Just yesterday an old friend commented on the death of Philip Semour Hopkins, saying something to the effect: “what sort of God takes PSH from us and leaves the lego movie?”

My friend is a fine musician and conductor. He is an artist who understands the angst that sometimes produces great artists. Nevertheless, expressing sorrow over the loss is not the same as assigning the blame or cause to God.

I have heard similar comments throughout my ministry. Without directing a response to my friend, specifically, the perspective deserves a pastor’s attention.

One way to describe this understanding of the world is theodicy. Theodicy is the problem of the coexistence of a good God and evil experiences. The gist of such a perspective is that God somehow permitted this evil to occur. The existence of evil (or even natural disasters, disease, ‘accidents’) can threaten notions that God is ‘all powerful’ (omnipotent), ‘all knowing’ (omniscient), ‘and all present’ (omnipresent). The question is if God has all these qualities, “how could this happen?” One of these assumptions must be false.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that a SimpleCountryPastor could sufficiently answer a question that theologians and philosophers have struggled with for thousands of years. And chock full of hubris. I offer nothing new. But don’t each of us have to come up with some sort of answer for this?

For me, the question is personal. My own experience of God is not capricious, or vengeful, but is rather loving and full of grace. This experience is a combination of reading the church’s texts and life in the trenches. This doesn’t mean that the question doesn’t come up, or that I am able to dismiss it with a wave of the hand.

My own perspective is borrowed, and a patchwork of other thinkers. Specifically, I would probably fall into the Plantinga camp, understanding that the existence of suffering and the existence of God are not mutually exclusive. Alvin Plantinga’s position hinges on a view of free will that allows these two seemingly incongruent ideas to coexist. Plantinga insists that God created a world in which creatures were primarily free, and while God did not create evil in the world, neither did God disallow the creature’s ‘bad behavior.’ A simple review of the church’s texts is consistent with this premise.

Without getting too technical, Planinga’s idea of ‘transworld depravity’ floats the notion that while it is possible that the creature could make not morally evil decisions, and a world could exist up to the point of the decision making, without moral evil, it is at the point of decision that the creature generally fails and makes the wrong decision. Christ, however, is the example of humanity without ‘transworld depravity,’ or the ability to perpetually make decisions for the good.

Critics point out that Pantinga’s theory does not address what philosophy describes as ‘natural evil,’ or those aspects of the biosphere that we creatures interpret as evil: storms, illness, accidents. Plantinga actually does address this issue, (in my view unsatisfactorily), by suggesting that everything that appears at first glance to be natural evil could in fact be moral evil committed by freely acting supernatural beings, such as ‘fallen angels.’ In either case, the absence of natural evil, or natural evil generated by supernatural forces, the question remains ‘why doesn’t a good God who has the capacity to stop it, stop it?’

In Evil and the Justice of God, N. T. Wright raises two objections against the project of theodicy: that it minimizes the badness of evil, and that it manifests a kind of hubris. In addition to recommending the abandonment of theodical efforts, Wright suggests that we turn our attention instead to biblical narratives in an attempt to more fully understand and appreciate what God is doing to deal with the evil we find in this world.

My own view of such things follows N. T Wright’s prescription: God did create the world and all that is ‘seen and unseen.’ However, God also granted creatures a certain ‘free will’ that allows some independence even if the creature is never really autonomous. Also, there is a basic and elemental ‘gone wrongness’ in the world that taints everything. God’s plan, revealed in the church’s texts is to redeem all of creation to the original condition that was good; indeed, very good. Salvation history, then, points in this direction.

Still, on a day to day basis creatures are dependent upon a somewhat orderly set of natural laws that determine the processes of the world. I, for instance, depend upon gravity to drive over to the church in the morning. It is good that gravity is not suspended, however briefly, in the answer to someone’s prayer during my commute.

That is not to say that the creature cannot effect the creation in a way that is destructive. Pollution, for starters, has catastrophic effects on both creation and creature (I am old enough to remember “Love Canal”). Our altering of the biosphere, wetlands, for instance, has had terrible and initially unpredicted effects on life.

[One of Pantinga’s points is that even ‘natural evil’ can be traced in many cases to ‘moral evil.’ e.g. the effect of climate change on weather and storms.]

Oops. I have somehow wandered far from the original question about Philip Semour Hoffman. I am grieved that anyone somehow has a predilection for addiction and dependency. I am frustrated whenever I have urged and coached my children to make a ‘good choice’ and as I allow them to choose they make a ‘bad choice.’

While I believe that God does intervene in creation, and that the ‘watchmaker’ notion of God (that God created the world, wound it up, and started it up, and is now hands off) is inadequate, I do not believe that we can depend upon God’s intervention denying the free will of individuals. I wish it was otherwise. What I have come to believe is that this same God, ‘bending the trajectory of the world toward redemption’ chooses to participate in this life with us.

I know that many people prefer a simplistic, simple answer. ‘There must not be any God.’ or, ‘God must not be good.’ I for one believe that the creation does not allow for such a simple answer. I especially do not believe ‘there is a reason for everything.’

What I do believe is that the Incarnation reveals that God has eternally decided on the side of creature and creation, entering into it, perpetually, that there is the promise of redemption for all of it. in the meantime, I agree, it is a great loss. It stinks. it isn’t right.

I might also add that to just wish for the future of redemption is an inadequate response. Not everything should be put off “until the Lord comes.” N. T. Wright goes further, saying,

The call of the Gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world. The cross is not just an example to be followed; it is an achievement to be worked out, put into practice. But it is an example nonetheless, because it is the exemplar, the template, the model, for what God now wants to do, by his Spirit, in the world, through his people. It is the start of the process of redemption, in which suffering and martyrdom are the paradoxical means by which victory is won. The suffering love of God, lived out again by the Spirit in the lives of God’s people, is the God-given answer to the evils of the world. (N. T. Wright, “God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil” from May 18-19, 2005, lectures at the Church Leaders’ Forum, Seattle Pacific University)

What we do, more often than not, is silently walk this difficult road with a friend who is grieving. We offer someone else’s prayers because they are so overwhelmed they cannot pray. Looking carefully and listening intently, we sense we are not alone and that God is with us in this work.

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