Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meanderings on God and Suffering, Freewill and etc…

God and suffering has intrigued ever since I can remember. Of course I didn’t know it was called theodicy then (from Theo-God, Dike-Justice, coined by the philosopher Gottfried Liebnez , the defense of the goodness of God despite the presence of evil). I and my friends used to drink and talk about God. At a certain amount, alcohol could make us think clearly and usually we talked about God. First, it would start as an interesting talk about God but then the guilt of blasphemy sometime overwhelms us, the conversation would turn to denying God. “God cannot exist because there’s so much evil in the world! Christianity caused so much pain and death in the world so Jesus cannot be the savior….blah, blah, blah…drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die…We talked like this until we were all dead drunk, until the guilt of drinking was overwhelmed with the feeling of disgust for Christians and the Great policeman in heaven.” In reality what we were doing was really al l about justifying sin in the presence of a Holy God, and the best way to do that was to deny God!


I believe that most of us come to a point our lives where we question the omnipotence, the goodness and even the existence of God out of genuine doubt brought about by the evil, suffering and the pain we see, feel and experience. When I was a teen-ager I used to go to the people living on the bank of the creek near our house. I did this because it made me feel better to see that there are people in worse living condition than us. Whenever I went there, I saw the pitiful condition of the people living there; I felt better. There was still no electricity and water in the area during those days, and the place used to be a rice paddy so the place was full of mosquitoes and flies. (The people, mostly from the provinces, were allowed to build their shanties with no regards to private property, zoning and sanitation by the local barangay politicians. The local politicians did this so that they could have votes during elections—public service was the farthest thing they had in mind. It worked. Overnight shanties were built; the population in our area grew exponentially. The politicians had their reserve votes that they indirectly buy by giving dole outs and T-shirts.)

I had seen poverty and suffering there. But there were times that instead of feeling better and being comforted, I felt disgust at the situation. The belief that a God who will, in the end, equalize everything is up there looking at the poor, promising blessing, comfort and joy while assuring the damnation of the corrupt and the rich, but seeing the continuous discrepancy between the preached goodness of God and the worsening of suffering is becoming a psychological condition a sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder or multiple personality disorder--It’s difficult to maintain equilibrium when you have two opposing ideas continually battling each other inside your head.

Epicurus, the Greek philosopher said it very well: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, and does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how comes the evil in the world?” For the Christian, the problem is the suffering God of the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the early Jews believe in the total sovereignty of God. Every occurrences, every event whether they were good or evil was a direct act of God. Free will was not an issue for the early Israelites; they have total surrender to God’s sovereignty. “God hardens the pharaohs heart, God sends pestilence to the Israelites, God sends lying spirit to Saul…these occurrences are, for us Christians, doctrinal contradictions that must be reconciled in the light of the New Testament. Here the theologian, bible scholars and exegetes explore hermeneutics, early Jewish culture, history, archaeology, semantics, grammar, literature and Bible translations to find resolutions to the doctrinal paradox between the seemingly cruel God of the OT and the merciful God of the NT. (The heretic Marcion excluded the OT from his canon of the scripture, and because of this the early Christians were forced to create a cannon of the Bible—our Bible.) So, in the NT the will of God was divided into to two, the directive and the permissive will of God. God directly acts in the affairs of humanity (or an individual) and the permissive will of God can be seen in providence—God send rain to the good and the wicked; good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Free will is a big thing for the Christians. Although a biblically the permissive will of God is a firm doctrine, but still even in the NT the paradox still persists.

How do we reconcile free will and God’s sovereignty? There are many illustrations that have been formulated to show the relationship and the paradox between free will and God’s sovereignty: There’s the blank book (we write the pages), the chess (God knows how the game will be played but he leaves the movement of the pieces, or choices, to us), the best of possible worlds (Leibniz) etc. But still the problem persists on how an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God could limit himself. The logical contradictions cannot be resolved, except by lessening God or freeing humanity. Anyway, the arguments could become too abstract to make them unintelligible.

The philosopher Hegel had an interesting idea, the process of dialectics. He theorized that progress or movement (or higher truths) are achieved as a result of the conflict of opposites. The formula is: thesis (an idea) + anti-thesis (opposing idea) =synthesis (or higher truth). Opposing ideas have incompleteness and because of this, a third idea arises. (Okay I’ll stop here because I’m beginning to get way, way over my head). I have heard and read Hegel’s dialectics used to explain (or illustrate) the incarnation of Christ. I think the dialectics could also be used to illustrate the paradox of human free will and God’s sovereignty (God’s sovereignty (thesis) + human freewill (antithesis) + our existence (synthesis)).

Unfortunately, what we always seek, as an enquiring mind, are explanations. We want explanations. I have wondered how the early Israelites survive their history by clinging on to one explanation to whatever happens to them as a nation—“It’s Gods’ will!” For us, the modern (or postmodern) people who treasure individuality and personal freedom more than anything else, this is an insane proposition—that everything happens according to God’s will. Where are we here!? We are free?! Are we not? (cf. The Pelagian and Augustinian. Arminian and Calvinist debates.)

I believe there’s no middle ground here. Although it is comforting to know that we can make free decisions (of course psychology, in general tells us that freedom is an illusion. Everything we do, the choices we make are all product of our upbringing, environment, physiology (animal instinct) etc. Physics also tell us that we are governed by the law of gravity, and in the quantum level, we are governed by the law of uncertainty which is a certainty itself! Wow, I’m beginning to have headaches!)


This is getting too long and I have to pick my daughter from school.

The problem is that we seek explanations, we seek doctrinal reconciliations. For Christians, being too Biblical or too dogmatic about the unity and harmony of the Bible down to the specifics could take its toll on the believers. I remember a friend of mine who cannot move on, spiritually and religiously, because he cannot resolve and accept the idea conflict between the sovereignty of God and human freewill—Biblical verses kept nagging him. He has been to many denominations. He cannot accept a limited God, but he also cannot accept a determined existence! Instead of finding comfort in the Bible, he found confusion. It’s not the Bible’s fault, nor is it totally his fault, maybe it’s the denominational (or cultic) dogmatism, maybe it’s just the way he is-- He cannot juggle two opposing ideas in his mind and keep his faith. Maybe my friend is swayed by his mood—“I feel like God is not in control, I feel like I don’t have freedom, I feel God is not almighty, I feel God is the almighty…” depending on the circumstances and, maybe even the financial situations. We all feel that way sometimes—absurd.

I am reminded of Sisyphus rolling the stone up a hill, and then watching it roll down again only to roll it up again, ad infinitum. Albert Camus believes that this myth symbolizes the absurdity of existence. But maybe, maybe it also symbolizes our struggle with faith in the light of what we want to seek--systematic understanding, objective knowledge, simple non contradictory laws etc... But unlike Sisyphus our existence does not depend on getting the meaning, of understanding, we don’t have to accept the myth because for us it’s all about having faith in God; not about having faith that we could make our existence meaningful despite its absurdity. It’s not about answers, or explanation about the absurdities of our existence, maybe its all about participation, just doing our best to live in faith like the early Israelites. Finding comfort that someone is in charge whatever happens.

A lot of people have asked me about the paradox of human freedom and God’s sovereignty (or between election and freewill) and I always tell them to be always on God’s side.

There’s no logical answer to the problem of evil, but I believe it is faith that keeps us going during evil times, not logic or reason. How may times have I seen reasonable or logical person, when cornered by problems, go to God and pray. General Macarthur said it very well: “There are no atheists in the foxholes of Bataan.”

Faith and reason, sometimes they don’t sit very well…

I’m getting hungry….

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