Is God’s Goodness Arbitrary? [Questions That Haunt]

Is God’s Goodness Arbitrary? [Questions That Haunt] October 23, 2012

Time for another installment of Questions That Haunt Christianity. This week, our question comes from Lisa, whom you can find at her blog and on Twitter. In fact, she’s already taken a stab at answering her own question on her blog.

I’m a Christian, but I have lately been struggling with a question: Do I believe God is Good, or do I believe God is just good to me? I see my life as having been blessed and guided by God into many good things (great husband, amazing kids, food to eat, etc.), but I struggle to reconcile all these gifts with the lives of those in extreme suffering and poverty. I’m not sure how to trust God with my everyday, (relatively) minor needs like relief for sick kids or financial problems. Why would I be rescued, when God didn’t rescue Holocaust mothers who watched their babies used as target practice? I believe in God. I believe he is Good. But I don’t know why I believe that.

Here’s the drill: You take a crack at answering it in the comment section below. I take a crack at it on Friday. An you can submit your own question here.

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  • This is one of the main reasons why I have a really hard time “believing” that (any orthodox understanding of) God “exists.” That kind of deity’s relationship to “creation” is completely arbitrary. Pulling the mystery card just doesn’t work for me anymore.

    • At the same time, I think a good case is made that without evil there could not be good, or love. That our humanity depends on the possibility of evil. Where “heaven” or “immortality” would actually be hell – an experience less than human.

      What that means for my understanding of divinity, I don’t know yet…

    • You make some good points, Rob. Our humanity being dependent on the possibility of evil… that is something to think about!

      Regarding orthodoxy, I sometimes place myself on the faith spectrum in this way: I “believe” in God, but I don’t always necessarily “trust” my concept of God. Does that make some semblance of sense in the context of your comment?

      • Thanks, Lisa.

        I just cannot imagine an existence where freedom is entirely absent (“heaven”). I know that many Christians define freedom as “obeying God” or something to that effect – that sin is slavery, etc. That makes no sense to me. I see our human dignity, worth, etc. tied up with our responsibility to make choices. Without that, what are we?

        I try to avoid using the word God in a positive sense, because I feel like so many people use it without defining it. Which god? But, once defined, there are at least a few conceptions of god about which I can say I more probably intellectually assent to than not.

        But, I also see the value in the work being done by those like Pete Rollins, who put “faith that works” (belief) above intellectual assent (belief), as being much more important. In that conversation, belief or unbelief regarding any conception of god is mostly irrelevant.

        Sorry for the super long response… But, yes, your reply does make sense. Despite my disagreements with many people who claim to believe in God, from my perspective, humility about ones beliefs is extremely important.

        • NateW


          I appreciate your approach and your honest questions. I can relate to your use of quotes and parenthesis to qualify and add nuance to what your saying. I feel the same way whenever I write or speak about God (or nearly anything else). I get so frustrated that so much dialogue about God concerns whether or not he “exists.” I honestly have no idea what this means and see no sense in arguing one way or the other. As you said, to say that I believe that such-and-such a God “exists” is nearly meaningless if it is an intellectual belief and not an existential way of being belief.

          As an aspiring follower of Christ I would echo Lisa’s approach, I think. I wouldn’t say that God “exists” as a supreme supernatural being, but would, I think, go so far as to say i hope to live in such a way that for others He “is”. I don’t see this as a statement so much about the reality of God, but about my ability to speak truth about Him.

          Nevertheless, I cannot remain silent so I talk about Him, knowing all the time that my best words describe only my own fleeting understanding of a dim reflection of an infinite God.

          • Thanks, Nate.

            I like your use of the word existential – that helps.

          • “existential” means grounded in reality, demonstrated to be in time and space. “belief” is an opinion. It also implies some conviction and faith, but it is still defined as NOT based on provable existence. Given that, your statement “existential way of being belief” is incoherent.

          • No, we’re hijacking the word belief and redefining it – or at least preferencing one definition above another.

            The roots of belief and faith (and trust) are the same:

          • There is definitely some hijacking going on, but I’m not asking about the definition of “belief”. I believe we agree on that. I’m asking what an “existential way of being belief” is. From the linked etymology, “holding dear” is no closer to existing than any modern definition.

          • The signifier “existential” is to refocus on the action implicit in belief rather than the theoretical/abstract/intellectual definition of belief.

            For example, a lot of people say they “believe” in “the resurrection of Jesus.” But, from my perspective, who cares? Whether the resurrection actually happened – as an historical fact – is not very important to me (though still interesting). What matters much more – to me – is whether I am a site of resurrection. That I am a person who doesn’t simply intellectually assent to an idea or opinion about something that may or may not have happened in the past, but that I am becoming a resurrection kind of person in the present. Of course, this Christian language isn’t necessary. But, I think it’s helpful. Do I see life and love and hope in the midst of darkness and chaos and hopelessness? And so on…

          • Definitely redefining, but beautiful none the less. There is no action implicit in belief. If you don’t believe the resurrection is a fact, then you are not a Christian. You can believe in any of the other aspects of revealed truth or any of the other stuff in the Bible, but that’s a requirement. You are some other version of a belief system.

            I’m not saying don’t do that by the way. In fact, what you describe is much more like being an interpreter of stories, something we need much more of. Science is great, but it moves at a slow and steady pace and does not yield much information about which charity I should give to or should I spend more time with my niece or a Somali child who wants to go to school but can’t. It doesn’t help me understand why my father’s words keep coming out of my mouth. Stories, whether Christian or from the Dagara of Burkina Faso, do help.

