A Theodicy Of Ants

I’ve been thinking about ants lately. And mice. And Voltaire and suffering and God. Let me explain.  

Recently, a friend sent me a link to this article in which author and NPR contributor Nancy Ellen Abrams seeks to redefine God in human terms. Abrams asserts that God, rather than a real and independent being, is the sum of all collective human consciousness. To illustrate, she describes how ants can work together to build huge and elaborate anthills that would be much too complicated for any of them to understand or build on their own. This, she explains, is how humans have made God into something bigger than we can understand, and why we instinctively know that he exists even if we haven’t the capacity or perspective to behold him.  

The illustration stood out to me because I had used ants to illustrate something about God just a few days before reading the article. I was trying to convey something of the majesty and holiness of the Christian God to my nine-year-old son. I said, “You know that pile of fire ants in the side yard? We compare to God like those ants compare to us. Small, dumb and powerless.” Where Nancy Ellen Abrams saw in ants an illustration for a new kind of god, I saw one for the God of the Bible.  

But there is something else I see in those ants — something that touches on a question that would have been inappropriate to share with my nine-year-old. One of the most persistent and difficult puzzles facing people who believe in a benevolent God is the problem of suffering. Theologians call the question Theodicy: why does a good God allow suffering? The answer, as best I understand it, can be illustrated with ants.  

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul uses a similarly helpless metaphor: clay.  

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
    and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

This is a hard teaching. It’s difficult to grasp Paul’s meaning, and once we do grasp it, we’re offended by it. Paul seems to be saying that our suffering and injustice don’t much matter in the big picture. God has every right to make people for the very purpose of exposing them to suffering, if he wants to. He is our God, not our boss or our president. He is not the best of our kind or the sum of our consciousness. He is altogether different from our kind. His sovereignty is complete. 

This brings us back to the ants. If a fire ant offends my son with its bite, he will slap it. If an anthill offends my lawn care sensibilities, I’ll sprinkle poison on it. If I simply don’t like ants, I’m entirely justified in destroying hundreds of their kind. I don’t have to separate the righteous ants from the unrighteous — the ones who carry their share of food to the queen from the slackers. I don’t have to bend to any ant morality or the cultural norms of the colony. I am of a higher order than the ants. My ways are not their ways. Compared to my life — even compared to my comfort — their lives are expendable.  

I recently encountered this idea in another unexpected place: Voltaire. The French philosopher and playwright whom you probably avoided like fire ants in college literature class. In the last chapter of his Candide, Voltaire offers a similar theodicy from the mouth of one of his characters.

In the neighbourhood there lived a very famous Dervish who was esteemed the best philosopher in all Turkey, and they went to consult him. Pangloss was the speaker.

“Master,” said he, “we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made.”

“With what meddlest thou?” said the Dervish; “is it thy business?”

“But, reverend father,” said Candide, “there is horrible evil in this world.”

“What signifies it,” said the Dervish, “whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?”

This is not a popular teaching because it seems to belittle human suffering. Even if we are only mice or ants, our suffering must mean something. It certainly means something to us! And that’s where the metaphors break down, because the king doesn’t love the mice, and I don’t love the ants. I haven’t sent my son to live with the ants and submit to their kangaroo court, their torture, and death. I have not created the ants in my eternal image nor forged a way for them to commune with me. We are smaller and more insignificant than ants, but God has condescended to us. We are as filthy and troublesome as mice, and yet the King loves us even in our smallness. And he suffers in our suffering.  

God is not an anthill we have made. And he is not removed from our suffering. The matchless message of the gospel is that he is above us and with us, higher than us and lifting us up out of our little mess.