Click here for Part 1 of this article.
In Part 1, we talked about the painful struggles of life, our questioning of God, and how coming to realize that we don’t understand the way God runs this universe is a good place to start on our spiritual journey.
Now let’s look at the bigger picture, and see if we can look at our tragedy and existential angst from a broader and more spiritual perspective.
1. God looks at everything from an eternal perspective
God looks at our life on earth from a very different perspective than we do.
As we move along in life, experiencing its joys and its sorrows, we see only what we have been through, and what we are experiencing now. We have only a vague notion of what our future will hold. As our life unfolds, it often turns out very differently than we thought it would.
God has no such limitations of vision. And God is much more concerned with what our life will be like forever in heaven than with what it is like for the relative nanosecond that we are here on earth.
Yes, God is concerned about the pain and suffering we struggle with during our earthly lifetime. God feels our sorrows deeply, and grieves with us.
But God also knows that without the struggle, suffering, pain, and sorrow that we experience here on earth, we will never develop into the loving, compassionate, and merciful angels that God created us to become.
Life here on earth offers us moments of beauty and tranquility. And we should savor and thank God when we encounter them. However, the fact is that our heavenly life is determined by how we handle our challenges on earth.
God created a universe and an environment with diseases, accidents, and natural disasters that challenge us to grow and evolve on a physical level, an emotional level, and most importantly, on a spiritual level. Our most solid and substantial growth as human beings takes place during the difficult and painful challenges we face in life. Without them, there would be no motivation to grow and change into the angels God created us to be.
If we look back over our lives, we do treasure the times of joy and contentment with family and friends—and also the times we were blissfully lost in our own thoughts and dreams. And yet, wasn’t it our times of struggle and agony, of confusion and uncertainty, of facing and battling the darker side of life, that shaped and developed our character as human beings?
God could have made life easy and pleasant for us. We could have lived happily in the Garden of Eden forever, joyfully running and dancing and eating the abundant fruits that the trees freely yielded.
Unfortunately, that would not have been our life. As the mythical story of Adam and Eve conveys in symbolic language, we humans had to do things our own way—even when our own way brought shame, sorrow, toil, and struggle upon us. (See “Curses or Consequences: Did God Really Curse Adam and Eve?”)
If there is to be any hope of making our way out of the mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into, we cannot avoid facing, struggling with, and overcoming the darkness and evil within and around us.
That is what our life on earth is for. That is why God allows us to experience so many harsh and painful realities. It is only through struggling against the darkness, the void, the pain, and the meaninglessness that continually attempts to drag us down that can we find the light, the fullness, the joy, and the true meaning of our lives.
God does see and grieve over all our pain, struggle, trials, and temptations here on earth. But God also sees the angels we can become by facing and overcoming the darkness and evil in our world and in our own souls.
We see only the person we are now and the life we have now. God sees the angels we will become if we are willing. God sees the life of love, beauty, light, and power that we will experience to eternity as a result of the character we build here on earth.
2. Violence, pain, and suffering exist in the universe because the universe was created for us
Fair warning: This section is going to get abstract and mind-bending. But to find any real answers about why God allows so many innocent people to suffer tragedy, we must face the question of why there is so much violence, pain, and suffering in the universe that God created.
Yes, God must allow evil to exist so that we can be free. If we were not free to choose our own beliefs and our own direction in life, we would not be human beings. However, this point has already been heavily covered by many people, including yours truly. See, for example, “If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?” and “How does God Govern Humankind? Is God Actively Involved in our Lives?”
The need for human freedom can account for the pain and suffering that we inflict upon ourselves and upon one another. But as both Tom and Grace point out in their Spiritual Conundrums, this doesn’t account for many diseases that are not due to lifestyle (see “What is the Source of Human Fragility, Sickness, and Disease?”), nor does it account for accidents that just happen without anyone doing anything wrong. And it certainly doesn’t account for human tragedies due to natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
We humans rightly fret about our wars, murder, cruelty, and violence. And far more people do die because of greed, war, oppression, and other human causes than due to natural disasters.
But as Grace asks, what about when people die not due to the sin of someone else?
And why is there so much violence in nature—violence that often spills over into human society and causes human tragedies?
One look at the natural environment shows that the world of nature is a violent place. You can’t spend much time watching the nature channels on TV without seeing predators ripping apart their prey, often while the prey is still alive. Go underwater and the carnage is even greater. Fish eggs are eaten by small fish. Small fish are eaten by bigger fish. Bigger fish are eaten by sharks.
No matter which way you look, nature is full of violence and bloodshed.
Now expand the view to the universe. Our telescopes and other scientific instruments have made it possible to look deeper and deeper into space. We have learned that the universe is filled with violence on a cosmic scale: huge asteroids pounding planets, aging stars exploding, young stars getting ripped apart and sucked into black holes, whole galaxies colliding.
In fact, scientists believe that the universe itself began with an unimaginably powerful explosion nicknamed the Big Bang. In this event, all of the energy that powers and forms the universe was unleashed at a single point in space and time.
Can all of this violence and bloodshed be explained by human evil?
The universe was full of violence and bloodshed before humans capable of choosing evil walked on this earth. In fact, the universe was a violent place long before the very first planet capable of supporting intelligent life appeared. And if the development of life on our earth is any guide, before the very first intelligent beings existed on that very first inhabitable planet, the ecosystem of that planet also depended on predatory relationships in which some animals killed and ate others.
In other words, God made the universe a violent place before humans even existed.
Why? What’s going on here?
Let’s look at it from two different angles.
Evil exists only in human beings and human society, not in nature
First, though we may be tempted to say that all that violence and bloodshed is evil, there is no such thing as evil in nature.
Evil is a matter of moral and spiritual judgment. Nature is material. Judgments such as “good” and “evil” simply don’t apply to it.
Though we humans may give moral and spiritual meaning to things in nature, there is no morality or spirituality in nature itself. Natural events simply are. Animals and plants simply function according to their design (their structure and form) and their instincts. They operate by certain laws. How they function and what they do is a result of those laws. Unlike humans, nature cannot break its own laws. Only we humans can choose to act in a way that we know is wrong. Only humans can engage in evil.
