Jesus: “Why Do I Allow Evil to Exist?”

Jesus: “Why Do I Allow Evil to Exist?” April 14, 2011

Theologians and religious philosophers of every stripe are forever bumping their heads up against the “unsolvable” problem of the theodicy–the question of why God allows evil. Beyond perhaps assuring them a measure of job security, I have no idea why they or anyone else should find the theodicy such an enduring conundrum. If you accept as real an overseeing, all-powerful God–and certainly if you accept the figure of Jesus as a manifestation of that God—the theodicy is solved.

Also, just a quick note about, the site whose free online tools I used to make this and my other Xtranormal movies. When making Xtranormal movies, you have very limited choices with regards to setting, characters, and voices. For this movie, I chose the character of Jesus (which Xtranromal introduced only yesterday); I gave him the British voice I did because of the three other English-speaking voices it seemed best suited; and for the setting I chose “Airport”—because, again, of those choices offered, I liked it best.

I’ve done this video because I thought it might be a good way to, in a unique (and hopefully engaging) way, bring forth a thought or two central to Christianity. I know illustrating Jesus in this manner is tricky business; as a Christian, I’m certainly sensitive to anything slighting Jesus. I don’t think this does. I hope you agree.

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  • A’isha

    John, that was very poignant. Amazing really.

  • A’isha

    I wanted to add that this topic I think falls under the category of super-rational. We all know supernatural is stuff beyond natural that we can’t fully understand. I decided this weekend at church that, although we think a lot of what God does is irrational, it’s actually super-rational, meaning his logic goes way beyond what we can fully comprehend. I kind of like that about him. 🙂

  • Laura M

    It is good, really good. I like the ending. Though I was hoping Jesus would delve into why earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. happen. I need some answers for my non-Christian friends who see those freaky fundies online spouting nonsense, about how God has used the Japan earthquake to punish/cleanse the earth, etc. They (freaky fundies) are giving us and God a bad name.

    Thank you John for all you do, create, explain and expand upon. It is helping me grow in my faith.

  • Francis

    John. Stuff like this makes it so much easier to explain to the children in my life. Sometimes the answers are so simple, we don’t even see them. Is it plugged in? Did you hit enter? Did you pay the electricity bill? Great job as always.

  • Laura: The text of this video is derived from my short book “Penguins, Pain the Whole Shebang.” In that book I do have God deal directly with exactly the sorts of disasters you reference. But for this video I simply didn’t have time. You pack too much into these things, and they sort of … fail, basically. But, yeah. Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up video. That’s kind of why I have, in this video, Jesus say (something like) “What I want to say about that, for now , is …. ” By that “for now,” I meant to sort of indicate that he had more to say on the question of “natural” evil.

  • Debbie

    Our will may be free yet our hearts are not…is that why He offers new ones?

  • Lisbeth

    Wow, John, that was REALLY amazing, on so many levels. I love how you portrayed Jesus. We all know he didn’t have a British accent but by choosing that way for him to sound, you added a certain necessary gravitas to what could have come across as a silly cartoon Jesus. You did a great job of explaining free will too. I’ve heard it explained so many times but no one ever took it all the way to point that you did, pointing out that God would have to completely eradicate negative thoughts, etc., thus basically exercising mind control over us humans. Great explanation! And yes… the ending was very thought provoking. You’re getting really good at this xtranormal stuff!!

  • Bingo, you nailed it. Excellent work.

  • Mike

    If only we could get thousands and thousands of people to at least read a few of the things you have to say, John . . . . . . . it might just open their minds a little bit to possibilities . . . . . an open mind is a wondrous, beautiful thing.

  • Thousands and thousands! I like the sound of that. And, honestly, a lot of my friends here are good at sharing my stuff around, so …. one day! Anyway, thank you.

  • Thanks, Buzz. (How are things over at the ThurWay Christian forum? I know you were pretty active there for a bit. Still hanging out over there? I need to get over there more often. Whenever I do go by, it looks really healthy and active.)

  • (People: I’m talking about this:

  • thank you, lisbeth. this means a lot to me–what you’ve said, i mean.

  • very good!

  • What a great response. Thank you, francis.

  • if you want to write more on this, A’isha, lemme know. we could have you do a guest blog on it.

  • thanks, a. coming from you, that means a lot.

  • I have been up to my pectorals in penguins recently (domestic stuff, mostly). I, too, need to participate more often

  • Dave Bowling

    I believe God has a lot more to say through you … and I hope you do more of these clips that are truly inspired.

  • Mike Henry

    It’s tight John, but it’s right!

  • DR

    What an interesting perspective.

  • Mark

    As new testament scholar NT Wright said in a debate with Bart Ehrman on just this subject, and I paraphrase – “If you think you can solve the problem of evil, then please go away and lie down and have something strong to drink until the moment passes… If you think you’ve solved it, think again.” Basically he was saying we’re left with more questions than answers.

    Sure the argument of free will can get you a part of the way there but fails to satisfy in many cases. The problem is that free will can be allowed to be exercised but without the *degree* of pain, suffering, and death that many times results from it.

