Is God Good?
The other night I was approached by a year 8 student to answer a few questions set by his faith and values teacher from school. Sure I said, without really thinking. Then came the question …
Is God good?
Mmm, a question that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with over the centuries, that people of faith deal with in the midst of the tragedy and grief of life. Is God good? And a teacher wants a one sentence answer!
In a theologically conservative school, and probably teacher, the nature of God is all important. Usually God is assumed to be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and perfectly good.
So firstly the problem is with the idea of good. What is good? Most would equate good with loving. Is God loving? But good could mean compassionate, or mean something more ethically, it has a sense of fair play, of justice in it. Good is a value judgement, one that we make. So when we ask, is God good, what do we actually mean!
But let’s stick with the assumption that when we are asked, is God good, we really mean, is God all loving.
The second problem is about God being all powerful.
From a conservative understanding God is an all-powerful interventionist God, humanity is a fallen creation and Jesus comes as a perfect sacrifice to save humanity from itself and from God. We are then called to follow Jesus, as our lord and saviour, with the Holy Spirit as our companion and guide.
God in this understanding is like an angry parent, requiring some payment for our sinful ways. We are somehow in need of rescuing. Yet it is not all that are rescued! Somehow God cannot act unless a price has been paid, some legal rules have been followed. Is this the action of a loving deity? To save some and not others, and to require some payment for it.
And then we have the problem of evil. If God is all powerful, omnipotent as the theologians would say, or all loving, or all good, how does evil in the world flourish? Why doesn’t God intervene?
Now we get into the nitty gritty! The universal dilemma!
If God is all powerful he cannot be all loving if he/she does not intervene to save those who are suffering. If God is all loving then he/she must not be all powerful else he/she would intervene to save those who are suffering. It is brought home when you think of all the terrible things that have happened and continue to happen in the world. The holocaust is usually referred to as a terrible example, and it was rammed home to me on the weekend when I revisited the movie, Schindler’s List. A very confronting movie about a very confronting event!
It is a dilemma that leads to creative and really mostly absurd reasons as to why God can be both. About the choices God makes or the freedom we have. It makes God into a person, who sits and ponders these things, making decisions about the world as though we are puppets in a play.
If we believe God is good and all powerful then we have to accept that we don’t understand his/her concept of good.
The problem with all of this is the starting point, the image of God and of Jesus and of our faith.
What about entering the twenty first century, a century of discovery. Evolution, Hubble telescopes, quantum physics, and incredible discoveries in the human story, in psychology, biology and philosophy.
What if we see God a little differently? A spirit or presence within all of life, from the very beginning of time, in all of creation from the big bang until now. What if we see God as all pervasive, an energy that holds all things in connectedness and relationship. That pulls us together and pushes us forward. This God is not a person, somewhere else, intervening sometimes and not others times. This God is personal. In you and me and every element of life on earth and has been from the very beginning. This God can be sensed and felt by us, and we can express this God in the world by being better people, by living with one another in peace and love.
This understanding of God does not find it difficult to say God is good. Or that God is all loving. This is old language, our language, but it does bring a truth that we can take hold of. This God, this creative divine spirit, or energy, is a universal presence, and we can all give expression to this God reality. For God is about life, our life, the life of all those that will follow and all those that have come before. God is a life giving presence that can lead us into the future. But it is a shared future, and we have a shared responsibility.
Perhaps it helps to look at Jesus to link it together. Rather than some sacrificial payment for our sinfulness that God requires let us see Jesus as a reflection of this universal God. He loved freely, he forgave freely, he called for peace and he worked for justice for those marginalised and poor. Jesus died, that is a certainty, at the hands of the Roman Empire. But his death was an answer to all that is evil in the world, his world and ours, rather than some set piece arranged by God. His death shows us that love is stronger than hate, and peace is stronger than violence and that all people are of value. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, it is to follow him in this way of living.
Yet this new way of seeing God also dismisses fully the notion that this divine presence is making decisions about where to intervene and for who. This God reality is a power within not over, and remains with us through our suffering, a presence that can lift us out of the chaos. But this God is not the reason for our suffering, some arbitrary judge who can determine our lives at a whim. As people of faith we cannot expect there will not be death or destruction or pain or grief in life. Only that God’s presence never leaves us as we look to bring light into the darkness, for ourselves and others.
If we return to the movie, Schindler’s list, this reality becomes clear. There was such horror and evil, and then there was a little light. Surprisingly a greedy, womanising German who was a member of the SS, rescued over 1200 Jews by paying the Germans for them to work in his factory with every dollar he had. In the end his contribution to humanity lives on, with the descendants of all those he saved amounting to over 7,000 people. A little light in the darkness leading us forward. Was God present? Of course, in both Schindler, in the terrible suffering of the Jews and in all those who helped, hindered, ignored or participated in this awful moment in history. Evil flourishes when the God light is dimmed or extinguished. It does not mean that it is not there.
I hope I have planted some seeds. Perhaps that the role of questions like this!