When a pack of lions rips apart a beautiful young gazelle that was peacefully grazing only minutes ago, that is not evil. It’s just the way nature works. Predators actually make the species they prey on stronger by weeding out the weaker individuals, so that only the stronger ones will perpetuate their genes. The predator-prey relationship is a powerful mechanism driving the evolution of species. Unlike modern human society, nature does not value individuals.
The vast cataclysms we see in the wider universe also are not evil. They are simply the way the universe works. Our earth is the product of billions of years of cosmic violence. Without all those vast collisions, explosions, and cataclysms, our solar system and our small blue planet harboring its millions of forms of life could not exist. For example, the earth itself, along with the other planets in our solar system, is thought to have formed over a period of tens of millions of years from a cloud of dust, rocks, and asteroids surrounding the sun that continually crashed into each other and clumped together due to gravity and other forces. And most scientists believe that our moon is the result of a planet the size of Mars colliding with the earth early in its history.
In short, violence and bloodshed is just the way the universe works. Nature is not immoral or evil. It is amoral. Morality, good, and evil simply don’t apply to it. Nature just is.
However, if we attempt to apply the amoral laws of nature to us humans, we strip away all of the higher layers of moral and spiritual life that make us human.
- Should we humans allow our weaker, “defective” members to die?
- Should we humans practice genetic engineering to produce a superior race?
- Should we humans operate by survival of the fittest, and might makes right?
- Should we humans pit one group against another and see which prevails?
From a purely natural, materialistic perspective, there really isn’t a good argument against such theories of Social Darwinism that have been condemned by human society generally as cruel, immoral, and inhuman.
And yet, in nature, we see all of these things taking place. Yes, even genetic engineering. Maybe not conscious, intentional genetic engineering. But the whole world of nature is a vast experiment in genetics. And it has produced some amazingly varied, hardy, and adaptable species. Physically, we humans are the product of that process.
The reigning scientific perspective today sees this process of cosmic development and biological evolution as the foundation of our understanding of the universe. According to this perspective, we humans just happen to have developed. Even consciousness itself is seen as merely a product of highly complex natural and biological processes.
From a purely materialistic and scientific viewpoint, concepts such as good and evil are mere add-ons that do not have any real meaning outside of the human mind. The universe, including the human beings in it, is just the working out of the laws of physics and biology. Our job is to discover what those laws are in order to understand the universe and use its laws to the advantage of our species. It’s just a matter of evolution.
From a purely scientific and biological viewpoint, if thousands of human beings die in a natural disaster such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami, that’s just how nature works. If someone hiking in the woods gets mauled by a bear, that’s just how nature works. If someone dies from a disease such as cancer or arteriosclerosis, that’s just how nature works. The weak and vulnerable die, the strong live on.
Yes, we can try to figure out how to protect ourselves from natural disasters and how to cure diseases. But from a biological viewpoint, we are simply animals who live and die like other animals. Our life and death is neither good nor evil. It just is.
But this materialistic view of the universe is not the only way of seeing things. There is another, more ancient way of looking at the universe.
What if God created the universe especially for human beings?
According to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and various other religions, God created the universe for a purpose—and that purpose involved human beings. Even if we don’t take the Creation story in Genesis literally, it paints a picture of God creating the world as a place for human beings to live. (For a spiritual view of the Creation story, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”)
If there is a God, and the universe was created by God rather than just happening by random chance, it offers a whole different perspective on why our universe is the way it is.
It’s not necessary to reject science in order to believe that God created the universe. If God did create the universe, then what scientists are studying is the natural laws and phenomena that God created. It’s as simple as that.
Believing that God created the universe doesn’t take away anything that science has learned about how it works. But it does add a whole new layer of reality and purpose that is beyond the domain of science. If we believe in a God who is the Creator, we can still accept what science tells us about how the material universe works. But now we can also ask the question of why God made the universe to work the way scientists tell us it does.
In short, science doesn’t deal with the purpose of the universe. That’s religion’s domain.
More specifically, in order to fully face the question of why so many bad things—including diseases, accidents, and natural disasters—happen to so many good people, we must answer the question of why God created a universe and a world of nature that contains so much violence and bloodshed.
Couldn’t an infinitely intelligent, wise, and powerful God have designed and created a more peaceful and harmonious universe?
Why is the universe so violent?
Why is nature so cruel?
Why do we humans have to struggle and die fighting the inexorable, uncaring, inhuman forces of nature? Why did God make things that way?
Is God a sadist, as some people believe who have become bitter as a result of so much suffering?
No, God is not a sadist.
But consider God’s problem if God actually did create the universe for human beings. In particular, consider the design parameters for the universe if its purpose was to provide a place where human beings could develop into angels. Would a peaceful, harmonious, non-challenging universe be the best way to achieve that?
God looks at everything from an eternal perspective. This means that when God created the universe, God saw and knew everything that to us is in the past, the present, and the future. God created the universe with the whole sweep of humanity’s existence in mind.
This means that God created the universe knowing that because God was creating us to be human and free, some of us would choose evil over good. And all of us would have self-centered and greedy parts of ourselves that we would have to overcome and leave behind if we were going to become angels.
Because of this, God had to design a universe that would provide a place where both human good and human evil could exist.
If, for example, our ecosystem were completely peaceful, nonviolent, and non-challenging, it would have no defense at all against humans who decided to destroy it. Granted, we humans could destroy our environment if we really wanted to. A major nuclear war would do the job. Even without nuclear war, we’ve made a pretty good run at destroying the environment in the past couple hundred years.
But nature is a tough beast. Although we’ve dealt it a lot of damage, it keeps fighting back and reasserting itself. Even if we managed to wipe out all higher life forms, it’s likely that weeds and insects would take over the earth, and nature would continue with hardier strains in the new, more toxic environment we created. Nature would have the last laugh as our dead bones gradually returned to dust.