    Take the holocaust as an example. If one says the holocaust happened because of free will, think about this: Imagine God allowing free will so that we aren’t “just robots”, but at the same time limiting the degree of suffering and death. How many deaths were needed to allow free will to exist? I suggest one death and then God could have showed compassion and love. Or if you think every holocaust accomplice needs to be paired with a death so each had exercised their own free will definitively… then I dunno, maybe a few or 10 thousand deaths would have occurred? But 11 million had to suffer and die to allow a few thousand to exercise free will? And the untold suffering for the survivors?

    There’s plenty of other examples one can come up with where the exercising of free will seems to have an unnecessary level of pain and suffering associated with it (a mother could loose just one child to a drunk driver instead of all her children plus her husband). If God is all knowing/powerful/loving, then I respectfully suggest that free by itself does not provide an explanation for the problem of evil and suffering.

  • Cheryl Hannah

    Read Romans 9. If we lived in a perfect world then neither of God’s attributes of hatred of wickedness and his mercy for sinners, would be revealed. Yet both are and to His glory. And in the end, that is what really matters.

    People who want so much emphasis placed on human free will are essentially saying that it’s ok if people suffer due to the things that we do to each other, but then take great offence if God is seen to somehow be active in causing disaster, or at least a passive observer in the matter. We naturally want to declare what the Epicureans did that God is either a cosmic tyrant or else He’s powerless when it comes to evil existing. The Apostle Paul said that neither conclusion are the correct ones to draw.

    Scripture tells us things that are hard to understand. And it also tells us things that we can understand but don’t want to accept and I believe this is one of them. God is sovereign over all his creation and man is morally responsible for his actions. How does this work? No one knows. But both are true if you believe what the Bible says.

    Salvation is about grace, not justice.

  • Mostly, this hashes some of the same “free will” arguments I’ve seen before that appease a lot of believers but seem to fall upon deaf ears or fail to impress the anti-crowd. (Of course, some of them I’ve encountered have struck me as pretty much wanting an automoton-world or something close to it. I back away from those individuals pretty quickly). The ending is food for thought, though – still, I couldn’t help but think “Uh, sure, we could have saved the kid from starving to death, and this makes a point about us taking care of each other, but…. what about things straight-up of the earth such as massive earthquakes and tsunamis?” It also seems so unfair that kids who might cure cancer are dying while people of little importance and even social-drain such as myself are allowed continue on….

    Anyway, I’ve seen, of all things, Futurama deal with this issue. The episode “Godfellas” involves the robot-character being lost in space for a while and a civilization of people landing on him, living on him and declaring him “God.” Bender is a very self-absorbed character and doesn’t really know what he’s doing and in the end, the results for the miniature people living on his body are less than favorable. (Though, really, the little guys did themselves in… Bender didn’t exactly endorse the war they had…) He winds up meeting a galaxy that talks to him and reveals itself as something that might be God (or the remains of a satelite that collided with God)! “God” gives Bender the tip that he uses a “light touch” with the universe, summed up with the last lines of the episode, which someone put up on Youtube:

    Then there’s my own odd “author theory” which, admittedly, is a bit scary in some ways.

  • Allen

    “Super-rational” is the *perfect* way to describe how God goes about things! Thanks for that term, A’isha. It feels more credible than shrugging and saying “oh, it’s all part of God’s Plan” as if that means we don’t have to work on life with the brains God gave us. I love it paired with Supernatural, which is more about emotional things. I’m a sucker for the whole heart/brain duality of life.

  • Allen

    The TSA setting is unnerving, in a good way, like the accent. Some 9/11 echoes in there, was that intentional? Especially when considering “the kind of evil caused by humans”… On a large scale that would be terrorism, on a small scale the dehumanizing of people by sending them through this procedure as a universally suspect class.

  • vj

    If you place limits on free will then it stops being free will and becomes sort-of-free-under-certain-conditions will. The limitations you propose are arbitrary, but any limitation is a violation of free will, so if you want limitations at all you may as well do away with free will completely.

    Yes, terrible things happen because of free will – but wonderful things happen too. The fireman who rushes into a burning building, does so of his own free will. My husband buys me flowers of his own free will. I prepare a meal for a neighbor of my own free will. Friendship grows between people out of their own free will. A free will means freedom to choose, and I, for one, would not like to live in a world where there are no choices.

    God did not just give us free will and then leave us to get on with exercising it at the expense of others’ pain and suffering. He provides us with a means of tempering the potentially damaging exercise of our free will – by providing us with a moral code to live by, by giving us the example of Jesus’ life to emulate, and by equipping us with the Holy Spirit to teach and guide us in turning our free will to good rather than evil ends.

  • Mark

    I suggest that free will is not limited and arbitrary in my scenario. It is present and unlimited with no interference by God. But if God is all powerful, knowing and loving, then the *numbers* of people suffering can be limited to just those absolutely necessary to allow free will to play out.

    As a parent I’ve taught my children, for example, that there are consequences for disobeying my command not to throw sand in the eyes and faces of other kids at the playground. If my kid throws sand in another child’s face, then I see he has exercised his free will and disobeyed me. There will be consequences for his actions. Now there is no rational reason for me to allow my child to continue to go up to each and every kid at the playground and throw more sand in their faces/eyes. I’m either unable to stop him, or one offense isn’t serious enough and needs to pile on, or I simply don’t care about the suffering it’s having on the other innocent children.

