God and Tragedy

Crying AngelWhich of these two statements is true:

God is all-powerful but does not care about human suffering.

Or,

God cares about human suffering but he is not all-powerful.

This dichotomy is usually how the subject of human suffering and tragedy is approached, if not explicitly, it is the way many of us process the problem internally. And it is a problem, to be sure. It is a problem that has plagued the human conscious since the dawn of human consciousness. All the great theological minds for thousands of years have tackled this issue.

Has there been a successful resolution?

I don’t think so. At least not for everyone. It really depends on a person’s stage in life: is the person young or old, experienced with tragedy and suffering or inexperienced, religious or irreligious, etc? I’ve been dwelling on this for some time and I’ve come to realize there are two heads to this coin. On the one side is the problem of evil (i.e., moral evil and its existence in a world created good by a good God), and on the other side is the problem of pain or tragedy (i.e., natural occurrences that cause death and suffering in a world ruled by an all-powerful God who could theoretically stop tragedy if he wanted to). This article is focused on the latter, the problem of tragedy. What follows is my personal understanding of the problem through the lens of the Eastern Orthodox Christian perspective.*

Where to start?

It seems to me that to understand the Orthodox perspective (note: not to “accept” the Orthodox perspective, but to understand it) requires an understanding of its doctrine of human nature and how mankind was intended to relate to the natural world.

Alexander Schmemann gives one of the most succinct yet thorough treatments of the subject that I have heard. He explains that human beings were originally created with three fundamental dimensions: the royal, the priestly, and the prophetic, and when mankind fell he (the human race) lost these “vestments.” His relation to nature was originally one of “priest,” he was the mediator between God and nature; he is the only creature in God’s creation that exists as both a physical and a spiritual being. As Schmemann put it, mankind is “the sanctifier of life through its inclusion into the divine will and order” (Of Water and the Spirit, p. 95). Man’s natural ‘kingship’ over the natural order is fulfilled in his priesthood. “He has ‘power and dominion’ over the world, but he fulfills the power by sanctifying the world, by making it into communion with God” (p. 96).

The essential expression of the priestly “sacrifice” is the desire for communion with God. Man was placed within nature primarily for the reason of communion; nature was to be for man the very meeting place of communion with God, likewise mankind was to be the meeting place for God’s communion with nature. This is why man’s fall included the fall of creation. Without mankind as mediator between God and nature, nature lost its communion with God. Mankind turned, not only on God, but on nature itself. Instead of acting as nature’s priest, man became nature’s consumer.

Again, Schmemann brilliantly captures this concept, saying: “The first consumer was Adam himself. He chose not to be priest but to approach the world as consumer: to ‘eat’ of it, to use and to dominate it for himself, to benefit from it but not to offer, not to sacrifice, not to have it for God and in God. And the most tragical fruit of that original sin is that it made religion itself into a ‘consumer good’ meant to satisfy our ‘religious needs,’ to serve as a security blanket or therapy, to supply us with cheap self-righteousness and equally cheap self-centered and self-serving ‘spiritualities’…” (p. 96).

To understand how man was originally created to operate within nature, one need only observe Christ’s life. Mark chapter 4 contains the story of when Jesus and the disciples were on the sea when a major storm arose. The situation was so intense that the disciples feared for their lives. Oddly, Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat, not concerned in the least. The disciples woke him saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus then calms the storm and chides his disciples for acting cowardly and having no faith.

And this is precisely how the rest of us feel during times of tragedy in life. We are threatened with suffering and imminent death yet God seems to be asleep without a care in the world for our well-being. We shout at him, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Jesus’ response in these verses is a culmination of all that has been discussed so far. Christ in his incarnation—both man and God in the flesh—had power to still the storm, and then turns and rebukes his disciples for not exercising similar power through faith. The lesson seems clear enough: Jesus existed as mankind was originally created to exist, as king and priest of creation—having dominion over creation for the purpose of communion with God.

Perhaps Christ was asleep during the storm because he was not in need of the boat for his survival in the first place, and apparently neither were his disciples so long as they were with him. Jesus was able to walk on water. Peter, by faith, was able to walk on water. Apparently the natural order had no dominion over Christ’s life, neither did it have dominion over his disciples so long as they were with him. Are we with him today?

This story seems to tell us that we are still called to be priests of creation. It is not a dimension of our nature that is foregone but rather one waiting re-birth. Our experience in life would dictate otherwise. But in his great prophetic question Christ asked: “When the Son of man returns, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

Our generation is not one marked by faith, one can hardly argue that point. But for the one struggling with the loss of a loved one, or the one who sees great tragedies in the world unfolding in the form of earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, etc., this “analysis” may offer precious little support. As I said above, I do not believe there is an answer that will satisfy all people everywhere who ask the question, “where is God when tragedy strikes?” What is important, I think, is that when the smoke clears one is at least in possession of the actual claims of Christianity—the religion that specifically claims to believe in a good and all-powerful God. Natural calamity is not the result of God’s will (at least not in every circumstance; the argument can be made from scripture that God does indeed use calamity in some circumstances as judgment on sin in the here and now), often it is the natural concomitant of a creation which has lost its priestly mediator. That concomitant has everything to do with man’s willingness to be nature’s “Consumer” rather than nature’s “Priest.”

