Today we are going to look at perhaps the most difficult question that any human can face: the problem of evil and suffering. The problem of pain.
This is a problem that everyone has to resolve. Christians agonize over how to think about the recent shootings in Aurora, CO and the wildfires that swept the state and affected Colorado Springs. This past week, my wife and I have had to wrestle with this question due to some painful injustices we have experienced in regards to our housing situation.
Sometimes we are mainly concerned about the inevitability and the tragedy of death. When it is a family member or close friend who passes away, the loss can make us begin to wonder about the goodness of God.
Often these questions arise because of our circumstances. If we struggle to pay our bills, or find a good job, or get married, or have children, or get healthy–and everyone struggles with these things from time to time–then we begin to wonder: is God really there? And is God really good?
Our struggle to handle the problem of evil is true whether a person is an atheist or a Buddhist, a Muslim or an agnostic. Every person and every worldview has to make sense of suffering and evil.
Today we are going to see how Christianity can make sense of evil and suffering. We aren’t going to go into the sophisticated philosophical arguments for and against Christianity, though we can of course discuss these during the discussion time at the end of today’s session.
Rather, we are going to look at this issue on two key doubts that frame this entire discussion. If we can resolve these two doubts well, then it is possible to achieve a far more satisfying resolution to the intellectual and existential challenge that suffering creates.
But let’s be clear – the most important part of this process is to listen, listen, listen. When someone is grieving or hurting, they rarely want answers. They often want a hug. Trying to fix someone or, worse, argue with them, is typically counter-productive. You have to use your best judgment about how to love someone well. Sometimes we show love by reasoning carefully and explaining the power of the Christian perspective on evil and suffering. People’s minds matter. But at other times, depending on the circumstances, we need to choose another method of loving our friends.
One of the central points of this series has been the idea that “doubt” often means “to not believe that God is really God.”
There are two specific ways that I think doubt surfaces when it comes to the problem of evil. In particular, we are tempted to believe two things:
1. God is not good – He is responsible for human suffering.
2. Humans are good – we are not responsible for human suffering.
It is these two beliefs, more than any other, that amplify the problem of pain and distance us from God. Think about it with me:
First, the more we believe God to be responsible for our suffering, the less likely we are to trust God, worship God, or be willing to serve God.
Similarly, the less responsibility we believe that humans have for causing suffering, the less likely we are to believe that we stand in need of God. We will not see our need for forgiveness, for mercy, for grace, and for God’s unconditional love of us. The more we think that we basically have things covered, because we are basically good people, the less likely we are to look to God for a solution to the problem of evil.
In other words, our temptation is to think that God (or religion) is the problem and we are the solution. If we just had better government, or education, or technology, or communication, then the problem of suffering would be removed from our world.
Imagine a child who has been obedient to her parents. Does she deserve to be grounded? No. If the child is grounded for no reason, her parents have treated her badly. I think this is how we feel: we’re being punished for no fault of our own, and God is responsible for the hurt we feel.
This attitude is the opposite of the Biblical perspective, where human sinfulness is the problem and God is the solution.
If we have the world’s default perspective, the problem of evil can never be resolved. But if we have the Bible’s perspective, then, while we will continue to grieve the fallenness and brokenness of our world, we will also have an active hope and trust in God’s love and goodness.
So what we need to do today is look carefully and see what reasons there are to think that humans are good and God is bad – or if the reverse is true.
We are going to start by examining the second idea, the sense that humans are basically good.
There are a few different ways to tackle this idea.
One of my favorites is to quote my late grandfather, who was a wise and loving man. He was incredibly generous, a man of exceptional integrity, had a terrific sense of humor, had a positive personality, and was a great leader. I asked him on many occasions, especially towards the end of his life, what he would say were the most important things he had learned about life.
It was always disconcerting for me to hear him say, each time, that “people are selfish.” I didn’t like to think that was true. I didn’t like to believe that was true of my grandfather, who lived life well. But nevertheless, I think my grandfather was on to something.
Simone de Beauivor, the influential French existentialist, said much the same thing:
I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.
The Apostle James, in his letter, wrote about this as well (James 4:1-3):
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.
