About a half century ago the Japanese man, Shusaku Endo, wrote the novel, 沈黙 (Chinmoku). It was soon translated into English under the title, Silence, captivating a large number of people throughout the world, including Martin Scorsese who later directed and produced a movie based on it.[1]  Its story highlights a theological and philosophical dilemma people frequently have concerning the existence of God. The formal name of this dilemma is called “the problem of evil,” and it runs as follows: as there is pain, especially that which is brought about by evil people, a good God must either not exist or He must lack the power to prevent such pain and evil.

Silence makes receptive readers face the problem of evil by taking them to feudal Japan during its Christian persecutions. The main character, a Jesuit priest named Rodrigues, witnesses horrendous executions of peaceful believers of Jesus. His suffering and the suffering he observes of his fellow Christians eventually take a toll on his psyche: with an “agonized heart” he prays, “Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent . . . ?”[2] [3] And again, after the beheading of another Christian, Rodrigues was perplexed at the silence of what he thought was a good and all-powerful God. “A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened. Could anything be more crazy? Was this martyrdom? Why are you silent? . . . The sound of the flies — this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This . . . this I cannot bear.”[4]

Many, therefore, have concluded that because relatively good people suffer at the hands of bad people, we have only two views about a good God left to us: that He is powerless to act or that He does not exist. The suffering of the character, Rodrigues, prods him to consider these two views, and from the deepest core of his being a “voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist. . . .”[5]

There is a third option that some people have not considered: a good God both exists and is all-powerful, but the good of His creatures would be undermined if He did not exercise His power in the silent-like manner that He does. That is, I argue that the world, as it ostensibly is, is consistent with the existence of a good and all-powerful God. The existence of pain in a world created by a good God only looks inconsistent to those with insufficient knowledge about the universe and about the nature of God. We have to understand the role of providence, one of God’s modes of interaction with the world, and that of free will before we can reconcile the existence of a good God with a world full of suffering and evil. Theologian Thomas Oden, who has studied and recorded the thoughts and ideas consensual to Christians throughout history, points out that from “a right understanding of providence follows a more realistic assessment of human limitations, sin, and the meaning of suffering in relation to the goodness of God.”[6]

Providence

Providence — defined by John of Damascus as “the care that God takes over existing things”— includes both the miraculous and non-miraculous.[7] That is to say, all events, even those that are not considered extraordinary, are brought about, allowed to exist, or directed by God’s will. Oden argues that without “general providence the scope of divine care is not universal. Without special providence the act of praying is absurd.”[8] There is no event, therefore, that is especially providential. Scholar and writer C.S. Lewis writes, “Unless we are to abandon the conception of Providence altogether, and with it the belief in efficacious prayer, it follows that all events are equally providential.”[9]

Since all events are equally providential, and since God is good, every event must be a means to a good end. To say that all events have providential equality is not, however, to say that all events are equally direct paths toward that good end. Some events lead more directly to God’s good ends than others. Since all events, while still providential, differ in directness, “classical Christian exegetes have thought of providence in the three interrelated phases of upholding, cooperating, and guiding.”[10]

The Upholding of Providence

God’s upholding involves the creation and maintenance of the universe. He is the ground of existence, which is evident in the name He gives Himself: “‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”’”[11] It is due to God’s to-be-ness that the universe and everything in it starts to be and does not stop being. Oden writes, “If God should withdraw this preserving activity from creaturely being, there would simply be nothing there.”[12] This divine work of upholding is also evident in Jesus, God the Son: “in him all things hold together.”[13]

Growth and progressive change is an essential part of the preservative phase of providence — put another way, providence includes the maintenance of life. If something is alive, it causes movement and change. Creatures that do not move or change themselves are dead or dying. To say that an animal is alive is to say that “it has movement” or that “there is change in it.” The maintenance of life, therefore, is a preservation of movement and change.

A name we use for the measurement of life is time. When we ask, “How old are you?” it is the same as asking, “How many times did the Earth orbit the Sun since you were born?” If there is no change in a creature, there is no life in it; if there is no life to measure, the concept of time is meaningless. The existence of time suggests the existence of life. Life and time are interconnected.

Throughout history Christians have consensually believed that life is an essential attribute of God: “All living things have life, but having life in such an incomparable way that all things live through that unique life is an attribute of God.”[14] Jesus, God the Son, said that He was “the way, and the truth, and the life.”[15] Since “all things live through” God’s unique life, God must have breathed life into the universe not only on a meso level, but also a micro and macro level.[16] That is, not only do organisms, like animals, have the freedom to change location (that is, to be alive), but so do the microscopic building blocks of organic and inorganic bodies. The life, or movement, of the micro level makes life of the macro level possible: the organization of small, moving items forms a system (like the circulatory system of a person); the organization of moving systems form an even bigger system (like a community of people); and so on and so forth. God drenches the universe in life and maintains it through providence.

