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Why Bad Things Happen to a Good God

A doctor and canonized saint in the Catholic Church, Teresa of Avila, was making a perilous journey with other nuns and a priest to start a convent. Heavy rains turned into snow and sleet, the rivers were swollen, and the roads flooded. As they were going over a stream, the carriage swerved and stopped as it hung over the torrent. Afterwards, so the story goes, Teresa complained to the Lord about the perils that had been endured. He answered, “But that is how I treat my friends!” She replied, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

A crusty cousin of mine who had experienced a lifetime of hardships was told by her more pious sister, “Well, you know that God only gives sufferings to those whom he loves.” THe curt reply: “Well, I sure do wish he’d lose his crush on me!”

From the educated and saintly to the more down-to-earth Christian, the problem of suffering beckons each person to penetrate its mysteriousness and discover its meaning. In fact, suffering seems to invite exploration of our own transcendence. John Paul II notes that “It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.”

Frustration, failure, rejection, physical pain, suffering, and death are common human experiences. Although we encounter much of this early in life, deeper questions about the human situation are often postponed until later years when plans, goals, expectations, and relationships are characterized by a greater intensity. We begin to ponder why some people experience more than their fair share of suffering. But since our experience of others’ misfortune is not first hand, we continue to go about our daily activities without fully probing the significance of physical and moral evil. It is inevitable, however, that some event immediately affecting us will become the occasion for deeper reflection regarding the mystery of human suffering. Why should there be talk about a “fair share” of suffering? Why should there be any suffering at all? Indeed, why did God let me suffer this? This more penetrating inquiry into the mystery of suffering which results from personal experience is but a prelude to more profound questions about the meaning of suffering. Why would God decide to create angels and men with the freedom to make choices that could result in their eternal damnation when he could have created and placed them in a condition of eternal bliss from the beginning of their existence? Why would God, who needs no one and is perfectly happy and fulfilled, decide to create angels and men whose freedom to choose will result in his own suffering and death?

The Catholic response to why God created the world can be summed up in two words: his glory. This glory, which is the very essence of his Being, is perfectly revealed through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In order to explain why this is true we must reject the temptation to limit our search to history and travel back beyond the cross, beyond the Fall, and beyond creation itself.

Certainly, we acknowledge that the cross was necessary to pay the debt the human race owed to God. In meeting sin and its consequences head on, Jesus, as the new head of the race, gives witness to the seriousness of sin. By his faithful obedience until death, he establishes a new covenant in order that a renewed and authentic humanity may receive and share the blessings and promises of the kingdom of God.

True as this perspective is, it begs the following questions. Why did God allow the first parents to break this relationship through sin? Indeed, why did he initiate this relationship at all? To begin to answer these questions, we must go back “before” time and “beyond” space to a God who is. As we delve into the inner life of God, we discover one who lacks and needs nothing. We encounter a God who is a community of persons, perfectly giving, receiving, and abiding in the oneness of his life and love. Then we ask, Why would God, who always experiences a total giving and receiving in a Spirit-breathed Father-Son relationship, want a relationship with men at all, much less one that he knows will be severed by sin?

The difficulty that one has in understanding a God who creates people who can freely choose to be forever separated from him pales in comparison to the awareness that we are in the presence of a God who freely creates a world that he knows will choose to kill him. There is no guesswork here. From all eternity, this all-sufficient God knows that his powerful act of creating will make possible an act of hatred and destruction against himself.

Here we reach the heart of the problem. To summarize the difficulty of the situation, we might put it this way: Why does God create, knowing the tremendous amount of suffering, both temporal and eternal, that will result from human choices, and the immeasurable suffering he will have to experience as a result of these same human choices, when he could have created everyone in heavenly bliss and prevented any suffering at all? Why would God, filled with life and love, decide to set in motion the necessary elements for his own death when he does not need that which he freely chooses to create? Ultimately, the question is not, Why do the good die young, the innocent suffer or bad things happen to good people but Why do bad things happen to a good God? To answer this fundamental question we must reflect on two possible alternatives to the way God chose to create.

Some wonder why God did not choose to create a perfect world where human beings would always be kind to one another. In this world there would be no need for forgiveness because there would be no possibility of sin. Everyone would always be loving. There would be no spiritual, emotional or physical pain. Then, after a predetermined time, God would simply take us to heaven where he would reveal the fullness of his glory and bestow upon us our eternal reward.

