Are Deaths from Natural Disasters an Unavoidable Side-Effect of God’s Creation?

Aftermath of an earthquake

Aftermath of an earthquake

As amazing and beautiful as this physical universe is, it is also filled with almost unimaginable cataclysmic violence—which commonly brings suffering, pain, and death to the living residents of our earth—plant, animal, and human.

Why did God create the universe that way? Couldn’t God have designed things to be a little more peaceful? Or is all that pain, suffering, and death just an unavoidable side-effect of God’s greater goals in creating the universe?

These are some of the tough questions that a regular reader named Rami recently asked as part of an ongoing discussion following up on the article, “How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 2.” That installment of a four-part article dealt especially with the pervasive violence, pain, and suffering in the material universe in which we live, and how they can be reconciled with a loving God who wants us to be eternally happy.

You can read Rami’s comments here and here, and also just below in this article. My response contained in this article is a revised and greatly expanded version of my reply to Rami, originally posted as a comment here.

This article does not attempt to answer all of Rami’s questions. You might want to read the above-linked article to get the most out of this one. But I do want to say more about two of the issues Rami raised:

  1. Unavoidable side-effects, and
  2. Deaths due to natural disasters

If these issues trouble you as well, this article may give you some food for thought.

Is God unable to avoid negative side-effects?

Here are the two comments by Rami that sparked the response contained in this article:

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?

And:

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?

Your questions are good—and difficult—ones.

Candide, by Voltaire

They are also classic questions.

The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) wrote one of his most searing satires, Candide, as an objection to the philosophical optimism of the German philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716), who held that we live in “the best of all possible worlds.”

I won’t pretend that this response answers all of your questions, or that it provides a full answer. But I’ll offer some thoughts on two specific issues that should throw some light on the rest.

For the big picture, see the previous article

First, I would recommend reading or re-reading the article “How can we have Faith when So Many Bad Things happen to So Many Good People? Part 2.” Of all the articles on this site, that one speaks most specifically in response to these particular questions about why God created the universe to be the way it is. In the interest of time and efficiency, I won’t repeat what I said in that article, except to encapsulate its two primary points:

  1. We humans tend to see things from a limited and time-bound perspective. Our goals and value judgments tend to be based on short-term events, pleasures, and pain. God, in contrast, sees everything from an eternal perspective. God’s goals and actions look primarily to our eternal state of being—and to our temporary experiences of pleasure and pain mainly as they affect our eternal state.
  2. There is no such thing as good and evil in the material universe as material universe. Everything in it simply is. However, God did create the material universe in such a way that it can reflect human good and evil, and provide an environment in which human spiritual growth—which involves battles between good and evil—can take place.

The first point is straight out of the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). See especially #46–69 in his book Divine Providence.

The second point is my own adaptation and development of principles found in Swedenborg’s writings in connection with developments in science, and in the philosophy of science, that have taken place since Swedenborg’s time. You will not find Point 2, and my explanation of it in the earlier article, expressed quite that way in Swedenborg’s writings. As far as I know, much of what I say there is plowing new ground in Swedenborgian thought.

This is another way of saying that these are complex issues. It requires time, and the growth and 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 concepts and 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 saw nature as consisting of good and evil. Swedenborg’s writings reflect this view. For example, he speaks of good and evil animals. The “good” animals are those that we humans can domesticate or hunt for food, clothing, and so on. The “evil” animals are the predatory and dangerous ones that can harm or kill us. Ditto for the plant world, where edible plants were seen as “good,” while spiny and poisonous plants were seen as “evil.”

This, however, is an old-fashioned view of nature. It no longer rings true today, now that we have a far greater knowledge of environmental and biological systems than we did in the era in which Swedenborg lived early on in the dawning of modern science. We now see all plants and animals, including the “evil” predatory and poisonous ones, as vital and integral parts of the complex ecosystem of our planet.

Now for some more particular thoughts in response to your specific questions.

“Side-effects”?

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 are whole ranges of effects of those causes.

Calling some of those effects “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.” The bad ones we call “side effects.”

But the reality 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 values and value judgments—many of which are based on our own immediate benefit or lack thereof.

Of course, in the world of human society “good,” “bad,” and even “side effects” do have 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 so choose.

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?

Most likely it’s not good from a social, moral, and legal standpoint. Someone died, people are suffering as a result, and we could go to prison for it. Not good.

But from an eternal and spiritual perspective, the answer to this question may not be as obvious as it seems. More on that below.

There is no good or evil in nature, and no “side-effects”

Meanwhile, when it comes to nature as nature, there is no such thing as good or evil.

In nature there is also no such thing as a “side effect.” That would imply that there is something bad about some of the effects of a particular action or force, whereas other effects of it are good.

As explained in the earlier article, the categories of good and evil don’t exist in the physical universe. This includes the world of nature on planet Earth.

Good and evil are moral and spiritual concepts. The physical universe, including its plant and animal realms, does not participate in the moral and spiritual dimensions of life in the way that we humans do. Plants and animals simply grow and act in accordance to their biological drives, design, function, and instincts. They have no concept of good and evil. They are not immoral, but amoral. Good, evil, and morality simply don’t apply to them.

It is only from a human perspective that anything in nature could be called “good” or “evil.” Within nature itself, these human moral and spiritual concepts have no meaning.

Within nature itself 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, the dinosaurs died off in a major “ecological catastrophe” that was probably caused by a massive asteroid slamming into the earth. And yet, that mass extinction cleared the way for the rise of mammalian life to its current ascendancy in nature. And we humans, of course, are the beneficiaries of that rise of mammalian life.

Was the mass extinction brought about by that ancient asteroid strike “bad” or “evil”? Not if you like living as a human being on this earth. And not being eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Personally, I prefer not living in the world of Godzilla!

So my first response to your questions beyond what I wrote in the earlier article is to suggest a rethinking of the 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 do not apply to the world of nature, or to the physical universe generally.

This brings us to my second response beyond what I wrote in the earlier article.

Death is not evil

We humans seem to be wired to think of death as bad.

Self-preservation—the avoidance of pain, injury, and death—is one of our most basic built-in biological and psychological drives. We want to continue to live. And we want to continue to live fully sound in mind and body. Anything that goes against our survival and our health we see as bad.

We therefore naturally see 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.

Death is a necessary part of the cycle of physical life

Scientifically, death is an absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life. Without death, life as we know it could not exist.

For one thing, without death the earth would become so overpopulated that it could no longer support the plant and animal life on it. And even if that much plant and animal life could be supported, very soon there would literally be no room to move. Within a few generations the earth would be crammed full.

For another, the cycle of life and death, in which one generation gives way to the next, allows the evolution and development of life to take place. It makes possible the many and varied plant and animal species that populate our earth—including the human species, which depends upon the many forms of life that came before it.

Remove death, and nature simply doesn’t work.

If anything, from a scientific perspective death is a good and necessary thing.

Death is a necessary part of the cycle of spiritual life

Spiritually, the death of the human body is also an absolutely necessary part of the cycle of life.

Human beings are not designed by God to live forever on this physical earth. God designed us to live eternally in the spiritual world.

Seen from a spiritual perspective, physical death is simply our transition from this temporary world to our permanent home. Without death, God’s entire purpose in creating the universe—to provide for an eternal heaven from the human race—would be destroyed. Every single one of us must at some point die physically so that we can make that transition to our eternal home in the spiritual world.

Yes, there are necessary biological drives that lead us to avoid death as long as possible. There are also good spiritual reasons to continue our life here on earth long enough to achieve the purpose for which we are put here—namely, our spiritual rebirth.

And yet, there is no scientific, rational, or spiritual reason to think of death as an evil thing. Physical death is a necessary part of our biological life as a species, and of our spiritual life as eternal beings created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26–27).

Death is not a “side effect.” It is an integral and absolutely necessary part of God’s creation of the earth, and of our temporary stay here on our way to eternal life.

I would therefore also challenge the idea that when people die in earthquakes and other natural disasters, it is some sort of flawed “side effect” of God’s creation.

When and how we die is not particularly important

Ultimately, what does it really matter whether we die from an earthquake, or cancer, or a gunshot wound, or from old age? Sure, some ways to die are a lot more unpleasant than others. But in the larger scheme of things, it’s over pretty quickly. Then we move on to our eternal life, the pain is gone, and the way we died quickly fades into the background.

And who’s to say that our eternal life would have been better if we had lived another decade or two, or even fifty years more? It’s quite possible that if we had lived longer, we would have gotten worse instead of better. Maybe, having become a fairly decent person by the time we died, in the next ten or twenty years we would have done an about-face and become a jerk again. Or maybe if we were sort of a jerk at the time we died, in another ten or twenty years we would have gone on to become a complete and utter asshole. We just don’t know. Only God knows.