The universality of life is evident in the fact that creatures are born and die: birth and death are signs of molecular movement; the mutability of bodies reveals life as it exists on a micro level. The prevalence of life is also evident by the fact that we have distinguishable ages in history: since time is a measurement of life, the fact that there is a Jurassic and Cretaceous period, for example, tells us that there is life on a macro level.

Given that life is connected to change or movement, we would have to consider an animal species most alive when it has a fluctuating population. In other words, creatures having a fixed population — which would suggest that material structures were immutable, that bodies did not breakdown or become disconnected molecularly, that objects on a micro level would not be alive — is a sign of death on a macro level. Life suggests mutability. Birth and death, therefore, must be maintained if providence is to uphold life on all levels of existence: micro, meso, and macro.

The Cooperation of Providence

Lewis writes, “Individuals are not really separate from God any more than from one another. Every man, woman, and child all over the world is feeling and breathing at this moment only because God, so to speak, is ‘keeping him going’.”[17] Lewis’s statement can be connected to the upholding phase of providence. But the act of keeping something going — as a person pedaling an exercise bike keeps electric lights going — can also have a cooperative element. Imagine that an exercise bike powers someone’s artificial heart: the biker would be upholding that person’s life by pedaling; and as long as the biker knows what that person is doing with the energy, the biker would be cooperating with that person’s intentions.

Cooperation does not necessarily imply approval. The man being kept alive by the biker might feed the poor — we can assume that the biker would approve of such charitable actions, but he cooperates by virtue of continued pedaling, not by verbal consent. Let us assume that the man with the artificial heart is mentally ill and that the biker is his father. Due to his illness, the son might be prone to harm himself and to harm others. But out of love the father might continue to power his son’s heart despite his harmful nature. The father can cooperate with his son’s harmful actions, by keeping him alive, without approving of them.

God may be viewed as the universe’s proverbial biker keeping it going. And God cooperates with our actions by feeding us the energy we need to move (that is, to live). God even cooperates with the actions He does not approve of. This steadfast cooperation is evident in Jesus’ conversation with Pilate: “‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’”[18] The ancient Romans — who could not live, move, or have their being without God’s providential act of upholding — killed Jesus, the energy-giving God incarnate. Christians, therefore, have found that “God cooperates by empowering free will to act and by providing the secondary arena of natural causality in which our freedom is able to stand, though liable to fall.”[19]

The Guidance of Providence

According to Oden, “God the Spirit is at work to guide all creaturely processes providentially toward larger purposes than those known by empirical and rational means.”[20] This providential guidance does not exclude animals. Somehow cats know how and desire to act like cats, dogs like dogs, and doves like doves. This instinctual knowledge and desire suggests that they have providentially determined wills. The wills of healthy, untrained cats tend to be feline; that of the average dog, to be doggy; and that of the common dove, to be “dovely.”

The human animal also has a will, but it is apparent that it is not determined. People quarrel all the time about others not acting as human as they ought to act. Lewis rightly points out that quarrelling “means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.”[21] Though animals, on their own steam, cannot violate their given natures, humans, on the other hand, can. Freedom of the will, therefore, sets people apart from animals.

The claim that animals do not have free will might seem confusing because we observe that they, like humans, have desires — they hunger, they thirst, they crave affection, and so on — and that they act on those desires despite any pain or harm involved. If animals always did things that appeared tame, we might more convincingly say that they have no free will, but left alone they have a tendency to go their own way. Freedom of the will, however, is not concerned with the ability to carry out desires that are in accordance to a creature’s nature; it is concerned with the ability to accept or reject one’s own nature. In other words, a healthy, normal dove does not have a will like humans because it cannot choose to be indovely. A human’s will is free because he can choose to violate his own nature by acting inhumanely. That we have the choice to not be what we were created to be is what Christians mean when they say that only a human’s will is free.

Of course if a healthy dove could act indovely without being coerced, it might be safe to say that it has a free will. But such a dove would have to sacrifice freedom of another kind if it were to exercise its freedom to violate its nature. Unlike the indovely dove, the “dovely” one has freedom of existence. The dove that adopts the nature of a dog, for example, would be constrained: since it would neglect its wings (dogs do not fly), it would be doomed to exist on the ground. Clearly doves soaring in the heavens exercise more freedom than doves that roll around in the mud like dogs. And dovely doves would have a longer life expectancy than doggy ones. A doggy dove would have limited mobility because it would not fly as it should and because it cannot run like a dog. Again, the absence of movement is death. Movement, which requires freedom, is life. Creatures that happily embrace their own natures have an advantage over those that do not.

