God and the mystery of a “screwed up” world

If you don’t accept the existence of some absolute standard of goodness underlying all that is, you can’t complain that things aren’t “good.” They just are.

(Image: Francisco Moreno | Unsplash.com)

“How can you believe in God when the world is so screwed up?” the student wrote.

This is a common question. One way of responding is to say: “How can you not believe in God when the world is so screwed up?” Obviously each question depends on a different set of hidden premises. Lurking behind the first question is the presumption that God is responsible somehow for the problems in the world. Behind the second is the presumption that God is not the source of the problems in the world and He might be the only one who can save us from them.

There is, in other words, in each case, more that needs to be said.

One logical problem that lies behind the first questioner’s skepticism, for example, is how she arrived at the conclusion that the world is “screwed up”. (I’m not denying it, but merely asking how we define it.) The presumption seems to be that the world shouldn’t be “screwed up”. But why presume that? When you say to your father, “But that’s not fair,” he will likely reply, “Who said life would be fair?” Why would anyone expect “fairness” in a world that is the accidental by-product of a random cosmic explosion billions of years ago? It seems the only reason anyone would expect something like “fairness” in the universe would be if there is an all-powerful Creator who had both the will and the power to make a world that is fundamentally “good.” Otherwise what you should expect is simply chaos, or some combination of randomness and necessity. “Fairness” and “justice” are the products of a free, conscious mind. And if there is no free, conscious mind providentially caring for the universe, then we have no business expecting it to be fair or just.

But the difficulty goes even deeper. Where does the standard to judge what is “fair” or “just” come from? To say that the universe is “screwed up” or “bad” means that there must be an ultimate standard of “good” or “not screwed up.” Someone will likely claim that this standard was created by the individual human mind with a view toward its own self-protection. But far from being self-aggrandizing or self-justifying, most moral codes are self-critical. They condemn us for doing things merely for our own benefit. Somehow we all have this idea that there is an objective standard of “good” and “evil,” of “true” (really real) and “false” (when my mind is not in accord with reality), of “justice” and the “unjust.” We might be mistaken in believing this, but it is an odd illusion. If we look at a math problem and say, “That answer is wrong,” we can only do so because we have some notion of what answer is actually right. 2 + 2 isn’t 5. I know this because 2 + 2 is 4. If you complain that the world isn’t “good,” then you must have some objective standard of “good” that the world fails to meet.

But if you don’t accept the existence of some absolute standard of goodness underlying all that is, you can’t complain that things aren’t “good.” They just are. The best you could say would be: “I don’t like the way things are.” Fine. But then you can’t use that as an argument against God. Your argument against God presumes that there is something like God, some ultimate goodness underlying the whole universe, otherwise you couldn’t be employing the categories of “good” or “bad,” “just” or “unjust.” You would merely be saying, “I don’t like the way God created things.” Or, more accurately, “The goodness I presume exists in the fundamental Source of the Being of all things (otherwise my argument would be circular) does not seem to me to coincide with the evil I see in the world.”

But then our question becomes, “So why is there evil in the world?” And here is where the insights of someone like St. Augustine become invaluable. What if, as Augustine proposes, evil is not a thing, like a table or a cup. What if evil is a lack of a good that should be there? Evil is the name we give to a privation. We say that a table is “bad” when it doesn’t have the stability it should. We say that a cup is “bad” when it leaks water. We say that a choice is “bad” when it doesn’t achieve the good.

Why is the world so “screwed up”? One answer is: because it is finite. Christians believe that God has put in our souls an infinite desire for an infinite good. All finite goods, therefore, will fall short in various ways. If we fail to understand our limitations and the limitations of created reality, we may perceive these limitations as the world being “screwed up.” It would be more accurate to say that the world is not catering to all my needs and then simply admit that the world does not revolve around me. To blame God for not making a world that revolves around you seems more than a little petty.