  • vj

    You quite rightly provide a consequence when your child willfully throws sand. You teach him why it’s wrong (provide him with a moral code), you yourself do not throw sand, and also point out all the other children who are not throwing sand (provide him with a positive example to emulate), and may also remind him periodically about the no-throwing-sand rule (provide him with wise counsel and guidance to right behavior).

    However, unless he *chooses* to follow your instructions, he may well continue to exercise his free will by throwing sand – at which point, about your only option is to remove him from the playground. You might even decide to remove him from the playground after the first instance of sand-throwing, in order to prevent the sand-in-eye suffering of any further children. You might even, in future, prefer to take him to a playground with no sandpit. Whichever method you use, you have removed his free will about throwing or not throwing sand, because there is no longer any sand to throw. You have sacrificed his freedom for the comfort of others.

    And what happens if you’re at the playground with 2 or 3 kids – do you all go home when one throws sand? You might prevent the sand-in-eye suffering of further children, but then your other children suffer the unfairness of having to leave the playground early through no fault of their own…. So then you may decide not to ever go to the playground at all – but where’s the fun in that?

    Theoretical limits on free will are arbitrary because there is no absolute standard by which we can all agree. You think it’s tolerable for a mother to lose one child to a drunk driver, but not 2 – if you’re going to interfere with free will, why allow her to lose even 1? You may as well stop the driver from getting behind the wheel in the first place.

  • Mark

    Respectfully, I wonder if your argument that interceding in a situation to reduce suffering lacks imagination. You said: “You have sacrificed his freedom for the comfort of others”.

    Given what we say about God:

    1. If free will exists to make it possible for us to show our love for God on our own terms (he does not want robots that are programmed to love him)

    2. And if God can design free will any way he sees fit (he’s all powerful) as long as it allows us to demonstrate our love or lack thereof for him (after all, he had a blank slate to design with in the beginning)

    3. And if God is all knowing and loving

    Then there are infinitely more loving ways free will could have been designed. Here’s one by example…

    1. Hitler has free will to start his mayhem or not

    2. After the first murder (indeed even before this via his thoughts) God sees that he’s been rejected (this is what God wanted proved after all)

    3. God allows Hitler to continue exercise of free will in all things *except* his ability to exercise free will to further torture and murder God’s children (he still has free will for repentance)

    Sure, one dimension of Hitler’s freedom has been taken away. God takes away his freedom to unnecessarily further reject God. What would be the downside to removing this portion of free will? The purpose of free will is *not* to allow us to be able to make *choices*, but to allow us to demonstrate love for God and others. Likewise, the purpose is not to avoid interfering with free will at all costs. God interfering with free will under these circumstances would be completely compatible with allowing us to choose to accept/reject God.

    Of course one can suggest all sorts of other reasons to allow the holocaust, but that is just conjecture on

    our part.

    You also said “but where’s the fun in that?” regarding interfering in a situation in order to reduce suffering. Removing Hitler’s ability to continue to murder, after proving his rejection of God, takes the fun out of something? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth but respectfully I don’t think you have an argument there (or else I don’t understand what it is).

    I still think the previously mentioned quote from NT Wright regarding the problem of suffering/evil is applicable: “If you think you’ve solved it, think again.”

  • lilypad1213

    Did he check his bags or do carry on?

    Seriously, I loved it.

  • He checked them. Jesus never carries baggage.

  • Diana A.


  • Diana A.

    Thanks for explaining the setting/British Accent. I really enjoyed this video.

  • vj

    Ooh, I think I’d better clarify (and thanks for being so agreeable in your disagreement, I really appreciate it) – I DO NOT think that there was anything fun about the Holocaust (or any other suffering). The point I was trying (and, obviously, failing) to make is: the way I see it, when we start limiting free will in order to avoid the *potential* for bad stuff (sand throwing), we OF NECESSITY end up limiting the *potential* for good stuff (having fun in the playground). If you limit Hitler’s ability to do terrible things, you also limit his ability to repent – repentance requires a turning away from evil, and if he can no longer commit evil, how can he choose to turn away from it? Maybe God should just kill us as soon as we reject Him? And yet, the Bible tells us that God is patient, and does not treat us as our sins deserve, but longs for us to turn back to Him.

    I don’t think we have special ‘murder and mayhem’ sections in our brains that can be selectively cauterized; I think we have brains with immense (possibly infinite?) creative potential. We have, individually, a responsibility to use that potential for good; I believe that ultimately we are held to account for whether or not we do.

    Like you, I would love to live in a world where baby-rapists, drunk drivers, swindlers, etc, are stopped in their tracks by some external force before they can cause harm. The fact that they aren’t leads me to conclude that there must be a reason for us to have free will; that the free will we do have must be the best possible kind; and that the integrity of total free will is so important to God that He WILL NOT violate it. As bad as the suffering caused by the evil exercise of free will is, I have to conclude that the ultimate good of free will is, in ways that I do not claim to understand, worth that terrible price. I don’t claim to have solved the problem (it is, ultimately, a mystery, a conundrum), that’s just the best understanding I have arrived at so far….