Diverse authorities, from the Bible to my grandfather to Simone de Beauivor, all agree: humans are selfish.
I wonder, if you are honest with yourself, if you would admit to being selfish. It is a hard thing to admit, sometimes it is even harder to admit this at church, but is it possible that you and I are selfish people as well? Do we not have a tendency to look after our own interests first, and then if there is extra, to consider the needs of others?
But if we are selfish, are we also good? I suppose that some would argue that human selfishness is what makes capitalism work, and so it is a noble and good thing to be selfish. I don’t want to get into the details of that, but we have to ask if selfishness works in other contexts: does selfishness make marriages work? If parents are selfish with their kids, how does that affect their children? If your boss treats you badly to feel good about himself, how does that make you feel?
Finally, we can also look at the historical evidence of human atrocities.
I’m going to quote at length from the work of Clay Jones, a professor at Biola in California, to establish the point that humans are selfish and hurt one another in the most mundane and ordinary of ways, time and time and time again. The historical data shows that horrendous evil is often perpetuated by incredibly regular people.
Here’s just a small sampling of the information that Dr. Jones has collected:
The Soviets forced 6 million Ukranians to die of starvation in 1932-33:
No mercy was shown the starving peasants. During the famine, detachments of workers and activists were marshaled in the countryside to take every last bit of produce or grain. Activists and officials went through peasant homes with rods, pushing them into walls and ceilings, seeking hidden stores of food or grain; yards were dug up or poked with rods in the search; and dogs were brought in to sniff out food…. Baked bread was taken. All reserves and the seed grain needed for planting were seized. The peasants were left with nothing. To isolate the victims, the Ukrainian borders were sealed off to block the importation of food. The peasants simply starved slowly to death throughout the Ukraine.
Under the Chinese communists a conservative estimate is that 26 to 30 million “counterrevolutionaries” were killed or died in the prison system. Of course, a statistic doesn’t capture the horror. Consider the words of Mao Tse Tung who boasted in a 1958 speech to the communist party, “What’s so unusual about Emperor Shih Huang of the Chin Dynasty? He had buried alive 460 scholars only, but we have buried alive 46,000 scholars.” When I first read this I thought it impossible! Burying people alive must be a metaphor! But further research proved that burying people alive was a common method of execution.
Since 1973, the United States has aborted 50,000,000 babies and continues abortion today. Most aborted babies are suctioned to pieces, many are scalded to death by saline solutions, others are dismembered with a curette, and, until recently, thousands of others, as late even as the ninth month, were partially delivered, only to have their heads’ pierced and their brains suctioned out to collapse their skulls.
For the German holocaust, 10,005 concentration camps have been identified positively. The major camps had many satellite camps. For example, Dachau had 174 satellite camps and Auschwitz had 50 satellite camps and 7,000 guards. Mauthausen had 5,700 people staffing it and its satellite camps. And what did these satellite camps do? They provided hundreds of thousands of slave laborers for corporations with names like Daimler-Benz, BMW, Volkswagen, Krupp, and I G. Farben, who produced the Zyklon-B used in the gas chambers. The Bayer Corporation was a subsidiary of I. G. Farben and sold Zyklon-B out of its sales office. Of course, countless administrators, typists, rail workers, policemen, truck drivers, and factory workers knew—and their families knew—what was going on.
Historian George Kren and psychologist Leon Rappoport summarized their experiences from studying the Holocaust:
What remains is a central, deadening sense of despair over the human species. Where can one find an affirmative meaning in life if human beings can do such things? Along with this despair there may also come a desperate new feeling of vulnerability attached to the fact that one is human. If one keeps at the Holocaust long enough, then sooner or later the ultimate truth begins to reveal itself: one knows, finally, that one might either do it, or be done to. If it could happen on such a massive scale elsewhere, then it can happen anywhere; it is all with in the range of human possibility, and like it or not, Auschwitz expands the universe of consciousness no less than landings on the moon.
That final line sends chills down my spine: “If it could happen on such a massive scale elsewhere, then it can happen anywhere; it is all with in the range of human possibility, and like it or not, Auschwitz expands the universe of consciousness no less than landings on the moon.”