I do not intend in any fashion to say that the sufferer is to blame for his or her suffering. Such a claim is often made by low-information Christians who desire a cheap and easy answer to a very difficult question. My overarching point is that God is not to blame. Take the story of Christ calming the storm; again, was it God that brought the storm onto the sea that day? If so, then Christ rebuked God’s work. No, what threatened the disciples was the natural order on auto-pilot without a priest. Christ calmed the sea because he was(is) such a Priest. We were created to be priests of creation. We are re-birthed as such through the waters of baptism. But that’s another article.

Thanks for reading.

*Note: this view does not reflect “official” Orthodox dogma, but rather my understanding of the issue after applying Orthodox perspectives. I am not aware of any official Orthodox dogma on the issue, per se.

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46 thoughts on “God and Tragedy

  1. Good to read your clear explanation of the rift between God, us and nature. I imagine that those who can neither understand nor accept this explanation may find it difficult because they would still be left with the matter of justice. They would ask why innocent people, children and babies suffer these terrors. I think it is necessary to answer this at the same time as, it is not really another story but an essential part of the same matter. I expect that is what you are referring to with the ‘re-birth’? Perhaps the connection should be briefly made clearer for those who need it, so they will, if really interested, look out for the next part?

  2. Great post. I think the dilemma results from the fact that we assume that one of the premises you set out at the start is true and we cannot reconcile either one to our thinking of God. The reason is that both are false. God is Omnipotent and He cares. We have such a narrow vision of God that we fail to take into account that He has the ENTIRE creation to consider, not just us or a particular group. Also I would add that we will never come to an understanding of tragedy or evil in the world as long as we cling to the long-held but false doctrine that God never intended sin to be in the world and it was all Adams fault.

    God intended sin to be in His creation. He needed a means by which He could reveal Himself to us and what better way than to show us what He is not. Could He have demonstrated His great love and mercy without the cross? And the cross without sin? I think it is easier to understand suffering in this world if we also understand that it serves a purpose and because God cares there is no such thing as unnecessary suffering.

    One last thing. Why couldn’t God have sent the storm in order for Christs power over nature to be demonstrated to the disciples? He would not have been acting contrary to Gods will but in perfect harmony with it.

    Well those are my thoughts. Not saying they’re right but they work for me. Keep making us think brother.

    Have a merry Christmas!

  3. R. Fowler has widened the debate from your aspect on natural disasters. In response to his view on sin in the world – I have long since rested on my understanding that God is omnipotent and loving and His love will ultimately conquer sin. But, to be loving he must allow us (individually), time to choose to respond otherwise, if he made us without choice, we would be mere robots and incapable of love because love can only exist when given by free will (you can be commanded to do something but not to do it with love). Unfortunately, we have not yet learned the lesson very well.

    Just chipping my tuppence worth in for any help it may give another 

  4. Great points, Dichasium. This is one of the longer articles I’ve done and I tend to keep them under 1,000 words. When I looked down and realized I was almost in the 1500 range I condensed. A part two would definitely include the issue of justice and I knew I was leaving the deep down trauma of the suffering of innocence left undone. The short answer, for me, is that children are an icon of innocence. One does not become more innocent and, following the Orthodox belief, people are not born guilty of Adams sin, they are born with his death. Very different realities. Thus, for a child to die, particularly in random tragedy or at the hands of evil men, they die as martyrs of innocence. I believe the Lord receives them as he would the greatest of saints. In that justice is served. On the other end, those who harm children will pay the ultimate eternal price. Christ said it would be better to have never been born, or to have a milestone tied to one’s neck and thrown in the sea than to hurt one of these little ones. That’s the best I can do to answer the question. Again, for some it won’t be enough but that’s for them to work through.

  5. R. Fowler, I can’t follow you to your conclusion that God designed for there to be sin in his creation for the simple reason that He created all things good, as said from the beginning of God’s holy word. He created man with free-will and free-will presupposes options. The option left open to him was to chose himself over God, isolation rather than communion, death over life. But this is much different from God designing the game, so to speak, with sin as a needed piece in order to make everything work. That would make God the Lord of sin and evil. He is light and in him there is no darkness. God was not in want of anything, much less a way to reveal Himself to us. He walked and talked freely with man in paradise. Man knew his glory. His love was already demonstrated in his creation. That he would pursue us even when we leave him is love demonstrated again… and again, and again. But God does “need” anything from man. He is already constituted in communion with himself (he is Trinity). He is not an egotistic, conceited God that needs people to love him, and killing them if they don’t. We die not because God is offended with us and demands justice, but because we have chosen death by rejecting his life.

