How can I believe in God, when so many innocent people suffer?

Drug Addict laying on the floor in agony, having an addiction crisis
The question people most often ask me is, “How can I believe in God, when so many innocent people suffer?” Those who ask it typically want to believe in God, but feel that the fact of innocents suffering leaves them no choice but to remain in their skepticism.

So the question begins with the assumption that God does not exist. It says, “I do not believe in God. Reconcile for me God’s existence with the suffering of innocents, and then perhaps I will.”

Those who already believe in God, such as myself, come at this question in a slightly different way. For us the question is, “Why does God allow innocent people to suffer?” While that question seems identical to the first, it isn’t exactly.

This second version of this question—the believer’s version of it—has an answer. Once one chooses to believe in God (a choice no more or less reasonable than the choice to believe there is no God), the problem of innocents suffering is resolved.

The alpha and omega of that resolution is trust. Speaking personally, I trust God. In every sense of the word, I believe in God. I believe that God is beneficent, merciful, and kind. I believe that God is, in a word, good.

So I start by taking to heart what John the Divine tells us (at 1 John 4:8): God is love.

In addition to being love, God is eternal.

As the Christian view of reality has it, the essence of every person—their spirit—is also eternal.

If a person is eternal, then their time here on earth, when compared to their total time of existence, lasts about as long as a hiccup.

So we have God, who is eternal; and we have each of us, also eternal. And during the time that we are alive on earth we are separated from God.

And during that time of separation, a lot of terrible things can happen to us.

But inevitably comes the day when death arrives at our side, takes our shaking hand, and leads us back to eternal God.

And when that happens we are reborn into our eternal selves.

When that happens we are comforted. We are restored. We are saved.

When that happens we will, from the vantage point of eternity, see and understand what we cannot possibly now. We will then see that everything is always working toward the good—no matter how bad whatever is happening here on earth might seem to us at the time.

When we are with God in the afterlife, we will know that all, after all, is perfectly fine. That everything is okay.

As Paul the Apostle put it: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

To be clear, none of this means that I’m okay with anyone suffering. I’m not, and fully embrace my moral obligation to do all that I can to alleviate any suffering that I can. And I certainly do not believe that it is God’s will that anyone suffer. What I believe is that God allows people to cause suffering in others, because his love for all of us prohibits him from violating the free will of any of us.

Relative to eternity all human suffering is over in the blink of an eye, and the moment we pass from this life to the next God comforts and restores us. (For we are all suffering innocents.) That is what I believe. I believe it because I believe that the figure known to history as Jesus Christ was God incarnate. And to believe that, I have only to locate within myself the special, expansive, integrated-with-the-universe feeling that we all have inside of ourselves, and identify it as the same Holy Spirit about which Jesus (in John 14) said:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. … the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

I connect The Good within me to God, accept the story of Jesus Christ as true—and voila: I am no longer so burdened by the suffering of others that I become hopeless, bitter, and pessimistic. Instead I am able to proceed with hope, peace, and the joy that comes from knowing that the show we’re all in now is only the beginning, and that the best is yet to come.

(Believing in the best of Christianity does not mean that I must also accept—much less believe in—the worst of it. To prove that I wrote the fourteen tenets for the group Unfundamentalist Christians.)

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  • Janet

    Oh dear. I find I am in disagreement with you, John, for the first time! Here’s the thing. We humans restrict other people’s free will all the time. With laws. And when someone breaks a law, we put them in jail. (Or something.) Some will come back to say that God has laws as well, but then say that we’re free to break those laws, with no apparent consequence until the afterlife. Sorry, that just doesn’t do it for me.

    It has been said that God is either all-loving, or all-powerful, but can’t be both. In my 56th year, I have to agree. I believe that God is all-loving. But all-powerful? Not in any meaningful way, in my experience. Because if God “can” but “won’t” stop evil things from happening, then God isn’t all-loving. The argument that us little humans just don’t understand, that God is ineffable and we should just accept on faith that it will all be ok in the end, is bullshit. Especially in the post-Holocaust age.

    Stopping evil is up to us. Like the song says, “God has no hands on earth but yours.” We have to stop evil. And if people won’t obey reasonable laws (e.g., don’t rape, don’t murder) then we take action to limit the exercise of their free will. We do it all the time. Can we be better at it, wiser in its execution, better at peace and justice? Of course. But at least we’re trying. Which is more than I can say about an all-powerful god who doesn’t.

  • Thank you for this post. I am not the evangelical that I was raised to be. I often call myself a Christian Agnostic. That’s because while I lost my dogma I still believe the reality of the source of all life putting on human flesh and actually participating in the life and death struggle is the greatest analogy of love there this. Not to put an “S” on his chest and fly into the burning building. But, to love enough to sit down beside us in the burning building. That’s love. Yet, I have real issues with the image of an angry old man in the sky or virgin births or bodies walking around after they have died and decayed. I don’t know what we will be, but when he appears we will be like him. Maybe, I’m just trying to intellectualize the dogma of my youth and dress it up. But, I think and believe that God will indeed reconcile all things and that nothing is ever eternally lost. I guess I’ll find out someday. 🙂

  • Janet: You’re disagreeing with what you think I said, as opposed to anything I actually did say. I’m slow, but not so slow that I’d ever claim that people don’t restrict other people’s free will. Of course they do.

  • Tim Northrup

    You see, what that argument presumes, and what John’s does as well, is that Suffering doesn’t have a positive purpose. the thing is, it has many. It prevents us from hurting ourselves, drives us to think of others, reminds us of our limits, and creates consequences for our actions: Sometimes those consequences are borne by others, sometimes by ourselves. Suffering makes the reality that we change the world inescapable.

    Then, Janet, there is the problem you have with Free Will, which is a less easy one. Suffice it to say that anything but willful submission to God would, in my mind, and in the mind of most of the thinking people I know on the subject, amount to the co-opting of that person by God. If God were to punish us or force us to do good, it would, in essence, change or eliminate our very being. We humans use laws to protect ourselves because we are also frail and because we conveniently can’t directly modify the person’s spirit by our imposition of “law”.

    Now, we can do great violence to one another and damage each other in that way, I can’t tell my best friend he shouldn’t date person X or should by cereal Y and have that suddenly become his fervent desire of the heart. He may think about it, he may even take my advice, but I can not make the choice for him. God imposing his law on earth would be doing that–making the choice for us. Once he does that, he loses children and partners and friends and gains slaves or robots or automotons.

  • Tim: No, my argument does not presume that suffering doesn’t have a positive purpose. If anything I said exactly the opposite.


  • mike moore

    Dear John, and I use the word “dear” not in a rote fashion … you are a dear soul.

    You and I have had this discussion, in some ways, and I don’t think we need to get back on that merry-go-round … but I wish you had addressed the notion of a “personal God.” I say that not as an aggressive challenge, but more in a sense of, “you’re a wise man* and teacher, so please tell us more … ”

    I used to believe in a personal God, one who concerned himself with each of our lives. I used to believe in a God who, at some level, might be active in our lives. I think many Christians, when they pray, believe God Himself may intercede. However, looking around the world and at the human condition, I don’t see that.

    I see love. I see evil. I see a dumbfoundingly explosively beautiful universe, Divinely created. What I don’t see is a god who is still active in this world.

    Yes, one’s life here may be an infinitesimal point on the Mobius loop of our lives … but shouldn’t we be able to depend that God understands that a split-second, for those in real pain, can also feel like an eternity?


    * would have been so easy to type “wise guy” … see, even I can resist the occasional temptation. (Of course, I suppose the fact of this footnote means I did fall prey to temptation, yet again.)

  • vini

    Your assertion that “God is good” is a bit odd to me. Is this the same God who once wiped out all of humanity, babies and children included? Who once deemed picking up sticks on the sabbath worthy of death? Who advocated slavery? Who is supposedly capable of stopping all suffering but instead sits back watching? Is there anything so flagrantly at odds with our understanding of what is objectively bad that you will not excuse God from? If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God.

  • mike moore

    “Not to put an “S” on his chest and fly into the burning building. But, to love enough to sit down beside us in the burning building. That’s love.”

    Worth repeating. Worth remembering. Thank you, Stephen.

  • Elizabeth

    Huh. God wants us to rape children. Interesting premise. Please elaborate.

  • Lymis

    John can answer for himself, but my answer is no, not the same God – because those things didn’t happen. The Bible is the record written by men about their understanding of their relationship with God. It necessarily included their own understandings of how things like vengeance work.

  • Elizabeth

    Because I’m not sure you get big words.

  • Lymis

    Janet, this is like saying that a loving parent will step in to make sure their kids win every Monopoly game by passing out extra money, make sure they win every sport by allowing a do-over any time they don’t get the result they want, and so on.

    We know what kind of adults such children grow up to become – and it isn’t pretty. Why should God fix everything for us here, when it is our job as human beings to do things right, and make things right wherever we go wrong.

    It WILL be all okay in the end, just like the losers in the Monopoly game or the little league game will still be okay, and everyone will get invited to hot dogs and ice cream equally. It isn’t invalidating the reality of the game, nor the fact of the loss, to understand that the very real consequences have very limited scope.

    And one thing we don’t know is what the consequences to us will be if we choose to be crappy people while we are hear on earth. All of Hitler’s victims are with God, and in one sense, nothing that was eternal about them was damaged. In the eternal sense, they had experiences, but weren’t destroyed. That doesn’t make what Hitler did “okay”- but it does mean that it didn’t have eternal consequences to the victims. How his choices affected him in an eternal sense is an entirely different question. And it has nothing to do with the response that those of us who are still alive have to take, by the rules of “the game” we are still in the middle of, if someone else were to try to do the same sorts of horrible things (as, sadly, people are.)

    It isn’t a failure of love for a parent to stop a child from going bankrupt in Monopoly. As John points out, taken as a period out of all eternity, the most horrific human lifetime is a blip in comparison to the amount of time losing at monopoly is within a human lifespan.

    Yes, stopping evil absolutely is up to us, and we’re responsible for our choices to do so or not to. But those choices fall to us as humans because it’s what humans are here to do. Humans limiting other humans’ choices is not the same as God stepping in to make everything fluffy and comfy. That’s a different level of reality.

  • Janet

    Sure. But then why doesn’t God?

  • Janet

    Well, I don’t think I’m saying that at all. Giving a child extra monopoly money is not at all the same thing as locking up a murderer so he can’t murder again.

    And being a victim of violence isn’t anything like having ice cream after losing a monopoly game.

  • Sharon Smith

    John, a professional writer once said, “The book the writer writes, is not the book the reader reads.” Meaning we all read through a lens of personal experience. So I hope I really did read what you wrote.

    Janet: Free will is a two way street, God gives us “Free Will” and with that comes a responsibility to use our “Free Will” to try to keep the Bad Things away from us. We have a choice, we can do terrible awful things, or we can love our neighbor enough to try to stop bad things from happening.

    It’s not God’s responsibility to stop murders or child rapists. It is our responsibility to stop those things, that is why he gave us brains enough to see that we need laws.

  • vini,

    I think God or the gods have been getting the credit/blame for the things that should rest solely on the shoulders of man. It has been said, “God or the gods commanded.” but is that really who made the decisions to do these things?

  • If people exist, why do they allow other people to suffer. The fact that people suffer, and that people can stop the suffering of others proves that if people suffer, then people must not exist. It certainly proves that if people do exist, they are not good, because they allow others to suffer.

    To me the question is not “Why does God allow people to suffer?” it’s why do I allow people to suffer? Why do you all people to suffer? Why do we allow people to suffer? And then, Why do we feel the need to project our apathy onto God, who (like a good parent) is not going to do for us what we can do for ourselves?

    God is love, wherever love is, God is. I know God is real because love is real. Whenever I look upon an act of love, I am looking into the face of God.

    (This is all just one man’s opinion, and the man has a long history of being wrong about stuff.)

  • I think on this one you are right.

  • Lymis

    I agree as well. To paraphrase someone or other, when they asked God why God didn’t do something about some horrible problem, God answered, “I did. I sent you.”

  • Lymis

    Okay, now you lost me.

    Are you saying God should be locking up murderers? Because that’s people’s job. And I agree that it’s people’s job. How does that make God less powerful?

    Having been the victim of violence during life, once you are no longer alive and no longer have the body in which you felt the consequences of that event, is very much like having gone bankrupt during the course of a Monopoly game once that game has ended. You’re mixing the metaphor. Being the victim of violence in life is a horrible thing in life. The point is that life isn’t all there is.

  • Jill

    Ok. This is where my head is at. I struggled a long time with giving God all the praise and giving none of the blame for humanity’s epic capacity for violation and cruelty. So I stopped doing that. I give it all to God.

    I scream at top of my lungs that if we’re in Your image, there’s a massive flaw in the design. I weep for the brokenness of us, and so do all of you here.

    We run into this same wall of hurt when an explosion happens somewhere, and then the tweets and emails begin pouring in, when young women are finally released from captivity in a residential neighborhood, when humanity victimizes humanity, and animals, and the planet.

    Yet I still believe that an impersonal Universe would have ended up creating impersonal people. I wouldn’t need you, or love, or human touch, or beauty, or laughter, or furry children, or cupcakes, or anything else we all live for if an impersonal Person pushed the Big Bang button.

    Evil sucks, the absolute worst human invention. But love is how I know God is out there and in us all. That’s as much as I’ve got so far…

  • mike moore

    With respect, I don’t think the parallel holds up, and I would say you agree with me, based on your last sentence.

    People are not perfect. People are not all-knowing, all-seeing, all-loving. People do not live outside of time.

    And yet we claim those things for God.

    I can remember getting into a fight with a cowboy when we were in high school. A coach got in between us and stopped it. We did not lose our free will, but we were made to sit down and figure out a way to coexist without harming each other.

    I expect at least as much from God.

  • Jill: Then what (if anything) do you think you’re missing? A theology? An Actual Context for your religious/spiritual inclinations?

  • David S

    I rarely drop bible verses, but Jill’s comment makes me wonder where Romans 8 fits into this conversation? Especially verse 28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

    I agree with John when he writes “And during that time of separation [from God], a lot of terrible things can happen to us.” But I don’t think that’s the whole story – it’s not just about enduring until we die.

    One of the truths as I understand it is that we are all interconnected (whether we like it or not). Part of that, in my experience, is that there is a certain good that emerges from evil’s ruins. In the same way that, in physics, energy cannot be destroyed, it just changes form; humanity’s good somehow perseveres through horrific acts of man and nature. Those moments of kindness during and after tragedy, for me, are a revelation of God.

    Further, I would not be the person I am today if I had not been formed by certain hardships.* ** My capacity to love others has been deepened by living through some of the tough stuff. What is empathy except an understanding of the human condition often gained through experience? And my capacity to experience joy and thankfulness has also grown from knowing heartache.

    So I’ve used too many words to say: I agree with John; it’s about trusting God.


    * I’m stealing Mike Moore’s footnote technique…Thanks Mike!

    ** I’m sure there are many people who wish I was not the person I am today…but that’s a different conversation.

  • Mike: So you would be okay if God, who was monitoring you 24-hours a day, felt that you were doing–or even THINKING of doing–something that he felt crossed the line from good to bad, flat-out stopped you from doing or thinking that thing? So that you actually froze in space, or your brain locked until a better healthier thought came to you? That would be okay with you?

    It wouldn’t, of course. You want your free will. And you can’t ask God to give you something so integral to being human, but to then also deny that same thing to anyone else.

  • Mike: Yes, I think it’s safe to say God understands the way we perceive time.

    Beyond that, I don’t see anything in what you’ve said that necessarily contradicts anything I’ve said.

  • TB

    Hi Mike,

    Could there not be situations in life where God is personal to us – as in we feel a closeness and intimacy with God when we’re out in nature or we’re alone and lost and confused or we’re seeking peace and joy and we get visited by a mysterious spirit that makes us feel one with God.? Is not this experience valid and real and does it not lead us into more understanding of what a relationship with others is supposed to be about?

    esus Christ personifies the knowledge of God for some, along with the idea that God cares for us. We can see it through the actions of Christ. God is with US is really what it is all about though. Yes, we have our own personal relationship but we don’t say God is with me. We say God is with us. And in fact, if we’re all by ourselves, we don’t feel that it is a good thing. God said it was not a good thing for a person to be alone. We need another brain, mind, heart and spirit to connect with and interact with. We would not be healthy if we were lonely. I won’t say that no person cannot be alone without feeling lonely but generally speaking I think it’s a good bet.

    I just have to wonder how you can be so sure that the spirit of God doesn’t visit you personally and speak with you, etc? It doesn’t need to sound or look human. Jesus is said by Christians to have been God in the flesh or God’s truth made manifest in the form of Jesus. It is not that Jesus is God’s flesh, because God has no flesh and never did. Jesus ha the full spirit of God in him…that’s the notion I understand at least.

  • TB

    There is mystery within our faith in this life and your thoughts illustrate well that we cannot know all things. We have to trust. The knowledge of God and the belief in God, no matter what a person believes to be true about God, requires a very small amount of faith, actually. But to live in a way where we accompany people in their pain and never forsake them in it, well, that takes a lot of courage and a lot of faith. Most are unable to uncompromisingly stand by the side of someone. We create myths about it and in those myths we don’t mention the part where the humans got doubts and had one foot out the door or left for a while and came back when they regained their sanity. The difference about God is that God never leaves and never forsakes us. This type of love was personified in Christ. Because of the example of Christ, we can more fully SEE and EXPERIENCE the knowledge of this truth of how much we are loved and Christ encouraged us to trust in what we knew to be true, because God will show us this truth in many different ways. If we want to claim this truth, all it takes is a mustard seed of faith. It doesn’t require us to believe beyond a doubt or anything like that. Just trust that even within our doubts, that the mystery of God will one day be evident. We don’t know when but we can trust that until then, he’ll be with us in this life through all of it – we just need to accept this as true and open our arms wide to embrace it – swallow it up and let it nourish us. We are what we eat and think and do. If we eat the true bread of life and drink from the true cup of life, we will experience life. It is living (the) truth that sets us free from death.