    I do, however, absolutely believe that the purpose of free will IS to allow us to make choices. Loving God and demonstrating His love to others are merely choices that God wants us to make. EVERYTHING is a choice, and the freedom to make choices is about the only real power we have. Of course, a lot (most?) choices come with obviously unpleasant consequences, and so we automatically make choices with more palatable outcomes, and may thus end up thinking that we didn’t choose anything. I could, right now, choose to pour my coffee over my keyboard, but I think just drinking it would be better. I could, right now, choose to abandon my husband and children and run away from home, but for all sorts of reasons I really don’t think that would be a good idea. However, if I did not have the ability to make this choice, I would be little more than a slave.

    Anyway, we could go around in endless circles on this, but we’ve clearly arrived at a philosophical impasse. It’s been good though, thanks.

  • Reading this conversation, it reminds me of two things, possbily related to the topic at hand, possibly unrelated.

    I remember reading once that the doctor to Hitler’s mother, due to health-concerns and whatnot, suggested she have an abortion when pregnant with him. While my views on the whole abortion debate are too complex to get into here, this is the reason why whenever someone brings up “what the children could have become!” I think it’s a bad argument for the strict “pro-life” side. Yes, someone may have aborted the guy who’d cure cancer or the girl who will get us to Mars – they proably aborted a random nobody and possibly aborted the next Hitler. That is the thing with playing with unknowables.

    Along these lines, with intervention/’free will/saving people… again, I bring up some favorite fiction. I’ve been, for quite some time, totally in love the anime/comic series, Trigun. It’s a quirky space-western about a gunslinger who is also a pacifist (yes, he makes that work for him). It comes up in the series a lot, but is brought to the fore in a feature-length movie – the idea of “whave have you saved?” The movie, paritcularly, features main character Vash’s interactions with a criminal. When the criminal was about to be killed by one of his own gang members, Vash intervened and saved everybody’s life. Twenty years later, Vash meets up with this guy again – and the criminal, instead of apprecating the beauty of life, remained out for himself and caused untold suffering among many people.

    Characters involved ask Vash “Was he worth saving?” all the time, and accuse him of being culpable for the man’s crimes because he’d saved him when he had a chance to sit back and let the scumwad die.

    Vash’s answer is “You roll the dice.” – in other words, he did not regret what he did, because you never really know what the outcome of your actions will be, but saving people is worth the chance.

    (In the regular series, he saves the lives of people who repent and relent, people who stay scumwads, and some people who feel dishonored by losing a fight and much to his pain, kill themslves – as well as lots of random innocent people along the way).

    TV Tropes likes to describe Vash as a “messianic” character.

    Just thought this might relate in some way.

  • Diana A.

    Also, it was not only Hitler’s free will that was at issue. What about the free will of those who actively concurred with what Hitler was doing? What about the free will of those who didn’t necessarily agree with what Hitler was doing, but who chose not to interfere for various reasons (fear of ending up in trouble themselves, laziness, whatever)? And finally, what about the free will of those who decided that Hitler was very definitely wrong in what he was doing and who actively fought against him? I think that God refuses to interfere in our free will precisely as a means of revealing who and what we are to ourselves. If God interfered, we would never see the true consequences of our behavior and thus would never be moved to change.

  • chris

    I think the more troubling question is whey does Yahweh so often seem to be the author or advancer of evil?

  • chris

    Super-rational should not = hypocrisy. It is easy to say, Gods ways are not our ways, but when that contradicts reason we should throw a flag on the field. There is plenty about the story of Yahweh and evil that does not jive with the story of love, compassion and free will. And I don’t think surrendering agency to a text does anything but perpetuate real trouble. I do, however, think that is what most christians do. We confuse the inscrutable ways of god with the contradictory and confusing things that are written about him. Any defense of god that comes from the bible is indefensible on the basis of reason. IMO

  • chris


  • chris

    The truth is my view on the subject comes from decades of trying hard to make it all work. I think the honest answer is that it does not. Jesus preaches a standard of love from which to evaluate and respond to the things in this world. It is the lens from which to view things properly. A funny thing happens when that lens is pointed back on the bible, especially to Yahweh. Things stop making sense. An outpouring of theology follows, trying to justify the apparently horrible actions of Yahweh. I will quote scripture on this if you think it would be useful. The truth is I wanted to stay in the church, where I found many good things, but I could not pretend these issues did not exist. Or minimize them. Saying His ways are not our ways only works when we have not been given a yardstick to measure things by.

    How do you work with the horrible actions/commands attributed to Yahweh?

  • Was Yahweh the author of evil, or was that just the perception of primitive preliterate tribal people?

  • Evil on a human scale is trivial on God’s scale. God forgives all sins; Christ, the only blameless human being, died at the hands of unjust humanity so when He says He forgives there is authority in that forgiveness.

    We forgive, but we are in need of forgiveness ourselves. That limits our authority to forgive. Only Christ can forgive w/o needing forgiveness Himself.

    Life in this universe is but a mist, we are gone in a boink of cosmic time (hmmm, I meant to type “blink” but “boink” works just as well…). What God has planned for us is an eternity of joy — if we are willing to accept the grace & forgiveness offered us.