Our view of such things is limited by our earthly, time-bound perspective. Only God can see when the ideal time of death is for the eternal good and happiness of any particular individual.

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” in childhood, in the teenage years, or in young adulthood looks like a bad thing. And certainly we should do our best to create conditions in which as many people as possible can live out their full lifespan. None of these reflections on death are meant to encourage a fatalistic acceptance of unnecessary deaths that could have been prevented if we cared more about the wellbeing of our fellow human beings than we do about our own temporary profit, power, pleasure, or pain.

But from a spiritual and eternal perspective, we cannot know whether a 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 our time of death, God makes sure that we have been given the opportunity to live eternally in heaven rather than in hell.

Only spiritual death is evil

The only death that can really be considered bad or evil is spiritual death.

Everyone dies physically.

But not everyone dies spiritually.

Spiritual death occurs when we humans, through our life and our choices here on earth, decide to live for the evil of selfishness and greed instead of for the good of loving and serving God and our fellow human beings. When we make a choice for evil through the overall pattern of our life here on earth, we are choosing an eternity in hell instead of in heaven.

And yet, the ability to make that eternal choice is what makes us human.

The ability to freely choose whether we will live for good or for evil is what makes it possible for us to be in a genuine, mutual relationship of love with God and with our fellow human beings, both here on earth and eternally in heaven. Without that choice, we would be mere robots, and none of our relationships would be real. For more 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?”

Further, in God’s spiritual economy, even people who choose eternal hell have their pleasures in life. And though their hellish pleasures look horribly disgusting and evil to people who have chosen a life of heaven, to the inhabitants of hell they are intensely pleasurable.

At least, that’s what an evil spirit told Swedenborg, as narrated in a story quoted in the above-linked article on reincarnation. He assured Swedenborg that he loved life in hell—even if there were some parts of it that he wasn’t so crazy about.

Untying the mental and emotional knots

Based on these thoughts, and on the points covered in the earlier article, I would suggest that the mental and emotional knots that we humans commonly get all tied up in are a result of limited thinking about the nature and purpose of our life here on earth. These conceptual and psychological tangles are caused in part by our limited, short-term thinking about “effects” and “side effects,” and especially about the nature of pain, suffering, and death.

Not only from a scientific perspective, but also from a spiritual perspective, death—even early death from accidents, diseases, and natural disasters—is not “evil.” Death is not an “undesirable side effect” of God’s creation.

Quite the contrary.

Death is a good and necessary part of the physical universe. And spiritually, the death of our physical body is a good and necessary part of God’s overall plan for our eternal happiness and joy.

Death is the greatest doorway of life.

Death is the gateway out of our temporary existence in the physical world. Stepping through that gateway sets us free from all of our earthy struggles and pain.

Far from being evil and a curse, death is the final and greatest blessing of our earthly life. When we pass through the portal of death, we move on to our true home in the spiritual world. There we can fully enjoy everything we have been preparing for through all of our experiences and choices here in this earthly realm.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Pain and Suffering, Science Philosophy and History
26 comments on “Are Deaths from Natural Disasters an Unavoidable Side-Effect of God’s Creation?
  1. Rami says:

    Hi Lee,

    Thank you for taking up my questions, and for building them into an article where I hope your answers can reach and benefit a larger audience who may be attempting to understand similar questions. A lot of my difficulties stem from attempting to wrap my mind around whether all that exists in nature exist deliberately- by design- or rather whether some things in nature (natural disasters) are just unavoidable consequences of a larger design (which I may have misrepresented by calling them ‘side effects’).

    If everything that exists in nature exists deliberately, then I’m having trouble reconciling the idea that everything happens both on purpose *and* as part of a material universe where things just happen as a result of natural cause and effect.

    If some things exist as unavoidable consequences, then it might not sit well with me because it might suggest some kind of limitation on God’s creative power, and so we need to find a different explanation.

    Those are the two dominant questions I’m struggling with.

    I’ve read this and the linked article, and an ongoing theme in both those and in other articles in which you deal with the idea of human suffering is spiritual growth, but I wanted to link that idea back to my questions. Did God create a violent universe *to* spur our growth, or is violence an unavoidable consequence of a universe that *needs* to be violent, which God will always be able to work through? For instance, we live in a world that can often cause human tragedy as it changes. When an earthquake occurs in the middle of the ocean, the ocean absorbs the staggering energy that creates a tsunami, and tsunamis often wreak tremendous human devastation. Is that to say God *wants* earthquakes and the occasional tsunami *so* He can stimulate our growth, or rather are these things just unavoidable consequences of a world that needs to exist as it does, but can be worked through to bring about a greater good?

    It’s hard for me to ask these questions without feeling a tremendous level of arrogance and guilt at the idea that I’m attempting to scrutinize something that is so infinitely beyond my puny intellect, but there’s a human handle to be had on these realities, and that’s what I’m trying to find.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      You’re very welcome. I was aware even when I wrote the original comment in response to yours that I was not providing anything like a complete answer. Rather, I was hitting on a couple of key points in hopes of moving your and other readers’ minds closer to a satisfying answer.

      It is not arrogant to ask tough questions about God and God’s ways. But it is necessary, in asking and seeking answers to these questions, to be willing to have the humility to correct and eliminate limited and faulty views on our part when they get in the way of hearing, understanding, and accepting answers that are closer to the mind of God. It is our own misunderstanding and resistance that most gets in the way of understanding these things. Because the way we think is not the way God thinks (Isaiah 55:8–9). And as long as we are thinking in a limited, time- and space-bound human way, and not with the universal and eternal view of God, our understanding of these things will be not only limited, but faulty.

      Of course, our finite minds are not capable of the fully universal and eternal view of the mind of God. But we can and should continually move toward God’s way of seeing things, and away from our own limited and faulty way of seeing things. Asking hard questions and being willing to adjust our thinking as needed is one of the ways we move our mind in the direction of God’s mind. So don’t stop asking the hard questions! Just be willing to jettison parts of your thinking that are blocking you from real understanding and answers.

      Now to get more specific, a key word in your conceptual difficulties in reconciling a loving God with what we see in nature, and how it effects human beings, seems to be “unavoidable.” That word implies that there are things happening that really should be avoided, but aren’t being avoided or can’t be avoided. And something that we think should be avoided is something that we think of as bad or evil. It is the things we think of as bad or evil that we want to avoid and think should be avoided and eliminated. Things we think of as good we don’t ordinarily think of as things that are to be avoided.

      So in thinking that some event or “consequence” may be “unavoidable,” we first have to ask the question of whether that event is actually evil. And that means we must have some criteria for judging whether a particular event or thing is good or evil.

      That’s where things get sticky for us.

      You see, our human concept of good and evil is not the same as God’s concept of good and evil. In particular, as I said in the article, our human concept of death is that it is a bad and even evil thing. And so, when we see an earthquake or other natural disaster killing people, we say, “that’s bad!”

      But that’s not necessarily the way God looks at it.

      As I said in the above article, death is in no way an “unavoidable consequence” of God’s creation. Rather, it is an integral and necessary part of it. So while we are saying how terrible it is that ten thousand people died in a tsunami caused by a major mid-ocean earthquake, God is welcoming ten thousand new souls to the eternal life for which God originally created and designed them. From our perspective, it is a terrible disaster. From God’s perspective, it is the design of creation working the way it’s supposed to: at some point we leave our temporary physical bodies and enter eternal life in our spiritual bodies.

      Really, from a spiritual and divine perspective, the question of death from natural disasters is the easy one. It’s the pain and suffering of those who don’t die that is more difficult for our human minds to reconcile with God’s love and God’s will, even if we are able to begin to see death itself from a more eternal and divine perspective in which physical death is not evil, but good.

      And yet, even the pain and suffering of those left behind is not so much an unavoidable consequence as it is a necessary part of God’s design of the universe for the purposes for which God designed it.

      God did not design this physical universe to provide humans with instant gratification and continual achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Rather, God designed the physical universe as an arena in which we humans can and will grow into eternally blessed angels. Everything about the design of the physical universe is finely calibrated to serve that ultimate purpose of God’s will.

      And God knows that beings with free will—which is necessary for those beings to be human and eternal—will commonly choose evil and destructive ways of life, and will commonly cling very stubbornly to those evil and destructive ways they have chosen. Therefore God has designed the physical universe and the world of nature, not to make things easy and painless for us here on earth, but rather to seriously test and try us, and to make us face the realities of the sorts of evil ways that we are strongly inclined to choose as our way of life.