  • TB

    Vini, not to criticize or ridicule you, but I would like to understand you better and so I ask you this question. What makes you think you are a good person? A good person is ALWAYS good. How do you know you would ALWAYS in EVERY single situation choose to do the good and right thing that would require you to at times put the needs and welfare of another before your own? No one but someone who has the full spirit of truth and maturity in them could do it and there is only one who has made it into the history books that many people witnessed doing it. His name was Jesus. Those people who witnessed him doing such things called them miracles because no one else ever did them before and no one that we have ever seen since has been documented by so many as having done them. Of course, it is a book and it is written by humans, so we have to understand that there could be some misunderstandings that we have and we are not seeing the truth clearly. In the end though, we have to decide what we are going to believe. It’s all a work in process because we cannot know the full truth until we die. We maybe are experiencing the full truth at times on earth but it passes and then we are not completely sure about it anymore, right? We just get glimpses of eternity and of the full truth. And yet we have the ability to distinquish enough truth based on the situation and experience and knowledge we do have to live in a way that is good. We are not the origin or definition of good but we can do some good in this life because God created us in a way that enabled us to good and create life while we are here. At the same time, we can also do some harmful things and we can destroy life and we can believe wrong things and think they are true because our mind can be easily deceived if we are not careful and aware of our susceptibility to be deceived.

  • Anne Wiggs

    Sharon, I like your quote and I liken it to God. “He is of too purer eyes that to behold evil”. It is our experience only that we are witnessing on earth and I like to think, it’s not what happens to us, but how we deal with it that counts, that is Love’s lesson. To overcome evil with Good is our purpose.

  • Matt

    Thanks for this. It’s very timely for me right now.

    Yes, I get a little impatient with people who want God to fix everything. And when He doesn’t, they accuse Him of not being God.

    I have a Big Problem in my life, which is known to all of the regulars here (or, fine, here: . It’s constant. It resides in my very body, right down to my DNA, if you want to get ultra-technical about it. And boy, does it cause suffering.

    The only way to “fix” it (as most people understand it) would be for God to reach down and issue me a new body that fits my mind. Completely new, right from scratch. Gone would be the physical pain, the barriers between the world seeing my true self, the oppression and discrimination.

    But it’s not that simple. I have lived in this body my whole life. It works quite well, all things considered. Dare I say I like it sometimes? Furthermore, would a new body mean a new brain? Would my self be expressed as it is now with a new brain? Would that be worth it for me? Would I actually be happier? That’s hard to say. I want MY body, not someone else’s.

    Those barriers, that oppression and discrimination? God sure didn’t put those up. It’s definitely people. Trust me, I work around them each and every day. People also tear them down in an instant, if they choose to. I had that experience very recently.

    But still, when I am lying awake at night and the pain is crushing the breath out of my lungs, knowing there is no end in sight, I get that impulse. That wish that my suffering could end. Even knowing all of the above, I am angry at God. I want Him to just fix it.

    And so I can get the emotional space people are in when they say, “Is God able, but not willing? Then He is evil. Is God willing, but not able? Then He is not God.”

    I think it’s very normal and human and very good, to see/feel suffering and want to relieve it at all costs.

    But I think that people just don’t take the time to really consider how complicated things are, when they are stuck in that moment of extreme suffering (or feeling others’ extreme suffering).

    Just my perspective.

  • Anne Wiggs

    John, I just wanted to reply to your statement, that while we are here on earth “we are separated from God”. How could that be ? How could an image be separated from that which it is the image of? Jesus’ teachings indicated oneness and said “the kingdom of God is within you” and I think it was John who said “you cannot be separated from the Love (which is God)”. There are many other quotes through out the Bible that indicate that we are and can never be separated from God. I don’t believe I would even exist without my inseparability to God.

  • Brent

    The simple answer to the question, but the one most resisted, is that God did not create this world. Man did, when he left the “Garden.” God did not abandon us, we abandoned God in the search of “Specialness”. This world is governed by the god of Ego, where self-centeredness, self-ishness, and ego-tism dictates what happens. We blame the wrong Be-ing. With all that being said, we are free to return Home anytime we choose (like Jesus did). ♥

  • Yikes. I’d hate to see your complicated answer.

  • Soulmentor

    Yeah, I don’t agree that we are separated from God just because we live human lives on this planet. That doesn’t make any sense to me when I am feeling such deep love tonite for the lovely evening that my dear friend in jail is missing….and I am missing him so much. I WANT HIM TO HAVE THIS. I don’t want him to be missing it. And loving and being helpless HURTS. But I wouldn’t hurt if I didn’t love and God is Love, right? So I’m NOT separated. So the only way I can resolve the pain is to think of God not as an image of us, with emotions and a rationale, etc, but as a Cosmic force of some kind that doesn’t make decisions, but just is…all of what is. But IT is a spirit of Love that we will join more fully in due time; a Spirit that Jesus showed us and he put it in human language that we can understand and that ever since makes us think of God as a conscious, rational, thinking entity. I can’t believe that because that leaves me with the equation that Matt mentioned: “Is God able, but not willing? Then He is evil. Is God willing, but not able? Then He is not God.”

    A Cosmic Force that is Love? Why not? I’ll trust that more easily than a God made in our image, because I have touched it….every time I love enuf to hurt.

  • Elizabeth

    Hi Anne. I can’t speak for John, but biblically it’s called original sin. God loves us and guides us, yes, but we screw up at least half the time. That’s why He sent His only son to die on the cross and expiate our sins. It’s a pretty simple concept, really.

  • Robert

    I guess I really don’t understand this idea of being separated from God… nor do I really understand the idea that this world that we live in is “bad”… nor do I really understand how a universal God can be only “Good”.

    Every single day, I can feel the spark of the divine in me. It is this inexplicable thing I call life. Sometimes, I forget to feel it. Sometimes, I ignore it. Sometimes, I get distracted, upset, caught up in my own drama… but it is always there… Each moment can be special… if I take the time to recognize it as special.

    I love the world I live in… It is a gift… It is filled with the wackiest stuff imaginable. Yes, people frustrate me… if I let them. Yes, bad things happen… but so does healing. And I have been witness to some horrendous things… 20+ years of working with abused kids means I am privy to information that is most people turn away from. And there is healing there..

    But does any of this mean I believe in a “good” god… Nope. I may believe in a universal life force that is infused in everything… we are and everything around us is made of matter forged in ancient exploded stars… this world is animated by the light of a sun… we are a dance between matter and energy… all created by stars… we are quiet literally of the universe… but universal principles are not good, nice or polite… they are universal which we attempt to render in words fitting a “Hallmark Card”. I as a human being don’t have the capacity to understand these principles… anymore than I have the capacity to understand the experience of a mouse.

    Does this mean that I don’t believe in anything… nope. Too many inexplicable things have happened in my life for me not to believe in something. But I can not “rely” on that something. God has never actually come to my resuce (well, there was that time when I was about to get mugged in Brooklyn… so maybe never is not the right word). Miracles do not come when ordered or expected. Nor do they break the laws of physics… (so there goes the whole walking on water thing). They can be tiny things that very occasionally pop up. (And personally, I was hoping for one of them to take the form of a big lottery winning… hasn’t happened yet.)

    What I know is this… that in any moment of my life… I am usually fine. Actually, most of my moments are rather mundane… in those moments that were filled with pain, hurt and fear…. they last for as long I held onto the pain (well, with sciatica it lasted for six months), the hurt and the fear. They are now only memories… which I can choose to replay or not… I believe that the power to change lies within me. I have had to learn to take care of me… that I am important enough to me to take care of me… surprisingly, this has take over 50 years to learn.

    As for evil, I believe it happens because “hurt people hurt people” which is always too simplistic. People get caught up in the drama of the moment? People believe that their pain is more special and someone owes them something? People believe that what they believe is more “special” than everyone else’s? Maybe… but I think it has a lot to do with a person’s inability to feel empathy and that is more complex than that to… mental health issues, brain trauma, ingrained bigotry, greed, a winner take all world… the list goes on and on and on… and we all have been guilty of something on the list…. Does this mean we all are evil… I don’t know… but what the holocaust taught me is… that everyday people ended up doing some really horrendous things. I remember as a kid thinking… if I had been born Jewish, I would have ended up on one side of the barbed wire… and if I had been born German… I would have been on the other.

    Where does this leave Jesus… he was a very decent man, he had some important things to say… it is just to bad that his words have been twisted to serve the needs of governments and the elites. Becoming a “State Religion” is what doomed Christianity. Where does this leave God… that is the big question… for me the god of the bible is a myth… it is the God within me that is important.

    Interesting conversation.

  • David S.


    For whatever it’s worth, your perspective carries a lot of weight with me. Thank you for continuing to be so generous with sharing your story. And, even though it is uniquly yours, I recognize mine in your comments. Thanks for this gift.

  • Nathaniel

    [Comment evincing WAY too much hostility toward me personally deleted. Yikes, man.]

  • Elizabeth

    I’m German and religious and a back-talking woman. I would have ended up on the other side of the fence with Hitler or the Inquisition. That doesn’t make God a myth. That makes us culpable.

  • SurveyPastor

    1) Which God? God or LORD God…a careful reading of Genesis and Old Testament would reveal a distinct difference…

    2) Quoting the Gospel of John without some balance from the Gospel of Thomas is kinda like spaghetti without sauce…some folks like it though I find it rather bland…even with butter as my first wife preferred her pasta…

    3) I’m still weighing whether Paul was the original religious troll…teachings in the wild ahead of the gospels…never faced Christ…well trained Pharisitic persecutionist, AND he suffered…and his teachings were the basis for most of the doctrine established through the second century…blood and all.

    4) At least 1700 years of doctrinal imprint WITHOUT a goodly portion of the teachings available in the first century…way to go Irenaeus et al…so instead of being open to the development of the physiological/spiritual connections…we still “believe” that our imaginary friend will swoop in and make it OK…after a few thousand/million more have perished in the wars; whether they include the bullets, shells and bombs, or just the almighty dollars…

    Open your heart, Open your mind, Open your door…the Kingdom of God is Within

  • Elizabeth

    Yay! A discussion of Thomas AND the different redactors in Genesis! Now we’re talking. Go.

  • Yeah, Mike Moore.


  • OR stop so fast you sprain something. 🙂

  • Tim Northrup

    Apologies, John. Went back and looked at that section, and though I guess I could quibble over the exact positive purpose at some microscopic level, (I really think God can cause suffering if it is for the purpose of future healing, something I still don’t think you would agree with) but I missed some of your point here.

  • mike moore

    did I miss something?

  • Jill

    John, that is a great question, and it’s burning a hole through my mind right now. I’ve got disagreement with God I guess. I suppose I’m missing some clarity, some information.

    If I’m able to break it down here, I’d say I don’t understand the depth to which cruelty, misery, and pain gets processed by a human being. I’m seeing a lot of what Mike said he is seeing. Not that I need to hammer this point, but I see women held as slaves for a decade in a Cleveland neighborhood, and I know that is the minutest fraction of what is going on around us.

    I can’t figure out the correct perimeters for a God figure (don’t know another way to say what I mean) when there was at least 4015 days of these girls’ lives that no miracle took place. So God doesn’t deliver us from evil? Or S/He does, but not always, and not always on time? So why do I pray the Lord’s Prayer then?

    I don’t mean to sound flippant in any way. Quite frankly, I have imagined myself in their shoes. I’m pretty sure that would be enough to make me atheist, among other things.

    So I’m ok if I don’t look at the heavy evil side of things– that’s when I feel what I’m missing. And I truly don’t know what I’m missing, but I am willing to learn.

    Sigh. These are my baby steps, John. Two steps forward, five steps back.

  • (I was just being funny–though, apparently, again not THAT funny–by saying, “Yeah, Mike” in response to Survey Pastor’s … words.)

  • Anne

    That’s okay Elizabeth, however I don’t go along with the concept of “original sin”, My concept of man and creation is based on Genesis 1, where ” God saw all that He had made and it was very good”. I liken Genesis 2,- a man made concept in an attempt to explain creation.

  • mike moore

    I thought what I wrote was more nuanced, I apologize if it wasn’t.

    Free will isn’t and should not feel threatened by divine interaction, nor should interaction with God lessen free will. My coach in HS interceded, he mediated, but he did not take away our free will … we could have kept slugging and there would have been consequences.

    For my part, asking God to reveal himself more clearly, and to ask God to be more involved with this world, in no way forfeits free will … He can say, “no,” for good reasons I can’t begin to comprehend, but He doesn’t stop me, or anyone, from asking. And that feels like true free will.

  • Allie

    I love this. I don’t think I’ve seen you state so simply and elegantly why you believe what you believe before.

    There’s a bit of a paradox about human suffering. On the one hand, it doesn’t matter at all – it passes, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s over in the blink of an eye. On the other hand, it’s the only thing that matters – the great commandment tells us that everything we are, whether we are obeying God or disobeying him, is determined by what we do relative to other people and their happiness or suffering. Loving others is our assigned task, our ONLY task, on this earth. Everything else follows from that.

  • Allie

    Not everyone likes apocrypha sauce with their spaghetti.

  • mike moore

    my bad … I’ve cut dairy and carbs out of my diet, and I got distracted by SurveyPastor’s reference to pasta and butter … Homer Simpson-Duff-Beer-distracted … and the rest of that post is just a blur (no offense, SP)

  • Jill

    David, I feel my brain starting to short circuit, trying to put this whole post (with its great comments!) inside it. (But in a good way!)

    I think I co-exist well with God, I think we’ve got some good relationship building happening lately, I think we’ve made real strides, but no I don’t trust God just yet. Maybe that’s ok for me, for now. To be in the questions, in the unknowing, while life unfolds something new in each second.

    I don’t demand that God reveal everything to me in this moment, as if I’d get it! I just ask that S/He stays by my side while this is sorted, and on occasion S/He makes it known in ‘my language’ that S/He’s here with me.

    (And what you said is lovely, and I’m glad that you are who you are.)

  • Matt

    You’re very welcome, David. Sometimes I feel like I talk about it *too* much; I know it can get old fast when it’s my daily reality, yet I have to explain it to so many people. But I’m glad you were able to resonate, nonetheless.

  • mike moore


  • Allie

    John, I’ve always felt that it was more a question of why God didn’t make me so I wouldn’t WANT to do the bad thing in the first place. There’s a place in the Bible where God asks if the pot can criticize the potter. Hell yes! I’m a three-legged lumpy pot that leaks and tips, and to all appearances that potter was on crack. But the Bible assures us that God knew what he was doing, indeed he did that on purpose. To which I can only say, “I guess I don’t know what you were thinking. Maybe someday I will.”

  • Matt

    We never ask you anything. Ever.

    Who are you again? :p

  • mike moore

    Honestly, I’m not sure. If He’s speaking, I’ve yet to find a frequency upon which I can hear him.

  • Allie

    Thing is, I know just as many, if not more, people, who would not be the bad people they are today if not for hardships. It works both ways. My friend was murdered by a teenage boy whose father poured lighter fluid on him and lit him on fire when he was five. Who knows what that boy would have been like with a kinder and more human father?

    I even know instances where that is true about myself. Sure, I believe I have compassion when some others don’t because I was abused as a child, but I am also lazy and selfish sometimes because I am sick so often that I feel entitled to spend the rare times I feel good doing things for myself, not other people. Nietzsche was wrong; what doesn’t kill you most often makes you weaker. It certainly made Nietzsche weaker; he died insane after a lifetime of struggling with chronic pain and progressive illness.

  • Anonymous

    “I connect The Good within me to God, accept the story of Jesus Christ as true—and viola”

    John, I always wondered why we had to have a bigger version of the violin. Thanks for clearing that one up!

  • Jill: You’re blaming God for what people do. And the piece I linked to (Why Does God Allow Evil to Exist?) very clearly answers why God doesn’t stop anyone from doing anything they want.

    You’re blaming God for what people do. Or, more specifically, you’re blaming God for not stopping people from doing whatever they want to do–which God MUST hold himself from in any overtly way doing, if he/she isn’t going to violate people’s free will, which he/she will not do, out of love for the very essence of humankind.

    God gives people free will; people fuck up; God lets people fuck-up because he’s not about to violate anyone’s free will; after people die everything is made okay.

    People want this to be so complicated. It’s sooooo not.


  • right. fixed. thanks!

  • David S.


    Thanks for this. Great point. I’ve seen people consumed by their hurt too. So I wonder what’s makes the difference in the way that tragedy affects us? Have you seen God anywhere in your experience with abuse? (Please forgive the question if it’s too personal).

  • David S.

    Hmmmm, speaking only for myself, I don’t find this particular question so straight forward. It really requires a leap of faith. In a way, this question about God and suffering is the raison d’être for Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer.

  • David S.

    Hi Jill,

    I’m very skeptical of anyone who says they never doubt. For me, with God, sometimes trust is more of an action than a feeling. Sometimes I doubt.

  • Hannah Grace

    Thanks John, for bringing up this incredibly important topic. I had just been doing research this morning because the issue constantly weighs on my heart. I had a page open with the following, and was moved by it, when I saw you had just happened to post about it! So I thought I would share it:

    (Sorry for the long post).

    “Many non-religious insist–rightly–that a God that allows the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide to occur does not deserve their allegiance. Or, similarly, how can there be a God with so much evil in the world? Absurd and unsatisfactory explanations abound. A common one: God would not confront us with anything that we could not handle. What about the Rwandan genocide? There were 800,000 people who could not handle the evil God gave to them. This is absurd. Another argument goes like this: Without evil, how can we appreciate good? But why should a child with limbs hacked in off in 1994 by RUF rebels in the Sierra Leone civil war have to experience so much evil while someone in the first world experience so little evil? I have heard someone explain childhood congenital disability as a gift from God because of the lessons it teaches the unlucky youth. But why would God not have blessed with a physical disability a child who later grows up to abuse drugs? With such a disability and the life lessons it imparts, certainly this person would not have grown up to abuse drugs. “God’s Plan” is an irreligious idea. Why should God’s Plan involve so much evil and disperse the evil so unfairly? Why should God think about or rationalize evil in the way that a modern, Western philosopher would?

    But the idea of God’s plan is most irreligious because it cannot make anyone a better person. By submitting to God’s Plan, we are no longer committed to creating a more just world. We necessarily feel less compassion for victims of injustice. God’s Plan leads us to focus away from the needs of others and the ways in which we may help them. Nothing could be less religious.