    On a human scale, there is a point where justice becomes meaningless, and pursuit of justice is pointless. 60 million people died in WWII: Let’s lay the blame for every death at Hitler’s feet. Let’s say Hitler has to spend a century in blazing torment for each lost life; six billion years from now the slate is wipe clean, the scale is balanced.

    What gets restored? What is returned that was lost?

    God does not care for the scope of our sins; He only cares for our desire to repent and accept His forgiveness. Hell is not a punishment imposed from without, it’s an eternal separation caused by our own hearts’ unwillingness to deal with our own sins & shortcomings.

    We shouldn’t worry about Hitler’s sins but our owns. Ours are the only ones we have any control over.

  • Diana A.

    “Jesus preaches a standard of love from which to evaluate and respond to the things in this world. It is the lens from which to view things properly. A funny thing happens when that lens is pointed back on the bible, especially to Yahweh. Things stop making sense. ” Yes, I can see your point. I think one of two things depending upon what kind of day I’m having and who I’m debating at the moment:

    1) That God actually started out being a lot different and then grew over time to be the God reflected in Jesus. (The books “God: A Biography” and the sequel “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” by Jack Miles exemplify this viewpoint.) or,

    2) Something along the lines of what Buzz says in his comment: that the biblical writers may have perceived God as hating the same people they hated–just like we’re so prone to do in modern times.

    What can I tell you? Clearly, it’s not an easy subject.

  • Diana A.

    Yes, I think there is a lot of truth in what you’ve said here, Buzz. Especially that last sentence.

  • I once saw a rather cute (non-serious) version of that theory – I think it was on one of TVTropes “Wild Mass Guessing” pages. I remember the person doing the spectulation said something like “And when God was the equivalent of a four-year-old child, he made the dinosaurs because all kids go throught that dinosuars are awesome phase.”

    As far as the other… I remember reading somewhere or hearing from somene (serious) that the ancient Jews attributed both good and evil aspects to God on the assumption that God created everything, so it was a logical attribution, even if it wasn’t a matter of God being directly involved (as in, it seems to have been believed, in OT times, that war was the result of God having or allowing nations to punish one another rather than the way we see war today: acts of people resulting from complex political issues. Plauges were seen as “falling into the hands of God because Germ Theory didn’t exist then).

    I imagine that it’s like how we attribute things to Nature. When a natural disaster happens (some people see the smiting hand of God), but most of us, since we have modern science and modern paradigms, think “It was a random burp of nature, just the planet going through its natural processes, so sad that people were in the way.” (And YES, even Christians see “nature being nature” – probably most of us, despite the nutbars the media cameras love). No one calls anyone “evil” for believing in nature or that nature exists, right? I tend to think that people’s conception of God as an “old man in the sky” is an anthropomorphism. As far as I’m concerned, people in OT times might have seen God in similar terms as we see “Nature” today. And it’s no crime to respect nature, even though nature is sometimes brutal, so why are people suddenly “evil” for believing that a possibly-neutral God exists?

  • Don Rappe

    I believe this is a very good question. I too ask it in one form or another with some frequency. But, I just checked in and should be getting over to church now. Perhaps later.

  • chris

    Buzz, Diana, Shadsie,

    Agreed. For me though it simply means the bible is to unreliable, contradictory and confusing to be a useful pointer to truth. For a while I simply wanted Jesus to be divorced from the narrative but it does not make sense the way it is written – he IS the Jewish messiah as the story goes. So I have an increasingly difficult time making much use of any of it.

  • DR

    Like with most things presented to us Chris, it’s a matter of deciding the filters we put on as we experience something.

  • Don Rappe

    A great bunch of thoughtful comments. I agree with John that the sketch does not slight Jesus. Here’s my 2 cents. I need to avoid thinking that knowing the word “theodicy” means I have an answer to the problem. As with some other commenters, the free will explanation does not really float my boat, But I agree theodicy should not be a conundrum. It was a problem for me when I felt justified in thinking moral for “me” and moral for “God” had some sort of comparability. When I or others play God, we do wrong, even horrific crimes. But, God is not “playing”. When I confuse God being God with my playing God, I indulge an arrogance which is not simply puffed up, but, actually insane. Then the question from the whirlwind is rightly addressed to me: “Where were you when I created the cosmos, that you advised me?”. I need to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with God. Without humility the walk is impossible.

  • It took me a few days to watch this video, because I was so put off by your opening sentences in the write-up, saying that you have no idea why theodicy is such a conundrum for people. It felt condescending, as myself and many other scholars whose brilliance far exceeds mine and yours, have struggled relentlessly with this issue until the day they died.

    This rabbit hole goes down a long way, and although I haven’t ventured to the bottom I’ve been deep enough that I don’t think I’ll ever will say to someone that “theodicy is solved”. Dr. Bart Ehrman just wrote a book on the topic (God’s Problem) and shows a great variety of conflicting biblical explanations for suffering. These biblical approaches also match what many of us have felt about our own personal stories of suffering, as we change our minds on which things just happen vs. which things may have been steered by a divine hand.