    Suffering does not always serve a “purpose.” The 8 year old who is molested, tortured and killed by those he trusts is not suffering with a purpose. A child that endures nightly beatings from his drunken father and becomes ruined for life is not suffering with a purpose. It’s the problem of evil, and its very involved, much too involved for this late on a Saturday night. 🙂

    And, why was the storm which Christ quelled not a storm sent by his Father? Because the Son does not rebuke the work of the Father. If it was collusion between Father and Son to create a situation for a miracle then it amounts to a card trick. No, Christ’s power over the natural elements reveals that he is truly king and priest of creation, what you and I should strive to be.

    Cheers, friend. 🙂

  6. As far as free will is concerned I would point no further than Peter. Christ said he would deny Him 3 times. Did Peter have a choice in the affair? To say he did is to say that Christ, and therefore God, could have been wrong.

  7. In order for Christ to display His authority over the storm there needed to be a storm in the first place. If God’s intention was that the storm not be quelled then Christ would have acted against the divine plan, but if the intention was that Christ quell the storm then the storm was necessary.

    Also, if God did not intend sin to be in His creation then He is a failure. Not once but twice. It seems to me that a God that cannot prevent sin from entering His creation has no power at all to rid His creation from it.

  8. Also, if it was necessary for free will in order to love then God would not be able to love at all since God does not have free will. God cannot be something that He isn’t and since God is love He cannot not love. God cannot choose to act any differently than He is therefore He does not have free will.

  9. Can you show me one verse that says we have free will? How can we have free will in a causal universe? And just because God said everything was good does not mean that He did not predetermine sin to enter His creation. It was good according to His purpose.

  10. To be honest, I’m not really enthusiastic about turning this thread into a discussion on 5-point Calvinism, but let me at least answer this, let you respond, and call it a day.

    “Can you show me one verse that says we have free will?”

    Simply take every command verse in the Bible (e.g, where one is instructed to believe, turn, follow, love, serve, worship, obey, etc) and attempt to remove the element of human agency/free-will and you will discover not a word of it makes sense. I’d rather not give you one verse, which anyone can twist to their own liking, one can easily supply 1000’s of such verses and we simply don’t have the time here.

    “How can we have free will in a causal universe?”

    By “causal” do you mean mechanical in the same sense that philosophical Naturalism presents it? If so then your theology is much more aligned with atheism than it is with Christianity. If all these are merely the result of a great line of cause-and-effect stretching back to the beginning of time then we are in no need of free-will, but neither are we in need of a “god.” Furthermore, you would not believe anything, you would simply rehearse the thoughts that appeared in your head by way of clashing neurons and such. You would have no power of inference, which is the basis of all reason (see my blog on “Sam Harris: Riding the Philosophic Short Bus”).

    “And just because God said everything was good does not mean that He did not predetermine sin to enter His creation. It was good according to His purpose.”

    This one is the real kicker. Here you’ve essentially said that sin is good. Reread it. That’s a pretty amazing revision of Christianity and one totally foreign to the ancient apostolic and orthodox faith. I would strongly caution you. Attributing moral evil (sin) to God is blaspheme. Next time you’re sitting across from a 16 year old who was repeatedly raped by their pastor growing up, try to explain to them that it was good in the sight of God according to His purpose. If you can do that then you embrace a demonic faith in that you have no way of differentiating between God and satan – he would be the same being. There’s really no other way to put it.

  11. @ R. Fowler et al – I’m no scholar but I don’t see it your way. For me, man as a species (spiritually and biologically) inherits the sins of the fathers. When man failed to love, sin became possible but we can work at recognising it, then at seeing where the root of it is and according to our personal desire (will), we will work to try to overcome it in ourselves. The first choice was wrong so we live with the consequences in the world but, we each have our chances and God knows how much we have worked relative to our circumstances. He knows the strength of our love whatever mistakes we make in our thinking along the way.

    My senses also tell me that once perfect love is achieved the choice no longer exists. God does not have of himself the circumstance where the issue of free will exists – there’s no cause for it. Perfect love recognises fear in others to such a perfect degree that it knows the how each will act but, has no power to change it because love cannot be forced into us. God sees the jig-saw before we lay the pieces (as in the case of Peter and all of us). But, having not trusted, lay them we must in order to see our errors for ourselves and hopefully draw closer to God.

    I do not see dilemmas and controversies in religion any more. Like you say, I may be wrong, but it works for me. So let us all keep testing!

