Did God Allow the Attacks on 9/11 for a “Greater Good”?

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Shortly after 9/11, people were seeking answers about why God could allow such a terrible tragedy. Some Christians made some unfortunate comments,  attributing the tragedies to the judgment of an angry God. Others said that God had some mysterious purpose in allowing it to happen. We were told that somehow he was going to bring about a greater good through it. The “greater good theodicy” is a common Christian response in the attempt to undercut the atheistic argument from evil. But is this answer a good answer?

While I certainly don’t disagree that God can and does at times bring good out of evil, I’m convinced that the greater good theodicy is plagued with problems. First, let me define some terms. A theodicy is defined as “The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” The defender of the greater good theodicy wants to deny that there is such a thing as gratuitous evil. They would say that God allows only that evil into this world from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil.

Gratuitous evil is basically defined as evil that does not serve a greater good or purpose. The greater good theodicist would claim every moral evil works together to serve the greater good. So where does the trouble lie for the greater good theodicy?

For starters, we have no way to show the skeptic that a greater good obtains. There is no evidence to support the claim. In the example of 9/11, one might respond that 9/11 led to a lot of positive changes in our nation’s awareness of terrorism and security, but how many lives lost exactly did it take to cause such changes to come about? Couldn’t it have been that many more people had been spared in order for such changes to take place? Furthermore, there is no objective criteria for measuring the good. How do we know how much good counterbalances a particular evil? We don’t.

The greater good theodicy also seems to undermine the doctrine of petitionary prayer. If God wants us to suffer from such things as terrorists attacks to bring some sort of good out it, why bother praying for such a thing as the protection and safety promised in the 91st Psalm, or asking him to heal those effected by the tragedy? The greater good theodicy also seems muddy the waters in alleviating the suffering of our neighbors around us. For if God has allowed certain evils for a greater good, why should we work to stop injustices when greater goods will ultimately come about if we simply allow them to happen?

I think the most difficult problem of the greater good theodicy is it seems to make evil necessary; for without the evil it follows that certain goods cannot obtain. This means that ultimately God is planning the evil to bring certain good about. If evil isn’t necessary, then we’re back to the question about why God allowed the evil in the first place. I also think the greater good theodicy also commits God to a moral philosophy of consequentialism, which means that God would then be determining the correctness of a certain cause by the goodness of the outcome. An example of this was the terrible U.S. bombings of Japan. The Truman administration and its defenders justified that atomic bombs being dropped on Japan would’ve saved more lives than an military invasion ever would. Of course, God would be in a place to know these things, but then others lives must be sacrificed to bring about a greater good. It certainly isn’t good for those who suffer an untimely demise. Moreover, we see in scripture God condemns that we do evil to bring certain goods about. (see Romans 3:8, 6:1)

When faced with questions about tragedies of a similar nature, Jesus did not appeal to such reasoning.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Because we live in a fallen world in which the curse is a very real, pointless evil is possible and God is justified in allowing it. But for those who are Christians are given authority over the evil around us, as well as the Holy Spirit, who can supernaturally warn them of danger if they are attentive. (see Luke 10:19, Romans 5:12-17, James 4:7, John 16:13, Acts 20:23)

We must all be ready to meet our Creator, to whom we all must give an account of our lives. Jesus put the focus on the condition of our hearts and the brevity of our lives. God unequivocally condemns evil, and he came to redeem us from evil if we freely choose to receive him. Instead of looking for some greater good to come from atrocities such as 9/11, we should be looking to spread the mercy and love of God to those hurting around us.

(I’m particularly indebted to Dr. Bruce Little’s insights on the problem of evil for much of the content on this post.)

Apologetics Bloggers Alliance collaboration for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (Various theological views are represented. Bear in mind that linkage doesn’t equal full agreement)


Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 3

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Healing and Christus Victor

Through the gospels we see Christ dealing with sickness and disease in the same matter he dealt with demonic spirits. We know this because Jesus uses the same harsh Greek word ἐπετίμησεν (epetimēsen) to rebuke sickness as He uses to rebuke evil spirits.

