Don't Ask Me Why: Theodicy and John 9.1-3

In John 9.1-3 we come face to face with one of life’s most perplexing questions: why is there evil in the world?

If God is an all-good God (omnibenevolent) and an all-powerful God (omnipotent) and an all-knowing God (omniscient) as orthodox faith teaches, then why is there evil in the world?

Philosophers refer to this question as the “problem of evil.”

Here is how the logical problem of evil unfolds:

1. An all-powerful (omnipotent) God could prevent evil from existing in the world.
2. An all-knowing (omniscient) God would know that there was evil in the world.
3. An all-good (omnibenevolent) God would wish to prevent evil from existing in the world.
4. There is evil in the world.

Thus for the disciples (as well as for all humankind throughout time) when faced with human suffering, attempt to resolves the issue by formulating a possible solution. For the disciples (who had learned from their Hebrew ancestors) as well as for many Christians today, the solution goes something like this:

1. God is good
2. God does not cause evil or suffering
3. You are suffering
4. You (or your parents) have angered God through some kind of sin

Jesus dismisses this argument unambiguously in v. 3: “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins … this happened so the power of God could be seen in him.”
Jesus moves the disciples away from the “why” question: “why is this man suffering?” and leads them towards the more appropriate “what” question: “What good can come from this man’s suffering?”

John is trying to get us to see (no pun intended) in Chapter 9 (just as he tried to do in chapters 3 and 4) that there is a much greater realm of reality than the physical realm. In the spiritual realm, people can be (spiritually) born again and receive living water for their deep (spiritual) thirst, and have their blind (spiritual) eyes opened.

The question they were hoping Jesus would answer (the same one we wish he would answer especially when we are suffering) is a question that Jesus did not answer, and one that the Bible does not answer, and thus, one, I would argue, we need to assume will never be answered in this life.

We don’t need to know why.

Now, this has not stopped many very thoughtful and intelligent people from trying to figure out an answer though.

Following the tragic earthquakes in Japan recently, pastor John Piper wrote an article for his website Desiring God entitled “Japan: After Empathy and Aid, People Want Answers.” In the article, Dr. Piper offers his answer to the question of “why”: because of sin. Piper argues that the Bible makes it clear that God controls nature, and that as a result, earthquakes are caused by God. Following this line of argument it can be concluded that God in his justice caused the earthquake in Japan, and the deaths of thousands of human beings. That article can be read here.

This line of reasoning does not sit well with many people (including the author of this blog). In contrast, philosopher Alvin Plantinga (via Gottfried Leibniz) has developed what is commonly referred to as the free-will defense or theodicy (theodicy is the branch of theology that deals with attempting to solve the problem of evil: how evil can exist in a world created by an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God.)

Plantinga summarizes his “answer” to the question that we don’t need to be asking this way:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

This argument makes much more sense to me.

But, as I have already pointed out, whether it makes sense or not, it’s still the wrong question.

In the Old Testament there is a wonderful case study of human suffering called Job. This story, more than any other in the Bible illustrates the point Jesus is making in John 9.

In the story of Job we see human suffering beyond anything most of us could ever even imagine. This man loses everything: his means of income, his home, his family and his health all in one day. The moral of the story, as Philip Yancey points out in his wonderful book Disappointment with God is not “why does God allow Job to suffer?” but “Will Job have faith in God in the midst of his suffering?” These are two completely different ways of reading the book of Job. Did God allow Job to go through what he did? Yes. Why? Don’t know. I want to know. Read chapters 38-41 and then tell me if you still want to know. God makes it very, very clear that we are not in any position to ask the “why” questions. I love the way Yancey describes an imaginary dialogue between Job and God:

Job: “Why are you treating me so unfairly God … put yourself in my place?”

God: “NO!!! …You put yourself in my place! Until you can offer lessons on how to make the sun come up each day, or where to scatter lightning bolts, or how to design a hippopotamus, don’t judge how I run the world. Just shut up and listen.”

In other words, you’re asking the wrong question.

I like the title of one of Leonard Sweet’s books that I read a few years ago called Out of the Question and in to the Mystery. In the book, Sweet makes this statement: “Faith in God is less ‘do I believe this or that about God?’ than ‘can I accept that God loves me and chooses me?”

That’s what I think Jesus is getting at here in this passage.

When our eyes are only opened to the physical realities all around us, the only questions we can ask are the “why” questions. When we receive our sight (spiritually) we begin to focus on the things that really matter, and can then begin to ask the kinds of questions that are truly worthy of being asked.

So, what kinds of questions are you asking?


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