    As we have seen, religion was never meant to explain the existence of evil. The myths of Isaac Luria confronted the often-deadly anti-Semitism that Jews in the 1500’s experienced. And yet–like the Greek myth writers–Luria never attempted to attach a meaning to Jews’ suffering. He never stated “we experience evil so that we can appreciate good,” or “our struggles are given to us by God to make us stronger,” or anything like that. In other words, Luria did not try to rationalize the rampant evil and unfairness in the world. He simply accepted it and looked for ways to bear it. In essence, religion takes evil as a given and works from there. Religion is not concerned with why evil exists, since knowing why evil exists would not lead to less evil, lessen anyone’s suffering, or make anyone a better person. Rather, religion takes evil as a given and tries to help people live through their suffering with strength and compassion. To return an earlier example; science can explain the evil of cancer, but it cannot help a cancer patient confront his or her own mortality.

    An important reason for modern religions’ stumbling over God creating evil stems from modern religions’ obsession with the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo.” Creation ex nihilo simply means that God created the world from nothing. In Western religion, this idea was first introduced 400 years after Jesus died. We can safely say that Jesus did not know of this idea. In the two creation stories in Genesis, God did not create the world from nothing. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters” (Genesis 1:1), and “At the time when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens–when as yet there was no field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted, for the Lord God had sent no rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, but a stream was welling up out of the earth and was watering all the surface of the ground… (Genesis 2:1-6). Clearly, the ancient Jews believed God’s role was not to create the world from nothing (since God creates the world starting from the raw materials of either a “formless wasteland” or an earth without rain), but to take something chaotic and non-life-sustaining and turn it into something ordered, peaceful, life-sustaining, and good. In such a setup, God is not responsible for creating evil. Evil already existed, but God tamed the chaos and turned it into something good. Because of God, good can come out of evil.

    Before I became a social worker, I volunteered as a math tutor for adults trying to earn their GED. One man came into our center week after week. I worked with him individually each time, on fractions. Our progress was slow, incremental, and he forgot nearly everything from one day to the next. My supervisor told me about some of his horrific experiences that no doubt contributed to his past substance abuse problems. Incredibly, despite years of drug abuse and alcoholism, he had been clean for years when he came to us. He had a job, was healthy, responsible, and outgoing. But there remained one gaping hole. He had a son who was in fourth grade, but his son’s mother would not let him see his son. How could she know he was really clean? How could she know he was serious about being a father to his son? He resolved to prove to her that he was clean for good and truly wanted to be a part of their family by earning his GED. As he explained to me, he wanted to finally be a good parent and wanted to use the knowledge he gained from us to help his son with school work when they were eventually reunited. He was a delight to work with. He was incredibly motivated, never gave up, and was always positive.

    He came week after week to learn fractions. We worked so hard. He assured me that all the hard work was worth it because, in the end, he would be reunited with his son. But one day, he stopped showing up. We never saw him again. He never got his GED. He probably never got to see his son. Fractions were just too difficult.

    If you do not see stories as sad as this one occurring all around you, you are not paying attention. Maybe I can make an incremental difference in some people’s lives, but most people I worked with never got their GED. In fact, those who did succeed had their economic opportunities improve insignificantly. They had no opportunity before they got their GED; they had no opportunity after they got their GED. Our work as tutors made no one’s life better. For all the work they did, for the hours I tutored them and the hours they worked without me, what good was it? Maybe they made mistakes in the past, but all these people were motivated, hard-working, and devoted to changing their lives in order to help their family. It was so unfair.

    I briefly discussed Ludwig Feuerbach, who reasoned that love, justice, compassion, and charity (etc) are human qualities that are noble enough that they should be pursued for their own sake, and not for any religious one. He would no doubt support the work social workers do, and I of course agree with his assessment. But it does not seem to me that opening a philosophy book can possibly replace the role of religion in my life. If you can go from Feuerbach’s thesis to selfless behavior, that is great, and I encourage you to do so. I cannot. Doing the right thing because it is the right thing to is exhausting because sometimes your best is not good enough. For many of our problems, no one’s best is good enough. The stark reality of your own powerlessness to relieve another’s suffering can make you callous, numb, or simply ignore the suffering of those around you. To me, religion is the way to confront this painful reality head on. In a way I cannot describe, religion allows me to acknowledge the suffering and hate in the world, my own powerlessness to change it in any significant way, and yet continue trying to change it because–like Feuerbach taught–it is the right thing to do. Studying philosophy cannot do this for me. I go to a very unusual church, where an ordinary Catholic Mass is seeped in greater ritual. The emphasis is on the therapeutic effects of these rituals, and when I attend, my blood pressure falls, my heart rate falls, and I feel more at peace. Making religion a living reality in my life–for example, easing my mind with the peaceful repetitions of saying a rosary, or making religion a concrete plan of action using Saint Ignatius’ Examen (also known as the Buddha’s Mindfulness Training)–allows me to confront painful realities rather than ignoring them.”

  • Hannah Grace

    That verse is so complex. For one, it is linked to a doctrine of predestination, ie that God’s purpose is to call a few people to be saved.

    Also, it implies that things happen for the good of those who are suffering, and the good of the world. How does the Holocaust happen for the good of the world? You can shrug it off and say “it was people”, but the Bible verse says _works in all things_. Natural disasters are another – how is it for the good of the world that there would be horrific tragedy?

    Perhaps the verse means that God calls all people, and is working in all things to help them overcome evil. That has been my interpretation.

  • Hannah Grace

    But uh, the greatest suffering isn’t caused by people. It’s caused because we live in a system where everything has to kill in order to live (the ecosystem) and one that is prone to huge natural disasters that kill and maim.

    Human evil makes all this worse, for example, when humans hoard wealth they should share, but famine can hit even without human evil making it happen.

  • What’s interesting is to consider where, exactly, this “leap of faith” is, or what it’s made of, exactly. If what I’ve said here, in combination with my post on evil and free will, reveals no logical inconsistency (and in my years of putting forth these two thoughts not ONCE has anyone shown one), then what exactly does this leap leap over? THAT, to me, is interesting.

  • That’s not what she was asking about, Hannah. As to what you’ve brought up:

    There’s Nothing “Natural” About Natural Evil

  • David S.

    Hi Hannah

    I think you and I have a similar viewpoint here.

    The religious ones have made this chapter about salvation. That’s not its overarching point. It attempts to answer the unanswerable questions you pose.

    That verse flows out of this one: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

    Yup, I’ve been there. That’s been me in times of dispair – not even able to form a prayer. Paul’s entirely inadequate answer to the problem of evil (or “our present suffering” as he calls it) is “trust and have hope in God”. I think he’s right that our only choice in the face of this question is to trust or not.

  • David S.

    Hi John

    I think I see what you’re asking here.

    Do you have any thoughts as to why, if there is a clear theological answer to the problem of evil, it is such a stumbling block for so many of us?

  • Jill

    I’m with you, John. I’m just not articulating my issue clearly, which is what I get for trying to answer your thoughtful question when I’m overtired and obviously emotional.

    Maybe in a round-about way, that is my point. I’m naturally geared to talk and act more emotionally, yet I process information very logically. It’s how I’m built. I was humiliated as a kid for being “too sensitive”. So I bucked up my ideas to push my logical side forward as much as possible. Now as an adult, I’m constantly learning how to integrate all of that—all of me, together to be a whole person. I find myself fortunate, even blessed, to be the version of mixed-up that I am—three parts sweetheart, two parts intellect, one part crazy.

    I’m saying there are human beings not wired right. There’s only so much I can point to nurture on what built human beings bent on destruction. I’m saying I don’t know how I barely scraped past the naturally, organically, heartlessly insane narcissism of my mother? I’m saying I can’t understand—and of course morbidly curious—about how much of the human being recipe that causes some of the soufflés to fall in the oven is the Chef’s fault?

    I can fault my mother for her mistakes, lay blame where it belongs, just like I should be able to own mine. But organic crazy? A part of me needs to “forgive” her by acknowledging she was not wired right. Where does that blame belong? It used to be the blame I carried for being her burden. I’ve got to put that blame elsewhere, and I’m pretty confident that God can handle it more than I can.

    I’m not giving up just because I’m processing old junk. I knew this would happen, opening this door to God again. It is a process. I’ll hang with it.

    Ok, I think I may still be overtired/overly emotional… thank you for working with me on this.

  • Jill

    Thank you, my friend. I will read this too when I get the chance.

  • Jill

    Got it. That makes sense.

  • georga

    Jesus said: Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions Mark 10:29-30a. Christians were never promised the good life here on earth. We are told to take care of the poor and needy, the sick and those in jail to make this world a better place, but that message seems to be over shadowed by Christians who want to focus on sin and condemn others. I take so much flack from christians because I believe in Jesus’ forgiveness of my sins (even the ones I’ve yet to commit) the minute I was saved and that I teach we should live by God’s grace and love everyone unconditionally as Jesus does.

  • vj

    Awesome, again! As for “When that happens we are comforted. We are restored. We are saved.” – I have found that by turning to God in the times of my deepest distress I am comforted and restored here and now, which is even more wonderful to me than hoping for that ultimate comfort and restoration… His comfort is so real to me in this life that I wonder how anyone can make it thru a tough time without it. I can’t help feeling that pain and suffering would be unbearable without God.

  • vj

    Wow, that Monopoly game analogy is really powerful – great stuff, as usual 🙂

  • vj

    I understand what you mean about not having a direct ‘personal’ touch-taste-see-fee-hear encounter with God, but there have definitely been times in my life where I experienced a very profound sense of ‘something other’ helping me through great distress. Most of the time, I will admit, I have no idea if what I think/understand about God or worship or reading the Bible or prayer is actually God, in person, or just my own efforts. But, when it comes to those couple of other times, the best way I can understand the experience is that God was being active, in a very real (to me – thus ‘personal’) sense, in the world…

  • vj


  • Robert

    you were born post war…. sorry… none of us know what we would have done if we had grown up in germany between WWI and WWII… we all like to speculate that we would have been either heros or victims… when in reality most people just went along… in today’s world we think we are being radical in posting posts and being privately irate… because this is our culture… we are simply flowing with the flow…

    and I didn’t say was a myth… I said the god as described in the bible is a myth… or at least a very faulty description of a god… he is a little to… narcissistic, vengeful and childish for me… he needs some anger management classes.

  • Soulmentor

    I recently returned from a two week trip to visit my son, who is with Diplomatic Security at our Embassy in India; Delhi to be precise tho we traveled and it was a great adventure. India is filthy, trash is EVERYWHERE, the air in Delhi is often so toxic there were times I didn’t want to breathe. There is no such thing as fresh air in Delhi. Or safe water anywhere in India. We had to drink bottled water and eat at only the finest restaurants (which I rather liked!!). My son, who lives in the wealthier diplomatic district, even has a boiler unit on his kitchen counter top and bottles the water for his fridge. There are wealthier districts where there is actually some infrastructure, but, in general, the abject poverty is beyond comprehension.

    I offer that as a background to an image from India that haunts me. One evening we were exploring the huge market in Haridwar. Incredibly crowded and fascinating. Suddenly, I passed a boy (age undetermined but young) sitting alone on the cobbles in the dust in the midst of that throng. He was crippled with half of one arm and crippled legs, begging. He was handsome with decent haircut, tho understandably a bit dirty. From the shoulders up, he was simply beautiful (as are so many of the young Indians, I noticed, being gay and all and….well, I digress). We waked by but I couldn’t just ignore him. I walked back and gave him a 10 rupee note. Nothing to us but it could feed him for at least two days. It was all I had to give him. But what he gave me that nite was the face of God. He gave me the sweetest, most beatific smile I have ever seen. Dear God, I wanted to pick him up and take him with me, but all I could do was give him those paltry few cents and a caring smile…..and walk away.

    I was reminded of the children in the movie Slumdog Millionaire”, who are deliberately crippled so they can go out and beg money for the unscrupulously evil men who use them. I don’t know if that is what his situation was, but it was obvious he didn’t walk there on his own. Someone put him there. I think that boy will haunt me to my death. I hope he becomes one of THE FIVE PEOPLE (I) MEET IN HEAVEN.

    I have no intention to ever return to India, but if I ever do, I want to find that boy. It shouldn’t be difficult, actually. He is everywhere in India. And so is God.

    Damn, I’m crying.

  • Elizabeth

    As evidenced by the fig tree, my favorite parable, God may need anger management classes. I know what would have happened if I’d been alive in WWII: I’d be in the ovens like the rest of them. The God I believe in doesn’t go along.

  • mike moore

    John, if there is a regular sticking point between you and I, conversationally, it is in regards to the notion of free will.

    Your approach to God’s interaction with the world, vs. our free will, seems to consistently take an all-or-nothing approach.

    The God you believe in, and so often describe, could easily interact to a greater degree with our world, while in no way imposing upon our free will.

    In other posts, I mentioned my HS coach breaking up a fight and helping us to find a way to coexist. It was an intercession, a teacher attempting to help two high school jerks find within themselves both empathy and civility. It was a mediation, w/o removal of anyone’s free will.

    Look at great leaders … look at great men, look at our heros. Within the heart of the actions of a Mandela, a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, we see not just men filled with love and empathy. No, we see men who were activists and peacemakers. Men who mediated and taught and worked to achieve civility and reconciliation amongst enemies, while never infringing upon their free will.

    And it is within the context of these sort of interactions … that I think you let God off the hook.

    Yes, God gives people free will; yes, people fuck up. But then you make the jump to, “God lets people fuck-up because he’s not about to violate anyone’s free will; after people die everything is made okay.”

    Within both the OT and the NT, we are told that God and his angels regularly interacted with man, in very demonstrable ways, without ever infringing on man’s free will.

    Jesus – as typically presented to us – represents the seminal moment of God saying, “It’s time to intervene and send out a new message to My children.” This occurred 2000 years ago, in a small corner of the world. Not many people were around to witness this, but it appears no one lost their free will in the process.

    If one believes Jesus is uniquely Divine, then one must, I believe, concede that God Himself has shown both a willingness and an ability to interact with people without damaging their free will.

    Well, Dear God*, let me introduce you to 2013.

    The world could, as it always has, and as it did 2000 years ago, really use your help. And this time, your message can be broadcast, televised, FaceBooked, Tweeted, and Tumblr-ed across the entire globe, to almost every one of your children, largely eliminating the imperfect and corrupt middlemen who have so twisted your message, both at home and abroad.

    And then, Dear God, when You’re through with your messaging, please go look directly into the eyes of the 8yo sexual slave and please explain that all she need do is live her little life in hell, abused, drugged, physically tortured and debased, because once she dies, it’s all gonna be OK …

    And then she and we can all watch You walk away from her. Just like we do every day.

    Because it’s all going to be OK. When she’s dead.

    It’s damn complicated.


    * and yes, the XTC reference is intentional.

  • mike moore

    plus, two parts sass … and all of those parts glued together with love.

  • Mike: You’re complaining that God doesn’t 100% prove his existence; that he doesn’t make himself OBJECTIVELY known. But if God did that, that would absolutely, 100% rob everyone of their free will. If you think about it–I mean, really think about it—you’ll see how true that is. Free will is grounded in the reality of open-ended choices. If God proved he exists in the empirically verifiable way you’re complaining that he doesn’t–which he would have to have the kind of conclusive, undeniable effect you’re asking for–the open-ended possibilities that define human free will would be immediately eliminated. Everyone would instantly become zombie automatons (as I put it in my book Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang, cuz … you know: I didn’t just now show up to this debate.)

    Your coach, Martin Luther King and Ghandi were men. That means that obeying their directives was a choice everybody was free to make. That’s hardly the same thing as having God beyond doubt proving once and for all–and to everyone simultaneously, as again, would have to be the case in order for God’s intrusion to have the kind of … persuasive effect you want–telling you what to do.

    Not the same thing at all.

    And the whole point of Jesus becoming human was to, as much as possible, keep in tact man’s free will. As long as he was human, people could always choose not to believe that what had happened had actually happened.

    For more, if you’re interested, see my ancient post Why Doesn’t God Just Prove He Exists? (And I’m afraid that’ll be it for me: between this comment, its contained link, this post, its contained link to my post on evil, the post linked there on “natural evil,” and my book “Penguins,” there simply isn’t one thing left I can say on this matter without repeating myself. Thanks for reading whatever of it you do/have! I appreciate that.

    (Okay, I’ll repeat myself this one last time: That’s not God who tortured and abused that eight-year-old girl. That was humans who did that. And for all people to have free-will, God can’t pick and choose which ones to give it to, and which ones to snatch it back from. I know you’re angry. But you’re angry at what people do with their free will, not at the fact that that they have it in the first place. That you love.)

  • vini

    The appeal to free will is the very worst excuse for evil coexisting with a benevolent God there is, for many reasons. First, it excuses God’s inaction by taking into account only the freewill of evildoers, not their victims. What kind of moral monster sits back and watches the most helpless and innocent victim have her life destroyed, solely because of some perverse notion of the inviolability of free will? Doesn’t the victim’s free will — which is presumably screaming “I do not wish to be raped!” — matter? Who wants to worship the patron god of child rapists? And this is the same deity from whom Christians insist I have gotten my morals?

    The appeal to free will also conflates will with action. Free will only implies the ability to desire a thing. It doesn’t imply an ability to act on that desire. There are many things I cannot do because of the very nature of the organism I am. I would like to be able to teleport. I would like to live to be 1000 in perfect health. Does the fact I cannot do these things mean my free will has been taken away?

    The argument that if God were to reveal himself it would remove our free will doesn’t make sense either. How exactly does full knowledge of his existence remove our free will? One could still choose reject him (and I assume many would, considering his alleged past of infanticide and all). There is not a shadow of doubt that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t seem to deter the Flat Earth Society.

    It’s time we stop contorting our moral compass to fit our assumptions of an inaudible, invisible being that is indistinguishable from inexistent by all accounts. There is, without exception, never a circumstance in which a child should have to endure sexual violation of any kind. If you disagree with this statement, or think there are possible exceptions, then you suck at being a person.

  • vini

    I didn’t say God wants us to rape children. I said he sits back watching while we do it.

  • vini

    I agree, but only because I don’t believe in the existence of such beings. Yes, we are solely to blame for all wrongdoing. Only when we grow up and take responsibility will we be able to take effective steps towards reducing suffering for all in this world.