Determinists are right when they say that we do not have freedom in the sense that all of our actions are never uninfluenced or unguided (by other people, by instincts, by physical desires, by God’s providential power, and so on); but they are wrong to say that we do not have freedom in any sense. The will is free not because it has many options from which to choose in a vacuum; it is free because it has two undetermined directions. Every little, minor choice we make in life will reflect the spiritual direction we choose. One of these directions will make us more and more human, and the other will make us more and more inhuman.

But there is also freedom in another sense reserved for those who take Christ’s path: like the existentially free “dovely” dove, the more human we are the freer we become. Theologian David Bentley Hart writes that “Augustine defined the highest state of human freedom not as ‘being able not to sin’ (posse non peccare) but as ‘being unable to sin’ (non posse peccare).”[22] Of course people are able to sin (that is, able to be inhuman), so we cannot now exercise this highest state of freedom. The guidance phase of providence brings knowledge of Christ’s way to live (that is, the truly human way to live) without coercing our wills. Christians have found, then, that “God is constantly resisting, constraining, limiting, and working to prevent the consequences of sin from inordinately undermining God’s larger purposes.”[23] Providence ultimately provides freedom to God’s creatures. The purpose of this freedom is to make love possible — unfortunately this opens the door to the possibility of evil.

Having understood God’s interrelated providential phases of upholding life, cooperation through empowerment, and existential guidance, we are now ready to treat the problem of evil.

The Problem of Evil

In a general theological sense, evil could be defined as “that which goes against God’s will.” But let us define it more narrowly, in a more popular sense appropriate for the problem of evil: “that which hinders the natural progression of life.”

One might assume that since providence is preservative, it must follow that evil would not have a foothold in the universe, even where corrupt wills are concerned; one might expect God to contain evil within the life-threatening hearts of his imperfect creatures, like plugging a wine bottle with a quark. But if this thought were brought to its natural conclusion — if people were not able to manipulate matter except when their intentions were not directed toward bad ends — God’s end to bring life would be undermined.

Imagine a country with a king who understands goodness significantly more than his subjects. And imagine that this king has magic powers to both predict the future and to prevent events that clearly discourage life. Carpenters will always find their work on a particular structure undone because their king knows that an earthquake will strike its site. Wooden clubs, meant to crack people’s skulls, would be turned into rubber the instant they make contact with heads. Sexually active couples would be able to conceive only when their levels of maturity and living conditions were suitable for raising children. And cruel words and lies would never get further than people’s thoughts because their king would manipulate their tongues to speak encouragement and truth.

Such a country might seem ideal for humanity: utterly safe and free from pain and worry. But the citizens of neighboring countries, who do not have a tireless magical king, would know better. They would find that their overly protected neighbors lack curiosity and that they are excessively foolhardy. Those who have lived their entire lives inside the boundaries of that king’s magical umbrella would not bother to examine the physical world: carpenters would not know that building on sand in any other country would be disastrous; travelers would not know that a wooden club does more than relieve anger when forcefully applied to a head; people who know sexual intercourse as only an inconsequential pleasure-giving thing would be in for a shock; and people who were never allowed to slander and to bully would have a weakened ability, if they had any ability at all, to filter and edit their thoughts before speaking.

A severe limitation of human actions can potentially atrophy the will. Without the freedom to carry out desires that will inevitably lead to pain and harm, people will struggle with arrested development. A dumbbell too heavy to move will only weaken the arm that it holds in place. People whose intentions are actualized by logical and meaningful consequences are made free by the fact that they can manipulate, to a certain degree, the matter around them.

The role of providence, therefore, is to preserve the liberty of, cooperate with, and guide human action. God provides the proverbial dumbbell of appropriate weight in order to uphold the freedom of the arm; preserving its freedom to move allows for strength-building and growth. But providence does not benefit creatures only by giving them the freedom to act — God also brings life to people by limiting their abilities.

It might be argued that if the freedom to manipulate matter fosters development and brings guiding knowledge, people ought to have unlimited freedom. In other words, all people, like the magical king above, ought to have the ability to adjust the laws of physics according to their intentions — a man ought to be able to crack a skull with one blow of a pillow if that were his will.

The problem with the unlimited-freedom argument is that a conflict of competing wills would still leave people fettered. That is, without a fixed nature, people would not have freedom from the wills of other people. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “If a man travelling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie.”[24] People must be free from other wills, to some degree, if they are to manifest their own wills to any degree. If a dumbbell were too light, and if it gave an arm absolutely no resistance, the arm, again, would stagnate in strength and growth.

The question about why there might be life-threatening, pain-inducing evil in the world has an answer, but arguably not a satisfying one. Sure, evil might exist because God upholds life, which requires the existence of movement and, ultimately, death; evil might exist because God cooperates with people’s actions, even when He disapproves, by empowering life (that is, movement); it might exist because God guides, not coerces, people’s wills toward being like Christ (that is, being as human as they were destined to be); and it might exist because natural consequences of liberal and limited actions are necessary for the development of the soul — but why is God, for the most part, silent? Why does God hide His love in providence?

