The Best of All Possible Worlds
It was an ironic Kris Kristofferson song. It has become a somewhat clichéd expression.
However, the phrase “best of all possible worlds” actually comes from a serious philosophical work, Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It was part of his effort to reconcile free will, determinism, and the problem of evil in a Creation established by a loving God.
If you’re like most people, when you hear the expression, you immediately think, “I sure hope not,” or, “That’s not right.” Even if you’re not a Christian, or if you don’t believe in original sin, it’s not hard to conceive of circumstances where there is less pain, suffering, and death, where people act more kindly and lovingly toward one another. Even most who accept death as “a necessary part of life” still think that there’s something wrong when parents must bury children.
Leibniz looked at things just a bit differently. He treated God like a mathematician — or a casino odds maker. He assumed that God knew everything would come unglued once it was made and taught that He’d put everything together so as to minimize the damage once sin was loosed in Creation.
While Leibniz probably thought that he’d discovered cause for optimism, I think that it’s a really cynical way of understanding God, ultimately seeing Him as someone who’d chosen not merely the lesser of two evils but the least of all possible evils.
For this and other reasons, philosophers and theologians have rejected Leibniz’s way of thinking almost since he espoused it. Bertrand Russell considered the concept illogical. Voltaire so thoroughly scorned the concept that he mocked it throughout Candide. There, Dr. Pangloss uses “best of all possible worlds” as an ongoing mantra. From Voltaire, English gained the adjective panglossian, meaning naively or unreasonably optimistic.
Yet even when we admit that this is a broken, fallen, hurting, bleeding, and dying Creation, we also realize that it’s a Creation filled with beauty, wonder, love, and light.
I thought of this as I watched the Perseids, the annual August meteor shower. Beautiful light trails and occasional brilliant fireballs blaze across the sky as tiny dust motes from slowly disintegrating comets rip into earth’s atmosphere at amazing speed.
Much of earth’s natural beauty comes from changing, decaying nature. Erosion, a bane of crop farmers, carries off tons of fertile soil every year. Erosion also helped to carve such majesty as the mountains, canyons, caverns, and the stone arches and bridges of the West. Scarred though it be, Creation still reflects at least some of the majesty of its Creator.
The Christian knows that for all its beauty, this world is not the best but also realizes that even with its brokenness, it isn’t the worst. We still await the best world, for God says, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth. (Isaiah 65:17)”
This New Creation awaits all who have faith in Jesus as their Savior and who know that the Father forgives their sins because of the Christ’s sacrifice. The worst possible world, of course, is that to which the impenitent unbelievers are condemned.
While neither the best nor the worst, we know this world is better off for having Christ as its Redeemer. His Church makes it better — this not because Christians elevate the world through their own holiness but because they bring Jesus’ goodness into bad circumstances and situations. The saints care for their broken brothers and sisters and do good even for the earth’s most wicked inhabitants in response to the infinitely greater good Jesus has done fore us. Until our time here ends, this remains the best place for us to receive Christ’s forgiveness and to show mercy for His sake.
Best world or worst? Isn’t this a nonsense question? This is the only world in which we now live, although as Christians, we know that by faith we are are citizens of the New Creation.
Here, our Good Shepherd guides and guards us. In this place we learn to trust our loving God to do what is best for us. This is where we respond in kind to His love by loving those around us.
NB: I wrote this rather quickly during the wee hours of Monday night and Tuesday morning, before and after our meteor watching excursion. I wasn’t scheduled but was asked to step in when the scheduled writer was unable to turn in something for the weekly column rotated among area ministers.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, hymn writer, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
Article first appeared in The Concordian of 14 August AD 2013.