  • vini

    The fact that I actively try to not cause suffering to others living beings (or myself).

    But that doesn’t mean a good person won’t do bad things sometimes.

    I don’t know that. All I can do is evaluate the circumstances and try my best. Moral decisions are often nuanced.

    I choose to believe whatever is supported but the best evidence available — that is my standard. Hear-say from a book written and rewritten over thousands of years does not constitute good evidence.

    There is also the far more likely possibility that we won’t know anything after we die, because we will simply cease to exist.

    Couldn’t agree more. That’s why I don’t believe things based on divine revelation or other such subjective experiences.

  • Dekortage

    i think there are many problems with the questions about suffering and God.

    a. People often assume all pain is bad. This is wrong.

    b. People often assume all pleasure is good. This is wrong.

    c. People very often assume that if there is evil in the world then somebody else should do something about it. As if there is nothing they could do it about it. as if they were always held back and only God could deal with the world. This is wrong. God put us here to help each other.

    somebody posted a video about this on your FaceBook page awhile back John, and it stuck with me. I hope I got it right.

  • Not that this is the best place to ask it, but I’m genuinely curious: Why, Elizabeth, is that your favorite parable?

  • I do, yes, But … this isn’t exactly an optimal place to go into them. But basically it all boils down to the fact that people generally aren’t keen on committing.

  • Jill

    “For many of our problems, no one’s best is good enough. …In a way I cannot describe, religion allows me to acknowledge the suffering and hate in the world, my own powerlessness to change it in any significant way, and yet continue trying to change it because…it is the right thing to do.”

    Hannah, I’m still absorbing your message, but this is what I needed to read right now. I’m glad you shared it.

  • vj


  • vini

    John, you seem to have simply concocted an elaborate series of excuses that allow you not to think about any horrible troubling thing, so that you can, at all costs, preserve your faith in a totally just God who does everything right all the time, even when his way of doing everything right looks like an unforgivable screw-up to us because we cannot understand his multi-dimensional ways.

    “If God proved he exists in the empirically verifiable way you’re complaining that he doesn’t–which he would have to have the kind of conclusive, undeniable effect you’re asking for–the open-ended possibilities that define human free will would be immediately eliminated.”

    I’ve *really* thought about this, too, and I fail to see how this is so. How, exactly, would god’s empirically verifiable revelation remove my free will? It is an empirically verifiable fact that the Earth is round, but that doesn’t deter the folks at Flat Earth Society from free-willingly rejecting it.

    Furthermore, that God created minds incapable of understanding his cunning plans and mysterious ways, while simultaneously mandating our eternal punishment for rejecting him based on our failure to understand him, pretty much counts as the greatest dick move in the history of everything.

  • vini

    I hope writing this made you feel so good that next time you might actually consider engaging me in good faith. You know, like Jesus would do.

  • LindsayC

    Thank you for this.

    I was struck with a difficult question recently, pertaining to the people that died in the recent Bangladesh factory collapse.

    When that last woman that survived for multiple weeks under the rubble was saved, people everywhere were exclaiming “Thank God/Allah/etc. that she lived. God has saved her!”

    The implication that seems to come with that though is God saved her, but then God killed or let die the <1100 people that didn't make it out.

    Its a weird thought and I've been wrestling with it for a while. This essay does help me work through it a bit more though.

  • Angela

    I have struggled with this for a long time… My dad was disabled from a stroke and six years later wound up getting cancer in his esophagus which wasn’t cured by treatment, and he basically died because it closed up his through and he starved to death. It has made me doubt my belief in God, or at least doubt that God is good, which is a bit of a contradiction since God is love. Yet, He killed so many people in the old testament… and killing is a sin? It’s all confusing. God seems like a huge asshole most of the time.

    The one thing that pisses me off more than anything is when people will say, “God is SO good! He healed my ‘relative/s.o./bff/etc.’ God answers prayers!” Um, no. He doesn’t. That person just lucked out with a less severe disease or their body responded better to treatment.

  • vj

    Except that evil does not co-exist *eternally* with God. There will come a time when God WILL we revealed in all fullness and perfection, and ‘every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that [He] is Lord’ – at which point I believe that evil will be utterly vanquished forever, when we who are capable of the most horrific deeds will be so totally confronted with the unmistakable goodness and love of God that we will all finally be healed of the hurts that cause us to hurt others, and will feel [His] full love and acceptance (the currently perceived lack of which tends to cause us to act out in harmful ways) – to such an extent that we will forevermore choose to act only in perfect love… WHY God hasn’t done this yet is a huge question, but I do believe that it will happen – at which point even the most depraved acts of inhumanity will seem, in comparison, to be no more than a papercut.

  • vj

    ugh, another typo! *be revealed

  • Lymis

    This question always flummoxes me, because to me, it’s not even a question, it seems so self-evident, and yet the vast, vast majority of people clearly don’t see it the same way I do.

    I’m not minimizing the reality of human suffering as experienced by living humans, and the very real responsibility we have to work as humans to minimize it, and the consequences we face, as individuals and as a society for not doing it.

    But for the most part, the loudest objections to the idea that God allows this to happen come from people who claim to believe in an eternal afterlife with an omnipotent God. That somehow, it’s a scandalous failure to love or proof of divine impotence to allow hurts that God knows without question that God can soothe.

    It’s clear that I see this differently from others, but what I can’t reconcile is a belief in an afterlife and the claim that God is unjust, unloving, or impotent because there is human suffering.

    People try to force it into one of exactly two choices: Either God exists and is a sadistic uncaring bastard, or God either doesn’t exist or is an impotent being. It’s always been transparently clear to me: the third choice is that something else entirely is going on.. If our human lifespan is only part of our own personal story, then it follows inevitably that some of the standards by which human experience has to be judged have to take eternity into account.

    Otherwise, all this seems like a pretty pointless pretense.

    What am I missing?

  • Jill

    The God I’m trying to believe in is a God that I’m having trouble seeing, like looking through a microscope at a drop of water and hoping to understand the ocean.

    (yeah, but it’s the best analogy I’ve got right now.)

    I am confident that this is not simply an all/nothing discussion, those who have belief vs. those who don’t. I’m ok that I’m in this space with God and still shouting all my doubts and all my anger and all that I still blame Them for. It’s not a place for me to remain indefinitely, but it is a place of grieving, a place of acknowledgment that life is not for wimps.

    We’re in this because we are powerful. I do believe my empowerment comes from a Source grander than what I can conjure, and I do trust that I’m in the right place at least.

    But I don’t possess today the sum total of wisdom that will take me my full lifetime to acquire. So it’s ok that I am not as sure, not as wise or confident as some of the commenters are, as John is. I respect that others hold wisdom that I will attain someday. I learn from you all and continue to put in the work required of me to get there.

    Where there is despair, let me sow hope.

  • David S.

    Interesting. I’d sincerely like to hear more about that. Maybe a post at a later date?

    I believe that the precise leap of faith is believing that there is somehow a greater, yet unknowable good that comes from the suffering of humankind (in our personal and communal understandings of suffering). I personally think we have a hard time reconciling our human conception of mercy and justice with truly Divine mercy and justice. It’s a tall order to take, “as Jesus did, the world as it is, not as I would have it”. We talk about kingdom-building and our vision for a better world, we work hard to make it a reality, and then God lets the evil of man or the ruthlessness of nature muck it all up; then He asks us to clean up the carnage. That’s a tough pill to swallow. And being hurt sucks. I think that’s why the leap of faith is hard.

    But it’s comforting to know that Jesus had to suffer and die, that he was anguished about the prospect of his suffering, and that, ultimately, his suffering and death were not for naught. The exercise of faith was not exactly emotionally or physically easy for Him (just as it’s not easy for oh-so-human me).

    I know that all sounds like a cop out, but I don’t think it is.

  • Lymis: You’re not missing anything that’s apparent to me. We don’t seem to disagree.

  • Christy

    “Why do bad things happen?” or “Why is there suffering in the world?”

    I would have answered this question differently in my younger days, but life has a way of teaching important lessons along the way if we’re open and willing to paying attention.

    Two years ago our family lost a family member who was also a dear personal friend. She was vibrant. Creative. Full of life. Her children were 14 and 16 at the time. She had a wonderful husband and a rewarding career. And in a tragic and strange accident, she died. She went for a walk in a nature area in a record breaking heat wave without enough water, became disoriented, lost, and, exposed to the heat for too long, she died.

    No one can see that coming.

    Grief has a way of making some things vividly clear. What was clear to me was that the familiar platitudes from my youth of God having a plan or she was in a better place or it must have been God’s will are not a comfort and should be among the things never uttered to the grieving.

    What I learned from that experience is that some things make no sense.

    Why do bad things happen? Because they do. Because that’s life. Because good and bad things happen to us all. It is part of being alive. It is the nature of the human experience. It’s the cost of admission.

    This is the lesson in Job that too often gets missed: It’s not about why. It’s about what invariably happens to us all and how you are going to handle it when it does.

    For me, the comfort came in knowing that God is not the cause of our suffering but grieves with us as we go through it and sends us wise guides and kind souls to navigate us through – not some day – but here and now. If we find meaning in it in the process and on the other side, all the better. But the meaning, and the lessons aren’t why it happened. They are the result.

    As our minister so often says: “We have an up to us privilege of choosing not what happens to us in this life, but how we react to it.” and “The right question isn’t ‘Why do bad things happen?’ but rather ‘Why, when we live in a world where we have been given all we need to survive and the gift of each other, have we not yet learned how to share what we have and live together in peace?'”

    How we react to our own suffering and that of others that works to reduce ongoing suffering in the here and now: That’s where God is.

  • Elizabeth

    I am engaging you in good faith. I’ve spent a lot of time in this pool hall, and your premise is “God sits back watching while we rape children.” Kind of hard to blame God for that. But be on your pedophile way. God still loves you.

  • Jill

    I’m down with the third option too.

  • Elizabeth

    Oh, hi John! I’m just reading this. That parable is just so weird. Here’s this tree, minding its own business, and Jesus zaps it because he was having a bad day. It’s in Mark, which means it’s most likely to be accurate, and it’s conveniently left out of the later gospels. The postmodernists were obsessed with it, and I guess it rubbed off on me. You think about it all the time, and you get a new appreciation that parables are supposed to be puzzles. Jews, in particular, were persecuted so long they habitually transmitted wisdom in code. They developed midrash precisely so their interpretations weren’t heard by the uninitiated.

    Like I said: obsessed.

  • mike moore

    count me in on Option 3.

  • me too (obviously).

  • TB

    I think maybe our understanding of “believing” is different. The definition I adhere to is more akin to trust – meaning to require faith. Not belief in the way of knowing a fact. And not trust in the way of being fully assured because it’s been proven.

    It’s not that I want you to become a Christian, because that’s none of my business really. It’s not because I think you are going to hell if you don’t believe in God the way that I do, because my theology is not along those lines. The reason I’m curious is more for my own reasons. I have similar thoughts as you and I use reason and still I come to different decisions than you.

    I hear you that you want to base most of your calculations or conclusions and choices on facts and solid, tangible (what we might call scientific) evidence. Who would not want that? For me, I’ve looked around and noticed that even some scientists believe in God. Even some mathematicians believe in God. So, they must define “belief” in the same way that I do or at least similarly.

    Again, I ask another question: How can you make any decision in your life without using any subjective or unproven source? That seems like an impossible feat given that life in general requires trust and faith.

    Could it be that if we were to substitute the word “life” for the word “God” that you would be able to better understand what I’m speaking about in terms of having to rely on subjective experiences, evidences and revelations ?

    I’m curious.

  • vini

    If God created everything there is, including the conditions in which evil is a possibility, how is suffering not his fault? Furthermore, why would you worship someone who is capable of removing your pain and chooses not to?

  • vini

    You’re absolutely right. That little confusion in your head is called “cognitive dissonance” — the first step in realizing that you can think for yourself. Platitudes like the ones you mention are designed to squash your thinking. If you still have any inclination or feel the need to worship this being who can but chooses to not remove suffering from our existence, let me be the one here to tell you that you don’t have to, and there’s nothing to be afraid of… because it doesn’t exist.

  • vini

    It’s almost as if God is so apathetic that he is indistinguishable from inexistent.

  • vini

    “Eternal fate” still doesn’t solve the problem that evil is not compatible with a being who professes to the very equivalent of love. That’s like you watching your child suffer rape and say, “Nah, I’ll let him finish ruining this child’s life and punish him later.”

    Your desperate attempt to rationalize your god’s apathy has contorted the very definition of what is love. I’m sure you, if you could help it, you wouldn’t let a loved one suffer but a papercut, so why hold God to a different standard?

  • Vini: Insisting that human suffering disproves God is hardly proof that you’re proficient at thinking for yourself.

  • Matt

    John thinks about horrible, troubling things all the time. He welcomes it. People write in to with him with stories they haven’t told anyone else, things that are chilling, heartbreaking, excruciating just to read. He then responds–compassionately, carefully, beautifully.

    Confronting that kind of ugliness, all the time, day in and day out, and responding in the appropriate way–that requires a strong philosophy of life, and/or a strong faith. From what I can tell, John has both.

  • (thanks, Matt. I appreciate it.)

  • vini

    I never said “we rape” in the first place. Even if I did, you and I both know that it would be a general statement on the state of mankind, and not a personal confession to rape.

    My dad loves me and I know that he would take away all suffering if he could. If God still loves me (as your deliciously arrogant Christian-speak for “eff you” declares), why does He allow me to suffer great pain and tragedy? All your pointless diversions later, there’s a question you still haven’t bothered to answer.

  • (Vini: Elizabeth may not have provided you an answer to the question of why God doesn’t stop people from causing the suffering of others, but with this post I have. I tire of you so angrily and condescendingly bypassing that fact.)

  • Christy

    This statement seems to presume God as a being.

  • Christy

    Marcus Borg and others have famously said, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in, and we may find I don’t believe in that god either.

  • vini

    I see where you’re coming from, TB. To help clarify, here are some (radically simplified) definitions I go by:

    Belief: An acceptance that a statement is true.

    Trust: Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.

    Faith: Belief without evidence.

    However they define belief, the fact that some scientists or mathematicians believe in God is irrelevant. Some scientists also believe humans walked the Earth with dinosaurs. Some mathematicians believe in fairies.

    To answer your question, I try not to make any decision that isn’t based on some kind of objective truth. Little decisions matter less, of course. The more important the consequences of my decision, the more based in reality I want it to be, and the greater energy I will spend to procure sound judgement.

    Colloquially, we tend to conflate trust and faith. In this discussion, they are very different things. Faith is the excuse we give to believe things without evidence. The moment you have valid evidence to believe something, that is called trust.

    Life does not require faith. At all. When I go buy a used car I don’t just take the sales guy’s word, on faith, that the car is in perfect condition; I’ll go get it checked by a mechanic I trust. I don’t have faith that my partner loves me; I trust that because the historical line of evidence shows me so.

    Actually, faith gets in the way of truth (assuming we care about the truth). Look at all the things in the world that are taken to be true simply on faith: everything from silly magical rocks to religious fatwas; from laughable to downright scary. Faith is indistinguishable from gullibility, and definitely not a pathway to truth. That’s why science and rational thinking strive to remove subjectivity from the equation.

  • vini

    That’s true, you’re right. You did at least attempt. I was just trying to point her to the crux of my initial comment. My perceived condescendence is merely a reflection of her own, like suggesting that I “don’t get big words”… *sigh*

  • Elizabeth

    “Faith is indistinguishable from gullibility.” Yeah, that’s a different God you’re worshipping. Mine gave me a brain and the tools to use it.

  • V: If you’re going to damn my work with the very faint praise of “You did at least attempt it,” perhaps, before running on to your next point, you might consider elucidating where you think I’ve manifestly come up short. Cuz as far as I know (and as far as anyone has yet to show me in the years I’ve been presenting this argument) that place is nowhere.

    I’m all about rigorous logic and rationally supportable conclusions. If you see anywhere a flaw in the argument I’ve here presented, I’ll be the first to say that my case is untenable, and will humbly return to my blackboard.

  • Elizabeth

    Point me to the crux. Again with the bad porn dialogue. I’m very very very very very sorry you don’t get big words.

  • vini

    No problem.

    “I believe that God is beneficent, merciful, and kind. I believe that God is, in a word, good. (…) God is love.”

    I’m wondering how, exactly, did you reach the conclusion that God is all those things. Loving beings don’t let others suffer, under no circumstance, if within their power. Loving beings also don’t actively cause suffering, like turning their loved ones into pillars of salt and committing infanticide by drowning. So how would one tell the difference between a good god who allows and/or causes evil/suffering without explaining why, and an evil, or indifferent, god?

    “When we are with God in the afterlife, we will know that all, after all, is perfectly fine. That everything is okay.”

    So regardless of what pain and suffering exists here, heaven will balance out the scales? Interestingly, this was often used by religious authorities to justify torture and murder during the many inquisitions and crusades. The victims’ temporary agony was justified if it saved them from the eternal agony of hell. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with the argument, rather it’s a conclusion that it doesn’t matter if there is evil, rather than address the logical consequence of a deity incompatible with an evil filled world.

    “What I believe is that God allows people to cause suffering in others, because his love for all of us prohibits him from violating the free will of any of us.”

    First, free will does nothing to absolve god of suffering that has zero to do with the choices we make. Hurricanes, for instance, appear to be a creation of God’s that just kill whoever happens to be in their way. Ditto the earthquakes he made. Ditto the wide assortment of animals with sharp teeth that are both faster and stronger than we, and that also think we’re delicious.

    Second, why, exactly, is evil a necessary side-effect of free will? We don’t need every option in order to have free will. Go outside and try to jump over your house. You can’t do it, you simply do not have that option. But you can kick it, hug it, hang things on the walls, etc., so you still have free will. Free will doesn’t mean having every option (otherwise you would be able to leap over your house). In fact, God could take away your ability to kick your house and you would still have free will. So, if free will doesn’t mean having every option, why do we need the option to harm one another in order to have free will? Couldn’t the all-loving, all-knowing creator of everything have come up with a better game that couldn’t end up in parents burning their children with acid?

    The free will argument, as presented by you, does nothing to excuse God for suffering or his unwillingness to stop it. In fact, if that god does exist, the free will argument confirms only that he’s a sadist.

