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.
This four-part article is a response to three spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.