Faith and Reason: The cost of freedom: We resume our series on whether God can be held to be guilty when crimes against humanity are committed, with an article by the Right Rev Hugh Montefiore.

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THE QUESTION whether God is responsible for all the pain and suffering and sin in the world is easily answered. Of course he is. After all, he has brought the universe into being.

God is responsible whether he directly wills these things, or whether they are the indirect results of his creation which he simply permits to happen. It is only natural that we should all feel resentment against God when terrible things happen. We may pretend to ourselves and to others that we don't; but of course we do.

Here the Christian doctrine of the atonement is crucial. Atonement means being at one with God, but we are not. We feel guilty for our own wrongdoing and resentful against God for the whole dreadful mess for which he is ultimately responsible. If Jesus is for us the embodiment of God in terms of human personality, his death on the Cross shows us God himself paying the penalty in terms of human personality, sharing in the suffering and the results of sin for which he is ultimately responsible. The sacrifice of Christ has been described as 'an act of God performed on himself'. Our realisation of this removes at one stroke not only our guilt but also the resentments which we feel against God, and makes us marvel at his self-giving love which impels him to do this.

Divine providence was at work from the very beginning. The very existence of the universe depended on the 'fine tuning' of its initial or early conditions, enabling galaxies to form, and second-generation stars like the sun to emerge. The physical constants of nature had to be precisely right to enable orderly expansion to take place. There are many such 'coincidences' which, to the eye of faith, are signal examples of divine wisdom and providence. As planet Earth formed and its surface began to cool, divine providence is to be seen in the self-assembling cybernetic systems which have kept the atmosphere and the oceans comfortable for life over millions of years, despite the increasing luminosity of the sun, and the millions of tons of salt infused into the oceans. We do not know how life evolved, but we can say that the structures of the universe are such that it is part of divine providence that it should have done so.

Can we dare to say that God had homo sapiens in mind as part of his providence? No, we may not. Too many contingencies were involved. For example we surely cannot imagine that God specially arranged for a large asteroid to hit the planet and destroy the dinosaurs when mammals were as yet only the size of rats. Yet without this, or some event with an equal effect, the emergence of mankind could not have occurred.

What we can say, however, is that the structure of the universe is such that somewhere or other, sooner or later, intelligent life was likely to arise, capable of reflecting on God's creation, and of being in a personal relationship both with God and with its fellows. In the course of this evolutionary process, calamities were bound to occur; earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, climatic changes, pestilences, and famines. For these God is responsible, just as he is responsible for predation. God has left his creation a large degree of freedom because without this intelligent life could hardly be endowed with free will; and so these disasters and savageries are the necessary cost of the ends he had in mind.

When the genus homo evolved, its members at first were mostly at the mercy of their instincts for survival, progeny and food. With the emergence of homo sapiens moral sense developed as well as intelligence. We cannot be sure to what extent human beings are conditioned by heredity and environment; but - providing they are in their right mind - they are primarily responsible for their own moral choices. The possibility of good must include also the possibility of evil: otherwise we would be automata instead of free beings confronted with freedom to choose, and so able to choose the good. Some people make evil choices, very evil choices, which ruin or end the lives of others. The very idea that God willed them to make these choices is not only abhorrent, but also incompatible with the self-giving love of God. God wills that all shall be saved. Predestination to heaven must be matched by predestination to hell (in the sense of eternal separation from God), so any form of predestination is incompatible with the God of love whom Jesus Christ


But, we may ask, if God does not predestinate us to evil, then surely his omniscience demands that he knows the evil that we are going to do before we do it? No, it does not. God is not in time, but beyond time, and so there is no 'before' or 'after' in the divine existence. What God does in the face of evil is to make available his grace for us to make the most of evil situations.

We may distinguish three types of divine providence. First, there is God's permissive providence, permitting, for example, evil events to happen. God does not forbid them, and in the universe he has created they seem to be inevitable. Secondly, there is his direct providence, natural processes which are inherent in his creation in which the sun rises on the just and the unjust, and the rain falls on the good and the bad. Thirdly, there are what are sometimes called 'special providences', which are impossible to prove. Sometimes these take the form of strange coincidences. Scientists such as Wolfgang Pauli or psychologists such as Carl Jung have spoken of an acausal principle which they call 'seriality' or 'synchronicity'. They wrote of this in secular terms, but to the eye of faith this could be another manifestation of providence.

Some acts of providence, which appear to be breaches of the natural order, are probably the supersession of our physical regularities by the operation of spiritual laws about which we know very little. The 'subtlety of matter in complex dynamical systems', the indeterminate nature of particles, and the possibility of their bilocation, make miracles more credible in the modern world. But these will be very rare, otherwise they suggest imperfections in God's plan of creation. Sometimes they may take place to further God's plans and his calling for certain individuals. Only very occasionally do they reduce human suffering, which seems inevitable in the fulfilment of God's plan to fit us for eternity in fellowship with Himself.