          • Lausten,

            I’m assuming you don’t claim to be a Christian. I’ve been ambivalent about this over the past few years, but more recently have become much more open to the “big tent” that is Christianity. At this point in my life, I have no problems self-identifying as a Christian. But, I’d prefer to have a conversation with someone about what I mean by that.

            But, no, I don’t think you need to “believe” (intellectually assent to) most of the things that many Christians think are required (including a factual resurrection), in order to use that label.

            I don’t think anyone has the right or authority to Decide who’s in or out.

          • Got that right Rob. And although I don’t claim authority, words have to have meanings or we can’t communicate. Tony’s blog is a great place to discuss that meaning. Unfortunately there are some very powerful people who do think they are the authority on who’s in or out. But that’s a different problem, different thread.

            I left my last church when I watched my pastor going through a ritual where he asked a family to say that they believed in the resurrection. It was the basic membership ritual in the hymnal. That same pastor had just finished a sermon that included Teilhard de Chardin and talked about being open minded. Those kids were not absorbing the subtleties of that sermon, and won’t be able to parse it out until they are much better versed in history. They will however remember hearing their parents say “I believe”. That’s a difficult position for a kid.

            You can make the tent as big as you want, as long as there are people in there indoctrinating impressionable minds like this, and no one is crying foul, I’ll be outside that tent.

          • NateW

            Thanks for your push-back Lausten. Your absolutely right that we need to be careful with our words. Your definition of “existential” sounds exactly like what I had in mind. I understand that “existential belief” does seem incoherent, but if there is a better way to concisely say what I’m thinking I haven’t come up with it yet.

            There is an interplay between belief, faith, and concrete actions (By “belief” i mean a cognitive assent to propositional statements and by “faith” I mean belief specifically pertaining to that which we believe to be the road to happiness/fulfillment/”the good life”) that Christendom (and probably the world at large) seems to be largely ignorant of. Namely, we don’t believe what we think we believe, we believe what our actions show us to believe. Everybody has faith in something, christianity’s core problem today (in my estimation) is that we have placed our faith in our beliefs about God instead of in the Way that christ taught us to live. For many Christians (speaking of the religious group) it is not god himself that “saves”, but their beliefs about him. iIn this case, cognitive conceptions about God become a hinderence to true faith in him, giving emotional security while allowing us to continue living the same way as those around us. Our actions ALWAYS unswervingly coincide with the deepest beliefs we have and will always point to that which we truly have faith in. Belief in Christ then is not a status that we can claim to have attained, but a moment by moment course of existential action that follows the way of Love, forgiveness and self-emptying sacrifice for others. To love God is to love self sacrificially, and in doing so to find yourself us reprised by hope, peace, and rest, even in the midst of suffering.

          • NateW

            Sorry, meant to say “surprised” in my last sentence.

          • Thanks for continuing the discussion NateW. There is nothing more edifying than being able to discuss a topic with someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with you on all points.

            Thanks for the correction too. I knew “us reprised” was a typo, but couldn’t unscramble it.

  • Lee P.

    I just want to say that this is a fantastic question and one that, as a new Christian, has haunted me. How does one reconcile God’s blessings in their personal lives with the fact that there are babies whose only activity on Earth is to be born, and then to die shortly after. I would surely trade many of God’s “blessings” for their survival and for others around the world who live in the mist of poverty and disease. not to mention those who are mistreating and physically and psychologically tortured.

    Yeah, God blessed me with a raise or a new car or some insight or this or that. but what about that African kid who is about to be eaten by that buzzard? What about him?

    • Lee,

      Ultimately we can’t weight any case until we can put all of the facts on the scales of judgment. Since we need judge the goodness of God by taking into account all eternity, we are very limited. We can only see the first pitch of the ball game.

      How do I know that God is good? Well, I’ve been following Him for thirty five years. This doesn’t mean I can explain the starving babies in Africa. However, I know Him well enough to know that it will all be resolved in the end – justly and mercifully.

      • Daniel,

        Thank you for your response. I hope you (we) are correct, that eventually, God will set things right. Truly, that is the only hope I have, the only thread that keeps me tied to Christianity (and to be honest, sometimes that thread looks awfully thin).

    • Lee,

      Just know you’re not alone. I’ve been a serious follower of Jesus for 16 years now, and this question has been looming over my head nearly that entire time. It takes on different forms, but it is always there.

  • Jim Armstrong

    Another GREAT question. It has connections with so many other troublesome questions as well. I will offer the perspective I’ve evolved to. But I hasten add that this has been an evolutionary process with many excursions in many directions along the way.

    In simplified form, it starts with the Bible’s reporting of God’s assessment that His Creation is “good”, nay “Very good”. I use present tense because the answer (for me) to another question was that it seemed unimaginable that some man-event could corrupt a work as enormous (and we now know, physically non-man-centric) and brilliantly conceived as all of Creation.

    But our understandably human inclination is to think of “good” (and “evil” for that matter) in human terms. And the operating consensus of most of mainstream Christianity that I have encountered never takes issue with the widespread understanding that God is constantly attentive to and actively involved in shaping or at least directing our lives.

