Freedom is part of God’s creation — it can, and does, go awry

Will Covid-19 affect people’s religious faith? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Will Covid-19 affect people’s religious faith? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Why do bad things happen to good people, asks Adam Dodds.

At the start of the lockdown a journalist asked me, "Will Covid-19 challenge people’s faith?"

This question implies that human suffering, in its many manifestations, is problematic to faith. Is it? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Covid-19 has raised this age-old question again. Yet grappling with suffering isn’t merely academic; it is intensely personal. Often the best response is companionship, empathy, and listening.

Nonetheless, it is quintessentially human to try to make sense of what is going on. The "why suffering?" question is challenging for everybody’s worldview to address. In her recent book Where is God in all the Suffering?, Dr Amy Orr-Ewing contrasts how worldviews governed by karma, fatalism, and naturalism differently answer this question, before showing the unique response offered by Christian faith.

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" raises the question of God’s relationship to the world.

God’s decision to create gave the world the "space to be: to be other and particular" (Colin Gunton). God gave the creation a kind of autonomy such that, when on the seventh day God rested, creation went on.

"God did not have to keep pushing it along all the time," says Lesslie Newbigin. God has granted creation a genuine sense of becoming, a momentum, including the freedom to self-propagate and develop. Flora and fauna reproduce by their own creaturely processes, not by the direct action of God.

Therefore, not everything happens by the direct action of God. God is not omni-controlling, saying yes or no to everything that happens.

Creation’s freedom to become, to evolve, includes the tectonic plates moving, and organisms — including viruses — reproducing, multiplying, and evolving. This is all part of creation’s freedom to become.

Therefore, "Why did God create or allow Covid-19?" is the wrong question.

A better question is: "Why are there viruses at all?"

According to epidemiologist Prof Tony Goldberg, "If all viruses suddenly disappeared, the world would be a wonderful place for about a day and a-half, and then we’d all die."

He continues, "All the essential things they do in the world far outweigh the bad things."

Viruses mutate, and many of these mutations are helpful, but some are harmful.

The Bible describes creation as being "subjected to frustration", "in bondage to decay", and one day "the creation itself will be liberated" (Romans 8). There is mystery here. Nevertheless, biblically, creation is not currently as God intends it to be, including the horrible suffering caused by this pandemic.

God’s gift of freedom to creation is also given to humans. Why? By God’s design, human freedom serves the purpose of love. The New Testament teaches, "You have been called to live in freedom. Use your freedom to serve one another in love."

But freedom is risky. Why did God give humans free will knowing we could and would misuse it?

"Because", says C. S. Lewis, "free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having."

In short, bad things happening to good people is a result of the freedom of creation, including human freedom, gone awry.

God desires a world in which people love God and each other; love is the reason and goal of creation. Suffering, then, "is, in effect, the metaphysical price God must pay" to arrive at this goal, says theologian Greg Boyd. Since suffering is so widespread and awful, creation is not currently as God intends it. The Lord’s Prayer puts it, "Your kingdom come; Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven."

God’s will is often not being done, hence the prayer.

A Christian response also includes protest. Large chunks of the Bible, not least the Psalms and Job, contain God-inspired protest at earthly suffering.

Where is God in all this? Decidedly not reclining in some cosmic spectators’ gallery. God the Son enters creation as Jesus of Nazareth, fully human. Jesus repeatedly enacts God’s will by relieving people of their suffering. How? Through healing, action for justice, including the excluded, and feeding the hungry.

Jesus also wept, grieving with those who grieve. He was "a man of suffering, familiar with pain".

God doesn’t minimise or justify our suffering; he shares in it. Dr Orr-Ewing says "God is actually prepared to bear the cost of love, which is pain, himself."

In his final act of love, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified. Quantum physicist John Polkinghorne explains: "The Christian God is not a compassionate spectator, looking down in sympathy on the sufferings of the world; the Christian God is truly the ‘fellow sufferer who understands’, for in Christ God has known human suffering and death from the inside. The Christian God is the Crucified God."

God does not cause or specifically allow our suffering, but on the cross God does take responsibility for creation gone astray.

Jesus is called Emmanuel, God with us. He is with us in our pain and suffering. Furthermore, he conquered suffering and death through his bodily resurrection from the dead.

Life, not death, has the last word.

All who follow Jesus, which begins by identifying with his death and resurrection through baptism, share in this same hope and experience this same life.

 - Dr Adam Dodds is a senior pastor at the Elim Church, Dunedin.

Comments

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The most interesting thing to me about Dr Dodd's opinion is that had he expressed it 150 years ago he likely would have been excommunicated and some would have been calling for his burning at the stake There are many today, who are believers in his God, who would see him as an agent of the devil for expressing such thoughts
He allows for a God who does not directly control his creation and allows for occurrences, or evolutionary failures or mistakes that result in harm to his greatest creation, made in his own image, mankind.
It brings to mind the question posed by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?
It is an ancient question and is not answered by Dr Dodd's piece above, indeed greater minds than his, or mine, have been grappling unsuccessfully with it for aeons.
I'm sure the discussion will continue for aeons to come.

Taking your comments as 'Devil's advocacy', it is remarkable to conceive of heretic burnings in the late C19TH, even if Dunedin held a medieval Presbyterian trial in 1968.

Religion is for people who're afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who've already been there.

Nice article. Most Christians have been anesthetized to the base idea of the cross as a torture device, a place of ultimate suffering. The symbology has been lost. Crassus is a good reminder. Upon conquering Spartacus's slave army in 80odd BC Crassus had 6000 captured prisoners crucified alive, one every 100m along the roads south of Rome.

Great evil enables greater good. This is the "cunning of reason", by Hegel. Good bubbles up. On the other hand, Martin Luther, thought that his evil acts (his lust) were due to his "enslaved will". In that God made him a bestial adulturer. This introduced a mad idea into the Christian doctrine, from which it is still suffering.

"God doesn’t minimise or justify our suffering; he shares in it. Dr Orr-Ewing says "God is actually prepared to bear the cost of love, which is pain, himself."

No, he revels in it really. A human sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins? Enteral damnation if you don't believe?... That's the vast majority of humanity condemned. An all powerful god should have no problem making sure everyone knows of his existence, but for some reason he chose to convey his message via a carpenter in a small village in a primitive culture.

Then there are biblical stories of his murderous rampages: the flood being the most obvious. He drowns everything: babies, children, all other life, because he couldn't think of a better way to punish humanity for breaking rules he made up, despite knowing they would the moment he made them. Nice.

And yes, viruses are a challenge to the theory god is 'all loving.' They are an integral part of the world as it has evolved. But surely an all knowing god could figure out a way to avoid them? Or how about a method of cellular division that doesn't glitch and give kids cancer? Or perhaps a world without parasites?

Hull! Vrais, the crucible, or 'testing'. Mais, it is the atavistic need for Religion that makes us call it 'Spirituality'. Not so fuddy duddy, and we can add Eastern elements, astrology, the Tarot, Nords, naturopathy, meditation not contemplation, relaxing music, all for just $200 a session.

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