Perhaps we can agree that the major reason the world is so “screwed up” has a lot to do with the improper use people make of their freedom. Freedom, in itself, is a very good thing. You cannot love truly if you do not love freely. No one can force love. For there to be love, there must be freedom. But if people can say “yes” to love freely, then they must be able to use that freedom to say “no” to love. The results of that “no” can be tragic — just ask any loving family of a man or woman lost to alcoholism. Such a person is being offered the free gift of love, but is rejecting it for something that drains them of life.

So, is the world screwed up, or is it rather my life that is screwed up? My life and the lives of a great many people? Why do so many people make bad choices when they could make good choices? Well, one answer is: because they can. That people can make choices and that those choices are free is a good thing. But we often don’t make a good use of that freedom. So if you want to know why “people” make bad choices, I suppose you could start by asking, “Why do I made bad choices?” Or, to put this another way: “Why do I do the evil I don’t want to do and not the good I do want to do?”

But let’s go back. “How can you believe in God if the world is so screwed up?” was the question. If the world is “screwed up” because people like me make a bad use of our freedom — something good God has given us — then the natural question would be: Is my question about God a real question or an excuse to do what I want — to continue making a bad use of my freedom? Because, of course, if the world was created by a good God for good, and He made free creatures had to choose freely to do good, then I would have to ask myself whether I was part of the solution or just another part of the problem (the screw up). But if the world is just a big chaotic mess, then I suppose I can do what I want because there’s no point and no standard against which my actions or anyone else’s can be judged, even the guy who hits me over the head and steals my wallet. He just did a thing. There are no bad things. Just things I don’t like. The robber probably didn’t like having no money. So he took mine. That’s all the more anyone can say.

So we’re back to our first two questions. It make little or no sense to ask, “How can you believe in God when the world is so screwed up?” since I am presuming the existence of a standard that my question denies exists. It makes some sense to ask, “How can you not believe in God when the world is so screwed up?” since God might be our only hope in a world where people can do good, but choose not to. Why do they choose not to? I don’t know. You would have to ask them. Or yourself. But it would be odd to blame God. He gave us something good. We screwed it up. And He might actually be able to help.

You might not believe He exists, and if so, you obviously wouldn’t believe He can help. But at least you know that your non-belief is not due to the presence of evil in the world. It is more likely that you are either (a) miffed that the universe does not revolve around you and cater to your needs; or (b) lost in despair; or (c) would prefer to keep doing whatever you want rather than admit there are standards of good and evil and ask for help to do what is good. (Choose one.)

A clever reader will look this over and say, “That’s not a good proof for the existence of God.” No, it’s not. In fact, it is not any kind of proof for the existence of God. The intent is simply to show why the rhetorical question, “How can you believe in God when the world is so screwed up?”. Although it may sound like a sensible question, it actually isn’t. Recognizing this won’t necessarily make it any more likely that you would believe in God, but it should at least pose for you the question: “Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?” I trust you will say, “I want to be part of the solution.”

But then you might ask yourself this: What is the solution? How do I help make the world “good” or at least “better”? What does “good” even mean if it doesn’t mean just “what I like”? And come to think of it, it’s not just the world that I don’t how to make “less screwed up” (because I’m not sure what “not screwed up” would even be), quite frankly, I’m not entirely clear how I could even begin to make myself “less screwed up.”

You could, I suppose, blame God for that. Or you could ask for His help. You might not think the second option makes much sense. But at least you know the first option makes no sense. And you might at least understand why Christians who want to be part of making the world “less screwed up” and who think they have found a good guide to help them judge “good” from “bad” and a capable helper to make it possible for them to be good and do at least some good, hold the beliefs and convictions they do. They can give reasons for the hope that is within them. Theirs is a universe that makes moral sense. You might not agree, but at least they have reasons for living the way they do. You have … what again? Anything more than a complaint?