This scenario becomes problematic for two reasons. First, we cannot speak of an eternal “reward” if while on earth we could do no wrong-we had to do good. No one receives a reward for doing something over which he has no control. In addition, when men saw how beautiful the heavenly life was they would begin to ask the obvious question. If we had to do good while on earth, why did God waste our time placing us there? We could have been in heaven from the beginning. What was the point? People would begin to resent such a God who could have created them in the fullness of heavenly joy immediately-but did not. A heaven filled with people who doubt God’s wisdom and resent having lived a meaningless existence on earth would not be a perfect place.

Once the shortcomings of this “perfect” plan become obvious, we consider a second alternative. Why didn’t God simply create us in heaven from the very beginning? Certainly, this was possible. God could have given us bodies incapable of experiencing pain or death and souls filled with his divine life from the very first moment of our existence. Once filled with his most bountiful blessings, we would praise God forever. For all eternity we would realize that since we were created out of nothing, God’s power transcends human comprehension. Therefore, we would praise him eternally for his awesome display of might.

Since God does not need our companionship because he is perfectly fulfilled in his own Trinitarian giving, receiving and abiding, his generosity and internal freedom would be manifested by his decision to create. Since God alone is eternal, men would recognize that nothing outside of God could compel him to create. It would be obvious to all that no interior or exterior force compelled God to create. We would praise him forever for his most generous gift of life and magnificent expression of freedom. We would marvel that God could bring about such harmony in the midst of such diversity. Knowing how every.aspect of each person blends perfectly with all others would give us an overwhelming sense of security and comfort. We could rejoice for all eternity contemplating such a wise and providential God.

Still, although we who were created in heaven would truly appreciate God’s power, generosity, freedom, wisdom, and providence, we would forever ask the question, “How much does God’s creative power, generous freedom, inscrutable wisdom, and all-encompassing providence reveal about himself?” In other words, notwithstanding the power, generosity, freedom, wisdom and providence expressed in God’s creating angels and men in heavenly bliss, both would forever wonder if God’s life were greater still.

The most important question would still remain unanswered. “Does God love us? We know he created us and he didn’t have to. Yes, we know that he has the power to keep us in existence for-ever. Yes, we know that he can reveal to us exactly how we fit into his eternal plan.” But that which is most meaningful about a person’s identity would remain a mystery. Does this all-powerful and generous God who freely creates us according to a wise and providential plan truly love us? How would we ever know? What can God, who has everything and can do everything, do to prove that he loves us? In order to express love it must cost the lover something. God seems to be in a dilemma since of his very nature he is incapable of losing anything. How can God prove his love when nothing causes him strain or pain?

For all eternity God could say, “But look what I’ve given you here—billions of friends, beautiful scenery, effortless movement, immense power at your disposal and the freedom to explore my life forever.” Yet we would always wonder, “Yes, but what did it cost you? For that matter, what did it cost any of us? What sacrifice did anyone make in order for us to be here? There really is no evidence that you or anyone else in heaven is capable of love.” A heaven filled with people who doubt if God or others love them is not a perfect place.

God’s answer is to create a world that will nail him to the cross. The author of life will experience death on a cross in order to reveal how deep love is. Why is this so? Anything short of death itself would fail to reveal the depth of God’s love.

Creation, miracles, commandments, prophets, and kings would all fail to reveal fully a love that has no bounds. Even Christ’s birth and public ministry would fail to reveal perfectly the height, breadth and depth of God’s love. But in Christ’s death, justice and mercy meet. By Christ’s sacrifice on the cross sin is conquered, death is swallowed up, order is restored and justice is applied through the love and mercy of one who did not know sin and yet became sin so that we might become the very righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). By accepting death on the cross (Luke 23:46), Christ fully embraces the infinite love and eternal plan of the Father for himself and those “who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). By accepting death on the cross, Christ has revealed his sacrificial love for each one of us (Gal. 2:20). Through the humanity of Christ, and by reason of its union with the Word, creation is able to embrace and reflect the infinite love of God. As the Italian theologian Raniero Cantalamessa states in The Meaning of Christmas, “God wanted the Incarnation of his Son not so much to have someone outside himself to love him in a way that would be worthy of him, as to have someone outside himself to love in a way that would be worthy of him, that is, without limit! . . . The Father had someone to love outside the Trinity in a supreme and infinite way, because Jesus is man and God at the same time.”