      A mild, painless universe with no challenges, hardships, and suffering would not accomplish that goal.

      We humans are stubborn creatures, not because God created us to be stubborn, but because God gave us free will, and we use that free will to assert our self and our independence from God, and even from our fellow human beings. In the Bible, this is expressed as God calling the people a “stiff-necked” people (see, for example, Exodus 32:9; 33:1–6; 2 Chronicles 30:8; Acts 7:51). And we do not easily accede to God’s call to leave behind our own stubborn, selfish, and greedy ways, and turn toward God’s ways of love for God and the neighbor instead. For most of us, it is only through hard experience of pain and suffering that our own stubborn will is softened to the point where we are willing to leave behind our own “stiff-necked” ways and make the choice to move toward God’s ways instead.

      That is why even the pain and suffering of those left behind here on earth after a natural disaster is not an “unavoidable consequence” of God’s design, but rather a necessary part of God’s design of this earth so that it is able to accomplish its goal. That goal is to give us our best opportunity to no longer be selfish, stiff-necked, and evil, but to be good, loving, and kind instead. I’ve written and posted several articles on this general subject. Here is one of them: “Why Is Life So Hard? Why are there So Many Struggles?” And there are more linked at the end of that one.

      So the suffering and pain we go through in this earthly realm is not a “side effect” or “unavoidable consequence” of God’s creation. Rather, it is an integral part of God’s creation, making it possible for it to accomplish its purpose, which is a heaven from the human race. While we may think of all that pain and suffering as “bad,” that is true only from a physical and temporary perspective. It is “bad” in the sense that we find it unpleasant. But it is not “bad” from a spiritual and eternal perspective, because it is the crucible in which we are formed to be eternal angels instead of eternal devils—if we are at all willing to become angels rather than devils.

      I know these are very difficult and painful questions. And I’m aware that from a particular angle, all of this can make God look like a bloodthirsty tyrant for designing things that way. And ultimately, you’ll have to come to your own conclusion about that.

      But the key, I would suggest, is in understanding that:

      1. God looks at things from an eternal perspective, not a temporary one.
      2. Anything we suffer temporarily that goes away is relatively unreal compared to what we experience eternally.
      3. Being human and eternal requires that we have free will, which means we will sometimes choose evil.
      4. Getting out of that evil, for most of us, requires hard experiences of pain and suffering to soften us up and get us to reconsider our evil choices.

      I’m aware that this still leaves open many questions, such as the question of innocent bystanders being harmed by others’ evil. But that’s enough for now. I hope these thoughts at least help to move your thinking a little farther forward.

      • Richard Neer says:

        Hi Lee,

        I, too, have difficulty with reconciling all the points in this presented line of thought.

        Often, very good people are affected by hardships like those mentioned. Good souls who have few, if any, reasons to work through hard experiences of pain and suffering so that their own stubborn will is softened to the point where they are willing to leave behind their own “stiff-necked” ways and make the choice to move toward God’s ways instead. Good people who may have already devoted their life and who may have already adjusted their ways to be upon a path of eternal blessing rather than one doomed to lesser heavenly realms.

        And yet, they are left to suffer the same (or worse) as those who may certainly need more work to achieve that desired destination and state of being. Why? What part of God’s plan is it to burden equally, or worse, those who are more good and righteous than those who aren’t? How is there justification for that being a necessary part of God’s design rather than an unavoidable consequence?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rich,

          To approach an answer, let me ask you a question:

          As I recall, you do computer and IT work for a living. And you do different jobs for different clients. I would presume that some of the jobs that come your way are fairly easy for you conceptually and technically. You’ve done it all before, and it’s just a matter of putting in the time and crunching out the product.

          But other jobs, I suspect, present some really thorny technical issues that are new to you, or at least require work beyond what you’ve done on previous jobs. And I suspect that of those, some are downright hellacious, so that you wonder when you’re in the middle of the job why in the world you ever took it on in the first place.

          So the question is: Which of these types of jobs bring about the most advancement in your own technical skill and expertise, and ability to handle further and perhaps even more complex jobs that may come your way in the future? Jobs on which your livelihood may depend, if you want to keep a roof over your head and food on the table? And which of these types of jobs gives you more satisfaction when you’ve completed the contract and delivered a working solution to your client?

          When you’re in the middle of a particularly stubborn and exasperating job, do you say, “Why did my client do this to me?!? What did I do wrong to deserve this???” Perhaps you do! 😛 And yet, really, it isn’t a punishment for bad behavior, nor a reward for good behavior, nor anything of the sort. It is simply a tough job that landed on your desk, and that you’re now struggling through, using your skill, experience, and expertise to develop entirely new solutions that may never have been done before, but that do what your clients need in order to efficiently provide their products or services to their customers.

          In the very same way, much of our struggle, pain, and suffering here on earth has nothing to do with whether we’re good or bad, righteous or unrighteous. Rather, it has to do with developing the depth of experience in life required to do the really tough jobs that God may require of us. And we experience much of our pain and suffering in the course of doing the jobs God has put in front of us.

          If, when we’re in the middle of it, we curse God for being so horrible and cruel to us, then that is certainly understandable, and God won’t hold it against us. But that’s missing the point. The point is that we have a job to do here on earth, and it’s not an easy one. It has nothing to do with whether we’re particularly good or bad people. It has to do with how we need to develop spiritually as a person.

          In fact, when we see someone whose life seems easy and breezy, with no worries in the world, that may be a sign that that person simply isn’t capable of any real heavy lifting spiritually, and therefore won’t go far in life spiritually. Meanwhile, people who have done the hard work of wrestling their ego down and becoming truly fine and good people often face some of the most excruciatingly difficult and painful situations on this earth precisely because they are able to handle those situations whereas a spiritually underdeveloped weakling could not. Not everyone can be Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Not everyone can even be the people who surrounded Gandhi and Martin Luther King and became leaders in one or another area of the fight.

          So one way we need to readjust our thinking is not to think of struggle, suffering, and pain here on this earth as some sort of curse that God indiscriminately hands out to the good and the evil alike. Rather, these things are challenges and trials that test our souls and develop a deeper level of human compassion, understanding, and emotional and spiritual strength in those who experience them and through them all continue to choose integrity and right action over defeat and despair.

          One more thought for now:

          There are some people who seem to be born and bred to be good and lovely people, whereas others seem to be cursed with a naturally foul disposition, or had any goodness beat out of them during their growing up years.

          Neither one of those things makes any real difference as to whether that person ends out in heaven or hell. Nothing we are born and bred with does. Only what we do with it makes a difference spiritually.

          Looked at from the outside, we may think the person with all the natural gifts of goodness and a good upbringing is a “good” and “sweet” person, who shouldn’t have to suffer any pain, whereas the person who got the short end of the stick in heredity and upbringing is a “problem case” that may need to be beat into shape to make it into heaven.

          But that’s not how God sees it.

          People who are just “naturally good” can easily slip into a groove and skate through life on the momentum of their heredity and upbringing, and never develop any real depth of character at all. When such people do hit rocky times, that may be exactly what they need to break out of that natural groove (which is going nowhere fast) and develop their own strength of character, rather than just riding on borrowed character that means nothing in the spiritual world. In that world, what we inherit from our parents means nothing. Only what we ourselves do with it means something.

          As a case in point, consider the children of wealthy, powerful people who changed the world through their innovative ideas and leadership, and built up their financial empire in that way. Occasionally one the children of these financial and social giants does manage to make a real mark of his or her own. But more often, they live in the shadow of their parents, subsisting on their parents money and fame, and are pale shadows of the greatness of their parents. In fact, sometimes they’re major screw-ups at life. If they do accomplish something, it’s likely because they went off on their own, fought their own battles, and forged their own path.

          It’s the same spiritually with people who have all the natural advantages of a good disposition based on their heredity and upbringing. Spiritually speaking, those “advantages” are no advantage at all. Only by facing their own tough challenges in life, and the struggle, pain, and suffering that accompanies them, will they develop their own character and become their own person.

          For an article that speaks about this a little more, see: “Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)

          Once again, I realize this doesn’t answer every question you’ve asked. But I hope it at least throws a little more light on these issues.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee,

          How much of what happens is just random? Is any of it? Is it possible that some things happen not because they necessarily lend themselves to further growth (although it’s always a possibility to grow from anything), but rather because ‘stuff’ just needs to happen as a matter of cause and effect? Below I provided an example of a thunder storm creating a life-generating forest fire. But not every thunderstorm does. The same Earthly processes that create a thunderstorm that creates life are the same ones that create a thunderstorm that doesn’t seem to do very much.

