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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Explosions: A Cruel Example of Free Will

I am not a runner, but if I heard the phrase "explosion at the Boston Marathon," I might think a runner caught an unprecedented second wind in the final mile and passed several runners ahead of him to win in record time.  Not being a Marathon fan, I don't even know if those types of photo finishes occur.  But if I do know if I heard the phrase "explosion at the Boston Marathon," I would be inclined to think it was a sports metaphor for what happened in the contest.  I would not think of terrorist bombs exploding at the finish line.

That's not entirely true.  In this Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, 9-11 generation, I am not overly surprised.  When I watched the news yesterday and saw what was occurring in Boston, I was sad.  In a very disturbed sense, I was struck with "Oh, this was next.  I wonder what will come after this."  I was thinking about how to talk to my children about this.  I felt many things.  Shock was not among them.  Our days see senseless violence that is as expected as it is unpredictable.

I heard recently that leading textual critique (an expert in ancient texts) and religion professor and author Bart Ehrman is an agnostic.  I had known that but I thought it was because the evangelical faith of his childhood and his mentors in that faith discouraged him from thinking critically about his faith.  Incidentally, as an evangelical myself, I testify that there are evangelicals who practice a blind acceptance of the faith that's been imprinted on them, but there are also evangelicals who think critically about everything, including God.  There are those who can humble themselves before God in worship and at the same time attempt to be very scrutinizing in their thought.  I try to be one of these critical thinkers who is also humbled before a holy God.  I am not saying I succeed, but that is my aim.

My impression of Ehrman was that he abandoned Christianity and embraced an agnosticism about God because he could not reconcile what he learned in the university with the faith in which he was raised.  But recently I heard his abandonment of faith was due to the problem of evil.  He could not worship or believe in a God who allows hurricanes to wipe out villages or  who allows bombs to kill 8-year-old boys who are waiting to greet their dads at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Evil drove Ehrman to reject God.  

I am not an Ehrman expert and this blog post is not a critique of him.  His story, if what I heard is accurate and if I have accurately summarized it, serves as an opportunity to talk about God and with God especially in terms of why bad things happen; awful things; horrific things.  I have heard similar sentiments from Christopher Hitchens.  Evil is either something to stick on God, which assigns all blame to God and makes God evil, or evil is evidence there is no God.

I cannot accept either option, blaming or renouncing.  I hold that God is good, God is love, and God is sovereign.  In saying that and in insisting God is present, is potent, and is willing to be involved in human affairs, I have to acknowledge that evil exists.  Evil changes faces over the decades, but evil does not go away.  Christians have to be ready to talk about it.  For me the presence of evil is the clearest evidence that God allows human beings to have and to express free will.

Evil drove Ehrman away from faith (if the story I heard on the radio is correct).  Evil drives me to a firm conviction that God allows free will.  I don't want to waste too much space in the Calvinism-Arminianism conversation.  Everything I write will classify me as n Arminian though I have no interest in that term or those in that camp.  Labels aside, I read the scripture and observe human history and read the news of the day and watch how children can be cruel to one another, and I examine my own heart.  It all leads me to the conclusion that evil is real and that we choose it.  When we do, there are consequences.

Sometimes the consequence is individualized.  A particular child is the easy target for bullies all through elementary school.  For numerous reasons sociologists and psychologists can offer, this child is selected as the target and other students mercilessly pick on him.  He grows up loathing his own weakness and awkwardness.  He spends most of his young adulthood in therapy, trying to learn to love himself.  What happened to him, though not newsworthy, is evil.  

Other times, evil creates a larger blast area and there is considerably more collateral damage.  The Boston Marathon terrorist attacks are an example.  So too is the civil war in Sudan of 1990-2011.  And the "Trail of Tears," the terror the United States Government inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of this continent.  Pages and pages could be filled of examples of evil that one person or a few people choose and when the evil is enacted, hundreds and thousands and millions are hurt.  

God allows us choice and sometimes we choose evil.  If God took away that option, then we would not be able to choose good.  I don't know how to present this in a formula philosophers would use.  But I am certain that it is impossible to choose good if evil is not also an option.  In order for humans to choose to walk in the ways of God, we have to have as a choice the option to walk away from the ways of God.  To obey God and not eat from the tree of knowledge, Eve has to be able to choose to eat, an act of disobedience.  Once Adam and Eve eat the fruit, evil is there.

A good theological/philosophical question is this: did evil exist before Adam and Eve disobeyed God?  Was their act of defiance the invention of evil?  Or was the tempting serpent a personification of evil?  If the serpent was the bringer of evil, who invented the serpent?  Was the serpent created, or like God, was the servant pre-existent?  If the serpent was created, who or what created the serpent?  In other words, did God create evil?  If so, why?  