    I think some of us Christians have a free will fetish, probably amplified for American Christians who grow up in a culture that promotes freedom and self-actualization. Yet psychologists and neuroscientists have been doing experiments for decades, and these hint at the possibility that the very idea of free will is false. We’re not 100% behaviorally-influenced creatures that can be programmed like automata, but we may be closer to that than we’d like to think. And where our free will doesn’t apply, it’s at least possible that those are the places an omnipotent God gets to have His way.

    Let’s take your example of the medical wunderkind in Mumbai who never got the chance to use his gift. Yes, mankind has a responsibility in that scenario, and we pay the price for our weakness. But who put that particular soul in that particular boy, in that place and time?

    I’m going to cool my jets a while before I go off into a written rant. You’re a very smart guy, John, and I bet you’ve read several of those tortured studies of theodicy by theologians and religious philosophers. They’re not struggling needlessly while missing the point. There are very deep implications about the character of God that they’re carefully considering, and to put free will above all else indeed comes with some sobering implications.

    But this probably isn’t coming off well, and the topic is more suited to a long discussion over some wine instead of a comment thread (or a short video!). Grace and peace, my brother.

  • Well, if you thought my little intro to the video was too arrogant, you’re not going to like this: Bart Ehrman’s saying that something is complicated doesn’t make it so. God lets men to the evil they do because, out of his love for all of us, he won’t interfere with the free will of any of us. If someone can tell me why that isn’t a solution to the theodicy, I’m all ears. I’ve been saying that for years–it’s one of the key points in my book, “Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang”—and so far the closest anyone has ever come to reasonably refuting it is to do as you’ve done here: say “It’s more complicated than that,” and then basically say nothing more. But … I mean, I really AM all ears on this. I certainly don’t mean to be being arrogant. But … well, there it is. Love to you, Red; you’re one of the very good guys, I know.

  • It’s not complicated in its structure; it’s complicated in its implications about the character of God. My most powerful metaphor for God is as a loving parent. In general that’s the model that’s most useful to me, although it undoubtedly oversimplifies Him.

    Free will is one area where the metaphor breaks down for me. When my kids are older and more mature, they won’t have to get my permission for anything. They’ll be on their own. But right now, their capacity for harm exceeds their ability to comprehend it, so I put controls on what they can and cannot do. To do less for my toddler would be criminal, as he would surely injure himself or others pretty soon if I didn’t intervene.

    So is God criminally neglectful? No, I don’t think so. Why not? Becuase I do think He’s still active in this world, and isn’t just sitting back and letting things run on autopilot, wiping his hands of any responsibility while fallen humanity continues to make messes.

    Now where and how He’s involved in the world, there’s another complicated point. I have friends and family who swear that God saved their loved one from cancer or heart disease, but I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that God miraculously saved a retired octogenarian and let that boy in Mumbai starve. That He helped my colleague find a job but didn’t lift a finger to stop a serial killer.

    Or that your conversion in a closet at work had anything to do with your free will. Sometimes He does things, powerful things that we can’t seem to explain, whether it’s lancing your heart for the better or hardening Pharoah’s hard for the worse. Yet other times He seems completely absent from much more serious situations that could use Him.

    I have no problem chalking this up to deep mystery. A mystery I hope to one day understand better.

    So if God was truly out of the picture now and letting things roll, I might be able to go with the free will explanation of suffering. But once He steps in, whether to whisper to a soul or to save a life, that’s where it gets complicated for me.

  • Yes, the implications of God not interfering with human free will are … as complicated as we want to make them. But that doesn’t point to the viability of my theory. (“My theory.” How arrogant does that sound?) And yes, as you note: Saying that God will not directly thwart the free-will of another is not at all the same as saying God never involved himself in the lives of people.

    And my conversion experience was based on an act of free will on my part. I was very open to that input. And afterwards, I chose not to ignore or reject it.

  • Don Rappe

    Why does the expression free-will sound redundant to me when compared to the word will? What is freedom if not the potential to effect our will? But my will seems to me to be “in here” rather than “out there”. When God changes my heart, God simultaneously changes my will. This leads to an ambiguity of meaning which is noted by some commenters. Now, from “my will” I can leap metaphorically to the “Will of God”. Thy Will be done among us as it is in the visible sky. If God answers this prayer, does it make us automatons? I think not. If God answers this prayer, does he also answer the theodicy? I think so. So the simple faith of a child contains the answer to the theodicy. But no amount of logical argument can. So, I paraphrase your point about the conundrum..

  • Hmm. My skeptically-whispered prayers have been downright magic lately. I’ve been, in desperation, asking for needs, not really thinking God was going to pay attention and having things happen. Been *weird* lately, especially considering what goes unanswered in the world, but really, I cannot guilt myself over things I cannot control, or else I’d appreciate nothing. It hasn’t really made me much less skeptical or questioning, either. Whenever I start thinking “answered prayer” is proof of anything, I remember what people say about our “caveman brains” being prone to see patterns…

    That said, I always find the models people use for their perception of God interesting. It seems like parents inevitably go to “God is like a parent.” My personal model is “God is a writer.”