But beyond that, for our spiritual growth, we humans need an environment that reflects our own nature. This allows us to see what’s inside ourselves by looking at the world of nature around ourselves. No matter where we look, we find something that teaches us about our inner, spiritual nature.
How is it that the violence in nature, and the violence in the wider universe, is such an accurate mirror for the violence that exists in our own souls and in our relationships with one another? Why, for example, is it so easy to speak of greedy, power-hungry people as “predators” who “prey” on the innocent? Why does “a perfect storm” describe so many events in our human relationships with one another?
When we look at the pervasive violence and bloodshed in the world of nature, we see in it so many mirrors of our own predatory interactions with one another, and of the darkness within our own souls.
God created the universe with human beings in mind. And though nothing in the universe outside of human beings is actually evil, everything in the universe does reflect our human experience—including the evil parts of our human experience.
If God, in creating the universe, had seen that human evil would not be a part of it, there would have been no need to create such a violent universe. It would not have been necessary to base the cycle of nature on so much conflict and carnage.
But God knew that giving us freedom would open the door for human evil, immorality, selfishness, greed, oppression, and cruelty to break out into the world. Because of this, God designed a universe that even though it is “very good” in itself (see Genesis 1:31), can also provide a mirror and a reflection for human beings so that we can learn about spiritual realities—including the reality of spiritual evil—from the natural universe around us.
Didn’t I say this was going to get mind-bending?
If you’re with me so far, let’s bring it all to bear on the original question.
What about when our tragedies are caused, not by any sin or wrongdoing on our part, but by natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and giant meteor strikes? What about when we’re struck down by diseases and genetic disorders? What about when we’re maimed or killed by random accidents?
From a spiritual and eternal perspective, these tragedies are still a reflection and a result of human evil. Violence, natural disasters, disease, and bloodshed exist in our universe because God created the universe to reflect the human beings who would inhabit it.
In nature, all of this is neither good nor evil. It just is. But since we humans have a higher, spiritual layer to our existence, the same things are immoral, cruel, and evil in us. Unlike the animals and plants in the world of nature around us, we are capable of living according to higher moral and spiritual values, and not just by brute force.
A few quick points before we move on:
This does not mean that if we get struck by a disaster we are being punished by God for our sins. (See “Is Hurricane Sandy God’s Punishment on the Wicked?”) It does mean that the spiritual influence of human evil generally extends even to the way God created the universe.
Also, once again, as mind-bending as it is, this still does not mean that anything God creates is evil. The way the universe and the world of nature works is amazing and wonderful! There is no evil in nature, or anywhere in the universe outside of humanity. What it does mean is that the violent nature of the universe is a material-world reflection of the evil that exists in the only place that it can exist: the human heart, mind, and soul.
Okay, that’s enough brain-bending for now.
In Part 3 of this article, we’ll take up points 3-6 of the eight points listed in Part 1. These deal with the existence and reality of evil, and how God deals with it.
Click here for Part 3 of this article.
This four-part article is a response to three spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
Lee, this article is so clear and important. I have struggled with this subject for many years and after reading your article feel such peace and love towards the Lord that my words are not adequate to express how I feel. Thank you for writing this.
Thanks for your good and kind comment. I’m glad the article is so helpful to you. God bless.
Thank you for this detailed and carefully laid out article- I look forward to reading the third part, but before I do, I wanted to highlight a particular section, where you say:
“God created a universe and an environment with diseases, accidents, and natural disasters that challenge us to grow and evolve on a physical level, an emotional level, and most importantly, on a spiritual level.”
I know you later say that these events are still a reflection of our inner spiritual states, but taken alone, doesn’t this remark contrast with both Swedenborg’s and even orthodox Christianity’s view of ‘natural evil,’ like earthquakes and accidents? Swedenborg’s view of natural evil is largely comparable to St. Augustine’s, where they are the result and influence of hell, not God’s design. For every accident, there is first a correspondence to a primary spiritual cause, and while these events certainly do stimulate our growth and development, they do so because God permits natural evil and works *through* them, rather than having created a world with natural disasters that exist in advance for that reason.
Basically, from what I get from Swedenborg, these things didn’t occur until sin entered the world, but as you point out, these things have their place in nature. A monsoon that devastates also brings much needed rain for crops, so what’s the spiritual connection here? Did accidents happen before the fall of the most ancient church? Did earthquakes occur as they do now, but just not hurt anyone? How could a tornado reflect our turbulent inner states before our inner states were turbulent?
I know these are big questions that require big answers, but I’m struggling to understand the relationship between our spirituality and a world filled with natural cause and effect that sometimes harms us.
In reading Swedenborg, you have to understand that he lived and wrote in the 18th century, not the 21st century. This means he had access to 18th century science and history, not 21st century science and history. And this means that the spiritual principles he learned from God and heaven had to be expressed in terms of the science and history of his day, not the science and history of our day.
Yes, Swedenborg’s views of “natural evil” were very similar to those of earlier Christian theologians such as Augustine. Present-day concepts of evolution, the ecosphere, the predator-prey relationship, the development of the solar system and the earth, either did not exist at all in his day, or they existed only in very rudimentary form.
Because of this, in reading Swedenborg today we must update the scientific and historical referents, and adapt the spiritual principles to what we now know, in order to make better sense of how God and spirit interact with the physical universe. It’s not that Swedenborg was “wrong” so much as that he simply didn’t have available to him some of the required concepts and knowledge about the material world that would have been necessary to make the sort of connections that we can make today.
What I have said in this article is not straight out of Swedenborg. Rather, it is an adaptation of the spiritual principles Swedenborg laid out in his writings to what we now know about the physical history of this earth and its ecosystem. For example, although Swedenborg did, as you say, speak in terms of natural disasters, predatory animals, and so on coming into being only after human beings sinned, it is now abundantly clear that these things had already been going on for millions or billions of years before homo sapiens even existed. This is an example of a common “scientific” idea of Swedenborg’s day that made its way into his theological writings because that was the best we knew at the time. Our modern discipline of paleontology barely existed in Swedenborg’s day. It was in its infancy.
