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

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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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)


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.