Well, let’s admit it; this has been a year littered with tears and tragedy. A child molester brought to justice a decade too late; a child killer left an entire nation grieving at what was supposed to be the happiest time of the year; and on the opening night of arguably the best movie of the summer, a psycho unleashes a deadly dose of his craziness. I could go on, but really, what’s the point?!? This is a question that no person throughout history has ever exhaustively wrestled to the ground, ‘how could unspeakable tragedy befall seemingly innocent people’ better known as ‘the problem of evil’.
The problem of evil is just that, a serious problem for serious thinkers, and to ignore this notion is to have a naïve understanding about our own human cognitive capacity in comparison to mind of God. To put it bluntly, the two can’t be compared. Trying to compare the human mind, even the greatest of brains in all of human history, to the mind of God is like comparing my dog’s ability to read Greek in the dark with someone who invented the Greek language. In theological circles this is referred to as a theodicy, a term that refers to justifying God’s ways to human minds. In other words the Creator choses what and when to reveal His thoughts to His creation. Now you can spin your wheels never achieving clarity on why 20 children between the ages 5 and 10 would be brutally murdered…or you can ask a better question, one you can actually answer: What has God expressed to us concerning evil in this world (this indicates the intellectual problem of evil1) and how should we respond when evil acts take place (this indicates the emotional problem of evil)? This is how the redeemed should negotiate catastrophe: with a Bible, clear logic, and a compassionate heart as opposed to bad theology, bumper sticker slogans, and emotionalism divorced from hope2. So with that in mind, the following is what God has expressed in His explicit moral will concerning the horrifying evil acts that take place in His creation.
Before I provide the following thoughts I want to confess the reason for waiting before responding or commenting in light of the most recent tragedy. It simply comes down to this, for everything there is a time, a time to mourn and a time to process. Before attempting to negotiate catastrophe through a biblical worldview, I felt there needed to be time to personally mourn for those who have been lost and those families who woke up Christmas morning to one less excited child. So it is with deep pain in my own heart that I turn to the Scriptures…and in doing so my desire is that your hope will not be deferred and thus your heart will not grow sick.
How does the Christian Negotiate Catastrophe??? A two-fold approach:
FIRST, with sound logic shaped by a biblical worldview
- The Beginning: Evil exists in this world because God gifted Adam and Eve with freedom. Subsequently they chose to rebel against God’s explicit moral will thus stepping outside the boundaries of their freedom. This is commonly referred to as the ‘fall of man’ when man’s relationship with God was destroyed because of sin creating the need for redemption. Therefore some evil can be understood through cause and effect relationship when it comes as the result of a moral choice to sin or commit an evil act. (see Genesis 3)
- The Capacity for Two Possibilities: Man’s freedom, which can also be understood as his will, has the capacity for good or evil much like other parts of God’s creation (fire, water, wood, rocks, etc.).
- One More Possibility: Not all suffering should be viewed as evil or understood as the result of a cause/effect relationship with sin. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 we learn that God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh making him weak because when I am weak, then I am strong. The purpose of the thorn was to puncture any inflated pride that may exist in Paul and keep him continually humble. His weakness allowed him to appreciate God’s grace and experience his sufficiency.
- The Big Picture that You Cannot See: Remember that God sees the big picture and may intend suffering for good. “It is always possible that God may view as ultimately good what we view as immediately evil. His perspective is eternal; His knowledge is infinite; and His judgments include all variables. Our judgments, by contrast, are based on incomplete data”3 (see Genesis 50:20). Each human being can only look out of his/her set of eyeballs. In other words our vision is limited by our finiteness. God on the other hand is not limited in his vision because he is infinite.
- Three Answers to ‘the problem’:
- The free will argument
The ‘Free Will Argument’ or ‘Defense’ was originally put forth by fourth century church Father Augustine and essentially espouses, “Knowing all possible worlds, God knew this was the best possible way to result in the best possible world.”4 For each argument I quote the propositions as outlined by Dr. Daniel Akin who teaches these positions each summer at Student Leadership University 101:
- “God made us in His image as free creatures.