To my knowledge, in Part 2 of this article I am treading new ground. Though it’s possible that someone has written these things before, I’m not aware of any previous Swedenborgian writer who has done so. If you haven’t encountered these ideas in Swedenborg or in any other writer, that’s not coincidental. As far as I know, the concept of God creating the world of nature as it is from outside of time in order to correspond to human states of good and evil that didn’t even exist at the time this earth’s plant and animal species were developing via evolution is original to my own brain. If, however, anyone reading this knows of prior presentations of this idea, I would be fascinated to hear about it.
Yes, I certainly see it as a more original update on Swedenborg’s theological relationship with the natural world, though I do have concerns as to the implications that arise.
One of the biggest challenges to theism is the problem of natural evil, where people suffer as a result of the things that have no moral, free-willed cause, like natural disasters. Why would God create a world in which the innocent suffer- seemingly at random- from natural, sometimes freak occurrences? This might suggest that God is either not perfect or not perfectly good.
But under the Augustinian and traditional Swedenborgian accounts of natural evil, the same free will defense against moral evil applies here as well, as God is not the author of calamity because God is not the author of the sin that bore them. Therefore, God does not cause or will natural evil anymore than He causes moral evil, but rather permits only as much is necessary, and works through it to bring about a greater good.
I’m not saying your view is incorrect, and it seems as though you’re trying to bridge spiritual cause and effect with material cause and effect that occurs according to natural laws, but it might take us from God *permitting* bad to happen to God *designing* bad things to happen (albeit for a greater good), and we need to reflect on the implications of that move.
I understand that Augustine’s and Swedenborg’s (likely derived) concept of natural evil is neater, and more easily explains why God allows natural disasters. It would be nice to be able to believe that they’re all due to the Fall of Humankind.
But first, we now know that this explanation simply isn’t true. Unless we want to reject science altogether. No, science isn’t perfect in its knowledge. But the reality that predation, natural disasters, and so on were going on long before humans even existed is about as close to settled scientific fact as you’re going to get. I don’t foresee any future science overturning this.
And second, this traditional explanation does not adequately account for the Bible narrative itself—specifically, for God’s placing the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden along with the tree of life.
In the second Creation story, these trees were planted after humanity (Adam) had been created, but before Adam had sinned. In fact, the tree of knowledge of good and evil provided the occasion for humanity’s first sin, and thus for the fall of humanity. So how could God place in the garden a tree that represents the knowledge, or as it would be better translated, the experience of good and evil before humanity had done any evil or committed any sin?
Clearly—at least to my mind—even in the Bible story itself God had anticipated human evil and had placed a “natural phenomenon” in the ecosystem whose main, and perhaps only, function was to provide a natural or symbolic basis for sin, which can exist only in human beings. Animals cannot sin. They have no moral or spiritual awareness that could give them any awareness of the existence of good and evil. But humans can sin, because we can know the difference between good and evil. And that capability on our part was anticipated symbolically in the garden of Eden by God’s planting of the tree of knowledge of good and evil before humans engaged in any evil or committed any sin.
So even on a biblical basis, I believe the traditional concept of natural evil simply isn’t adequate to explain the reality of how God created the earth—and by extension, the universe—with humankind’s “future” (to us) evil and sinful behavior in mind.
Still, God did not create evil in nature. Predatory animals, for example, are not evil. Without them, their prey species would overpopulate, disease and death would ravage them, and natural selection would be weakened as individuals that would normally become prey because of their genetic weaknesses would be able to reproduce and pass on their less-well-adapted genes. So the predator-prey relationship is not evil. It is a key part of evolution and of strengthening both the predator and the prey species. Swedenborg did actually have some awareness of this principle. But the idea that predatory animals were “evil” was still the dominant idea in his century, and that is the idea most strongly represented in Swedenborg’s theological writings.
As our scientific knowledge has grown, so has our awareness that this physical universe we live in is whole orders of magnitude more complex than we ever could have imagined even a century ago, let alone over two centuries ago when Swedenborg penned and published his writings. While it might be nice to return to simpler times when the answers were simpler, we can’t turn back the clock on knowledge and understanding. We must expand our minds to keep up with our newer understanding of the universe we live in.
What I’ve written above is my own first volley in an attempt to engage in that expansion of mind to keep pace with our new and greater knowledge of science and history.
On a more personal note, I’m trying to reconcile these conundrums with my desire to feel gratitude toward God. We tend to use expressions like ‘thank God!’ when we are delivered from a potential disaster. But if disasters occur by design, and I’m spared from one, my gut reaction is ‘what’s the point?’ When I’m not spared from one, my gut reaction is ‘why is it designed this way in the first place?’
I know how spiritually malformed these feelings are, which is why I’m trying to work on them. Maybe part of the reason bad things happen naturally is so we can more overtly experience God’s love when He intervenes to prevent them from affecting us, allowing us to better see His plan for us? In that regard, God is no less loving and shows us no less love when He does not intervene to prevent them, as He is always working in our best interests while balancing human freedom and natural law.
I could go into more detail on these subjects, but that is what I set out to do in this very series of articles, and in several related articles:
There are more articles along these lines, but I believe these ones, plus this four-part series, cover the ground fairly well.
Short version: God permits pain, suffering, and natural disasters because without them we would not grow into angels able to experience eternal happiness. The pain and suffering of this world is temporary. The joy of life in heaven is eternal.
Thanks for the links- I’ll be sure to start reading straight away. I do myself have a small qualm with the term ‘natural evil’ being synonymous with natural phenomenon like earthquakes or hurricanes, as I don’t think there’s anything evil about them- it’s just that they most often have evil consequences in the suffering they cause. It’s also worth emphasizing the difference between God’s will and God’s permission, as Aquinas does, who also distinguishes between God as the remote cause and as the immediate cause of things (or transcendent and imminent cause), and God, while working through evil, is never its cause.