I don't believe God is yin and yang.  I don't believe God has good and bad sides.  God is perfect in all ways, completely good, and the giver and essence of perfect love.  Because of this, whatever God creates will be less than God or at most equal to God.  God is the best there is so nothing can be better.  I believe humans and the divine image are good but not completely good in the way God is completely good.  We are less than God.  Our goodness is unmistakable.  God saw humans as "very good" (Genesis 1:31).  But, our goodness is limited.  

Free choice is made necessary by the fact that we are made in God's image.  To be in the image of God is to have the option to choose as God has the option to choose.  We don't successfully make the choices God makes, but we have that as an option.  Evil is a by-product of free will.  By being able to choose, we have the option to choose what God would not choose.  When we do, evil is born.  Every single time a human chooses the opposite of what God would choose, evil is reborn - a byproduct of free will.

Is God a blind watchmaker who allows the world to run amok in the evil that comes from millions of humans exercising their free will by not choosing what God would choose and choosing was God would not choose every day in words, thoughts, and deeds?  I don't think so.  I believe the world would be pretty much destroyed by now if God did not hold in check our free will choices and subsequent production of evil.  From our side of things, it seems God is absent or watching from a distance either unwilling or unable to intervene.  

But that is a limited viewpoint, one energized by the shock, horror, and pain of tragedies like the one witnessed at the Marathon yesterday.  Humanity has the capability for atomic and nuclear warfare 70 years, but only two weapons of that nature have actually been used in combat.  The United States has liberal gun laws and a lot of people have died in handgun incidents.  But most people go through their lives without ever having a gun drawn on them.  Most people are grimly affected by tragedy as they sit wearing soft pajamas at their kitchen tables with warm coffee watching the news.  God allows evil but God does not allow evil to run so rampant that the world comes apart completely.

God also inspires acts of heroism and altruism.  In the face of evil, humans have the choice to rush to the aide of fellow humans.  Some of the greatest stories of human compassion have come out of the 9-11 tragedies.  Similar reports of heroes throwing themselves in harm's way came out of the Newtown school shooting.  And similar reports of human goodness have already started coming out of Boston, not 24 hours later.  Some people choose evil.  Many more choose good.

I don't believe God brings the evil but I believe God acts in the midst of it.  Sometimes God acts in unexplained, miraculous ways.  Other times God moves through human beings.  People become conduits of God's helping initiative.  Of course not all the heroes are God-worshipers and not all Christians and other people of faith are heroes.  Sometimes, sadly, the bringers of evil are people who claim to be people of faith.  Terry Jones is but one example.  God is not dependent on the church or the synagogue or the mosque.  God will act at God's pleasure and we often don't know why.

To say that God restrains evil by not allowing it to obliterate the world and to say God acts in the midst of evil by inspiring humans to choose to be helpful is no consolation to the family of the 8-year-old who is one of their three who died.  Why must their child have been one of the three (as of this writing three have died)?  The family of that boy must be allowed to ask that question to God.  We, the community of humanity around that grieving family, must join them and through teary eyes shake our fists heavenward and ask the question.  Why this boy?

Over time we come to grips with unanswered questions.  As a pastor, I feel so feeble in admitting this, but there is no answer this side of Heaven to the "why question."  We have to ask it.  We must.  It is frustrating to the nth degree, but we must ask why only to learn there is no answer.  In the frustration, we see a third way God is present and active in the midst of tragedy.  God comforts the distraught family of the dead child.  Again, God works through humans.  

In this, I think Christians have a unique contribution.  We hold fast the belief that all who are in Christ will rise.  We also believe that the Holy Spirit is present even when we don't sense that presence.  Finally, we believe with all that is in us that God can be trusted.  (1) Resurrection is ahead for those who die.  (2) The Holy Spirit is the very real presence of God comforting those who mourn in real time, here and now.  (3) And God can be trusted.  We can trust God even with unanswered why's.  We can trust God with fury and anger and rage.  We entrust the souls of those who have died into God's hands.  

Nothing I have written here lessens the hurt inflicted by evil deeds.  I know evil is real.  To say otherwise would be the worst example of head-in-the-sand ignorance.  I know evil is here.  But I know God is here and is bigger than evil.  God holds evil in check perfectly allowing us free choice without letting our free choices destroy everything.  And God, perfectly loving as God is, remains present to bring healing and comfort to all who turn to Him.  

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