In Luke 4:35 we read “...Jesus rebuked him (the spirit in the man), saying, “Be silent and come out of him!”. Four passages later we read “…and he (Jesus) stood over her (Simon’s mother-in-law) and rebuked the fever, and it left her”

Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere did Jesus tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He honestly told his followers to expect to experience hardship. But the hardship he constantly referred to was persecution, not illness. In Luke 10:8-9 we read Jesus commissioning his disciples to “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.” The coming of God’s kingdom, in some measure at least, entails deliverance from evil spirits and healing from physical disease.

When we read about Jesus healing the crippled woman in Luke 13:11-17, Jesus asked his critics “should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

We also read in Acts 10:38 a summary of Jesus’ ministry from the apostle Peter. That summary was about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” I think it’s important to note the connection between “doing good” and “healing”.  We see that before being healed, the sick were  “under the power of the devil” . The Greek literally reads καταδυναστευομένους (katadunasteuo). Translated, the word means “I overpower, quell, treat harshly”. Therefore, disease is a satanic evil to resist, not acquiesce to.  It is not a blessing, but harsh treatment meant to overpower us.

We read in 1 John 3:8 that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil”. The word destroy here is λύω, (luó) which is translated  “loose, untie, release, set at naught, contravene.” If sickness is Satan’s work, then one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate is to release us from it.

Healing is the presence of the Kingdom of God coming to the earth. Sickness, we understand, is Satan working to overpower those whom God made in his image. In Colossians 1:13-14 we read “He (God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”. Therefore, we’ve been delivered from Satan’s dominion over our lives through Christ’s redemption, and that includes the tyranny of sickness.

One may raise a scientific objection to this scriptural argument. Of course, we have natural explanations for illness that the Bible attributes to evil spirits. This is true. Sickness and disease, on one level, is simply nature taking its course. But there is no intrinsic contradiction with attributing infirmities to spirits on the one hand while also explaining them in natural terms on the other. Death itself is a “natural” process, yet we also see in scripture that the devil is “the one who has the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) This suggests that the laws of nature as we know them are satanically influenced to some degree. This may sound strange, but we have no trouble saying that we as human beings have ability to use our free will to effect the natural order of things for good or bad. Why is it incomprehensible that spirit beings can do the same?

We see through this series of posts that there is no good scriptural basis to believe that we have to suffer with illness when Christ has already suffered on our behalf. Healing is in the atonement because Satan’s power over the believer has been annulled through the atonement. There is nothing that glorifies God by being under the burden of disease. An overcoming faith, however, does glorify God.  The gospel is about much more than “redeeming souls.”  It’s a holistic gospel that includes healing of our physical bodies, in anticipation of total redemption in the age to come.

I believe the burden of proof that healing is not included in the atonement lies with the objector. Most arguments against this view simply beg the question for a view of meticulous providence; that is the view that God is controlling everything in the world, even evil. On such a view, the will of God is never thwarted. It assumes people are sick because God always gets what He wants, so therefore He must want people to be sick. While this view is popular in western Christendom, I believe its starting points rests upon a distorted understanding of the nature of God’s sovereignty.

In future posts I will defend this view against some of the various objections that have been raised and hopefully I’ll be able to expose them as inadequate on the basis of scripture.

Related articles

Jesus’ attitude towards sickness

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10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, New International Version, ©2011)

Often – but not always – we see the gospel writers attribute physical infirmity to satanic influence.  It’s interesting to note that in the gospels we never see Jesus offer the sick a cliché.  Jesus did not call the illness the absence of the good, he did not appeal to mystery, nor did he attribute it being the natural working of God’s good creation.  Jesus didn’t tell the crowd that they were not in the place to understand God’s larger purpose. He did not tell the woman that her infirmity was being used by God to make her soul.

On the contrary, Jesus viewed this woman’s condition as unjust imprisonment that must she ought to be immediately be liberated from; regardless of how it might offend the synagogue leader’s legalistic interpretation of God’s law.

Theologians and philosophers have in different ways worked at forming a sound theodicy regarding natural evil. Defined, natural evil is evil for which no agent is morally responsible. In contrast, moral evil would be the result of any morally negative event caused by the intentional action caused by a person. The “free will defense” has largely answered most of the problems posed by the problem of moral evil.

