I'll take "Theology for $500," please, Alex

His millions of fans are thrilled to find that game-show host Alex Trebek seems to be winning an uphill battle against pancreatic cancer. In a recent People cover story, he indicates that his chemotherapy is going remarkably well—so well, in fact, that he attributes the good result to more-than-medical causes:

“I told the doctors, this has to be more than just the chemo, and they agreed it could very well be an important part of this. I’ve got a lot of love out there headed in my direction and a lot of prayer, and I will never, ever, minimize the value of that.”

Trebek isn’t the only one who thinks divine forces may be at work. A Roman Catholic columnist is confident that “prayer isn’t a waste of time. My family and I pray for his complete healing every night and it appears that our prayers (and those of many others) are indeed having an effect.”

In the back of my mind, however, intones the quiet voice of an old friend, a friend who was raised in the same Christian tradition I was but has long since left it for a mild secular humanism. His voice asks this simple question:

“How come God gets all the credit when things go right, but somehow escapes the blame when things go wrong?”

Applied to Mr. Trebek’s case, we might ask: If God is healing his cancer, where did the cancer come from in the first place?

Believers in God trust that God is good—at least, the Christian God is, and so are the Jewish and Islamic versions of God. (Not all the gods in other religions are understood to be good, or only good.) But we also believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the whole world, moment by moment. Whence, then, is evil?

Where did Alex Trebek’s pancreatic cancer come from?

To preserve their conviction that God is good while confronting the reality of evil, some modern believers—Jewish and Christian—suggest that God means well, and is struggling mightily against evil, but God cannot and does not win every battle. Only over the long term will God, and good, prevail. From the bestselling reflections on When Bad Things Happen to Good People by rabbi Harold Kirshner to the popular studies of Christian pastor and scholar Greg Boyd, these believers cling to God’s goodness at the cost of God’s sovereignty.

The mainstream of both Jewish and Christian thought, however, proceeds from the opposite end of the polarity between God’s goodness and God’s power. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures presume that God rules everything. Nothing happens outside God’s authority.

From the ancient Book of Job, which depicts Satan wreaking havoc on a good man only with the express permission of God, to the last book of the Bible, Revelation, which depicts all manner of horrors being visited on the earth, but only under the auspices of the Almighty, the Bible presumes God’s sovereignty—and wrestles with God’s goodness.

Those Christians who refuse to believe that God is capable of visiting violence and other bad things upon us because they never see Jesus acting that way in the gospels are ignoring a lot of Jesus’s other action. Jesus’s Second Coming—a forceful righting of all wrongs—needs to be considered along with his First. Indeed, between those two Advents, Jesus was elevated to God’s right hand at his ascension and is ruling now as Lord. Thus what happens now is, indeed, subject to his authority—including Alex Trebek’s cancer.

Basic Trinitarian doctrine means that this Jesus is the same God who brought the Flood in Noah’s day, plagues on the Egyptians, and recurring judgment—including various diseases—on recurringly disobedient Israel.

Jesus is the same God whose kingship was so taken for granted that when Jesus’s own disciples encountered a man suffering a congenital defect, they reflexively referred his pathology to God’s judgment, and Jesus answered within the same assumption of divine jurisdiction:

“’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

“Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’” (John 9:2-3).

And if Jesus is Lord of the Church, who is it who struck down both disobedient believers (Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) and unbelievers alike (King Herod in Acts 12)?

The perpetual struggle to believe in God is focused precisely here: not upon the idea that God reigns over all, but that God is yet good, the God who is “working all things together for good” (Romans 8:28).

“How long, O Lord?” asks Job—as do numerous psalm-writers, prophets, and other believers who languish in misery and confusion while awaiting God’s justice. The apostles urge the early Christians to stand strong in their faith—which they wouldn’t have to do if God weren’t allowing bad things to happen to them.

Previously on this site I have made the argument for God’s goodness. (And for a fuller argument, please see here. These are deep waters, of course, and no one can plausibly claim to have fathomed them all.) Today, this single column makes this single point: God is in charge. Of everything. Good and bad.

As tough as it is to hold to that view—what believer would want to attribute all that happens in the world, even if only in an ultimate sense, to the God she loves and worships?—the alternative is grim.

If God is not in fact finally responsible for creating and governing a world in which Alex Trebek gets cancer, if parts of the cosmos are not in fact (yet) under God’s jurisdiction, then we must conclude that (if you’ll forgive this inescapable pun) at least some crucial aspects of our lives in this world are very much in…jeopardy.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).