    I am persuaded – for many reasons – that this is not likely to be the case. Instead, my sense is that Creation is an enormous and exquisitely conceived work that is “Very good” from a divine perspective. And it is “Very good” as well for us as well, if we are able to be humble enough to appreciate how fortunate and blessed we are, simply to be present, living, wonderfully complex, self-aware, social, curious, and creative in such a “place”; a place that makes room for (or brings forth) the likes of us, and sustains us.

    But that same Creation, and the “rules” it follows in bringing us to this point, does have down-sides from human perspective. The occasional meteorite (at least one that nearly extinguished life on earth in the past), tectonic plate movement (earthquakes and tsunamis), weather phenomena (hurricanes and flash floods), evolving disease organisms, and so on, to say nothing of the up and down sides of the behaviors of extremely complex humans. Even the mathematics of extremely complex systems (like earth’s taken as a whole) take some unexpected and dramatic excursions.

    One specific case is death. In human experience, it’s a terrible thing, …even to the point of some theologies suggesting that it didn’t even exist in the initial and perfect (from man’s perspective) Creation. But we now know death is a key component in the ever-evolving thing we call life. Even our cells that regenerate themselves, generation after generation, have a built-in mechanism to quit regenerating after about 40 such cycles. In short, we now know that life (as we know it) could not exist without death. [Where would we put them? :-)]

    Given that, I think our unique gift in this part of Creation arises in the frontal portion of our brains (wherein lies the imagination, and judgment, and heart that we experience as humans). And that in turn defines our unique “work”. In short, that capacity allows us uniquely among Earth-living kind to be able to respond to the hurtful, damaging or destructive events or consequences that are a part of the full range of possibilities woven into Creation. We – like no other living kind – can repair, restore, comfort, heal, avoid, predict, and to a limited extent prevent (also dream, invent, and build). So that would seem to be a distinct part of our work. But it also means that we are sometimes the one in need.

    At the core of this understanding is the notion that the whole of Creation, as it is and as it works, is our astonishingly beneficent and provident (God-given, if you will) context — good, bad, and all — from our human experiential perspective. And would appear to be our job to make the bad better, and to push back against the human contributions to the bad.

    This notion helped me a lot in being able to set aside a lot of the huge questions about evil being present in God’s “Very good” Creation (and that irritating theodicy problem). And, in time to sense something more profound about our presence, …about our privilege, …and about our obligation (by design, if you will) in being here.

    And that’s where I am. It seemed to resolve some really troublesome questions, though not without introducing some significant challenges of its own along the way.

    • That is the highest ratio of words typed to lack of meaning that I have ever seen. What the heck does this mean? “At the core of this understanding is the notion that the whole of Creation is our astonishingly beneficent and provident context from our human experiential perspective” I removed the dashes, parens and asides for clarity.

      • Jim Armstrong

        Yow. That was pretty bad. Sorry. Run-on, …and the last phrase was supposed to be in parens to qualify good/bad as a human measure.

    • Interesting stuff, Jim. I see that this has, indeed, been a long journey for you. I wonder what you do with the Incarnation, within the context of your question. If God is not actively involved in shaping or directing our lives, what are we to do with Jesus?

      The idea that God is not actively involved in the minutiae of human affairs has held quite a bit of appeal to me throughout the years. I remember studying the watchmaker analogy in philosophy class, and feeling that that was a good explanation for the presence of evil and suffering: God designed the cosmos, wound it up, and let it spin. But that doesn’t account for the massive interruption of the status quo that was Jesus. And since Jesus is the reason I’m here (“here” being “within the realm of Christianity”), I just can’t accept the idea of God as a hands-off Creator.

      • Jim Armstrong

        Thank you, Lisa. Long is right, …life-long, though much of it after mid-life. And so I understand very well what draws and sustains you. It is certainly shared by the vast majority of Christians, and many of my friends.

        It just happens that the specifics of my faith walk have been an evolving thing, …a slowly evolving thing. And as I said, there were significant challenges (and pauses) along the way. And there was usually decreasing certainty (but increasing faith, in my experience) with every increment. I don’t recommend this journey to anyone. But I have found fellow travelers (somewhat to my surprise early on).

        I did not like the Watchmaker at the time I encountered it. I didn’t like that distant God one little bit. And it took literally a few years to absorb a several of things; namely (1) that this universe’s workings (I am a technoid!) are both marvelous AND EXTRAORDINARILY PROVIDENT, and (2) that I live in privilege in that place, (3) we have already in some sense “inherited the earth”, ready or not (I think that extent of stewardship is what lies behind that Genesis word, “dominion”). And (4), since God is no longer in a particular place in this universe (best we understand), there’s no way to be certain of any of a number of notions about the nature and degree of the divine presence (which existence I still espouse). But one possibility is that God is both distant in the Watchmaker way, and present in a totally non-physical, but mostly(?) hands-off way because Creation is “Very good”.

        Some of the other challenges are tougher to relate to unless you’ve strayed some distance down some path like this. Continue to entertain the questions. Their exploration is apparently part of the creative intent. Be patient. Don’t rush anywhere that you are not drawn into. And remember that the examination of a pebble on the beach is not a commitment to pocket it.

        BTW, my short answer to the question posed for this week is that God’s goodness is beyond our ability to discern, but appears to me to be neither arbitrary nor conditional. It suffuses all of Creation, and we are the living beneficiaries thereof.

