THEODICY (Many Waters)
Why does God allow suffering?
In the 3rd century BC, the Greek Stoic philosopher Epicurus wrote: “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 whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
In the Adventist Fundamental Beliefs, it says that God is “immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, above all, and ever present” as well as “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Epicurus’s question, then, is unavoidable within our belief system as well.
How can God be both all-powerful and good and still allow suffering?
And what about times in the Bible – specifically in the Old Testament – where it seems to say that God directly causes death, destruction, or suffering? How can we reconcile God’s actions with the picture of God we have as loving and good?
The story of God’s condemnation of the earth and calling of Noah, the building of the Ark, and the Flood itself takes up Genesis 6 through 9:17. Some elements of it – the animals walking two-by-two into the ark, the dove with its olive branch, the rainbow – likely feel very comforting and familiar. The part where God destroys the earth and kills more than 99% of the animals and people living on it are harder to stomach.
In understanding the story of the Flood, it helps to break it into four parts: the judgment, the opportunity, the punishment, and the promise.
In the judgment portion of the narrative, God looks at the earth and sees a planet tearing itself apart. People are violent, depraved, perverted, and bent on the destruction of themselves and everyone else around them. Their hearts are filled with “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5 NIV) – so much that God is “sorry that I have made them” (v. 7). God’s response to this evil and continual: he must put them out of their misery.
The opportunity aspect of the narrative of the Flood is an extremely crucial part. Christian tradition says that Noah preached to the people around him for 120 years while he built the ark and warned them of the coming Flood. This idea comes mostly from two verses. In Genesis 6:3, God says of humankind that “his days shall be 120 years,” which some have interpreted as how many years God would allow before he destroyed the earth. In 2 Peter 2:5, Peter calls Noah “a preacher of righteousness.” Noah was building a boat roughly the same size as a modern football field. People would have noticed. They would have asked him what he was doing. Noah would have told them: the earth is in chaos. This is our only chance to escape. Trust and survive, or die..
Then comes the Flood itself: the punishment. God keeps his promises – even the devastating ones. The rains come. Mothers and fathers, children and infants, wild animals and livestock: every living thing outside of the Ark is destroyed. For 150 days, eight people and thousands of animals endure a dark, smelly boat listening as screams and cries for help disappear into the pounding rain and crashing waves. When they come out, it is to a New World. Wiped clean. Washed in water and in blood. With destruction comes new opportunity.
Then God does something important: he makes a promise. “Never again,” he vows. Even though humans murder and rape, pillage and destroy, He will never again destroy the world. From now on, humans are responsible to each other. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6). He will not send another flood.
The story of God destroying humankind for their utter wickedness ends with him affirming that all humans are made in the image of God. The cloud-covered skies of darkness and judgment are split by the symbol of God’s mercy: a rainbow. Never again, he promises. Never again.
This clip from The Record Keeper illustrates the difficult questions about justice that exist around the flood, and ultimately the affirmation that love sometimes has to get messy when it encounters evil. (Warning, some images towards the end of the video may be disturbing to some viewers.)
Was it merciful of God to offer advance warning and then destroy? Or would a truly merciful God never destroy?
Many people today claim that natural disasters are God’s judgment upon various nations for their perceived sins. Do you have a problem with this interpretation? Does it affirm or contrast the way God acts in the story of Noah? What does it imply about contemporary beliefs about God’s character?
Often in distressing or sad situations, people will try to comfort those suffering by telling them that “it’s all part of God’s plan.” What does this imply? Is it theologically sound? Is it comforting?
Do some things happen that are not part of God’s plan? Look back at our blog on the tree of knowledge of good and evil: does God sometimes allow evils even if they are not his will?
Genesis 5:6 says “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (NIV)
Would it ever be ok for God to take life away as a punishment for evil? If so, what kind of evil would that be? If not, why not?
The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis Read