Therefore, I find it highly interesting that the gospel writers document Jesus dealing with disease as form of spiritual warfare against demonic forces, not mere natural evil. This point is further brought out in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ house, we read “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

While our modern sensibilities find the idea of an evil spirit corrupting nature implausible, I find it telling that when one’s child suffers from leukemia, or as in the case of the woman in Luke 13, their back is painfully deformed so they can’t do anything but live in a painful stoop, we describe these things as evil. These things really bother us, even to the point of anger at times. Typically we don’t call such a thing merely a misfortune, we see it as an injustice. It is not right that a person suffers terribly under excruciating pain.  Jesus thought that something ought to be done about it immediately. Our common experience is that people truly do suffer various injustices not that are not naturally caused by human beings. We feel anger towards these things as if something personal was at work. If tragic illnesses are merely a misfortune, then we have no reason to feel angry about the situation. Therefore, I think we’re justified trusting our common sense in saying that some injustices are not caused by mere natural processes. Rather there are injustices that have supernatural causes.

This seems to be the worldview advocated by the New Testament. As Greg Boyd argues, while even death is just a natural result by what we call natural processes, the devil is named the one who “holds the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) Death is called the “last enemy”. (1 Cor. 15:26) We see elsewhere in scripture that Satan is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who “whole world is under the control” of. (1 Jn. 5:19)  Believers have been redeemed from this foe through the atonement. (Col. 1:13-14) This view was held by the early church fathers as shown by various quotes of Origen, Justin, Tertullian and Athenagoras.

If sickness is a perversion of the natural order Satan uses as a weapon against those whom God loves, then I think we are misguided to ascribe our sicknesses and infirmities to God’s will. (Caveat: obviously we don’t feel the sense of injustice when we make ourselves sick through neglect or over-indulgence, but we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy.) The Bible calls illness oppression, and like with the case of the woman, we ought to be loosed. God is not the oppressor, He’s the liberator. If Christ is the Head and we are the Body, then why would Christ work against his own body by making it sick?If Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, why do we see him so often healing in response to faith?

For unless we are theological determinists who believe that God is micromanaging everything – even causing the decisions of people and evil spirits – then I see no reason we should resign ourselves to the so-called inscrutable purpose of God when so-called natural evil strikes. Rather, I think we should do anything more than stand strong in faith, resisting the adversary with every method at our disposal. God is infinitely wise and knows how to bring good out of such evils brought about by free creatures.  We can also be assured that Satan’s free power to influence is finite and will eventually be fully ended while simultaneously enjoying a large degree of freedom from his works in the life that now is.  If we learn anything out of such trials, it ought to be learning to resist and rule over, not resigning. (1 Pet. 5:8-10, James 4:7, Luke 10:19, Rom. 5:17, Rev. 11:15, 20:10)

The Tucson Tragedy and the Problem of Evil

Like most of you, I’d prefer not think too much about the tragic events that happened last week in Tucson. I’m a parent, and the thought of having my own little child or wife gunned down by someone like Jared Loughner is heart-rending. Many will ask how could God let such a terrible thing to happen, and I can’t say that I blame them. Honestly, one of the things that prevented me from faith in God for a long time was the so-called problem of evil.

To give you some personal history, I grew up in a home where both my parents were alcoholics. There was constant fighting going on and it made my life a living hell at times. I couldn’t have friends over, I had trouble concentrating on homework, it warped my ability to feel adequate socially, and then later in my teenage years, I became rather rebellious against society.

I since have had a good relationship with my parents. I don’t want to make them look bad, alcoholism is a terrible disease to try and overcome. But back then, it seemed to me that an all-powerful, all-loving God could not exist given my pain and suffering, not to mention all the evil in the world. At first, I was mad at God, then eventually I quit believing at all. God and suffering seemed to mix like oil and water.

I think hidden in my assumptions were that if God were omnipotent, He just could’ve created whatever world he felt like creating. And if he is Love like the Bible teaches, He obviously would prefer a world that didn’t include suffering. But suffering exists, so my reasoning was that God didn’t exist.

In light of the horrible tragedy in Arizona, I hope that I don’t come across with the coldness of one of Job’s comforters when giving what philosophers have called  “free will defense”. But I think it’s important to see that there is no explicit contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of suffering. “But the contradiction is pretty implicit!”, one might remark. But the person who says that has taken a huge burden of proof in showing how suffering and an all-powerful, all-loving God is logically inconsistent.