This is a hard point to accept, because it so wounds our pride. But as difficult as it is for our egos and for our self-esteem, I think the rational perspective on human nature, from both a historical perspective and from looking into the often petty but stubborn selfishness of our own lives, we have to admit that humans are not good.
The reasoned perspective is that humans, while capable of great good, are fundamentally broken and selfish.
Whether it is a variety of authorities, an honest look at our own hearts, or a wide range of historical data, we have good reason to conclude that human sin is actually the problem – and to be quite skeptical that human goodness is the solution to suffering and evil.
So what about our other doubt – the doubt about God? Is God like us? Is God evil?
Or is God even worse than most of us, a megalomaniac tyrant who proudly craves worship and blood sacrifice?
Or is God gentle and humble in heart, full of love and mercy, and eager to sacrifice for humans?
Is God responsible for our suffering – or is He working for our good?
This is a question with many specifics. Doubts can be raised from the Old Testament and the New, whether we are considering the invasion of Canaan or some of the more terrifying scenes in Revelation. Each of these objections are worth considering in detail and giving fair credence to.
Today I want to focus on the big picture of the Bible: the major acts of God.
Consider Creation. God makes everything good. He makes humans in his own image! He makes promises to the first humans, offering them his protection, guidance, and presence.
When humans turn aside from God, what happens?
God makes covenantal promises – very solemn vows – to save and redeem humans. Whether we are discussing Adam and Eve, or Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David, with every major figure of the Old Testament, we see God making incredible promises to save and deliver his people from their sin and suffering.
When human sin continues to undo God’s saving work, to the point that the nation of Israel is defeated in bloody battles with hostile nations, what does God do? Does he sit back and celebrate? Or does He redouble His commitment to save us?
The coming of Jesus, God himself, as a human being, is an astonishing assertion. What a fantastic claim! Moreover, that Jesus – who is God – would heal the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, oppose the religious and political leaders for their selfishness, and offer incredibly wise teaching that has spread over the entire world, is a powerful testimony to God’s desire to relieve suffering!
But what is the central drama of the Bible? Surely it is the death and resurrection of Jesus. God – dying for humans – the innocent – dying for the guilty – the powerful – dying for the powerless – the Great Lover – dying for His enemies – is an amazing story of good triumphing over evil.
How does God die? Because humans kill God! Jesus is the problem and humans are the solution. If we can get rid of Jesus, peace and true religion will prevail. We must murder Him. His death is our salvation. As the Gospel of John tells us, “It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.”
The marvelous thing is that Jesus death was our salvation. His resurrection is an eternal reminder that God is stronger than evil, sin, and death. God will end all that oppresses us – and He will do so with sacrificial love. God will complete this work through the church, and ultimately, when He returns to earth.
Perhaps you have doubts about whether Jesus existed, or rose from the dead, that is a separate issue – one worthy of examining in detail. But what we are saying now is that, in light of the Biblical story, it is coherent for Christians to believe that God is good.
So, as we consider the cross and the resurrection, and the whole scope of the Bible’s narrative, the Christian has every reason to believe is that God is good – supremely good.
Think with me about the suffering that bothers you.
Is it the pain of your parents’ divorce?
Is it sexual abuse?
Is it being badly treated at work?
Is it racism or sexism?
Who causes these things? God? Or humans?
Perhaps your suffering comes from something like a premature death due to cancer or a heart attack, and the effects this loss had on your or your family. Perhaps it is an illness you are currently enduring.
But according to the Bible, why do humans experience sickness and death? Why are we not in paradise? Why are we not in God’s presence, enjoying His protection? And – what has God done to overturn the sting of death? Has God shown himself willing to heal and restore even our bodies?
We are tempted to believe that God is responsible for our suffering and that we are the solution. But reason and the Bible teach us the opposite: our suffering is primarily a result of human selfishness, and the ultimate hope for our salvation rests in the goodness of God.
If you can tackle those two fundamental doubts, then you are a long way down the road to resolving the problem of evil.
In the meantime, my hope is that our church will be a community of compassion, of grieving with others in their distress, of listening, generosity, service, prayer, and hope. May God so empower us to be like Christ in these ways.
This post was originally published at Reasons for God.