    “(…) Voila: I am no longer so burdened by the suffering of others that I become hopeless, bitter, and pessimistic.”

    In my opinion, being realistic about our human condition — including the reality of suffering and the improbability of an afterlife — should have a sobering and opposite effect on us. It should motivate us to take better care of each other. To work harder to find ways to alleviate our brothers’ and sisters’ pain. To strive for common ground and understanding. No need to hold out for something better. We can make good happen here and now.

  • Elizabeth


  • Sigh.

    Between this post, the post linked within it (Why does God allow evil to exist?), the post linked to within that post (There’s nothing natural about “natural” evil), and a post I mentioned in the comments here earlier today (Why doesn’t God just prove he exists?), I’ve already absolutely answered the whole of each of your criticisms/questions. So … if I had anything else to say, I would.

    Just for the record, or whatever, I’m not trying to sell you or anybody else on God, or Christianity, or … anything at all. I wrote this post as a very specific answer to a very specific question that I often get asked. It’s a good question that deserves a good answer. If the answer I’ve given here were available anywhere else that I know of, I’d simply link to it whenever anyone asked me this question. But it isn’t (again, that I know of), so I had to write the answer myself. Which of course I’m happy, and actually feel privileged, to do.

    But I’ve been doing this a long time. I understand that 99.9999999% of the time, people show up to conversations like this already filled with strong and absolute convictions, which no mere words of mine are about to do anything to undermine. And that’s more than okay with me. It’s just … not a thing with me. I have a problem with anyone claiming that my reasoning is inadequate–or, at the very least, I always make it very clear that I’m sincerely open to learning where my reasoning is inadequate or in any way lacking. Because that’s important; if you’re going to defend your ideas about God, you better be on your game. So of course I’ve got that horse in the race–which I have to have, because I am speaking to the .00000001% who are genuinely open to resolution. But as to what anyone else thinks, or why, or anything like that? That’s got nothing to do with me. That’s between every person and themselves, period. So I don’t trip about that.

  • Don Rappe

    I like the opening thought that the question asked by a faithful one is different from the question asked by an apparently faithless one. Much of the commentary serves to highlight this distinction. It is as unpassable as the gulf that separated the Rich Man from Poor Lazarus in the parable. The universe as I understand it is completely determined in time, space and phase of the (quantum) wave function. By use of these metaphors I can get a pretty good handle on physical reality. I discuss these sort of things in a kind of black and white way consistent with the great body of evidence that has been accumulated and scrupulously tested and analyzed. In describing my perception of spiritual reality I need to make use of a whole different palette of colors because the great body of evidence which has been collected is tested by as many different ways as there are conscious spirits. Poetic images seem to be most appropriate rather than mathematical logic.

    God reveals himself to me as loving, not necessarily as existent. I feel God’s love and notice that others do as well. For most of us this seems to imply some sort of existence, although I prefer the term reality which distinguishes it from an illusion. For me, any questions about good and evil, angels and demons or other concepts are subordinate to the reality of love. John points out there is plenty of Biblical witness to this. One of my favorites is the prophesy given through Moses to the faithful: “I have borne you up on Eagle’s wings.”

  • TB

    “Faith is the excuse we give to believe things without evidence.”

    There are different types of evidences. There is evidence through reasoning, through our senses, through our experiences, through our outcomes and results. Some of which, are faulty, of course. But some of which are trustworthy because they hold true over time. I name those things “eternal truths.” Truths that last and are not only situational or circumstantial. I base my faith in these truths about God on that kind of evidence. Not on scientific evidence. The bible is not a science book but a book about how to live ones life in relationship with the living God. There are many gods that have no real power to influence us. But my living God does influence me. I don’t expect you to understand this or agree with it but to accept that for it is true and I place my trust in it because I’ve experienced evidence that testifies to its truth.

    “The moment you have valid evidence to believe something, that is called trust.”

    I think we found where the disconnect may be between our line of thought and reasoning. The word “valid.” What makes something valid to one person and not to another? How do we know if something is valid? What are we basing our definition upon? Who decides what is valid?

    “Actually, faith gets in the way of truth (assuming we care about the truth).”

    Here’s another place of disconnect for us. Seeking truth requires faith especially when (and it is only a question of when in this life) we are in a circumstance or situation where we do not know the answers, we don’t know what the truth is, we are lost and confused and in pain and filled with despair because we either can’t see the evidence or we cannot find it or we will not be convinced by it or satisfied with less than what we name “absolute proof.” As change is the only constant in this life, I find absolute proof a rarity but let’s just say that it does exist. Some people won’t believe in something without “absolute proof.” Even though there are evidences that point to that truth – that’s not enough for them. And that’s their right and decision to make. Freedom to wait for more evidence. Freedom to continue seeking. Freedom to remain unconvinced.

    I choose the freedom of faith. And I believe in the way that Jesus taught to seek after truth. The truth shall set you free, is what he said. I trust him that it will every day of my life. And every day I seek to live in truth and to see reality and take responsibility for what I’m shown to be true.

    This is my working definition of faith.

  • vj

    “something else entirely is going on”


  • DR

    What is the opposite of freedom? Is that a life without suffering?

  • DR

    Vini, I hate to break it to you but the lens through which you choose to see all of this is just that – a lens. Some people approach a world where every intangible and every paradox must be viewed through the filter of rationality until it is seen, viable, and provable in order to make sense of the world and have confidence in how to navigate. Yet in the end? That’s a filter you and others choose to make sense of this thing we call “reality”. You’re no different than those who choose to apply a lens of faith, I suspect what makes you different is that you believe your filter is the real world. And no one will be able to convince you it’s just another perspective.

  • DR

    You’re setting up straw men with each comment you make in order to remain right. Be right! No one cares, really, that’s fine, you get to have the last word on what defines what a loving God is and the criteria that one would sensibly use to decide if s/he exists. But I’m always fascinated by what motivates someone to debate it with such ferocity if in the end, you’re right, God does not exist and none of this matters.

  • DR

    Where in the world does God condemn anyone to eternal hell for our failure to “understand” Him? I’ve never heard that from even the most conservative of Christian theologists.

  • vj

    I am not desperate to rationalize anything. Where you see apathy on the part of God, I see failure on the part of people to give full expression to the love that God wants us to have for ourselves and for one another. Both Old and New Testaments repeatedly exhort us to care for the weak, defend the vulnerable, uphold justice, love our neighbors. I have seen loved ones suffer and find comfort in a lived experience of God impacting powerfully in their lives, and have found comfort myself in times of distress, in a tangible manner that simply felt, to me, like something external to myself. I have heard/read countless testimonies from strangers as to the real changes they have experienced in their lives after what they characterize as encounters with God (John’s storage room encounter being one of these). It’s clear that you do not find these stories to be credible/meaningful, but for me it is only the hope that they ARE true, and that God IS right here, that keeps me from utter despair at the human condition. If there is no God then there is no hope, and I just can’t stand to think like that.

  • vj


  • vj

    “I place my trust in it because I’ve experienced evidence that testifies to its truth”

    This is what I think/do too.

  • vj

    From a Christian perspective, God knows that we don’t understand Him. That’s why He incarnated Himself as Jesus, who lived and taught and demonstrated God in a way that we CAN understand – love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness. Jesus did not cause anyone to suffer, and was frequently moved to alleviate the suffering of those He encountered. Jesus instructed us to LOVE, to repay evil with good, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter to the homeless, love the ‘least’ – in short, to go beyond just not causing suffering to being proactive about preventing it, and to be His agents of healing and comfort. And then, on the Cross, He took upon Himself ALL the suffering and evil, from paper-cuts to genocide, and that through this He has ultimately defeated all evil (even though we still evil at work, I believe that ultimately it will not prevail – I know that you are not persuaded by the ‘eternal justice’ argument, but that is what I believe).

    You want to know how I can believe in a God that allows evil to exist? Because, as a Christian, I believe that He knows more about suffering than I can begin to comprehend, and that He – more than anything – wants us to choose to stop hurting one another, and is more than able to comfort and heal us when we do suffer.

  • Steven Waling

    If we’re ever to get a theodicy worth living for, then we’re going to have to knock God off his throne. The divine Dictator model, who deigns to grant us the free will to screw ourselves up big time, is nothing more than a divine passing of the buck. Oh, thanks for that, it’s my fault that this volcanic soil next to an active volcano is the most fertile in the world so if I want to eat well I’ve got to move there is it? Just as it’s about to blow its top?

    The other consequence of the Big Boss view of God is that I can blame God for what I do. I hate you because God told me to. I’m invading your country because I’m bringing you my God at the point of a bayonet. God told me to kill you.

    If God is to mean anything then he has to come down off that throne of his, his spirit has to be in all of us (not just the holy ones) and around us (not just in steeple houses and cathedrals). Before I became a Christian, I used to have these fantasies of storming heaven for the proletarian revolution and dragging God the Divine Dictator off his throne (I was brought up Commie). In Jesus, of course, God has already done that, at least symbollically; but I still think we cling to the notion that God is in charge. And in this world, that God is as much use as a chocolate fireguard.

  • Lymis

    For what it’s worth, Angela, those people piss me off, too. And even worse are the insensitive monsters who tell a grieving parent that God killed their child for a good reason and if they had enough faith, they’d be thrilled about it.

    But that just means that their (and often our) ideas about God are wrong, not that God doesn’t exist and that God isn’t good. There are a LOT of stupid stories being told about God all the time, often by people who mean well.

    God’s primary command is to love, not to understand. And loving doesn’t mean we can’t feel our hurts, and love does demand that we comfort others who are hurting, not that we try to explain away anyone’s pain.

  • Lymis

    vini, one of the things that amazes me about so many people who claim to approach all this rationally and scientifically is that so often, they don’t.

    I haven’t the slightest idea what you believe, but most of the people who speak in the way you do seem to be just as irrational about religion as the believers they condemn.

    I know people who find it completely sensible and logical and rational to say that of course human beings can’t understand, much less experience, everything there is to know about star formation, subatomic particles, or as yet undiscovered things about black holes, dark matter, or the mechanism of some aspects of evolution – there’s enough evidence that something is going on, it’s rational to explore it as much as possible, but that not being able to explain every tiny detail doesn’t completely invalidate what we do know, it just recognizes areas of doubt and uncertainty regarding the details.

    And yet, they refuse to treat religion and God the same way. Even though the idea of God and the extent of God’s creation is at the very least as vast as the ideas of modern physics, any individual who can’t explain and defend every possible paradox or area of uncertainty is deluded. In utter defiance of anything resembling scientific thought, there is no room for anything unexplained, any doubt, or any paradox – even in an area of human experience that is specifically focused on dealing with precisely those areas.

    The claim that science disproves the existence of God is one of the least scientific claims in human history.

  • Lymis

    When you oversimplify the question, whether to create a straw man, as you appear to be doing, or simply from ignorance, of course you’re going to get simplistic answers, and those answers are going to bite their own tails and break down.

    If this whole topic were as basic and childish as you are making it out to be, the only answers would be as childish as you seem to assume that they are. But many of us see the questions themselves as far more nuanced than you’re making them out, and are perfectly capable of including in the concept things like conditions that someone has no control over.

    At the same time, I completely agree with your last statement, and I have a hard time imagining you’re any more frustrated and exasperated with people who use religion as an excuse not to love their neighbors and works for social change than I am. And as far as I am concerned, the belief in or lack of belief in God, or gods, is independent of that – there are at least as many perfectly valid and compelling purely humanistic reasons for loving one’s neighbor and fighting poverty, violence, sexual assault, ignorance, and sickness as there are religions ones.

    Religion should simply inspire and enflame all the same purely secular reasons for working for social justice and the improvement of the human condition. Any time religion papers over it or “turns it over to God” in the sense of absolving people of doing anything, religion has lost its way. And yes, people who are okay with the sexual violation of children (among the many evils of the world) really do suck at being people.

    But just as dropping a nuclear bomb doesn’t invalidate physics – it’s a horrendous misapplication of the principles of physics – condoning child rape doesn’t invalidate religion. It makes anyone who uses religion as a cover for such behavior that much more of a monster, and says something scathing about people who focused on the coverup rather than the children. Blaming God, though, is misunderstanding the whole sordid and f’d up situation.

  • Jill

    I really like this, TB. Thanks for saying it.

  • I do, too. Thanks, Jill (and vj) for affirming what TB’s said.

  • This is going to sound so trite, but oh well. I agree completely, Brent. My meditation practice has entirely shown this to me.

  • NO. the opposite of freedom is oppression, of zero potential, of having your decisions made for you, and getting zero say in the matter. No freedom means utter dependence, complete helplessness, trapped in an existence you cannot enjoy, change or escape.

    Infants start out that way, but maturity gives that little one freedom as it develops. Freedom to speak, to grow, freedom to move, freedom to experiment, to make mistakes to learn what love is, and anger and wonder and delight. Without freedom, we are forever infants.

  • Good points Dekortage.

    a. Pain is often very good. It can let us know that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Or it reminds us that doing something is most certainly not good for us. It also can help prompt empathy,assistance and companionship, all wonderful traits.

    b. All pleasure certainly isn’t good. There are things that people do that give them pleasure and cause pain to others, or actions that eventually cause pain and personal catastrophe to oneself. That isn’t good.

    c. Totally agree.

  • vj

    Dearest, most amazing Lymis – truly, I thank God that you share so much on this blog. You ROCK!

  • Christy

    The opposite of freedom is living in unreality. There is truth (and freedom) in knowing that the truth will set you free.

    Intellectually we know everyone dies, sickness happens, and accidents occur. Why is it that we think it should never happen to us or someone we love?

    Into every life some rain will fall. It’s pointless to be pissed that it rains.

    Jung said: “Neurosis (living in unreality) is always a [poor] substitute for legitimate suffering.”

    And M. Scott Peck: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

    Another smart person: The sum of human unhappiness lies in wanting things to be not as they are. And we struggle against reality in vain.

    Acceptance of What Is is the first step to freedom. I find little comfort in the hope that one day the lost paradise will be restored. I have found a great deal of peace in accepting that shit happens.

  • vj

    well, now I’m having an attack of the warm-and-fuzzies 😉

  • Jill

    You’re good for me. I’m gonna keep you around. 🙂

  • Jill

    The BEST kind of attack to have. 🙂

  • mike moore

    A “let’s agree to disagree” moment.

    God is unwilling to interact with us, in a more direct way, because the psychological pressure of our knowing He actually IS God will diminish our free will? Divine peer pressure? Sorry, don’t buy it.

    Jesus was a one-time deal, 2000 years ago, in a dusty corner of the globe? No one outside of Palestine gets to participate? Sorry, don’t buy it.

    I’m sticking with my “clockmaker” theology. God created a spiritual world and this big beautiful tactile world and has now stepped back, with a “let’s see what these free-spirits do with it” attitude. He might enjoy, or be heartbroken, at our prayers, but He doesn’t act on them.

  • That your free will would cease to exist as you know it if God proved himself objectively, verifiably true isn’t a matter of debate. It’s NECESSARILY true.

    You lost me with your Jesus/Palestine point. It doesn’t seem to address too much of anything specific I said.

    It’s certainly cool with me if you keep on believing whatever you do, mate:

    And, to be clear, I never said that God does act upon our prayers.

  • Jill

    It’s interesting that I find myself somewhere in between what John has said and what you’re saying here, mike.

    I choose to believe that God acts in this world all the time, but in less perceptible ways than I’d like. I relate to the idea that God’s voice is heard as a whisper. I choose these beliefs, but it doesn’t mean I can quantify it in some tangible way.

    I choose to believe that every one of us is a messenger of Christ’s compassion every day, but that we have the option not to hear the calling and instead be assholes to each other. I choose to believe all of us are intended to be God’s ground force if that’s what we elect to be.

    I don’t particularly care for or agree with the ‘God as Parent’ notion, since for me, that has made him a deadbeat dad. (Even though I still frequently blame that old bearded Father-figure that way… like I said, work in progress.)

    So, what other ‘God as’ possibility would make him make some sense to all that truly happens down here in our own special hades?

    My working theory: God as Partner. Again, work in progress.

  • Charlie Shore

    Why do you people waste time and energy on such pointless minutiae? Like Joe Friday says, “Just the facts, m’am”. Well, here’s the facts:

    1) Tens of thousands of particle physicists have gathered tens of millions of data points all pointing to the same conclusion: Everything we can observe in the known Universe has come about, and continues to behave, exclusively through natural forces. Thanks to CERN and similar particle accelerators, we now have beautiful descriptions of both matter and energy, to nearly the Planck length of 10(-35) m and the Planck time of 10(-44) seconds. If you knew even a little about quanutm physics, you’d soon realize that little if any of this came about by classical Newtonian physics (e.g., not everything has to come from something). Sure, there”s still a lot of work ahead, but a tremendous groundbreaking is well under way.

    2) Results from the ultra-small end of the scale have been corroborated by astrophysicists, at huge distances. Thanks to devices such as the Hubble and Webb telescopes, we have been able to reach close to the the very early origins of the known Universe (some 13.7 billion years ago). Scientist have accurately predicted and observed the distribution of temperature gradients and the clumping of small groups of matter into energy-intensive star precursors. Moving further along the temporal scale, they have been able to both provide highly replicable explanations for such entities as galaxies, black holes, and asteroids, among many others.

    3) Biblical myths about the origins of everything are simply that — myths. They were formulated by individuals who neither had the background knowledge nor an understanding of the rigorous methodology that a proper scientific approach demands. As such, they fall in the same category as Greek, Roman, Norse, Babylonian, and countless other mythologies interwoven through ancient history.

    4) Those myths were carried down, usually by mouth, over generations. Many Biblical myths have been traced down to both geographically and chronologically disconnected parts of the Middle East, and therefore have no uniformity or internal consistency. Sure, some of the individuals described in the Bible were actual living people, but that doesn’t qualify these scrolls as anything resembling an actual history.

    5) For those fundies out there — do you actually believe the world was created in 7 days? Even if each day corresponded to 2 billion years, the sequence of events is all off. For example, stars were not created all at once; rather, they have been born and died throughout time whenever the proper geophysical conditions were met. Noah’s Ark? Really? How do you account for the fact that many species are asexual reproducers? How do you account for the facts that many species would be unable to survive that kind of adventure, or that predators would tear apart prey when put together in a confined environment? And what about the species that were unknown in ‘Noah’s time’, and others that had yet to be discovered? There are countless other examples I could provide, but the bottom line is — use a little bit of reason, man!

