by Richard W. Coffen | 8 July 2022 |
One Sabbath, my pastor decided to dabble in apologetics. “Why doesn’t God intervene to override bad things?” he asked.
First, he proposed that God chooses not to interfere with our use of free will, which he has given us. We can opt to worship on Saturdays or Sundays—or both! We can choose whom to marry. We can remain faithful to our spouse or not. We can testify to, or distort the facts, in court.
Similarly, God established natural laws and refuses to meddle with them so that you and I can lead normal and even predictable lives. We can walk, skip, and jump on terra firma. We can drive to church or anywhere else without the vehicle exploding. Astronauts can be safely transported to the International Space Station and back. We can watch TV. The new James Webb telescope can provide extra-sharp photos of distant space objects.
To that assertion, I muttered to myself: Amen! For these and other reasons, I consider myself to be a semi-deist or, as I like to call myself, a “deitheist.”
Also, my pastor seemed to indicate that the reason bad things happen is because we make bad choices.
This was harder for me. Perhaps I misunderstood what he said or what he meant.
It was then that I said to myself: Boo! It isn’t that my pastor was entirely wrong that our choices matter, but that such explanations fall short of reality and can be badly misinterpreted. My mind went back to September 18, 2006, when John Hagee declared that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans because a parade had been organized for and by LGBQT people.
The theological discipline of theodicy (defending God in the face of evil) deserves more thorough treatment than what I write in about these few words. Indeed, theologians such as Fritz Guy and T. Richard Rice could run theological circles around me before I could finish keying in my first sentence.
Nonetheless, I offer here my own modest apologia.
It is true that we can bring bad consequences upon ourselves because of our behavior.
On Saturday, September 15, 2020, a 43-year-old driver crashed his black Chevy Tahoe into the rear of a fire engine in Phoenix, Arizona. The crumpled Tahoe caromed into a light pole before coming to an abrupt stop. The unnamed driver was arrested for driving under the influence. The person’s bad behavior caused bad effects—to the Tahoe, to the fire truck, and to the intoxicated driver.
What do evangelist A. A. Allen, senator Joseph McCarthy, country music star Hank Williams, actor Richard Burton, pop singer Janis Joplin, author and poet Edgar Allen Poe, writer and dramatist Sinclair Lewis, novelist and screenwriter Truman Capote, and country music singer Keith Whitley have in common? All died from drinking too much alcohol. Their bad behavior caused bad effects—their deaths, and sadness among loved ones.
In 1939, Alton Ochsner, M.D. reported research indicating that smoking caused the effect of lung cancer. Scientific studies followed, amid opposition from the cigarette industry and attacks from fellow medical practitioners. Additional research affirmed a cause-and-effect relationship.
By the 1950s, it became clear that Ochsner’s findings had been supported by other researchers. He, Michael DeBakey, and Paul DeCamp wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association: “There is a distinct parallelism between the sale of cigarettes and the incidence of bronchogenic carcinoma.” They predicted (correctly) that deaths from lung cancer would continue to mushroom as long as people maintained the bad habit of smoking.
But not always
On Wednesday night, February 12, 1941, my parents made love. Roughly 280 days later, I was born. What are the odds that one of George’s sperm would unite with one of Dorothy’s ova? Scientists estimate the probability of [my] being born at about one in 400 trillion.
I was a colicky baby. Night after night Daddy and Mommy took turns pacing the floor with me until I would finally nod off. During my childhood years, I had frequent gastric issues. Then in June of 1963, I got really sick. It took several years before the problem was diagnosed: ulcerative colitis. From then on, I underwent some 60 colonoscopies.
What bad thing(s) did Mother and Dad do to produce a colicky baby who ended up with ulcerative colitis and high-grade dysplasia? What bad thing(s) did I do as a zygote, embryo, or fetus in Mother’s womb to cause my GI problem(s)? Ulcerative colitis is among the more-than-100 kinds of autoimmune diseases. I wanted to list these afflictions, but that would use up too many of the assigned 2,000 words.