Your view that God foreknew the Fall of Man is one that seems widely shared among most Christians, and it seems that this event (or process, in Swedenborg’s writings) is part of a larger, grand narrative where humans are created good, fall and are redeemed, and a narrative in which God deemed he would be best glorified. In that regard, all pieces big and small fit providentially into God’s plan for humanity. God did not create us *to* sin, but knew that we would, much in the same way that God didn’t create an Earth with shifting tectonic plates *to* cause suffering, but knew that it would.
That said, is it reasonable to believe that sin is just a natural part of our created condition? We’re not created to sin, but it seems to me that human beings are created ‘perfectly imperfect’, in both moral and amoral ways. It’s seems hard to imagine that even without the *tendencies* to sin created by The Fall that sinning is something human beings would never do. Does that fit with the grand narrative, or would we be sinless had it not been for The Fall?
There’s no particular reason we had to sin. But God gave us free will, and we used that free will to sin. It is something God permitted to happen because without the possibility of our choosing evil and sin, we would not be free, and could not freely choose a relationship with God. To be free requires that there be another choice. And if God is everything good and true, then the only alternative to choosing God is choosing what’s evil and false, which is a twisting of what’s good and true.
We still didn’t have to choose evil. But if free will is real, then at least some of us most likely will choose evil. And that possibility is unavoidable in the larger scheme of things.
Meanwhile, the story of the fall of humankind and the expulsion from the garden of Eden can also be read as a process of leaving the “womb” of a nearly undifferentiated symbiosis with God and developing our own individual self-awareness so that we can become conscious beings in our own right, as if separate and distinct from God. This sense of self is necessary for us to be able to have a conscious, freely chosen relationship with God. And it necessarily involves developing a sense of independence and separation from God, just as in the natural order of things being born and growing up necessarily involves developing a sense of independence and separation from our parents. However, in the case of our relationship with God, the ultimate goal is to re-enter a conscious relationship with God, but through our own experience and choice.
I say this because at some level, the events of the Fall were simply a necessary part of our becoming quasi-independent beings capable of having a conscious relationship with God. Everything in the universe has a relationship with God. But only humans can become aware of that relationship with God, and choose to consciously engage in it.
I would add that how God “would be best glorified” isn’t really a factor. That idea is common in traditional Christianity, and it’s based on a literal reading of various passages in the Bible that speak of God creating everything for God’s glory. But such passages are meant, rather, to inculcate in us a reverence for God for our own good. If we believe all glory is God’s, we will not puff ourselves up and think we can do without God, but will listen to what God says, which will ultimately lead us to a better state of being.
The deeper reality is that God does everything for our sake, and specifically, for the sake of our eternal happiness. That is the nature of God’s love: it is not concerned with God’s own glory or happiness, but with the happiness of others. It is not divine self-love, but divine love of others.
The books that cover these questions are Divine Love and Wisdom and Divine Providence.
Discussions like this attempt to see the lines (if any) that exist between God’s foreknowledge, human free will, and God’s plan for humanity, and are quite difficult to have. You’re right, humans don’t *have* to sin, and God certainly doesn’t *want* us to sin, but that’s just the inevitable result of giving us human beings free will. Is it theologically objectionable, then, to say that God *intended* to create a world with sin?
I gather you speak from the Irenaean ‘soul making’ theodicy, in which God permits evil in order to spur our growth and development. So we can see, then, that while evil is totally unacceptable in the eyes of God, it serves a purpose, and might even be necessary. Without sin, there would be no forgiveness. Without suffering, we wouldn’t be forged into stronger people. And perhaps most profoundly, without sin, there would be no redemptive sacrifice on the cross. God does not *want* us to sin any more than a parent *wants* their child to fail, but recognizes that failure is both inevitable and necessary for their child’s growth.
So we can see this larger story in which we have a world infected with evil, which is against God’s will, but one in which God perhaps intended so as to express His love for us in a way that might not be possible in a sinless world?
My only objection to this, aside from the obvious counter-intuitive idea that God intended for there to be evil, is that it might paint God in a sly, underhanded light. God cannot create evil, but wants evil to exist insofar as it is necessary to exist, and so has us do what he morally cannot. God does not wish for there to be evil in the world, but knows it has to exist, so because He created beings who He knew would freely choose to commit evil, God has it both ways. We freely disobey and bring about a world that God wants but is absolved from creating. So if I am indeed painting a blasphemous picture of God with this idea, I will drop it right here and now.
I’m aware that these sorts of beliefs exist in various parts of Christianity—and in other religions as well, in other forms. However, I do not subscribe to them.
I don’t think God wanted evil in any way, shape, or form. Nor do I think that evil was inevitable. We humans could have all chosen good if we had wanted to. But we didn’t want to. So the existence of evil is entirely due to our choices and actions, and not to anything God did. God simply had to make it possible for us to choose evil or we would not be human, and could not be in a freely chosen relationship with God.
I also don’t think sin is necessary to spur our growth. To use a physical example, climbing mountains develops our strength, dexterity, endurance, and so on, and there is nothing evil or sinful about it. We humans could grow spiritually purely by facing and working on difficult challenges. And in fact, we do grow that way. Similarly, there is nothing evil or sinful about a child’s development in the womb, birth, and growth to adulthood. Some of it does involve effort, such as in learning to walk. But there is no need for anything evil to be involved in that growth and development.
Even suffering is not necessarily due to sin—at least, not directly. For example, as we’ve already discussed, natural disasters happen regardless of whether the people affected by them are virtuous or sinful people. And natural disasters, and the suffering they cause, commonly bring people together and strengthen our sense of compassion for one another.
Swedenborg does talk about what it would have been like if humans had not chosen evil. We would be the same, he says, as what the early humans were like before the Fall. Remember, in Swedenborg’s view, Adam and Eve are not individuals, but whole cultures. And we don’t know how many generations humanity went through before the Fall. In the early chapters of Genesis, what was probably thousands or even millions of years of human spiritual history is telescoped down into a very brief narrative. Swedenborg did not know about evolution, nor about how long we now believe human beings have been alive on this earth. So he had no way of knowing how long the time periods symbolically narrated in those early narratives of Genesis were.
