Two weeks ago I left readers with the following conundrum:
If God is benevolent and controls the universe, how could God be responsible for a pandemic during which so many perish?
The first proposition (“God is benevolent”) in the face of a world-wide pandemic clashes with the second (“God controls the universe”). Even if the propositions are reversed, they are still incompatible, for a God who controls the world could not be responsible for a world-wide, life-killing, pandemic, if that God were benevolent.
The conclusion seems inevitable: something is wrong; the propositions are incompatible. We actually do have a world-wide pandemic. That is an indisputable fact! Hundreds are dying every day, and the most capable scientific minds of our generation have not succeeded in finding a vaccine to protect us from the virus. We are told not to expect a vaccine for 12 to 18 months.
Of course, it is possible that neither proposition was ever true, but it is also possible that by modifying one or the other proposition the conundrum may yet admit of a solution and one could still remain somewhat traditionally Christian (should one choose to) with respect to the benevolence of God. Suppose, for example, that God is generally benevolent but unfortunately has a pernicious mean streak that sometimes surfaces in his actions toward the world, as God actually is described in the Bible.1 The writers of the biblical texts apparently had no problem with this inconsistency and describe a God generally benevolent, but regularly describing his mean streak; why could not modern followers of one or another biblical faith2 adopt the same posture, and recognize that God is simply inconsistent and unpredictable when it comes to benevolence? After all, that is what the basic text (the Bible) of traditional Christianity reflects.
I would like to think that obedience to God would exempt one from God’s pernicious mean streak, but that does not appear to be the case. Job’s experience is a case on point. The author depicts God as knowing that Job was absolutely faithful to him (Job 1:1, 8); nevertheless, God allowed Satan to ruin his life (1:9-2:10) in order to prove an unnecessary point.
The second proposition (“God’s absolute control of the universe”) is likewise undermined even in the Bible. Here are a number of passages describing God’s seeming inability to make things happen in accordance with the divine will: God tries to kill Moses but cannot (Exod 4:24-26); God cannot foresee outcomes of his actions (1 Sam 15:10-11; 6:5-8); and God through his prophets sometimes made failed predictions (2 Sam 7:1-13; Jer 33:17-18; Ezek 26:15-21). In other words God is depicted as not always being in control. It is true, however, that God is described as controlling the weather to keep the Israelites serving him faithfully (for example, 2 Chron 7:13-14), but control of the wind is another matter, as Jesus is depicted as saying, “the wind blows where it wants to” (John 3:8).3 That is good news indeed for people of faith when we consider the case of hurricanes and tornadoes.4 Since God does not control the wind, God could not be responsible for the destruction to property and loss of life from such aberrations of nature.
As I consider the inconsistency of the propositions, if I am to be completely honest with myself, I cannot allow these two propositions to stand in harmony with one another, and at the same time continue to make sense of the world as I experience it. The second proposition (“God controls the world”) is patently untrue, unless God is actually a demonic force. The first proposition (“God is benevolent”) pales in force, unless one modifies it. I can accept, for example, that God is benevolent and does the very best s/he can in a hostile world controlled by natural forces, which Romans 8:28 seems to be saying:
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (NIV)5
That is to say God works to bring about the best that he can.
Could someone please convince me that the two propositions with which I began are actually logically consistent?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1See Hedrick, Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, “Did God Cause (or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic.” April 12, 2020. Note in Isa 45:5-7 God is depicted as boasting that he “creates weal and woe,” and in I Sam 15 God takes revenge on the Amalakites, commanding Saul (through Samuel the prophet ) to utterly destroy them and all they have, even down to nursing infants (1 Sam 15:3).
2Clearly there are at least two biblical faiths: Israelite and Christian; but arguably there are several dissonant Christian faiths reflected in the New Testament.
3See Hedrick, “Does God Control the Wind?” pages 49-51 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019).
4See Hedrick, “Does Mother Nature Control the Wind?” pages 51-53 in Unmasking and “Does the Wind Make its own Decisions?” pages 53-54 in Unmasking.
5One should compare other translations of this verse since there are subtle differences in the way it is translated. For example, the King James Version translates: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”