Why does God let bad things happen?

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Wednesday 11, July 2012 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs
God

This is one of those questions that are as old as humanity: Could it really be possible that a good and all-powerful God not only allowed evil and sin to come into the world but also continues to tolerate them?

Looking at the world, the case for the prosecution seems pretty strong. The human race can’t seem to rid itself of its addiction to violence in all its many splendored forms. It can’t figure out how to share its considerable resources so that everyone has enough. It seems bent on destroying the planet on which it depends for existence. It doesn’t take very good care of many of its children. Ignorance, selfishness, meanness, short-sightedness, vulgarity, corruption, and dishonesty are commonplace. Many people are so wrapped up in themselves that they barely notice anything around them beyond what they want or what is getting in their way. Most days are pretty much the Seven Deadly Sins on Parade. Pockets of goodness exist, but somebody doing something nice for another person is a news story.

On top of all that, things don’t seem to have changed much. In the early church a movement of Christians called Gnosticism looked at all the badness going on around them and concluded creation was just that—bad—and that the God they had been taught to believe created the world couldn’t really be God, given the results. There had to be some other, true God.

Early church fathers like Saints Irenaeus and Augustine recognized that to challenge the most basic belief of all—about God—threatened the entire faith on which that belief was based, so these great theologians spent a lot of time refuting Gnostic-type beliefs. They realized though, that they had to come up with their own explanation of how evil and sin came into the world and how God allowed—and continued to allow—them to exist.

The argument went like this. When God creates something, that something is by necessity outside of God, which means God’s perfect power and goodness do not translate into what is created, which thus has limits, imperfections, and flaws. Like many people of faith of his time, Augustine looked to the biblical story of the Fall of humanity and suggested that the flaw that allowed Adam and Eve to disobey the one and only rule God gave them was pride. Pride was a kind of self-willfulness. It gave you a sense you could exist on your own without reference to God.

Adam

All that theology may be cold comfort in response to death, illness, accident, injury, betrayal, cruelty, and other bad things, but the “good news”—literally—is that throughout all time God has revealed that it is the divine intention to bring God’s beloved creation back into harmony. The gift of God’s only Son has been the greatest demonstration of that offer of love. That Son was himself the victim of evil and sin, yet God was able to draw the great good of salvation and eternal life from even that cosmically bad event.

Sin turns you away from God and others, and while the possibility of sin may be unavoidable in this created world, it is always possible to choose to go from being self-centered to other-centered.

Online
• The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an excellent discussion of creation, nos. 268-314
• See also Pope John Paul II’s talk “Created Things Have a Legitimate Autonomy”
• For Irenaeus’ discussion of these issues, see Book 4, Chapter 38 of his Against Heresies
• For Augustine, see Chapters 1-5 of Book 14 of his City of God

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