I also don’t believe God had some metaphysical, internal need to suffer and die on the cross. Rather, God did so because it was necessary in order to save us. The idea that we humans had to sin so that God could perform the redemptive sacrifice on the cross is just a little bit backwards.
In short, God has no need for evil whatsoever. But God did have to give us the freedom to choose evil so that we would have the freedom to choose good. Now, if I’m faced with the choice of helping a person in need or taking advantage of the same person in need, there is no need whatsoever for me—or anyone else—to choose to take advantage of the person in need. We could always choose to help. But we don’t always. And that’s on us, not on God.
God then has to deal with it. And God does not enjoy having to deal with human evil. Not so much because it gives God pain as such, but because it pains God to see us in pain—which is the inevitable result of evil. In fact, evil is evil precisely because it brings harm, pain, and suffering upon others and upon ourselves.
So no, I don’t subscribe to the idea that God somehow needed evil, or that evil was inevitable, and is therefore somehow a creation of God, even if an indirect and “sneaky” one. God did give us the ability to choose evil. But we were the ones who chose it, not God. Nothing about the way God created it made it so that we had to choose evil.
Hi Lee, I hope you’ve been well.
I was hoping to briefly continue this discussion by taking the issue of ‘natural evil’ in a slightly different direction in asking something that has been on my mind lately: is creation ‘good,’ or more specifically ‘as good as can be?’
We human beings live in universe and on a world governed by natural forces, forces that are intended to sustain a place where human beings can flourish, but can also have the unfortunate consequence of hurting and often killing the very creatures they’re designed to support. I do not believe that God wants or wills the destruction of his creatures at the hands of these natural forces, but I think we can infer from the fact that He has chosen to actualize this world among all possible worlds, that this one- with all its natural laws- is both good and necessary for us (which might be two sides of the same coin).
So what I’m wondering: is there any contradiction with the idea that God could create something good that has undesirable and unavoidably negative side effects? Could God have created weather or geological systems that fulfill the same purposes without hurting anyone? Or can we say that God would *prefer* to create a world governed by natural forces that do not harm His creation, but could not because the idea is an impossible one?
Or maybe in other words: Is the world the way it is because this is the best one for us (‘side effects’ and all), or was it simply not possible to design the world any better than how it is?
I also wanted to add that the idea of God desiring something that is impossible is tying me up in knots. God does not *wish* that anyone die during an earthquake, so I wonder if we can say that God would *prefer* that earthquakes not kill anyone? But, from the fact that earthquakes do exist and inadvertently kill people, can we say that it was impossible to create earthquakes (or this and other natural processes) that do not kill people? I’m troubled because it almost sounds here that this limits the goodness of God’s creation. That while creation is good, there was no way to prevent bad byproducts.
Or do we go back to the idea of the ‘best possible world for us,’ in that God does not desire that earthquakes kill people, but knows that we *need* to be in a world where accidents happen and these things can negatively affect people?
I think most of my troubles revolve around what I have described as ‘side effects.’ Are disaster deaths just the unintended side effects of natural phenomenon that *need* to occur? Or does the fact that these phenomenon hurt people have more meaning and purpose than just the unavoidable consequences of the best possibly designed world?
Good to hear from you again.
Your questions are good ones—and difficult ones. First, I would recommend that you re-read the above article, which, of all the articles on this site, speaks most specifically in response to your particular questions. In the interest of time and efficiency, I won’t repeat what I said in the article, except to encapsulate its two primary points:
I should mention that while the first of these two points is straight out of Swedenborg’s writings, the second one is my own adaptation and development of principles found in Swedenborg’s writings in connection with developments in science, and the philosophy of science, that have taken place since Swedenborg’s time. So you will not find Point 2, and my explanation of it above, expressed quite that way in Swedenborg’s writings.
This is another way of saying that these are complex issues. It requires time and the development of our scientific knowledge of the material world to develop a real understanding of them. The science of Swedenborg’s day lacked some of the knowledge required to build a fully satisfying (to our present mind) understanding of the issues involved in your questions.
In particular, the science of Swedenborg’s day still tended to see nature as consisting of good and evil. Swedenborg’s writings reflect that view in, for example, speaking of good and evil animals—the good ones being those that humans can domesticate or hunt for food, clothing, and so on, and the evil ones being the predatory and dangerous ones that can harm or kill human beings. Ditto for the plant world, where edible plants were seen as “good” while poisonous plants were seen as “evil.” That is an old-fashioned view of nature that no longer rings true now that our knowledge of nature and of environmental and biological systems has progressed greatly from the era of the dawning of modern science in which Swedenborg lived.
Now for some additional ideas in response to your specific questions.
First, I would challenge the notion of “side effects.”
Objectively speaking, there is no such thing as a “side effect.” There are causes, and there is a range of effects of those causes. Calling some of them “side effects” is the result of value judgments on our part. We consider some effects to be good and other effects to be bad. The good ones we call “effects,” and the bad ones we call “side effects.” But the fact of the matter is that every cause, every action, leads to a certain set of effects. The fact that we humans consider some of those effects to be undesirable and bad is an artifact of our human value judgments.
Now, in the world of human society, interaction, and relationships, “good,” “bad,” and “side effects” do have some meaning, because we humans are not merely physical and biological beings, but also moral and spiritual beings. So in the world of human interactions, we can reasonably speak of actions and effects being good or bad, and of there being desired or undesired effects, the latter of which we can call “side effects” if we wish. However, even in the human world I would argue that our words and actions have a range of effects, and it’s a matter of judgment whether some of those effects are “bad” and “side effects.” For example, if someone dies as a result of our action or inaction, is that good or bad? From an ultimate, eternal perspective, the answer may not be as obvious as we think. More on that below.
