Dear Rabbi Gellman, in your article, The God Squad: Questions from the final exam of the theology class at Mercy High School in Middletown, Conn., Part 3, you answered a question from S: How come God puts us through difficult challenges that will just make us sad and could initially make us give up? You answered: “If God knew that we would give up, God would never test us. The point is that God does not know how we will react to the bumps and burdens of our lives. This is because we have free will and with free will, God cannot know what we will do next.” If “God does not know how we will react to the bumps and burdens of our lives”, and “with free will, God cannot know what we will do next,” is God not omniscient? I thought omniscience was an attribute of God. Thank you for your column that I read every week. – J, Wilmington, NC:
Dear J: If I was limited to answering the same question every week, it would surely be the question of how can an all-powerful good God coexist in a world filled with evil and suffering?
I receive so many versions of this great mystery I sometimes think I am writing the same answer every week. Some of you, dear readers, are angry at me for defending God. You believe that God has promised or that God ought to have promised to protect us from all evil. You simply cannot believe in a God who cannot prevent every war and murder, eradicate every disease, and keep us far away from every storm and earthquake. For those of you who believe this, every act of suffering is a refutation of God’s power or goodness.
As the playwright Archibald MacLeish put this point into verse in his play J.B., “If God is great, He is not good. If God is good He is not God. Take the even, take the odd.” You have asked this question without anger and so I will try again to answer you. If you want to pursue the philosophical underpinnings of my answer read Leibnitz’s defense of the proposition that God has indeed created the best of all possible worlds. That is what Leibnitz believed and that is what I believe and that is what the Bible teaches us.
Let us begin with your question about omniscience. What we must ask ourselves is this, “If God knows what I will decide to do before I do it, am I really free to choose to do something else?” It is obvious to me that this is impossible. If God knows what we will choose, we are not free to make a different choice. We are, in a word, fated to make the decision God knows we will make, and fate is the opposite of freedom. God’s decision to grant us free will was, to put this another way, also a decision to limit God’s omniscience.
Some people try to argue that we do have free will even if God knows what we will choose, but God does not interfere with our choices. I can accept that, but it is not really what we mean by free will.
God’s omnipotence is perhaps the greatest obstacle to faith for those who believe that any act of evil is a betrayal of us by God. I had a teacher, a brilliant rabbi, who lost all his faith because he could not reconcile an omnipotent God with the Holocaust. However, take a moment and just ask yourself whether the unwillingness of humanity to stop the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan before it became so powerful is a failure of God or a failure of humanity? If we choose to despoil the environment of planet earth, is that God’s fault or our fault?
It seems completely clear to me that we are blaming God for our own collective failures. In some fantasy world I guess it would be possible for an omnipotent God to prevent us from ever making bad choices, but that fantasy world bears no similarity to our world. God’s role is to show us the right way to live, and our role is to try to live that way. Why is that so hard for people to understand?
Finally, there is bad luck. Sometimes we just find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and we suffer or die because of it. There is an old rabbinic saying that “the world operates by its own laws.” (Hebrew: olam k’minhago noheg). Those laws sometimes give us bounteous crops and sometimes give us famine. This is the way of the world, and we must accept that way with gratitude and forbearance.
God has given us freedom and intelligence. What we need is just a little dose of gratitude.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
©2021 The God Squad. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.(c) 2021 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.