          So it seems a lot of the time, stuff happens for a purpose, but other times it just happens as a result of what SEEMS like undirected cause and effect (again, seems). And maybe it’s because for things to *not* happen because there’s no specific purpose would amount to a violation of the same natural laws that make it possible for those same things *to* happen when there is a specific purpose. But then there’s the question as to whether or not it was possible to design the world in any other way, where nothing ‘just happens’ (and the resulting guilt from the cynicism the knee-jerk cynicism that question brings up).

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          About randomness or lack thereof in the created universe, it’s a great question—and one that I’m still thinking about.

          Back when Newton reigned supreme, it was popular among scientists and secular philosophers to think of the universe as a vast, deterministic machine, grinding along on an inevitable path that could be fully and accurately predicted into the future if its present state and motion could be fully known and described.

          Then along came the 20th century, and people like Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger came along and said, “Not so fast! There’s uncertainty and randomness built right into the structure of the universe!” Einstein, who had his own major part in unseating Newton as the final arbiter of physical reality, didn’t like much like quantum theory precisely because of that element of random chance, prompting him to say famously that God “is not playing at dice.”

          And yet, it does appear that the physical universe is not the deterministic place that Newton and his scientific and philosophical contemporaries thought. Randomness and uncertainty does seem to be built into the very fabric of physical reality.

          And I, for my part am increasingly inclined to think that even in the non-human world, God hasn’t designed things in a fully deterministic way.

          The human universe clearly (to my mind) is not deterministic. God created human beings with free will, and more specifically, freedom of choice. And if that freedom is real—as I believe it is—and not a mere illusion, then that means we can make choices that God does not determine, and those choices change the course of events not only in time here in this world, but to eternity in the spiritual world.

          This means that at least one segment of the created universe, humanity, is not deterministic, but has an element of “randomness” to it, which in the human world expresses itself as freedom of choice.

          And if God is able to create one part of the universe non-deterministic, and with an element of freedom or randomness, why couldn’t God create other parts of the universe that way too? Indeed, why couldn’t God create the entire universe to be not strictly deterministic, but to unfold in ways that cannot be predicted, even if we were capable of knowing the entire present state and motion of the universe?

          Those, at any rate, are the lines along which my thinking has been traveling for several decades now. I no longer think, as I did when I was a teenager, that everything in the physical universe must be mechanistic and deterministic. We are continually discovering that God’s creation is far more complex and intricate than we ever could have previously imagined. And I think that modern physics, with its quantum mechanics, uncertainty principle, and so on, is simply showing us that indeed, God is able to think, and create, in ways that transcend the old mechanistic determinism of Newton & Co.

          Does this mean that God is not in control of the universe?

          If we think that God being “in control” means that God minutely decides every single thing that will happen in the universe, then clearly God is not in control of the universe. As I said earlier, God created humans with free will. This means that God does not minutely control all of what at least one segment of the universe—humanity—thinks, feels, and does.

          And if God is able to create a universe—and wanted to create a universe—in which at least one part was not fully and minutely under God’s direct control, then why couldn’t God create other parts of the universe that way, too?

          It’s not that he universe doesn’t do what God wants it to do. It’s that an essential part of the universe doing what God wants it to do is that it should have a will of its own that is in relationship with God’s will, rather than being merely an extension of God’s will.

          So it occurs to me even as I write this that perhaps an integral part of God creating a universe that is from God, and entirely dependent upon God from moment to moment, but that is nevertheless not God, but an entity distinct from God, is that that universe should have a will of its own, in accordance with the level of reality of various parts and aspects of it.

          This “will of its own” reaches its peak in human beings, with our conscious moral and spiritual free will enabling us to think, feel, and act in one way or another, as we choose. (And no, we’re not radically free. But we do have a zone of freedom within the boundaries set by our genetics and environment.) But that “will of its own” seems also to have its analogs in the lower levels of nature as well: the animal realm, the plant realm, and even the mineral (non-living) realm. It seems to me that the uncertainty principle, or the base randomness of the underlying physical structure of reality, is the analog, on that level of the created universe, of free will and freedom of choice in the human realm.

          Plants and animals, though also not having the spiritual and moral awareness and free will that humans have, do seem to have their own level of freedom to act that is perhaps mostly, but not entirely, bound by instinct interacting with external stimuli. People who have pets know that each animal has a particular character and personality, and that animals do some surprising things that, while still influenced by instinct and external stimuli, seem to be an expression of that particular animal’s character and inclinations.

          So I more and more think that God’s sovereignty over the universe is not one that involves God dictating and determining every last move that the universe makes, but rather designing a universe that acts, in a way, on its own initiative, drawing on both God’s power and God’s design (or philosophically, God’s love and God’s wisdom) in so acting.

          This does not mean that God creates and “winds up” the universe and lets it run independently, as Deism posits. God doesn’t set the universe on its course and leave it to its own devices. Rather, God gives the universe a certain amount of freedom, and yet is in continual relationship with the universe as it moves forward with the level of freedom that God has given it. And the universe carries out God’s will, not because the universe is deterministically programmed to do so, but because the universe has the capability to do so given to it by God, and it exercises that capability on its own initiative, but as I said earlier, still drawing on God’s power and God’s design to do so.

          Without God giving the universe that power and guidance, the universe could do nothing, and could not even exist. God holds the universe and every single part of it in existence from one nanosecond to the next. And God is present in every minutest part of the universe every nanosecond with both God’s love, which powers the universe, and God’s wisdom, on which the universe draws to guide itself as it moves forward. Keep in mind that God does not unfold over time as the universe does, but is in an eternal present from which God is in relationship with the entire universe in all time, past, present, and future, and in all space, from one edge of the universe to the other (if the universe has edges).

          To use a human example, consider the CEO of a company, and all of the management and line workers in that company under the CEO. The CEO does not do everything that all of the managers and workers do. Nor does the CEO micro-manage every single action of everyone in the company. Rather, the CEO sets the goals, tone, and direction of the company, and the managers and workers draw on those goals, that tone, and that direction, acting on their own initiative to implement and carry out the company’s direction as set from the top. Without the CEO, the company would fall into division, disorder, and chaos. But if the CEO were to personally do and run every single thing done throughout the entire company, the company’s ability to provide its goods and services would be limited to a very small scale. Rather, companies need managers and employees who are able to understand what the company is doing, or at least what needs to be done in their own little corner of the company, and take the initiative based on their own will and understanding to get that work done.

          Of course, a human CEO is finite, whereas God is infinite. So although it would be impossible for a human being to run everything even in a fairly small company, God could run everything in the universe if God wanted to.

          The problem with that is that then the universe would simply be an extension of God, and would be God, rather than being a distinct reality of its own with which God is in relationship. So God runs the universe, not deterministically, but giving it a level of randomness and free will, because that’s what allows God to be a “friend” to the universe, and in relationship with the universe.

          Another way of saying this is that in creating the universe with a certain level of independence of will, thought, and motion, God has created a universe that God can love as another being who is not God. So the universe becomes an “other” for God to love. And it is the very nature of love to love another being, and give that being happiness from itself.

          All of this prompts me to think that if there is randomness and indeterminacy in the universe as physicists and other scientists now think, then that is not some flaw in the system. It does not bring about “undesirable side-effects” that limit God’s power because they are outside of God’s control. Rather, the randomness and indeterminacy in the universe may be an integral part of God carrying out God’s will, which is to create a universe with beings in it who can be in freely chosen relationship with God. Being in such a relationship with God as an “other” requires the universe and the beings in it to have some sort of will that is not fully determined by God, but that can act on its own initiative.

          Of course, in the segment of the universe known to us, humans are the only beings with a freedom full enough to be in a conscious relationship with God. And for that same reason, humans are the only beings who fully achieve God’s purpose in creating a universe that can be in relationship with God. That, in a nutshell, is because humans are the only beings in the universe who have the higher levels of spiritual reality as part of their being. Only those higher levels of spiritual reality are capable of a fully conscious will, understanding, and freedom of choice and action that render a being capable of being in a freely chosen and eternal relationship with God.

          However, the lower levels of the created universe, animal, plant, and mineral, each have their own analogs of freedom that enable them to act with some “randomness” and self-determination within their own domain. This makes them, too, beings that are distinct from God, and that are also in relationship with God, even if that relationship is not a conscious one—as it is, or can be, with humans.

