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This is a message series that in some respects has been in the works for my entire lifetime. But it really started to gel together last year when I went to the Ft. Wayne Museum of Art to see an exhibit of photographs from WW II. It was a very touching and amazingly powerful experience. Images of bombs being dropped by the score as planes flew over metropolitan areas, photos of Japanese and American bodies spread across the sand of some beach in the south Pacific, pictures of the mass graves of the holocaust holding the piles of corpses of people who had been slain for no other reason than their ethnicity.
It is much easier to speak of evil as an abstraction than to see it in concrete reality. That being the case, I have decided to display a few of those horrific images. Disclaimer: they are indeed horrific, even shocking.
As I looked at those images, I wondered aloud what could cause one man to do something so horrendous to another. But the question was only rhetorical because I intuitively knew the answer. Only one word could explain such atrocity: evil. But what was even more frightening was that I knew this not just intellectually but at a very deep level, an almost subconscious level. Moral evil is ubiquitous.
Then there is the problem of what is called natural evil. In 1975, a 729 ft. Great Lakes freighter named the Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior taking all 29 members of the crew with her. Gordon Lightfoot wrote a very popular song about that event, aptly named The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald. It tells the story of how a November gale blew in with winds at 50 knots producing 35 foot waves which flooded the great ship and broke it apart when it was about 15 miles from Whitefish Bay. In the middle of the song, the lyrics ask a most profound question: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”
Where is God when it hurts? Where is God in the midst of pain, suffering, and great evil? These are the tough questions aren’t they? Questions that simply can’t be satisfied with simple textbook answers; simple, impotent quips of Christianese. Genuine faith must rest on something beyond simple answers to complex questions. Our theological statements need (at some level) to match up with our experience of reality.
The Problem of Evil
One of the chief issues raised by atheists and agnostics is what is called “the problem of evil.” Philosopher David Hume framed it like this, “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 able and willing? Whence then is evil?” In other words, if God is all-powerful and all-good, then why is there pain and suffering in the world? Either He is not all-powerful and is thus impotent to do anything about it or He is not all-good and is simply unwilling. If He is both powerful and good, then why does evil exist in the world?
I will attempt to answer that question from three perspectives: philosophical, existential, and theological, understanding of course that in life there is a fair amount of crossover or blending that takes place in these perspectives. As I mentioned, this is something that I have given a great deal of thought to and have read somewhat widely in my own attempt to understand suffering. Thus I should like to acknowledge that some of my thinking on this topic has been shaped by the writing of C. S. Lewis, N. T. Wright, Viktor Frankl, Chad Meister, and many others.
So off we go. Since the question is primarily philosophical, we will begin there.
One of the biggest contributions that postmodernism has made in philosophy is to expose the modernist myth of progress. The doctrine of progress in modernist philosophy teaches that with time, man and society will get better and better with the proper application of science and technology. It was, however, the modern age and all of its advanced technology that ushered in the Holocaust and the atomic bomb. Clearly, in spite of the political rhetoric of both parties, man is clearly powerless to solve the problem of evil on his own.
But what about God? Can God do anything about it? Is God powerful? Well, in short, yes. In fact God has solved the issue of evil, but to talk about that in depth now would be to get ahead of myself because we really need to consider the mechanics of that when we get to the theology perspective, so we will table it for now. But from a purely philosophical perspective, I would like to make two points. First, if there is a creator God, then His power can be clearly seen in creation, a fact to which the Bible clearly bears witness, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20).
Second, God has built into creation certain rules that govern it, some physical, some moral. What do I mean by physical rules? Simply the laws of physics which govern the orderly operation of the universe. But what do I mean by moral rules? Simply this: that God has created the universe to be a moral place and for morality to exist, there must be choice. If choice exists then man must have free will. If God has designed man to have free will then it would be nonsense for God to use His power to vanquish evil by impeding man’s will to choose it.
So then, it’s not that God is powerless to stop evil but that God has allowed man to choose between evil and good.
Is God good? In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes, “If God is wiser than we, His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.”
But how do we account for the goodness of God given the existence of such horror in the world?
- The free will defense – Genuine love can only exist within the context of free will. If you don’t like the way God designed it, how would you have done it differently?
- There could be reasons for horrendous evil that God has not communicated to us – it seems reasonable that there is an infinite perspective on events that we are unable to see. For instance, if we have roles to play in eternity then perhaps those roles are better served by our leaving this life at what seems like, from our temporal perspective, a premature or unfinished stage.
