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)
- Faithful Thinkers: Atheism, Evil and Ultimate Justice
- Hope’s Reason: Where was God on 9/11? (link may not yet be active)
- The Point: Christianity and 9/11: Guilt by Association?
- J.W. Wartick: On September 11th, 2001, harmless things became fearful
- Sarcastic Xtian: Do all roads (and flights) lead to God?
- Reasons for God: The Two Ground Zeroes
- Hieropraxis: Suffering and the Cross of Christ
- Take Two: Remembering 9/11: A Young Californian’s Perspective
- Apologetics Guy: America After 9/11: Is Religion Evil?
- Apologetics 315: Resources on the Problem of Evil
- The Real Issue: The Three Faces of Evil and a Christian Response
- Neil Mammen: Where was God on 9-11?
- Thinking Christian: 9/11: “Full Cognitive Meltdown” and Its Fallout
- Cold and Lonely Truth: 9/11: Where is God during a catastropy?
- Possible Worlds: The Need for Moral Choices and Consequences
- In Defense of the Christian Faith: If God, Why Evil?
- Wintery Knight: Ground Zero: Why truth matters for preventing another 9/11 style attack
- Clay Jones: Are We All Moral Monsters?