“Everything happens for a reason.” How many times have you heard this short, pithy saying echoed in response to tragedy? Hospital rooms and crime scenes across the world are littered with these words. Such a seemingly innocent idea appears to provide many Christians with serenity and strength in the midst of great calamity. It is truly a concept that has brought many Christian sufferers a profound sense of security and comfort in moments of intense grief. The notion that there is a reason, or a purpose, for all events seems to say something positive about the sovereign care of God. To affirm this popular Christian idea is to affirm that, even in the midst of utter chaos and confusion, God has everything under control; all events are a part of God’s magnificent, immutable plan for his creation. When viewed in this light, it is no wonder why so many well-meaning believers hold on to this popular Christian motto.
But what are the dangers, if any, of such an understanding? It seems to me that this seemingly harmless idea carries with it some heavy theological implications. A quick analysis of the key terms used in this common Christian saying will be more than sufficient in demonstrating this. The word “everything” obviously means “all occurrences,” or “all events”—from the greatest acts of self-sacrificial love, or pure altruism, to the most horrendous evils imaginable.
The phrase “for a reason” seems to imply that the event in question was necessary to some greater good; it is a part of a greater divine plan. In this schema, there are no accidents, no pointless events; nothing happens merely by chance. This means that God is involved in every single event; the hand of God is somehow behind all occurrences. Thus, meaning can be found everywhere. There is hope that even the most horrific evils serve some higher purpose.
Overall, this weighty Christian motto seems to lead to two possible theological conclusions: Either (1) all events are caused by God or (2) God deliberately chooses not to intervene in particular situations, and thus not to prevent certain evils, in order to fulfill his set purposes, which would not have materialized had he intervened. In other words, either all things are divinely determined or God allows particular evils to occur in particular situations because they are necessary to greater goods which justify their occurrence.
Both of these options are based on the notion of particular providence, or meticulous divine governance, and thus both of them deny the existence of gratuitous evils. Again, if everything indeed happens for a reason, then there is no such thing as a pointless, purely accidental, or even unnecessary evil.
Based on this analysis, it should not be surprising that this common Christian understanding has often led to some controversial public pronouncements, to say the least. For instance, in the time before the election, a certain Republican senate candidate allegedly claimed that rape is the will of God. Whether or not this is actually what the prospective senator meant is unclear (personally I do not think that it was). Nevertheless, the words of this senatorial candidate have been interpreted in this very manner.
This recent charade is just another example of how problematic, and even dangerous, this theological viewpoint can be. Not only can it be detrimental to Christian witness in the world—as it can easily portray God as the author of evil—but it can also be injurious to personal faith for the same exact reasons. One can imagine the trauma that a person can undergo when that person sincerely believes that God is the cause of her husband’s physical suffering or her daughter’s mental disability. The trauma might even be more intense in cases that involve the repugnant stain of moral evils (all evil that stems from the will of human beings) like rape.
With all of this in mind, my purpose in writing is to correct what I see as a highly-problematic misunderstanding in popular Christian theology. In order to effectively deal with the troubling words of the Indiana senatorial candidate mentioned above, I will narrow my focus to the concept of moral evil in particular.
It is impossible to prove that the idea of particular providence, or meticulous divine governance, actually corresponds to reality. Unfortunately, it is also impossible to prove that it does not. Thus, when discussing such matters, we must be willing to put aside our desire to make objective, matter-of-fact claims. What we can do, however, is discuss what we think is reasonable.
I would argue that the ontological existence of gratuitous, pointless, unnecessary evil makes much more sense of Christian theology and human experience than its nonexistence does. Likewise, I would also argue that the notion of genuine libertarian free will, which allows for the existence of gratuitous evils, makes more sense of reality and Christian theology than its alternatives–either the idea that God causes everything or the idea that God meticulously overrides all human actions that would have resulted in moral evils except for those that are necessary to greater goods.
Human beings are free moral agents and thus possess the God-given capacity to make free moral choices. God endowed human beings with personal and moral freedom because he values sincerity of choice and sincerity of action. God is not in the business of creating robots that are programmed to think and act in a set, predetermined manner. Instead, God created human beings in his image, which involves personal and moral freedom, so that they may be able to choose the good out of the sincerity of their heart, rather than out of the coercion of the divine will.
In a world where sincere human freedom exists, and thus in a world where God does not jeopardize the integrity of the moral order by continually tinkering in human affairs, the potentiality for gratuitous, or pointless, evil exists; gratuitous evil will always be a possibility in a world occupied by free moral agents who are generally unabated by the coercive will of God. In fact, the same moral freedom that allows for some of the most selfless acts of love also allows for some of the most horrific acts of evil. Mother Teresa used her moral freedom to minister to the poor of India; Ted Bundy used his moral freedom to murder innocent young women. Freedom is a beautiful thing, but it can also be a dangerous thing.
In light of this, I tend to believe that, more often than not, evil is an abuse of human freedom, rather than an abuse of divine freedom; God does not force people to do bad things, people sincerely choose to do bad things. We must allow man to be evil and God to be good. When we ascribe evil to the will of God, we basically blame God for things that he plays no part in, things that he actually despises. To be quite honest, this is insulting to the nature and character of God.
If human beings truly are free moral agents, equipped with the ability to make free moral choices, and if God truly values the sincerity of human action and the integrity of the moral order, then it follows that some things do not happen for a higher, divine purpose. Again, if God truly allows his creatures to act as they may, without intervening every time they are about to commit a moral evil that is not necessary to a greater good, then some evil is entirely pointless. Because moral evil is often the sole result of human perversity, evil is not always necessary to greater goods. In a world endowed with human freedom, some evil is simply meaningless.
So, in response to the recent controversial remarks from the Indiana senatorial candidate mentioned above, we can rightly say that rape is not the will of God. Instead, it can be said that rape is a perverse expression of the depraved human will. In general, the act of rape is a meaningless, pointless, gratuitous evil that opposes God’s good purposes for his creation; it is a good example of a thing that happens for no higher purpose, or reason.
Fortunately, however, we do serve a God who both can and will redeem all evils, and who, in some way, can beautify even the ugliest perversities of the human will. Even though some things may not happen for a reason, and even though God’s perfect will does not always come to fruition in the midst of a rebellious world, God is never far from us. He is here. He has not abandoned us, and never will he. Though it may not always seem like it, God is working to make all things new. He will not allow evil to reign in this world forever. Although our world may be consumed with evil, even gratuitous evil, God is surely able to turn that which is ugly into something that is beautiful, even glorious; we worship a God who seeks to use the bad for good. This is what Christians call redemption, and this is the eternal plan of the Triune God.
Read Part 2, “The Problem of Natural Evil”
Ryan Ragozine is a Master Arts in Theological Studies student at Asbury Theological Seminary. He received a B.A. in theological studies from Southwestern Assemblies of God University and plans to pursue a Ph.D in historical theology.