  • kalimsaki

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi

    Man is such an antique work of art of Almighty God. He is a most subtle and graceful miracle of His power whom He created to manifest all his Names and their inscriptions, in the form of a miniature specimen of the universe. If the light of belief enters his being, all the meaningful inscriptions on him may be read. As one who believes, he reads them consciously, and through that relation, causes others to read them. That is to say, the dominical art in man becomes apparent through meanings like, “I am the creature and artefact of the All-Glorious Maker. I manifest His mercy and munificence.” That is, belief, which consists of being connected to the Maker, makes apparent all the works of art in man. Man’s value is in accordance with that dominical art and by virtue of being a mirror to the Eternally Besought One. In this respect insignificant man becomes God’s addressee and a guest of the Sustainer worthy of Paradise superior to all other creatures.
    However, should unbelief, which consists of the severance of the relation, enter man’s being, then all those meaningful inscriptions of the Divine Names are plunged into darkness and become illegible. For if the Maker is forgotten, the spiritual aspects which look to Him will not be comprehended, they will be as though reversed. The majority of those meaningful sublime arts and elevated inscriptions will be hidden. The remainder, those that may be seen with the eye, will be attributed to lowly causes, nature, and chance, and will become utterly devoid of value. While they are all brilliant diamonds, they become dull pieces of glass. His importance looks only to his animal, physical being. And as we said, the aim and fruit of his physical being is only to pass a brief and partial life as the most impotent, needy, and grieving of animals. Then it decays and departs. See how unbelief destroys human nature, and transforms it from diamonds into coal.

  • Pax

    I find the problem of evil/injustice/suffering to be the hardest question to answer. This is the two-part response that is most satisfying to me:

    (1) There may be something about suffering that is good for our formation. I think we get this intuitively (e.g. “the school of hard knocks”). And really, the idea of God causing good to come from bad is central to the Christian faith. It’s the Paschal mystery. We go through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.

    (2) God’s ability to provide justice is not limited to this world. If someone suffers unjustly on earth, then God can make it up to them in heaven.

    • I’m glad you commented, Pax. I find this type of answer to be the most satisfying as well. The problem that I have, though, is that I came of age in a conservative evangelical faith tradition, and though I have left that tradition behind, I find some of its theology (particularly the spectre of penal substitutionary atonement) hard to shake.

      • John McCauslin

        My take on all of this is that this good Creation is a dynamic enterprise, supple and, to a greater or lesser degree self-perpetuating. God is engaged but not directive. God is invested, and deeply involved, and is especially present in our self-awareness. In our self-awareness God granted us the ability to love, ourselves and others. Perhaps this ability to love is the clearest expression of the image of God in our loves and in the world.

        Death is an essential and integral part of the design of Creation, without which the Universe as Created, could not function, especially in its biological parts. But even in its non-biological aspects the Universe moves forward through time in a continuous cycle of generation, destruction and regeneration, each step filled with dynamic and novel possibilities. With respect to biology, death is indispensable, as all life is nourished by the death of other lives. But from a self-aware perspective, death, of the biological or the inanimate, necessarily involving loss and separation, and is not a neutral aspect of Creation.

        On another note, notions of reciprocal justice are purely human. We want it and hope for it, just like we bet on the lottery. In the greater scheme of things it is irrelevant to Creation: stuff happens, we ultimately have to work our way through, at some point we have to just ‘get over it.’ There is no existential compulsion in the Created Universe for things to ‘even out.’. Creation does not operate on a zero sum basis, but on the basis of dynamism, growth, expansion, change and renewal, regeneration, evolution and so on. Creation anticipates new possibilities, not the settlement of old scores. And so it is with God. I think that the motivational theme of Creation is ‘what can we do and where can we go with this circumstance?’ and not ‘how do we even the score.’

        On the question of the role of the Incarnation, I believe that the arrival of the incarnation was in a sense a re-booting, a direct expression of God in the human experience, sent to re-call us to the truth of the Image of God within us, that is, to love, especially to love God, self, neighbor, and of all those whom God loves; and it was a personal demonstration of what such love means, the depth of self-sacrifice, forgiveness, acceptance, and effort such love calls forth from each of us.

        And bad things happen, and good things happen. And if we feel blessed we should be grateful, and if we feel burdened, or crushed, we should feel angry. But in neither case should we conclude that God loves us more, or our sister less. Stuff happens: Creation is dynamic and ever-changing, and just as likely to propel is forward or crush us along the way. The question is how are we each going to respond, either honoring, invoking, and expressing the Image of God within, or by ignoring and rejecting the Image of God within?

        • Thanks, John.

          I can assent to an engaged-but-not-directive God, and to death being an essential component of the cycle of life. I am reminded of the story in Luke about the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. Jesus essentially says that “stuff happens,” and elsewhere he speaks about how the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and so I can assent to the dynamic and self-perpetuation nature of the world. But to say that “at some point we have to just ‘get over it,” I just can’t. And here I don’t mean the natural and/or unavoidable disaster kinds of things, like towers falling, flooding, hurricanes, or congenital diseases. I can accept (but not lightly or easily) those things as just unfortunate things that just happen.

          But what of people born into extreme poverty, with no hope of anything else? What of women kidnapped (or sold) and forced into sexual slavery? What of genocide, of oppression? “Just get over it” sounds callous and indifferent in this context. Are the women who live in South Sudan, in Congo, in Haiti just supposed to “get over” being repeatedly raped?

          I’m sorry to go on so long, but this might be the crux of the matter (at least for me): A Creator who would put this Creation in motion (being omniscient and therefore knowing the suffering that was to come) and then stand back and indifferently say, “Stuff happens, so you should get over it,” is not a being that I can relate to, much less commit my life to following.

