Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lifespans, Body Counts and the Existence of God

At a discussion this morning about suffering and evil (and the existence of God), I asked the class how they felt about an 84-year old woman who recently died. Did her death (from heart failure) 'challenge' their faith, raise doubts about God's goodness or power or love, or anything like that?

The unanimous answer was: No. She was old, she lived a fruitful blessed life, she died of natural causes and no one at any time felt any 'tension' between her passing and the faithfulness (let alone existence) of an all-powerful God.

I said that's cool. I'm glad no one has problems with an 84-year old lady passing.

Now, what about an 8.4 week old baby who died? Would that event pose a problem to their faith?

Unsurprisingly, everyone nodded (some more urgently than the others). Everyone had a problem with that. Everyone agree this would be a heart-wrenching tragedy which MAY (thankfully, not yet) strike at the heart of their faith and cause them to question God.

Without intending to resolve theodicy once and for all, I then shifted into BARGAIN mode and said, "Well, so 84 years is cool, but 8.4 weeks is not cool, correct? Then let's work down the line. What about someone who died after 80 years? Is that cool? Yes? Alright, how about 75? Or 70? Or 65? Let's in fact push it all the way to 40 - what about a 40 year old person who died of a heart attack? Would you doubt God's power, love or existence if this happened?"

Generally the answer was No, Not Really (read: God's existence remained secure and whilst dying at 40 is far worse than passing at 84, it's still nowhere near dying at 2 months old). Then I pushed it further down: How about dying at 35? 30? 20? 15?

At this stage, I trust the class got the point.

The accusation about God being unjust or un-loving or impotent resulting from the deaths of certain individuals often involves an arbitrary standard or definition of what constitutes an 'appropriate' lifespan, a life 'well-lived' and an 'acceptable' death. Whilst the deaths of children are absolutely tragic and heart-breaking, these events wouldn't supply us with any definite logical ammunition by which to challenge faith in God.

Take another problem: Deaths caused by tsunami waves. The 2004 Indian Ocean tragedy resulted in about 230,000 fatalities. Whilst we fully sympathize with the bereaved families of victims (and whilst apologetics should be the last concern of the Church at such times), we needn't bow to intellectual attacks to deny the existence of God on account of the tragedy.

Because the bargain game comes to play again: 230,000 dead = God doesn't exist, right? Okay, what about 200,000 dead? Or 150,000? Then what? Would it be acceptable to hold that God exists if just 100,000 died?

Whether the answer is yes or no, this exercise highlights the impossibility of drawing an absolute line from "X number of people died" to "God doesn't care or can't do anything or doesn't exist".

Because whilst I may feel 50,000 is an okay level, another person may feel even 20,000 is too high. The question remains: Whose standard (of 'acceptable tragedy') are we following? And who sets these standards? What if people feel that should even ONE person die of a tsunami, that itself is sufficient reason to withhold trust in God? (Note, though, that this would raise further questions: What is that same person died by falling off a cliff, or being hit by a car? Would that be fine? If not, what would be and, critically, why should everyone else agree?)

Natural disasters, infant deaths and deaths in the prime of life - all bad. But still, logically speaking, no unassailable reason to deny there is a God who's given Himself for us and looks after us - on both sides of eternity.


U-Liang said...

This is a variant of a popular paradox. You may have heard of it: The bald man paradox.

It goes something like, when does a bald man cease to be bald? When he has one strand of hair? Two strands, on.

You can do the same with a pile of sand. One grain of sand doesn't qualify to be a pile. How about two grains, or three and so on. Yet at some point, you will get a pile of sand.

Interesting connection with theology though, never thought about it myself.

alwyn said...

interesting - never heard of orang botak! :)

jeff said...

god works in mysterious ways, and that includes mass perception of death and age :P