          This whole line of thinking suggests to me that just as in the human world, in nature God does not minutely plan out everything that is going to take place. Rather, God gives each part of the universe a “will” and “intellect” of its own, on its own particular level, from which it can act, drawing the power to do so from its continual relationship with God. And although God doesn’t decide what every atom of the universe is going to do, God is continually present with all of those atoms, in relationship with them, and giving them a direction and goal that causes them to act on their own initiative to carry out God’s overall plan.

          So when it comes to natural disasters and their effect upon human beings, I doubt that God is sitting up there in a divine control room in heaven pushing a near infinity of buttons at near infinite speeds to bring about that specific earthquake, tornado, or hurricane. Rather, God has designed the universe with a certain level of autonomy so that it acts according to its own rules and randomness, and produces various events, including natural disasters.

          However, God is also present in those natural disasters, using them to carry out God’s own purposes, which have to do with the eternal salvation and happiness of the human race in heaven. And God is able to take even events that we humans think of as “evil,” such as natural disasters, and turn them into long-term good in the form of growth in compassion and depth of character in the human beings who suffer from those natural disasters, and who pick up the pieces afterwards.

          Because as terrible as natural disasters are for the human communities that experience them, they also bring about some of the greatest and most heroic efforts in human society to give help and aid to their suffering fellow human beings. Even as we survey the death toll and mobilize to give aid to the survivors, we gain a new appreciation for, and dedication to, the life and wellbeing of our fellow human beings.

          And developing that compassion and dedication to the welfare and happiness of others is what our life here on earth is all about.

          Developing that compassion and dedication to the welfare of others is precisely what it means for us to grow into angels of heaven, whose primary focus is on loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbor just as we love ourselves.

          (And yes, I’ll be editing this comment into a post of its own before the end of the month.)

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee,

          I can see this issue is one you had been mulling over long before this discussion, and I appreciate you taking the time to articulate it in such an elaborate post. I’ll try to do it justice in my remarks, but I wanted to point that it seems as though our discussion is bordering somewhat on the issue of Open Theism, which you probably know as the rather controversial position advanced by some theologians that God does not actually know the future, but rather adapts His love and Providence to suit each situation as it arises. I know that’s not what we’re discussing here, but there is a parallel in that they’re both departures from might be considered classical theistic attitudes about God’s sovereignty.

          That said, I would be inclined to agree that God does not micro-manage every minute detail of every minute moment throughout the universe, but it does prompt us to ask, as you did, if that means God does not have control over the universe. It seems to me that God does not upend the natural laws of the universe anymore than God interferes with our free will, because that would be bad, and God could only do good. But if the natural laws of the universe are allowed to just causally unfold along their own lines because interfering would violate God’s character, does that mean He’s not in control, and there’s nothing He can do to stop the wheels once they’re in motion?

          This is a rather serious question, because it may contradict one of the key pillars in most theodicies, namely, that while pain and suffering exists, God will not allow any more than is necessary in order to bring about a greater good (namely, our spiritual good). If something happens, then we can surmise that it was permitted to happen for good reason. But if God is not in control of the natural world, then the reason things happen is because they need to happen as part of the material world which we all inhabit. Nothing about the natural world is mitigated so as to prevent ‘excessive suffering,’ and there’s no specific purpose to timing and manner in which natural events occur- they just unfold as they do. Our spiritual good is the ultimate and primary reason why we’re in a material world where ‘things happen’ in the first place, but under this view, events aren’t necessarily directed in the same way they would be under the view that God is dictating everything all of the time.

          I’m not sure how closely this resembles what you’ve described in your post, and there’s a difference between ‘not micro-managing’ and ‘having no control’ over natural events, but in any case we always need to be mindful as we contemplate these ideas to ensure we’re not building God in the image of man. That we don’t want to accept the idea that God is not in control of everything all of the time just because the idea is too hard to wrap our minds around, or creates things that appear to our feeble minds as logically impossible.

          I’ll create a separate post in a little while where I’ll offer some actual answers to these ideas, but I did want to ask, before I do: if it was not possible for creation to be good- as in, ‘it is good that creation exists’- would God have simply not created us? If so, then it would imply a God who was alone, which is not compatible with the idea of God as the greatest conceivable being. But that also means that creation *had* to be good, because God could not create something bad. So, and this is a mind bending question, if creation is essential to God’s character (and not everyone agrees), and that creation could not but be good, does it make sense to ask ‘what were the odds?’

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          Good questions. But you can relax. God is not going to lose control of the universe.

          First, this indeed is not anything like open theism—which, in effect, says that God is not actually omniscient, but is learning and adapting as events unfold. From my perspective, that is impossible. It would mean that God, like God’s creation, is bound by time. But my view is that God is present in all time from a timeless place outside of time, so that what to us is past, present, and future is all present under a single divine view, just as all space is present under a single divine view. So it would not be possible for God not to know what for us is the future.

          About God being “in control,” I am suggesting that our human view of God’s sovereignty has been overly mechanistic and deterministic. We humans tend to think that being “in control” means personally deciding and determining every single thing that happens. I’m suggesting that in reality, God’s sovereignty is a much more organic thing that involves first, creating the universe with intrinsic laws set by God, and second, by being in continual relationship with that universe.

          If being “in control” meant God determining and deciding everything, that would eliminate human free will. And hard Calvinists actually do believe, ultimately, that there is no human free will, but that God decided before Creation which humans would go to heaven and which would go to hell. And that belief, to my view, is the ultimate horrible falsity that brought Christianity and Christian doctrine to its final destruction, and made God into a horrendous bloodthirsty tyrant. Without human free will, the whole reason for God to create the universe is null and void.

          And if humans have free will, then God is not in fact, “in control” of us in our human sense of deciding and determining every single thing that happens.

          And that’s exactly how God wanted things to be.

          To use my earlier example, a CEO, or even a lower level manager, does not want to have to direct and determine every single thing that every lower level employee does every moment. Rather, he or she wants all the lower level employees to take charge of their own jobs, and do those jobs on their own initiative, learning and using their own intelligence, as much as possible. This greatly expands the CEO’s and managers’ ability to get far more done. So even in the human realm, the idea that being “in control” means deciding, determining, and doing every single thing, right down to the smallest, would actually involve a huge limitation on the effective control and ability of the higher-ups to accomplish big things.

          In short, that sort of mechanistic and deterministic type of control just isn’t very effective. And God has chosen to set up the universe with a similarly “human” style of governance, in which created beings are not controlled right down to their atoms, but rather act on their own initiative on behalf of and from God.

          This brings us back to my two earlier points:

          First, God’s sovereignty is much more organic than we think. You are concerned that the universe could get “out of control,” and travel along a path that God doesn’t want it to travel on. But that’s not possible for the universe as a whole, because it does not, in fact, have free will of the sort that humans do. Rather, it has a certain amount of quasi-self-determination in that it acts according to its own laws, which direct how it unfolds.

          But who gave it those laws in the first place?

          That was God.

          And God embedded laws into the very nature of the created universe that cause it to unfold in such a way that it will carry out God’s purposes for the universe. Our very very existence demonstrates that the universe has not gotten off track, but is, in fact, providing an environment in which human beings with free will and spiritual awareness can be born, live, and develop and establish their character, making it possible for us to become eternal beings in heaven.

          So although we might worry that if God gives the universe too much freedom, it might start running off the tracks and not accomplish what God wants it to accomplish, practical experience says that so far, that hasn’t happened. And until it does happen, we have no actual data on which to base any conclusion that it will happen. Based on all of our experience so far, the universe actually is doing what God wants it to do.

          Second, God does not just sit back and let the universe unfold however it will as a disinterested observer. Rather, God is in continual relationship with the universe. And from a Swedenborgian and Christian perspective, God does intervene in human affairs both on an individual level, by reaching out to the hearts and souls of individual human beings and guiding them toward God and heaven, and on a universal level, by coming to this earth as Jesus Christ to re-order the spiritual world and get things back on track. So if God sees that things are starting to run off the tracks, God will step in and make some adjustments to get things back on track. Not by changing the physical laws of the universe, but by working by spiritual means through the physical laws of the universe.

          God doesn’t have to minutely direct every single atom in the universe because God has designed those atoms to behave in a certain way that leads them to accomplish God’s purposes. Even if they act from their own laws, those laws were designed by God so that atoms, on their own initiative as created, would do what God created them to do. And the same goes for the macro levels of the universe.

          God is, however, aware of what every atom is doing at every moment of time. God is simultaneously aware of every single atom, and of all the larger structures, at every point in time and space. So everything God does takes into account the totality of the universe spatially and temporally. And God is also maintaining in existence all of those atoms and all of those larger structures and all of their functions every moment. Creation is not something God did at some point in the past and then stepped away and let it run. “Existence,” Swedenborg said, “is a perpetual coming into existence” (True Christian Religion #46). In other words, continuing in existence means continually being created by God.