    6) The proof is inconvertible that species evolve from a common ancestor by means of natural selection. The evidence for evolution comes from a multiplicity of sources, including the fossil record; studies of geomorphology and ice cores; laboratory studies; field work; and, of course, genetics. And if you don’t believe in the process of evolution, then you better through out those prescription drugs — because around 80% of them were made possible because of our understanding of evolutionary concepts.

    7) There simply isn’t enough evidence, one way or the other, to validate the existence of someone named Jesus. If he did exist, then there are certains aspects of his life (such as his rabbinical teaching and the crucifixion) that are credible, given the time period. But insofar as the ‘miracles’ — again, these were probably just simply myths perpetrated by illogical, supersticious people, that got propagated and contorted throughout time. As far as his being the son of god – well – there have been many such claims through the centuries, including those of Charlie Manson.

    8) History indicates a maelstrom of myth-making in the centuries leading up to Christ’s supposed birth, from which the Judaeo-Christian tradition borrowed heavily. Mithras, for example, was the product of a virgin birth. Mark, who was fluent in Greek, described Christ’s suffering in an very Odysseus-like fashion, and Jesus’ supposed life and rebirth closely paralled Adonis’, who preceded Jesus by centuries. So, beyond all the hype, there’s not much new in the Jesus story.

    9) The 4 ‘accepted’ gospels of Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are fraught with incoherencies and inconsistencies. First, they were apparently written decades after Christ’s supposed death. That’s plenty of time for the miscommunication and embellishment engines to do their dirty work. Second, a variety of other gospels, some of which may have been written years earlier, have recently come to light. Theodosius, in league with the fledgling Church, banned the Gnostic Gospels, apparently for being heretical to the ‘accepted’ teachings. Again, these other documents are largely incompatible with the other teachings, and further reinforce the possibility that little of the actual story has any validity.

    So no, Joe, ‘god’ doesn’t create suffering, any more than he?? she?? it?? creates quasars, rocks, ponds, dandelions, humans, or spirituality. Open up some recent scientific and historical literature, expand your horizons, and come to a more gratifying, well-researched, and sophisticated world view. It’s tough sledding, but the trip is well worth it!

  • Elizabeth

    Charlie Shore. Funny, in a condescending kind of way. I suggest you start with Mark. It’s the shortest and the most angular.

  • Elizabeth

    Sorry. How’s the sledding?

  • Charlie: Annnnnd WHOOMP! THERE IT IS!

    Dang, dude. That is the most awesome comment in the history of typing.

    A. I have zero reason to have any problem at all with anything you’ve said here; what sane person would?

    B: Are you my cousin that I’ve never met? (Not that I’ve ever met one of my cousins, or … any of my aunts and uncles.) You are, right? If you are, let me just say that it’s not at all difficult to believe that you and I are related. I mean … you know. Clearly you’re a maniac.

  • Hannah Grace

    That’s exactly the part that spoke most to me. Glad it spoke to someone else, too 🙂

  • Hannah Grace

    That’s actually my favorite verse, the despair one.

    I agree with pretty much everything you said here, to some degree – though I would hesitate to say that suffering is ever God’s will, which is what “it works for good” quickly becomes. I feel like suffering happens despite God’s will, but God made us resilient and God creates good out of evil, and in his image, we do as well. What do you think?

    Thanks for this.

  • Hannah Grace

    Sure, I see that she only used examples of human evil. I give you that, and I read your article.

    I don’t mean any offense, but that analysis seems to be a bit of a cop-out. Job challenged God about innocent suffering in a way you don’t seem keen to allow. In a society like many European countries, where the community has come together and organized health care for everyone, there are still children who are born with horrible diseases and have incredible suffering, even though the entire community cares for them, and there is a social safety net ensuring the family has the resources they need to care for them. And you say they’re not allowed to question why God created horrible diseases? Yet they have done all the things you require people to do, before they can ask God.

    In many situations, when there is a tragedy, human beings come together to care for one another. Yet tragedies still happen. Sure, maybe we can only ask why God created a planet which requires violence in order for life to exist, but don’t you find it more honest to question God right now? It doesn’t mean not committing to God – I find that the people scared to ask questions of God are the ones who think that their belief system will fall apart if there are no easy answers.

  • David S.

    Hi Hannah,

    Again, you get straight to the crux of this question;) I think (once again) I’m in a minority opinion here. Clearly, we are not God’s puppets or pawns; we have free will, and man’s inhumanity to man is undeniable. But, if human suffering is not God’s will, at least I’m pretty sure He knows what’s going to happen and uses the bad stuff for greater good. This plays out vividly in the narrative of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

    I agree that it is our human and Christian obligation to diminish harm and hurt, and I know I could do much more on that front. It’s easy to see God in the kindnesses of strangers; I should be that stranger more often.

    However, when illnesses or natural disasters strike, that brings a brand of suffering that can’t be blamed on humanity’s evil. So, ultimately, I do believe that God allows suffering and that, through a certain lens, it can be viewed as a gift. In the same way that guilt, love, and pride can be both destructive or helpful; I believe adversity, and our response to it, has the same duality.

    I know it sounds trite and facile, but I do believe that God uses human suffering for a greater good. That’s cold comfort to the person suffering (I know from experience), but that’s the best I know how to believe and live out my faith.

    Best to you, Hannah Grace!

  • Christy

    Hi Hannah and David,

    I hear both of you on the matter of God’s will, bad things happening and the good that may (or may not) come of it. I fall more closely in agreement with Hannah and here is why. I think it is evidenced in the life and teachings of Jesus that God’s will is that none should suffer and that creation is made whole. David’s statement, I think, presumes some things that may not be true. 1) whatever happens is God’s will 2) God intended for bad things to befall us in order to teach us life lessons and help us grow 3) natural disasters are in no way human-caused but are God ordained

    I think all three of these presume too much. As I wrote above: the lesson missed too often in Job is not that God was testing Job’s faith, but rather it highlights the human reality that -rich or poor, faithful or unfaithful – bad things happen to us all. It’s not a punishment – so don’t lose faith in God. God comforts us in our grief – but is not the cause of it. Life is difficult. This is the reality of what is. Unless we affirm predestination, it is a mistake under a free will paradigm to say that everything that happens is God’s will.

  • David S.

    Hi Christy,

    God, I always love your comments. I’m so glad you’ve been engaging in this discussion. I learn a ton from you.

    I was listening to an interview with Sylvia Boornstein, a Jewish Buddhist, yesterday. She was talking about how adversity and suffering are not the same concept; suffering is a reaction to adversity that we have some capacity to control. I think there’s some truth in that, and that notion seems pretty aligned with your comment.

    I’m not really weighing in on the question of whether or not it’s Gods will for pain and suffering to happen. That’s unknowable and, in my view, trying to figure it out is theological folly. I’m loathe to believe that the holocaust was God’s will; at the same time, I don’t believe he was unable to intervene. The bigger, mind-bending question is: is God’s allowing suffering to happen the same thing as His sanctioning it?

    What I AM saying is yes, God allows adversity to happen and is able to use the attendant suffering for a greater good.

    I’m totally down with your “shit happens” paradigm. I wholly agree with you that, contrary to our human conception of fairness, bad stuff happens to even good people and that it’s a mistake to view adversity as punitive.

  • Jill

    Ooh, mind-bending… I like. I’m careful with saying this, not to start a brawl or anything, but the only thing that has made sense for me about suffering is Hinduistic reincarnation and karma. I haven’t found anything comparable in Christianity though.

    Adversity as punishment, I think, is the creation of fundamentalism to keep people in fear, to ‘self-police’, as it were. In that context–if you’re struggling, I can be sympathetic, but I really don’t have to invest any effort in helping you because you must have ‘earned it’ somehow. Easier to write a person off as a faithless one and less heavy lifting!

  • David S.

    I know two professional Christians who faced a crisis of faith when their marriages fell apart. They felt like they had done everything right and played by God’s rules, yet it didn’t work out. Both of these individuals now work on behalf of the LGBT community in large part due to their reassessment of their faith in the face of adversity.

    So I think your right that the “all men get what they deserve” mentality is a convenient excuse not to care, at least until one personally experiences pain that one feels is undeserved.

  • vj

    “God as Partner” is a pretty cool concept – my pastor keeps saying that God invites us to participate with Him in what He is doing on the earth. We’re not supposed to be passive recipients of love and grace, we are supposed to be actively spreading love and grace to others… The whole point of God’s covenant with Abraham was that He would bless Abraham and his descendents so that they could be a blessing to the whole earth, not so that they could grow rich and build fancy palaces, etc.

  • Lymis

    I think you have, quite amusingly, aimed this diatribe at entirely the wrong audience.

    All the same, while with a few exceptions as to detail, all you’ve described is mechanism, not meaning or experience.

    I could write a similar piece telling you that you’ve never been frightened or happy, or excited, in love, or aroused, because “all that is simply neurochemicals, hormones, and electrical impulses in your brain.”

    I could write a similar piece saying that there is no such thing as a birthday cake, because it’s all just sugars and carbohydrates, or even just atoms and molecules, and that the only actual “experience” involved is nutritional.

    Those, and any other reductionist “explanations” for human experience fall flat, because they don’t match our experience. Sure, when I have emotions and experiences, they are experienced through the mechanisms that can largely be explained by physical and biological science, but that’s as meaningless in its own way as saying that a movie is “only” flickering light and vibrating speaker membranes. Bah. Reality often has many layers. Focusing on one doesn’t invalidate the others.

    “Fundies” are bit thin on the ground here – you must be new, because not all that long ago there were a couple of highly commented on threads about evolution (we’re largely on its side) and other science sorts of things. The knee jerk “religion equals opposition to science” is sadly often valid, but not around her. Nor is the knee-jerk echo chamber assumption that everyone posting on a religion-oriented blog is an orthodox believer, or even a believer at all.

    But you’ve got some glaring issues in your piece, such as when you dismiss myths as “just that- myths” – apparently you don’t know what a myth even is. Nor do your sweeping statements of all the various things that science has “incontrovertibly proved” (something science, by its nature cannot do, so be careful where you sling around those “if you knew even a little about…” comments when you are horrendously misrepresenting science itself) – ahem – sufficiently allow for all the places where current, valid, documented science has broad areas of unknown, undefined, and unexplained areas, nor where things like “random chance” and “quantum uncertainty” are used as a sort of secular hand-waving to fit “hell, we don’t know” into a scientific structure.

    Most of what you say would be perfectly valid (and I’d be cheering you on) in a forum that was largely spouting anti-science and fundamentalist dogma. This isn’t one of them, and you’re making assumptions (like, we’re all scientifically illiterate) that are unwarranted.

    And learn what a myth is, for God’s sake.

  • Allie

    If John will excuse me for putting words in his mouth, I believe that the answer as to why he believes God is love is not that he BELIEVES that, but that he KNOWS that, by personal revelation and experience, as he has explained elsewhere when talking about his conversion. Which admittedly doesn’t do you much good. But having personally experienced something and knowing it, he then is in the position of trying to reconcile the different things he knows about his experience. God IS love: fact. Life is suffering: fact. How do those two facts fit together? The result is his theory about free will, which he believes to be the best theory to explain the observed facts. It’s all surprisingly scientific.

  • TB aka Tera

    We are all unified on this aspect and that seems to point to some evidence that there’s truth in placing trust in evidence and testing to see if things are actually what they say they are or what we actually think they are, etc. 🙂 I’m glad we could end this in a way where we all found some common ground.

  • Hannah Grace

    To be honest, I am at a loss. How can I believe in a God who could have intervened in the Holocaust, but just chose not to? People who shrug that question off easily are not respecting the tragedy involved. There was a huge shift in theological thinking after the Holocaust.

    I’m not sure what I believe. I don’t think God allows suffering to happen in order to teach us a lesson – the fact that it can is just grace. And when John shrugs off momentary suffering because heaven is forever, I wonder – if there is no hell, an we all go to heaven, why is God allowing the earth to continue existing in its present state? Shrugging off suffering is easy if you’re comfortable, but for women being raped and tortured, for example, it’s not so easy. It’s a cheap position unless it takes into account that suffering is avoidable, God can do something about it, and God chooses not to. We could argue that God created everything perfectly and humans brought suffering into the world through sin, but I am not a fundamentalist, and there was no literal fall. A lot of what we call “sin” is due to how God created the world – God created a world with horrible death, suffering, and a system of competitive, dog-eat-dog survival and then when humans live according to the instincts they have been given and a nature common to everyone, they are somehow condemned.

    I believe in God, but the narrative doesn’t make sense, and no one looks at the big questions. They just ignore them with “well, humans should have been better”, which is a total cop-out, especially to humans trying their best to be good, and “God is mysterious”. I still trust God, but how can any of this be reconciled? I have no answer to any athiest who asks me how I reconcile my faith to these clear paradoxes. To be honest, this is why anyone who says “Christianity makes sense, and it’s a logical religion” seems to be only dealing with it on a surface level.

  • Hannah Grace

    This reply is so smooth, that I want to ask a couple questions because maybe there is something I am just not getting. I’m going to repeat part of a previous comment – I hope that’s ok.

    We could argue that God created everything perfectly and humans brought suffering into the world through sin, but I am not a fundamentalist, and there was no literal fall. A lot of what we call “sin” is due to how God created the world – God created a world with horrible death, suffering, and a system of competitive, dog-eat-dog survival and then when humans live according to the instincts they have been given and a nature common to everyone, they are somehow condemned.

    I believe in God, but the narrative doesn’t make sense, and no one looks at the big questions. They just ignore them with “well, humans should have been better”, which is a total cop-out – humans evolved from animals, and evolved their morality, and although we are trying to develop to be better, to hold us accountable for still being part way through the process seems ridiculous.

    For God to create a horribly violent world, and then for billions of years later, for humans to evolve, be violent, and then be condemned for it, makes no sense.

    I love the God that is revealed in Jesus, but I cannot understand how the God revealed in Jesus could be anything like the God revealed in nature or in creation. How can I perceive creation as God’s handiwork?

    And if God allows evil to happen to teach us a lesson – why, since we will all be ignorant until Christ is revealed? So many babies die without learning lessons and go to heaven. Why do others have to suffer first? If there is no hell, why not just end this suffering world and bring us all to heaven? It makes no sense.

  • Matt


    Maybe I can take a crack at it. Not guarantees that I can clarify everything, but maybe I can be of help.

    Without getting too personal here, I have experienced a lot of interpersonal trauma. At least one of those people was hurt first and took it out on me. At least one was just being pointlessly cruel. At least one thought that they were helping me, but for whatever reason ignored the signs that they were injuring me.

    That then begs the question: At what point should God have intervened with each of them? For number one, probably preventing them being hurt in the first place. For number two, that’s easy: Stay their hand completely. But number three? The one who assumed that they were assisting me? Where then?

    That’s the trouble with using examples like the Holocaust. A horrible, horrible thing, no doubt. But entirely too clear-cut to then use to tear down the whole premise. Interpersonal trauma/violence/evil is as complex as the people committing it. Free will is the only satisfactory answer for such shades of grey.

    What’s more, what about the evil of silence? The Armenian genocide (1915-1923) was, I would argue, nearly as heinous as the Holocaust. Yet we hear little about it, thus compounding the pain. Being made quiet is another way of injuring. Should God force our mouths open? And what will He make us say?

    I only mean to shed a little bit more light, not insult your intelligence or say that you are insensitive, Hannah. You’re right–it is hard to reconcile, in the moment.

  • Anne

    Elizabeth, do you really think parables were meant to be puzzles ? I believe Jesus taught in parables to explain (to obviously a pretty confused audience) what he meant when he was trying to explain spiritual truth (to say “well it’s like this”….I equate the parable of the fig tree to his meaning ” every tree (person), no matter what the season (circumstance) should be bearing fruit (being seen for their works/love) and if that’s not the case should be cut down, roots and all ( to regenerate/ transform, to be the “tree” it was created to be). Could totally have it all wrong tho, that’s just my spin on it.

  • Tami

    Reading this right now. Thought it might be of interest to you. I think my experience over the past several years, in ways reflects the author’s experience of being disillusioned by the inconsistencies between religious doctrine and the actions of supposed followers, and specifically how the question of suffering has never been sufficiently answered.

  • Obviously, I disagree with the assertion that the question of suffering has never been sufficiently answered, since with the above I believe that I’ve sufficiently answered it. And (for the ten trillionth time) you can’t blame Christianity itself for the fact that Christians sometimes don’t live up to its ideals. Bad schools doesn’t mean education sucks.

  • Tami

    Hey John, I think even when one doesn’t agree with a viewpoint, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be gleaned from the examination into another perspective. Also, just because you’ve sufficiently answered it for yourself, doesn’t necessarily mean that will be true for everyone here 🙂 I agree that you can’t blame Christianity for people who don’t live up to the ideals, but only in a situation where you pick and choose the ideals you agree with and cull out others, can you have a Christianity that doesn’t, at some point, tell followers to bring suffering and punishment to others. I know you have a set of things that you subscribe to as your beliefs as a Christian. I like your list. Other people obviously see the “right” parts as different than yours. All of these ideas are based on The Bible as the “handbook” for Christians. It is all supposed to be in there, perfect and complete; this is where the problems come in. I’m just not sure I believe that about The Bible, and it is hard to separate Christianity from that. Anyway…interesting book so far.

  • “All of these ideas are based on The Bible as the “handbook” for Christians.” Some people might base their ideas on the conviction that the Bible is a handbook for Christians, but I sure don’t. I often argue that the Bible is anything but a “handbook.”

  • vj

    As my husband likes to say: the sun doesn’t rise or set – the earth turns. But witnessing a spectacular sunrise or sunset (and yes, we do sometimes call them earth-turns around my house 😉 ) can still be a transcendent experience – there is definitely more to the meaning of life than the pure mechanics of how the physical world operates.

  • Tami
  • brmckay


    Wonderful! I aspire to a fraction of this clarity.

