Freedom, love, and… physics?

In my sermon on the Parable of the Rich Fool, Luke 12:13-21, I explored the theme that we are not ultimately in control of our lives. We are especially reminded of our lack of control when natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes strike. Insurance companies even use special language to emphasize this point: these events are called “acts of God.” I have theological problems with that description, but I get why they’re called that.

I was watching atheist and best-selling author Christopher Hitchens on YouTube in a recent debate suggesting that natural disasters are one good reason not to believe in God. Referring to the tsunami in 2004 that killed over 200,000 people living near the Indian Ocean, he said, “What kind of God would allow that to happen? God is, at the very least, very mean and very cruel.” And the moderator on the debate was nodding her head. And undoubtedly many skeptical people in the audience were nodding their heads, and many people watching at home were nodding their heads. Like it was self-evident that God either didn’t exist or, worse perhaps, didn’t care.

But are these really our only choices—a God who doesn’t exist or a God who doesn’t care? What about the fact that in most places, most of the time, this world that God made does quite well supporting human life? The same predictable physical forces that are at work creating things like hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes and other natural disasters are the exact same forces at work that give us beautiful sunny days. Maybe we can’t have one without the other?

William Temple, a 20th-century archbishop of Canterbury, made this point. Allow me to paraphrase his argument: Gravity works out pretty well for us most of the time. We’re glad to know that in the morning when we wake up we can count on our feet touching the floor. What happens, however, when we’re on the wrong side of a giant boulder that’s tumbling down a mountain toward us? We suddenly don’t want gravity to work anymore. And if we asked for or expected God to save us from the consequences of standing on the wrong side of a boulder, we’re really asking God to make an exception for us. “In this one case, God, even though I like Law of Gravity most of the time, please suspend it, so that I won’t get crushed.” And if God granted these exceptions to us whenever we wanted, then suddenly the world in which we live is no longer predictable. We couldn’t count on anything. Far from touching the ground when we get out of bed in the morning, we might just float to the ceiling or worse. That’s the gist of Temple’s argument.

And the skeptic might say, “Yes, but why does God allow us to be in harm’s way—on the wrong side of an approaching boulder, for example—in the first place?” Isn’t this the same as asking, “Why doesn’t God just save us from the consequences of our freedom and our free choices?” It’s like saying, “I like being free most of the time, but if it’s going to get me in trouble, please spare me from it.” If God were regularly in the business of preventing us from exercising free will, even to protect us from harm, then suddenly freedom would have no meaning: our actions would not be free because God would be controlling them. We cannot love anyone, including God, our spouse or significant other, or our neighbor, without freedom. A lack of freedom would rob us of the meaning of our lives.

This hardly solves every problem associated with theodicy—the question of how to reconcile the idea of a loving and just God with a world of so much suffering and evil—but it’s a part of my particular answer. Whatever else we say about evil, we know that through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, evil doesn’t get to have the final word: God does. And God’s final word is that nothing separates us from God’s love, including death.

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