Putin has sent troops into Ukraine. According to some estimates, as many as 11,000 to 15,000 of these Russian soldiers have already died in combat. Additionally, about 3,000 Ukrainian combatants have fallen in battle. Oh, nearly 2,800 Ukrainian citizens have been killed. Estimates are that 6,600,000 Ukrainians have been displaced. Assuming Apostle Paul’s assertion that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), can we conclude that all these casualties (on both sides) were bad people who deserved bad things to happen to them?
Everyone, it seems, loves and respects Wanda, a member of our congregation. We’re all praying for her. She has been diagnosed as having pancreatic cancer that has metastasized. Wanda is undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. What did Wanda do to get pancreatic cancer?
The problem with cause and effect
As Scottish philosopher David Hume explained, determining cause-and-effect phenomena can be so difficult as to be impossible. All we can know with certainty is that one event followed upon the other. Maybe Hume overstates the case; nonetheless, most all of us have experienced the difficulty of positing a cause for a specific effect.
Perhaps we take our cue from Romans 5:12—”Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned”—concluding that dire effects have followed the cause produced by the biblical first sin (Genesis 3:1-6). Did eating the forbidden fruit produce the effect of all the suffering that’s plagued the lives of the 51,000,000,000 humans who have populated Planet Earth ever since?
How, though, can we logically get from two people munching verboten fruit to fratricide and ultimately to the sinfulness of all Homo sapiens except Jesus of Nazareth? Where are the logical connections?
Have neonates done bad things immediately upon exiting birth canals? Why do 4 out of every 1,000 neonates die? Don’t tell those grieving parents that either they or their newborn had done bad things, and as a result, their neonatal infant died! Jesus proffered an answer to that: “Neither” (John 9:3).
According to the US Geological Survey, approximately 500,000 earthquakes happen every year on Planet Earth. The slipping of tectonic plates along fault lines causes them, not people nearby who had done bad things.
Something similar occurs along the “Ring of Fire,” where volcanos erupt when molten rock piles up beneath the crust of Planet Earth. After sufficient pressure mounts, the molten magma erupts. These eruptions, which cause $1,000,000,000 of damage annually are not effects caused by an angry Tūtū Pele or by people doing bad things!
Each year, approximately 1,200 tornados spiral across the United States. That number is four times more than those that blow across Europe. More violent tornados (EF4 or EF5) bring destruction in America than occur in any other country on Planet Earth! Are these windstorms, which cause $17,000,000,000 of damage yearly, the effect of bad behavior on the part of citizens in mid-America, and are the people elsewhere in the world less evil?
We understand that a cause-and-effect relationship is involved in these and other bad events—but those causes are not the evil behaviors of bad people! Some events occur because that’s what happens, and not from some bad cause that had been perpetrated by bad persons.
Who is responsible?
Theologians who agree with John Calvin add a specific cause for all evil effects: that God in his omnipotence and sovereignty has decreed in advance every happening that will ever take place. Calvin was not stupid, but he found biblical assertions which pushed him to the conclusion that God has predestined every single event—good or bad, such as the fall of humankind into sin (Institutes, Book 3, chapter XXIII, section 8).
Jacobus Arminius, who laid the groundwork for later Methodism, saw matters differently. He argued that God knew each event that would ever happen. His divine knowledge results from his omniscience rather than from omnipotence.
Either way, in these philosophies the future is frozen. It’s inevitable, according to Calvin, because our omnipotent God decreed it. Or, it is inevitable, according to Arminius, as long as God has perfect knowledge of past, present, and future.
In recent decades another theological perspective has been proposed by some Protestant and Catholic theologians. Seventh-day Adventist theologian T. Richard Rice has named this perspective “openness of God theology.” God, according to the “openness” theologians, can do everything that is an object of power. However, some things are not objects of power because, for instance, they are self-contradictory. God cannot create a rock so big that he cannot budge it.
Likewise, God knows everything that is an object of knowledge. However, some matters are not objects of knowledge, such as remembering sins God promised to forget, or knowing how a person with free will shall choose in each circumstance.
The temptation to postulate that bad behaviors cause bad effects appears again and again—from pulpits, books, and well-meaning theodicies. These attempts to defend God can sound appealing. In reality, though, they are appalling to those suffering the effects personally.
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.