by Mark Karris
I am a pastor and therapist who works with those who have experienced trauma. I have recently come to the conclusion that “God allows,” in regard to evil and suffering, is a terrible theological phrase. I have discovered it often erodes trust in a profoundly loving and trustworthy God.
Deconstructing “God Allows”
The word “allow” is poison to the sensitive, God-seeking, and traumatized soul. It is poison for at least two reasons.
First, saying God “allows evil” makes God out to be a voyeur who arbitrarily jumps into time, willfully intervening in some people’s lives to save them from harm, and willfully not intervening in others.
Imagine, for example, what it must be like for God watching a disturbed psychopath begin to rape a helpless woman. The God most people believe in must say, “I planned this before the foundation of the world. I know I could stop this, but I am going to allow it to happen.” Although all-powerful, this God just watches and does nothing to stop the rape.
In another moment, God watches another psychopath begin to rape another helpless woman. But this time, God says, “I also planned this before the foundation of the world. But in this case, I will intervene and stop this man.” Perhaps God intervened by causing a neighbor to stop by the victim’s house. The perpetrator became startled, frantically running out the door.
I am among many people who are aghast at the God who allows some evil but prevents others. The God most people believe in is 1) in control of everything that happens in the world, 2) powerful enough to stop any evil act from happening but often doesn’t (which is monstrous), and 3) preordains these evils as part of some master plan.
There’s a second, related reason why I don’t think saying “God allows evil” makes much sense. If God “allows” something to occur, this means God could have done otherwise.
Let’s return to the rape example. If God “allows” the rape, God must have also been able to take His big metaphysical index finger and flick the rapist away. Or God could have acted like Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past by manipulating objects or people at the speed of light to keep the rape victim from harm.
But God doesn’t flex his metaphysical muscles in this way often enough. As we will see shortly, there are problems with this kind of interventionist and unilaterally controlling God.
God Is Not In Control
To say God “allows” evil events to occur means that God could have stopped it. I don’t believe that is so.
Contrary to popular belief, there are things God cannot do. For instance, the Bible tells us that God can’t lie. One thing God cannot do, which is important for this discussion, is unilaterally control people and events.
In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord offers this comparison: “Mermaids cannot run marathons because a mermaid’s nature includes leglessness. [Analogously], God cannot create controllable creatures because God’s nature is uncontrolling love” (p.148).
The idea here is that God cannot unilaterally control events, because God’s loving nature is uncontrolling. God cannot control people and events in the world, and God’s agency competes with other variables, such as randomness, creaturely agency, and law-like regularities.
The point is this: If God’s love is uncontrolling, we should not say God allows evil or horrific events to occur. Instead, we should say it is impossible for God to control people and events. And this uncontrolling influence enables free creatures, randomness, and law-like regularities (e.g. gravity, weather systems, etc.,) that sometimes run amok.
Evil events occur precisely because a loving and uncontrolling God does not control all things.
God Is Controlling (Just Not Like We Think)
Just because God is not in unilateral control does not mean that God is passive. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word control can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”
I suggest that God can lovingly influence us by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us, toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom. God exerts this kind of “control.”
God is a Spirit, and God is love. God always does the most loving acts possible in every moment, in every nook and cranny of existence. Furthermore, God can be one hundred percent trusted, because God would never purposely or maliciously harm any person, especially for some grand Machiavellian purpose.
What I’m suggesting may seem a grand revelation. But it becomes believable without the cognitive dissonance-producing phrase “God allowed,” so typical of Christian responses to evil.
A Few Words for Moving Forward
Permit me to make a request to my fellow Christians.
Would you please stop saying things like, “God allowed your husband to die in that car accident?” Could you stop attempting to cheer traumatized parents by saying, “God allowed your baby to die as part of a plan?”
I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary obstacle that prevents many from having a loving connection with their Creator.
Permit me also to say a word to spiritual seekers.
I get it. I also wouldn’t want to love a God who arbitrarily allows some evils and prevents others. But I hope my comments in this essay will prompt you to rethink what God does.
When you think about the abuse, pain, suffering, or flat out evil in your life, you don’t have to believe God allowed or caused it. Often, other people with free will cause evil. Sometimes evil occurs as an unfortunate random event. Sometimes we suffer because of our own unwise choices.
I hope that after some reflection, you will come to believe in a freedom-giving, uncontrolling God. This loving God seeks only what is good for your life.
Mark Karris is an ordained pastor, author, musician, licensed marriage and family therapist, and all around biophilic.