“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
Richard Dawkins, scientist, popular science author and evangelical atheist.
The evidence of history and our experience is that the operation of the laws of the natural world generate a randomness that strike our lives with with everything from terrible misfortune to wild serendipity to dulling sameness. Would a good and loving god make such a world? The surprising answer I find is YES, and here is why.
It does seem to be a universe blindly indifferent to all within it including suffering and evil. But it seems to me that Professor Dawkins’ conclusion has a hole. If one is going to imagine a universe with no design or purpose, one must logically imagine a dead one. The overwhelming probability in random universes, where the laws of physics and the physical constants are randomly created, is lack of the conditions for life. To argue that this universe is a logical outcome of random processes with no design or purpose is like arguing that if I see a million coins laying on the ground all heads up, it must have been a random event.
Physicist Paul Davies:
“If the Big Bang was just a random event, the probability seems overwhelming that the emerging cosmic material would be in thermodynamic equilibrium at maximum entropy with zero order.”
In short, without the conditions required for the formation of stars and galaxies.
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking:
“If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed before it ever reached the present state.”
“The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers (the basic forces of nature) seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
A counter argument goes that there is no reason not to believe that there have been countless universes created by the same random process and we are here to ponder it not because of the design of a Creator but because if you flip a million coins countless times, eventually you will get a million heads in a row. Although it seems hard to claim that postulating an infinite number of creation events that can never be verified is a simpler explanation than a Creator.
The Bible says that God is love. And my question is, would such a God create a universe where evil and misfortune abound? Several decades ago, when Billy Graham was a young sensation of evangelism, there was another man much like him, as passionate, effective, and famous; Charles Templeton. One story goes that on seeing a baby dying of starvation in its mother’s helpless arms in Africa, Templeton asked how a God of love could allow it to happen. He could find no good answer, and over time, lost his faith. In the book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, written after the terrible experience of the death of his son from premature aging, Rabbi Harold Kushner concluded,
“If we mean ‘Is there an explanation which will make sense of it all?’ … then there probably is no satisfying answer. We can offer learned explanations, but in the end, … the pain and the anguish and the sense of unfairness will still be there.”
We are still left with the question. Why crippling disease? Why suffering by fire, flood, earthquake, famine? Why the evil that men do? Why is one so undeservedly fortunate and another so undeservedly unfortunate? Why the waste that seems so cruelly unnecessary? Like Templeton, my faith stumbles over this issue. The theology I was taught was that it is Adam and Eve’s fault. God told them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they disobeyed, and everything, man and nature has been corrupt since. Adam’s sin was faithfully passed down the generations until God sent the Redeemer. But 2,000 years after Christ, the world and we are still a mess. I want to know, would a God of love create this – mess?
First, what is love? We know there are different kinds of love, though English has only one word. Theologians fall back on Greek, which gives us four words, philos (brotherly love), eros (sexual love), storge (more or less familial or parental love) and agape (sacrificial love). Eros and storge can readily be rationalized as artifacts of naturalistic evolution because the associated behaviors have survival value for our selfish genes. Philos can also be so rationalized as man is a social creature and the bonds of the clan and the tribe can readily give rise to behaviors we could describe as brotherly love. By helping the group survive, the survival of the individual’s bloodline – his selfish genes – is also helped. But a naturalistic philos has a natural bound – genetic relatedness. It would be wasteful if it were to reach beyond the clan or the tribe or a bonding experience with a similar effect – much as one finds in successful military units. Agape, however, is different.
The meaning of agape stands in sharp contrast to that of other words for love, defining a love that lacks self-interest, self-gratification and self-preservation. Agape love is motivated primarily by the interest and welfare of others. The word agape is used very sparingly by Greek secular writers, but in the New Testament, agape is the Greek word most frequently used for the love for God, (Matt. 22:37, John 14:15), the love for spouses (Col. 3:19, Eph. 5:25), and the love for enemies (Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:35). None of these loves has any survival value. The acts of the Good Samaritan, the sacrifice of Jesus, the ministry of Mother Theresa, what roots in nature can these have? Agape love does not seem to belong in the genetic tool kit of Darwinian selfish genes, yet agape love exists. History is rich with instances of it.
If God is love (using love from here on to mean agape love), then the template of love, its nature and essence, existed before the universe was born and the fact that we can see and experience God’s kind of love indicates that the universe, at least in part, was designed to make that possible. The existence of agape love is also an experiential clue to the reality of God.
Still, evidence of God in the world did not get me closer to understanding why God allowed so much evil and misfortune to exist. Pope John Paul II argued that suffering exists “in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s love on behalf of other people.” But I can’t help but ask is suffering really required for unselfish love to bloom?