          • John McCauslin

            The ‘getting over it’ has to do with getting rid of our expectation that Creation will self-correct for injustices. It won’t. And if there is some adjustment in the next world, we will still carry our wounds from this world into the next; as Jesus carried his own wounds into his resurrection. So then the question is whether we will honor the image of God within ourselves and within those who are suffering and in response, whether we will seek to intervene on their behalf.

            I did not mean that we should callously ignore suffering in the world, quite the opposite, we should instead confront it ourselves, and not presume that it will all even out, in this world or the next. I don’t know what’s coming in the next world, but I feel certain that the coming kingdom of God in this world will not tolerate suffering, and as ambassadors of Christ, we are called to address suffering, to heal where we can and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, not in some distant future, but that it is very present, right here and now. And it’s starts with the work of the saints, today.

          • Thanks for the clarification, John. I understand you better now.

            I don’t think I expect self-correction in this world, but I come from a faith tradition that has a pretty bleak view of the next one, and I’ve come to realize that resolving this question will require shaking that off in order to embrace hope of something better.

        • Thank you so much for this comment John. You have a wonderful way of saying what I’ve been thinking but just struggling to write. God is radically integrated with this world and equally engaged with us personally, but his engagement, his “being with” us is not in the way we look for or expect. He shares in our experience of death when we suffer and in our joy when are aware enough to notice that our surroundings and relationships are soaked in his goodness.

  • Luke Allison


    I complete resonate with you. Without a theology of hope and restoration, and the ultimate “putting to rights” of this world, I don’t have anything.

    In regards to the initial question, I’ve learned my theology of blessing from studying Jewish thinking. The type of religious tradition that urges us to thank God for blessings was born out of a less-than-ideal environment. I figure, if impoverished and conquered people groups can “bless God” and thank him for his provision in the face of national tragedy and personal destruction, it would almost be insulting to their tradition for me not to do so in the face of minor accomplishments.

    Jesus, of course, reminds us that God sends rain (a good thing in a desert climate) on the just and the unjust. And that the way to emulate our Father is to do the same! I wonder if every person who claims to follow Jesus were to take this seriously in the world, whether our “blessings” could become their “blessings.”

    Of course, I have met many people in a much more oppressed or impoverished context who don’t consider me “blessed” at all. They’d much rather have their far more simple existence than my busy and harried, albeit luxurious one.

    But I resonate with your question, too. This is the thing that makes me question belief in God more than any other.
    On the other hand, of all world religions, I think the Way of Jesus offers the best “no” to the “yes” of evil in the world.
    Of course, we also have to take the reality of somewhat-free-agency into account, oppressive systemic corruption (principalities and powers), the endless capacity for evil inside every human competing with the capacity for good, and the propensity to simply survive rather than interfere with other peoples’ problems.

    With agnosticism, on the other hand, I don’t really have a “telos” I’m heading toward with my life. I’m not connected to that bigger story.

    • Luke,

      I love your summation of your “theology of blessing.” Thank you for sharing that with us. And your first sentence (“Without a theology of hope and restoration, and the ultimate “putting to rights” of this world, I don’t have anything.”) really cuts to the heart of the matter. Time and again, as I have processed these comments here, I keep coming back to the end game, so to speak. If I accept that extreme suffering (or the presence of evil, etc.) is somehow necessary (and it must be, if I trust God), then it all (for me) seems to come down to this “theology of hope and restoration.”

      I have mentioned my conservative evangelical upbringing in several comments. Specifically, I came to faith in my teens, in the late 90s, within the Southern Baptist tradition, and I graduated from a Southern Baptist college in Arkansas just as the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement started to make waves. The gist of the gospel as the church culture around me presented it was a) penal substitutionary atonement, and b) eternal conscious torment for all people who didn’t “get saved” by “asking Jesus into their hearts.”

      To put it simply, I find that theology sadly lacking in either hope or restoration. Writers like Tony (Jones, and also Tony Campolo), Jim Wallis, Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell have given me a safe space to deconstruct that old theology in favor of something better, but it isn’t yet fully formed in my mind, and so my hold on it is tenuous, but I believe it could be called “hope,” after all.

      • Luke Allison


        For me, while all those writers you mentioned have been influential, I’d have to put NT Wright and Jurgen Moltmann up there as my primary paradigm-shifters (and Greg Boyd but in a different area). Wright’s theology of new creation was the real game-changer for me; a well-articulated, non-esoteric understanding of the ultimate telos of God’s creative outpouring in the world, and in the Resurrection of Jesus.

        The large difference in emphasis between those whom I tend to pay attention to now, and those in the YRR movements (and other neo-traditional sects in the church) is on the significance of human beings. The famous Rick Warren saying, “It’s not about you”, is the exact opposite of what the Biblical narrative tells us, in my opinion. I think it’s ALL about us. Which is why our apathy, our behavior, and our choices all have such lasting and devastating impact. My theology necessarily understands God as interacting with the world in such a way that he partners with human beings, not demands they submit. A tremendous amount of responsibility has been given to us. Which of us is actually taking hold of it?

        It’s far easier to imagine that God ‘has everything under control’ on a second by second basis than it is to think of how much we’ve missed the boat in our required actions in the world. We are his house. That means something.