          So although God gives Creation a certain amount of autonomy, nothing gets “out of control” because God is, in fact, continually creating everything every moment. If something were totally outside of God’s will, it could not continue to exist at all, because it would cease to be created by God. God’s creating of the universe is an act of God’s will. Even the devils in hell are not totally outside of God’s will. They’re not doing what God ideally wanted them to do. But they are exercising the free will God gave them, and God respects that and continues to hold them in existence even though they hate God and want nothing to do with God. God, Swedenborg says, rules both heaven and hell (see Heaven and Hell #536–544).

          So I would suggest that the answer to your worries is to expand and deepen your view of how God creates and governs the universe. I hope these additional thoughts help you to take a few more steps along that path.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee, thanks for your comments. Much of what you said actually parallels many of my thoughts at a time in which I was moving away from ‘classical’ theistic ideas and into a more ‘trans-theistic’ one, though it was verging more on deism than theism. One of the biggest questions I was contemplating was how God intervenes in the material world where the material world, as you said operates along a kind of self-determining automation. Does God temporarily suspend those laws to intervene? Does He work through them? One of the answers I came up with was, yes, God is constantly intervening in the material world, though not necessarily in a material way. I’m of the belief that there’s a spiritual reality that intersects with everything that exists materially, and *that* is where God is intervening, though it does leave open some questions I’m still trying to wrangle out, and although I don’t wish to monopolize your time, I can really use your help.

          My biggest quandary is with how God intervenes in the world to achieve His purpose in a way that balances the free will of human beings with the necessity of preserving natural material laws.

          Regarding natural laws, I’m sure you’ve seen the movie Cast Away, which I think is a beautiful representation of Divine intervention and providence. In the film he takes shelter in a cave on the deserted Island he washes up on, but features like caves and islands are created by the Earth’s natural processes. And yet, finding a place to take shelter was a critical part of his Divinely ordained path. I doubt that God created and arranged the physical world in such a way that millions of years later this cave would exist for him. But if it didn’t, then it seems he wouldn’t have washed up on that island, because everything he needed wouldn’t have been there.

          Regarding free will, can God cause two people to cross paths at a certain time in a certain place if He means to bring them together? Or for you to be at certain place at a certain time in order to notice a certain thing that’s relevant to your spiritual growth? The level of precision over all these billions of little variables that’s required to make this happen over all other possible outcomes is beyond human comprehension, and while God obviously has the power to order an infinite number of variables, is God’s purpose limited by human free will and natural cause and effect?

          For example, if you’re stranded on the side of the road, and you pray for an oncoming motorist to come by an offer assistance, it would seem that anyone God could send your way would have to be in a position where they could be guided to you, and that position might determined by their free choice. If this limits God’s ability to intervene in the material world, does that put Him in the position of “I would like to help, but I can’t”? Or what if it’s only possible to send someone hours from now, which is of course a blessing, but again, does that amount to God being unable to help in the way and to the extent that He would prefer?

          And that’s what I’m struggling to understand. I believe that God does order the universe, but it seems that there’s only a finite number of wires that God can cross, and a finite number of combinations where they can be crossed. Can God only work with what the natural world and human free will gives Him? And does that mean that God *wants* to do more than what these things allow?

          What am I missing? How do I see past cause and effect to see the larger spiritual picture in which nothing happens by coincidence?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          As you say, the complexity of what God does in order to accomplish God’s purposes within the life of every individual person and of all people together is beyond human comprehension. It would be sheer hubris for me to claim I know how God does it all. God’s job really is infinitely beyond not only our human abilities but beyond our human comprehension. We can only know some of the general principles of how God accomplishes it. And sometimes, in hindsight, we can see how God arranged things for us to bring us to where we are today. Sometimes we realize that some little “chance” thing that happened to us years ago, that changed everything for us, had God’s hand in it all along.

          As for those general principles, one of them, as I understand it, is that God’s primary means of “intervention” in human lives is not so much through external, physical manipulation of events as it is through touching our hearts from within. In other words, God works especially by an inner route of connecting with and moving our loves, our feelings, our will. Not breaking them, of course, and not violating our will, but rather leading and guiding our love through touching it and drawing it toward God, as much as we are willing to be drawn.

          This also means that many of the ways God reaches us are through other people whom God has touched from within, and prompted to do something for someone else. When someone just “has a feeling” that he or she should go somewhere or do something, and following that inner prompting results in bringing about some good for another person, that, I believe, is God working from within, either directly or through angels.

          However, I don’t necessarily reject the idea that God can also intervene directly into the physical world. After all, it is the foundation stone of Christian belief that God “became flesh and lived among us.” And if it happened as described in the Gospels, without a human father, that means God did, indeed, intervene in natural physical and biological processes in order to bring about his own Incarnation.

          Whether God intervenes physically at other times and places, I don’t know. But I do believe that if God does intervene physically, it doesn’t break natural laws, but uses them by means of spiritual influences to bring about God’s purposes. Why would God break God’s own laws? After all, the natural laws of physics and biology are just as much God’s laws as all of the spiritual laws that we read about in the Bible and in various spiritual writings, such as those of Swedenborg. So violating physical law would be God violating God’s own laws. And I don’t think God does that.

        • Rami says:

          Hi Lee,

          So does that mean God’s ability and desire to intervene is never limited by the parameters of the material world and free will? That is, God is never in a position of being unable to intervene- or to the measure that He would like- because those parameters make it impossible?

          Mind you I’m not of the belief that ‘intervention’ is the same thing as ‘preventing hardship.’ After all, trials and tribulations are among the chief reasons we’re here in the material world in the first place. But rather I use intervention to mean working through those tribulations in order to bring about a greater spiritual good. That doesn’t mean it’s possible for it to happen right away (like a motorist passing at the exact time you break down), but rather that there’s nothing that happens, has happened, or could happen as a result ot human or natural agency that God cannot work through to bring about a greater good?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          “Intervene” is probably the wrong word anyway. God doesn’t really “intervene.” God acts. And God is able to act into the universe to accomplish whatever God wants to accomplish.

          Much of your concern seems to be that God’s hands are tied so that God can’t do what God wants to do. But keep in mind that God created the universe and everything in it according to a design that was also God’s. It is very unlikely that God would make something that fails to accomplish what God wants to accomplish. As stated poetically in Isaiah:

          For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
          and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
          making it bring forth and sprout,
          giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
          so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
          it shall not return to me empty,
          but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
          and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10–11)

          God created the universe specifically to accomplish what God wanted to accomplish. So God doesn’t really “intervene” in the universe, as if God’s initial design had a flaw, or wasn’t calibrated quite right, and needs a mid-course correction now and then. Rather, God acts into the universe, which was designed specifically to express and be responsive to God’s will and God’s purposes.

          The only part of the universe that gets “out of whack” is the human part, because God gave us self-awareness and free will, and the ability to choose evil over good. So the only thing requiring any “intervention,” as that is usually understood, is human society. And that “intervention” happens mostly by God inspiring various human beings to give us messages and do specific work that needs to be done to carry out God’s purposes. And of course, God came personally as Jesus Christ—which is also a human way of working.

          Back to natural disasters, automobiles broken down on the side of the road, and so on, yes, God can and does work through all of these to bring about a greater good. Sometimes we see what God is doing, other times we don’t. Most often we see it only in hindsight, and not when it is actually happening. Our view is limited, but God’s is not.

      • Rami says:

        Hi Lee, thank you again for your reply and willingness to continue this discussion. As to your points, I hear you when you say we put value judgements on effects that cause pain, suffering, and death by calling them ‘side effects’ or ‘unavoidable consequences.’ But what I’m hung up on is just how far down the line everything is deliberately designed.

        Let me just break up my thought processes so as to clear up what I’m trying to get at:

        -We live in the material world, and it’s a world that God has designed for us human beings to live and flourish.

        -This involves natural, healthy processes like shifting continental plates on the ground, and changing atmospheric conditions in the air.

        -But these processes do have effects. Those same shifting plates cause earthquakes, and those earthquakes can cause tsunami; and those changing atmospheric conditions can cause hurricanes.

        -And those earthquakes and hurricanes can cause pain and suffering to its inhabitants (though can also bring much need rain to crops, like during a monsoon).

