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Is God unfair?

30 November, 1999

Philip Fogarty SJ responds to a query about God’s seeming unfairness – specifically about God permitting terrible suffering around the world.

How can I believe in God when there are such terrible sufferings in the world? When someone I love is taken away in death or becomes incurably ill; when I see children suffering from serious mental or physical disorders; when I stand at the coflin of a seventeen-yearold friend or watch the slow death of my ageing parents; when I see starvation in Africa or the old dying of hypothermia on the streets of Dublin; how can all this lit into God’s scheme of things? Why does God not prevent such suffering? Either God cannot and so God is not all-powerful or God will not and so can hardly be called good! Is God simply disinterested and above all human suffering while we struggle and suffer here on earth? Is God indifferent or impotent? Is God nothing more than a cruel despot? Does God exist at all?’

God’s seeming unfairness can haunt us as we struggle to reconcile a God of love and the depths of human suffering. It may be impossible to reconcile the immensity of human suffering with the mystery of a loving God in a way that fully satisfies the human heart. However, there may be thinking about the problem that can at least give some insight and provide renewed strength and hope. To begin, I need to remind myself that I live in an evolving world.

Big Bang
The theory of evolution. seeks to explain the origins of the different species on earth, their modifications and sometimes their extinction. It accounts for the variability, adaptation and distribution of living organisms which takes place over millions of years.

Evolution is determined by the ‘laws’ of nature, which govern how things come to be, change and adapt. Without such laws the universe would simply not exist nor would I.

Millions of years ago, scientists tell us, the universe erupted spontaneously into existence, out of nothing; an event which is popularly termed the Big Bang. The Big Bang is the earliest event in the history of the universe accessible to science; that singular moment in which cosmic matter appears to have exploded from a point of infinite compression. Space and time made their appearance with the Big Bang and the process of evolution began.

Big Church
Evolution, however, is moving, imperceptibly but inexorably, from the Big Bang towards the Big Church,an eventuality reflected poetically in the New Testament. ‘The heavens will be dissolved in flames and. the elements melted by fire.’ (2 Peter: 3-10) There is more than poetry here.

The sun shines because it burns up its hydrogen fuel to form helium in the process of nuclear fusion. In another five thousand million years or so, scientists say, this hydrogen will be used up and all life on earth will be destroyed. The world has evolved from raw energy to ninety-two different chemicals, to the first living cell, to viruses, bacteria, fish, birds, animals and ultimately to the appearance of human beings on the planet.

Laws of nature
I am aware that I have evolved within a complex network of natural forces which obey their own laws. When, for example, human male sperm penetrates the female egg, the human body begins to take shape according to the laws of nature. The body is a miracle not because it defies the laws of nature, but precisely because it obeys them. Our digestive systems extract nutrients from food. Our skins help to regulate body temperature. When I get sick, my body has built-in defence mechanisms to fight illness. The food I eat, the climate that shapes me, the materials for the clothes I wear, even my ways of thinking, are all products of forces and influences that have been at work over millennia.

Potential dangers
AIltbese wonderful things happen, usually without my being aware of them, in accordance with the laws of nature. While nature may produce the beauty of sunsets, mountains, rivers, lakes and seas, not to mention the wondrous birth of a child, it also produces earthquakes, tidal waves, heart attacks, cancers, physical and mental disabilities and death. The fact is that I could not survive on the planet without the laws of nature but that means that I have to live with their potential dangers also.

As I think about the great evolutionary process long enough, one that has been going on for millions of years, I gradually become aware that I am part of something that is greater than myself, that I can never make fully my own. I am part of the ‘stream of life’ and this sense of being part of some great evolutionary movement can give rise to a sense of wonder, mystery and awe. It can also tell me something of the grandeur and mystery of God.

God and evolution
God did not simply create the universe millions of years ago and then leave it to its own devices. At every moment of its existence God ‘births’ the energy that moves the evolutionary process forward from the unfathomable network of forces that move the tiniest atom in its inner dynamism on to the vast galaxies in their cycles as they become separate and individual.

God, out of love, creates what is ‘other’ than God; sets in motion, in a time-scale that is unimaginably enormous, an evolutionary process that profligately gives birth to the cosmos and to our own tiny planet. ‘We know that all creation is groaning in labour pains even until now.’ (Rom. 8:22)

God’s character
I may feel that if I were in charge of creation I would manage it better! I would retain the good and eliminate the bad. However, the balance and relatedness of all things show me that it is not as easy as I might suppose to make such changes if the universe is to remain subject to its own underlying lawful regularity, enabling the human species to survive.

Of course, it would be possible to conceive of a world in which God intervened on every occasion cancer cells formed so as to eliminate the disease by direct action. Yet it may be that the way that God creates the world reflects God’s character in some way.

‘The world that science describes seems to me to be one that is consonant with the idea that it is the expression of the will of a creator, subtle, patient and content to achieve his purposes by the slow unfolding of process inherent in those laws of nature which, in their regularity, are but pale reflections of his abiding faithfulness.’ (John Polkinghorn, One World, SPCK 1993)

Basic solidarity
Pace Shakespeare, the world is not a stage but a process in which everything that exists, has existed or will exist is intrinsically interdependent. 1 am linked symbiotically not only to the impersonal flow of nature but to all other living beings, to others and to God.

Even my name is given to me symbolising the fact that I am descendent from and dependent on others for my very existence.

While I tend to think of myself as a unique person, as a separate individual over against nature and other people, it is only in and through my relationships with others that I become a person. Inextricably linked to others, I am also inextricably linked to the impersonal flow of the natural world. As an individual I never outgrow this basic solidarity with everything and everyone else. My life is always personal and communal. And because, and only because, I am linked to planet earth do I exist at all. 


This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2000), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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