“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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