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Free And Fallen

He will likely evaluate the claims for God’s existence based on objective evidence. And here I have to revert to the question of why very bad things happen to good people, a topic which must be infinitely tedious to believers, because I find Novak’s arguments for God’s love more conclusory than evidentiary. ~Heather Mac Donald

The topic is “infinitely tedious” because it is something very like a non-issue.  It is not just a non-issue for believers, but for anyone who gives the claims of Christian theology serious weight and consideration.  Some theologians beat their breasts and lament about human suffering before they get around to offering an explanation for why these things happen–or rather, why they are permitted to happen in a cosmos ruled by an omnipotent and just God–though I think this is often to avoid appearing callous rather than to add anything to our understanding.   

Whether a rationalist finds the Christian answer credible or not depends very much on whether he (or, in this case, she) believes that sin, which is to say disordered desire and flawed will, exists in the world.  Rationalist conservatives ought to be inclined to acknowledge that such a thing does exist, since they root their acceptance of conservatism in their own empirical judgement that man is fallible and incapable of perfecting himself through changes in his material environment.  If they acknowledge the reality of sin, conservative tradition points them inevitably to the Christian understanding of ancestral sin as the explanation for where this flaw in man came from.  We are not here talking about generic theism or generic proofs of God’s existence, but a specific argument against Christianity on account of an inability to reconcile a good God with evil in the world.  Pardon me if I sound obnoxious, but this is one of the easiest to answer in specifically Christian terms. 

“Bad things happen to good people,” as the saying goes, because of the existence of sin in the world–not necessarily because of those individuals’ sins (and everyone has at least a few) but because of the disorder and corruption that have entered into the world through sin–and sin exists because God has given man free will and man, as Scripture tells us, fell of old in pursuing a life of autonomy that turned him away from God and disrupted the communion between God and man. 

As man the microcosm went, so went all of creation into the violence and death that pervade what we typically generically call “nature.”  So long as man remains at all free to will the Good or turn away from it, so long as it remains within his power and energy to enter into communion with God or drift away into autonomy, the possibility (and unfortunately very often the reality) of evil remains.  Because of the fallen state of the entire world, man will also suffer violence from the natural world.  I would hasten to add that, pace Orthodox theologian David Hart, this is not always merely permitted by God, but sometimes willed by Him as a chastisement of the wicked and a chastening of those whom He loves.  This idea generally horrifies atheists, because they seem to regard it as a kind of sadism rather than seeing it, like permitting the existence of death, as the charitable limitation of evil.  But this is the Christian’s Biblical answer to the tiresome question. 

As Dostoevsky said (and I’m paraphrasing), evil exists because freedom exists.  We could no more be completely preserved from the fruits of sin–the bad things happening to good people–that we could be coercively saved against our own will.  This is one reason why Christianity preaches salvation from this predicament in Jesus Christ.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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