Thursday, September 12, 2019

What's the point?

1. I'll begin with some examples:

• In How Long, O Lord, Don Carson recounts how, as a young pastor, he witnessed a neighbor accidentally run over his young son as the father backed the car out of the garage.

• Somewhere, Robert Louis Dabney writes about a young woman he knew. He was clearly smitten by her. Regarded her as the full flower of Southern Christian womanhood. But she died of cancer. Not only did she die young, but because there were no painkillers back then, she died screaming. Screaming for weeks before she died. 

• Due to brain atrophy, some people, including some elderly Christians, become senile. 

• The 2-year-old boy killed by an alligator at Disney World. 

2. An atheist might ask, what's the point? What possible purpose is served by these kinds of evils? For that matter, Christians might scratch their heads.

In some cases we can roll out a soul-building theodicy. Caring for an elderly parent who's becoming senile can foster virtues in the grown child. And it may prove to the parent that he or she is truly loved, even after they become a "burden". 

But that doesn't work in all cases. In the case of the women who had cancer, it was so shattering to watch her suffer and die in that way that it might be religiously alienating to the survivors. 

Why does God allow Christians to become senile due to brain atrophy instead of ending their life before that cruel eventuality? 

At that stage, not only are the pain receptors useless to the cancer patient, but worse than useless. Worse than the disease itself. 

I don't know what happened to the boy who was run over. Did he die? Did it leave him physically disabled? Did it leave him mentally disabled? And imagine the guilt the father suffered. Likewise, the young boy killed by the alligator, right before the eyes of his father, who was helpless to save him. 

3. But this may be the wrong way of looking at the issue. At one level, many tragedies caused by natural evils are pointless. That is to say, they may serve no purpose with regard to the victim. In no sense was the victim a beneficiary of the calamity. 

But while, at that end, a particular outcome may be pointless, the conditions that made it possible are not pointless. We live in a cause/effect world. In terms of general utility, there's value to living in a cause/effect world, but an incidental consequence of that is that some events, individually considered, may be pointless. It wasn't good for the cancer patient to suffer unbearable pain in her final weeks of life. But that doesn't mean pain receptors are worthless. In general, they are quite useful–indeed, indispensable.  

Natural forces, processes, and mechanisms, as well as predators and pathogens, play a necessary role in a world governed by second causes and ordinary providence. The natural order, consisting of blind physical factors, doesn't have the wellbeing of individuals in mind. If I get soaking wet walking home from school in driving rain, that's "gratuitous" as far as I've concerned, but it hardly follows that rain is gratuitous. If I'm stung by a honeybee, that's pointless at my end, but it doesn't make honeybees pointless. 

A lawnmower is useful for cutting grass. If you run over your bare foot with the lawnmower, while the injury serves no purpose, it doesn't follow that the lawnmower serves no purpose. Rather, that's a side-effect of mowing the lawn. A wood chipper is useful for pulverizing branches. If you fall into a wood chipper, that's a pointless way to die, but it doesn't make the wood chipper a pointless device.

Many antecedent conditions have general utility, which justifies their existence, even if they sometimes produce pointless results. Their value or justification doesn't lie in every particular outcome, but by providing a field of action which is the source of many goods. Nevertheless, it can be aggravating, agonizing, or maddening to be on the wrong end of these conditions.

4. It might be objected that even if this is true, God can intervene to prevent the tragic side-effects. Indeed, but we need to make allowance for two other considerations:

i) Just about every event triggers a chain-reaction. And if it didn't happen, there'd be a different chain-reaction. Some other precipitating event would take its place. While God can and sometimes does intervene, that must be counterbalanced by the long-range impact of divine intervention. When God intervenes, it doesn't merely change one variable, but changes successive variables. 

ii) In a fallen world, God withdraws certain providential protections which humans would otherwise enjoy. That's a cost of living in a fallen world. The world to come will restore a degree of special providence missing in a fallen world. 

iii) A clockwork universe is the default setting of the physical universe. Prayer can break through that, but many prayers go unanswered. 

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