The Presence of Evil and Suffering Pushes to Deeper Thought
Many people think that the problem of evil, with the suffering it brings, is a barrier to belief in God. Let’s face it; this is the big one that leads to much skepticism and troubled faith. Philip Yancey (Finding the Invisible God) thinks it the major apologetic challenge for God and Christian faith, although William Lane Craig claims that philosophers no longer worry about it. The New Atheists have much commentary on the topic; they want the suffering to stop as well. Let’s take it to a bit deeper level because for most of us, it is a problem or at least a confusion. The current conflict in Syria is just one nasty example. There is much wisdom to be garnered as we grapple with such major human concerns.
Aldous Huxley wrote: “In the form we have posed it, the Riddle of the Universe requires a theological answer. Suffering and enjoying, men [women] want to know why they enjoy and to what end they suffer. They see good things and evil things, beautiful things and ugly, and they want to find a reason–a final and absolute reason–why these things should be as they are.”
Here’s how the discussion often proceeds:
1. A God who is infinitely good and loving would not want evil to exist.
2. A God who is all·powerful could remove all evil, if he so desired.
3. Therefore, if God is both good and all-powerful, there would be no evil. Sounds forceful and convincing on surface.
4. But evil continues in the world. Evidence for this is in the news every day. That bugs everyone, both believer and skeptic!
5. Therefore, God (at least a good and all·powerful God) cannot exist. So people like Bertrand Russell conclude.
This argument is superficially convincing. But it has one major flaw. The third point does not follow logically from the first two. All that is required, if God were both good and all-powerful, is that evil would not exist forever. God would at some point have to deal with evil and remove it from his creation. It would require a final reckoning, or settling of the accounts.
The argument thus stated does not recognize the grace of a merciful God. It fails to take into account the love, patience and compassion God has extended to us, his creatures, in delaying the removal of evil from the world (and compensating people for their suffering). There would have to be morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil and suffering.
But let’s try a thought experiment: Suppose God were to immediately wipe out all evil. Where would we stand? Would not all humanity be destroyed? For which one of us is free from evil? No one. Do we not all contribute to the evil and suffering of our world at some level? Far from remaining an intellectual problem “out there”, evil is a moral, existential problem within each of us. It is terribly anthropological–finding its way into our hearts, motives, judgments and actions. We are busted; we have tracked down the enemy and it is us; we humans need to own our part in the drama of evil. And if simple eradication were the only answer, we would have no hope. Most of us want a second chance; cold justice would be clean, but devastating.
But the choice may not be quite so stark: i.e. between inescapable evil and immediate eradication. There is a third alternative, and this is the heart of the Christian message: God became man in Jesus Christ and took upon himself the total, cumulative weight of all the world’s evil and suffering. Jesus died to solve the problem of evil and violence, and to break its back, its power over us (Rene Girard, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning). And when on the cross he cried in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), something happened that is beyond human understanding.
God himself experienced the depths of the problem of evil more intensely than any of us could possibly know or withstand, so that he could free us from the trap, the cycles of evil, war, oppression, destruction of life and property, and self-harm. Os Guinness capture it: “As God became man in Jesus Christ, he was no Whitehall or Pentagon chief, making quick flying inspections of the front line, but one who shared the foxholes, who knew the enemy fire. No other God has wounds.”
God was not interested in simply eliminating evil if that meant getting rid of his entire creation in the process; shockingly however, the Bible claims that he did consider it. Instead, he offers us a way out, the way of forgiveness of our guilt, and the renewal and transformation of our broken lives and suffering world. It offers amazing hope, an unexpected turnaround. We are also offered meaning in our suffering.
How evil will finally end is just as mysterious as its origin; perhaps no adequate account can ever be given. Nevertheless, we are set free from the dilemma of hating God and the depression of wallowing in grinding evil; the Bible envisions the ultimate triumph of good (sourced in an infinitely good, loving Father) over evil, because God acts dramatically on our behalf. There is a way of escape from evil’s machinations, its trap.
As it turns out, God both desires and is able to solve the problem of evil, to bring justice to those who are harmed by it. It is a tremendous gift to us that we can also be part of the solution; we can benefit immensely from his grace and patience; we can turn from evil, resist evil ourselves and embrace the good (Romans 12). So much of the biblical Psalms and the wisdom of Proverbs speak strongly into this situation. But it requires transcendence; we are incapable of defeating evil in our own strength.
The ball is in our court. We must take stock of ourselves if we are not to further contribute to the problem, and commence joining the cleanup crew of a polluted world. We each need radical change (transformed posture/new outlook), and this is what Christianity offers at its core. God has already acted, and is making a way out of evil, war and violence; he has paved the way for peace and forgiveness and reconciliation. Now it is our turn to step up to the challenge, and step into what Dostoyevski called the river of love, and find redemptive meaning in our suffering (Scott Cairns, Peter Kreeft). Mother Teresa was quoted: “The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference to one’s neighbour who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.”
Rather than walking out on God in the midst of suffering and evil, we recommend leaning hard into God for his wisdom, help and rescue. This is a deeper and more fruitful approach to life. If we dare to love, we will most certainly suffer. The deeper question is what can we learn from our disappointments and suffering and how can we reduce the suffering and evil in our circle of influence? Kudos to those who turn terrible tragedy into a will to change society for the better.
~Gord Carkner & Richard Middleton
See also Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: a dare to live fully right where you are.
Globe & Mail Interview: An Atheist’s Defence of Religion http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/an-atheists-defence-of-religion/article552347/
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEc4nLzdlc0 Dr. Alvin Plantinga top philosopher of religion speaks on “Does Evil Disprove God?”
References: Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God; Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering; Desmond Tutu, Hope and Suffering; Scott Cairns. The End of Suffering: finding purpose in pain.
UBC’s English professor Dr. Dennis Danielson did his PhD on the top of Milton & the Problem of Evil, and wrote the book Milton’s Good God. He is in a dialogue on the topic in the GFCF Archives http://www.gfcf-ubc.ca
See also N.T.Wright’s excellent DVD on Evil; Dostoyevski’s works Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot.
C.S.Lewis, The Problem of Pain.
Paul Copan’s book and talk, Is God a Moral Monster? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1C3q3Zr_R8E
GCU Value Note: We include rather than avoid suffering in our discourse–suffering not as a mistake, or a sign of God’s indifference–but as something God deeply identifies with and cares about. God cares deeply about the emotional problem of evil. Clearly Good Friday represents the depth of his concern. Suffering can be used to teach us for our good and help us discover a deeper calling in life; it offers a challenge to our individualistic self-sufficiency, and teaches us compassion for others who suffer. Engaging suffering fruitfully adds meaning to our existence. See the discourse on suffering in Kelly Monroe Kullberg, Finding God After Harvard.