        So what I’m wondering is are these things all, from beginning to end, designed and desired for a purpose? Does God *want* earthquakes and hurricanes just as much as He wants the natural processes that create them? Or does God necessarily want either? Was it simply impossible to design a material world any differently, such that a changing world with often times cataclysmic effects is the best conceivable one, in which case they are ‘unavoidable consequences? .

        Here’s where I think my questions begin intersecting with a certain cynicism on my part that I’m trying to shed: I know you’ve remarked that we *need* to live an often violent, changing world that brings trials and hardships to us so as to spur our spiritual growth. But a cynical part of me has a hard time accepting that these natural processes could be *both* a cause and effect way for the Earth to sustain life *and* something that’s intended to bring spiritual trials to its inhabitants. The natural purpose and process behind something like plate tectonics, and the deliberate spiritual purpose of the resulting earthquake seem too conceptually far apart for me to sync up. And that’s where a lot of the guilt comes up.

        So what am I missing here? Does everything have an interconnected purpose? To counter my own cynicism, there are many examples in nature when something happens as a result of ‘natural necessity’ that itself further advances the earth’s health. Cold air and warm air creates pressure differences, which creates pressure differences, which creates a thunder storm, which strikes the ground and creates a wild forest fire, which clears out dead trees and plants and turns them into nutrients. This hardly seems like a coincidence. Does something like plate tectonics- from the moment they shift to the moment a building is leveled- have that same interconnected purpose?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Rami,

          I think I’ve responded to at least some of this elsewhere.

          Just one point for now: God is very much capable of creating things so that they have multiple causes and effects, both spiritual and material. Everything in God’s creation works together to accomplish God’s purposes. There is no disconnect between physical causes and effects and spiritual ones. Physical causes and effects happen “horizontally” on their own plane of reality. But both those physical causes and their effects also have “vertical” causes that are the spiritual realities that manifest themselves in those physical phenomena through what Swedenborg calls “correspondences.” And all of them are also caused from yet another vertical source, which is God.

          In short, there’s no reason God can’t create a physical planet that has earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis that accomplish both physical and spiritual things simultaneously. That is part of the incredible beauty and intricacy of God’s creation.

  2. Rami says:

    Hi again Lee.

    I wanted to create a separate post in order to bring up things that aren’t further questions or additional details to what I already asked, but maybe ideas worth consideration. We talk a lot about the way the world and universe is ‘designed’ or put together, but I’ve found it helpful to not think of God has sitting at a drawing board with His infinite wisdom and putting both humans and the universe together, piece by piece, everything in its right place and in the right proportions. While I don’t think it’s *incorrect* to think this way, I feel it can too easily result in us arrogantly scrutinizing creation in human terms, wondering how something could exist in a certain way alongside something else and the design still be a good one.

    Rather, I’m of the belief all that which exists- in the way that it exists- emanates outwardly from God’s infinite wisdom and goodness, such that the universe isn’t so much ‘designed’ but rather materialized into existence as something perfect for us and God’s purpose.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Yes, I agree with your thoughts on this. When God “designs” something, it is not a mechanical process in which God makes a decision to draw a line here instead of there. Rather, everything God designs and does is an organic expression of God’s love and wisdom, which is God’s nature.

      Another way of saying this is that God’s freedom is not the sort of freedom of choice that we humans have, in which we can decide to do either good or evil, or decide to take either the left or the right fork. Rather, God’s freedom is the freedom to fully express God’s love and wisdom in everything God does, without any internal conflicts or obstacles to expressing it. The only “obstacle” to God’s will is the free will that God gave us, when we use it to choose evil instead of good. And yet, even that is part of the carrying out of God’s will. And God continues to love us even when we choose evil over good, and self over God.

      But back to the main point, yes, I very much agree that “the universe isn’t so much ‘designed’ but rather materialized into existence as something perfect for us and God’s purpose.” That’s a very nice way of putting it.

  3. Alex says:

    Hi, Lee. Before I comment, I want to say that I largely agree with your point of view. However, there are two points that big me.

    First, if people who go to hell see it as pleasurable as those that go to heaven, why does the objective good and evil even matter? It is not like the respective person will realize it seeing as we tend to see things subjectively?
    I can sort of comment on that. When I was acting like a person who would go straight to hell, I did experience pleasure. It was pleasurable, but it was a hollow pleasure that was not sustainable. In the end, it resulted in restlessness. It seems to me like the story of Faust, where the Hell promised by Mephisto came to Faust, but not as an external punishment, but as a caused by himself as a consequence of his actions. Overall, I am glad to not having to experience it, because it was horrible.
    Maybe it is my selfish nature resurfacing, but I am having a hard time to deal with the thought that the choice of Heaven and Hell does not matter for the respective person. Mind you, I could not go back to how I was because of the love for God, but it still bugs me.

    The second point is a little strange. Wouldn’t doctors be completely beside the point then? They would be one of the most secular jobs out there, relieving (mostly) physical pain and saving our physical lives. Who are we to influence when others die? And yet, doctors are among the most trusted and altruistic people on the planet.

    Yeah, this is confusing me a bit 😀 Maybe you have a thought or two to get the braincells moving.

    Cheers 🙂

    • Richard Neer says:

      I’ve pondered this as well, so I thought I would jump in here with a question related to Alex’s first point above…

      As has been stated by many, countless times when people are wronged by others and, unjustly punished for their actions, those doing wrong will be ultimately be reckoned with in the end. Meaning, at death, a “judgement” will be made for where their soul permanently resides in the afterlife, and they will ultimately pay for their sins.

      “God will deal with them”, or “They’ll go to Hell”.

      But, as you have stated many times, there is no actual “judgement” made by God, but rather a choosing by the independent soul as to which life will be the one to experience eternally, and that those who choose a life finding pleasure in wrong-doing and ill-will shall continue to do so eternally in the lower realms “by choice”.

      I don’t see how they would consider this a punishment in any way or, perhaps, even realize or understand the difference. Or, for that matter, how those who are good would perceive it as punishment for those who are evil, knowing they are experiencing pleasure in their afterlife the same as those who are good, just differently and in a different place perhaps.

      You’ve stated evil souls will be just as happy in their lives as those in upper regions of heaven are happy in their lives because God expresses love for all and wishes only for all to be happy, thus providing the framework to allow such circumstances by design. And, by choice, this is what they want and are happy with, versus being brought up to higher levels of heaven where they would be uncomfortable in their surroundings and among others who are less “tainted”, so to speak, just as those who are ‘good’ would not wish to experience the lower heavens.

      If the experience for all, good and evil, is pleasurable within their own designated realm of eternal existence, how would evil souls consider this any form of punishment for their sins during their mortal lives? Where, then, is the ultimate justice experienced for committing evil acts in this life when the afterlife provide the same, if not more, pleasures for all and allows us to choose how we spend eternity?

      If God expresses love by way of allowing free will and choice, never imposing or trying to change us, never judging us but allowing us to choose the life we want here and eternally, then, as Alex asks above, why would the objective perception of good and evil really matter?

      • Lee says:

        Hi Rich,

        I replied to some of your general question in my reply to Alex, which will appear below this one in the comments. In particular, as I said there, evil spirits are not “just as happy in their lives as those in upper regions of heaven are happy in their lives.” It is true that “God expresses love for all and wishes only for all to be happy.” However, the people in hell reject that love, which makes them incapable of experiencing the level of happiness that the angels in heaven do. As I said to Alex, evil spirits may think they’re as happy as, or even happier than the angels. But the fact of the matter is that they are not.

        And evil spirits do experience punishments, some of them very severe—which angels and good spirits never do.

        Even though, as I’ve said here and there, we are not punished in the afterlife for anything we’ve done here on earth, if we have chosen evil over good, we will continue to do the same or even worse evil things in the afterlife that we do here. And we are punished for offenses we commit in the spiritual world. For more on this, see Heaven and Hell #509.

        So in a sense, it’s a technicality that we aren’t punished for our evil actions on earth. If our heart is evil, we’ll continue to do evil, and we’ll be punished for the evil that we continue to commit.

        Where it’s not a technicality is that if our heart is good, but we’ve done some evil things during our lifetime on earth, we won’t be punished for those evil things because we won’t continue to do them in the afterlife.

        In other words, justice in the spiritual world is not concerned with our past actions, but with our current actions.

        And our current actions will reflect the character we’ve built up through our pattern of choices and actions spanning our entire lifetime on earth. Whatever character we built for ourselves here on earth, that’s the character we will carry with us into the spiritual world. And that’s the character from which we’ll act there. If good, we will do good things there, and will therefore not be punished. But if bad, we will do bad things there, and we’ll be punished for them.