        • Yes. NT Wright’s new creation theology (along with an interpretation of that theology in a fantastic sermon by Rob Bell) shook me up quite a bit as well. I think that the hope of that kind of theology, though, scares me a little bit. I had the feeling while I was reading it that I could only read in small doses, because the whole thing was too bright, too wonderful for me to take in. I had the same feeling when I read McLaren’s “New Kind of Christian” trilogy: I want to believe it, I want to trust that kind of hope, but I feel like the chains of PSA/ECT hold me back from that, like I have to shake the one off before I can embrace the other, and until I do, I’m in a bit of a no-man’s-land.

  • curtis

    If God’s goodness were evenly distributed everywhere, how would we know it was good? Wasn’t that the situation Adam and Eve were before the fall? Sure, things were great, but Adam and Eve were not human at that point; they were not aware of their surroundings and what it meant. They were without knowledge.

    God had a choice. God could have spread goodness evenly everywhere, and lived all of eternity with mindless human puppets. Or, God could create humans as fully human as we know them, “in Gods image” with a knowledge of right and wrong. For that knowledge to exist, pain and suffering, sadly, must be present. It is part of who we are. Paradoxically, we are not fully human without it.

    • NateW

      My thoughts almost exactly. Think about this though: for an infinite and omnipresently good God, how could it be possible to create a space where goodness is absent? It requires the absence of God himself. It requires a crucified God. The crucified Christ was present at creation because creation itself was the moment where God first subjected himself to death so that he could create others who are different than Him, but able to know Him.

      We live then, not in a world over which an all powerful God arbitrarily exerts power by supernatural intervention, but in a world from which the goodness of God is supernaturally absent except where we manifest Him by love for those who co-suffer the absence if God. God’s power in this world resides in those “whose strength is not to fight” (to quote Dylan), those who love even unto their own God-like death.

      • Curtis

        Yes, I’m reminded of the excitement I used to feel as a little boy when I would release my toy boat from a bridge over a stream, and watch as it tumbled down the stream. There was every chance that I would never get the boat back, that I would never see the boat again. But the pleasure of watching the boat drift down the stream was far more important than holding the boat safely in my hands. If I couldn’t let the boat go, I didn’t really want the boat anyway. That is how it is with us and God.

  • Charles

    Perhaps the cause of Christian angst with this question (and perhaps the other of Tony’s “Good Questions”) is our view of scripture. We read scripture through a Western lens – a traditional Christian lens. I believe the tradition view of Jesus and atonement theology so clouds that lens that other concepts of “God” cannot be seen in scripture or in life. Once someone decides to look at life apart from this Christian tradition, using perhaps an Eastern view/understanding, scripture takes on a different meaning, especially if one is able to completely set aside any form of atonement theology.

    Unless and until a fresh approach to the Christian message is formulated, based on something other than atonement theology, it’s no wonder the “nones” are a rapidly emerging/growing group. (Yes, I used the word “emerging” on purpose. There is much I like about the emergent conversation/movement. Unfortunately, from where I sit, they haven’t yet jettisoned the atonement model nor language, tradition still dominates).

    • Charles,

      Thank you for responding. Your reference to the “nones” is interesting to me; I am a Christian, but I can strongly identify with this group of religiously non-affiliated people. In the past few years, I have occasionally joked that Jim Wallis (of Sojourners) and Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show) saved my faith. I have said it in jest, but the fact is that the Southern Baptist tradition in which I came of age held (and still holds) positions that I find untenable, and if not for those voices guiding me to another way of thinking, believing, and living, I might have joined the “nones” by now. (And that could have been awkward, as my husband is a clergy person!)

      • Lisa –

        I was also raised Baptist in the Bible Belt, and I went round and round with the same questions for years. Honestly, I don’t think you can come to any kind of satisfying answer unless you let go of the concepts of original sin, atonement theory and hell as eternal conscious torment – so I think you are on the right track with questioning those things.

        Personally, I couldn’t manage to reconcile a personal, good God who is involved in the world with the immense suffering around us – and I TRIED. I have friends who seem to be able to do that and remain within Christianity, although they are mostly on the more liberal end of the theological spectrum. For me to find anything that made sense, I had to ditch Christianity entirely (which makes it sound like it was a sudden decision, and it was actually a slow process that took 7 or 8 years). I found a lot of Eastern concepts very helpful, and seem to have landed on the Divine as more of a unifying force than a person.

        As such, I don’t believe that good things or bad things happen to me or anyone else because a God somewhere is making them happen. And I don’t believe in the deity of Jesus – although I really, really like a lot of what he said in the Bible, and I definitely resonate with the theme of death and resurrection.

        Having said that, however, I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying “I know I believe X, but I don’t know why.” Honesty is good, and I certainly couldn’t make an airtight argument for everything I believe, either. We believe what we believe for a whole host of complicated reasons.

        • Thanks, Christy. I completely agree that letting go of PSA, ECT and original sin are necessary steps if I’m ever going to come to any tenable position on this question. Easier said than done, though.

          Thanks for sharing. I appreciate your insight.

    • Pax


      I’d love for you to elaborate on the problem of evil understood through scripture viewed through a non-Christian-tradition lens.

      • Charles


        Traditional Christianity teaches that God is pure and does not approve of evil. The Hebrew word “ra” can mean many things, 431 times it is translated as “evil.” 232 times it is translated as “wicked,” “bad” (probably the most literal), “hurt,” “harm,” “ill,” “sorrow,” “mischief,” “displeased,” “adversity,” “affliction,” “trouble,” “calamity,” “grievous,” “misery,” and “trouble.” Additionally, “tov” in Hebrew is usually translated as “good.” It seems to me “rah” and “tov” is describing a human condition. I’ve come to see this as the classic duality, the human condition with which humans continue to struggle. Traditional Christianity is one version of humans dealing with this duality.