It isn’t true that God can create any world he wants and give us free will, because it’s not logically possible to force anyone to do something freely. It’s like “smelling the number 9” or the idea of a square circle. Given the possibility of free will, people can choose evil over good. I think most agree that it is good of God to create a world where we’re not His toy robots, but persons who can make decisions. Moreover, it seems apparent that evil is just a perversion of the good. C.S. Lewis once wrote –

Evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself.

We may not like the suggestion I’m going to make, but as far as we know, a world with suffering may actually be preferred to a world without suffering. While we may not like the idea, as long as it’s even logically possible it defeats the claim that God prefers a world without suffering. It could be the case that a world including suffering could be, all things considered, better than a world without suffering.

In fact, it’s plausible that suffering and God are consistent. Maybe God could not have created a world with as much good as, but less suffering, than this world. We could very well be living in the best of all worlds. God could even have good reasons for permitting the suffering in the world. Or it could be possible (and this is what I believe), that God might want less suffering in the world but will allow it if we will allow it. Theologically, there are the doctrines of prayer, of angels and demons, and the authority of the believer. We see this authority demonstrated when Jesus calmed the winds, healed the sick, cast out devils etc. Jesus included his disciples and the healing ministry as well. We also see multiple instances in the bible when intercessory prayer prevented certain calamities from happening, and how the lack thereof allowed certain things.

It’s possible that God designed the program of prayer as spiritual training for the believer to “take dominion”, just as God commanded Adam to do in Eden. Sin allowed suffering to come into the world, but we who are redeemed by Jesus are to take up where Adam failed. God may not wish to go “over our head” in many instances, but chooses us to be his agents of change on the earth. (see Genesis 1:26-28 and Romans 5:17)  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once observed –

It seems God is limited by our prayer life–and He can do nothing for humanity unless someone asks Him.

Allow me to illustrate. One morning, while I was in prayer back when I was going to bible college in Tulsa, I had an inner-perception or premonition that my mother, who lived in St. Louis, was going to be involved in a car accident. As a Christian, I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. (See John 16:13) I asked the Lord that he would somehow see to it that my mom was delayed.  When visiting over Thanksgiving, I asked my mom if  such a thing occurred. I was pretty confident in my experience, but for all I knew it could’ve been the pizza from the night earlier.

As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and then later was stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was a little unnerving and she was glad she left later than usual. My mom was not a real believer in the supernatural at that time, but needless to say, my story made quite an impression on her. Now why would God not keep my mom from the accident by acting on His own if that is what he wanted? Why did He instead choose to prompt me to pray? It’s an interesting thought.

Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that God will warn us every time with every detail before something tragic happens, but He may be doing much, much more than we might realize. Christians need to be sensitive to His subtle direction. While this may not be plausible to some of you, it is at least possible God actually may wanted to avert the tragedy in Tucson and alerted people to not go to the event, or tried to alert people to Loughner’s suspicious behavior but for whatever reason, people failed to respond. Based on his character, I’d like to think He did, but as finite creatures, we’re really not in place to make such a probability judgment in all circumstances. (see Deuteronomy 29:29)

And on the scope of the other evidences we find for God’s existence – God being the reason that the universe came into being out of nothing in the finite past, God being the grounds of objective moral values, God being the basis of many people’s spiritual experience, or the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, etc – God’s existence is arguably more probable than not even given the existence of evil.

We should also keep in mind in the light of suffering, Christ entered our fallen world and endured a suffering beyond all human understanding. He became sin, bearing the punishment for the iniquities of the entire world. No one can even begin to fathom such suffering. He was a completely innocent, but voluntarily underwent a frighteningly excruciating and terrible death and separation from God. Why? Because He loved us and wanted to redeem us. How can we reject Him who entered into our pains and gave up all for us, and moreover, who promises us that He will one day fully bring justice?

If God doesn’t exist, then we’re trapped in a world filled with pointless pain and tragedy. But on Christianity, God is the last answer to problem and suffering. He gives us fellowship with Himself and gives us this tremendous promise –

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.