Cancer, probability, normality and theodicy – part 4

Said no one at any funeral ever: “I figured out the probability for why he died.” [1]

Part Two and Part Three of this series of posts looked why the statistics for cancer, automobile accidents and other unfortunate life events are often so rigidly probabilistic in narrow ranges in aggregate. In other words, we can often predict “How many?” down to an uncomfortably-accurate tally, but the “Who, specifically?” and “Why me, specifically?” questions tends to elude us.

And this is likely why these questions have for centuries been the domain of “God language” in most of the many cultures of the world. Note that many questions started out expressed in God language, and then largely left that sphere. Take, for instance, the movement of the planets and the reason behind an eclipse of the Sun. As science moved into this realm of human inquiry, religion mostly moved out (even though a large segment of people still see divine portents in astronomical events and rely on their daily horoscope for guidance).

However, some of these questions refuse to go quietly into the math/science sphere because, I suggest, the math/science answers are so unforgivingly brutal. We are pleased when the lottery odds work in our favor, but winning a “cancer lottery” or an “auto accident lottery” just won’t fly for most people as an acceptable answer.

In this last of this series of posts, I will try to lay out the briefest overview of humankind’s attempts to answer the big Theodicy (“the justice of God”) question regarding unfortunate life events: “Why me, specifically?” [2] This is a very incomplete attempt at this topic and too heavy on western culture’s religious traditions, but I am simply trying here to demonstrate the diversity of answers from human culture. No one of these has risen to the top of widespread global acceptance, although each may have many millions of adherents.

Hindus and Buddhists posit karma as the cause of good and bad things happening to people, requiring the theology of reincarnation to evolve to explain why justice is often not realized within a single lifespan. [3] The Buddhist “Noble Truth” of dukka is central as well, difficult to translate, but sometimes called a “radical acceptance of suffering and impermanence” as the path to facing the challenges of life. [4]

I discussed the Greek tradition of the Fates or the Moirai in an earlier post. That tradition probably comes to the closest of acknowledging something resembling mathematical probability as a driving force of nature. But it also leaves humans as helpless pawns in changing that fate.

In classical Islam, there is an internal jihad as well as an external one (the common use of the word so feared by non-Muslims), and that internal jihad is the “personal struggle against evil” that yields inner strength for facing challenge and adversity. [5]

The Jewish tradition records the self-revealing, arbitrary, and often angry Yahweh (“I am that I am,” or “I will be what I will be” from Moses’ experience with the burning bush) in the Bible’s Old Testament. In the book of Job, for example, the faithful Job’s question of why, despite his devotion, he had to lose his family and suffer with boils is met less with explanation than with a display of God’s power and fury. God appears in a whirlwind and demands, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” [6]

From the Christian gospel tradition comes a story about the deaths of eighteen people killed when a tower fell on them at a place called Siloam. When the crowd asks Jesus why these people suffered, he refuses to cast causative blame on the victims, as some in the crowd were suggesting. But then he proceeds to tell one of his more obscure parables, one which implies that the rest of his listeners should not get too complacent in their innocence: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” [7] This is not the kind, gentle Jesus from Sunday School.

The earliest gospel accounts of Jesus emerged in writing decades after his crucifixion. The gospel attributed to Mark, most likely the earliest to appear, emphasizes through numerous parables and aphorisms that justice and relief from life’s travails will come in the form of an imminent “Kingdom of God.” The much-later gospel of John plays down that imminence in exchange for a more “other-world” promise of the Kingdom.

When the Kingdom of God did not arrive in the years after Jesus, Paul of Tarsus and the other epistle writers also shifted the emphasis to justice being found in the “next life,” through the theology of grace (charis). The word first appears to show up in the Hellenistic churches, adapting the language of the Greek “reciprocity” concept of social hierarchy. [8] But once adapted to Christianity, the concept has never stopped being a source of doctrinal and denominational fracture in the centuries following. Importantly, Christian grace is neither random nor probabilistic. Rather there is some “divine Providential purpose” beyond human understanding behind the good and bad things that hit your life, and many Christians today still find comfort in a faith that somehow, “things will be all right in the end.”

In its 16th century Calvinist incarnation, however, the theology of grace becomes decidedly deterministic (and thus eerily “Einsteinian” [9]). French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) suggested a form of predestination (endlessly debated and parsed by his spiritual descendants), because an “all-knowing” God must surely know your eternal destiny, the good and the bad that will happen to you, from your beginning days.

In contrast to Calvin, and in a theological split that exists among Christians yet today, Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) brought the concept of free will back into the picture to dance with divine grace as explanation for the good and bad that humans inflict upon each other. Now we are in the realm of human volition, which will be the topic of upcoming posts.

My goodness, this all sounds very fatalistic, doesn’t it? Let me suggest that the very reason for all these varied approaches to theodicy over the centuries is because the problem has to be faced one person at a time. This affects me at my most existential place, and as the old song says, “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.” [10] In the end, I simplify it down to personalizing the three statements I introduced in an earlier post about Einstein’s God.

I really wish…
I really hope…
I really fear…


  1. Although feel free to say that at mine.
  2. For my past introduction to Theodicy and Gottfried Leibniz, click here.
  3. Sayadaw, Ven. “The Theory of Karma.” Basic Buddhism.
  4. O’Brien, Barbara. “Life Is Suffering? What Does That Mean?” ThoughtCo, Jul. 10, 2017
  5. Ismail, Dalia. Theodicy in Islam.
  6. Exodus 3:1-6Job 38:1-11.
  7. Luke 13:1-8
  8. The charis/grace is passed down from those higher in the social hierarchy to those lower, and the “eucharis” offer of thanksgiving goes back up the chain.
  9. For my take on Albert Einstein’s scientific determinism and his “God language,” click here.
  10. Listen to singer-songwriter John Stewart, one of my favorites, sing the Billy Edd Wheeler song, “The Reverend Mr. Black,” that became Stewart’s first hit after joining the Kingston Trio, replacing original member Dave Guard. Stewart’s own later composition, “Daydream Believer,” was originally supposed to be a Kingston Trio song, but the group broke up before recording it, and it was sold instead to the Monkees, the resulting royalties paying Stewart’s bills for many years.

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3 thoughts on “Cancer, probability, normality and theodicy – part 4

  1. Pingback: Cancer, probability, normality and theodicy – part 3 – When God Plays Dice

  2. Pingback: Wait for it…wait for it… – When God Plays Dice

  3. Pingback: Stupid stuff and the probability of tragedy – When God Plays Dice

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