  12. If God does not have free-will then He is similar to the gods of ancient Greece – he is a slave to fate, like everyone else, as paganism taught. The Christian doctrine is much different. God is Trinity. The Father wills his own existence as Trinity from eternity to eternity. Otherwise something else willed Him to exist and that something else would be God.

  13. God does have a free will. He revealed to Moses his judgement against Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses negotiated with God and changed God’s mind about the conditions of the judgement. God acted differently then his original intent. Is this not free will?
    If you mean that God is love and righteousness and therefore cannot be evil then your closer to the truth. However, please do remember that God allowed Job to suffer and his entire family to die a tragic death over a challenge with Satan.
    I would be very careful saying what God can and cannot do. God is not some entity we can confine in our thoughts; he is much more like C.S. Lewis untamed Lion. His foolishness is much higher than our highest wisdom.

  14. Many have asked this question. I like to remember that God always uses evil to produce something good. He does not cause evil, but permits it to happen, and allows us to decide what decision we are going to make, and what we are going to do.

    God premeditated everything, but we still use our free wills to accept God or not. Originally, evil did come into the world because of sin, and is still the main reason why bad things happen today. But this is not always the reason bad happens, though. Evil can also be used to test us, to make us better men or women, and better Christians, or it can also be used to display a work of God for others to believe, like when Jesus cured the blind man. The other two reasons have been explained above already.

    Life is very complex and hard to understand for most people. That is because we can not begin to contemplate the Creator of the Universe and Divine Cosmos. He is indeed our Pantocrator, and that is all we need to know. Some questions are not necessary for salvation. Why God permits evil is one of them. Let’s rather do what is good, give alms, live and think humbly, pray to God and the Saints, stop complaining, and spread God’s message, as well as that of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It’s what God would have wanted, after all.

    Life is a funny thing, is it not?

    Let us pray that we shall be able to submit our wills to His.

    Amen.

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  16. Not intending sin to be in the creation, but allowing the possibility, are not quitre the same things. Everything we see now is post Fall, and these arguments about evil in the world vs. God being good or all powerful totally ignores God’s own words given post Fall about how He will deal with things, which includes that some will be allowed for their evil to become full – which of course means many will suffer, but they will be avenged later and healed later if they cling to God and not despair, whether in this life or the next.

    These arguments also presuppose that God is directly micromanaging things like you would expect to be the case in The New Heavens and New Earth, after The Last Judgement which is after the rebellion that happens some thousand years AFTER The Second Coming of Christ, chiliasm which says Christ reigns 1,000 years is of course a heresy, Christ reigns forever, it is 1,000 years in which the devil is bound much more so than now, so that he cannot tempt the nations while now he practically runs the nations and tempts the believers, so the binding he is under now is more like a crippling. Also we are empowered against him, the sin that separates us from God being broken by the Cross.

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  18. There is no mention of a fall anywhere. That is added to come to a preconceived notion. To say that God allows for the possibility is ridiculous as God is all knowing. If He knew sin would enter the world then to say that it might not have is to admit that God could be wrong. Do you think God made the world and man knowing he would sin and then sat in heaven hoping He was wrong? To say that God created with the possibility of sin is to say that God had no idea what was going to happen.
    God either intended sin or He did not. You make it sound like He just created and stood back and said, “Let’s see what happens.”
    Besides, the Bible says that God placed all creation under bondage not of it’s will but God’s.

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  20. “His foolishness is much higher than our highest wisdom.”

    Very good statement. Short, precise and to the point. And 100% true.

  21. Hi, R. Fowler, I can’t see any response from you to Eric so we’re not sure where you now stand and i wondered if this offering may be of any use –

    The universe could have been made by God as a good place for us to live but also to make a choice for good or bad and to work out any/all errors that we may make:

    – God made the universe good for us and knew that if we did not respect the creation and one another, it would bring us bad results and a steep painful learning curve; but that would be our choice, (as indeed it still is – my explanation on free-will was give here in November last); however, He also knew that good will eventually overcome bad (because bad ultimately destroys itself), and souls would be able to find their way back to respecting the peace, joy and love that must be shared to operate properly (as He originally intended). We have that choice but each one of us must make it for ourselves while the bad is worked out.

  22. Ha! Thanks for the warning. I’m not waiting for a reply in any case and whilst I had nothing more important to do it served me as a good exercise any way!

  23. Just one question, even if god is not the creator of natural suffering, in the bible he, can still exert power over the natural world. Why then, if he can stop it, must we suffer from natural causes? To use a real world example, if a bystander watches someone get beaten with a baseball bat, and does not call the police, then isn’t he at least indirectly responsible for some of that person’s suffering?

