Considered to be the oldest, most perplexing issue when it comes to ‘thinking’ about God and His nature or existence is “The Problem of Evil”.
The answers to the Problem of Evil are known as ‘Theodicy’, which literally means “God Justified”, (meaning God is justified despite the existence of evil). Here is a summary of the issues and their well-considered Theodicy’s (answers to the problems of evil), presented by theologians and philosophers over the centuries.
The Problem Defined – The problem is perhaps most succinctly summarized by David Hume (over 200 years ago) in the following question: “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?”
C. S. Lewis explains the logical problem succinctly, focusing on evil manifested in suffering: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”
Many personalize the problem, with a reluctance to place trust in a God who would allow evil. Of course, this is typically an emotional response, with the alternatives to the existence of God usually not carefully thought out. So, the Theodicy’s have been pondered for ages, designed to figure out this most perplexing problem. Here are a few of them.
The Free Will Defense – The Free Will Defense places the blame for evil and suffering square on the shoulders of fallen mankind. It was the will of God to create a universe in which rational beings could freely decide to love and obey Him. In this universe, the inevitable companion of freely doing good is freely doing evil. This is most clearly evident when we realize that the vast majority of evil occurs at the hand of man, not of God. The hope of mankind therefore is that in the next world, our sufferings will be extinguished and considered worth the price (if they are remembered at all) for the union with the Creator of the Universe.
The Laws Of Nature – The Free Will Defense attributes the vast majority of evil and suffering in the world to man, but there still remains that which is called ‘natural evil’. These are things such as devastating earthquakes, killer storms, fires that ravage homes disease, car accidents and the like. We know from revelation that the world suffers from our bad choices as well. When mankind fell from grace, the world had to fall also (perhaps to accommodate our bad choices!) In creating this world in which we can freely choose for or against God, the essential properties of nature (take the hardness of wood for example) are stable and unchanging. As an example, wood can be used as a building material because of its hardness and flexibility, but it can also be used to bash someone over the head if one chooses to swing it at another. It does not instantly turn into a feather just because it is being used in an ‘evil’ act. It is our abuse of our freedom that hurts the person, not the wood! God made the wood that way, but He did not hurt the person with it. At most, God is indirectly responsible because of the stability of the laws of nature that He instituted, but again, these are required for our exercise of our free will. Philip Yancey illustrates this issue well:
…giving a child a pair of ice skates, knowing that he may fall, is a very different matter from knocking him down on the ice.” Yancey; Where Is God When It Hurts; pg 65
In this world we are left to make our own choices, and then left to the consequences of them. If God were to step in each time and save us, say, by making the piece of lumber turn soft as a feather just before it hits me across the head, then I will not be living in a world that is free to choose. I would make different choices knowing that I would be saved from harm.
Suffering Is A Reminder To Us That We Are Not In Control – Taken to the extreme, this Theodicy describes the fallen world as a place in which God ‘shapes souls’, but I believe that this a bit off the mark. More likely, according to scripture, the pain and evil we will inevitably experience is sometimes used by God to remind us of our fallibility and cause us to search for what we long for – peace with our finiteness. In the end, we will ALL suffer the ultimate disappointment – death.
When we are fat and happy, we are generally content with ourselves, even if the majority of our neighbors in the world live in hunger or suffering. It is precisely our hungers, our sicknesses, and our pain that remind us that we are not happy in this world, and cause us to look for hope beyond what we see here. This was summarized perfectly in C.S. Lewis’ famous lines:
…the human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it…God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscious, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Lewis; The Problem Of Pain; ppg 92-93
The person who realizes this and searches for answers from the Giver of our purpose will have the strongest faith because of the suffering. Rabbi Abraham Heschel says it clearly: “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken.”
Christianity Has A Unique Perspective On Evil and Suffering – ALL other ‘religions’ place mankind in a position of reaching to God by achieving requiring perfection or pacification of their gods. But as we have learned elsewhere with God and Christ, unique in Christianity, He instead is reaching to us. The same is true regarding suffering. We know that God does not want us to suffer, but we do because of the nature of the fallen world. God has such compassion on us and our condition, that He SHARED in our suffering – from the pains of birth to the strains of growing up, even to the point of accepting a horrible death! Indeed, the entire message of God’s revelation to us (the Bible) is the story of how God will redeem mankind from this suffering, restore the creation back to the way it was meant to be, and reconcile us back to Him. With Christianity, we are assured that we do not belong in this world. ALL other ‘religions’ assert that we must simply accept our miserable lot in life, and eventually die, placing ourselves at a ruthless god’s mercy (at the best!) In contrast, with a view of the future unlike the others, Christians show their faith when looking after the suffering, caring and sympathizing for them. It is a most compassionate means of displaying the love of Christ. Christians don’t focus on the question of ‘Why?’, but on ‘What can I do?’ The false religions essentially tell us to ‘just deal with it.’
Most importantly, we are assured that suffering is NOT used by God as punishment for sins. Christ took compassion on the sufferings of those He came across, never once saying ‘you’re getting what you deserve!” This is most clearly exemplified when Christ was asked by His disciples why some died in a construction accident, or why a person was born with birth defects:
…Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish! Luke 13:4
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor His parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.” John 9:2b-3
Turning the question of evil around, many have proposed that the existence of evil does not in fact disprove the existence of God, but in fact PROVES His existence! How? One must consider how one classifies something as evil. If there is no lawgiver, then there is no law. If the forces of nature are the ultimate reality, then suffering and ‘evil’ are natural things, and we should just accept them. In fact, we must expect them as part of life, just as we would the ‘good’ things in life…in effect, there is no difference! We cannot call something ‘evil’ as if it was wrong, because it is just natural. A person hurting another would have a reason to, because it is his nature to. Extend this thinking on to the generally accepted evils of the world, from a school bus crashing, to the holocaust. But, something inside us tells us that these things are more than just undesirable, that they are wrong. But without a basis of right and wrong, we cannot call something wrong. We know that might does not make right (take Nazism for example), so we go to war in the 1940’s to stop the spread of evil. We know there are reasons that drive us to do this, because if there weren’t no one would have gone to war, because it certainly wasn’t in their personal interest to do so! Therefore, by definition right and wrong must be prescribed by something beyond nature. That being is called God – and He puts that sense in us to cause us to seek Him.
“…they show the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thought now accusing, now even defending them.” Romans 2:15
Finally, we must keep a proper perspective upon evil and suffering in our lives. It is so easy to fall into a ‘human-centered’ frame of mind, and think that God is here to please us and to make our lives comfortable. But nothing could be further from the truth. The cosmos is designed to be ‘God-centered’. We must remember that the purpose of life is to serve God and to serve others, not to satisfy our own desires or to seek total comfort. We live in a fallen world, which is due to our own sin and rebellion from Him. God has every reason to give up on every one of us, even the most ‘good’ of us, yet He doesn’t because of His love and grace. We should therefore live our lives in constant thankfulness and praise because of that love and grace, even despite our human condition of suffering.
We must also remember that we are finite beings trying to understand the ways of the infinite, so we ‘see through the glass darkly’, and will never be able to understand the total blessings that an infinite God has in store for us. We therefore place our trust in the promise that our sufferings in this world will be ‘worth the price’ on that blessed day of reunion with God, through Christ.
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
“You [the Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge:’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful or me to know.” Job 42:3
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. Romans 8:18-19, 28