodicy—some kind of rational explanation for the way things are, some kind of justification of God that
explains evil as part of a divine plan. As distasteful as human beings have always found suffering to be, the prospect that it might be meaningless has apparently been even less palatable.
One of the most scathing indictments of the attempt to construe evil and suffering as a necessary part of some divine plan was Voltaire’s Candide (1759). Voltaire’s famous work was a direct attack on a popular theodicy of the time, articulated by the influential philosopher Leibniz, which held that the amount and variety of evil in the world was necessary because God, being perfect and wise, would not create anything less than the best of all possible worlds. This sentiment was famously expressed in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1732):
All Nature is but Art unknown to thee; All chance direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good: And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
In 1755, only a few decades after Pope’s famous poem, the consciousness of European intellectuals was shaken to its core by a devastating earthquake in Lisbon. Even by today’s standards, the loss of life and destruction was truly astonishing. Tens of thousands perished; the city was virtually leveled. The horror and carnage of the Lisbon earthquake led Voltaire to conclude that the suffering witnessed there was not and could not be a necessary element of some kind of finely tuned divine system. The bare existence of something did not make it right. To say so represented a callous disregard for human suffering and was unworthy of God.
Candide is at times humorous, at times gruesome and grim, and at times hopeless. The main character, Candide, travels around the world, meeting circumstance after circumstance of random and senseless evil. His life is one of unrelenting despair, misery, and hopelessness, but he resolves to continue to believe his travel companion, the philosopher Pangloss (a Leibnizian figure?), that all is for the best, in this the “best of all possible worlds.”
The story is meant to highlight the absurdity of such a claim in the light of all the evil we see in the world. For Voltaire, the only solution—the only proper human response to an existence characterized by such absurd —is to “work without theorizing” for it is “the only way to make life endurable.” Candide famously ends with the protagonist’s statement, after listening to an eloquent description of how all the evil that had led to the present was justified and demonstrated God’s wonderful providence, that we must simply “cultivate our gardens.”
Part of me resists this kind of apparent hopelessness. Is this all we can do? Tend our gardens in a world where so much unnecessary and unredeemed suffering is faced by so many people? All sorts of philosophical and theological arguments and rationales begin to jostle for space in my head, some partially convincing, many not. I suppose the one theme that sustains my thinking in matters such as these is that of redemption. I agree with Voltaire—the suffering we see in the world is too random, too plentiful, too wasteful and tragic for it to all be a part of a carefully designed “divine system.” But this should not really be news to the Christian.
The biblical narrative certainly doesn’t present evil as necessary—it is an unwelcome intruder, an enemy whose defeat is promised. In a sense, the Christian is actually prohibited from considering this to be “the best of all possible worlds” for we are summoned to work towards and live according to what we believe will be a redeemed and renewed world. We see this even in the life of Jesus, who was constantly bringing goodness out of evil, calling his followers to do the same, and demonstrating this finally on a Roman cross. I do not get the sense that Jesus viewed every specific instance of evil as a necessary component of “the best of all possible worlds.” The way in which Jesus lived and died for the world allows us no illusions about the necessity of evil.
And so, yes, we tend our gardens. But we do not do so as an act of helpless resignation in the face of the absurdity of life. We do so in the hope that the glimpses of redemption that we see and participate in right now will ultimately be validated and consummated in the future God has promised.