  24. Excellent question. To paraphrase; if God is a good God then how he can stand by and watch people suffer?

    That question reveals the belief that man doesn’t deserve to suffer. To use your example, what if you found out that the bystander was actually a child molester who had just raped the man with the baseball bats daughter? Now we view the example differently. The bystander is not ‘innocent’. Now we may disagree with whether the father has the right to merit out justice, but we would all agree justice needed to be served.

    The problem is that human beings believe that we don’t deserve to suffer. But we do. We have all sinned against God, and while we think some sins are greater than others God does not. Some sins have more immediate consequences, but to a Holy and Righteous God whom there is no shifting of shadows or darkness, one sin is not greater than the other. The wages of sin is death (suffering).

  25. Savedbyj, I agree with you so far as it goes, but one runs into trouble with the idea of justice when considering the suffering of children. Is the 3 year old who suffers and dies from cancer getting his just reward? In your example, should the molester get pulverized? Perhaps, but the more interesting question is why did the children get molested in the first place? Where was God. I think this might be more to the spirit of Ethan’s question.

  26. Ethan, good question, perhaps the oldest. One reads in the book of Job (the oldest book in the OT collection) the reactions of Job’s friends to his suffering. They each claim something about Job’s predicament that they are later rebuked by God for. One of them is rebuked for claiming that it was Job’s sin that caused the calamity and that God was punishing him.

    What’s is interesting about the book in general is the basic premise: this sort of cosmic wager between God and the “Accuser” (Satan) concerning the faithfulness of Job. Many natural calamities are brought on him; God does not stop them, and in context of the story it is clear why – it’s part of the test.

    My modern ears, as well as yours I’m sure, is repulsed by this idea of God testing mankind. But when one digs below the surface of the temporal and takes the long-view (the eternal view) Job’s sufferings, as well as his family’s, served as some of the greatest triumphs of life. What does it mean to live well and to die well (a topic ingrained in nearly all religious conscience)? Can one live to the fullest without being tested to the fullest? Can one’s righteousness be what it is without the overcoming of unrighteousness? Is there any victory of peace without first the threat of loss? The short reply I’m aiming at is that suffering is something much more than what is conceived of on the purely abstract surface. I have no good summary of my answer partly because I still grapple with it myself – intensely – on a regular basis, but also because I believe the answer eludes objectivity. The truth of it can only be found in subjectivity.

  27. Agreed; I was trying to see if this is where the conversation was headed.

    Children suffering is tough. Not to mention the Old Testament parts where God tells the Israelite people to commit genocide. To make matters worse Paul says that some God has predestined for his Glory and some for his wrath.

    I’m not even going to try to say I have answers to these questions. There are definitely things to consider:

    1. God is omnipotent and omnipresent. So he knows what the future holds.He knows best. We don’t. Our pastors lost their 17 year old child when he fell asleep at the wheel and slammed into the only visible tree in a ditch. Our Pastor said at first the idea that God was in control made him angry. Eventually it gave him great peace.

    2. The fact that God is in control does not lesson the pain nor the suffering nor the questions why he allows it. But I thank God everyday that I serve a God who became a man and he himself suffered. Jesus is not asking me to do anything he was not willing to go through himself.

    3. There is a great book on suffering I highly recommend:

    http://www.amazon.com/How-Long-Lord-Reflections-Suffering/dp/0801031257

    When we go through suffering if we have a good theological view (not necessarily all the answers) it doesn’t remove the pain but it definitely helps us maintain a connection to our creator in the midst of it; and to eventually get through it either here or when we arrive on the other side.

  28. The Orthodox have a long tradition of incorporating suffering into our ethos of life. Suffering is seen as an opportunity to share in the sufferings of Christ, to be conformed to His image. Thus, “right” suffering is essential, as opposed to suffering brought on by one’s own stupidity or sin. This of course does not address the problem of child suffering, but nothing really does. Great discussion as always savedbj. 🙂

  29. My two thoughts on this are simply: 1. If no-one is innocent then neither are children (though this would not be evident to us). 2. ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons” – hence, we suffer even when innocent and perhaps, sometimes, even through our inherited genes.
    Regarding the suffering incurred from natural disasters – Is it not that we have upset the natural order and balance by our ‘sins’? (I wonder if the Lord’s Prayer was to be fulfilled and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, then, it seems, earth would be pacified).

  30. Well as of right now, I am agnostic and not sure. I want god to exist, because I am not a huge fan of ceasing to exist when I die, but there are several issues I have with religion in general and with Christianity in particular that prevent from me from having faith in God’s existence. If you want, I can list them and whoever feels like it can try to debunk them. I promise to be civil and as respectful of your religion as possible.

  31. I would love to and I pride myself in civility as well, so this could be quite beneficial for both of us. I have not always been a Christian and highly sympathetic to the agnostic view (whereas I find atheism to be one of the greatest ventures of blind faith leaping possible for a human being).

