Among the toughest questions I have been asked as a pastor is some variation of the following: Why is God allowing this to happen to me? The life situations that prompt this question can range from the relatively insignificant to the profoundly traumatic, but the brute existential fact about life on this planet is that things do not always—or even often—go as we want them to. If God is in control, and God is supposed to be good, why all this misery? Why any misery for that matter?
Christopher Hitchens, the famous atheist author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, asked similar questions in an essay written after the 2010 death of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—one of the few people to live through the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If ever there was someone who had a right to wonder about the order and goodness of the cosmos it would be Yamaguchi!
According to Hitchens, whatever else might be said about Yamaguchi’s story, it is “one of those cases that demonstrates the absolute uselessness of official piety.” Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism—all are equally worthless in preventing or altering their adherents’ experience in a world full of chaos and pain. Yamaguchi was just the victim of dumb bad luck in world devoid of purpose. There is no God presiding over the cosmos and it is foolishly naive to think so. All religion does is pile illusion upon misery. The only proper response to the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi—or any of the horrors of history—is (pardon Hitchens’s indelicate terminology) “WTF?”
What Hitchens seems not to realize is that “WTF?” isn’t all that original a response to the problem of evil. In fact, it’s a downright religious one. It’s even a biblical one. The Psalms of lament frequently express bewilderment, frustration, and anger at the apparent triumph of evil over good.
Psalm 6:1-3, for example, says this:
How long, O LORD Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.
Or how about Psalm 74:9-13?
We are given no miraculous signs;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Many other examples could be cited within the Psalter alone, to say nothing of books like Job and Lamentations. Hitchens’s protest is neither new nor unique to modern atheism.
While the biblical writers may not phrase things as crudely as Hitchens, the questions they ask are the same: Why don’t the good guys win more often? Why isn’t there a more obvious connection between virtue and blessing? Why is hardship so indiscriminately distributed (a question Hitchens has, tragically, become intimately acquainted with in his ongoing battle with esophageal cancer that began mere months after the publication of this article)? Why doesn’t the state of the world make more moral sense to us? What’s wrong here?
For Hitchens, WTF? is “one of the most pressing, relevant, and ultimately humane” questions we can ask. And indeed, it is. I think the Hebrew poets would agree. I think they would move on, though, to say that it is a question that can only be coherently asked within a worldview where we have good reasons to expect things to be better than they are.
Sometimes we have to recognize that this life simply does not make much sense, no matter how much we believe in God. If I were God, this life would be so different, but I am not Him.
I think many of us would arrange things differently if we were God—including Mr. Hitchens. There is indeed so much that doesn’t make sense…
I guess one of the main questions the post is asking is what are the theological/anthropological/ethical assumptions necessary for the protest against senselessness to get off the ground. It doesn’t help with the “why is there evil” question, but maybe it can at least clarify what’s going on in the act of protesting against the evil we see.
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Ryan: How is the new job/home. We wish you God’s Blessings! Your Psalm 6 quote reminds me of the Brian Doerksen somg “How Long”.
Doing great, Anne. Thanks for asking.
the universe is exactly as we could expect it would be without a god
and since the god that many beleive in does not result in a fair world
what’s the point of believing in a god that is either unwilling or unable to make the world fair?
of believing in a god that requires blind obedience and faith in the face of apparent absence at best and actual non-existence at worse
if god created the universe and then is carrying out some version of the Star Trek prime directive of non-interferance – then we cannot look to or wait for god to solve our problems, because solutions will not be forthcoming
we have to solve them ourselves and we only delay working on those resolutions by trying to continue to include this absentee god as part of the solution
because the solution is down to humans to resolve
and that god, if there is one, will continue to wait
Re: the universe is exactly as we could expect it would be without a god
How do we know what a god-less universe would be like?
Re: god doesn’t give us a fair world, so what’s the point of believing in a god that is either unwilling or unable to make the world fair?
Well, I would begin by simply saying that the Christian hope is that one day God will make the world fair, and in the mean time, human beings are gifted and called by God to do what we can toward that end.
It’s also important to note that we are not the first people to experience an unfair world, nor did we discover that the hope toward which we believe history is moving has not yet been realized. People of religious conviction have always lived with the reality of a world that does not yet look as it ought to.
What is the point of “believing in God?” Well, not much if it stops at intellectual or cognitive assent. I prefer to use the language of “following Jesus”—loving God, loving neighbour, giving sacrificially, caring for the poor, tending the earth’s resources responsibly and gratefully… all of these things and more are part of what I see as the religious task, and all contribute, however incrementally and/or inconsistently, to making a better world.
Re: we can’t look to or wait for god to solve our problems, because solutions will not be forthcoming
Of course human beings should work to solve our own problems. There is nothing contradictory about believing that God will one day right the wrongs of history and working diligently in the meantime for the good of humanity and the world. That’s actually what many people think God has told us to do.
Re: we only delay working on those resolutions by trying to continue to include this absentee god as part of the solution
Or, God is not absent at all, but the very reason why we desire the good that we do, and are motivated to work so diligently to pursue it.
right the wrongs of history?
are you saying that this reality is just marking time until your god waves his hand and changes the past?
I hadn’t anticipated seeing something that would make life seem even more pointless coming from a religious POV if it were true
It’s bad enough that religions seem to hold that life is a dress rehearsal for the afterlife – but to suggest that the history of humanity could be re-written, changed – as if nothing we’ve been through and learned from (or not had had to repeat until we did), then means anything when god has the power of white out
I have to wonder then, if your god wants things in a particular way, why allow the universe and humans to be any way other than what he wants.
if free will is only the option to not beleive in god, but god can correct that at any time, it’s not free will
I didn’t say anything about changing the past, white-outs, re-writing humanity, etc. All I meant when I said “right the wrongs of history” was that the Christian hope has always been for redemption—that what is good and true will go on, that evil will be judged, and the wounds of our planet and its people will be healed. This is nothing new. I realize this quite likely seems ludicrous, from your perspective, but I would at least like to be clear what I am not saying (and did not say).
Why does God allow things to contradict his will? I don’t know. I’m not God. I suppose God figured human freedom was worth the price. When I see the staggering evil we are capable of as human beings, I often think I would have figured differently. But I, personally, would rather live with the mystery of a God who allows evil as a consequence of freedom than the mystery of how a creature who arrives at the end of an amoral, dysteleological process cannot help but think in terms of purpose and morality.