Complex Questions & Simple Answers
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series of straightforward responses to frequently encountered questions and objections concerning the Catholic Faith. The questions and answers are adapted from Professor Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels, O.P.’s The Most Frequently Encountered Difficulties, published originally in Dutch in 1939.
How can there be a God if there is so much misery in the world?
It is common to hear people contend that there is no God because the world is full of misery. Whether man-made or the product of natural disasters (tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, etc.), misery is everywhere. Then there are as well the miseries caused by starvation, economic inequality, and conflicts between peoples and nations.
We must have a very strange idea of God to conclude from such facts that there is no God: as if God should be ready everywhere to take away the harshness and cruelty of life. Certainly, there are atrocities in nature, but that is a necessary consequence of the interacting parts of nature, which is part of creation and therefore limited and finite in perfection. Parasites, for example, live and enjoy life at the expense of others. But the animals on which they parasitize often live and also enjoy life. The pain caused by the parasites can be borne by them; otherwise they could not live.
All forces of nature are good for the whole; there are no purely destructive forces of nature that do nothing but destroy. Earthquakes, fire-spitting mountains, etc. are common in nature as a whole and have a useful purpose in that whole. But something that is good for the whole can sometimes be harmful to a component in its elaboration. And so the forces of nature can sometimes be harmful to humans, who, after all, also belong to nature and are part of that.
The slaughter of men in wars and similar miseries, in which the free will of the people plays a role, are not due to God, but to those who do not keep His laws. God is our Father, for sure. But we, the children of God, are immature children and sometimes very degenerate children. We are free beings who can misuse our freedom. When we misuse that freedom we act against God’s will and such a misconduct should never be used as an indictment of God. And that misconduct also brings poverty, inequality, and so forth.
Some may retort, “But can God just allow that misconduct? He can prevent it!”
God can allow that. He need not stop the disasters that result from misconduct. He is not obliged to restore what spoils man. If He gives people the glorious gift of freedom, man must not demand that He prevent any abuse thereof through special intervention.
Moreover, it must be borne in mind that natural evil in the world (not moral evil, namely sin; but suffering, disasters, wars, and poverty, etc.) still has something good in it: as a punishment for moral evil, as a means to repent, as a training school for virtue, etc. Therefore, God may even allow this kind of evil in a certain sense for our correction from the path of moral evil.
Why did God create people who are lost and who will be damned?
Another common contention is that God, Who is all-knowing, knows who will be lost. This leads some to wonder, “Then why did God even create these people?” After all, Christ Himself says of Judas: “It would have been better if this person had not been born” (Mt. 2:6 & 2:4).
If God would designate one man for damnation and the other for salvation, without regard to man’s actions, then this was indeed a major difficulty. But it is something very different. God knows beforehand who will be lost and who will be saved; but He also knows that no one is lost through no fault of their own!
God wants all people to be saved. Christ died for all people. So, all people can be saved on their own. That some do not “get it” is due to the misuse of their will, that is, due to their voluntary sins. God does not condemn the people. When the matter is viewed properly, it is clear that the sinner condemns himself.
There is nothing to the argument that God created men who cannot be saved. That God allows, that is, does not prevent a man from being lost through his own fault is also not proof against God’s goodness and wisdom. For we must never forget that the main goal, the absolute goal of creation, is God Himself, namely the glory of God.
The happiness of people is only the secondary goal. But because people are endowed with reason and therefore free creatures, this secondary goal is only a conditional goal: that is, it is only achieved on condition that the people do not go against God’s intention with regard to their happiness by abusing their free will. Due to this freedom, people can throw away their happiness themselves.
God will not drag someone kicking and screaming into Heaven.
Can God repent of something that He has done?
A final problem we will deal with is whether God can repent of something He has done. After all, we read in Scripture that God says: “I am sorry I created man.”
We read these words in the Book of Genesis 6:6. They were spoken by God in response to the many and great sins of men before the flood. And if they are understood correctly, they are not at all contrary to God’s Providence, nor to God’s immutability. God is all-knowing: past, present, and future are open to Him. He oversees everything in one infinite act of His divine mind. God is also absolutely unchangeable in His decisions because He is infinitely perfect.
So, God can never have “regret” about anything for that implies an imperfection, i.e., a lack of prior knowledge where something turns out differently than calculated. As such, from eternity God knew that people would sin; and He had also decided from eternity to punish those sins by the flood.
But the writers of the Biblical books were people who wrote for other people, and so they expressed themselves in a human way. For example, these authors also speak about the eyes and hands of God, although God has neither eyes nor hands. And if it is said in the Bible that God was sorry to have created man, then the writer is using this human saying not to express God’s changeability, but to show clearly God’s anger at those who sin. It is therefore a metaphor with which we humans, with our limited mind and our corresponding expressions, speak about God in a human and imperfect way.
Why is it often said in sermons and devotional books that God suffers for our sins or Christ is grieved by them? Does this mean that God suffers?
Such sayings are only human, figurative, and ultimately improper expressions which indicate the greatness of sin. If one does not take them literally, they are very beautiful and can awaken us to aversion to sin.
God and the glorified God-man Jesus Christ cannot suffer. God could never suffer; Christ could only suffer as long as He lived on earth as a man. But sin is an insult to God. The deepest essence of sin is that it is a violation of God’s commandments. A small, insignificant person refuses obedience to the supreme God if he sins. And he does so with full knowledge and free will, because otherwise there is no sin. Sin is therefore really a contempt for God’s supreme state, and in that respect it is also an insult to God.
This is not to say that God suffers through that insult as we humans do when we are hurt by an insult. But objectively speaking, it is an insult to God. Sin, again taken purely objectively, is a grievous thanklessness towards God. That is why it is said in the same sense, but quite rightly, that God is saddened by it, because God’s love is actually spurned by sinners. And because broken love so grieves a person, one can say in a superficial way that God is grieved by sin.
It is also said that sin makes Christ suffer and crucifies Him. This should be understood as follows. Now Christ is glorified and therefore cannot suffer at all. But according to God’s counsel, Christ had to suffer and die for the sins of men when He stayed on earth. Christ suffered for all sins, from all people at all times. If man commits a mortal sin, he establishes the cause of Christ’s suffering and death. And so, the instruction of St. Paul applies to every mortal sin: “That they again crucify the Son of God.”