  32. Well, I am sure you have heard some of these point from atheists before. Also, I do not know a lot about the Orthodox church, so please correct if I say something incorrect; 1. A lot of the canon preached by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches was decided not by Jesus or by a prophet but was decided by a church council (ex. Jesus being the son of God). Decisions about the the truth of omnipotent and omnibenevolent beings made by men seem suspect, since we are infinitely far from (or ever achieving) both of those states. 2. Even if God exists why does he require his followers to worship him or burn in hell(In Catholicism at least, missing mass on a holy day is a mortal sin)? What does he want from worship? Because even if I were to fully believe in god, why is worshiping strenuously and frequently required for my salvation? 3. Besides completely immoral actions, alot of stuff that I(at least as a child of the new millennium) would not consider to be harshly and inherently bad are still mortal sins (ex. Contraceptives, pre-marital sex). Granted, none of these actions are exactly saintly, but a guaranteed slot in absolute torment for all of eternity for one of these actions unrepented seems a little harsh. 4. Christianity or any religion has been used as the justification for terrible and inhuman actions many times. The slaughtering of peaceful Muslims during the Crusades, the treatment of Native Americans by early European colonists, 9/11, the Holocaust. One could probably even get away with saying religions have caused more harm than good ever since the first religion of the Neanderthal. 5. Anyone who dies an atheist, even one who dedicated their life to helping other people, goes straight to hell. Is that not a little unfair? Those are some of the issues I have with religion. Most of these comments were based off of my knowledge of Catholicism, so if any are not true for those in the Orthodox church, please tell me. I apologize if I offended anyone because that was not my intent. Also, I appreciate all the attempts to explain human suffering, but I still have a bit of an issue with it as well.

  33. Hi Ethan, sorry for the delay in responding. It’s been a hectic few days. Let me jump right in. I’ll answer in the order you questioned. Let me know what you think.

    “1. A lot of the canon preached by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches was decided not by Jesus or by a prophet but was decided by a church council (ex. Jesus being the son of God). Decisions about the the truth of omnipotent and omnibenevolent beings made by men seem suspect, since we are infinitely far from (or ever achieving) both of those states.”

    An: I’m not sure what you mean by the last sentence, but let me address the first part. It’s true that much of what is taught in the Orthodox Church was taught in the councils, but these were not the first time these things were taught. The councils, by-and-large, merely articulated what was always believed by the Church. The articulations were made by the necessity to ward off heretical doctrines of the times. Take for instance the teaching of Christ’s divinity and eternal existence. The early heretical group known as the Arians taught that Jesus was a created being and was something similar to early Greek thought of the “demiurge.” The Arians used Scripture and so did Orthodoxy. But what eventually settled the issue was reference to the earliest baptismal rites of the Church which antedated the canonizing of Scripture by 100’s of years, stemming back to the practice of the Apostles.

    This is only one example, many more could be made, but as far as the legitimacy of councils in general one need not look further than Acts chapter 15 when the Apostles called the very first Church council to decide the matter of what was required of the Gentiles concerning the Mosaic Law (against the heretical group known as the Judizers). This set the precedence that councils were how the Church resolved matters of doctrine – even the Apostles needed them; they did not act alone in interpreting the faith. Another point to consider is the idea that prophets no longer exist. It is the Orthodox contention that many of those who served at the councils were equal to the prophets and even the Apostles. God doesn’t stop harvesting such men. Why would He?

    “2. Even if God exists why does he require his followers to worship him or burn in hell(In Catholicism at least, missing mass on a holy day is a mortal sin)? What does he want from worship? Because even if I were to fully believe in god, why is worshiping strenuously and frequently required for my salvation?”

    Worship can be strenuous but we understand prayer, practice of the virtues, worship, etc., to be strenuous because it is a medicine for the soul which is in bondage to the flesh (not literal flesh and bone, but to sin). Worship can be taxing for the reason that it is creating a new person, it is a birthing process, so to speak. The part about burning in hell also has an interesting answer from the Orthodox perspective. God is a burning fire. When we become united with Him it is paradise, but without being united with Him it is a consuming fire (this is all figurative, by the way; it points to a reality much more serious than mere fire). This follows as to why worship is strenuous. There is no existence outside of the present of God; thus there is no separate place called hell that is outside His domain. To “burn” in the afterlife is to be without union with God.

    “3. Besides completely immoral actions, alot of stuff that I(at least as a child of the new millennium) would not consider to be harshly and inherently bad are still mortal sins (ex. Contraceptives, pre-marital sex). Granted, none of these actions are exactly saintly, but a guaranteed slot in absolute torment for all of eternity for one of these actions unrepented seems a little harsh.”

