This article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. That paper paved the way for other papers in which I expressed open theistic views, two of which (“God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom” and “From Everlasting to Everlasting”) will also appear here. Shorter and longer versions of the paper appeared as articles in the February 1998 issue of “Good Tidings” (the official publication of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador) and a few years later in Bob’s Corner at Suite101.com. I’ve consulted them in preparing the paper for sharing here.
“O God, why did you let Esther die? Was it because you couldn’t help her or was it because you wouldn’t help her? Whichever–I don’t think much of you! Of what value is a God who either can’t or won’t help His children when they need Him?” Such were the questions that my anguished heart poured out to God after my first wife’s death from complications following successful open-heart surgery in 1971.
Both during my wife’s months in various hospitals and after her death, well-meaning Christian friends offered many words of consolation to me. Although at least one suggested that God’s not healing her indicated some shortcoming by her or me, either of insufficient faith or of actual sin, most were encouraging. Some focused on the thought that God knows and brings about what is best for His children and others, after her death, talked about how much happier she must be now that she was in heaven and free of her suffering.
However, none of these suggestions proved satisfying to me. The first I felt had long ago been shown by the book of Job to be inadequate to explain the sufferings of the righteous, which Esther certainly was both in faith and in practice. The other two I did not think fit the circumstances. How was it better for a young woman who loved life to be dead, even if it meant being in heaven, than to be alive and enjoying the life that God had given her here? How was it better for her little girl and her husband to be left motherless and wifeless than to enjoy the love and care of a good mother and wife? I could not (and, 41 years later, still cannot) accept the view that Esther died because of her or my shortcomings or the view that she died because God saw that her death was best for her or for her family.
With no answers coming from God or from friends to ease my grief, I found myself praying, “O God, if You are really there. . . .” But the faith in Jesus Christ that had been an integral part of me since my childhood since childhood kept me from denying him. Yet I continued to question His letting Esther die. To try to find an answer, I read whatever I could regarding God’s allowing evil in the world that He had made.
One of the ideas that I encountered in my reading was that maybe God was limited in power or in will to prevent evil. For it is possible that God is limited in power to prevent evil. Perhaps He is but one in a group of tribal gods, each supporting his particular people in their relationships with others and thus bringing good to his people and evil to their enemies. Or, perhaps He is one of two opposing forces, He being good and the other evil, who have involved us in their ongoing struggle with each other. Or, perhaps He, as the only or chief god, is responsible for our being created but is unable to control His creation. All of these view–polytheism, dualism, and finitism, respectively–have been held by religious groups or thinkers.
And it is possible that God is limited in will to prevent evil. Perhaps He made the world so that He could play with His creation as I used to play with my toy soldiers when I was a boy, finding pleasure in their sufferings as well as in their happy experiences. Or, perhaps, indifferent to what would happen to His creatures, He is busy at something else or taking a rest, as Elijah mockingly suggested to the prophets of Baal that their god might be doing (I Kings 18:27). Although few have seriously believed God to be a cosmic sadist, the viewpoint that He is uninvolved in the operation of the universe that He created was argued for by deists.
However, my belief in God’s existence was based on my faith in Jesus Christ and he clearly believed in a God unlimited in power and in goodness. For example, he told his disciples, “With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27), and the rich young ruler, “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). This ruled out my accepting that God is limited in power or in will to prevent evil. It also brought me face to face with what scholars term the “problem of evil”: if God is all-powerful, He can prevent evil; if God is wholly good, He wants to prevent evil; thus if God is all-powerful and wholly good, evil shouldn’t exist; however it does exist.
In my search for a solution to my problem, I discovered that several theodicies, attempts to justify God’s allowing the existence of evil, have been proposed by Christian thinkers. Amongst them are the aesthetic, the soul-building, and the free will defences. According to the first view, evil is permitted by God in order that good may stand out as beautiful in contrast to it. According to the second view, evil is permitted by God so that humans will develop morally in confrontation with it. And, according to the third view, evil is due to the bad use by humans of the freedom given to them by God. Because the free will defence seemed to me to be the most consistent with traditional Christian theology, I narrowed my search for a solution to the problem of evil to a consideration of it.
The free will defence is rooted in the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man. According to that account, God made the first man and the first woman “in his own image” (1:27). However, unlike Him, they did not “know good and evil” (3:6,22). God provided them opportunity for such by commanding them not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” at the same time warning them that they would “surely die” if they did eat of it (2:17). Tempted by the serpent (Satan, according to Revelation 20:2), Adam and Eve disobeyed, bringing moral and physical evil into man’s world (chapter 3). Thus, evil exists in the world, according to the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man, because God gave man a choice between obeying or disobeying Him and man chose to disobey Him.
Why would God give man a such a choice, knowing that man could choose to disobey Him, thus bringing evil into the perfect world that He had created? Certainly, being all-powerful, He not only could have prevented introduction of evil into the human world but also could banish it from our world or at least make a new home for us where it could not enter (Revelation 21-22). And, surely, being wholly good, He did not and does not want evil. The answer to this question, according to the proponents of the free will defence, is that God wanted to create the best possible world that He could and a world containing free, moral creatures is better, all else being equal, than a world not containing free moral creatures. Accordingly, God created a world in which there originally existed no evil and He created human beings capable of free moral choice.
Knowing that mankind, rather than God, is responsible for humanity’s miserable condition, did not completely removed my complaint against God. As the Bible and history reveal, God has intervened and continues to intervene for His children in answer to their prayers to Him. Why didn’t He answer our prayers for Esther? I still can’t answer that question. However I no longer bewail Esther’s death or even seek a reason for God’s allowing it.
Why not? Because meditation upon the Son of God’s voluntarily laying aside His divine life in Heaven to enter our world as a human and to suffer the most agonizing of deaths on the cross of Calvary–so that mankind might be reconciled with His Father and have an inner peace now and a place in Heaven in the future–has impressed upon me how much God cares about us. Moreover, God gave my daughter and me a good life together and when it was time for her to leave home gave me a new wife and blessed her and me with two children. Surely if He would do all this for me, I should be willing to accept Esther’s death as part of her and my life in this world and to trust Him “that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).
In my next post I’ll consider the fifth (and final) point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.