        In hell punishment follows from evil actions. And since the people who live in hell love to do evil, and are not prevented from doing it as long as they don’t go too far, they are always bringing punishment upon themselves. That is how hell is governed and kept in check. For more on this, see Heaven and Hell #543.

        See also the same article I referred Alex to: “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

      • Lee says:

        Hi Rich,

        I’d also like to respond more specifically to your statement:

        But, as you have stated many times, there is no actual “judgement” made by God, but rather a choosing by the independent soul as to which life will be the one to experience eternally, and that those who choose a life finding pleasure in wrong-doing and ill-will shall continue to do so eternally in the lower realms “by choice”.

        That is quite true as far as our human experience and perspective of what happens to us after we die. We do not literally experience standing in front of God’s judgment seat and hearing God either condemn us to eternal punishment in hell or award us eternal bliss in heaven. In using that type of imagery, the Bible is speaking metaphorically.

        However, the metaphor of divine judgment actually does reflect a real divine judgment. It’s just that it doesn’t take place literally the way it is pictured in the Bible. After all, it happens in the spiritual world, not in the physical world, so the judgment is a spiritual type of judgment rather than an earthly type of judgment.

        Specifically, divine judgment is a matter of exposing the real nature of something by shining the light of divine truth onto it.

        When we go to the spiritual world, we continue to live what seems to us to be a fairly ordinary life. We get up in the morning, do our daily tasks, get some R&R, and go to bed at night. But what happens to us in the spiritual world, if it hasn’t already happened here, is that over time any false facades we may have worn here on earth are stripped off, until our true inner nature shows clearly from our face and body, and in all of our words and actions. In due course, we are no longer able to pretend to be something we are not. This happens in what Swedenborg calls our second state after death (see Heaven and Hell #499–511).

        But how does that removing of masks and revealing of our true self happen?

        As we experience it, we just begin to feel freer, and less willing and able to pretend to be something we are not.

        But what’s actually taking place is that the light of divine truth is shining more and more brightly on us, stripping away false fronts, and revealing us for who we truly are. Divine truth destroys false pretenses, and falsity in general. For anything opposed to it, divine truth is anything but benign. And so it melts and strips away anything about us that projects a false picture of who we really are inside.

        That is how divine judgment actually takes place. It is not like a court or a throne room here on earth. Rather, it is the increasing presence and brilliance of divine truth—which in the spiritual world is the light in which people see—shining on the people in the “world of spirits” where we all first come after death, and progressively revealing who we truly are behind any masks we may have put on.

        So there is in fact divine judgment. It just happens differently in the spiritual world than it does in human royal palaces and courts, and we therefore experience it differently. To us it feels as if we’re just opening up and becoming our true inner self, whether heavenly or hellish. But it is God’s divine truth—which is what accomplishes divine judgment—that is actually accomplishing that opening up and revealing of our true inner self.

        For an overall picture of how this works and what happens to us after death, see my article, “What Happens To Us When We Die?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Alex (and Richard),

      Two things:

      First, our perception of things is not necessarily the reality. And for those engaged in evil, perception is far from reality.

      It is quite possible that the people who go to hell see their life as being just as pleasurable as life is for those who go to heaven. In fact, the evil spirits in hell most likely think that their life is far more pleasurable than the life of the angels in heaven. That’s because evil spirits can’t conceive of anyone getting any pleasure whatsoever out of doing something for someone else. Being totally selfish themselves, the idea that willingly doing something for someone else could be enjoyable is beyond their comprehension.

      However, the fact that they think their life is just as pleasurable as, if not more pleasurable than, that of the angels doesn’t mean it is actually as pleasurable. In fact, angels have vastly more joy and pleasure than do the evil spirits in hell. The pleasure of evil spirits in hell compared to that of the angels in heaven is like the pleasure of a bunch of pigs wallowing in the mud compared to the pleasure of a group of classical music lovers attending a performance by a superb symphony orchestra. There’s really no comparison.

      So first, despite the distorted perceptions of the evil spirits in hell, angels in heaven actually do have far more joy and pleasure than evil spirits in hell. But if you pulled those pigs out of the mud, scrubbed them up, and gave them prime seats at a world class symphony orchestra, they’d squeal, “What’s that noise? And where’s our mud?!?”

      Second, as you experienced it for yourself, the pleasure of evil spirits in hell is not sustainable. Instead it continually alternates with pain. That’s because the pleasure of evil spirits commonly involves giving others’ pain. And as often as they do, they bring the same pain back upon themselves. That’s just how things work in hell. It’s not that God punishes them. Rather, they punish one another, and take great pleasure in doing it. But of course, when they’re being punished their lives are anything but pleasurable.

      And yes, it is our selfish nature that looks at the “pleasures” of evil people, and thinks, “Why can’t I have some of that???” Ex-junkies and recovering alcoholics who have made a decent life for themselves know that the life they have right now is much better than the one they had when they were active alcoholics and addicts. And yet, that bottle or needle still looks awfully tempting at times. Objectively speaking, there is absolutely no good reason to be an alcoholic or junkie compared to living a clean and sober life. And yet, our own internal cravings make something that really is the pits look very appealing at times—especially when the struggles of life are getting us down.

      The reality is that angels have a far happier life than evil spirits in hell do, regardless of any distorted perceptions based on our own cravings for particular evil and destructive ways that we are prone to. Those who make the choice here on earth to love God and their neighbor over self, wealth, and material pleasures will experience a joy and happiness in the afterlife that is beyond the comprehension of those who make the other choice.

      For more on the nature of hell, and what it is like for those who live there, see: “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Alex,

      About doctors in the afterlife, two thoughts come to mind:

      First, in the afterlife we actually do have bodies, and there’s no reason those bodies couldn’t get hurt. Evil spirits in hell are continually hurting one another. There could be a booming ER business in the spiritual world based on that alone! But also, even angels aren’t necessarily immune from all bodily harm. We don’t become completely different people just because we go to the other life. Those of us who love exciting and even dangerous sports and adventures here will still love it there. And though you can’t die in the spiritual world, since you’re already dead, I’m not aware of any spiritual law that says you can’t break an arm or a leg there if you decide to ski a slope that’s just a bit beyond your current athletic abilities. So even in heaven, there might be a need for actual physicians to help patch up people who do the same sort of crazy things there that people do here for thrills and enjoyment.

      Second, and more theologically, Swedenborg says (in Heaven and Hell #485–490) that “after death, the pleasures of everyone’s life are turned into things that correspond.” In other words, whatever sorts of pleasures and enjoyments we have here on earth, in the spiritual world they turn into the spiritual version of those pleasures. Unfortunately, Swedenborg’s examples in that chapter of Heaven and Hell are mostly about internal, psychological pleasures rather than about being a physician who heals people’s physical bodies. And being involved in the material world, it’s a little hard for us to imagine the spiritual analogs of all of our physically-oriented loves and pleasures. So I’m afraid I can’t be too concrete about what the pleasures of doctors may correspond to in the spiritual world. But in general, doctors love to heal. And if, in the spiritual world, they’re not healing actual physical injuries (as I speculated about just above), perhaps their love of healing will turn into a love for healing psychological and emotional injuries—which, in the spiritual world, are integrally connected with the state of the spiritual body as well.

      At any rate, doctors will be able to continue doing work that they love, and that involves healing, whether or not it looks like what they did as physicians here on earth.

    • Rami says:

      I just wanted to briefly add my thoughts on this, as it’s something I’ve pondered myself since it seems so counter-intuitive to think that people in hell could somehow be happy. And it seems to me (and forgive me if I’m restating a point that’s made elsewhere) that, no, they’re not happy- not even in the illusory way they were here on Earth. God does indeed want us to be happy, but *truly* happy, and true happiness is something that only exists in connection to love of God and one another (which might be two sides of the same coin). When people live out selfish, materialistic lives on Earth, what they experience is merely the illusion of happiness, and it’s my understanding that in the spirit world, all illusions are stripped away, and what seemed to be happiness on earth is experienced in terms of its intrinsically self-destructive emptiness. It seems to me that the inhabitants of hell, outside of the torment they cause each other, are always tormenting themselves by perpetually chasing down that same illusion of happiness and are left forever unfulfilled, but it’s the illusion they’ve chosen and the illusion they want.

      That’s of course just my take and am certainly open to a more substantiated interpretation.

      • Lee says:

        Hi Rami,

        Perhaps. However, the people in hell all do live in their illusions—which is another word for falsities. Evil rejects the truth, and embraces falsity instead. So the pleasure that the residents of hell get from their foul activities is “happiness” for them, even though it could hardly be considered happiness in comparison with the true happiness that angels of heaven have.

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