Meanwhile, when it comes to nature as nature, there is simply no such thing as good or evil. There is no such thing as a “side effect,” because that would imply that there is something bad about some of the effects of a particular action or force, whereas other effects of that particular action or force are good. And as explained in the above article, the categories of good and evil don’t exist in the physical universe, including in the world of nature. Even mass extinctions are not “bad.” They just are. In fact, they might be required in order to lead to further developments that we humans see as good and necessary. For example, when the dinosaurs died off in a vast “catastrophe” brought about (probably) by a massive asteroid hitting the earth, that mass extinction cleared the way for the rise of mammalian life to ascendancy in nature. And we humans, of course, are the beneficiaries of that rise of mammalian life.
So my first response beyond what I wrote in the above article is to suggest that you rethink your idea that there are “side effects” in nature as God created it, and that those “side effects” are bad, and make nature less than ideal. This idea is based on human value judgments that may apply to the world of human society and interaction, but that do not apply to the world of nature, or to the physical universe generally.
That brings us to my second response beyond what I wrote in the above article.
We humans seem to be wired to think of death as bad. Self-preservation and avoidance of pain, injury, and death is one of the most basic built-in biological drives we have. We want to continue to live, and we want to continue to live fully sound in mind and body. Anything that goes against that we view as “bad.” Therefore we view death as the ultimate evil.
But looked at both scientifically and spiritually, there is no real basis for the idea that physical death is evil.
Scientifically, death is an absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life. Without death, life as we know it could not exist.
First, without death the earth would become so overpopulated that it could no longer support the plant and animal life on it, and there would be no room to move. Second, the cycle of generations allows evolution to take place, leading to the various plant and animal species, not to mention to the human species. Remove death, and nature simply doesn’t work. So if anything, from a scientific perspective, death is a good and necessary thing.
Spiritually the death of the human body is also an absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life.
Spiritually, human beings are not designed to live forever on this earth, but in the spiritual world. Physical death is simply our transition from this temporary world to our permanent home. Without it, God’s entire purpose of creating the universe—a heaven from the human race—would be destroyed. Every single one of us must die physically in order for us to transition to our eternal home in the spiritual world.
Therefore although there are necessary biological drives that lead us to avoid death as long as possible, and even spiritual reasons to continue our life here on earth long enough to achieve the purpose for which we are put here—namely, spiritual rebirth—there is no scientific, rational, or spiritual reason to think of death as an evil thing. Physical death is, in fact, a necessary part of both biological and spiritual life. Death is not a “side effect.” It is an integral and absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life, both physical and spiritual.
I would therefore challenge also your idea that when people die due to earthquakes and other natural disasters, that is some sort of flawed “side effect” of God’s creation.
Ultimately, what does it really matter whether we die from an earthquake, or cancer, or a gunshot wound, or from any other cause? And who’s to say that our eternal life would necessarily have been better if we had lived a decade, or several decades, longer than we did? Our view of such things is limited by our earthly, time-bound perspective. Only God can see when the ideal time of death would be for any given individual, from the perspective of that person’s eternal good.
No matter what the cause of our physical death, that is simply the point at which we move on from this life in the material world to our eternal life in the spiritual world. To us humans, an “early death,” such as in childhood, in our teenage years, or in our young adulthood, may look like a bad thing. And certainly we should do our best to enable as many people as possible to live out their full lifespan. But from a spiritual and eternal perspective, we cannot know whether the person who died in childhood, as a teen, or in young adulthood would have had a better eternal life if she or he had lived longer. Only God knows that. And my belief is that whatever the time of death, God’s providence provides that the person who dies has had the best opportunity to live eternally in heaven rather than in hell.
The only death that can really be considered “bad” is spiritual death, which is when we humans choose to live for evil instead of good, and therefore choose an eternity of hell instead of heaven. And yet, the ability to make that eternal choice is what makes us human, and able to be in eternal relationship with God in heaven if we so choose. On this, see the later part of my article, “The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation,” starting with the section titled, “What’s wrong with reincarnation?” And in God’s spiritual economy, even those people who choose eternal hell do have their pleasures and enjoyments in life. And though to those who choose heaven those hellish pleasures and enjoyments look horribly evil and disgusting, to the inhabitants of hell they are intensely pleasurable—as narrated by the evil spirit in a passage from Swedenborg’s writings quoted in the linked article on reincarnation.
Based on these thoughts and on the points covered in the above article, I would suggest that the mental and emotional knots you are getting all tied up in are a result of limited thinking about the nature and purpose of our life here on earth, about “effects” and “side effects,” and about the nature of pain, suffering, and death. Seen not only from a scientific perspective but from a spiritual perspective, these things are not “evil.” They are simply a part of the physical universe, and a part of the situation and environment in which we humans develop into the eternal beings that we were designed by God to be.
I have now posted a revised and expanded version of my reply to your two most recent comments in a new post: Are Deaths from Natural Disasters an Unavoidable Side-Effect of God’s Creation?
Hi Lee , my partner and myself have gone through the worst 2 years of our lives everything seems to go wrong . We are very down at loosing our son and our bad luck just seems to never end . We have just recently found Jesus and accepted him as our personal lord and saviour , but we still feel a very heavy negative presence in our lives,its just not normal for all the things that have happened to us in our lives , even family members have commented on our bad luck.could this be demonic ? We both want to be baptised and feel we have to move house as we desperately need help . Please pray for us Lee .
I’m so sorry to hear about all of your struggles, and especially the loss of your son. We will keep you in our prayers.
It is good that you have found Jesus. He will help you through. But having Jesus in your life won’t magically erase all of your struggles. Rather, it will provide you strength to face your struggles. The road to redemption and spiritual joy can be a long, hard, and painful one. But the struggle is worth it. For more on this, please see: “Why Is Life So Hard? Why are there So Many Struggles?” and: “Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?”
Certainly evil spirits are always trying to drag us down. But Jesus is stronger than the evil spirits, and can help us to face and resist them, and send them away.