The Silence of Providence

The Japanese idea of wabi-sabi may serve as a useful picture for the beautifully hidden nature of providence. Silence and spaciousness are naturally connected to emptiness, but the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi suggests the opposite: the austere nature of, say, an almost-empty room is fuller, in a Japanese aesthetic sense, than a room crowded with furniture and nicknacks. Artist Makoto Fujimura — who reflects on Endo’s novel, Silence, in his book Silence and Beauty — explains that the “Japanese word wabi speaks of things wearing away, and sabi can literally mean ‘rust.’ But when used metaphorically they both speak of the pathos of life, and the notion that in death and the ephemeral, enduring beauty can be found.”[25] The “simplicity and elegance” of both washitsu (tatami rooms) and sekitei (Japanese rock gardens) irradiate wabi-sabi with their “emphasis on empty space, lack of ornamentation, and quiet, subdued colors.”[26] [27]

Like wabi-sabi, God, through providence, is largely present in seeming absence. But that is not to say that providence involves an inaction and indifference on God’s part. Take a traditional Japanese room: it takes a good deal of effort, and even sacrifice, to preserve its negative space. God also wants to foster the beauty, goodness, and glory of humankind by creating a sort of negative space in which people can flourish — God’s choice to uphold life, empower all of our actions, and guide (rather than coerce) provides the negative space we need to live. Without the efforts of a superintendent, the guests of a ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel) will not be immersed in wabi-sabi; without the selective efforts of God, His creatures will not fully participate and experience His love and joy.

God’s silence during suffering might be compared to the labor of Japanese to keep sofas and televisions out of tatami rooms. Some Japanese feel that the preservation of wabi-sabi is more valuable than the comforts of western-style living. If God were to make Himself known by preventing every event that led to the suffering of His creatures, He would likewise take away that which is vital for the existence of a crucial good. Taking away this negative space would be like planting a king-sized bed in the center of a tatami room: there would be no room to have tea ceremonies and the essence of wabi-sabi would vanish.

Whereas miracles are loud and draw much attention (a reason that they are sometimes referred to as “signs”), non-miraculous events are often overlooked. Without this silent quality of non-miraculous providential events, the negative space of freedom would be violated. The wabi-sabi of a tatami room would likewise be violated if, for example, one of its mats were painted a gaudy rainbow color. “Since God is good, this providing, even when we fail to recognize it, is in some hidden way preparing something for human benefit.”[28]

Besides negative space, wabi-sabi also requires appropriate boundaries to exist. Just as human actions are limited by providence, a traditional Japanese room is limited to specific materials. If open space in an unadorned room were important for the presence of wabi-sabi, one might mistakenly conclude that a room would be most aesthetically pleasing to Japanese if it were completely covered by mirrors — one might be tempted to think that the illusion of infinite space would amplify the wabi-sabi nature of a room. But in order for wabi-sabi to manifest in negative space, a room needs to be enclosed by shoji walls and tatami mats. Providence provides both the appropriate space and boundaries needed for love.

Though the wabi-sabi of a room is invisible, it is not imperceptible. It is true that we cannot see wabi-sabi; we physically see the tatami mats, the bare wood ceiling, and the paper-covered shoji panels. But we perceive the quality of wabi-sabi through the atmosphere of the Japanese room, deliberately and delicately constructed. Wabi-sabi is intuited and felt. In the same way, God’s love is most present in the silence of ordinary providential events. Fujimura points out that this “silent voice that paradoxically speaks the loudest is also the voice of Christ, Christ who remained silent in front of King Herod facing his execution (see Luke 23: 8-9). Often, God speaks through silence.”[29]


[1] Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount Pictures, 2016).

[2] Shusako Endo, Silence, Tr. William Johnston (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 2016), 143

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 180.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 144.

[7] Ibid., 143.

[8] Ibid., 163.

[9] C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 283-4.

[10] Oden, Classic Christianity, 144.

[11] Exodus 3:14, NRSV.

[12] Oden, Classic Christianity, 148.

[13] Colossians 1:17, NRSV.

[14] Oden, Classic Christianity, 27.

[15] John 14:6, NRSV.

[16] Oden, Classic Christianity,148.

[17] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 180.

[18] John 19:10-11, NRSV.

[19] Oden, Classic Christianity, 150.

[20] Ibid., 151.

[21] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 3.

[22] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 25.

[23] Oden, Classic Christianity, 151.

[24] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 23.

[25] Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 61.

[26] Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno, The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2002), 223.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Oden, Classic Christianity, 145.

[29] Fujimura, 149.

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