This is the 13th post in a series on the writings of John Polkinghorne.
Last Sunday morning Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, was interviewed by our pastor. Dave had just returned from Haiti and was providing us with some first hand accounts of the devastation caused by the earthquake that had rocked Haiti a couple of weeks earlier. The stories were heartrending.
The first song we sang that morning was Indescribable. Now, this isn’t my favourite worship song and I usually simply stop singing when the second verse starts with “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go …”. I’m always surprised that more people don’t find this line a little uncomfortable (Anyone here been hit by lightening? Anyone have someone they love killed by lightening?), but given current events, I was sure others must also see the problem.
Apparently not. The song continued without even a hint of irony. Ok, how about we change that line to “Who has told every tectonic plate when is should slide …”. Does that help illustrate the problem? Maybe we need to be a little blunter: “Did God kill all those people in Port-au-Prince?”
Divine Action and Evil
Polkinghorne is acutely aware of the problem of Divine action and evil. As he indicates:
The more strongly one is able to speak of God’s particular action in the world, the more firmly one asserts that world to be subject to his purposive will, so much the more forceful becomes the problem of the widespread evil within it. (Science and Providence, page 59)As orthodox Christians (and in opposition to those who hold to process theology), we believe that God acts: he upholds his creation, he is continually creating, and he has acted in very particular ways in history (most notably the incarnation). But must we speak of particular “natural” disasters as “acts of God”? Was it “God’s will” that all those Haitians died? If God is good, why is there “natural” evil?
I doubt that the “Problem of Evil” will ever fully make sense to us, at least this side of paradise. However, I do think that Polkinghorne’s free-process defence is the closest we may get. As he says:
I think the only possible solution lies in a variation of the free-will defence, applied to the whole created world. One might call it ‘the free-process defence’. In his great act of creation I believe that God allows the physical world to be itself, not in Manichaean opposition to him, but in that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved.Just as God gives humanity the freedom to be itself and to make choices (even when those choices are not the one’s God wishes his children would make), so too God gives the whole of his creation the freedom to be itself. And the evil in this world (both moral and natural), is the price of this freedom. I suspect the same reasoning that applies to the free-will defence (See Plantinga's “God, Freedom, and Evil” ) applies for the most part to the free-process defence.
The Cosmos is given the opportunity to be itself. (Science and Providence, page 66)
Actually, that is NOT God’s Will
When evil occurs, Christians often say “It must be God’s will”. But I am not sure this is necessarily true. In fact, I am sure that many of the choices that God’s creatures make are not the choices God would make. As Polkinghorne notes:
God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not puppetmaster of either men or matter. (Science and Providence, page 68)So in the face of tragedy, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to opine “It must be God’s will”. And just as we shouldn’t accuse God of causing the genocide in Rawanda, neither should we accuse him of causing the earthquake in Haiti.
And while we are at it, maybe we should make sure our worship songs do not slander God.