    I’m hoping the answer to #2 helps answer this one as well. It’s a matter of union with God. God is life; to side with death is to side with something other than Him. It’s not that these sins are graver than others, its that they are all contrary to God’s life, Modernism not withstanding.

    “4. Christianity or any religion has been used as the justification for terrible and inhuman actions many times. The slaughtering of peaceful Muslims during the Crusades, the treatment of Native Americans by early European colonists, 9/11, the Holocaust. One could probably even get away with saying religions have caused more harm than good ever since the first religion of the Neanderthal.”

    For sure this is a common argument, but for me it is more of a commentary on human nature than religion in general. Man without God is capable of all evils. The fact that evil man finds refuge in a religion and uses it’s influence and power to destroy is a terrifying reality. However, look at the first generation of atheistic, Materialism/Naturalism, secular, state-worshipping man, i.e., the 20th century. When has there ever been slaughter on a more colossal scale? And, of course, that’s the typical religious response. But again, in the end we are arguing human nature apart from its life source, whether the vacuum is found in religion or in secular groups.

    “5. Anyone who dies an atheist, even one who dedicated their life to helping other people, goes straight to hell. Is that not a little unfair?”

    Would it be more fair to force someone who wanted nothing to do with God to be united with Him for all eternity?

    Those are my short answers and, unfortunately, the best I can do as time permits at the moment. Please feel free to respond with whatever these answers trigger in your heart and mind. I can take it. 🙂

    Cheers.

  34. Okay, the only response that I would contend with is #5. In your earlier response to #2, you clarified the orthodox conception of heaven/hell. By your own argument, is not a sinner burning in God’s flames just as united with Him as one who finds a paradise in those flames? If the level of unity is still equal no matter the pleasure or pain, any rational being would prefer to be in a more pleasant form of unity. Also, just out of curiosity, when you converted to Christianity, why did you chose the Orthodox church out of all the denominations to chose from?

  35. Maybe I should have been more clear. The “flames” or “fire” of God is a picture of his presence, not a literal burning. Why fire is chosen is because it is a picture of the purifying presence of God. As gold is refined in a fire and as wood, hay, and stubble are consumed in a fire, so are the righteous and unrighteous in the presence of God. I did not mean to give you the impression that the “level of unity is equal” between those united to God and those who are not.

    To the second part, I was raised Mormon and chose to go the non-denominational, evangelical route as a teenager. I remained that way for about 19 years. It was in my masters program in theology that I discovered the ancient Orthodox faith and knew that I had come home. There is a mountain of story backdrop behind that change, but essentially when I found the Orthodox Church I found a continuity of truth, unity, and movement of the Holy Spirit for 20 centuries, and longer if one considers the ancient Jewish faith from which Orthodoxy sprang.

  36. Dude, Orthodox Christianity teaches that at one point we were all predisposed to be druids?! That would be so cool; way to ruin that one for us Adam.

  37. Perhaps another view would be welcome?

    To be love, it must be free. This gives us the necessity of free will.

    Free will is the basis of sin (not suffering, as suffering is not intrinsically evil), as it allows us to choose between the Truth (the good), and what is not true (evil: all evil is in some way false).

    To prevent evil, God could eliminate free will (as per an animal: they commit no evil, because they do not have free will). This, however, would eliminate man’s ability to love God.

    Suffering becomes easier to understand when one realizes that to have free will, one must also be a reasoning being, living in a reasonable creation. This requires, to a certain extent, a construct (a universe) that is indifferent to man’s feelings or opinion about said creation. One of the most basic dogmas of science is the indifference of natural matter and energies. Lacking such indifference, “the laws of nature” could not even be a concept, let alone a field of study.

    Thus, one may suffer in a famine, but this suffering is the result of part of the pre-requisites for there to be such a thing as love at all: free will, and a reasonable and intelligible universe.

    In short: God could have created us as automatons, lacking in free will, but the result would have been like buying a robot as a spouse: you may get everything, exactly what you want it, at all times, with the exception of love.

    Or, God could have created us with free will, then acted as the most perfect slave master; never allowing us to actualize the evil we could envision. But, is a slave who is forced to act as if they love you, even when they do not, what one could truly call love?

    God could have created us with free will, left us free, but with no way to actualize the evil we can envision. Is this truly different from “God, the perfect slave master?”

    Love, justice, mercy, reason, truth . . . all are parts of a greater whole. We struggle to understand, in part because we cannot truly grasp the whole, so must break it into intelligible pieces. Sadly, this reductive thinking has a tendency to vary from the fullness of the truth.

  38. Indeed John. I agree with your thoughts on why we suffer as a result of free choice, what I think I was getting at with the article was more to approach the subject of why do the innocent suffer. Think of children born with cancer, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the choices they made and their condition. So does God not care about them? Does he look away from their suffering due to some sin? Or is He incapable of healing the innocent? That’s more the flavor of this article.