        That being said, I still view Jesus as the human face of the “God.” …and I’m still searching and studying. 😉

  • The answer is yes. Yes, goodness atributed to God is completely arbitrary. If not, if every baseball player’s prayers were answered, the game would no longer be interesting. One person’s rain on their picnic, is another’s needed nourishment for the fruit that will eventually be in a picnic. “His ways are mysterious” is just a fancy way of saying they have no discernable pattern. nothing that can be considered “true” in any normal definition of true.

    • NateW

      Peter Rollins showed me the great extent to which our modern conceptions of God see him as a “Deus Ex Machina”, a term originating in theater and referring originally to the arbitrary introduction of a God into a story at a key juncture to move the plot along. We see God sitting “out there” somewhere and as occasionally stepping into our story to bless us or to punish others.

      Everything changes if we begin to open up our eyes and minds to the idea that God is so much more than a supernatural being. He is also a Way. He is Truth. He is Life. He is Love. He is peace. He is forgiveness. He is mercy. How literally are we willing to take these statements? Are we willing to say that Love is God? Are we willing to say that God is present in every moment that these things are present, and absent in every moment when they are absent?

      I believe that God is most fully revealed in the words and actions of Christ and that those who would follow him must also be manifestations of God. As I noted in another comment, Christ has revealed God to be one who has subjected himself to crucifixion so that others may experience unity with him by participating in his resurrection. That is, we LITERALLY are the presence of God in this world when we take on the role of Christ in self sacrifice for an other.

      God is otherwise absent from the world, except in the power of his resurrection in each who Loves his neighbors and enemies, sacrificially walking in Christ’s steps, carrying his cross.

      Material blessings are arbitrary. We recognize them as blessings because we experience something of God in them, a shadowy imperfect reflection. Suffering is also arbitrary. We experience it as suffering because in those times we keenly experience the absence of God.

      Think of God like a black hole. A black hole is unobservable, unknowable, unmeasurable. As far as scientists can gather time and space themselves cease to exist upon crossing the event horizon. Yet, we know that something is there. That something may appear to be nothing, but there must be something to explain the presence of such great gravity that draws all towards itself. The power of the force beyond the horizon is so great that even its own illumination is withheld.

      The fact that there is such a great emptiness bears witness to the equally true (but utterly unverifiable) fact that there is an immense cosmic entity within.

      Like intergalactic passersby we are being sucked into the blackness. Christianity has been so concerned with defining what lies on the other side that we have failed to see the huddled masses crying out in fear. We need to go WITH them into the blackness that is our crucified God.

      • Nate, I almost entirely agree with you…but I personally hesitate to use language that implies that God is an actor or a person. And, I definitely try to avoid using personal pronouns (like He or She).

        • Yeah, I can understand that. I wish there was a “God pronoun” but, in English, we’re stuck with he, she, or it. To speak about God is a constant give and take. I think that words though, in the end, are not the vehicle of Truth. Don’t get me wrong, words about God are necessary and to dialogue is good, but knowledge about God is in the space between two parties words, between the lines written on a page. To what end words are used and the humility with which they are wielded speaks volumes about God.

          Sometimes I think that God is not so much someone we have a relationship with so much as that through which we relate to everything else. To give ourselves into fully knowing and loving an other, with no expectation that we will earn love in return, seems to me to be loving God. Love God, love others.

  • So funny that this is today’s question. I asked myself the same question this morning but used the word “grace” instead of “goodness”.

    Here is what I wrote in my journal:

    Thinking this morning about grace. How much God has blessed me with despite what little I have been faithful in. By gods grace I grew up in a loving family, a safe home, a secure nation, a devoted church… I have so much.

    Yet… Is this what grace really is? Have others been shown less grace? Has God given less to others who aren’t as fortunate as I am? Why should I be given more grace than any other? What advantage have I in meriting God’s favor? Am I reaping the benefits of my parent’s grace? Surely they have both been through much deeper troubles than I have, and yet, they were able to rise out of those hardships… By grace. 

    Also, is it presumptuous of me to think that what material things I have been given (loving parents, physical and mental ability, my education, my wife, my house, my dog, my job, my comfortable and easy life) are benefits of Grace? Could these these not just as easily be obstacles to understanding and living from the grace of God? Who is to say that they don’t provide a safe buffer, a barricade even, protecting me from the felt need for grace, and keeping me from knowing a fuller and truer life that many with far less material possession enjoy?

    Perhaps is it heartily wrong to speak of God’s grace while naming the many things he has given me. Perhaps it is a greater display of grace that he has not given me more. Might it be that his greatest work of grace, his only work of grace, abides in the beautiful moments when I am blessed with stillness enough to be aware of only the empty space surrounding me, when I am fleetingly content to simply “be”. 

    Grace is known not in counting all that I have received, but is profoundly present only within the gift of resting stillness in the face of full awareness of what is painfully absent. 

    I will take care not to say any longer, God is so gracious in giving so many good things for us to enjoy, rather I will say God is gracious in granting me the few moments that I allow myself to know that I have nothing, and in so having am rich. 

  • Lee P.

