At first Harold Kushner could not find a publisher. Initially, the publishing establishment in New York did not think there would be a market for When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They were wrong. Since its first printing, Kushner’s book has sold over four million copies worldwide. It turns out that the problem of evil is popular, and, in spite of two thousand years of theological reasoning, it still is a problem. Simply put, how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God allow evil to happen? God has the power to stop evil. God knows that it is happening. Yet God does nothing. Why?
The standard responses to the problem of evil focus on the third part of the equation, God as all-good. In order for good to exist there must also be evil. Good would not make any sense or have any meaning without the absence of good with which to compare it. Moreover, moral evil is the result of human free will, which is necessary to show the full glory of God. God is glorified when God’s creation voluntarily chooses God. Evil is an unfortunate consequence of the path to a higher good. Another response claims that evil is the training ground for the good. We learn from bad things and become better and more mature humans as a result. The journey towards our final unity with God depends on our moral training through experiencing and reacting to evil. Yet one more response asserts that the good is beyond our conception. God sees all. God is behind all things. Everything happens for a reason and fits into God’s grand design. What might seem evil to us might be good from the perspective of God. Our role is to grin and bear it.
Liberal theologians in the 20th century asked whether there was not another way forward. Perhaps instead of solving the problem of evil by re-examining what we mean by good, we can address the problem of evil by reconsidering our notion of God as all-powerful. These thinkers assert that our common conception of God as transcendent and eternally unchanged owe far more to Greek philosophy than to the Bible. The God of the Bible is not unaffected by human action. The God of the Bible seeks out relationship with humanity. There is a certain symbiosis between God and creation. After all, God makes a covenant with Abraham. God chooses Israel to be God’s own people. Abraham negotiates with God to avert the destruction of Sodom if there are only ten good people in the city. God speaks through the prophets to warn Israel of destruction and to call the nation back into proper relationship. In the New Testament, one of the defining aspects of Jesus’ relation with God is its intimacy. Jesus calls God “Abba” or Father. Christians believe that God’s Word became incarnate in Christ in order to restore relationship and reveal God more fully to humanity. None of these portraits of God present God as unchangeable and atemporal. God changes over time; God evolves alongside creation and in relationship with creation.
This untraditional view of God and God’s relationship with creation is supported by a particular reading of Genesis 1. The standard translation of the first verse of Genesis reads, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Yet, more recent translators, including the highly respected Jewish Publication Society and the translating committee of the New Revised Standard Version, opt for a different reading. The NRSV reads, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (emphasis added). The key word is “when.” If you read these first verses as one sentence and if you make the first verse a dependent clause, then the beginning lines of Genesis argue for pre-existent matter. God’s role in creation is not to create something out of nothing, but to order the “formless void” into something intelligible. God is not absolutely powerful. Matter existed before God. For certain liberal Christians this creation myth contains an important theological lesson: God is not the only force in creation.
All of this reasoning leads to interesting conclusions when you begin to reconsider the problem of evil. If creation is not wholly dependent on God, then an earthquake does not have to be “an act of God” but can be simply two tectonic plates rubbing against each other without any inference from God whatsoever. Cancer does not have to be a result of the will of God but can be merely the mutation of an oncogene. You also no longer have to say that human evil derives from a mythical “fall” in some past time. If God is all-good and if God created everything out of nothing, then the original state of nature had to be likewise all-good. You must posit a fall from that original state in order to justify evil in God’s all-good creation. In the liberal scheme that I have outlined, you no longer have to invent some pre-historic fall, which becomes theologically problematic when you try to make it into a pure myth. Instead, you can claim that creation, of its own, seeks chaos; it seeks to return to its original state of “formless void.” God creates order and invites humanity towards the way of God, which is the way of love. God desires a relationship with humanity, but humans have the free will to say no.
The great benefit of this system is that it maintains the fundamental goodness of God above all else. God is good without question. God does not will your son or daughter to die of cancer or some freak accident. God did not sit by and let the Holocaust happen. God did not curse the people of Haiti with an earthquake because of a two hundred year old pact with the Devil. God is love and God works to bring order and goodness to creation. God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” and not some absolute monarch who rules over all of the universe, rewarding friends and punishing foes. Jesus instantiates the love of God for us. Jesus does not compel us but invites us into fellowship with him, just like God. Whether or not you agree with this view of God, it is at least worthy of consideration.
Reverend Jonathan Page is the Epps Fellow at Memorial Church and a Chaplain to Harvard College.