  • brmckay


    For me, as long as there is a sense of otherness, God as God makes sense. I am like a duckling paddling behind it’s mother.

    But, contemplating the nature of God, reason and Intuition lead me away from separateness. When this understanding is strong, then God is completely everything. God as God does not exist and neither do I.

    Ebb and Flow.

    This process is itself the nature of God, experienced as mortal flesh.

    Losing track of the “neither do I” part of the equation is where we get in trouble. Then, knocking God off “his” throne just leaves us orphaned in a sea of pain and predation.

  • brmckay

    Here in Flatland. What’s for Dinner?

    Action and reaction. A play of shadows.

    Beyond the horizon. All one.

  • brmckay


    Lymis has said this very clearly but I will paraphrase (and probably distort) it a little.

    There are stages to the evolution of thought about, and the experience of , the nature of God. Quibbling with details of the levels that you have already past through, or leaped over, leaves you inattentive to the next thing. A better understanding unfolding right before your eyes. Or would be, if you turned around.

    The thing about God is just giving credit where credit is due. To the best of your current ability.

    Perhaps, you’re ready for more. It helps to not want or expect anything from enquiry. Perhaps just cultivating your curiosity.

    I personally don’t think in terms of free will, but rather freedom. First, however, I had to study on how I wasn’t really free already.

  • brmckay

    I like Brent’s summary. No problems mate.

    But instead of me following up by expounding on “karma”, “maya”, “reincarnation” etc. , I re-read John’s Post.

    Very elegant and succinct. No urgent need to complicate things. So I won’t.

  • brmckay

    We should stop anthropomorphizing God. Remember, we are missing pieces.

    For best results, turn it around the other way.

    The Dog eat Dog nature of things. Is the natural effect of splitting things into two. Without the tensions created in this way the world/universe would not be.

    There would be no journey back home since we would never have left.

    No love of God for man. No love of man for God.

    The Buddha would suggest that attachment to a different idea of reality than actually is, would be the root of suffering.

    I see practicing non-attachment as equivalent to “Trusting God”.

  • brmckay

    I would suggest that “hell” is created as a natural result of not understanding God. The cumulative actions of inverted souls.

    As for eternal. That can only ever mean now.

  • brmckay

    ” From a Christian perspective…I believe that He(God) knows more about suffering than I can begin to comprehend”

    From a not specifically Christian perspective; I would suggest that it not so much like God knows about suffering, but that it is God suffering through us.

    How else could it be.

    Also, this “free will” we talk about is not ours. Like suffering, it is God expressing free will in countless ways.

    This “us” we talk about can only be God wearing different hats.

    If it seems otherwise, that can only be the work of God, as the trickster thief, fooling himherself.

  • brmckay

    “It’s a pretty simple concept, really.”

    As any good metaphor should be.

    This one especially has legs on it.

  • brmckay

    Thank you for making this simple but vastly helpful point.

  • Elizabeth

    Hi Anne. Sorry. Totally missed this. That comment was informed by The Secrecy of Genesis: On the Interpretation of Narrative by Frank Kermode. Puzzle within a puzzle, kind of like a Buddhist koan. Short, dense book. Your view of Wisdom literature will never be the same.

  • brmckay

    Something is getting lost in this “wait till we die” or “badger God into fixing the world” debate. The concept of “Us Practicing Being Jesus”.

    Learning any skill to a mastery level involves a period of increasing effectiveness. Honing of efficiency to the point of effortlessness.

    Relative results depending on the apprentices level of commitment; weak/lukewarm/intense.

    The acolyte is guided by the Guru. (Why has nobody brought up the “Holy Ghost” anywhere in this Blog?) . The Teacher cannot do it for the student. Only point the way. The reason, is that the disciple’s goal is to perfectly assimilate the teachers skill/wisdom/being.

    To become a musician, you become music.

    If we are attached to our adoration of Jesus the work of salvation does not get finished. Just as surely as worldly attachment perpetuates suffering.

  • brmckay

    I find that getting out of the way is the only ticket.

    Has anyone noticed the clarity* of thought, as consciousness percolates up out of dreaming sleep?

    Before the busyness of habits and attitude sets in for the day.


    * ripe with authenticity

  • No way

    You completely avoided even looking at the hundreds of people that believe in god but starve to death painfully.

  • No way

    You just use a ton of metaphors but no actual believable evidence.

  • Linnea

    I like the co-creator concept as well… that God works through us.

    But more directly to the point, I think the reason God doesn’t more directly intervene is because He *can’t.* I was reading the classic book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” by Harold Kushner, and the author said that the usual assumption is that God is all-knowing, God is all-loving, and God is all-powerful. He went on to say that all three cannot be true. If God is all-loving, God cannot be all-powerful, and vice versa. I’m greatly simplifying it here, just because it’s been at least fifteen years since I read it and can’t remember the details. But that’s the best explanation I’ve come across, and the only one that really works for me. I prefer to believe that God *can’t* stop bad things from happening, but *can* be with us in our pain, being an unending source of love and comfort.

  • The evidence is Existence!

    This eternal Now!

    You have already decided that there is no evidence.

    In other words, you choose to be blind.

  • Even mathematics is metaphor.

    Upon what do you base your distinctions?

  • John Smith

    So why the hell do we need a god if it’s our responsibility to stop child murders and rapists?

    If he sits back and looks on and does nothing as innocent children are murdered and raped, you may as well just call him Satan.

    Why does he allow this if he is so “good”? If I were “Him” (yeah god is male, which actually explains the flaws in his character) I would want to do something to protect my reputation.

    Your god is totally useless.

    Atheist forever!!!

  • Christy

    For the same reason the sun doesn’t stop murderers and rapists.

  • Tadd Maffucci

    Interesting however i have to disagree. For me-and i truly think this is an individual journey-saying that all will be well in the end isn’t enough. If god is pure love and god is all powerful and god is here-then something is wrong. For me i have given up god being all powerful. Love personified, present in the midst of this pain wouldn’t allow the pain to continue if it could be stopped. this is the very same reason i don’t believe in literal “biblical” hell.I love my children and can’t imagine allowing them to suffer if i could stop it. Yet some believe that love perfected will allow millions of Her children to suffer eternally? Yeah no. So all this to say i think this is part of your faith journey and we need to be patient with each other. Saying all will be well in the sweet by and by isn’t good enough for me.

  • Sugarbush43

    I find it to be more simple than that. If we don’t know bad, then we can’t know good. If there’s never any suffering, trauma, sadness, anger, etc. then how will we ever know joy, happiness, goodness, calm, patience, etc.? We would take all that is good for granted and there would be no such thing as “good” and all of the other positive things.

  • Michael Brian Woywood

    Surprisingly, I found most of what I needed in C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain.” While I’m not sure I can go ALL the way with him (I do not believe that God deliberately CAUSES suffering, in order to make us better), I’ve found that his fundamental explanation is a good primer for anyone who wants to see a good handling of the issue of human suffering in Christianity.

    That said, it’s not easy. I’ve witnessed a lot more than I care to think about, and every time something awful happens – specifically, the suffering and death of children who should have peace and happiness – I always look into my heart and cry out, “Why?!” My only real comfort is that my God is not dead, my Savior is not sleeping. When I cry out, He cries out with me. He knows my tears, because He has cried them Himself.

  • Why?

    Very sad, but true.

  • disqus_qPwMHw5FDi

    The comments below are more thought provoking than the article. Some deep thinking people below. Good stuff !

  • AM

    I wish that he could give us a love life like he gave to so many others.

  • Alex

    John, I really enjoy your thoughts and have come to consider Patheos as my version of church/worship (I have yet to find a church body where I feel comfortable), but I feel you neglected to address suffering not just in terms of human-on-human crime, but on famine, on natural disasters, on AIDS and cancer, etc….things that have nothing to do with free will but devastate lives and account for just as much suffering as a person hurting another. The “God gave us free will and His love for us prohibits Him from forcing us to do something just so we won’t hurt someone” only goes so far. There are so many things that happen which fall into the suffering category that have nothing to do with free will. I would like to hear your thoughts on this – perhaps a follow-up article?

  • Matt

    Believe it or not, this is a pretty frequently asked question. I hope John doesn’t mind me stepping in. He has already written precisely on the subject you brought up:

  • Brandon Roberts

    ok i’ll give you all this one fact. the suffering in the world is not gods fault it’s mostly the fault of bad guys the reason children are starving in africa is because of evil warlords who care more about money than human life and a lot of the other stuff and natural disaster i don’t know ok why god does some of this stuff my best guess is it has to happen i wish that bad stuff never happened but that’s not the world we live in

  • leothlyn

    Ive always tried to be agood person& have never done wrong to anyone out of spite or gain . I was in the military, did My duties , now I go to work everyday, I have no family or friends & iam now in My 40s & My life is very depressing. I have an ARMY buddie who I talk with on line who wants me to believe in god but why should I believe? I was continously raped as a child for years in My foster family& god never helped me. Like I tell my friend online why woul I believe in a god who I cried out to for help so many times when I was a little boy & got nothing? All I got was the unimagiable depths of suffering that I still live with everyday. Was I that worthless to Your god that he wouldent listen to My innocent cries?

  • Bertholemew

    (I know the numbers are not correct but let’s just play along) so God created mankind knowing trillions would suffer eternally in hell but that’s okay because billions will get on their knees and praise him and he’s willing to sacrifice the others so that he can be exalted that seems so loving

  • Bertholemew

    It’s not God’s fault? If we are talking the God of the Bible, then he knew how everything would turn out before he created it so saying it’s not his fault… Not… Means what exactly if he hadn’t created anything none of it would’ve happened so who’s fault is it

  • Bones

    I couldn’t do that…

    And I hope God is a greater being than me.

  • Brandon Roberts

    ok he did create it and iv’e suffered with this same thing myself many many times. but the god of the bible gave us free will. and he did so because he wanted us to love him because we wanted to not because he had too. it’s the peoples faults because they do it of own free will god creates the day yes but we decide what too do in it. and recently there was a story here about a crazy guy who raped and killed a woman for being gay and tried to kill her fiancee after raping her cause he believed god told him too. and everybody obviously thinks that’s terrible. and god doesn’t get involved i think because he would have to for everyone no matter how small the offense. and i think it hurts god more than anyone when these things happen.

  • Bones

    Free will again?

    Ugh if one of my kids was about to hurt or kill themselves I’d try to stop them. Or if someone tried to rape one of my kids….

    Is depression free will?

    Watching relatives die of cancer is that free will?

    A child born with genetic birth defects is that free will?

    I do not find the free will argument very convincing at all.

  • Bones

    John Spong nails this whole free will debate. Instead of being ‘born again’ maybe we need to grow up.

    It’s not about God but our own projections of how God should be.

    Extract from Bad Theology Creates Bad Ecology

    The second element in the theistic definition of God was that it spoke to people’s security needs in a way that nothing else could. That sense of safety has been a bulwark against raising any alternatives in theological development, and enormous fear is loosed when theism is challenged. Human beings like to pretend that there is a supernatural, all-powerful God who can and will take care of them. We like to believe that there is a miracle worker in the sky who can come to our aid, a divine parent figure to whom we can appeal when all seems to be collapsing around us. We take comfort in living in the delusion of a continuing childhood of dependency.

    But this theistic God died long before the ecological crisis overtook us, and despite great efforts at denial by fundamentalists, those who embrace the modern world recognize that this is so. There is no theistic God who exists to take care of you or me. There is no God who stands ready to set aside the laws by which this universe operates to come to our aid in time of need. There are no everlasting arms underneath us to catch us when we fall.

    Ask the people who were the hapless passengers on those hijacked airplanes as they were hurtling toward the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. No divine hand reached down to save them. Ask the families and friends of the crew on the spacecraft Challenger as it exploded shortly after lift-off in 1986. No protecting deity embraced them. Ask the children, spouses or parents of service personnel during the varqius Iraqi wars where this supernatural God was when they received the official message from their government which began, “We regret to inform you…” Ask the Jews where the God who could split the Red Sea was when they were being marched into Hitler’s crematoriums during the Holocaust. Ask the children who are born with the HIV virus or the parents of an only child who is killed by a drunk driver. The God that we presume lives above the sky, whose primary vocation is to watch over, guard and protect vulnerable human beings, somehow appears to be frequently off-duty.

    When people question this theistic God in the light of the constant pain and trauma found in the normal course of human life, the pious rhetoric of theism’s defenders becomes almost incoherent. One hears hysterical talk about free will, about how God allows us to bring pain upon ourselves and even about how God never asks us to bear more than we can endure. Sometimes religious spokespersons explain that we actually deserve the pain and trauma of life. How very trite these explanations are!

    Does a soldier, of his own free will, decide to walk into the line of fire, or does the theistic God finger a particular person for punishment? Does a baby choose, of its own free will, to be born to an HIV-infected mother or are only those babies who are particularly evil infected with this virus? Does God designate those who are to be executed in any religious or ethnic cleansing operation or in any mob activity? Are not these divine definitions little more than the pitiful pleas of human beings who prefer to live in a world of make-believe, human beings who want never to grow up? Is there some hidden hope, deep inside us, that manifests itself in our attempt to define God theistically so we might not have to alter our lives dramatically to save our environment?

    After all, if the theistic God can control the weather patterns, bring the rain and stop the hurricanes, could this deity not also vacuum the atmosphere to remove our pollutants and thus restore this external world to ecological balance? How many people really believe that this could happen? How many believe that the theistic God really exists?

    Christian evangelicals like to use the term “born again.” It is an interesting choice of words, for when one is “born again,” one is newly a child. It represents a second return to a state of chronic dependency. Perhaps what we specifically need is not to be “born again,” but to grow up and become mature adults. Until we recognize that this understanding of God is no more, that the theistic God has either died or that such a God never existed, we will fail to reach the maturity that enables us to recognize that we have to be responsible for ourselves—for our own breeding habits and for ountconstant violation of the earth that is our home.

    We human beings are not some alien visitors who happen to be on the planet earth. Our human life is part of this planet. We have evolved like every other creature into our present stage of life. We share a common environment and a common world with plants and animals to which we are related more closely than we have ever imagined. We breathe the same common air and drink the same common water. We can no longer sing, as one evangelical hymn suggests, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home,” with any integrity. Heaven is not our home. This planet earth is. That is the first realization we must embrace when theism dies.

    Once we accept the fact that there is no theistic God who will come to our aid, religious authority crumbles. For it is the claim to be able either to speak for God or to explain divine behavior that is the source of religious authority. Part of the reason believers let church leaders get away with excessive claims of infallibility and inerrancy is that this kind of certainty keeps human fears in check. When theism dies, those fears become manifest. But theism is not God; it is nothing but a human definition of God—and a radically inadequate one at that. When theism dies God does not die, but a human definition of God does. That is an enormous difference that needs to be grasped. Our job is not to Gcreate God but to seek a more adequate, new definition of our experience of God.

    To begin that task I turn to the minority voices of the Bible that speak of a different understanding of the God experience that might make more sense in our time. On the other, less frequently read pages of our sacred text one can also discover a God who is not an external supernatural being, but who is perceived as the life force that flows through all that is. Sometimes this God is called Spirit and is identified with the wind that vitalizes and animates the forests. Sometimes this God is identified with our very breath as an indwelling presence. When this divine life force comes upon us, it does not lift us out of the world. Rather, it brings life out of death (see Ezek. 37:1–15) or it calls us into a new state of living. The classic biblical story indicating this is the account of Pentecost (Acts 2), which suggests that Spirit-filled people can step beyond tribal boundaries and speak the language of their hearers and thus respond to a call to a new humanity because God is no longer external but internal.

    Another minority voice in the Bible defines God simply as the power of love. If you abide in love, says one writer, you abide in God (1 John 4:16). Love is the power that somehow expands our sense of freedom and thus enables us to enter life deeply by giving ourselves away.

    Still another image of God is found in the poetic language of the book of Psalms, where God is likened to a rock, that firmness underneath one’s feet that is real (Ps. 18:2, 19:14, 31:2, 42:9, 62:2, 71:3). When the Bible is read carefully, we discover that the image of God as a supernatural invading external deity that has dominated Western religion is not the only way our spiritual ancestors perceived God. Why then should we be bound to an image, or to the religion based on that image, which has left a trail of pain across human history? Even today, as a direct result of our theology, people are still able to believe that God has commanded us to multiply and to do violent things both to our environment and to one another. It is in obedience to that dominant biblical understanding that we are today at the point of destroying the ability of this planet to sustain any life at all.

    Returning to the concept of Spirit for a moment, I find a slightly different nuanced understanding in the creation story that deserves at least a mention. In the first chapter of Genesis, God is portrayed as a presence “moving over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). A study of this text suggests the analogy of a mother hen brooding over her nest to bring forth life. A God who is understood after the analogy of a mother hen is not something external to this world. It makes a vast difference to our sense of responsibility to our world if we redefine God, not atethe external deity who calls the world into being by divine command, but as the power that emerges within all of life.

    We know from our study of evolution that life is a single whole. All life has developed from that first cell of living matter that was born in the sea some four billion years ago. Life moved from that single cell into clusters of cells over hundreds of millions of years, allowing in those clusters the beginning of cell differentiation and therefore organic complexity.

    Hundreds of millions of years later, this seamless source of life split, with one strand producing plant life and the other animal life, but both were deeply interdependent. Each was a source of life to the other. Hundreds of millions of years later, life left the oceans and moved into estuaries and riverbeds and it kept evolving and adapting. When the land finally became hospitable to life, these living specimens climbed out of the riverbeds in both plant and animal forms and began to live in the unique land environment, always changing and adapting, but still deeply related.

    No more than one to two million years ago, this process finally evolved into our earliest recognizable human ancestors. Perhaps no more than fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago, self-consciousness and the ability to create symbols, called words, to convey abstract ideas combined to make us uniquely human. Human beings were not created in the image of some external deity; we developed out of the evolutionary soup as part of the fabric of life itself. DNA evidence today demonstrates that we are kin not only to apes, but also to cabbages.

    We are part of an emerging life force sharing a common environment with every other living thing. No creature can dominate the world, as those called Homo sapiens have sought to do, because all life is radically interdependent. God’s spirit, which brooded over the waters to call life into being, is not an external, but an emerging presence. It is not a theistic, supernatural, alien-to-our-world deity, but the source of our common life.