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 40 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

10 Comments

  1. Arguments given by Randall Smith all good based on viable premises settling with Augustine’s description of evil as a privation of good. How can a good God permit the evil that exists is response that reveals a consciousness that good must somehow underlie all things. Good in nature is one thing moral good another. Denial of moral good is at issue today just as it was when Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir rejected belief that an all powerful good God if he exists would permit the extent of barbaric Nazi atrocity during the Resistance. Existentialism translated today is questioning any reality in God. The First Principle who alone defines good or evil. In consequence they become relative and the existential reality is a “screwed up” world. Chaos is a fearsome thing as an alternative to order. For us who hold faith in the Christ of Apostolic Revelation and Tradition the theological virtues are our priceless gift. Turning again to Augustine Aquinas refined the premise of privation of good. Aquinas defined evil as a willful privation of direction toward a due end. Evil is in the will. As is good. Faith realizes an infinitely good God responds in greater measure to the faith we entrust in Him. I just scanned through Kalb’s essay on JJ Reno’s book Powerful Gods. Ideas per se get us nowhere neither does our ‘existential’ grasp of existence. Existence distanced from God is counter to Reality and inclines toward chaos. Faith in God’s benevolent disproportionate response to our limited confidence in Him is the requisite driving force for all forms of social political good. Order replaces chaos justice injustice. Faith, a gift of the Holy Spirit and salvation of today’s jaded youth prospers by our prayers and sacrifice.

    • A follow up comment that responds to how can we not believe in God. Certainly reasoned inquiry must end in acknowledgment of a Supreme Being responsible for existence. And universal order. The Apostle in Rm 1 concurs. There is already moral fault in this denial. Although our difficulty with today’s youth is well explained by Randall Smith. The answer is better found in the Apostle Paul’s relatively unsuccessful though well reasoned philosophical oration at the Athens Areopagus. After that failure he preached only Christ and him Crucified. The young can better comprehend a disordered world if challenged with the revelation of a God who enters it to be Crucified. As a witness counter to sinful disorder. And as evidence of his great love for those of us who are confused and suffer within that disorder.

  2. “How can you believe in God when the world is so screwed up?”

    (FYI – I am an old coot of 76 years who once probably asked that same question many years ago but who has managed to survive long enough to ask this question:)

    How can you NOT believe in God?

    Good luck and God Bless.

  3. A blessed Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to all !
    ‘ The dragon spewed forth a torrent of water after The Woman , to sweep her away but the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the river .’ – those words to warn us against the torrent of lies , brought in by the bestial spirits , to instead take in the truth of God’s love, as His holiness for us all , through The Incarnation ,which is about The Lord taking upon Himself our earthiness , through The Mother ; good day to rejoice in the related amazing miracle , now getting better known world over –
    https://www.thedivinemercy.org/articles/he-keeps-one-eye-heavens

    EWTN would be broadcasting the Holy Mass being celebrated by the Holy Father , to celebrate The Feast , also called of Our Lady of Roses , thanking The Father , for stripping away the evils of the hardness of atheism , its related lies , from many hearts , instead to be able to heed the tender words of a Mother , who touches creation again , in the act of cutting down those roses , arranging them in the tilma …and that too , may be not much , compared to the Eucharist ..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBs-xWeWuCM – God ever reminding us of His goodness and His love for us ,desiring to be with us , even when He is ignored in many ways and places and hearts .
    The earth and all of creation being consecrated to The Father , through The Mother , to sweep away every lie against God’s goodness – may such be the truth that opens our lips and mouths , in praise and trust , in His power , to also remember those occasions of persons such as St.John Paul 11 visiting the shrine and praying for all of humanity , among whom are very many good hearted persons as well – both young and old , whose goodness we all would get to see one day , in all splendor , washing away all darkness .
    Mary , our loving Mother , our Lady of Guadalupe , free us all from all false gods of money , pride and self will and lead us unto the True God .