    I enjoy writing – I’m not professional yet by any means, but yeah, I write novels and junk in my spare time. This “Free Will vs. Destiny” stuff reminds me of my relationship with my various characters. Whenever I start out a new project, I have ideas about the world and about characters, and about how said characters will convey this or that aspect of the world and/or how the world will affect them. While I have basic ideas in mind, it seems like I “get to know” my characters when I’m writing them. Even though I am their creator, my characters do tend to take on a “life of their own” – as in, when I develop them to a certain point, I know what what’s in-character or out-of-character for them. I know that I cannot make a character do something out-of-character for them (in a way any potential audience would find believable) unless I *make* it in-character for them by doing a lot of explaining why they would do a certain thing, a reason for a good character to go against his honor for once, for instance.

    I also put my characters through a lot of strife and pain for the sake of an intersting story and for the sake of making them dynamic characters – developing them.

    I am something of a wicked “goddess” to my worlds – I take an enjoyment in writing death-scenes. Like many writers, I rather like making my protagonists suffer. In the end, however, I (at least try) to bring about a story with meaning. Even if my protagonists do not *survive* the story, their “lives” were meaningful.

    I sometimes wonder if God is a “writer” like that…. has some push and pull with his “characters” in regards to free will vs. who we know (can tell Him) we are and if some of the suffering in the world is essentially “worldbuilding” and “character development” that we aren’t going to understand until the end of the story.

    I do admit that this view of things is scary. – my own new writing and spew-blog, if anyone’s interested.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    The Bible does not point to any truth. And it neither intends nor pretends to but clearly asserts that the True Word is incarnate in the flesh and blood of man, not paper and ink. The Word of Scripture gives an image of a truth truly too great in magnitude for words. For any resemblance of that depicted therein to any particular item of truth, the pointer is a finger of men, each trying to relate it to his/her own experiences, each bringing his/her own preconceptions and misconceptions, each with some lack of understanding here, some flaws in reasoning over there, each with a limitation of vision at some point, whether unable to read it in large font right in front of him/her or able to read it right from 10 yards out, and each can bring his/her own lenses, whether achieving with them magnified clarity or turning one’s reflection upon the text into the reflection of a funhouse mirror.

    As for making use of it, the Scripture makes its use clear, assuming 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is taken among it: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (NIV)

    So the Church comes together to learn together, from the Scripture as well as from one another, in order that they might support one another and together be equipped for even greater works than any individually—even Jesus Himself (John 14:12)—would accomplish.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    You can say that again!

    (By the way, Chris, my comment below was supposed to be a reply to your comment below, but it’s not displaying correctly for whatever reason.)

  • re natural evil in the form of tsunamis/earthquakes/floods/etc.: Last night at our Bible study John Waters’ old joke of “God must hate trailer parks ‘cuz that’s where He sends tornadoes first” popped up. When you unpack it, however, one realizes trailer parks are typically built on less desirable land, and one thing that makes land less desirable is for it to be in the middle of Tornado Alley (or on a flood plain, or on the slope of a volcano, or a fault line).

    The planet requires a certain amount of physical dynamics in order to operate properly. People who live in areas/regions where these dynamics are at play can not feign surprise when Something Major Happens (I live in LA; the as-yet-to-arrive Big One is always in the back of our minds).

    Other than accident of birth, there was nothing that forced the Japanese people to live in the path of a tsunami. Other than financial considerations, there was nothing to prevent them to moving somewhere more tectonically stable.

    If one wants to argue it’s evil to create economic situations where some people are desperate enough to run the risk of living in a dangerous area just so they can afford to eat, one is returning the blame to humanity, not God.

    We can no more blame God for the evil & suffering that follows a natural disaster than we could blame Him for our injuries if we try to walk across a superhighway during rush hour.

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I believe Mark nailed it where he replied, “The purpose of free will is *not* to allow us to be able to make *choices*, but to allow us to demonstrate love for God and others.”

    Just who is man that he should be so proud as to think himself not only worthy of but entitled to freedom of choice, so often staking claim to some hollow divine right to be wrong? Yet just as one is not entitled to his own choice of facts—for their is no truth but God’s—neither are we entitled to our choice of actions—for there is no absolutely and unconditionally free will but God’s alone!

    You say, “If you place limits on free will then it stops being free will and becomes sort-of-free-under-certain-conditions will.”

    Yes, indeed, that’s what it is. So what? I, for instance, could not of my own free will, kill 11 million Neo-Nazis: I have not encountered 11 million Neo-Nazis, and someone or something would surely stop me before I have a chance to, as even I doubt there might be found so many in all the world in the time allotted to me.

    When it comes to the choice of whether or not to kill someone, is it always true that one’s opportunity to actually choose to do so will not be limited by constraints to a single time? What if karma comes around to get you before you have the opportunity to do something twice? What if the power lines to the death machines get struck by lightning? Is all that I must do be sure there will never any interference befall me according to the will of God is keep my will inclined ever towards evil? Or am I capable in my free will of choosing anything good, and if so, shall I still be limited (physically, financially, materially, temporally, etc.) from doing as much good as I would choose, which would interfere with others’ will to cause evil?

    Again, you say, “A free will means freedom to choose, and I, for one, would not like to live in a world where there are no choices.”

    Of course not. As a rule, we should like to maximize choice. But some lack of choice is a given. You may choose to disobey Mosaic laws, but not Newtonian laws!