On a practical level, given all of the struggle and heartbreak you have experienced where you are now living, moving to a new location might be helpful in starting a new life. Sometimes just physically leaving behind the scenes where our troubles took place can help us to break out of our former patterns of darkness and depression and start fresh. Not that it’s a magical fix, either, but it can help.
May God be with you and your partner as you struggle forward toward a new and better life.
Over in “Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth”, I asked about Swedenborg saying disease comes from evil, versus what evidence shows: disease has been around on this planet before there was sapient life. In the answer over there, you also mention that Swedenborg said there was no predation before “the fall”, which also goes against the evidence.
So how did predation and disease appear in this world before sapient life truly capable of evil appeared? And do these issues cast doubt on everything Swedenborg said, especially about the afterlife?
Have you read the above article? It deals with the issues raised in your first question.
As for what Swedenborg said:
In any revelation from God, there will be a divine element and a human element. The human element comes from the mind and culture of the people who receive and transmit the revelation. God has to work with what’s in the mind and culture of those people. Inevitably there will be some elements of human error and even human evil.
Consider that in the biblical story the Israelites violently conquered the inhabitants of the Holy Land, and dispossessed them of their land and their homes. Present-day atheists commonly say that this sort of thing invalidates the whole Bible, because it shows the God of the Bible to be bloodthirsty and violent. But that is a superficial view of the Bible, and shows a lack of understanding of the relationship between God and fallen humans. In writing the Bible, God had to work with the people who existed on this earth. And for the most part, they were a physical-minded and warlike lot.
Swedenborg was about as learned, intelligent, and enlightened as they come for his era. But he was still a finite and fallible human being. He expressed what he was hearing from God as best he could within the knowledge, understanding, and framework of his mind. Inevitably he got some things wrong, precisely because God was working with a finite and fallible human being.
Based on current knowledge, clearly Swedenborg was wrong about there being no predatory animals before the Fall. He lived long before Darwin and all of our current knowledge about the old earth. The best information of his time said that the earth was about six thousand years old. We now know that it’s more like 4.5 billion years old.
Does this invalidate everything he says? No. It simply requires us to sort out the human from the divine, just as we must do with the Bible or with any other spiritual and revelatory literature. Or really, with any books and literature at all. Do we require every book we read to be infallible? To throw out the whole book because it has some errors in it is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Do we reject all science because some of it has turned out to be wrong? Do we reject modern cosmology because there is, so far, an irreconcilable gulf between Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics? Clearly the scientists are wrong about something. But we don’t throw out all of science because some parts of it must be mistaken.
No matter what we’re reading, we must engage our thinking mind, and sort out what we will accept from what we won’t accept based on all of our knowledge, understanding, and experience. This is just as true of Swedenborg’s writings as it is of anything else. See:
Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?
The main purpose of Swedenborg’s writings is to give us knowledge and understanding about God and spirit, and about the life that leads to heaven. That part of his writings remains powerful and true even if he got some things wrong around the edges due to the limited knowledge and the (now) outdated culture of his day.
What do you think?
Seems generally reasonable, but I’m not a biologist or a zoologist, so I’m probably not the best person to ask.
As for Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12… If lions were to treat antelope and zebra the way they want to be treated by them, then the lions wouldn’t survive, because lions are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat to survive. Vegetarians argue that we should treat animals the way we want animals to treat us. I don’t know that the Golden Rule even applies to animals. Does it only apply to how we treat people?
Young Earth creationists argue that before the fall, there were vegetables that had Vitamin B12 and other nutrients only found in meat. But that’s not consistent with scientific evidence. Christians also argue that in Heaven, there’d be fruits and vegetables that taste just like steak or brisket. Or whatever.
Does evolution prove the Bible unreliable, or is it the other way around? Does the Bible take precedence over science? Does the Bible prove modern science (such as evolution) unreliable? Or does such argument involve a lot of circular reasoning? Doesn’t radiometric dating also rely on circular reasoning?
The Golden Rule is for people, not for animals. Animals operate by instinct and natural desires and drives, and in response to external stimuli and conditions. They do not have the ability to intentionally modify their own behavior without such instinctual or environmental forces at play.
Another way of saying this is that animals do not have the higher spiritual levels of the mind that humans do. Those levels are what make freedom and rationality possible, and these capabilities are what make it possible for us to consider the Golden Rule and modify our attitudes and behavior accordingly, regardless of whether it seems beneficial to us at the time. Animals simply can’t do this.
As for humans extending the Golden Rule to animals, that would be nice, I think, but it goes beyond what most people need to do to walk the path to heaven. No one goes to hell for eating meat, especially if they see eating meat as part of the natural order of things, and thus not evil or wrong.
As for the whole B12 thing, that’s just one of the fallacies that carnivores have latched onto in an attempt to argue that humans being vegetarian is unnatural. I’ve been a vegetarian for over forty years. I don’t take B12 supplements, and I’ve never seen the inside of a hospital except when I was visiting others who were patients there. Another fallacy is that it’s hard to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet, you have to do all sorts of food combining, and so on. I’ve never done any of that, and I seem to get along just fine. Try to tell a horse or an ox that they have to combine various proteins to get the proper amino acids to build muscle mass, and if they could laugh, they’d laugh at you and keep right on eating their grass.
And . . . if you’re going to be a vegetarian, just be a vegetarian, and enjoy vegetable foods. I don’t go for all the phony baloney that many vegetarians who are still psychological meat-eaters love to eat. If you have a hankering for meat, just eat meat and be done with it. Personally, I have no interest in meat. I want my fruits and vegetables to taste like fruits and vegetables, not like steak or brisket.
On your last round of questions: The Bible is not a book about science and history. It’s a book about our relationship with God, and how to live a life that leads to eternal life rather than eternal death. The Bible does not take precedence over science, nor does science take precedence over the Bible. That would be like arguing over whether automobiles take precedence over philosophy, or philosophy takes precedence over automobiles. The two have nothing to do with each other.
And no, radiometric dating does not rely on circular reasoning. Honestly, you shouldn’t pay any attention to the faux “science” of the YECs. It’s all a bunch of gobbledygook.