Agape love is not a condition or even an action so much it is a decision. We do not fall into this love. It does not well up from our biology. Agape is always a choice. Such choice requires free will. The commandments – love thy God with all thy heart and mind, love thy neighbor as thyself, honor thy father and mother – make sense only if love is a choice, an act of free will. Were agape love instinctive, the commandments would be as trivial as a command to breathe, and were there no free will the very concept of a commandment would be incomprehensible.
But with free will, as we know, whatever we can choose to do, we can choose not to do. We can choose to love or not to, or to be indifferent, or to hate, to turn toward God or away, to be other centered or self-centered. In short, to be able to choose love is to be able to choose evil. I know that the gift of free will makes evil possible is hardly a new idea, I had just never thought of this in the context that it means love cannot be expressed without free will and hence, the possibility of love requires the possibility of evil.
In addition to requiring free will, love requires an object. To be lovable, an object must be distinguishable from all others. I can say, “I love people,” but to say “I love people” truthfully is to mean, “I love individuals as I meet them.” Love is possible only in the context of uniqueness. I can’t prove this assertion, I just can’t imagine it not being true.
For each of us to be a unique creation requires that all the things that make us up vary in some degree and combination from all others – variations in our genes, in how our environment affects their initial expression and later development and in subsequent developmental experience. Every single thing one might measure about a human person must be variable within some range – noses, eyes, hair, intelligence, height, color, talent, temperament – everything.
The laws of physics provide the engine of variability in the very structure of creation. Variability in the environment from the molecular level up drives the variability in our genes, development, and experience that shapes our perfectly unique selves. Our variability – our uniqueness – is necessarily mirrored in the environment. And it, too is variable – every snowflake, every leaf, every cloud, every day, unique for all time.
The variability that is the gift of uniqueness is what makes it possible for each of us to be a specific and individual object of love – God’s love and the love of another. And like free will, it comes with a heavy price. Random variability over a range yields a distribution curve. Most variations cluster near some median, while inevitably, some variations reach toward the limits of the range.
What it means is that some people are smarter than I am, some not as smart, some handsomer, some homelier, some taller, some shorter, some calmer, some more high strung, some stronger, some weaker, some more robust, some less so. While most of our variations are within some reasonable distance of the mean, not all are. Some will be so unhealthy and weak they can only have short, painful lives, while another few will live into their second century hale and alert.
It also means that our environment and circumstances will have the same sort of variability with averages and extremes. Most of our days will be mildly breezy, some breathless and now and then a hurricane or tornado. Most of us will have some good fortune, and some bad, but some will seemingly always be fortunate and other always unlucky. The price of our uniqueness – our lovability – is a virtual guarantee that some aspects of our life will be unfortunate, and sometimes far worse than merely unfortunate.
Thus the price of our capacity to choose to love is the possibility of evil, and the price of our capacity to be the object of love as a unique and special creation is misfortune. In a sense, each person who carries the burden of a misfortune – genetic, developmental, circumstantial, is bearing a cross so that you and I might be lovable. The greater the misfortune, the heavier is the cross that person bears for others’ sake.
In this sense, bad things happen precisely because God is love.
John Paul II’s argument that suffering exists in order to unleash that unselfish gift of one’s love begins to seem true and not trite. A rephrasing of this is that an environment that makes it possible for unselfish love to be manifest necessarily also makes suffering possible.
In the TV series, Star Trek – the Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard tells warring aliens that humanity got past wars and competition by conquering poverty and inequality. Perhaps someday we may have warp drives and be able to beam up, but we can never fully conquer poverty and inequality because we cannot conquer variability. Still, to find an answer is not to find an escape from suffering. If nothing else, in the words of Rabbi Kushner, “the pain and the anguish and the sense of unfairness” remain. Conquering something we can never conquer cannot be the important thing. What must be the important thing then, is how we respond to evil and misfortune, not just in our lives but in all creation.
If the foregoing is true, then a loving God is also a suffering God. I imagine a man who has heard of that perfect place – Shangri-la – and determines to reach it, but the way crosses a vast mountain range. To reach his goal he must suffer bitter cold, knife-like winds, razor edge rocks, breathless air. For God, the mountains are His creation and the necessity of the sufferings of humanity created unique and free struggling to reach Shangri-la – realizing the full capacity of loving and being loved.
Thus, the proposal that if one were to imagine a random, purposeless universe, one would end up imagining a universe exactly like ours, is stood on its head for if one were to imagine a universe created by a loving God, one would end up imagining a universe exactly like ours.
This conclusion, however, seems to fly in the face of centuries of Christian theology (as I understand it) that our risky world and risky behaviors are not what God designed, but the consequence of Adam’s original sin – although this leaves me with the impression that Creation was like a lab experiment that blew up in God’s face. I might get away with claiming to be smarter than some TV evangelist, but smarter than 2,000 years of theologians? Am I terribly wrong, or is there something incomplete here?