We now are prepared to understand the “necessity” of the cross of Jesus Christ. This is seen from two perspectives. First, from the perspective of human activity, God’s glory is more fully revealed in his handiwork, created and redeemed in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph.2:10). Insofar as Jesus Christ is human, we acknowledge that, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb.5:8-9). In order to be identified with the Son as children of God, we must listen to God when he tells us “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Heb. 12:7), “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17).

In light of the cross Jesus becomes the new head of a renewed and authentic mankind capable of making its own contribution to the work of salvation. Paul’s words confirm this: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col.1:24). This ability for one who suffers to cooperate with Christ in the building up of his body, the Church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit does not detract from but rather manifests God’s glory. Irenaeus summarizes this first perspective: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Second, from the perspective of God’s self-revelation, by using the cross to redeem men and empower them to make their own contribution to the work of salvation rather than simply creating them in heaven, God better reveals his inscrutable wisdom. Everyone truly has his own place in the Father’s kingdom while at the same time realizing it has been prepared by Jesus himself.

Moreover, the paschal mystery alone enables God to reveal his absolute freedom. No greater freedom can be imagined than that which is expressed by the all-sufficient God creating a world from which he could derive no benefit, knowing with certainty that he would experience the weight of the sins of the world and death by its hands as a result of his choice. By redeeming men through the cross, God reveals a power and a providence that go beyond creating something good out of nothing and sustaining it. The cross of Jesus Christ has the power to bring good out of evil. It is difficult to imagine how God creates out of nothing. Even more difficult to imagine and impossible to comprehend is how God is able to incorporate the human capacity to choose evil into a wisdom, providence, freedom, and power that guarantees the victory.

In the cross of Jesus Christ, God reveals a love that goes beyond benevolence. On the cross the worst evil history would ever know was committed. On the cross the greatest love history would ever know was revealed. On the cross God grants us sinners an eternal acquittal at the same time that we are giving him the death penalty. The cost of this love cannot be measured nor its quality enhanced. In Christ, because of the hypostatic union (Christ’s divine and human natures united in his divine Person), man has been given the capacity to accept all that the Father can give (John 5:20) and perfectly reveal the Father’s life (John 14:9, 17:7-8). Jesus, being the Word and truth, is the wisdom of the Father and is capable of expressing God’s mysterious plan while accepting this same mystery himself and faithfully carrying it out. Ironically, by his sacrificial death Christ fully accepts and reveals the Father’s sacrificial love for the world (John 3:16). This death brings to fulfillment the meaning of the psalm that says, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).

Human suffering is indeed a mystery that never will be comprehended because it is related to the mystery of God’s love revealed through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Two passages from Paul help reconcile the Church’s teaching that the world is created for the glory of God with the mystery of human suffering revealed in the cross: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20), and, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

The cross enables us to know a love and a power that go far beyond what the act of creating men in heavenly glory could reveal. It permits us to be drawn into an even deeper heavenly communion with a God who manifests his glory in such an extreme way. The more God reveals of his inner life, the more we can experience it. Rather than creating us in heaven God uses the cross to perfectly reveal his wisdom, freedom, power, and providence. It is God’s love and his merciful expression of that love which give the cross its radical power and conveys its ultimate purpose. Again, we call on Irenaeus as we summarize this second fundamental perspective: “The life of man is the vision of God.”

Because Jesus shares our humanity, the cross becomes God’s way of allowing us to cooperate in our own redemption. Because Jesus is one in being with the Father, the cross is God’s way of revealing a love the depths of which will take an eternity to explore. The Father’s “foreknowledge” of the love that the Son will embrace, empowering him to abandon himself to the Father’s will (John 6:38), to unite all things in him (Eph. 1:10), and to present the kingdom to the Father “that God may be everything to everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28), is the ultimate reason why God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

Through the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God reveals that “the glory of God is man fully alive” and “the life of man is the vision of God.” This revelation is anticipated at the Last Supper when Jesus says, “Now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (John 17:5). This revelation will reach its culmination with the Second Coming of Jesus, when God will be “everything to everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28). Between these two events stands the cross. The cross of Christ forever marks us as obedient disciples of Jesus who “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). It will enable a real communion of love to exist in heaven among people who have not simply been placed there by God but have loved one another joyfully, served one another faithfully, worked for one another tirelessly, prayed for one another, and contributed to one another’s salvation. Conversely, it will reveal the depth of meaning contained in the biblical phrase “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and, as the ultimate sign of contradiction, forever show why bad things happened to a good God!

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