I don’t know. That’s the bottom line, so let’s just face it now. I don’t know. And, so far as my research has taken me, nobody else does, either. But here are some thoughts that help me make at least some sense of what God is up to.
I have concluded that we do in fact live in a good world, and “good” in two crucial respects: (1) it is a world that conduces to our benefit, and is meant by a good God to do so; and (2) it is pretty effective in conducing to our benefit.
What it isn’t, to be sure, is perfectly conducive to our happiness. If God’s main objective in creating and maintaining this world was the same as my own objective usually is—namely, to maximize happiness—then he is obviously doing a terrible job. So either we believe God is, in fact, doing a terrible job—either because he means well but is in some great measure incompetent (the argument of Harold Kushner’s bestselling When Bad Things Happen to Good People), or because he is not really as good as we are hoping he is (and resembles Zeus or Shiva instead)–or God doesn’t exist at all.
But happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World (a book that deserves better than its fate as a mandatory high school text), makes it clear that a drug-perpetuated happiness is not what most of us aspire to. And God aims higher than that, also.
God aims, in fact, much, much higher. God aims at shalom—which gets my vote as one of the best words I have ever encountered. Shalom doesn’t mean merely “peace,” but flourishing, and in every respect, along every axis. Shalom means that each individual becomes an excellent version of itself; every relationship blossoms; every group realizes its potential; and the whole cosmos relates lovingly and creatively to God […].
I realize this answer isn’t complete. I don’t understand why God lets a deer die an agonizing death in the woods (even as one of my students pointed out that the deer’s cries serve the good of warning others away from the wolf pack). I don’t understand why God doesn’t terminate the life of my mother, who is dying even as I type these words in confusion and sadness and bitterness. I don’t understand why God allows AIDS/HIV to ravage Africa, or toxic waste to pour down a Hungarian hillside, or earthquakes and floods to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions.
But I do see, if I catch my breath and look, that good does come out of these irrefutably evil situations. Sometimes, it seems, we are so resistant to doing what is right that somebody does have to die at the crosswalk for the city council to finally put in a traffic light. Sometimes, it seems, millions have to die before countries change their public health policies and drug companies change their pricing practices. And that’s not God’s fault, is it?
If God is not going to simply reach down and make us all good by sheer reprogramming, but instead wants to treat us as the freewill agents he made us to be, then he has to work with what he’s got. And I’m afraid that my own life experience shows me that I am so evil in certain respects—not all respects, of course, but some!—that if God does not resort to teaching me the hard way, I don’t learn at all.
So he does. Because he loves me. And he loves the world.
John Stackhouse (This article is part of John’s answer to why does God allow suffering in the world. For his fuller response, see here.)