    Every time I start to think about how I was blessed with that raise or a nice dependable car or a good group of caring friends I can’t help but to think “Yeah but what about this guy?” :

    • Lee,

      I wrote about that very thing just a few weeks ago, soon after I submitted this question to Tony’s blog.


      To summarize: A few weeks ago, on a typical outing to our children’s museum, I lost track of my two-year-old son for about two minutes. The museum staff found and returned him, but I was shaken for days. Those two minutes were desperation like I have never known (and I have experienced more than my share of traumatic events), and later, I wanted to reach out on Facebook (my way of connecting with loved ones, nearly all of whom live hundreds of miles away). I quickly took the reference to the incident down, however, because I dreaded the “God was so good to bring him back to you” or “God was watching over you” responses. Because if God was watching over my boy, and that’s why he was kept safe, what about the ones who do get taken?

      Huge question / problem / struggle for me. Thanks for speaking up.

  • Craig

    A neglected question: Does Christianity require one to believe that God is good?

    Why don’t some thoughtful Christians not rather believe that God and his prophets said what the scriptures say that they said, and believe that the miracles of the Bible took place, but stop short of conceding that God is good? Why don’t some earnest, Bible-grounded Christians not rather interpret their scriptures as describing a petulant and egoistic god who is somewhat powerful and somewhat arbitrary and somewhat deceptive, a god who yearns to be praised by all as just and loving even to the point of creating an impressive myth and legacy surrounding a certain carpenter from Nazareth? Such an interpretation would support the Church’s claim to be faithful to their god: not only has the historical church reflected in its practice god’s true character, it has also worshipped god as he desires to be worshipped, and, in its teachings, promulgated the press he desires.

    • From the little that I understand of first century Judaism, it seems this is a perfectly legitimate approach to understanding God – getting ones conception of God from tradition rather than imposing our own categories upon those stories.

    • Craig;
      That is some flowering language there. Your use of a question makes your intent somewhat obscure however. You ask “why don’t” they interpret God as petulant and egoistic, then say the church has reflected god’s true character. Maybe it is just my cynicism, but I’m hearing you say that the church, the universal church, has been egoistic and promulgated a bit of petulance, and that is exactly what the Bible says it should do.

      • Craig

        Lausten, what I think you’re referring to is an “if-then” claim: if God is indeed egotistical, petulant, and somewhat powerful, arbitrary and deceptive, then the historical church has in it’s practice done a fair job at reflecting God’s nature. You disagree?

        Here’s another conditional claim I made: if the same God yearns to be praised as loving and just, then the church has in its teachings also done a fair job at supplying God with the press he desires.

  • MarkE

    Maybe where and in what circumstance one is brought into the world and finds themself has nothing to do with what God may be up to. Being born into a relatively affluent situation may have had little if anything to do with God blessing you.

    The above is probable because it fits our observation better than the idea that God is dishing out blessings to some and not others (which doesn’t sound very good). Sounds like you have been more lucky than blessed. If this is the case, talking about being blessed by God may be causing harm. Gratitude may be

    Maybe God’s goodness is expressed in ways that are not dependent on SES, parental genes, or marital status (categories based on the examples you used).

    • Jim Armstrong

      Exactly, MarkE! It seems to me that when we insist on something other that what you describe, that very insistence in fact drives us into these complications and imponderables so familiar to those of us raised in mainstream Christianity.

    • Thanks for contributing, MarkE.

      But I wasn’t born into the kind of life I lead now. I was born to a tremendously abusive father and a drug-addicted mother. My first 16 years were a mess of violence, abuse, fear and loss. Unexpectedly (and, I believe, miraculously), one random Tuesday morning, I woke up to the familiar sounds of fighting, and I was overcome with weariness and asked God, if he was listening, to please get me the the hell out of there. Hours later, I was more or less rescued by a Christian family that took me in, gave me my first safe and sane home, and have been my emotional support system and tethering point ever since.

      Is that not a blessing? I am now married (to a man who doesn’t use drugs or beat me) and raising two wonderful children who will never know the pain of growing up in the cycle of poverty and abuse that defined my own upbringing. Is that not a blessing?

      I consider them so. “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” I’m no scholar, but that idea has always seemed straightforward to me.

      Your first point, though, (“Maybe where and in what circumstance one is brought into the world and finds themself has nothing to do with what God may be up to.”) seems to hit at something deeper for me. Am I not a Christian largely because of geography and culture? If I had been born in another part of the world, that likely would not be the case. And so here I could restate my question in this way: Is God Good, or is he good to those who follow him / profess Christianity?

  • toddh

    I think one thing to avoid when answering this question is presuming to know what all the poor souls who are suffering in Africa think about God. They are turning to Christianity in astounding numbers. Apparently they are better able to reconcile this question than we in the U.S. are.

  • I’m starting to think that the mention of Christians in Africa in this blog is the equivalent of the mentioning of Hitler on other Internet discussions. It means the conversation is over.

  • Sven

    Why is “God” good to some but not others? It seems that “God” acts in a way that is indistinguishable from random chance.

    As a non-religious person, I roll my eyes at how obvious the answer is.

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  • Bjoern

    > I believe in God. I believe he is Good. But I don’t know why I believe that.

    Because that is what you were told when you were very young. You have never seriously questioned it (and possibly never will) because it is an essential part of your world view. You may find some explanation that you can subconsciously decide to be satisfied with (because the alternative is just too inconceivable), but if you will never find an answer that will truly and fully convince you because it is clear that your assumption of a good god who affects details people’s life is false.

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