- God desires that we love Him freely. Coerced love is a contradiction.
- Free will gives us the ability to choose good or evil.
- The gift of free will explains, in part, why there is evil. Free beings made and make bad (evil, sinful) choices.”5
2. The soul building argument
Dr. Akin summarizes the argument as follows:
- “God desires to develop our character into God-likeness.
- We learn some things and develop spiritually through evil or suffering that we could not achieve any other way. (Ex – Would I know God loves me simply because He made me? Yes. – Do I know God loves me more or less because of Christ dying for my sins? More!)”6
3. The end times argument
The end times or eschatological argument essentially advocates that in the end God will make all things right. Again Dr. Akin is summarizes this position with three propositions:
- “Though all things are not good, God causes all things to work for good to them who love Him (Romans 8:28-30).
- In the end, God promises to make all things right and render perfect justice.
- Because of the cross, even when I cannot trace His hand, I can trust His heart. The cross teaches that God has defeated evil decisively, and will do away with evil completely in eternity.”7 (Revelation 21:1-8)
SECOND, with a broken heart and a Christ-like spirit
The ability to process answers to the problem of evil logically informed by a biblical worldview is in and of itself incomplete, for it is also a problem of the heart. It is one thing to evaluate a case study, its something altogether different to be the subject affected or close to someone affected by a tragedy. It’s one thing to research the evils of slavery, for example, from text book and see it as the result of freedom mishandled and the cause/effect relationship to sin. It would be an altogether different thing to be a husband, father and slave all at the same time. To see the bruises on your wife’s face or to know that the plantation owner had rapped her, to know that your children’s future was predetermined
to suffer the same fate as your own. You see, it’s an altogether different thing to be fully removed from a situation as opposed to being at its epicenter. And the difference is emotional and interpersonal. So the question then becomes, how does one navigate the unimaginable pain that is the result of evil in this world (disease, death of a loved one, abuse, divorce, etc.)? To answer this question and to save on time, I would like to summarize my thoughts with the following three points:
- Our hearts should break and our eyes should fill with tears over other people’s pain as we weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
- We should mirror the attitude of Christ towards evil and suffering:
- Christ understands our sufferings and pain because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). He understands our pain because Jesus himself was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3)
- Christ wept when told of the death8 of a friend (John 11:35)
- Christ combated suffering and pain throughout his earthly ministry (Matthew 8:16-17)
- We should affirm, through word and deed, that the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is God’s final answer to the problem of evil (Romans 5:8; 8:32; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 3:8).
So in closing, when wrestling with the problem of evil one should take the intellectual approach of a philosopher and the emotional approach of a counselor/pastor. Because Christ is in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27) we should be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Usually when tragedy strikes people want answers. In other words, they want a defense. I would also add that most aren’t looking for logic so much as they are searching for hope. Thus our ability to both explain and sympathize will become increasingly more essential. I write this because evil did not have an expiration date of December 31, 2012. As Christians in 2013, we should oppose evil at every turn, bear the burdens of those affected, and ultimately point all to God’s answer to the problem of evil…the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1 William Lane Craig distinguishes between the intellectual and emotional problem of evil in ‘Hard Questions, Real Answers’ writing: “The intellectual problem of evil concerns how to give a rational explanation of God and evil. The emotional problem of evil concerns how to comfort or console those who are suffering and how to dissolve the emotional dislike people have of a God who would permit such evil. The intellectual problem is in the province of the philosopher; the emotional problem is in the province of the counselor.” P. 80
2 In his book ‘Making Sense of Your World’ theologian Dr. William Brown articulates four inadequate and unbiblical approaches to the problem of evil: fideism, illusionism, finitism, and transmoralism. (see pages 138-145)
3 Making Sense of Your World, p. 146
4 Making Sense of Your World, p. 148
8 Remember that death is the result of sin and evil in this world: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)