  4. That the world is screwed up does not bother me. Well, it does, but it does not shake my faith in God or cause me to loose faith in The Church.
    .
    Now, the German bishops seemed to be poised to declare homosexuality perfectly normal, perfectly in line with what God meant the Universe to be. And those bishops are using the encyclical Amoris Laetitia to do it. That bothers me.
    .
    The corruption in the Church is so intense, so pervasive, I have a very, very hard time accepting Jesus meant to institute The Church as it has become. These men (the hierarchy) become less and less believable every day.

  5. The question: ““How can you believe in God when the world is so screwed up?”, can be asked honestly or dishonestly. Simple Atheists ask honestly because of theiir limited atheist upbringing and/or deep emotional, mental wounds, tragedies, catastrophes, etc. Corrupt Activist Atheists ask dishonestly and hide behind the Simple Atheists and use their very legitimate questions as a human shield to steal their legitimacy (all of today’s false morality is based on hiding behind human shields) for their rabid push for immorality, especially sexual immorality (check the article by Rebecca Watson at slate dot com about rampant sexual harrassment of women at atheists conventions and everywhere else).

    For the rest of us, the concern is more about how to sort the fact of some CHOOSING unspeakable evil against others for any excuse while some CHOOSE amazing grace and holiness even in horrific circumstances (there are numerous glowing examples but I invite you to check the books by Richard Wurmbrand that faced evil under Communism). The question we should suggest to others is: Why do some people CHOOSE legitimate goodness in painful and/or evil circumstances and why do those “screwed up” circumstances do not totally destroy their goodness but make them better? “My dear Watson, that is the question!”

  6. Great article!
    To believe or not believe that is the question! As a recovered alcoholic, sex, lust, porn addict who ran my life into the mud by not believing in the Real God, and then by grace, given another chance at life while choosing to be willing to be willing to believe, I have conducted a great experiment. So for me, it kinda runs parallel to why I believe in gold. I have seen it, used it, felt it, known it’s power, it’s characteristics, attributes, beauty, etc.

    • Great comment, John! Your honesty, courage and much better CHOICES are greatly appreciated. My “drunkenness” in the past was immersing myself in every false belief (including atheism and agnosticism) and totally turning my back away from True Catholicism. As the Bible says, God gives us Beauty for our ashes and we stand strong not on our perfection (as God’s enemies always comically pretend to be) but on God’s Perfection. Yes, we are nothing without Faith but Faith many times starts as a tiny, feeble, weak choice for God’s Will that then God grows slowly into stronger, mature Faith. Like you said, you started by “…choosing to be willing to be willing to believe”.

      That’s one of the very best descriptions of initial Faith I’ve ever seen, what Jesus called the mustard seed. You’ve taken a cosmic, bold step, protect it and grow it with True Catholic, godly friends and the Teachings and Sacraments of the Church. When strongly established, help others with your same background but always be cautious not to be dragged back down. We must always be humble and know that it is God who gives that mustard seed, its growth and fruits and sometimes we will not see the results of our efforts. Stay strong by holding on to Jesus, you have begun a marvelous adventure! I will pray for you, please pray for me! We must buld each other as living stones for God! (“…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…”, 1 Peter 2:5)

  7. I find this a rather lengthy treatment and in some ways (Satre etc)a bit above my head. i do relate to the author’s statement that God places in our soul an infinite desire for infinite good. Reality, such as it is, was endorsed by Jesus Christ; The planet we walk on today was found acceptable to Divinity as a realm for man’s regaining of Paradise. In the some way, we struggle to look at this human body and realize how it has played a part in our sinning in each of our lives. And yet, as Catholics we must somehow come to grasp how this human body could be occupied by someone who committed not a single sin. The Gospels tell us that there is group among us that can accept such perfection. Let the little children come unto Me for of such is the kingdom of Heaven. If we can’t be like children and see Divinity of God in human flesh, as in Eucharist or this world as sufficient for eternal salvation then we wold be truly lost. Bishop sheen tells us this. There are only nurseries is Heaven. The challenge as we get older is to not lose sight of this.

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