Evil and suffering abound. And sadly, the world consistently offers ideas for expanding our rubric in disturbing and horrific ways. From minor maladies to world-changing calamities, there’s no shortage of examples for the inquisitive among us to wonder that intractable question of old - Why?
Loss of control of vehicles leading to fatal accidents. Trees falling on houses. Shattered families from divorce or infidelity. Protests turned violent. Virulent illness stealing life. Take a moment for your mind to populate your own example.
Now, to be sure, we each could, with varying levels of detail and expertise, offer a step-by-step explanation of the examples on our list. A gale gets just enough gusto to tenderize the fibrils holding the tree in place, leading to its eventual fall, apparently in the direction of your house. Fueled by a Goldilocks tonic of ideology and the madness of crowds, individuals might find themselves moving the goalpost of a peaceful protest message to the terrorism of a riot. Like, we get it. Events have a story to be told about them from a historical or mechanistic perspective.
But, this isn’t what we are asking for with our “Why”.
Rather, we crave understanding of a purpose. A compelling, outweighing reason. A sense that an event would somehow move us closer to a telos, a goal, a beatific outcome that’s unquestionably desirable and good.
Unsurprisingly, folks have turned to God to discover, or more often than not, demand such understanding. This inquiry spans over both the cynical and sincere, each wanting the same thing. The old adage, “there’s no atheists in foxholes” trades on the idea that God would be in the business of, at least sometimes, providing good outcomes, and is worthy of a shoutout in moments of desperation, even from those who don’t expect a reply.
It is completely natural, then, to wonder what those good outcomes might be such that God would allow truly awful things to occur in order to secure them. What cosmic capital gains could be worth incurring such impressively excruciating venture debt?
Do your darndest. Focus your attention on the trouble that upsets you most and design an answer to the “Why” question. Why was this allowed to happen? What great good will come from it such that it made sense for God to not prevent it? Lengthen your telescope and try to assess the consequences of both allowing and preventing the event in question. 1 month, 1 year, 10 years from now, during the next generation.
If you’re like me, you are quickly overwhelmed by the number of variables and data points required to even make a reasonable forecast of the future - let alone the main task of assigning value (better, worse, good, bad) to those events. If our calculative apparatus of appraising good-futures on the moral stock market is so myopic, on what grounds do we blame God for mismanaging the affairs of our world?
Yet, a retort that surfaces often in my own internal debate on this is “Fine, my powers of future prediction and assessment are hopelessly limited - but that’s beside the point! Some acts are so horrendous and violating and wicked that it would be the height of vulgarity to suggest some other future good thing would outweigh it.” I can’t help but think of the darkness of the sex-trafficking industry, the involvement of children, and the abject terror and humiliation that undoubtedly occurs daily in this Hell. Surely as you read this now, there can’t be anything good that would warrant allowing it, right? God must be missing something.
But, then, I’m ripped back over the speed bumps of philosophy that are there to prevent me from unduly racing to such a hefty conclusion. I remember the philosopher’s oath to examine, to turn the gem, and look for reasons to disconfirm the argument I’ve latched onto.
I realize that I have made a moral judgment about the wickedness of sex-trafficking. The free, conscious will that I utilized to make this judgment is the same one that apparently others have used to characterize sex-trafficking as profitable instead of wicked. And this will of mine, and many other wills out there, are the only source and foundation for there being “good” at all. The good and understanding that I crave with my “Why” is only sensible in a world where there are conscious, free beings to enjoy them.
And as such, this potential for beauty and goodness is located on a double-edged blade, whose other side has the potential to unleash the grotesque and depraved into our world. You can’t have one potential without the other. Or so the “Free Will Defense” of God’s justice goes.
This of course does little in the way of an emotional salve to our souls that are forced to endure the darkness to one degree or another. But, I do find that such ideas serve as a bulwark against crippling doubt about my theism. I’m attempting to rest in the idea that pseudo-answers to my “Why” questions won’t be emotionally satisfying and other pseudo-answers don't undermine my rational confidence in the existence of God. And moreover, I'm taking steps toward my own spiritual formation through the asking of “Why”, staring evil in the face, crying out to God, and learning to trust in the absence of answers.
It may be that the answer to my “Why” is “So you can ask it”.
So keep asking I shall.
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