    But about what you would like, what do you think likes are, if not informants of the will? And what do you think the will is, if not that by which we undertake actions to meet primal needs for the thriving of Adam’s seed: sustenance, reproduction, support for and from one another, etc.?

  • Jeremy

    I do not understand the ending. The boy who would have solved world hunger starved to death? Was that supposed to be a joke? Did the person who would have cured AIDS die of AIDS? Was the person who would put an end to mental disabilities born too mentally disabled to do the research? I’m not sure what your point is.

    If you mean we somehow should have identified this boy and given him food, I’m not sure how we would do this unless God told us who it is. If you mean we should have cured world hunger on our own so that any boy who might have cured world hunger wouldn’t die of starvation… well, if we could do it on our own, we wouldn’t have needed the boy in the first place.

    And even if the boy had lived and ended world hunger, what about all the people who suffered and died of starvation beforehand? Why would God have made a world with so much starvation in the first place, only to finally end it with some boy after billions of deaths?

  • Bria LaPoint

    I have a tendency to see things other people miss.

    I have a strong belief that things arent as they seem. I believe in mind manipulation and that things arent as they should be.

    I might as well say whats on my mind. John Shore, I took a good hard look at you. You are a guardian angel in a human body. Mind you, this Pagan doesnt see things the way others see them, I grew up christian and left it realizing that things arent as they seem.

  • Bria LaPoint

    God lets men to the evil they do because, out of his love for all of us, he won’t interfere with the free will of any of us.

    That is complete bull. I read your testimony, and you were not giving free will or a choice. It sounds to me like someone played you for a fool.

  • Bria LaPoint

    My husband remembers my past lives better than I do at times. I didnt choose my body, my religion or my family. God or in my case, the gods do not always give us free will. I didnt want to reincarnate, but I did knowing this was my final life here. I didnt want to be raised christian, but I was knowing that someday I will get out of Christianity if im lucky. I may not know what the afterlfe is like, but my husband does, and let me tell you something, If you like secrets and conspiracies have I got one for you. Some of the gods of evil didnt want people to know what the afterlife was like, because they planned to destroy everyone on this planet. They wanted to keep this project quiet and not tell anyone about it. Very few people know about it.

  • Bria LaPoint

    Youre the one that uses Link as your avatar. I thought I recognized you.

  • Bria LaPoint

    Learn together? more like dictate what they want the others to believe. I know Christianity like the back of my hand, and I know the way christians think, act and feel, because I used to be one. Theres a leader, that still follows Jesus, and his subordinants.

  • Bria LaPoint

    I need some answers for my non-Christian friends who see those freaky fundies online spouting nonsense, about how God has used the Japan earthquake to punish/cleanse the earth, etc. They (freaky fundies) are giving us and God a bad name.

    Here is what bugs me, I mean really irks me about liberal christians. NOWHERE in history have chistians been tolerant, compassionate, and peaceful. Century after century of bloodshed and hypocracy have been done in the name of Jesus. So what youre doing is just as creepy as what the fundies are doing, tryin to validate Christianity as a way to crush others that dont believe as you do.

  • Bria LaPoint

    Many christians believe god is omnipotent, omnipresent and all powerful. If that were the case, God would be able to prevent natural disasters. Cant blame it on Satan, the verse in Isaiah says god does ALL things.

    Wait…..what? That means everything that Christians attribute to Satan, is actually god’s doing.

    I believe that people become christian because some inner conviction wants them to, or curiosity. However, from being raised one as a baby, I have no such convictions.

    I believe we are responsible for our own actions, and that people become christian because they feel guilty about some past actions.

    My own expriences taught me that Jesus is NOT the way, the truth and the life, I even tested myself one day right after I deconverted. I told myself, Jesus is a lie, jesus is a lie, and when I said Jesus is the truth, I stumbled and nearly fell.

  • Bria LaPoint

    I wish to talk about the friends Ive made along the way.There was a chatter, calls himself Ra999, he believed he was the god Ra, in a human body. My husband remembered the god Ra, and remembered fighting Ra. The chatter in question was not Ra. Turns out, Ra999 wasnt the only one that believed they were something they were not.

    Daniel, wrote a book called the final book of Daniel. He believed in Christ Conciousness, and then, many years later, became a christian fundamentalist.

    Why is this happening to my friends? Then I learned about mind control. Stan taught me that our thoughts, are suggestive. But what if someone could do to you what they do on Star Wars? I have had some weird experiences, and I wouldnt put it out of the realm of possibiliies.

  • Bria LaPoint

    Penguins. Perhaps the penguin is your spirit guide. Then again, Christians dont believe such things. I have several. My favorite is the wolverine and fox.

  • DR

    For someone who’s so enlightened, this response is terribly rude.

  • I generally like your videos, but freewill vs. all-powerful God is just a logical paradox, and trying to answer it in a 3 minute video gives the impression of glossing it over with an easy response. 

    I, for one, am not satisfied with ‘God gives us freewill because he wants to’.  It doesn’t even begin to answer the much deeper, more difficult questions about predestination, God’s ability to think/feel, and many others.

    As I said, I like what you do generally, but anyone who thinks this video says anything solid, new, or useful, just isn’t thinking about it very hard.

  • Many thanks to one who made this post, much informative for me and I am sure for others. Please continue sharing informative posts