  39. Hi Eric et al,

    I’m not equipped or knowledgeable enough to argue for or against this very complex question of why God allows tragic events to unfold around the world. I’m reading with great interest here the various opinions, theories and academic arguments.
    It’s a question we all must really struggle with internally. I SOoooo want to believe there is some higher power motive, some Godly rationale we people on earth simply cannot understand or grasp. Yet, despite all the theorists, PHD type arguments and complex academic rationale, FOR and AGAINST, I always try to think of it in simple terms – that is, why can’t God, appear to us not in isolation of each other but on a worldly stage, with all our current real-time media technologies and simply show us he exists, give us all a good telling off and show us how to work together for a better life for everyone? Wouldn’t that simple message, in the face of all our scientific advances and technology advances in the last 4000 years be overwhelming and incredibly powerful for all humanity at this stage in our journey? I mean, why the mystery, the struggles, the internal torture for us all…the DOUBT! I want to believe. I am still clinging on, but only just…after all, he did come to us once and died on the cross for us, to save us and show us he was real and true….WHY can’t he do this again, in our technology centric world 4000 years on….with all the crap going on in the world, we need him now more than ever….after all, I fear we are at the tipping point of wrecking humanity and life on earth if we are not very careful within the next 100 years…ie. climate change, industrialization, more and more powerful technology being militarised, conflict etc.

  40. Hi Ronan. Reading your post I immediately thought of the scene in Genesis where the Hebrews are gathered around the holy mountain with Moses, lightning and clouds cover it’s top and God had determined to speak directly to his people without Moses as a mediator. He begins to talk and the people are so terrified that they cry out to Moses to go and speak to God alone and return and tell them what He says. God responds to Moses saying that he would grant the people their wish and continue to speak through prophets instead of making himself heard by all the people at once.

    It’s a gripping story and when I first read it I felt like it settled for me the very question that you raise. And you are right, Christ appearing in the flesh was something akin to showing himself to humanity, albeit in a form that nobody would recognize as God except by revelation of the Holy Spirit, which Christ says to Peter when Peter replies to Jesus that He is the Christ, Son of the living God.

    The deal seems to be that our trials with doubt are what make us able to become sons of God. “Israel” literally translates as “to struggle with God,” a name given to Jacob when he wrestled the angel. God wants us to fight with the doubt, He wants us to “take the kingdom of God by force.”

    Besides, seeing and believing that God is real is not the gist of knowing him. The devils see and believe in Him but it doesn’t help them much. One can believe God exists and still have nothing to do with him. As Jesus said, “If they will not hear Moses and the law they will not believe even if one returns from the dead.” Faith is at issue for God. Seeing is not “believing.”

    Sorry if that leaves you in the same place as before, but that is probably my best shot at answering your simple but profound question. 🙂

  41. Hi Eric… Great article indeed, I also like the comments and arguments people are making. Going back to Ethan, clearly Ethan is a victim of what Christians have become victims of, calling and referring to ourselves as this and that, I mean, even you Mr Hyde could not escape this trap, and I believe in the process of this identification and trying so hard not to be associated we end up promoting these other movements or groups as if they were superior to others in anyway. Ethan is only fifteen or was fifteen when he wrote that comment…In my mind I just can’t see him even understanding the depth of what he is talking about, he simply came across this movement that was built on those arguments and off he went building on a foundation he does not really understand. I’m not saying that is the case with you Mr Hyde, based on your answers and the way you handle the holy scriptures, I am fully convinced that the foundation you building on is solid. I’m only proposing that we practice what Paul preached in the first book of Corinthians. I mean even the term Christians was coined by outsiders not those who were actual believers.
    Maybe then it would be greatly beneficial that you refer to yourself only using what the Bible calls you, not what the circular world calls you, also clarify on how different religion is to Christianity.
    Lastly on the issue of suffering babies and justice. God has clearly stated that He takes idolatry so seriously…”you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,”
    Exodus 20:5
    The reason for suffering babies in this case is clearly portrayed in these verses. The ultimate reason is simply because of the sin of Adam… When babies die I know scripturally that they go to heaven, take the case of David and Bathsheba instead. When, then does a baby or child become an adult, that I do not know. One thing I know for sure is, that, our practical righteousness in our homes aids or build walls that will shield our kids from the injustice that we see in the world. If I’m not mistaken you declared how fair was it that God forces someone who wants nothing to do with Him into heaven… I say, why should God shied those kids when their parents rejected Him, what would be the consequence of their rejection…Or what would be the lesson we learn from that law.
    I am not claiming to fully understand this issue myself, but I’m simply sharing what is burning as a result of reading this great post.

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