Evil, suffering, beauty, goodness.

It’s pretty common in film and television to see people who are functionally atheistic or non-religious to turn to God when it suits them. For instance, a character who under normal circumstances does not profess belief in God or practice any sort of religious observance, will begin to pray when there is an in-flight emergency or when they are up for a big promotion. I’ve been watching through the Seinfeld series again and noticed an unusual twist on this theme.

In the season 4 episode entitled “The Pilot, Part 1”, NBC finally confirms that they will begin shooting the pilot for the sitcom George and Jerry have been writing. George begins to panic about what might happen, so he visits his therapist. They have the following conversation:

George: What if the pilot gets picked up and it becomes a series?

Therapist: That’d be wonderful, George! You’d be rich and successful!

George: That’s exactly what I’m worried about. God would never let me be successful–he’ll kill me first! He’ll never let me be happy.

Therapist: I thought you didn’t believe in God?

George: I do for the bad things!

This is a clever observation about how we approach the subject of God. When bad things happen, the question of God inevitably arises. Under normal circumstances–when things are “good”–God rarely comes to mind.

I’m not suggesting that the question of a loving, all-powerful God allowing pain and suffering isn’t problematic or important to consider. I do think that the question is rather lop-sided. The question is always fundamentally, Can I believe in a God who allows these things to happen? or Can such a God be good? Beauty and goodness, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, come into the conversation. I’ve never heard anyone ask, Can I believe in a God who creates such profound beauty?

It seems to me that a balanced approach to the question must include not only evil and suffering, but also beauty, goodness, and from a Judeo-Christian perspective, redemption–that is, God’s response to evil and suffering.

I realize, of course, that God’s love and goodness is itself in question. What I’m talking about, however, is not God’s own goodness per se. Instead, just like the existence (for lack of a better term) of evil and suffering raise questions about God, so should the existence of goodness, beauty, and love.

I don’t know precisely how we bring these things into the discussion. I don’t like the idea of weighing evil and suffering against goodness and beauty, as if they were on a scale, and answering the question based on which “weighs” more (even if one could argue that, at least in the long run, goodness and beauty win out).

Still, it seems to me that if we are talking about a God who creates and exists–which I think we are when we ask about evil and suffering–then we must equally consider goodness and beauty. If we don’t, evil and suffering seem to become issue conveniently chosen simply to support a foregone position. The issue isn’t completely dealt with if beauty and goodness are not included.

8 thoughts on “Evil, suffering, beauty, goodness.

  1. Pingback: Evil, suffering, beauty, goodness. « I Heart Barth

  2. Toni

    “Can I believe in a God who creates such profound beauty?”

    The atheist would produce an automatic NO – they would believe we’ve developed to perceive the world around us being beautiful, rather than the world being beautiful as a reflection of the one who placed us here. It’s not possible to make beauty = truth if beauty is only relative instead of absolute.

    One of the things Chris said early on after Sarah died was that people didn’t struggle with the idea of a loving God when others suffered and died, so how could faith be real if we could not accept that bad things can happen to us. People see suffering and God as a problem because they view life as being all about themselves, rather than about something greater.

  3. Andrew

    I think I get what you’re saying, but isn’t the presumption (for many theists) that goodness and beauty have their origins in God? And that it is precisely the anomaly of evil/suffering in a God-sustained world that demands an explanation?

    I wonder if our perception of the divine is wrong — if Jesus is God incarnate or the perfect reflection of God, and Jesus’ apparent ‘weakness’ (ie. his willingness to submit to suffering) was his strength, then maybe God is ‘weak’ – ie., not the omnipotent deity portrayed by standard theology?

  4. Marc

    Andrew: You should read William Placher’s “Narratives of a Vulnerable God” if that notion interests you. I don’t know if it covers exactly what you’re getting at, but it may cover some of that ground.

    Interesting question, though. It’s difficult to connect the notion of weakness (non-omnipotent) to a creator God, but maybe that’s not exactly what you’re getting at.

    I haven’t worked out my thoughts fully on this–I just felt like I needed to get this out. I guess I’m thinking more in terms of those who give up on belief in God because of the existence of evil and suffering. I wonder if beauty and goodness can in anyway mitigate that.

  5. Lana Shaw

    Marc and others,
    As you were asking whether the beauty in the world is enough to offset the pain and suffering in the equation. I certainly don’t agree with trying to stack the ‘good’ side to help people who are going through terrible personal tragedy or pain. For many people who really think about the implications of suffering on an omni-god, it does convince them that it is an impossible conflict. Ultimately people are most interested in their own and their family’s well-being. That’s the most basic parenting instinct – protecting the family. Beauty in the midst of horror just makes the contrast more painful. New life in the midst of dying is a difficult reality to face, but it is within the cycles of life that this happens. http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blog/list?user=1yrtzb93xqulm
    Our story is a difficult one to read, but if you are truly interested in this subject, I think it is worth considering.
    I’m Lana Wallis BTW, and was a Caronport grad with Marc.

  6. Marc Post author


    Sorry for my delay in replying, which was partially due to not really knowing how to respond.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the good should be stacked up next to a tragedy as a way to “deal” with the tragedy. Tragedy is tragedy, no matter how you look at it. Grief and anger, etc. are all appropriate and expected responses.

    But I suppose what I’m getting at is that the opposite also should not be done: the bad stacked up in order to nullify the good, which is I think what often happens.

    I did read through your story shortly after you linked to it here. I realize that when I speak about good and evil and tragedy, I speak as one who has not experienced true and deep loss in the way that you have. I don’t think that makes my thoughts less valid, but it certainly means that my perspective on the subject is generally more positive. Starting from a place of tragedy and loss and pain, I can’t say for sure that I would come to the same conclusion as I did here. Some people truly have.

    At any rate, I don’t think what I have written in this post is a solution to the problem of evil and suffering. It is more like a perspective or posture on the issue–a question of approach.

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