    Even when the Bible moves on to a second story of creation, the portrait is still of a deity who is not really external. God breathes into Adam, says the ancient Hebrew legend. Adam becomes a living creature because the breath of God becomes his breath. God then creates the animals to alleviate the man’s loneliness. All living things share that divine life.

    In Hebrew the word for breath is nephesh, and it is related to the wind, which was thought to be the breath of God. Nephesh, however, is present in all creation. It is the prophet Jeremiah who says that the animals too are the creation of God and must therefore be regarded as holy (Jer. 27:5). It is the Psalmist who asserts that all creatures look to God for their sustenance and that even tue creatures are dismayed when God hides the divine face. When God removes the divine breath, says the Psalmist, even the creatures die (Ps. 124:29). God is not external to life. God is to be identified with the life present in all living things.

    The Psalmist goes on to say that God’s springs quench the thirst of the beasts. God caused grass to grow for the cattle, cedars for the birds, fir trees for the storks, high mountains for the goats, rocks for the badgers. God even made the darkness so that creatures may seek their prey in it just as God made the day so that human beings could earn their livelihood (Ps. 124:10–30).

    In the Noah story saving the animals was part of the plan of salvation (Gen. 6:20). In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the Preacher, reminds his readers that “the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. …They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts.” In contemplating death this writer asks, “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth?” (Eccles. 3:19, 21).

    This is not the portrait of a supreme being living beyond the sky, separate from the earth; this is the portrait of a divine presence that permeates all of life, that binds all creatures into the mutuality of interdependency. These images are beyond theism, but they are not beyond God.

    Surely we can now see that we have created the theistic God in our image, even as we asserted that it was the other way around. We then used this God to justify the dreadful things we were and are doing to our world. Theism is a false notion, a human idol that must die, and when it does, God—seen as the sacred dimension in all of life—must replace it. The minority voices in our religious past must become the majority voices of our religious future.

    So who is God? No one can finally say. That is not within human competence. All we can ever say is how we believe we have experienced God, doing our best to dispel our human delusions. Let me try to do just that. I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God, in the words of Paul Tillich, as the “Ground of Being” calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is. The worship of such a God could never result in the destruction of the planet that has produced us.

    We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities. We need to shift our vision to look within—at life, at love, at being.

  • Brandon Roberts

    look i still believe in god why he doesn’t help certain people i don’t know. yes i would love it if bad things never happened. and i’m not trying to be insensitive here so please try not to get offended but bad things happen and the people themselves are the one to blame yes god knew it would happen. but i don’t know why bad things happen in this world.

  • Brandon Roberts

    good i think anyone would
    no it’s not.
    no it’s not. and i know what it’s like to have a loved one die my grandfather passed away from mersa and he was a deeply spiritual man who worked as a preacher and carpenter. but his wife (my grandmother) had passed away years earlier and it was his time to go but his death caused decension between my mom and her family for years. so i know it hurts but and i’m sorry for the christian cliche and i’m not trying to be insensitive everything has a reason
    no but i honestly believe good things can come of that.
    and i was talking about things caused by people the other things that you pointed out i don’t know. that’s the best i can do sorry

  • Bones

    No, everything does not happen for a reason.

  • Bones

    …people themselves are the one to blame…

    230 000 were estimated killed in the 2004 tsunami, a day after Christmas.

    Why was it their fault?


    Luke 13:4


    “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no,”

  • Brandon Roberts

    i think i was unclear. so allow me to elaborate sometimes people themselves are the ones to blame. like if it’s a group of soldiers wiping out a village than it’s the people. but in cases of natural disasters no it’s not the people that are to blame. i never tried to imply otherwise it was a misunderstanding. and there’s tons of cases where it’s not free will and i do honestly believe and forgive the christian cliche and i’m not trying to be insensitive if this was offensive i sincerely apologize. that it happens for a reason and i don’t know why this stuff happens and i would love it if suffering never happened but that’s not the world we live in.

  • Brandon Roberts

    ok well there are accidents so your right

  • Bones

    Well you can’t stop fundamentalists breeding.

  • Bones

    More like shit happens theory.

  • Jason Lynta

    Here’s a news flash. People said that god is omniscient and merciful and all that shit, but if god is all knowing then he knows about everything and his son is destined to be tortured and crucified and he still do it anyway. If god is so merciful then why did he let all those people suffer and dies. The tsunami in japan,all the fighting in middle east, and the shooting down of airplane that happened recently. That tells me that god is a psychopath, he knows what is going to happened and do nothing.. Even the origin of god we only knows from a piece of book that is written thousands of years ago. Why don’t somebody just invented the time machine already so we can god or jesus for what it is. A pathetic lonely loser who wrote a piece of ssshit book that caused millions of death.

  • Jason Lynta

    God knew it would happened and do nothing. God does not exist , what exist is bad people and good people. If god does exist is because god is psychopath or sociopath.

  • Jason Lynta

    Another thing, wondering why bad thing happened is like asking why good thing happened. God does not exist. I repeat GOD DOES NOT EXIST

  • Hey Jason, you seem to be on a bit of a tear tonight, so I’ll play. The crux is free will. A just, merciful, omniscient, omnipresent God doesn’t move us around like pawns. He created us with free will so we could freely follow Him… or not. You’re angry at people, not God. And people must have the option to do wrong in order to be able to choose right. Otherwise we’re sock puppets, not sentient beings. John puts it better elsewhere.

  • Bones

    A person raised as an atheist does not have free will as they have never had the freedom to choose. same with a person raised a Muslim, Christian….

    How did pre-Christian cultures know to ‘choose’ God’s way or not?

  • Bones

    Neither God nor Jesus actually wrote anything.

    That’s the problem.

  • Good point, Bones. I was looking at it from a Christian perspective. I didn’t mean that you needed a deity to find your way. The philosophical ideal of of self-determination, autonomy, remains though, doesn’t it? To live the the best life for you and all that lives around you? And that we will all fail to some degree? That’s not snark, I’m really asking.

  • Bones

    The Free Will Defence

    The free-will defence is a defence of theism against the argument from moral evil. The argument from moral evilis the argument that the existence of moral evil is inconsistent with, and so disproves, the existence of God. (Moral evil is simply evil resulting from the free actions of moral agents.) The argument from moral evil has the following form:

    The Argument from Moral Evil

    (1) If God exists then he is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.
    (2) If God were omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil.
    (3) The world contains moral evil.
    (4) It is not the case that God exists.

    Like all forms of the argument from evil, the key premise of the argument from moral evil is the second. Is it the case that if God were omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil? If so, then the argument from moral evil appears to be sound; there is little else in the argument that admits of dispute.

    In order to refute the argument from moral evil, then, the theist must show that it is not necessarily the case that if God were omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil. Under what circumstances, though, for what reason, might such a God allow such evil?

    Theists almost invariably meet this question with the free-will defence. Moral evil is caused by the free choices of moral agents, they argue. Free agency, though, is a good thing; a world containing free agents is far better than either a world containing only automata or a world containing no conscious beings at all. An omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God would therefore create a world containing free agents, and in doing so would run the risk of allowing moral evil to enter into the world.

    The first way in which the free-will defence works, then, is by distancing God from the moral evil in the world. Moral evil is not brought about by God, the free-will defence argues, but by free agents. God is therefore not the author of moral evil, and so is not responsible for it.

    This conclusion might be criticised, however, in the following way: Even if it is the free agents that perpetrate moral evils that are directly responsible for them, God does seem to bear at least some indirect responsibility for them. After all, God created the free agents, knowing full well the risk that he was running in doing so, and is therefore at least partly to blame for their abuses of their freedom. God it can be argued, is guilty of negligence in creating free agents, even if not of actually perpetrating any moral crimes himself.

    The second way in which the free-will defence works is in justifying the existence of moral evil by justifying God’s creation of free agents. The existence of moral evil, the free-will defence argues, is a consequence of the existence of a greater good: free will. Without free will there could be no moral goodness; a world without free agents would be morally void. The good that is the existence of free moral agents, it is suggested, therefore outweighs the bad that is the existence of moral evil, and God therefore did well in creating free agents even though he knew that some of them would commit moral evils.

    Some have criticised this line of defence by arguing that the good that is the existence of free moral agents does not outweigh the bad that is the existence of moral evil. Consider the scale on which moral evil has occurred even in recent history; this is a high price to pay for freedom; is it too high a price?

    Others have thought that the free-will defence fails because God could have created free agents without risking bringing moral evil into the world. There is nothing logically inconsistent about a free agent that always chooses the good. There are, then, among all of the possible free agents that God might have created, some free agents that would always have chosen the good. Why, it is sometimes asked, did God not create those free agents, leaving the others uncreated?

    A further criticism of the free-will defence imagines a human being using it to justify his failure to intervene to prevent a crime from being committed. If one of us were able to prevent a brutal murder, but instead allowed it to take place, then we could not justify our inaction using the free-will defence. If we were to say that although we could have prevented the murder, we thought it best to protect the free-will of the murderer by allowing him to carry out his plan, then we would be judged to have made a moral error. Why, if this argument would be unacceptable coming from a human being, should we think it any more acceptable coming from God?

  • Bones

    Yeah I probably go along with that.

    I’m still working on the whole God thing though and the image I’ve created of Him.

    God won’t stay in the box I’ve put Him in.

  • Speaking The Truth

    Especially that many of us are suffering from Loneliness.

  • Mark Loy

    There are many examples in the bible of god violating free will. Every time he “hardens someone’s heart” he’s taking away their capacity to freely act. When he chose Saul he quite literally blinded him into belief and made him Paul and did not allow him the free will to come to christ on his own.

    And then consider that no person who is good–words mean something so good has specific conditions else it isn’t–would not violate someone’s freewill in order to help them, save them, protect someone else’s life–for example friends don’t let friends drive drunk, they take their car keys away, restricting their free will to do harm–are good people better than god?

    Finally, absolute knowledge of God’s existence would not take away free will–the angels KNEW god existed by supposedly rebelled, Adam and Eve KNEW god existed and were disobedient, and other examples in the bible provide further evidence that this argument fails.

    For me evidence like the holocaust determines that god does not meet the criteria for “good.” God letting a woman put her infant in a microwave and cook it to death does not make god good. God allowing a child to find a loaded gun and blow his brains out doesn’t meet the definition of good.

    Using this argument of absolute freewill is a copout for people that can’t really reconcile horrific events with their supposedly perfect, all-powerful, benevolent god. Cognitive dissonance would drive good people, there’s that word, again, insane so they don’t think about it but instead say free will must be conserved when, if they thought about that at all they’d realize that the bible is full of god taking free will away and good sometimes requires someone to take the car keys away.

    I’m an atheist as I don’t believe there’s sufficient evidence for any god or gods. But if I were to find sufficient evidence the god I believe in would not be good if he has the power to stop suffering and doesn’t, has the power to protect the innocent and he won’t, and allows horrific things to happen that no GOOD person, if they had the power, ever would. This is not a definition of good that anyone but an apologetic would ever accept.

    All christians everywhere, stop this. Believe in your god if you must but just accept that he isn’t the all-everything you want to profess he is. Words have meaning. if god were all-loving he’d take away your car keys and not allow your drunken sinning self to drive your car straight to hell but would, instead, take away your free will to do so and make sure you went to heaven to be with him forever rather than spend an eternity of suffering because, for whatever reason, you don’t believe.

    One last thing, if god is all-powerful and wants everyone to be with him in heaven then wouldn’t that automatically happen regardless of what you wanted? You have no choice to be born, you have no choice to be born again. You and I and Hitler and and osama bin laden all in heaven sitting at the table with jesus. An all loving, all-powerful, merciful and benevolent god would serve us all pizza and beer and we’d laugh and joke and discuss just how much of a jerk we’d been while alive. Let’s go with this, what say you?

  • AbsolutelyVeryTrue

    Well he certainly punished many of us good single men that really wanted to find a good woman to settle down with, and with so many women today that are very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, and very greedy, speaks for itself why nice guys finish last which it is not our fault at all.

  • frank

    Ive lost my faith, I know now theres no way There is a God. I know if there is? he certainly doesn’t love us, he certainly doesn’t care. And maybe just maybe when the phrase he made man in his image? He’s a mean, ruthless, heartless soul. I cant buy into it anymore. I want to, I want to believe. But I look around and what is it im believing in? Theres faith and reality. We live in reality, Hoping, (faith). we get to go to Heaven? And someone tell me, why does God get all the glory? none of the accountability? Please don’t get mad, or feel im trying to prove he doesn’t exist. IM TRYING TO SEE IF HE DOES! All these questions and doubts. All these horrible acts. Where is he? How can he part the red sea, punish Pharoah, save Daniel from the lions all for the Israelites he knew would deny his son, yet we except him, love him, trust in him and he stands by and watches as children get beheaded by Satans Army the Muslims. As Muslims these Pedophilles do horrible acts. He does nothing. And im to believe he loves us? Please, someone explain to me this? Ive lost my faith….And yet as you all read this your all ready to defend him. to back him. to make excuses for him. We are accountable to him, yet he doesn’t have to be to us? That’s not a very good relationship. Infact in life it would fail.We would lose friends, family and Partners if we weren’t accountable. And why did he do this? why create man? he knew we would fail him. He knew we weren’t worthy. He knew Adam and Eve would fail, why punish us all? that is not just, that is not fair, that is not love. Love is unconditional, true love is unconditional… Why this condition? why? Why this constant test this constant battle why not just take whos going and end this nightmare.I cant help but think of the Jews, in WW2, They waited and waited. GOD NEVER CAME. Today? they have a first class military, now these Muslim Savages who are taught tokill all non muslims, oppress women and children, murder, rape, torture, disfigure from female circumssion and mutilation, how can he just sit there and watch! Ive lost my faith…. Not for what he did to me or to a member of my family, but to you, to him, to her, to them. I find myself calling him out everyday. posting some horrible act that’s happened, some cruel act toward a Christian and I say? GOD IS GOOD! I say it vindictively. I say it like I want him to get pissed off and whipe off these Muslims and say, there Frank. You happy now? Yes, yes I am, BUT LORD? WE ALL ARE HAPPY NOW, IS THAT SO BAD? Ive lost my faith and tonight I ended up here. This isn’t the first Christian page Ive been to, and Usually I get Bible verses, and prayer. But nothing answered and then I see the World and im back at it with GOD. I will not turn the other cheek when it comes to these Satanic Muslims, I will die fighting them. You know every horrible act they commit, and God doesn’t intervene? They believe is correct, cant he stop a sword once? make a prescence? cant he say? ENOUGH! Ive lost my faith…. Forgive me if ive insulted anyone. I… just… lost my faith.

  • Tyler Strasser

    Frank I am glad you want to understand! That is excellent! I am no expert but maybe this will help? It helped me understand it a little more. I am confused about it too. Like you, I am trying to get a firm grasp of God and how He works. I’m not going to try to discuss the article before you read it. Maybe we can talk about it together after you read so we can strengthen each other.

  • SoRightAndNeverWrong

    God is a real Scumbag for making many of us good people suffer on this rotten no good earth which he blesses so many other low life’s. Go figure

  • Steve Chan

    If God exists, he needs a pretty good damn excuse

  • Dennis Savage

    Most Aussies attitude when asked if they believe in God ( is you don’t believe in that stuff do you) A godless nation without any thoughts relating to Gods existence, Their thoughts only relate to polygamy, football and alcohol. So does God exist to see for yourself, watch Dame Isabel PICZEK on the Shroud of Turin, and see the miracle Lord Jesus left to non believers.

  • hambdiscus

    Another waste of illogic–God is an invention in an attempt to explain that which is unexplainable. By the way, since it is probably the fact that life exists elsewhere in the universe, does our God also serve the hundreds of millions of other life-bearing planets?

  • Fred

    Probable… but completely unproven. Yet, the heathen, you, says God is an invention. Pull your small head out of your large ass. Your grammar is also a joke.

  • Fred

    Well, you’re here. That’s a pretty big mistake we need to explain.

  • N G

    This perpetually troubles me. You know I can’t stand when people diminish suffering to the level of some distant, semi-real thing. They talk about suffering in relation to common and fairly mundane examples, but they seem to ignore the ineffably horrendous things that happen in our world, things that, should they happen to even a single human being or creature, seem to be ‘the end of the world.’ What I mean is that there is suffering… and then there is unfathomable suffering. The kind of suffering you could never imagine yourself or any sentient being experiencing, the kind of thing you can’t accept as being real because it’s too disturbing, things that are so disturbing it’s pains you to even speak of them. Things that seem too disturbing to even know about, but that you look into because you know that pulling a blanket over your head doesn’t make them go away, it doesn’t make them any less real. What kind of things do I mean? Well, I’m sorry but when I read about poor innocent animals being cooked alive in microwaves, boiled to death in washing machines and skinned alive (and humans having suffered similar fates), I cannot accept that a benevolent God could allow such atrocities, for which there are no adequate words to describe the horror. I understand that a degree of free will is necessary to choose God, but to me the idea of boundless free will is complete, unqualified lunacy. How could a sane God allow it? It’s a conundrum. I believe in God because I want to… I refuse to relinquish my faith (because without my relationship with God I’m forced to admit the ultimate futility of life, there is nothing), yet I cannot accept that He allows such things to happen. People try to explain this away with ‘unfeeling’ intellectual arguments, but until you have endured such a horrific fate, you are in no position to explain away such atrocities experienced by other sentient beings – as I said, doing this reduces them to distant, semi-real phenomena. I doubt anyone would continue to uphold such arguments after experiencing such imponderable agony themselves. All of this continues to haunt me and makes me feel like this world is just a giant cesspool and death is a sweet release. It seems that good things are nothing more than a fleeting respite from the unimaginable bad and evil in the world.

  • N G

    Frank I feel your pain, we all do. I’ve lived an incredibly gifted life, like royalty compared to what happens out there, but it’s just like you said, how can I, how can we enjoy it, when we look around and see other people going through unimaginable horror – I can’t, we can’t – because it’s part of our essential nature to care deeply about other human beings and sentient creatures. In a way, we suffer (psychologically) with them. It torments us, it deprives us of peace. God, if you are there… God help us, God help the world – show us how on Earth it can be possible to reconcile these atrocities with faith because our eyes, minds and hearts cannot see it.