Jimmy Akin explains the difference between actively causing suffering and merely allowing suffering, why God might do either, and how He always brings a greater good out of it.
Host: Courtney in Temecula, California listening on the Immaculate Heart Radio app, you are on with Jimmy Akin, What’s your question?
Caller: Hi my question is: Did God create physical illness? The reason why I’m asking this question is because I have a degenerative eye disease, and it has always been my assumption that it was the Christian God, and that he gave it to me for a reason because I’m a better Catholic because of it and I can do so many things because I have this disease.
Jimmy: Okay. Well, there’s not a single up or down answer to this question. In the Bible, we do see language that talks about diseases, like say, a plague, as if it was sent by God, as if He were actively causing it. But we also know that not all of the language that the Bible uses regarding God is literal. One of the things that we observe, when we make a careful study of how the Bible uses language, is that, particularly when talking about God, the Biblical authors, and ancient people in general, would speak as if God were actively causing things that we also have reason to believe he actually only allowed.
And an example of that actually concerns a plague. There’s a famous incident that’s recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament where David took a census of the people of Israel, which is construed as kind of a lack of trust in God. Like, he’s trying to raise an army and he’s going to trust in his army instead of in God, and so as a result of that there’s a plague that comes upon Israel. And David then makes atonement, he actually buys the plot of land that then becomes the site of the future temple, and so it’s a very important moment in Israel’s history, but what’s interesting is that this event is interpreted different ways in different historical books.
According to one passage, God Himself stirred up David to take this census; but according to another passage, the devil stirred up David’s heart to take this census. And both of them agree that it was a bad thing to do, because David then gets punished for doing it, but one attributes it to God and one attributes to the devil, so how do we square that? Well, the logical way, to my mind and to a lot of interpreters’ minds, is to say that the ancients had a habit, because they wanted to depict God as strong and active, of speaking of God as if He were actively causing things when really He was only allowing them. And so the way to harmonize those two would be to say that, okay, actually, this was an evil thing and the devil stirred up David to do it, and God allowed the devil to do that. But because of the way they tended to talk about God, and kings in general as being very active and as causing everything in their kingdoms, it got framed in a different way.
And so that means when we encounter language about God causing illnesses, that we have to–we have this question: “Is this literal, or is it just a way of talking about God based on how people spoke back then, but really God’s only allowing the illness?” And there’s no definitive answer to that question. Moral theologians and philosophers have drawn a distinction between what’s called “moral evil,” which is sin, and “physical evil,” which is suffering, in essence. And God can’t cause moral evil because that would be morally evil for God to do. God himself would be sinning if he caused someone to sin.
But some–many Catholic theologians in history have said God could cause suffering because it’s not a moral evil. Suffering can bring benefits, I mean that’s why we have pain receptors in our skin, so that it can play a positive role in keeping us from hurting ourselves. You know, there are people who have a different condition called congenital insensitivity to pain, and they don’t feel pain. They can cut themselves, they can burn themselves, they can really injure themselves, because they don’t have functioning pain receptors. So because suffering can play a positive role, many theologians historically have said, “Well, God can cause that,” and so God could, without sinning, send suffering into someone’s life actively, as long as he’s bringing some good out of it. And so, Courtney, the interpretation that you’ve offered of your own condition fits with that. It fits with that interpretation. That’s a legitimate theological interpretation.
On the other hand, many theologians today have been hesitant to say God actively causes suffering even when there’s going to be a good that comes out of it. Many people have said maybe we want to look at look at it through the other lens, and say, really, God is allowing this suffering in order to bring a good out of it, but he’s not actively causing the suffering. And so on that view, God wouldn’t actively cause anybody’s illness or anybody’s death–and passages that talk as if He did would be, you know, according to the ancient mode of language but not literal–but he does allow those things in order to bring good out of them. Either way, there wouldn’t be any suffering or illness without God bringing some good out of it, but there is an open question theologically about whether God would actively cause such things or merely allow them.
Does that help you out, Courtney?
Caller: Yes it does quite a bit, thank you so much.
Jimmy: My pleasure, and God bless you, and we’ll ask the audience to keep you and everybody in similar conditions in prayer.
Caller: Thank you!
Host: Thank you for giving us that call, Courtney.