- Our culture is very hedonistic in its approach to life. Pursue pleasure at any cost and avoid pain at all costs. Maybe that is why the divorce rate is so high in this country. When things get hard, when things get painful I need to run away from the perceived source of pain. However, sometimes what is good can be painful. Shots, surgery, the discipline of a parent, all of these things can be painful but all are ultimately for our benefit.
- “The purpose in life may not be for us to be as happy or comfortable as possible, but rather to come to know God and His kingdom. It seems that God’s primary desires are that we trust Him, believe what He says, and follow Him wherever He leads. But it may take hardships of many kinds for us to be broken enough to swallow our pride and finally wake up and hear His voice.” – Chad Meister, Building Belief. God can use evil and suffering in our lives for our own greater good – it’s not that God wants or even causes bad things to happen to us, but He can take them and use them in positive ways.
The Problem of Good
When someone complains that a good God could not possibly allow evil to exist, therefore there must be no God, he must answer a very challenging question: what exactly does he mean by terms like good and evil? Without God there can be no objective meaning to those words and if there is no objective meaning to words like good and evil then the argument against God falls apart. In other words, if the terms good and evil are subjective, a matter of mere personal opinion, then good really means “what I like” and evil means “what I don’t like.” What he is really saying then is this, “if there was a God He would only do what I like and would not allow what I don’t like.” Obviously, a statement like that can’t hold because everyone has different taste, different likes and dislikes.
On the other hand, if the terms good and evil have some objective value to them, if they mean something beyond mere personal opinion, then there must be an objective value giver Who sets an absolute standard. And herein lies the problem for the atheist, in attempting to demonstrate logically that an all good and all powerful God cannot exist, he smuggles into the equation the very thing he is arguing against: a transcendent God to give objective definition to terms like good and evil.
That’s all well and good, but logical arguments aren’t really enough because logic doesn’t really answer the deeper questions does it? Questions like purpose and meaning; if God is good and God is powerful, then there must be some purpose, some meaning to suffering. Logic alone is hardly comforting to the person who has just suffered some great evil, to the person who has suddenly lost a loved one or has fallen victim to some violent attack; to the person who has been cheated out of her life savings, or has watched her home burn to the ground. And this is to say nothing of the matter of horrendous evil. To even utter the names of places like Auschwitz, or Darfur conjures images of evil, so vile, that to offer any kind of explanation for them seems altogether beyond the realm of human reason, even though it is human reason that has produced such evils.
So we must depart from the realm of philosophy and dive into the deeper waters of the existential perspective.
First let me define my use of the word existential. I do not use it in the vein of French existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre who contends that man simply needs to come to terms with the utter meaninglessness of existence. In general I mean simply that each person has certain experiences which are encountered in the course of his existence and that we must in some way square all of our theories and philosophies (and I believe our theologies for that matter) with the way they are borne out in our existence.
It seems that most people who point to suffering as the primary obstacle to faith, have themselves never suffered much. It seems that they are always pointing to the suffering of others as an excuse for their own lack of faith. Paradoxically, it seems that those who are actually in the midst of the most intense suffering are also the people who possess the deepest and most abiding faith. And in most cases, that faith is completely unhooked from intellectual reasoning. It is a faith that is essentially rooted in one’s existence, in other words, they have come to this deep abiding faith because in the midst of their suffering they have reached the end of themselves and have begun to seek God. And in the midst of this searching they have had a genuine encounter with God because He is not very far from each one of us.
Viktor Frankl, was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who wrote a wonderful book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. While in a Nazi prison camp he observed that people of faith had a very different reaction to their suffering than those who were faithless, because they could turn inward to the spiritual realm and find meaning in the midst of suffering.
He also noted that genuine faith is unconditional – I think this is what Job meant when he said “Though he slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15). This statement is one of the most profound statements of unconditional trust in the Bible. Interestingly enough, the Apostles wrote a great deal about this. The Apostle Paul wrote these lines from his prison cell: “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-11). Paul’s unconditional trust in God was clearly rooted in his existential encounter with the risen Lord.
In fact, from the existential perspective, the prevailing question seems to be this: can you see Him? God is always there, but do you see Him? Knowing God is there intellectually is rarely an issue, but seeing Him in the midst of suffering can be challenging indeed. It’s kind of like this magic eye image. On the surface, it’s really just a mess. But after some time and effort, when we shift our focus in just the right way, our vision changes and a crystal clear image of God begins to emerge.